Burning old love letters

October 14, 2017 § 14 Comments

I first ‘met’ occasional commenter and current knight-of-the-blogroll Semiotic Animal in the comment boxes of the Acton Institute.  It appears though that the entire comment thread at Acton was deleted, at some point: at least I don’t see any comments when I call up the page.

That’s too bad.  That particular comment thread was an interesting exercise in schooling ideological free marketers on the actual medieval understanding of usury, as opposed to strawmen crafted through extremely selective curation.

An explanation for the disappearing comment thread is as mysterious and impenetrable as an explanation for the Las Vegas mass shooting.

Spiritual euthanasia

October 13, 2017 § 12 Comments

One Peter Five has posted an article arguing for the infallibility of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth.

One of the multitude of interesting passages in the encyclical is Veritatis Splendor 115:

This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and cultural situations which are complex and even crucial.

In one sentence this invalidates two of the most common approaches to rationalizing away the universal objectivity of moral standards.

The first rationalization appeals to ambiguous – or just outright incorrect – ‘respectable‘ vintage theological opinions or practices in arguing for moral subjectivism/relativism.  This in particular is a dangerous temptation for orthodox Catholics.  Just because an opinion or practice is old, comes from a (supposedly) respectable source, and has not (yet) been forcefully condemned, it does not follow that the opinion is sound. The measuring stick of sound doctrine is Scripture, Tradition, and actual authoritative Magisterial pronouncements taken together and understood as harmonious.  Theological musings are just theological musings, whatever the source.

The second rationalization involves crafting a supposed doctrinal-pastoral dualism.  Under this neopelagian rationalization the human person lives morally inside a subjective intentional bubble separate from his concrete choice of objective behaviors, hermetically shielded from culpability by ignorance.  Rather than being a sinner in need of repentance and redemption the human person is intrinsically good; the objective moral law is merely an ‘ideal’; invincible ignorance is the eighth sacrament.  Evil comes from outside the person via the imposition of a purely external moral ideal, not from inside the person manifested in his deliberate choice of behaviors.  A human being can be mercifully ‘accompanied‘, can be pastorally shielded from his own sinfulness by keeping him in the dark, by blocking him from coming to know the fullness of truth about the good and what that means in terms of concrete behaviors.

The pope doesn’t leave it to just that one sentence though.  He goes on to crush the idea that sound pastoral practice can conflict with the truth about objectively good and evil kinds of behavior:

Each of us knows how important is the teaching which represents the central theme of this Encyclical and which is today being restated with the authority of the Successor of Peter. Each of us can see the seriousness of what is involved, not only for individuals but also for the whole of society, with the reaffirmation of the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts.

116. We have the duty, as Bishops, to be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught. My Brothers in the Episcopate, it is part of our pastoral ministry to see to it that this moral teaching is faithfully handed down and to have recourse to appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to it.

And he reinforces the fact that theological opinions of whatever vintage should not be confused with the authentic Magisterium of the Church:

In carrying out this task we are all assisted by theologians; even so, theological opinions constitute neither the rule nor the norm of our teaching. Its authority is derived, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in communion cum Petro et sub Petro, from our fidelity to the Catholic faith which comes from the Apostles. As Bishops, we have the grave obligation to be personally vigilant that the “sound doctrine” (1 Tim 1:10) of faith and morals is taught in our Dioceses.

The life of the spirit is truth. We all know who is the father of lies. And it is no accident that spiritual ‘mercy’ killing requires that its victims be cut off from the fullness of truth.

We are all Jesuits now

October 9, 2017 § 31 Comments

LMS Chairman writes:

The practice in Confession of not absolving unrepentent sinners is intrinsically related to its nature as established by Divine Law.

There is a problem with this view though. The ‘pastoral’ practice of absolving unrepentant sinners goes back to well before Vatican II, and is not a new or novel thing with the publication of Amoris Laetitia.

The Vademicum for Confessors in 1997, under John Paul II though not signed by him personally, authorized absolution of penitents who were unrepentant on contraception.

