Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops”

I have a few notes to clarify as I present Sarah B’s excellent Comment of the Day.

1. I should have been clear that the reason I judge the US Conference of Bishops as “Ethics Heroes” is that they are remaining true to their Church’s role as a moral authority, and not engaging in politics or utilitarian trade-offs.

2. I do not want t get into debates over morality—this is an ethics site— or Catholic Church politics. However, denying that the Pope, and therefore the Vatican, is political is impossible. The Vatican is an independent state. The Pope is the head of state. By definition, his (or is it “His”?) words are political, like the statements of all heads of state. And like all heads of state, the Pope is responsible for the political impact of what he says.

3. From the COTD below: This debate deals with the trouble of how to get sinners to deal with the consequences of their sin without driving them away from the church and the path to heaven.” If the Church believes that life begins at conception, and it says it does, then posing abortion as a utilitarian ethics conflict has one huge and irresolvable problem. Every year, there are an estimated 40-50 million abortions, or approximately 125,000 abortions per day. The Catholic Church says that those are all premeditated murders by definition. That’s the equivalent of eight Holocausts every year. If the Church believes that, then the choice of whether to strongly condemn those who enable, support and facilitate murders of the innocent—again, that is the Church’s position, not necessarily mine—or to “drive them away from the Church” should be pretty damn easy.

4. The Catholic Church is the wealthiest organization in the world, with estimated assets of more than 30 billion dollars. It pays no taxes. How does one fairly describe the head of an organization with 30 billion dollars who lectures against the evils of greed and capitalism, and emphasizes the moral duty to share property and wealth with the poor?

Here is Sarah B.’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops”:

Pope Francis is not a communist. He even condemns socialism (as does the entire Catholic Church) as a grave evil. (As a note, I do not personally care much for the Pope, but will defend at least this for him.)

As for why he would “shade important Catholic doctrine”, Pope Francis is the latest personification of one side of an age old debate in the Catholic Church, doctrine vs pastoral response. This debate deals with the trouble of how to get sinners to deal with the consequences of their sin without driving them away from the church and the path to heaven. I firmly fall on the doctrinaire side of the debate, so my explanation will certainly be biased, no matter how fair I try to make this explanation, but I will try my best. On one hand, if you are too harsh on sinners, you drive them away from the faith. On the other, if you are too lenient, you risk diminishing the realization of the evil they have done, and bringing scandal (definition below) upon the church. Permitting people to receive the Eucharist after having committed grave matter is, in most minds, far too lenient. However, if we look back to history, there was a time when penances for sin were so extreme, most people refused to get baptized until their deathbed to avoid such penances. When one considers that the Catholic Church believes in both justice AND mercy for any action, it also compounds the issue.

The main argument, as I understand it from the pastoral response side, is that in today’s society, people do not understand grave matter or even what is required to turn grave matter to mortal sin. We have had many years of too much poor catechesis and society does not see what is wrong with many of the things that are gravely disordered. People have also heard about the primacy of conscience (which is true, if understood correctly, but rarely is) and believe that if they don’t feel that something is wrong, it shouldn’t be, which is NOT what that means in the slightest. (Like lawyers, Church explanations use very specific language with firmly established definitions, sometimes established centuries ago that are not in the common vernacular.) Finally, people don’t often believe in the Transubstantiation or the Real Presence, which lessens their understanding of the mortality of taking the Eucharist unworthily. Therefore, we need to treat them with charity, not judgement. They need the Grace that the Sacrament of the Eucharist gives to help them live a better life. Indeed, chasing them away is chasing them to damnation, which is not acting with love. This, then is our sin, to drive them away. This seems to be Pope Francis’s position. He, I think, believes that should there be a question between justice and mercy, one should fall on the side of mercy. I also believe he wants a more “feel-good” approach to gentleness.

