Ultramontane Moral Relativism?

April 11, 2005 § 5 Comments

I am always struck by the epistemic oddity of a certain sort of wishful thinking: a wishful thinking which expresses a hope that the Church will change her position on a fundamental moral issue. Underneath the wishful thinking seems to be a belief that moral facts are not really facts: that they are based solely on the authority of the Church, as if the Church has the authority to make something moral or immoral simply by declaring it so. It is to believe in moral relativism, but to grant a special authority to the Magisterium to declare what the moral relativism of today requires: it is an ultramontane moral relativism.

An exchange in the comments at Cella’s Review follows:

T. Hanski wrote:
I think you do exaggerate a bit. After all, there are quite a few Catholics who do expect and hope that eventually the Church will change its position on birth control. On the other hand one would have to search insane asylums for someone expecting and hoping the Church will say yes to murder and theft one day.

I agree that it is possible to view both birth control and murder as immoral, but while the first is succumbing to the “weakness of the flesh” the latter is doing evil. Not a small difference.

I replied:
The supposed categorical distinction is false. An act of using birth control is an evil act, no less categorically so than an act of murder, although a murder may (or may not) be viewed as more heinous. And Catholics can hope that the Church will adopt an objectively false view of sexual morality all they want without changing the fact that using birth control is objectively evil. People hope for all sorts of counterfactual things, but wishful thinking does not bring the counterfactual any closer to being true.

Someone who hopes that the Church will change its position on birth control is hoping that the Church will adopt an objectively false moral position.

This sort of ultramontane moral relativism is more prevalent than it first appears. I’ve seen it lead very orthodox Catholic apologists to claim that certain moral matters are settled just because the Church has not said anything about the matter.

The particular case of interest in the linked post is whether deliberately sterilizing onesself creates an impediment to future marital relations, even if one repents of the sterilization. The rightly respected and very orthodox apologist Jimmy Akin seems to believe that just because the Church has not stated that there is such an impediment it is a definite fact that one does not exist. In general it is assumed that if the Church has not asserted a moral requirement then the moral requirement definitely does not exist.

Our only moral duties, in the view of the ultramontane moral relativist, are those things explicitly required of us by the Magisterium.

That can only be the case though if either 1) the Church has comprehensively told us everything there is to know about all possible moral cases for all time, or 2) moral reality is generated by the authority of the Church rather than communicated authoritatively to us by the Church.

In summary, there are two views of the relation between the Church and moral facts: either the Church generates moral facts by her authority, or moral facts exist objectively and she reveals (some) of them to us authoritatively. The former view seems to be prevalent, at least implicitly, among the Catholic “conservatives” I call right-liberals (or neoconservatives); but it amounts to moral relativism in disguise.

Next time you hear someone saying “the Church doesn’t require that of you” about a moral matter, be careful that moral relativism isn’t sneaking in through the back door. Whether you have explicit guidance from the Church on the matter in question or not, you still need to do the right thing; and which thing is the right thing is an objective fact, not something specified by your choice.


§ 5 Responses to Ultramontane Moral Relativism?

  • William Luse says:

    I especially like this formulation: <>it is possible to view both birth control and murder as immoral, but while the first is succumbing to the “weakness of the flesh” the latter is doing evil.<>Two problems. It implies that succumbing to a weakness of the flesh is not “doing evil.” But, more important, I’ve never thought of popping a pill as succumbing to a weakness of the flesh. I’ve always thought it what you did so that, when the moment of weakness arrived, you’d be ready for it. Or, if one’s preferred mode of contraception is a condom, try to imagine the attempt to efficiently don one in the heat of passion as a moment of weakness. As many a stalwart lothario has, shall we say, wilted in the attempt, the effort actually interferes with the weakness we so ardently wish to placate.

  • zippy says:

    Indeed the firmness – of purpose, that is – in a successful attempt is the very opposite of a “weakness of the flesh”, it seems to me.

  • Lee says:

    Wow – delighted to see you taking up the blog, Zippy. Always enjoyed your comments at Disputations a great deal.

  • TS says:

    I’ve always been tempted to interpret Matthew 16 in the spirit of “whatever you hold bound, though you are in error, will be held bound in heaven. And whatever you hold loose, though you should be binding, wil be held loose in Heaven” rather than the stricter notion of infallibility. But that would be an example of moral relativism.

  • zippy says:

    <>But that would be an example of moral relativism.<>Well, one place where it gets squirrelly is in areas of discipline/practice. The objective moral fact in those cases is that the Church has the authority to set discipline/practice and to specify rewards and consequences. So in discipline/practice it is true that the Church <>generates<> moral facts; she does so on the foundation of the moral fact that she has the authority to do so.

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