Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Does Mgr Loftus want a 'fear-free atmosphere'?

IMG_0452Such was my excitement at receiving a letter from Mgr Loftus last week that I've missed the chance to fisk one of his articles. I don't want to miss another, so here are some comments on his latest, in which he wades into the 'fetid air of the swamp' of the debate about what Pope Benedict XVI said, or did not say, or meant, or did not mean, about prostitutes using condoms. I've addressed those issues myself here; what Mgr Loftus makes of them, however, is to to with free speech first of all (9th June column the The Catholic Times):

'opinions which formerly could only be whispered within what Archbishop Marini recently referred to at the "foetid air of the swamp", can now be spoken openly, as the articulation of the belief of the "Holy People of God", in a fear-free and and fresh-air atmosphere, blown by the Holy Spirit, ...'

And what opinions might those be? Opinions critical of Mgr Basil Loftus, for example? Does that mean that there aren't going to be more underhand attempts to silence his critics? No more shouting down the phone, as Fr Ray Blake experienced? No more legal bullying, as Fr Michael Clifton experienced? I've already had a pretty interesting time with letters from the Monsignor. His attitude seems to be: if you've lost the argument, silence your opponent.

IMG_0451So no, I don't think that is what he means. I think he means he can go on using the resources of the Catholic community, such as the newspapers sold in churches, to attack that community's most cherished beliefs, such as the titles of Our Lady, or the most fundamental principles of the Faith, such as the doctrine of sin. Here is what he says about that:

Inexorably the Church is now going to have to revisit the vexed question of what constitutes sin. In the classical moral theology position sin is committed when the moral law is broken. From that moment, and by that act alone, sin becomes 'ontic'--in other words, it "exists". [It has to exist, of course, to be matter for the Sacrament of Confession: something Loftus seems to have forgotten.] All that can then be done is to seek some form of mitigation--through imperfect knowledge, lack of full consent to the 'sinful' act, or overall lack of mature judgement in general.
But more and more moral theologians are anxious to establish that sin does not "exist", does not become "ontic", if someone genuinely believes that an act is not sinful, even though it breaks moral law. They are not sinners if they do not believe that, in all the specific concrete circumstances, their act was sinful. The mere breaking of a moral law does not then, in itself alone, and divorced from paticular considerations, necessarily constitute sin. The judgement belongs in no small part to the individual. The sense of personal responsibility for sin in part and parcel of the personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Theologians such as Jozef Fuchs [died aged 93 in 2005] and Sean Fagan [octeganarian Irish theologian condemned by the CDF for advocating women priests: not exactly the rising generation] have not invented the 'new' approach to sin. They have merely articulated the faith which the Holy Spirit has put into the hearts of the People of God, who cannot err in matters of belief. [The Holy Spirit or the people??] This personal faith is not in contradiction to the teaching of the magisterium of the Church, but filters and refines its acceptability and interpretation. [??]

The classical Church teaching on sin is reminiscent of St Paul's observation that when he was a child he thought like a child. ...But we are not children. We have grown in the faith. We explore, we take personal responsibility. ...part and parcel of this approach is that as the People of God we will also help to put right the errors of emphasis and interpretation which have grown out of authentic Church teaching.'

IMG_0449 This illustrates Mgr Loftus' favourite trick, of leaving it just a little unclear whether he is giving his own views or talking about other people's. But looking at the ideas which he is, let us say, 'exploring', we are faced with an even bigger ambiguity.

On the face of it he could be making a very simple point which can, in fact, be expressed within the 'classical' position: those who genuinely believe they are not sinning are clearly not committing mortal sin, and we can further say that their sin, while 'objective', is not 'subjective'. Subjectively speaking, what they did was not a sin. Of course this raises the question of how far the 'erring conscience' can extend, given that the Natural Law cannot be erased from our hearts. The Nazis who seemed so convinced that killing Jews was morally good won't get off that easily. The corruption of their consciences which led to those beliefs must have been at least partially their responsibility, and the humanity of their victims is not something which they could ever completely forget.

IMG_0448But unless you are determined to force the sense of Loftus' words into the straitjacket of orthodoxy, the tendency of this passage appears to be much more radical. The suggestion seems to be that whatever the 'People of God', or even just 'the individual', decides is the right thing, just is, ipso facto, the right thing. The contrast between (subjective) sin and the 'moral law' seems to disappear at a certain point, and instead we find him talking about the individual's judgement of the precise circumstances of the case, and a grown up 'taking responsibility'. If you look at the circumstances of the case, and come to a conclusion (killing is usually wrong, but maybe we can make an exception for Jews), then the suggestion seems to be that you are actually infallible, at least if there is a group of you and you can parade yourself as the 'People of God' (or should that be, the Volk?).