The doctrinaire side has a main argument that says that grave matter is grave matter and while you may not have committed a mortal sin because you don’t meet all the requirements (specifically knowledge of grave matter), you have still acted against God’s law in a serious manner. Indeed, if you were permitted to still go to Communion, you would be an occasion for scandal. (Scandal defined here as leading others to sin, often by teaching that something is not sinful, or only a minor transgression.). Thus sinners who dabble with grave matter must be denied Communion, both for their own salvation and for the eventual salvation of others. Therefore, for your own salvation as well as for the salvation of all who see you, you must be denied communion out of love. If being denied the Eucharist would drive you away from the church, then that too is your own sin, but letting you influence others would be a greater evil, and thus would be a greater sin on oursleves. This position, which is far closer to the one I hold, tends to lean more toward justice than mercy, and believes that gentleness, like love, sometimes must be applied in a tough manner.

18 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Heroes: The US Conference of Catholic Bishops”

      • Thanks. Sarah’s perspective and perception comes from a deeply held understanding that the Eucharist is not some simple ritual or symbol but a deeply held sacrament that reflects the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass, and consequently our lives as Catholics. To suggest the bread and winebare symbols of Christ’s sacrifice is to ignore tge fundamental transformation to Body and Blood, a sacred mystery celebrated by Catholics all over the world.

        Sarah was much more eloquent and dignified than I was going to be. Kudos to get.


  1. Interesting and informative.
    One question, or rather series of related questions, for Sarah B, from a long-lapsed Protestant:
    As respects “grave matter,” is there an inherent element of volition in the act itself (it wasn’t an accident), and if so, is there a distinction between literally not knowing the sinfulness of an act (had no idea the Church forbids a certain action) and deciding for oneself that the act is innocent, despite Church doctrine? And, assuming any of these distinctions are relevant, are we talking about a disjunctive yes/no, or something along the lines of a continuum?
    I’m thinking of the Ancient Greek and Shinto (to name two) concepts of pollution (as opposed to sin), and wondering if Catholicism is closer to the former than I had hitherto believed.
    In a pollution-based theology, Oedipus is still guilty of incest despite his active attempt to avoid it. In today’s world, according to this idea, a driver who hits and kills a child who ran out into the street is still guilty, although the event was entirely accidental, and the driver did everything possible to avoid hitting the child.

    • Perhaps this will help:

      Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (CCC 1857) “Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments” (CCC 1858) “Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life” (CCC 1472) and “grave mortal sin is defined as a grave action that is committed in full knowledge of its gravity and with the full consent of the sinner’s will. … Such a sin cuts the sinner off from God’s sanctifying grace until it is repented, usually in confession with a priest.”


    • Curmie,

      I’ll take a stab at answering your question:

      As respects “grave matter,” is there an inherent element of volition in the act itself (it wasn’t an accident), and if so, is there a distinction between literally not knowing the sinfulness of an act (had no idea the Church forbids a certain action) and deciding for oneself that the act is innocent, despite Church doctrine? And, assuming any of these distinctions are relevant, are we talking about a disjunctive yes/no, or something along the lines of a continuum?

      In backing up, the Catholic Church teaches that a sin is mortal if it meets three requirements: first, that it is grave matter; second that the sinner knows that it is grave matter; and third, that the sinner consents, or intends, to commit that act. Grave matter is grave because of the extent of damage it does, and this is regardless of intent. Killing someone is grave matter; they are just as dead if you didn’t intend for them to die. I think St. Paul encapsulates this idea in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:13-14).” The point is that even though you don’t know that what you are doing is wrong, because the act itself is inherently wrong, it will still cause harm. So the gravity of an action is not a matter of volition.

      Where volition enters the picture is in the second two conditions. A person might not know that an act constitutes grave matter, but this could either be an unintentional state, in which he is not culpable for his ignorance, or it could be willful ignorance on his part. One aspect of being Catholic is the assent to the Church as authoritative, infallible on matters of faith and morals. A Catholic then has an obligation not just to follow the Church’s instructions, but to learn what the Church actually instructs. This touches on what Sarah B was saying on primacy of conscience: we should follow our consciences, but we have a duty to properly form our consciences as well. On some matters where the Church has not made any official pronouncements, the faithful are allowed flexibility of opinions. But on many issues that are hot topics today, the Church has made pronouncements, and those are, as far as any Catholic is concerned, infallible and made so through the protection and guarantee of the Holy Spirit.

