(continued from yesterday)
Bishop Barron’s Moral Subversion and
the Perils of Celebrity Clericalism
by Christopher A. Ferrara
February 22, 2017
Yesterday's column discussed Bishop Robert Barron's mischaracterization of the Church's teaching on the Sixth Commandment — an exceptionless, universally binding negative precept of the natural law — to an "extreme demand," a "high objective moral ideal," a "high moral ideal" and "the ideal." The net result of this facile reductionism is the practical elimination of the natural moral law, laid down by God in His Commandments, precisely as law. Instead, the Sixth Commandment becomes a mere "objective ideal" precisely as suggested in ¶ 303 of Amoris Laetitia (AL), the document Barron's video commentary attempts to defend.
Barron's commentary continues by praising AL's lip service to what he calls the "objectivities" of the Church's teaching on marriage and procreation in the chapters before the explosive Chapter VIII, which has provoked unprecedented confusion and division in the Church. Barron yet again repeats the canard that "The Church is extreme in its demand. It holds up a very high moral ideal." In other words, the teaching that AL appears to defend in the prior chapters is merely a "high ideal."
On and on Barron goes in the same subversive vein — the same vein in which AL proceeds:
- BARRON: "The Pope, as we well know, is deeply sensitive to the fact that we human beings, finite and fallen as we are, have a very hard time living up always to the great high moral ideal."
Since when did the avoidance of sexual activity outside of marriage become "a great high moral ideal?" Since the publication of AL!
- BARRON: "People tend to move toward the ideal, not all at once, but in steady, gradual steps."
It is amazing that Barron expects Catholics to take this moral nonsense seriously. The idea that it is permissible to move "gradually" toward the "ideal" of avoiding adultery is precisely the grave falsehood that Pope John Paul II specifically rejected in Familiaris consortio in a passage that demolishes Barron's suave sophistry. Married people, wrote John Paul:
"… cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations."
Barron — again citing AL as his sole authority — seriously proposes that rather than informing the divorced "remarried" and cohabiting couples that their situations endanger their souls and threaten their eternal welfare, the sacred pastors should instead "build on" the "positive elements" in their adulterous relationships. Quoth Barron:
"Might we even recognize someone who's in an irregular situation in terms of their sexual expression, that there are elements of that relationship that are nevertheless good; there are certain dimensions of it that are praiseworthy? Yeah! And can we build on that pastorally? Would simply a blanket condemnation of everything be called for, or would a [sic] outreach to those elements, even in an irregular situation, that are morally praiseworthy, not be a better way to do it?"
A better way to do what? To save souls, which is the very mission of a pastor of souls? But how does a pastor save the soul of one living in adultery by telling him/her that there are "positive elements" in his/her immoral relationship? If the relationship is mortally sinful in and of itself, given the intrinsic evil of adultery, how does one "build on" its positive elements?
This notion of "building on" the positive elements of immoral relationships, like all skillful sophistry, sounds plausible and pleasing to itching ears, but on a moment's reflection is revealed as utter nonsense. One might as well argue that a physician should refrain from discussing a patient's advanced pneumonia and calling for immediate administration of antibiotics, but rather focus instead on the "positive elements" of his physiology, such as his excellent cholesterol levels.
For the welfare of souls, pastors are duty bound to present the simple Gospel truth that people living in adultery must end their adultery or be at risk of eternal damnation. But Barron, again following the line of AL, concludes with what I must say is a rather shifty discussion of the distinction between objective conduct and subjective fault. He suggests that a confessor can somehow determine each penitent's lack of subjective guilt — ultimately known only to God — for intrinsically evil behavior that is objectively a matter of mortal sin:
"You're also talking about the degree of knowledge a person has and the degree of real freedom fully to acquiescence to that. Those two factors can mitigate one's culpability. There are extenuating circumstances that can mitigate one's full culpability.
"Now every confessor knows this…. Anyone who does confessions knows about this distinction. Someone comes and describes an objectively immoral situation. OK. But see in Confession that's not the only thing you're assessing. You're assessing culpability.
"And so the Pope is exploiting — I don't mean that in a cynical way at all — he's exploiting this classical distinction to say pastors dealing mercifully in the field hospital with those who are failing to live up to the ideal should take into consideration this distinction between the objective assessment and subjective culpability. And I think that as far it is goes that is a valid and legitimate way to go about it."
Who does Barron think he is kidding? If a penitent confesses to living in adultery, he must know that he is committing a grave sin, otherwise he would not be confessing it to a priest. It has never been a priest's function to conduct a kind of mini-trial in the confessional, inquiring into a penitent's (usually self-serving) explanation of "extenuating circumstances" in order to render an on-the-spot "verdict" of "guilty" or "not guilty." Moreover, the confessor can grant absolution only if there is contrition¬ and a firm purpose of amendment as to future conduct; the penitent must resolve to sin no more. Even the new Catechism maintains this constant teaching of the Church: "Among the penitent's acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is 'sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.'"