I use an extreme example - Nazi anti-semitism - to test the implications of Loftus' ramblings, because it is typical of theological liberals and philosophical subjectivists to focus exclusively, when talking about how people should be allowed to do whatever they like, on a narrow range of examples which they have themselves already decided that people should be allowed to do: say, use contraception, or divorce and remarry. But if contraception is to be allowed for no reason other than that people are tempted to use it, then what of the kinds of wrongdoing that even liberals still reject?

IMG_0447What Loftus is doing here is fundamentally dishonest. First, by refusing to make clear whether he is talking, at different points, about objective or subjective wrongdoing. Second, by refusing to make clear whether he endorses the position he discusses. And third, by presenting in plausible terms a view which is absolutely toxic: that it is 'childish' to take the objective moral law seriously, and that somehow the Holy Spirit guarantees that what people convince themselves is right, is right.

This won't do, Monsignor. It's not big and it's not clever. And it's not new either: not even your antiquated theological exemplars, Fuchs and Brady, thought it up, the precursors of this rubbish belong in the 19th century or even earlier. Loftus' inability to name a theologian under 80 who agrees with him is, perhaps, the ray of hope which shines through the article despite all his best efforts. The Church may be going through a Passion in imitation of her Lord's, but we have the promise of the Resurrection.

Pictures: Mysteries of the Rosary, from Pantasaph, North Wales, where we will have our Summer School this year, July 21-28


  1. He wants what he's always wanted, to speak against the traditions of the church and stop others speaking for them. Like so many of his type, he thinks he is infallible on everything.

  2. Anonymous1:04 pm

    Thank you for this excellent critique. Basil Loftus' observation that people, '[A]re not sinners if they do not believe that, in all the specific concrete circumstances, their act was sinful' is truly frightening. He seems to be articulating a manifesto for moral chaos. By undermining the moral law he seems to wish to abandon the People of God to secular law. I am reminded of the warning given in the Catechism:

    'The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.' (CCC §675)

    By the way, is Basil Loftus the Catholic Times' equivalent of Richard Littlejohn?

  3. Anonymous4:29 pm

    "This personal faith is not in contradiction to the teaching of the magisterium of the Church, but filters and refines its acceptability and interpretation."

    Is he serious? You take it he is Dr Shaw. If so, ..... wow. I be speechless.


  4. This debate was foreseen some decades back by my R.E. teacher at school.

    As I remember it, he, the teacher that is, explained that sin is disobedience of God, of his Commandments, and of the teachings of Christ’s Mystical Body on earth, the Catholic Church. That seemed clear to me and still does.

    Interestingly, the Modernist heresy, “ the synthesis of all heresies “ which afflicted the Church after Vat II had as one of its objectives, the airbrushing out of sin. Effectively, that means the rejection of the Divinity of Christ and his salvific death on the Cross. No sin means Christ was but a deluded zealot. But then that is, I suppose, the Relativist’s ultimate goal.

    Remember that Modernists never directly deny anything, they imply. So if you don’t really think something is a sin, it’s not. Forget about our defective consciences, and the requirement to properly inform them, with the teaching of the Church. I f you feel it’s OK, well......

  5. Is he still incardinated in Leeds? Perhaps we will be able to test the mettle of the next Bishop by inviting him to deal with Mgr Loftus.

  6. Anonymous2:26 am

    Doesn't Loftus live in the north of Scotland now? Although he may simply have stepped from the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

  7. To read Msgr. Loftus's comments on the "new" moral theology - which he clearly finds quite sympathetic - still shocks me, even though it should not, having read much the same thing advocated by Catholic consequentialists like Charles Curran and Richard McCormick.

    One can only hope, as you seem to, Dr. Shaw, that he has not come to terms with the full logical consequences of the positions he is flirting with (if indeed not embracing). Because they go much, much further than a moral permission to contracept or abort or have extra-marital sex without guilt or consequence.

    Flannery O'Connor once wrote: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” For Catholics like Msgr. Loftus, the faith has been reduced to just that blanket, as he embraces, rather than pushes back against, the spirit of the age. But it is far, far more than that, and it calls us to much more, too.

  8. Msgr Loftus has had his conscience formed not by the Church but by modern secular society. He’s not alone here this is why we have so many social problems in the west, but it should be Msgr Loftus’s job and others like him to help lead people away from these dangers and not into them. Thank you Dr Shaw keep up the good work.