Sunday, November 27, 2022

Can I venially murder?

I recently watched Michael Lofton interview Pedro Gabriel on Amoris Laetitia, and I made some provocative comments to see how he would respond. His responses confirmed my beliefs outlined in my previous post on the subject, and I think that Dr. Gabriel is shopping a very dangerous misstatement of Catholic moral theology. In fact, it is the same misstatement that Erick Ybarra has concluded Pope Francis is asserting in Amoris Laetitia (AL). What Erick has suggested is that Pope Francis's strategy is to admit the definitions of what mortal sin is, but then make the full knowledge and consent requirement so ridiculously high that it's practically impossible for someone to commit mortal sin. This seems to be the earthly equivalent of the "hard universalist" position -- there's no way anyone who knew what they were doing could ever say "no" to God in any lasting way. At root in both is a denial that a rational being can, except perhaps in extraordinary circumstances, permanently deform his own soul, contrary to nature and in opposition to God. Given that I incline to a similar "soft universalist" position as Dr. Chapp does, which is very open to divine mercy on sin generally, I find it interesting that we both see the same danger in Dr. Gabriel's position.

At around the 50:00 mark, Dr. Gabriel argues that the problem with proportionalism, the erroneous moral theology outlined in Veritatis Splendor (VS), is that it rules out in principle that any act can be intrinsically evil. But he argues that the renewal of moral theology in VS can still allow for subjective culpability and mitigating circumstances that reduce the person's moral responsibility, which he argues is a general principle that can be applied pastorally (similar to the idea of economy in Eastern Orthodox theology). He argues that there are true proportionalists out there, whom we should oppose. But, he maintains, going after people who are just engaged in this "renewal of moral theology" is distracting from the real enemy -- the genuine proportionalists who believe that there is nothing evil in principle but only according to circumstances. But as Dr. Chapp correctly pointed out, this interpretation of the subjective culpability would eradicate the moral theology of VS on which the denial of proportionalism is built. The reason is that the denial of proportionalism is built on the concept of the moral object, the act viewed in its personal dimension. That means full consent is a question specific to the moral object in question, which defines the species of the moral act. This idea of general subjective culpability (GSC) as opposed to specific subjective culpability (SSC) corrupts the teaching of VS, and it is that corruption that Dr. Chapp and I are eager to answer.

The analysis of moral theology in terms of the object is characteristic of Pope St. John Paul II's personalist philosophy, and it was raised in his apostolic exhortation Reconcilatio et Paenitentia (RP):

Here we have the core of the church's traditional teaching, which was reiterated frequently and vigorously during the recent synod. The synod in fact not only reaffirmed the teaching of the Council of Trent concerning the existence and nature of mortal and venial sins, but it also recalled that mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. It must be added-as was likewise done at the synod-that some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter. That is, there exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. These acts, if carried out with sufficient awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful.
The sense of sin also easily declines as a result of a system of ethics deriving from a certain historical relativism. This may take the form of an ethical system which relativizes the moral norm, denying its absolute and unconditional value, and as a consequence denying that there can be intrinsically illicit acts independent of the circumstances in which they are performed by the subject. [Quoting a previous address, h]erein lies a real "overthrowing and downfall of moral values," and "the problem is not so much one of ignorance of Christian ethics," but ignorance "rather of the meaning, foundations and criteria of the moral attitude." Another effect of this ethical turning upside down is always such an attenuation of the notion of sin as almost to reach the point of saying that sin does exist, but no one knows who commits it.

This is summarized in VS 80-81:

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object". The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator".

In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: "Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10). 

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain "irremediably" evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. "As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?".

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act "subjectively" good or defensible as a choice.

And Dr. Gabriel points out that this diminished culpability can even apply to the most serious issues, such as those pertaining to life. As St. John Paul II says in Evangelium Vitae (EV):

Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future. Such circumstances can mitigate even to a notable degree subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make these choices which in themselves are evil. But today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social and political level, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the above crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights.

So the principles here are clear enough with one ambiguity which seems to be a perpetual source of confusion. When VS uses the term "intention or circumstances," it refers to extrinsic intentions or circumstances, as is implicit in the concept of moral object. That is to say, since the moral object is the specification of the act from the perspective of the acting person, this phrase refers to the more general reasons or motives for acting, the so-called ulterior motives, that do not pertain to the nature of the act itself.

In terms of the analytical principles, then, Dr. Gabriel hasn't said anything wrong. Some acts are intrinsically evil, and nothing extrinsic can turn evil into good, but those intrinsic factors can mitigate subjective culpability. None of that should even be controversial, and Dr. Gabriel raises a good point that the dubium raised against Amoris Laetitia was essentially a "have you stopped beating your wife?" query that ignored this distinction entirely. Yet I still find Dr. Gabriel's interpretation of Amoris Laetitia just as dangerous.

