Monday, October 20, 2014

Could a person in an objective state of grave sin receive Communion?

It was not his grasping the good of money which
saved Zachaeus, but his repentance.
I don't know how theories of how divorced and remarried couples can receive Communion are going to be developed. So far the suggestions have been both vague and self-contradictory. Saying,  for example, that many cases can solved by quickie annulments, and simultaneously suggesting other cases could be solved by the application of Orthodox-style remarriages, when the two systems are incommensurable and the Orthodox don't regard as invalid marriages we regard as invalid (see my post here).

But here is an idea we may well find popping up. (Remember that 'subjective' means 'from the point of view of the subject'. A sin can be objective but not subjective if the agent did an action at variance with his properly understood duty which, for some innocent reason, he didn't realise was his duty.)

There is a general principle that for a sin to be 'mortal' it must be 'grave matter' (it must be a serious thing), and also that the agent must be aware that it is grave. If you don't know that the medicine bottle contains poison you are not committing murder if you hand it to the patient. If you don't know about the decree on Friday abstinence you don't sin if you don't observe it. If you had no idea that in some complicated situation you should do X and not Y, then you haven't committed a sin if you do Y. In other words, mortal sin must be against the agent's conscience: it must be subjective as well as objective.

Great use was made of this after Humanae vitae came out in 1968. Liberal priests got the brilliant idea that if they didn't tell people that the contraceptive use of the Pill was a sin, then couples could use it without committing a sin. They called this 'leaving them in good faith.'

The case with the divorced and remarried is a bit different, but it might work like this.

1. If a couple says that they are convinced in conscience that their sexual relations are licit, because of their circumstances, then they are not in a state of mortal sin (at least, not because of that).

2. Those conscious of being in a state of mortal sin shouldn't approach Communion, but this doesn't apply in this case.

3. The couple could not only be convinced themselves, but could convince their pastor or bishop that they are so convinced. The bishop could give them a little chit to that effect; the pastor could give them Communion in good conscience; and so on.

Neat, eh? That's what Pope Francis calls 'casuistry'. Well, it is casuistry. Now, here are the problems with this line of reasoning.

1. Natural Law is written on our hearts (Romans 1:20). Ignorance of Natural Law is not so easy, and when it does occur it may well be culpable. St Paul taught that the Romans' idolatry was a sin because they knew deep down that there was only one God, the creator of the world, or (perhaps) they could have known it if they had thought about it seriously. The Romans might have protested about this, but they were not in good conscience.
a) We can never erase our knowledge of moral principles such as that killing the innocent is wrong, or that adultery is wrong. In the case of remarried divorcees the individuals are furthermore not ignorant, but, rather, painfully aware of the teaching of the Church.
b) If we convince ourselves that something gravely contrary to Natural Law is ok, we have almost certainly committed a sin along the way: of failing to take the teaching seriously, of failing to investigate the matter conscientiously, and of failing to pray for light. Is it possible that a series of non-mortal sins could leave you ignorant of the Natural Law, to the extent that a voluntary gravely sinful action does not leave you in a subjective state of mortal sin? Possibly. But we are grasping at straws here; that is not the impression St Paul leaves us, and it is hard to see how a parish priest or bishop could establish to his satisfaction that this was indeed the case for a particular individual.

2. The scandal caused by giving Communion to these couples derives from their objective state, not their subjective state. Along with the harm it does to the communicant, the priest has an overriding reason not to give Communion to a couple who are widely known to be in an illicit union, because to give it to them would be to cause others to sin (that is what 'scandal' means). Even if they only appear to be living in an illicit union - if, say, they are living as brother and sister - this needs to be handled with care, and in some cases it will be best to give them Communion in private. A casuistic solution to their subjective state won't change this side of things.

3. A couple in a state of objective sin without being in a state of mortal sin, are still in a seriously bad way. A couple who are convinced their marriage is valid, or licit, when it isn't, haven't (for that reason) committed a mortal sin, but they haven't received the graces of the sacrament, or the natural graces of a natural marriage. A person who thinks it is right to perform bad actions may not be committing a mortal sin, but these actions won't gain him merit, they won't build up his virtue, they won't draw him closer to God: no, frequent objectively evil actions will draw him away from God, they will coarsen the agent's conscience, they will make it harder to repent, and will establish evil habits, vices.

