Just titles to contraception and adultery, or, Reddit where Reddit is due
September 25, 2017 § 21 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.