As I mentioned before, full consent is a question of the moral object of the act, so there is no such thing as general subjective culpability. Every question of subjective culpability must be tied back to the moral object, so when there are mitigating factors or circumstances, they must mitigate something pertaining to the nature of the act from the perspective of the acting person. In other words, whatever extrinsic factor is operating to mitigate the gravity of the sin based on responsibility must do so on some specific way related to what makes the sin grave, the nature of the deformation of the will involved in the moral object. As VS 76 teaches (emphasis added) "When the Apostle Paul sums up the fulfilment of the law in the precept of love of neighbour as oneself (cf. Rom 13:8-10), he is not weakening the commandments but reinforcing them, since he is revealing their requirements and their gravity." So the principle of VS is that there is no such thing as generic mitigation of culpability. Mitigating circumstances and subjective culpability are always interpreted solely in the context of the moral object and the relevance of those circumstances to the nature of the act itself. 

In response to the question of whether someone can venially murder, at least arguably, EV says that is possible. There are cases like abortion and euthanasia where one is not as squarely confronted with the person in all of his moral dimensions and where the "culture of death" may be sending messages to obscure this perception. Obviously, those with particular roles of responsibility that turn on awareness of these aspects, such as physicians or politicians, cannot appeal to this excuse, but the example Dr. Gabriel gave of a desperate and frightened teenager certainly seems to be in the general category. We likewise have Scriptural teaching in Exodus 21:22-23 that suggests that the penalty for killing the unborn, albeit possibly through inadvertent miscarriage, is less than mortal. So this seems to be a case where we can maintain the moral principle while still making the accommodation that subjective culpability can be diminished, even possibly to the venial level. But the reason that we can say that is because the moral principles in this area have been outlined with sufficient clarity in EV to articulate the moral object and how extrinsic circumstances (and particularly the consciousness of human life in society) are relevant to culpability. If EV had not done so, then one could reach the "ethical turning upside down" in RP that "sin does exist, but no one knows who commits it." 

But if we can mitigate killing another person to the venial level, surely that teaching on subjective culpability can be applied to literally any other sin, right? After all, nothing is worse than killing someone, so just apply the general principle of subjective culpability to anything, and any priest can determine that any person was not subjectively culpable for the thing that they've done. It's that general application to the case of adultery, which is a completely different species of act, without any analysis of the moral object that is fatal to the reasoning of VS. And while it is true that VS represents a personalist development in moral theology beyond the manualism and casuistry that Dr. Gabriel derides, one cannot just take its principle of subjective culpability without the accompanying analysis of the moral object. "Complexity" is not an excuse for throwing the whole kitchen sink of circumstances into situations it does not belong, on pain of endorsing de facto proportionalism.

Dr. Gabriel's De Facto Proportionalism

Where Dr. Gabriel and AL fail is in not excluding the concept of GSC, which concept eradicates the entire purpose of VS. Indeed, Dr. Gabriel himself says that AL is not just a document about adultery and divorced spouses but a continuation of VS, affirming that he sees AL not as teaching with respect to subject culpability on a species of sin but as teaching GSC as an entirely new approach to moral theology, albeit applied in the specific case of adultery. As Dr. Chapp pointed out, if that were true, it would be a direct contradiction to VS. If AL were following the teaching of VS, then it would be specific to the question of adultery in terms of moral object, just as EV was specific to life issues and thereby provided complete context for understanding the "culture of death" and the resulting mitigated culpability. It is this idea of GSC that proves too much, to the point of being so misleading that it teaches de facto proportionalism.

It is my position that AL can't possibly be teaching this de facto proportionalism magisterially, for if it were, it would contradict VS. Rather, it seems to be analogous to the case of Pope Honorius with respect to the monothelites. The papal document itself does not teach an error, but it doesn't teach clearly enough to exclude this erroneous teaching, and the best evidence that Pope Francis has been dangerously obscure is that Dr. Gabriel has himself accepted the heterodox understanding of the document. The GSC approach radically misunderstands the nature of the moral object and its specification of the moral act, asserting a sort of generic diminishment of culpability based on extrinsic circumstances that VS clearly does not teach. The teaching of AL is therefore worse than nothing; it actively undermines the clear moral teaching of the Church.