The various Sacred Penitentiary and papal audience rulings on usury in the 1800’s authorized absolution of unrepentant interest-takers in a couple of cases: specifically when those unrepentant usurers rationalized their behavior by appealing to either (1) the fact that they made mutuum loans to businessmen (condemned as an excuse by Vix Pervenit) or (2) by the fact that the ‘law of the prince’ authorized charging a certain rate of interest.

Amoris isn’t the camel’s nose in the tent: it is the other end of the camel coming into the tent.

That doesn’t make the current round of clarification any less urgent, but it is important to have a full and adequate grasp of the situation. Pope Francis is not an innovator. As the first Jesuit pope he is simply completing the centuries long Jesuit project of fighting the Protestant heresy by embracing it.

The History of Economic Thought website describes, consistent with my own understanding, the Salamanca Jesuit approach to morality in economic life and politics:

It is common to associate early Jesuit philosophers like Leonard Lessius, Luis Molina, and Juan de Mariana, with the Salamanca school.

The Jesuit Order (‘Society of Jesus’), founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius de Loyola, was erected to combat the appeal of Protestantism. […] The Scholastic doctrine of ‘just price’ was rejected out of hand as all-too-divine, the Jesuits arguing that value is a human affair and was determined by natural human interaction on markets. They followed much the same line on money and inflation. On moral defenses of usury and profit, the Jesuits were eager to reform Catholic doctrine to bring it more in line with current practice, to ease their efforts to overcome the resistance of Protestant towns to re-catholicization.

Quite more controversial was the Jesuit view of the basis of civil government, something the Salamanca scholars had largely and judiciously avoided. In line with their general approach, Jesuits like Molina, de Mariana and Suarez proposed that government rested on human consent […] Jesuit musings on the human rather than divine sources of government made them downright subversive to the established order. It did not help matters that, notoriously, the Jesuit philosopher Juan de Mariana (1598) openly contemplated that the murder of a monarch might be justified, if he proved tyrannical to the people. This was uttered at a tense time of notorious political assassinations – Henry IV of France (attempted in 1595, succeeded in1610), James I of England (Gunpowder Plot, 1605), Paolo Sarpi of Venice (attempted, 1606), etc. – in which Jesuit activists were suspected of having a role (and may indeed have had one).

In the popular mindset of the time, the Jesuits became synonymous with regicide and political destabilization.

The Jesuit approach (or, more fairly, a prominent and pervasive Jesuit approach) has always been to downplay and subjectivize the moral law as a way of making the Church seem more familiar and appealing to non-Catholics, especially Protestants. From this point of view, if pervasive everyday practice is contrary to the moral law as traditionally understood then what has to change is our understanding and application of the moral law, to accommodate everyday practice and get these people into the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church.  The important thing is Catholic unity, and if the moral law is a cause of disunity then that implies a problem with our understanding of or application of the moral law.  What is important is how people actually live, not the abstract moral demands of the Gospel.

Jesuits have been doing this for centuries, and the fruits of this approach are manifest. We are all Jesuits now.

Found on the Internet

September 29, 2017 § 45 Comments

These radical traditionalist Vatican II haters are always stirring up trouble.  Why can’t they just all shut up and get on the Big Pope Francis Mercy Train?

Here are a few words from one of those ridiculous radtrads who think that endorsing Communion for divorced and remarried people sows confusion about the indissolubility of marriage.  What a buffoon!  Who does this guy think he is, the Pope or something?

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”

Pastoral accompaniment of serial killers

September 26, 2017 § 150 Comments

Mark Shea quotes Michael Liccione:

… the real question is whether every [sexually active] irregular marriage or cohabiting relationship [objectively] constitutes unrepented adultery or fornication. The Pope thinks not, and I agree with him. […]

The same goes for the idea that some irregular sexual relationships are the best people can do in their current circumstances. Sometimes the answer is yes, …

Wrong: the answer is an unequivocal yes to the first, and an unequivocal no to the second.  (I don’t know what the Pope thinks).