      A Catholic does not evade culpability by concluding privately that an action the Church condemns is actually innocent. His rejection of Church authority would actually be itself grave matter, on the order of the great sin of the Devil, who said, “Non serviam.” The sin of pride has long been held as the father of all other sins. It is the sin by which we seek to supplant God as the arbiter of good and evil. For a Catholic, who ought to know that the Church claims infallibility on matters of faith and morals, to reject Church teaching, he either has to deny the Church, or he has to believe he has some higher authority than the Church.

      As for whether we are speaking of a disjunctive or a continuum, my answer is both. When it comes down the end of the day, either you have committed a mortal sin or you haven’t. But because of the third condition for a sin to be mortal, the question of whether one actually committed a mortal sin can become murkier. Take an addict, for example. It is a sin of gluttony to engage in debilitating drug use. So the use of hardcore, recreational drugs like meth, cocaine, and heroin is grave matter. (The use of lesser drugs like caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and a few others do not fall into this category because the impact of moderate use is not very large. Drugs that have practically no “moderate” dosage are the ones that would constitute to grave matter.) But an addict has lost a great deal of his capacity to resist temptation. As he tries to quit, his falling of the wagon and using is of lesser severity than someone taking those drugs the first time. As he progresses, and he regains control over his appetites, then his culpability in slipping up and using again increases.

      So there can be debate over whether a sin was actually mortal, due to the degree in which a person consents to a wrong. If someone resists temptation for a long time, but is eventually worn out by the struggle, did he really consent when he finally gave into temptation? However, this line of questioning can be destructive. Overly scrupulous people can argue themselves into condemnation over the slightest of offenses, and any of the rest of us would really like to rationalize our sins into the venial category, given the opportunity.

      Of course, any of this is tangential to the question of public support of abortion. On this the Church is very clear. Abortion is a grave evil, perpetuated against the most defenseless and the most innocent members of the human race. Any Catholic politician who advocates for expanding access to abortion is defending an intolerable evil, and any excuse of being personally opposed is insufficient. A politician is to be held to a higher standard in this regard than a private citizen because of his capacity to influence legislation one way or another. Since the Church has expressed all this, there should be no excuse for any Catholic politician.

      I hope this clarified. Feel free to ask any follow-ups if I was unclear about something.

      • This is very helpful, thank you.
        One further question: Let us suppose that a Catholic politician professes personal opposition to abortion, but says that this is a matter for the courts, and as a nation we need to be bound by the law.of the land, which may conflict with any individual’s personal beliefs. Let us suppose, further, that unlike many if not most who make such a statement, this politician actually believes what s/he’s saying rather than simply trying to negotiate a political minefield. Absent other evidence (a President who uses a litmus test on abortion to appoint judges, for example), how does this position hold up to theological scrutiny?

        • Curmie,

          That’s a very good question, with some very intricate nuance. As you state it exactly, whether or not this position stands up to scrutiny would depend upon the actual role the politician plays. For a legislator, I don’t quite think this would hold, because a legislator would have the responsibility to write ethical laws, and a Catholic legislator would have the obligation to propose laws in accord with his beliefs. (Actually, I would propose that any legislator of any faith background would be obligated to craft laws in accord with his beliefs.) Thus for a legislator, that stance would be passing the buck, and I would think would be unethical. It would certainly incur a sin of omission, but in this situation I would hesitate to say it demands that a priest withhold communion from him.

          For a member of the executive branch, this position would hold up to scrutiny. Such a politician could not simply demand that abortion clinics close or prohibit women from procuring abortions, because the rule of law is truly that important. Certainly this politician still could not personally assist a woman in procuring an abortion, and if his office required him to actively aid a woman seeking an abortion, he would be obligated to do everything in his power to avoid directly assisting with the abortion. For example, if a crowd of protestors were blocking the access to an abortion clinic, this politician would be justified in dispersing a crowd that was illegally assembling, knowing that it would let a woman then access the clinic. Certainly one of the distinctions to pay attention to here is that the law currently allows a woman to procure an abortion, but does not force any woman to get an abortion.

