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.