Abandoning a belief in absolute moral norms would be a catastrophe for the Church
Everyone is talking about the dubia, and so I will too, not that there is much need, given the already excellent and authoritative commentary that has come from a variety of sources, as, for example the scholar monk Dom Hugh Somerville-Knapman and the much respected Bishop Athanasius Schneider, the prelate who works at the very margins of the Church in Kazakhstan. Indeed, what need is there for commentary at all, when one of the authors of the dubia is Cardinal Caffarra, perhaps the greatest of our theologians, and another is Cardinal Burke, the best of our canonists?
One of the dubia is as follows:
After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
I have not made an in-depth study of Amoris Laetitia, but I do know something about the teaching contained in Veritatis Splendor, which was foundational for my studies in moral theology.
There are, as the Church has always recognised, absolute moral norms that are binding in all circumstances, and there are some acts, evil in themselves, which cannot be justified or sanitised by any circumstance of motivation. To take an example, it is never right to procure a direct abortion, even when you think you have grave or pressing reasons for doing so. It is never right to commit adultery, even if you are offered a compelling inducement (such as saving someone’s life) to do so.
If you decide to abandon belief in absolute moral norms – and St John Paul II recognised this danger, hence the need for the encyclical – then several catastrophic things will undoubtedly follow.
The first is that you no longer set a high bar for the Christian soul when it comes to morality. In so doing you admit to yourself that absolute norms are too hard for the Christian soul to live with; in other words you deny the power of the grace of God, won for us on the Cross by the Lord and Saviour of Mankind, which can transform a person and make them capable of living by these norms. One of the title chapters used by St John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor was “Lest the Cross of Christ be emptied of its power”. But by abandoning the absoluteness of moral norms, you do exactly that.
Second, you undermine the whole concept of Law, and the whole idea of God as a Lawgiver. Now, He is not just a Lawgiver, but to deny the God of Sinai as One who gives us “a Law that shall not pass away, words that shall endure from age to age” (Psalm 148:6), is to make a grave mistake about God, and a grave mistake about human nature. We weak human beings crave absolutes, and the absolutes given us by God are exactly what we need for human flourishing. To abandon absolutes is to abandon a coherent vision of God, and a coherent vision of humanity.
Third, to undermine the concept of the absolute moral norm, and the relative importance of circumstances and motivations, to move the focus from act-in-itself to the murky world of the often deluded self, and the desires of the self, is to open the way to moral chaos and the narcissism of seeing personal choice as paramount, indeed the only source of morality.
Choice is only good when it is a choice exercised to choose what is good and right. Personal choices, even when they are deeply meditated and chosen for what seem sincerely held reasons, can be catastrophic, both for the choosing person and for those around him or her. To abandon the objectivity of absolutes is to leave the sources of moral guidance reduced to our purely subjective likes and dislikes.
That this has already happened (as we were warned by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue) should all give us great cause for alarm, for the results are plain to see. That the Church should be infected with this way of thinking should, were it not for our faith, lead us to despair.
Finally, if the Church were to abandon its belief in the absoluteness of certain moral norms, and the doctrine of intrinsic evil, it would, to put it mildly, make the Magisterium look incoherent. But it goes much further than that. A Church that reneges on its former teaching, based on Scripture and Tradition, is a Church that no longer holds to the Truth, indeed a Church that has lost sight of its primary vocation to hold to the Truth and to be a witness to it to the world, indeed a Church that has ceased to be the Church.
We owe Cardinal Caffarra and three brethren a debt of gratitude for their timely intervention, reminding us of our shared Christian vocation to be witnesses to the Truth. Now is the time for Catholics everywhere to make their gratitude plain.