Blessed John Henry Newman: A Charter for Liberalism

Liberalism in religion was, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, the thing that he consistently fought against throughout his life. By Liberalism he meant the preference of our own private judgements over the mind of the Church, and the alteration of revealed truth to suit our own desires and/or the spirit of the age. His opposition to Liberalism is often misunderstood or simply ignored given that he was, in the classical sense of the word, a true liberal – he believed in taking a generous approach to the opinions of others, in the open discussion of ideas, and in charitable engagement with contemporary culture. And yet, he was also (again in the classical sense) a true conservative, believing in the importance of tradition, in the rightness of appeal to authority in settling disputes, and that the jettisoning of tried and tested truths in favour of new ideas based solely on their novelty was both imprudent and destructive.

It was this careful balance between his generosity of spirit and openness to debate on the one side, and his insistence on the need to adhere to and learn from tradition (especially revealed truth) and authority on the other, that gave Newman so many problems after his conversion – at a time when the kind of Liberalism abhorred by Newman (i.e.; the germ of what would later become known as Modernism) was being fortified against by retreat into an overly protective dogmatism zealous to increase papal powers beyond what Sacred Tradition could actually support, Newman was rejected by both parties. He was too ‘liberal’ for the Ultramontane party, and too ‘conservative’ for the Liberalist party. Nevertheless, out of his personal trials good would come, as the party spirit that was condemned by Saint Paul was exposed more clearly, and a more nuanced position would grow out of it – amongst other things, the idea of doctrinal development was given a surer and more robust definition.

Nevertheless, such things took time, and for Blessed John Henry, it was often a struggle (in remembering this, his testimony to the fact that he never once regretted his conversion and, despite his trials, always felt that he had found his home in the Church, have even more force). At any rate, when he wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he added an extensive note explaining exactly what it was that he meant by Liberalism in order to further settle some of the ferment surrounding it and his position on such matters, and in this note, which is in great part a reflection on his personal experience of theological Liberalism in action (the concrete always being of supreme importance to Newman), he provides a succinct and potent description of what the term does and doesn’t mean:

Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (2004), p.254, Penguin Classics.

                Newman clearly draws a line in the sand here – liberty of thought and the free discussion of ideas are not only acceptable but goods in and of themselves; however, there are certain basic principles that cannot be subjected to critique or question, because they are the things which form the base from which we do all our other questioning. This latter thing, which Newman refers to as ‘false liberty of thought’ (presumably because whilst giving the illusion of freedom it actually, by removing the base from which thought is conducted, undermines the whole process of genuinely creative and critical reflection) is what he calls Liberalism. In matters of religion, the basic principles which thus cannot be questioned are the truths of Revelation – for once we start to question these, immediately we lose our identity with respect to the religion in question.

For any system of thought to maintain coherence and identity, the fundamentals must be set apart and not subjected to critique – otherwise we become caught adrift, and are no longer genuinely enjoying freedom of thought, but are rather beholden to a conceptual chaos. Saint John Paul II, in the opening sections of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, makes a similar point to Newman, but broadens its application to all philosophy – i.e.; to all critical thinking:

Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel that they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools. Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orthos logo, recta ratio.

Fides et Ratio, 4.

                This is of course exactly the sort of position that is now so often deliberately undermined (not usually by argument but rather according to the claim that it is ‘outdated’ to appeal to certain foundational, objective principles) and is at least partly why philosophy today has become to a large extent a matter of toying with words – something cut off from lived human experience and thus largely unable to engage with real life problems. Utilitarianism and relativism are, quite frankly, not fit for purpose – they do not aid or enrich people’s lives at a level which can effect long-term, meaningful change because they are cut off from that core body of insight that Saint John Paul speaks of. Just as there is Liberalism in religion, philosophical relativism represents a Liberalism in thought more generally, and it is this (with its destructive consequences for culture) that Pope Benedict XVI worked so hard to counter during his career.

Blessed John Henry Newman though was principally concerned with theological Liberalism, and at the end of his appendix to the Apologia he presents a list of propositions which he had drawn up during his days at Oxford as an Anglican – propositions which could be said to represent a kind of charter for Liberalism, and which he summarily rejected. He lists eighteen in total, but I shall only share the first ten, as the remaining eight are concerned more with the rights of civil powers and the relationship between Church and State:

1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.

                Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.

 

  1. No one can believe what he does not understand.

                Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in religion.

 

  1. No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.

                Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.

 

  1. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.

                Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.

 

  1. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.

                Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.

 

  1. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.

                Therefore, e.g. Political Economy may reverse our Lord’s declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.

 

  1. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilisation, and the exigencies of the times.

Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.

 

  1. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.

                Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the “corn of wheat” which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish.

 

  1. There is a right of Private Judgement: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.

                Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.

 

  1. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.

                Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua, pp.259-260.