It is never morally acceptable to choose intrinsically immoral behaviors. The “best someone can do in their current circumstances” never constitutes choosing an intrinsically immoral behavior, whatever “ticking time bomb” consequences they may perceive to be at stake.  Compassion for difficult circumstances never translates into a determination that choosing objectively immoral behavior is “the best we can do”, that is, good.

Veritatis Splendour:

Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.

The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments.

It is never morally acceptable to torture prisoners.  It is never morally acceptable to fornicate, commit adultery, or engage in contracepted intercourse.  It is never morally acceptable to kill the innocent.  It is never morally acceptable to contract for profits on a mutuum loan.

If someone thinks that choosing an intrinsically immoral behaviour – killing some innocent people, for example, even when he is convinced that many more will die from other causes if he chooses not to – is “the best he can do”, he needs to think again.  Choosing an evil behaviour is never under any circumstances “the best you can do.”

This is ultimately the same old consequentialist utilitarian nonsense that modernity has been shoveling for centuries, changing up the labels to beg the question on behalf of the Current Year sins the speaker wishes to reframe as virtuous.

A preview of future consequentialism, same as past consequentialism:

From a theoretical viewpoint, development [of a theory of licit sex outside of marriage] was retarded by the concept of normally married conjugal relations, which led to a belief that ever to admit sex outside of wedlock would be to destroy the fornication prohibition itself. …

In the end, as everyone knows, licit sex outside of marriage came to be considered the norm, and fornication the exception …

If that one doesn’t resonate, try this one on for size:

From a theoretical viewpoint, development [of a theory of killing innocents on purpose] was retarded by the concept that killing innocent people is normally murder, which led to a belief that ever to admit choosing to kill innocent people would be to destroy the murder prohibition itself. …

In the end, as everyone knows, licit ‘collateral damage’ from bombing came to be considered the norm, and murder the exception …

Examples can be multiplied by iterating over particular vicious acts someone is attempting to frame as a virtuous act in certain circumstances.

Now it is uncontroversially true that some sins are more objectively grave than others, and that personal culpability varies based on circumstances, pressures, etc.  It is also uncontroversially true that some objectively evil choices represent an improvement over other objectively evil choices. A serial killer who has gone from murdering one person a week to murdering only one person a year can be said to be on an objective path of improvement, in a sense. In this same sense it is true that there may be improvements taking place in the life of any unrepentant mortal sinner.

But it doesn’t follow that killing just a few more people is “the best he can do.”  The best he can do is repent and make a commitment, with the help of God’s grace and human authorities, to stop choosing immoral behaviors and to do the right thing.

Note: In this post I am addressing the specific cited contentions, not the so-called ‘filial correction’, which I have not read.

Just titles to contraception and adultery, or, Reddit where Reddit is due

September 25, 2017 § 16 Comments

[Conscience] can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that [objectively adulterous behavior] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. – Amoris Laetitia

The standard narrative of Catholic moral progressivism is that Church moral doctrine doesn’t change; it just becomes completely irrelevant.  God is asking you to do the opposite of what God’s law tells you that you should do.

Since this has been going on for generations, from times well before the dreaded Vatican II, conservatives and traditionalists frequently defend this approach as a fine established tradition while simultaneously screeching incessantly in protest against its Current Year manifestations.

Contraceptive intercourse without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays most people most of the time have a just title to mutilated sexual behaviors.  Objective adultery without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays the largest groups of adulterers most of the time have a just title to adultery.  Killing innocent people without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays the largest scale killers almost always have a just title to murder.  And profiting from mutuum lending without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays most mutuum lenders have a just title to usury.

God wants you to choose evil behaviors, you see, because if loving God requires you to keep His commandments then most people won’t actually love Him very much.  Allowing people to hate God and His onerous commandments would be terribly non-inclusive and unmerciful, not to mention grossly impractical; so of course what God really wants is for everyone to remain in a safe and comfy state of salvific ignorance.