Dr. Gabriel appears to be completely oblivious to what his critics are saying. Reduction of culpability cannot be a general principle for any intrinsically evil activity. It must always be specific to the species of wrongdoing -- always.   In order to excuse culpability of behavior, then, it is essential for one accepting the moral teaching of VS to give an account of how culpability can reasonably be excused. And this is what AL fails to do. Consequently, it has not presented any moral teaching; it is solely a matter of sacramental discipline. And contrary to Dr. Gabriel's assertion, that sacramental discipline has absolutely nothing to do with whether the members of the couple are presumptively in mortal sin, which is not the reason that people are denied the Sacraments. That is a question of scandal, which doesn't turn on whether the couple is assumed to be in mortal sin by the Church but whether they appear to others to be in mortal sin.

Familiaris Consortio (FC) had already established that it was possible for those in irregular marriages not to be presumed by others to be in a state of mortal sin if they were living as brother and sister, but this presumably required a public declaration to that effect. The only thing AL changed in this regard was that there would be no public presumption that the couple was not living as brother and sister, even if remarried, so that remarriage would not automatically transform private sins into public sins. It would instead be assumed that they were following their moral obligations, as any Catholic must do, and refer their failures to do so to the private forum as with any other private sins. In other words, it formally declared as a matter of sacramental discipline that continence in a second marriage was a private matter that could not be subject to public scrutiny.

Likewise, AL removed the presumption that one could not have a firm purpose of amendment while remaining remarried. Since living as brother and sister is possible and one could presumably declare the intent to remain continent privately in confession, then as long as one was sincerely repentant, the fact that one might fail from time to time does not vitiate the firm purpose of amendment. There could likewise be cases where consenting to sexual intercourse is simply not sinful at all in the same way that consenting to contracepted sexual intercourse might not be sinful in mixed marriages, as outlined in the Vadamecum on the subject (discussed in my previous article). But a flaw in AL, one that is fatal in my view to the clarity of the document, is that it contains no analysis of how there can be mitigation of the sin of adultery.

Church teaching on adultery

The confusion that is constantly present in AL is the confusion between sexual sins generally and the specific case of adultery, and this makes the teaching of mitigated culpability rife with with confusion. The Catechism clearly distinguishes between sins against chastity (the reservation of sexuality exclusively for marriage), sins against conjugal fidelity (including contraception), and sins against marriage itself (notably adultery and divorce). What is relevant toward culpability for the first or second need not be relevant at all for the third, yet AL cites teachings on the first two categories (specifically, CCC #2352 on masturbation and the reference in FC to failing to understand the "intrinsic values" of the rule against contraception) as if they should be relevant to adultery.

AL certainly could have appealed to an extensive body of teaching concerning the acting person inaugurated by VS. This additional teaching on sexuality now viewed from the perspective of the acting person has certainly developed the moral teaching of the Church. For example, especially in the case of rape, there is now a clear understanding that there is no sin at all in exhorting a rapist or a male prostitute to use a condom, when (although this is hard to believe) that had actually been a question in manualist moral theology. When the sexual act is viewed from the perspective from the acting person, it is very clear that the same physical act can have an entirely different moral object. Particularly in the case of consenting to another's initiation, it is possible for one person to will the good in a sexual act that is objectively deficient. But viewed from the perspective of the moral object, these may not even be sins at all but applications of the principle of double effect.

But with respect to adultery itself, these exhortations about understanding the rule are generally inapt, and the reason is that adultery is a sin against the union that the person has formed by free consent. It partakes more of the nature of breaking one's own vows than the sins against chastity, such as fornication. If one had sufficiently free consent to form the union in the first place, which may be a legitimate question for discussion in the annulment process, then it would be very difficult to imagine a case where one would be inculpable to the point of veniality for violating them. Of course, if one believed to a moral certainty that one's first attempted marriage was null, then that would be a case wherein the moral object was simply not a violation of the marriage bond at all. One could be guilty of disobedience due to the irregularity, as is the case where a marriage has not been regularized by the Church, but the moral object of the act would not be the commission of adultery. But the idea of excusing culpability with respect to vows one has made is not something that has been taught by the Church; on the contrary, the previous sacramental discipline on this point strongly implies that there is no such exception. The increased gravity of these circumstances is exactly in that one is sinning against one's own vow. This is the same reason that it is a far more serious offense for a priest to commit sexual sins than a single layman.

And this reaches the question of indissolubility of marriage. Unlike even the priestly vows of celibacy, the indissolubility of marriage means there can be no release from them. Dr. Gabriel implies that there is no implication in diminished culpability for the indissolubility of marriage, but this completely disregards the species of sin involved in adultery, which is a violation of chastity contradicting the vow one has made. Excusing culpability for that contradiction has direct implications for the doctrine of free consent involved in the original contract for marriage, and that is the objection that people are raising. If we are inconsistent in the requisite degree of free consent to form the union and to violate it, that raises serious questions concerning the nature of the sin of adultery from the perspective of the moral object. In other words, it throws the moral teaching of the Church into question.