                Again, it is important to remember the depth of Newman’s commitment to conscience, and to the open engagement with culture, so that when he mentions scientific conclusions in no. 6, he is not being ‘anti-science’ and when he discusses freedom of conscience in nos. 9 and 10, he is not suggesting we stop thinking for ourselves. What he is concerned with is that we recognise the proper priority of the fundamentals of Revelation, so that we order our conclusions regarding scientific discovery (which is always to some extent provisional and subject to further evaluation) to what is already known via Revelation and allow our consciences to be formed by that teaching in a way that recognises its prior authority and does not place the self above it.

Making a couple of adjustments here and there to allow for examples more relevant to our age though, it seems to me that the points laid out here by Newman are, in essence, consistent with what we see in the theological Liberalism of today. Whilst typing out the propositions, I was struck by how many of their assumptions are still operative in the thought of many influential clergy and laity, across denominational boundaries. Thus Newman’s ‘charter’ for Liberalism is still something we would do well to pay attention to, summarising as it does some of the main expressions of the spirit of Liberalism within Christianity. The ‘mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it’ and the ‘false liberty of thought’ which both precedes and succeeds this mistake are still very much in evidence, and the spirit that so concerned Blessed John Henry Newman is one we must continue to fight against.

Saint John Paul II on Love, Truth, the Family and the World

Today is the first official feast day of Pope Saint John Paul II, and I thought it would be appropriate, given that we have just experienced/endured the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, to revisit some of his presentation of what the Church teaches about the family, as expressed in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. Saint John Paul wrote about a great many things, but perhaps his greatest legacy is in the writing he left behind dealing with issues of life (c.f.; Evangelium Vitae) and the family – a body that he rightly recognised as the most fundamental unit of society, the place in which education about ‘first things’ (i.e.; morality, issues of ultimate meaning, the questions of truth and justice) is inculcated in us, and which therefore acts as a ‘domestic church’ (c.f.; Lumen Gentium, 11).

This idea of the family as domestic church – a place where the Faith and central human values are first passed on to us in order to shape our consciences and prepare us to face the world – correlates with the findings of sociologist Mary Eberstadt, who has recognised a proportionality between the decrease in traditional family life and the decline in religious observance (with the former influencing the latter), and must form the basis of any movements the Church makes to engage the wider culture, much of which no longer recognises the traditional model. This is something John Paul recognised, and outlined in the opening of his Apostolic Exhortation:

The family in the modern world, as much as and perhaps more than any other institution, has been beset by the many profound and rapid changes that have affected society and culture. Many families are living this situation in fidelity to those values that constitute the foundation of the institution of the family. Others have become uncertain and bewildered over their role or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life. Finally, there are others who are hindered by various situations of injustice in the realization of their fundamental rights.

Knowing that marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values, the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and seek to live it faithfully, to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth, and to those who are unjustly impeded from living freely their family lives. Supporting the first, illuminating the second and assisting the others, the Church offers her services to every person who wonders about the destiny of marriage and the family.

Familiaris Consortio, 1.

            These opening lines recognise that there has been a profound change in the domestic lives of many people, whilst also giving due attention to those who have lived in fidelity to traditional values in accordance with the Church’s teaching. A consistent thread within the Exhortation is that not only should the Church give equal care and attention to both groups, resisting the temptation to focus on irregular situations to the detriment of those who have sacrificed much to remain faithful, but that preservation and promulgation of orthodox teaching on the family must always be a priority in any engagement with the wider culture – we must first strengthen our own sense of what we are for before we can offer it as an alternative to or critique of the modern world:

The Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled…

…At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.

ibid, 3.

            Maintaining the truth about the family is thus not only for the good of individual families, but for the good of society itself. Working to preserve and present positively the truth that lifelong commitments between one man and one woman that are open to life and dedicated to raising children in concert with the inseparable values of Truth and Love, and that are properly ordered to transcendent ends, can only enrich the wider society, providing it with citizens who are well integrated and have learned by example the importance of responsibility and faithfulness, as well as the need to live one’s life in the context of goals wider than one’s own individual concerns.

The education of the moral conscience, which makes every human being capable of judging and of discerning the proper ways to achieve self-realization according to his or her original truth, thus becomes a pressing requirement that cannot be renounced…

…To the injustice originating from sin – which has profoundly penetrated the structures of today’s world – and often hindering the family’s full realization of itself and of its fundamental rights, we must all set ourselves in opposition through a conversion of mind and heart, following Christ Crucified by denying our own selfishness: such a conversion cannot fail to have a beneficial and renewing influence even on the structures of society.

ibid, 8-9.