John Noonan explains how this works in his book The Scholastic Analysis of Usury:

From a theoretical viewpoint, development [of a theory of earning profits from mutuum loans] was retarded by the concept of the normally gratuitous loan, which led to a belief that ever to admit interest as due from the beginning of a loan would be to destroy the usury prohibition itself. … Loans, it will be recalled were considered licit only if made from charity; compensation on them, even if justified, was thought vitiated if it were sought chiefly for its own sake. …

In the end, as everyone knows, interest on loans came to be considered the norm, and usury the exception …

The Scholastic Analysis of Usury by John T. Noonan, Jr,  published 1957, page 100

Note the typical useful ambiguity in the employment of the English term “loan“.

I’m not a regular user of Reddit, but I have an account and occasionally read Reddit threads when I see them linking back to here.  On a recent Reddit thread a commenter there paraphrased a ruling made during the 1822-1836 period of “pastoral accommodation” of usury, which we’ve discussed here before.  It sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I asked for the citation.  I was given a Latin (a language I don’t personally know) text with no citation; upon further inquiry I was given a reference to a book entirely in Latin.

Neither of these was immediately helpful to me, so I went back to my own sources.

Here is what Noonan writes:

A perplexed vicar-general asked,

“Whether a confessor sins, who sends away in good faith a penitent, who demands from a loan the gain allowed by the civil law, apart from any extrinsic title of lucrum cessans or damnum emergens or extraordinary danger?”

The Penitentiary, the Roman tribunal for issues of the internal forum, replied in the classic formula that “Non esse inquietandum”, provided he is ready to obey a decision of the Holy See.

A troubled theologian, Denavit, now sought information on precisely the same subject.  he declared:

“The undersigned writer, thinking it licit by no contract to withdraw from the doctrine of Benedict XIV, denies sacramental absolution to priests who contend that the law of the prince is sufficient title for taking something beyond the sum lent apart from lucrum cessans or damnum emergens.”

In answer to his question if his conduct was, then, too severe toward these priests, the Holy Office again replied “Non esse inquietandos”.

Noonan, page 379

So in summary, some priests were absolving unrepentant interest-takers who were – the penitents were – relying on the fact that doing so was legal under the positive law. The question posed was not whether the interest-taking lender was committing sin.  The question was whether the confessor-priests were committing sin in absolving those penitents, and whether Denavit was being too hard on those confessor-priests in refusing them absolution when they were, themselves, in confession.  I hope that isn’t too confusing.

The response was that yes, he was being too hard on those confessor-priests and should not disturb them unless and until such time as the Holy See rules on the particular matter.

As we’ve discussed before, it would be irrational to conclude that this has any effect whatsoever on the meaning of the objective moral norm against usury.  But you don’t have to take my word for that or follow the obvious reasoning; because the Grand Penitentiary himself, Cardinal Gregorio, said as much explicitly when explaining this whole series of rulings to the Bishop of Viviers:

“The Sacred Penitentiary wished to define nothing at all about the question, debated by theologians, of the title derived from the law of the prince; but only to provide a norm which confessors might safely follow in regard to penitents who take a moderate profit determined by the law of the prince, with good faith and ready to accept the commands of the Holy See.”

Noonan, page 380

If these pastoral questions about confession and the internal forum (the jurisdiction of the Sacred Penitentiary) have any bearing whatsoever on the objective content of usury doctrine, we can likewise conclude that the Church approved of just titles to contraception in 1997 when it instructed confessors that they could, in certain circumstances, absolve penitents who unrepentantly choose contracepted sexual intercourse without the confessor-priests sinning themselves in so doing.