Objective states matter. To leave people 'in good faith', or even to encourage them to remain 'in good faith', in an objectively sinful situation, is not mercy, it is not bringing people into the field hospital, it is leaving the wounded man to die by the roadside. And that would be the real result of a system allowing them to receive Communion.

This is why it was so problematic to talk about 'seeing the good' in or 'valuing' illicit unions, cohabitations, homosexual sex, and so on. Yes of course the individuals are seeking the good: Aquinas teaches that Satan was seeking a good when he refused to serve God and fell into Hell. And yes, there can be a kind of fidelity in an illicit union: St Augustine said that about his relationship with his concubine before his conversion. The problem is that these are not paths to holiness. We might hope they are compatible with paths to repentance: repentance is assisted by 'actual' grace rather than 'sanctifying' grace, if along the way the agents are doing good actions, or praying. But you don't get any kind of grace from objectively evil actions.

The focus of the 'good faith' type of argument are the concepts of obligation and punishment: we won't be punished for what we do in good faith. It derives from a legalistic approach to morality. What it neglects is the spiritual life, the role of grace. That, of course, has always been the problem with casuistry. We mustn't let Kasper-like logic-chopping casuistry cut people off from the life of grace.

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  1. So some may say I am harsh but this is what I am thinking.

    We wouldn't even be discussing "communion for those obstinately clinging to heresy or public sins" if we understood the fact that endorsing or normalizing such person in our communities only lead to spread of their errors and heresies. Why is it that no one talks about it that much?

    Even the secular world seems to understand that if you tolerate or treat normally a person that opposes what it considers as good, then that individual is to be treated differently. The point is that the different treatment, the isolation, the disparaging will get them to revoke their evil position. The secular world is even harsher in that it doesn't always accept an individual who comes back after holding what it considers an evil position as well. In that sense, the Church is different in that if a person repents, they will be welcomed in with open arms and joy.

    So I think all this talk about communion for those in obstinately and publicly clinging to grave moral sins is missing the point. We need to ask what the Church is doing to keep them from infecting and influencing more Catholics and at the same time as a means to coerce or make people leave that sinful state.

    Once and if people get that, I don't think they would be talking about communion for such persons anymore.

    1. By the way, the reason I said coerce them to leave their sinful state is because grave moral sins have grave consequences for society just like murder or rape. Of course people don't always see it because the effects are more long term but that doesn't mean we can tolerate it.

      To give an idea of consequences, a person who engages in extra-marital sex for an example can contract a STD, end up causing a separation and temptation for the other spouse to seek a divorce, lead to abandoned children from their marriage or children who follow their example, break down in family relations and many more. Those in turn have more dire consequences.

      Or if we take Sodomy, we have various health problems due to the nature of the sex act, increased likelihood of drug abuse, children growing up without a mother or a father etc.

      So just like with murder, rape or pedophilia, I fail to see why the Church is trying to find ways to tolerate adultery or sodomy.

  2. There are two comments I would like to make. The first concerns the place of conscience and the second the basis on which morality is considered, thought and lived.

    In terms of conscience, I understand that the Church teaches that an individual should always follow his conscience, even if erroneous. This flows from the fact that most of our behaviour (and the Church is in agreement with good sociology and psychology here) from habits, whether good, evil or morally indifferent. Gilson goes to some length to discuss this. Newman's habits of piety and of striving for moral excellence were formed in the first-half of his life as an Anglican. In a time in which there were far harsher views about the separated brethren, it would still have seemed strange to argue that those had had no positive bearing on his eventual conversion at the hands of Blessed Dominic Barberi. The intellectual and moral virtues, however elevated they may be by actual and later sanctifying grace, remain perfections of human nature and so insuperably and inseparably natural. The "wriggle-room" that such liberal thinkers as Newman provide in emphasising the role of conscience is both pastoral and practical, without abandoning one iota of Catholic doctrine. The "ascent" towards truth is indeed a messy, but a real affair. Any pastor will have to deal with an extremely badly catechised, taught and led flock for the most part. That does not mean he should spare any effort, but he should lead them in the formation of conscience. It also means that any evaluation of something like a loss of faith can be evaluated both sympathetically and truly. Aristotle, The Philosopher in Aquinas' mind, held that sympathetic judgement was connected to true judgement. When I can read Aristotle, Aquinas and Newman together, I imagine I'm on the right track.