            Familaris Consortio is a long and rich document, which I cannot possibly do full justice to here, but these opening paragraphs give a strong sense of what sort of vision Saint John Paul had for the Church’s teaching on the family and the role of the family in the world – just as the Church is to be salt and light to the world, the Christian family, as a ‘domestic church’ is to sow the same sort of seeds, offering an alternative to neighbours and leavening the society at large by its example:

…the fruitfulness of conjugal love is not restricted solely to the procreation of children, even understood in its specifically human dimension: it is enlarged and enriched by all those fruits of moral, spiritual and supernatural life which the father and mother are called to hand on to their children, and through the children to the Church and to the world.

ibid, 28.

            The Church and the family are thus called to be effective signs to the world, and neither of them can do this if, in an attempt to reach out to the diverse ways of living in modern life, they compromise those basic values which constitute the very form of what they are meant to be offering as an alternative. An engagement with the world which compromised any aspect of the traditional family model would, in the long run, not help anyone – by weakening the very resources of what the Church is offering to the world, the latter would thereby be left to its own devices and simply continue in the ways it has become accustomed to. If the Church truly believes that it has an alternative vision which is capable of transforming the current situation, then to compromise those resources and leave the world so bereft would not be a loving or merciful thing at all:

To the extent in which the Christian family accepts the Gospel and matures in faith, it becomes an evangelizing community. Let us listen again to Paul VI: “The family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates. In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelize and are evangelized. The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them. And such a family becomes the evangelizer of many other families, and of the neighbourhood of which it forms part.”

ibid, 52.

            It is thus incumbent upon the Church not only to present her teaching with clarity and consistency, that Christian families may be able to better form new generations in the task of evangelising the culture, but also to provide sound and continual pastoral care, so that faith is nourished and sustained, and also that families are accompanied by the Church during periods of difficulty. Again, priority must be given to those families who are faithfully living out the virtues of the Gospel – not as some sort of reward for their faithfulness, but because those who do commit themselves to evangelical living are the foundation and future of that continual mission to spread the light of Christ throughout the surrounding culture.

However, once this is appreciated, due care must also be provided to those in irregular situations, and after addressing the situations of those in difficult circumstances (e.g.; migrant families) and those in mixed marriages, Saint John Paul goes on to examine those who are living outside of the regular framework (e.g.; those in trial marriages, ‘free unions’, and the divorced and remarried). In all these cases, he combines a pastor’s concern for the difficulty of the particular situations and the problem of reconciling them with Church teaching, with an insistence on the impossibility of compromising the truth:

The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life, in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation. But above all there must be a campaign of prevention, by fostering the sense of fidelity in the whole moral and religious training of the young, instructing them concerning the conditions and structures that favour such fidelity, without which there is no true freedom; they must be helped to reach spiritual maturity and enabled to understand the rich human and supernatural reality of marriage as a sacrament.

ibid, 81.

            In his conclusion to the Exhortation, Saint John Paul summarises the essence of what all our present discussions about marriage and the family, both in the Church and in society at large, revolve around – namely that there is such a thing as truth, as the right way for humanity, that at its heart it involves love, and also that true love always involves and requires sacrifice:

The Church knows the path by which the family can reach the heart of the deepest truth about itself. The Church has learned this path at the school of Christ and the school of history interpreted in the light of the Spirit. She does not impose it but she feels an urgent need to propose it to everyone without fear and indeed with great confidence and hope, although she knows that the Good News includes the subject of the Cross. But it is through the Cross that the family can attain the fullness of its being and the perfection of its love.

ibid, 86.

            It is a loss of this sense of sacrifice that is at the root of so many of our problems today – we speak much of love, but only as a feeling; and in a culture of instant gratification have taught ourselves that we have a right to happiness which must be realised without any effort on our part. What Saint John Paul II’s teaching reminds us is that we can never truly find our way to lasting happiness without renouncing the clamouring desires of the self. We want Christ without the Cross, and it is part of the Church’s role in the world to tell us not so much that this is not allowed, but that it is simply not possible – true love always involves the via crucis.

John Paul’s teaching on the family is fundamentally rooted in this truth, and his presentation of the positive vision of the family that the Church offers shows us that the only way in which families can be domestic churches (i.e.; to be seeds of light and life to the surrounding culture) is by creating stable environments where the cruciform love of Christ is central to all other aspects of that environment. The only way to counter the currents of selfishness and atomisation that are so prevalent in our culture is to shape future generations of people who know in their heart that true love is always in service to the truth, and always involves true compassion – the suffering with and for the other.

The creation of families rooted in this love is the only means by which the mercy our culture so desperately needs can be effectively and consistently delivered to it, and the only way in which such families can be both created and sustained is if the Church is vigilant in preserving its teachings in all their fullness, that she might present them in all their beauty to the society at large. In a spiritual desert, it is no good for anybody if the only source of living water itself becomes dried up – this is something that Saint John Paul II saw with great clarity, and why he saw the preservation of the splendour of truth as a necessary precursor for the conveying of divine mercy to a wounded world. He also saw that in a world as wounded as ours, the rescue operation that Christ has entrusted to His Church must start from the ground up – that is, it must start with the family.