But AL does indeed suggest, and the bishops of Malta and elsewhere now agree, that priests are free to absolve public adulterers and admit them to Holy Communion if they, or the adulterers themselves, conclude after some sort of magical "discernment" that there is no subjective culpability before God for objectively adulterous behavior even though that behavior will continue. Indeed, the Maltese bishops have gone even further, declaring that people living in adultery must be admitted to the sacraments while they persist in their adultery in those cases in which the adulterers "discern" themselves to be "at peace with God."
The proponents of this outrageous idea, apparently including Barron, have been touting what has become a standard casuitical hypothetical in defense of AL: A woman, validly married in the Church, is cruelly abandoned by her husband. She then civilly marries another man and has children by her "second husband." She wishes to return to the sacraments, but cannot commit to refraining from adulterous relations with her "second husband" because he has threatened to walk out on her and the children. Her "fear" reduces her culpability to the point that her objective acts of adultery are subjectively only venial sins, if that.
Truly an argument worthy of the Pharisees. But as Father Brian Harrison has shown in his important article on AL (citing Saint Thomas Aquinas), the kind of fear that overrides free will and diminishes culpability is not the rational fear of someone who wishes to avoid adverse personal, social or economic consequences and thus makes a calculated, freely willed decision to continue sinning. Rather, only fear amounting to a physical state of panic — for example, a gun is pointed at one's head — can impair freedom of the will and thus diminish guilt.
As Father Harrison observes:
"Now, according to the Church's firm and perennial teaching, this woman's continued intimacy with her new partner for the sake of the children is a clear instance of 'doing evil that good may come' which is forbidden in Sacred Scripture (cf. Rom. 3: 8) and by the constant teaching of the Church. Pope Saint John Paul II devoted five articles of his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (nos. 79-83) to a firm rebuttal and censure of this proportionalist approach to moral questions [i.e. determining the morality of an action by weighing its good and bad consequences, the action being 'moral' if the good consequences outweigh the bad]."
Does Barron mean to say that he has actually granted absolution to people living in adultery despite knowing that their adultery will continue, based on nothing more than his on-the-fly "assessment" of supposedly "extenuating circumstances"? I would wager Barron has never done any such thing because he knows that it would constitute a grave abuse of the Sacrament of Confession. In fact, the renowned canonist Ed Peters has observed that any confessor who, under any circumstances, would counsel a penitent that he/she could continue sexual relations outside of marriage would be guilty of soliciting violations of the Sixth Commandment in the confessional in violation of Canon 1387 and would be subject to canonical penalties ranging from suspension to dismissal from the clerical state ("defrocking").
So, it's a safe bet that Barron has personally never implemented AL's "extenuating circumstances" framework for absolving public adulterers who will continue committing adultery, even if the bishops of Malta and elsewhere have done exactly that in a radical departure from the Church's bimillennial teaching and intrinsically related Eucharistic discipline. Barron's attempt to defend AL on this score is just empty talk, obfuscating an unprecedented breach in the integrity of sacramental confession provoked entirely by the very document he labors to defend.
Given Francis' tendency to self-contradiction, however, it should not be surprising that he has put the lie to his own novelty. As Catholic News Agency reported in January of 2016, in his book length interview with Andrea Tornielli, entitled The Name of God is Mercy, Francis "recounted how [a] man, despite having remarried without an annulment, nonetheless went to confession every Sunday before Mass, telling the priest, 'I know you can't absolve me but I have sinned … please give me a blessing. 'This is a religiously mature man,' the Pope said."
So which is it? That public adulterers can now rightly expect to be absolved of their adultery based on "extenuating circumstances" or that religious maturity should inform them that they can never be absolved so long as they continue in their adultery, but might request a blessing?
Double-talk and obfuscation seem to be the order of the day as the will of this Pope is given precedence over the constant teaching of all his predecessors to the contrary, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Not even the moral law itself is safe from the advance of a papal positivism the Church has never witnessed before, which bids to replace the bedrock of Catholicism with the shifting sands of Bergoglianism.
What a pity Bishop Barron has lent his formidable skills as a communicator to such a sophistical and neo-Pharisaical undermining of the simple truth of the Gospel and the law that God has written on the heart of man. But such is the peril of clerical celebrity: the audience must be told what it wants to hear. And surely we are now living in that time when the audience "will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables." (2 Tim. 4:3-4).