This is what appears to be a manifest confusion in the teaching of AL 301, the same one that Dr. Gabriel appears to endorse:

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. 

I agree that there is a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations in the context of adultery, and by and large, there aren't any. And the prohibition on sacramental participation wasn't about whether those in irregular situations are living in a state of mortal sin; the Church is rarely in a position to judge that, and it's been clear since FC that living as brother and sister is a licit option to avoid actually committing in in the union. 

The reason this statement is completely misplaced is that the issue has never been whether the couple is mortally sinning but the public appearance to others based on objective conduct that they are disregarding Church teaching, the same concern involved with the failure to regularize what may otherwise be valid marriages. FC required a public profession that the person was conducting himself or herself in a matter permitted by Church teaching, while AL now says that this can be referred to the private forum like any other private sin without the Church seeming to repudiate its own teaching. I have no objection to this disciplinary change; it seems a bit bizarre that FC opened up the option of living as brother and sister but required that matter to be made public to avoid scandal. Moreover, as I will point out below, it's entirely possible that there could be legitimate subjective doubt about whether the person was, in fact, married previously. Scandal could be avoided by the charitable assumption that anyone seeking communion with the Church is taking the steps needed to be in a state of grace. So if AL only stood for the principle that we ought not treat anyone as a public and notorious sinner unless their sins themselves are of a public nature, then I think that few people would object. 

But the unstated implication, one drawn explicitly by Dr. Gabriel, is that culpability for the sin of adultery can be less than mortal due to lack of appreciation of its inherent values. I have no idea how that can be the case, and given the nature of sin itself, I have no idea how mitigation of consent could be applied in a way that does not impair the level of free consent required to make the vows in the first place. Now there are certainly cases where one might not have full knowledge and consent of being adulterous. For example, if one believes sincerely that one's marriage would be annulled if all of the facts were known but has not (and perhaps cannot) obtain a declaration to this effect from the tribunal, then one might negligently be committing objective adultery if one is in fact married, but one cannot deliberately sin against a bond one does not believe to exist. Likewise, there is precedent for the fact that one's cooperation in the sins of a spouse is not necessarily attributable to both partners, as in the case of a spouse who objects to the use of contraception but accepts the remaining unitive good of the act, even at the minimal level necessary for the spouse not to look elsewhere. 

Neither of these cases involve a lack of appreciation of the rule; instead, from the perspective of the acting person, there is a real difference concerning the moral object of the act. Lack of appreciation of the rule's inherent values has only been applied to sins against chastity, not the sin of adultery. In the case of adultery, by one's consent to marriage, one must have already accepted the value of the rule. This is the same reason that divorce is sinful in the first place and why there is a moral obligation not to remarry.

To the extent lack of appreciation of the rule is relevant then, it is relevant to whether the person was married in the first place. That is, have we reached the point where there is such massive social confusion on the purpose of marriage that it is difficult or impossible for many people to form the act of will to contract marriage? Is this statement in AL then simply "saying the quiet part out loud" that no one really believes in marriage, especially its necessary role in begetting children, anymore? Are most attempted marriages then simply null for lack of proper intent and that spending the time necessary to establish this in the tribunals would be impractical, so that the presumption of validity ought to be much weaker and (unless challenged by the surviving spouse) left to the private forum as a matter of first resort? I do not say that those questions are not worth asking, but it is certainly reckless to a fault to leave it to an assertion of GSC as opposed to SSC for the sin of adultery. But regardless, in terms of understanding subjective culpability, it should be focused not on what the sinner is now doing but what the person did when attempting marriage. The idea that one could have previously been of the correct mental state to marry and now can excuse culpability based on a deficient mental state certainly would be a theological novelty that is inconsistent with what the Church has previously taught.

That last criticism has been raised by Dr. Eduardo Ecchevaria, Dr. Larry Chapp, and Dr. David Schindler, and it apparently has not been understood. Given the teaching of VS on conscience and the acting person, it is not possible for the mental self-contradiction on the point of adultery to exist, and this is the "rupture" from previous teaching. This is exactly why Fr. Julio Martinez, who holds essentially the same position Dr. Gabriel does, calls VS a "hypertrophy of the Magisterium." The teaching of VS on the moral object would clearly exclude the notion of conscience that liberal proponents of AL are trying to use to install de facto proportionalism as the moral teaching of the Church. That Dr. Gabriel has not heeded the warning does not mean that AL should somehow be considered harmless.