    Now to my second point, JS Mill criticised Christian morality for replacing its initial asceticism with legalism. I think there is some substance in the argument. Perhaps this was what was behind the early efforts at liturgical renewal. Few who read this blog will doubt that true worship not only elevates the soul to prayer, but also to joy and turns Christian life from one endless episode of drudgery into something nearer to its reality. This theocentric, or perhaps latriocentric orientation relieves the burden of the "hard sayings", whether touching the first or second Great Commandments. As a regular gym-user, I know very-well the drudgery of following a regular programme of running, weights, etc. even when I know it is excellent for health and has a noble purpose. My spirit, however crushed by sins and other cares, aspires to something greater. I wish that would be seen in moral theology.

    What should we do about this? I think Fr Blake remarked some time ago that after Trent, parishes and their priests essentially became Jesuit, operating as little missionaries after the Ignatian fashion rather embodying, even on a humble level, the life of praise that emanates from and returns to the Holy Sacrifice. The Second Vatican Council seemed to sense the need to return to a fuller liturgical, devotional and spiritual life. Having harried priests with no time even to read let alone pray or attend to intellectual life is counter-productive. It merely fosters the problems we already have.

    Perhaps a final remark is useful as to the tone of the debate. The Church seems more sick in the sense of the problem is in the nature of her life, rather than a determined desire to embrace evil. The Pope's own apparent confusion may reflect this. Adulterors and sodomites are always easy game in difficult times, but the repentance and reformation necessary are more embracing than is usually admitted. It is to your credit, Dr Shaw, that you have appreciated this, as have other traditionalists. Excoriating others for disobeying the Second Table of the Decalogue while we neglect the First is a quintessential Pharisaical sin.

    1. On your description of conscience, the problem I think is that it does not seem to take in to account the responsibility to form ones conscience correctly. So while it may true that at any given moment, a person may have a malformed conscience and his act being consistent with it, that still doesn't mean they are off the hook.

      From an objective observer perspective, when one witnesses such a person, one can only conclude that we must inform them of the truth as soon as possible so that they may correct their malformed conscience and also act correctly. Also to add, acting according to ones conscience does not mitigate the temporal consequences of gravely sinful acts. So being "sympathetic" on the grounds of conscience doesn't really make sense because then we presume what we do not know.

      Also as I recall, Cdl. Newman has a very strict definition of conscience. In his view, conscience is again the voice of God and not about being consistent with oneself and ones ideas. So from this it again follows that given the option of listening to the teachings of the Church (through whom God speaks) and listening to some inner voice, one is wrong to follow ones own voice when it contradicts teaching.

      The following is also from his "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk"

      "When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman's prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one's leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a licence to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will."

      "Secondly, I observe that conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done. "Conscience," says St. Thomas, "is the practical judgment or dictate of reason, by which we judge what hic et nunc is to be done as being good, or to be avoided as evil." Hence conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church's or the Pope's infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors."

  3. A Catholic is bound by the official teaching of the Church, and is in Mortal Sin when the Church, as opposed to any individual interpretation, judges him to be so. If f he does not accept this he is not a Catholic.

    Any Catholic receiving Holy Communion in a state of grave sin, or suspecting so, commits a grave sin probably, a mortal sin.

    It’s all quite simple really.

    However if one is not sure, there is rarely a rush. So far as I know, we are required to receive Holy Communion once a year, so there is usually plenty of time to sort things out if in doubt with the help of one’s Guardian Angel, and covered by a sincere act of contrition, and fingers crossed, in the meantime.

    That is, by going to Confession..