Noonan explains (absent any disapproval on Noonan’s part) the way progressive ‘pastoral accommodation‘ works when he discusses Pope Sixtus V’s decisive, arguably infallible proclamation of the categorical illicitness of any profit from recourse contracts:

This solemn condemnation, enforced by such severe penalties, and apparently directed at the increasing popularity of the triple contract, might seem to the superficial observer a decisive blow. … In fact, however, it remained without effect upon the great debate.  Two theories to explain it were generally put forward.  One was that the bull was purely positive legislation, not a declaration of divine or natural law; … Purely positive legislation lapses … when it is not received by the subjects of the law; … Since the bull had been received nowhere, it had, insofar as it was positive law, no force whatsoever.

The second theory … was that it merely prohibited contracts of partnership which were “naturally usurious.”, where no compensation was paid for the insurance of the capital.  Since only such “naturally usurious” contracts were condemned, and since the triple contract was not “naturally usurious,” it was argued that the bull left the latter untouched.

Noonan, page 221

Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio might seem, to the superficial observer, a decisive blow.  But if you are a defender of the usury status quo – including the status quo of the 1600’s – then that thing hoisting you is your own petard.

This time Lucy won’t pull the football away

September 18, 2017 § 63 Comments

From a new article at First Things (hat tip donnie):

It was characteristic of Michael [Novak] to frame the highest good as liberation from constraint. As he says at one point, “God did not make creation coercive, but designed it as an arena of liberty.”

The free market gives us a glimpse of the ideal society, one that features order without authority and purposeful freedom without the need for agreement about the common good beyond a procedural rule of law.

Democratic capitalism does a better job sustaining an open, pluralistic society than political liberalism[1], because capitalism, unlike political deliberation, guarantees freedom more jealously (and effectively).

Yet we’ve seen setback after setback, and the corporate tsunami that recently swept through Indiana after it passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act made clear the link between global capitalism and progressive clear-cutting of traditional religious culture and morality.

Needless to say, Michael Novak did not foresee these outcomes when he wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism any more than I did when I thrilled to his insights more than three decades ago.

…he described the anthropology of capitalism in a one-sided way. Its fearsome dynamism speaks to part of our soul, but it neglects and even works against the part that cherishes permanence.

This one-sidedness needs to be corrected, for our challenges are quite different from the legacy of postwar consolidation that Michael responded to with such élan. We do not live in a closed, regulated, regimented world. Political correctness is a serious problem, and it has an authoritarian tendency. But it is not born of loyalty to permanent things. As an outgrowth of liberalism itself, this rigid ideology comes under the sign of choice. It is an obligatory, enforced participation in a fluid, liquefied moral world. We are told that we are not required to think or live in any particular way—except that we can’t think or live in ways that constrain, compromise, or even throw doubt on anyone else’s free decision to think or live differently. Taken to its logical extreme—everything is permitted as long as it permits everything—this becomes a paradoxical totalitarian toleration that is all the more dangerous because it deludes those who promote it into thinking that when they drive all dissent from the public square, they are “including.”

My summary of the article:

Don’t blame us for the poison we’ve been pumping into society for decades. We had good hearts and meant well, we just accidentally neglected to keep our nice tame liberalism on a leash. No reasonable person could have foreseen a “how were we supposed to know?” stage to inevitably follow our “what could it hurt?” enthusiasms. Who would have thought that pouring acid over the moral social fabric for centuries would make it dissolve? Who could have predicted that treating human authority and hierarchy as if it were what is wrong with the world would lead to its dissolution and reconstitution as an inhuman monstrosity?

So the thing we should all do now is correct the ‘one sidedness’ of what we’ve been doing for decades.  We need to work together to promote a nice tame liberalism in common sense balance with moral constraints and the common good.  We need more water for the shriveled up plants in our common garden, to bring balance to the acid we plan to continue pouring on them.  And that is totally, totally different from what conservatives have been doing since the founding of America.  This time it will work, really.  We have to adjust to the times, to find a renewed way for political freedom to flourish.

Oh, and that crank Zippy’s understanding of liberalism is a big strawman.


[1] Translation: our intramural team in the red shirts is so much better than the other team playing the exact same game by the exact same rules in pursuit of the exact same goals, because they wear blue shirts.