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.

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

  • Zippy says:

    I love how the two theories against Sixtus V’s bull were an invocation of “consent of the governed” and “he can’t possibly mean what he said”.

  • LarryDickson says:

    Consent of the governed does not apply to God’s law.

    However, duress diminishes responsibility. I believe (but am not sure) that duress can diminish a sin from mortal to venial, and in some extreme cases remove the guilt. But evaluating that puts a lot of weight on the confessor.

    Here is a case I thought of, that I am interested in Zippy’s opinion on. It was partially suggested by my gift of a copy of Usury to one man . . .

    Suppose Joseph, a good Catholic, receives and reads a copy of Usury and is convinced by the arguments Zippy raises. The complication is that Joseph is a loan officer by profession, and almost all the loans he makes are usurious. He has no other skills. If he quits his job (and is precluded from getting other work in his field, since all the banks are the same), his family will immediately descend into severe poverty and homelessness, and one of his children, who has a severe medical condition, will have to go untreated and will probably die.

    On the other hand, if he stays on his job, he is self-convicted of the serious sin of usury. It is true that nobody is promoting a Dubium that would point the finger at him in public and deny him Holy Communion, but he has his own conscience to deal with.


  • Zippy says:



    Romans 3:8.

    Veritatis Splendour.

    “The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.” – Blessed John Henry Newman

  • TomD says:

    I think one of the things that Pope Francis has been trying to do (how well we may debate, perhaps), is remind us that even if we “go away sad” because we feel we cannot do what God is asking us, we must always strive to return and repent; at no point does God stop forgiving us if we ask for it, but we can certainly become disheartened, especially if we get a mindset of “I can’t do it right so I must be one of Calvin’s damned.”

    But this can’t be done by watering down the doctrine; it must be done by continual preaching of repentance for one and all.

  • LarryDickson says:

    My personal feeling is that TomD has got it right. In the case I described, if Joseph has the faith that can move mountains, he will take Cardinal Newman’s advice and walk away from worldly hope, trusting in God. If he does not . . . That is the case Pope Francis is trying to deal with.

    My sister just gave me the book Hitler, the War, and the Pope, by Ronald Rychlak – I suggest you all read it. Referring to Pope Pius XII’s so-called “silence,” Kuehnelt-Leddihn said, “A person may take martyrdom and death upon himself – often a man is obliged to do so – and that is a personal act; but no man may decree that another bear testimony in blood, especially if he himself is exempt.” (Note 90, page 580) This may not be a strict analogy with an illicitly married Argentine woman with children, but it will feel that way to her. She can run away from her adulterous situation with impunity, but her children will bear the consequences. Pope Francis presumably dealt with many of these situations when he was a confessor in Buenos Aires.

    I think Pope Francis’s strategy is long-term. Read Malachi 2:13-16. The falsity of the second marriage remains, and both partners will feel it. Few will present themselves for Holy Communion – that requires a clear conscience. In the end, it is to be hoped that their uneasy consciences will cause them to turn away from their adulterous union. I suspect something similar happened with the Woman at the Well (John 4), whom Jesus did NOT tell to break up with her lover, but He did let her be admonished by the reaction of her fellow villagers. (After all, Eastern tradition venerates her as a saint.)

  • Zippy says:

    That we must never do evil that good may come of it isn’t “advice”. It is a fact.

    That culpability can be diminished by subjective factors is true, but entirely orthogonal to the point.

    Veritatis Splendour:

    It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.

  • LarryDickson says:

    Zippy, I completely agree with your last post. And my point IS orthogonal to yours. I am talking about what, practically, to do about people who choose to remain in an objectively evil situation when the foreseeable alternative is to wreck their children. I’m not justifying that choice, I’m asking what to do about people who make it (e.g. Joseph stays on the job).

    In a way, it is easier to deal with the issues raised by the Holocaust, since there at least families were motivated to stick together. The devil has refined his attack since then. I am only sure of one thing: preaching is needed, starting with Malachi 2:13-16 (VALID translation: God hates divorce!).

  • Zippy says:

    What should I do? Tell the truth: that we should never do evil in order that good may come of it. Materially help as I can, as it makes sense.

    What should they do? Never do evil in order that good may come of it.

  • TomD says:

    I think that’s the key people forget: we can continue to tell the truth while helping those who haven’t accepted it yet as best we can; after all, it’s what Christ does.

  • Rhetocrates says:

    I think the vows of sorority and fraternity can be a working solution, for the sake of the children if nothing else. Properly taken they act as a recognition that this secondary binding of man and woman is invalid, and so therefore they have no matrimonial (and no sexual) claim to one another.

    I do think whether in a specific case this is the best solution, as opposed to others, such as amicable separation and attempt to repair the relationship with the original spouse, is a true pastoral issue, since navigating the individual circumstances is a matter of prudence and reflection. Which is part of what makes me sick in the stomach about all this waffling around pastoral solutions; by sneaking in progressive sins under that label, it poisons the actual use of pastoral guidance, which is the primary purpose of the Church.

    Any pastoral guidance must of necessity recognize:

    a) one must never do evil
    b) situations are complicated, but that’s not an excuse to avoid analyzing them properly and acting on the results
    c) it is a lesser sin to fail to do good than to do evil

  • JustSomeGuy says:


    Sorry for bringing something completely off-topic onto this thread, but I can’t find any way to privately contact you on your profile. After much fruitless searching for the source of your profile picture, I decided to make this. Just thought you might appreciate it.

  • Mike T says:


    And my point IS orthogonal to yours. I am talking about what, practically, to do about people who choose to remain in an objectively evil situation when the foreseeable alternative is to wreck their children

    Matt 22:

    36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.

    The Lord spoke directly on such issues. The First Commandment requires you to choose God over your children.

    The flip side of all of this is that we have never lived in a time where it is easier for men to learn new skills, raise charitable funds for situations like this, etc. A man who is used to working at a bank should have no trouble finding a low level job working in many white collar settings.

    We’re also ignoring the fact that there are many white collar positions in banking that don’t deal with usury like being a teller or moving into investments.

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