Narrow-mindedness is for everyone

June 3, 2010 § 10 Comments

Every now and then, someone suggests that my understanding of what is morally permissible is that it – what is morally permissible – is more narrow than what the Church explicitly requires.

That is absolutely true.
What is more, your understanding of what is morally permissible should be more narrow than what the Church explicitly requires, because what is morally permissible is in fact more narrow than what the Church explicitly requires.
This is simple to demonstrate.
Observe that there are many moral questions, specific moral questions, which the Church does not explicitly adjudicate for us. Observe further that the possible answers to some of these moral questions are mutually exclusive: some particular answers being right necessarily entails others being wrong.
Therefore, the space of what is true morally is narrower than the space of what the Church explicitly requires morally.


§ 10 Responses to Narrow-mindedness is for everyone

  • Teresa says:

    Very good points. This is where moral absolutes come into play. We must try and do better than the Church requires.

  • brandon field says:

    In other words, Church Teaching should not be interpreted through the lens of a sola scriptura understanding of revelation.

  • William Luse says:

    how about a specific example?

  • M.Z. says:

    because what is morally permissible is in fact more narrow than what the Church explicitly requires.

    No, it may in fact be narrower.

    Scrupulosity is a danger and has been warned about. I would not encourage someone to approach the line of scrupulosity as close as possible. Nor would I encourage a person to flee away from scrupulosity as far as possible.

  • zippy says:

    Scrupulosity is an entirely different issue, and I agree that it can be a problem for some people. Intellectual rigor is not scrupulosity though, nor is intellectual rigor the same as “rigorism,” a kind of moral anti-realism which claims that if the acting subject thinks there is any probability that X is morally wrong, X is definitely morally wrong because of that subjective doubt.

    Great re-statement from a different angle.

    One example is what we discussed at one point from the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V: The Church had not expressly stated that “eunechi et spadoni” are incapable of marrying until the Pope issued the bull Cum Frequenter.

    More generally, the fact that the Magisterium clarifies particular moral issues over time in history illustrates the point: what is actually, objectively morally permissible is more narrow than what has been explicitly specified as such by the Magisterium at any given point in time.

  • William Luse says:

    Okay, I get it. It's like what Anscombe used to say about presuming permission from the Church's silence: that such an approach is condemned.

  • zippy says:

    Exactly, Bill, and then one step further which necessarily follows: there are in fact moral prohibitions which the Magisterium has not made explicit. Which is to say, what is morally permissible is necessarily in fact more narrow than what the Church requires explicitly.

  • Anonymous says:

    In the end it comes down to the fact that we “know not what we do” much of the time.

    Asking forgivness is a must, and asking guidance from the Holy Spririt via and non-via the Church's infallible declarations is essential.


  • Kurt says:


    If I understand correctly, it looks like you are saying that what the Church requires explicitly is a proper subset of what is morally required. Why can't the two sets be equal?


  • zippy says:

    Why can't the two sets be equal?

    Great question. I'll give two answers, both of which I think have merit.

    First, while history might not demonstrate that they can't be equal in principle, it inductively demonstrates that they are not in fact equal. In other words, the fact that the Church has throughout its history offered new, more detailed clarifications of moral doctrine over time, shows that more such clarifications are forthcoming. Today what the Church explicitly requires is a superset of what the Church explicitly required a thousands years ago. Inductively, then, what the Church explicitly requires in the future will be narrower still than what She explicitly requires today.

    That doesn't quite answer your question, though, which is why must this be the case in principle. The flippant answer I can give is that it must be the case because positivism is false. Brandon Field's comment above points to the longer answer, though there isn't time or space to give the longer answer in as much detail as I might like to here in the combox.

    And in the wonderful spirit of having great commenters, gbm3 begins a reflection in where that takes us: toward a morality of virtue, not opposed to explicit moral norms but complementing and then transcending them. As JPII tells us in Veritatis Splendour:

    On the other hand, the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbour does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken.

    I started a post on this implication – that negative-norm based morality is necessary but not sufficient. I've been too distracted by other things to get it out, though I may eventually publish at least a little comment to that effect.

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