          For a judge, it is perfectly legitimate to be a faithful Catholic and rule against laws that restrict abortions. Here the importance of following the rule of law exerts itself again. If abortion is constitutional, then any legislation that falls short of a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion could be legitimately rejected as unconstitutional. However, a judge (I assume we’re all thinking of the fact there are six Catholics on the Supreme Court!) could look at the case in the United States, where abortion is not an enumerated right, and look for any justification to overturn Roe v Wade. I think they would obligated to look for justifications to overturn Roe v Wade, but they couldn’t just mandate it by fiat, absent good legal arguments.

          What a Catholic politician could not morally do is propose legislation that offers additional protections to abortion, to expand abortion access, or in any other way directly promote abortion. This is, unfortunately, where a lot of liberal Catholic politicians run afoul of Church teaching. They not only publicly declare they would defend a woman’s right to choose, but many even say they would seek to expand access to abortion, such as by providing additional federal funds to abortion clinics, or declaring abortion to be an essential practice that would not have to shutter its doors during a pandemic.

          The key principle in play here is the law of double effect. If a neutral or good action (one that in and of itself is not wrong) has several effects, and one of them is an evil effect, that action may still be permissible as long as the evil effect is not intended (even if it is foreseen). Proportionality plays a role: if the evil effect outweighs the good, then the action is not permissible. But if the good outweighs the evil, the evil can be tolerated because it was not intended.

  2. Here’s my take on all of this discussion:

    If you choose to be a medieval religion/organization is the 21st century, you cannot, cannot, budge one inch. Frittering around the edges only loses you your power and reputation. Priests must remain celibate; divorce untenable; birth control a sin; etc., etc. Your medieval approach must remain unstained, or you risk the loss of the grand plan you have attained.

    The Roman Catholic Church thinks in centuries. As odd as it may seem to we Protestants (whose theology is ever changing and therefore questionable) this staunch, inflexible stance is oddly admirable. Roman Catholics are fleeing by the thousands every day, but what do they care? “It is what it is” and never will change, until or unless the entire system collapses. And I don’t see that happening soon.

    With the right people in control, the politics will ensure that the “frittering” will cease, and the power (around the world, not just the West) will remain intact.

    So, really, what’s to discuss?

  3. Well done. I have been frustrated with the lack of attention to the concept of public scandal that has continued over decades. Allowing Catholic politicians who not only support but actively fund abortion is scandalous.

    In the US no one is forced to be a member of the Catholic Church. This is a decision. As such the adult is responsible for being a true part of the community. The isn’t declaring someone a heretic, but one who needs to be healed in heart and mind. It’s also good to recall that Roman Catholics are not the only ones who practice a “closed communion.”

    A comment on the taxation issue. We have to be cognizant that the tax relationship between churches and governments doesn’t always exist as it does in the US. In Europe most churches are owned by the national government. The pastors receive a salary from the government. This comes from taxes paid by citizens. In some countries the assistant pastors must be paid by the parishes. In the US we are too quick to presume our experience is universal.

  4. Although I do believe the Roman Catholic system to be severely flawed, I acknowledge that membership in the Church is consensual. For little kids who have been abused, however, this consensus is less clear. Do you agree on this at least?

    I am the daughter of a Methodist minister, and can attest to the fact that on this particular issue the Catholics are not alone: my Dad was horrified that parishioners were abused by their pastors. I do not think for a minute that this is relegated to the Catholic church or any other power organization — schools, the Boy Scouts, etc.

    The question is: what can we, and the law, do to to protect children? I do not think any Church will necessarily change; but we must repair and prevent the damage.

  5. Jack,

    Thank you for the COTD. I wanted to go more in depth on the “tough love”option, both it’s logic and some more of the ethics, but it was bedtime for my munchkins and I feared that I would lose the attempted neutrality between the options. I happen to strongly believe that Pope Francis is incorrect in urging that more souls are saved by tolerance of sin than strictly condemning that which is held to be gravely evil. I also dislike many of his condemnations of capitalism. Though I would be willing to admit that capitalism is imperfect, it is the best system of all currently available. I do not care much for my Pope, but as a faithful Catholic, I am also confident that the Holy Spirit guides the church and has through far worse Popes than he. Sorry this was so Catholic and not as focused on ethics as you usually prefer.

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