The Fundamental Option

During the Synod on the Family, I have sensed behind many of the more ‘progressive’ opinions voiced the shadowy presence of the ‘fundamental option’ theory. This is not something that I am aware has been mentioned explicitly, but I think it forms part of the assumptions of many prelates seeking changes in Church teaching. This is a re-blog of a post on the fundamental option from last year, which also includes some corrective wisdom from Saint John Paul II, whose feast day it is tomorrow (I’ve updated him from ‘Blessed’ to ‘Saint’ in the post accordingly).

Journey Towards Easter

The theory of the fundamental option is a difficult topic to discuss, for many reasons – the primary one though is that it describes something that is very close to the true state of things, and yet does so in a way that is both misrepresentative of those truths, and very attractive to modern minds; another is that it has a direct emotional relevance to all of us (or at least someone we know). I shall address the first point towards the end of my post, but before I take a look at the second, I will briefly outline the essence of this theory, so that it is clear from the start what I am (and am not) talking about. To set the historical context though, first voice must be given to Karl Rahner, who can be said to be the originator of this theory in its fullest form:

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Freedom, Faith, and the Question of Europe

In a couple of previous posts, here and here, I have discussed how deeply Europe’s identity is rooted in its Christian – and specifically its Catholic – history, with the unity of the Faith providing an underlying cultural infrastructure to Europe that has been a solidifying and sustaining principle for centuries. This cohesive principle – a shared commitment to Christian beliefs and values – was first interrupted during the fragmentation of Christendom that took place during the Protestant Reformation, and then, as the lack of unity in belief and of authority to mitigate engagements with societal changes continued to work itself out, it gradually became weaker and weaker.

Today, Europe is profoundly un-Christian. Whilst vestiges of Christian moral commitments remain to some extent, commitment to its doctrines and church attendance are at an all-time low. This does not mean that Europe has become corporately atheist – most people still profess some belief in a ‘life-force’ or suchlike, and see themselves as being ‘spiritual’ (whatever that may mean in any given case) – but it does mean a wholesale rejection of Christianity as something that might act as a cultural touchstone or resource for moral decision making. This was made explicitly clear in fact, when in June 2004, a new EU Constitution* was written, in which any mention of Europe’s Christian roots was deliberately excluded, bizarrely re-writing history in the name of a supposed ‘neutrality towards worldviews’.

In that same constitution’s preface, a commitment was made to upholding the ‘universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law.’ The question that presents itself though, now that the doyens of the EU have decided for us all that Christianity is to play no part in Europe’s future (and apparently played no part in shaping its past), is whether or not secularism actually provides an adequate basis from which to protect the ‘universal values’ mentioned in the preface.

In his book The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel examines this question of which worldview can best give an account for our commitment to certain values, and argues powerfully that it is only the Christian vision of man and the universe that can do so coherently, and therefore sustainably, and that it is Christianity which provides the most compelling historical reasons for why we embrace those values in the first place:

The democratic project did not emerge, a kind of political virgin birth, in either the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. To be sure, those were crucial turning points in the history of modern political thought and in democratic political institutions. But the cultural foundations for the ideas and institutions of self-governance had been laid centuries before in the European universities (entirely Christian in their origins); in such Christian practices as the direct, democratic election of superiors in Benedictine monasteries; in the pilgrimage tradition by which the men and women of an emerging Europe met and came to understand themselves as members of common civilisational enterprise; in the rich social pluralism of medieval life; and in the cultural instincts and commitments that were gleaned from these distinctive European experiences.

The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005), p.106, Gracewing.

            To this Weigel adds that the experience of the investiture controversies in the eleventh century helped to definitively draw the lines of separation between Church and State, and to limit the powers of the latter – a distinction which was notable by its absence both in Byzantium and in Tsarist Russia, where the Church was regularly subordinated to imperial or royal powers, with woeful consequences for both it and society at large. This limitation is now being gradually erased in our own time

Also, Christian thought recognised the existence of a transcendent order of justice that each ruler was accountable to. The undermining of objective morality through relativism (an ideology which the exclusion of Christianity from the public sphere is in part designed to protect), and the endorsement of a utilitarian ethic, have instead left us with the increasingly arbitrary rulings of legislators as our only guide to what is right and wrong. So now, instead of our rulers being accountable to a higher realm, they shape the moral law themselves, and are accountable to very little.

Most importantly perhaps is Christianity’s role in shaping and preserving our beliefs about human dignity. A commitment to the dignity of each and every human person, though enshrined in the EU Constitution, is being exposed as more and more farcical every day – what it really seems to mean is a commitment to the ‘rights’ of each human person to do what they want, when they want, as long as they’re not (directly and immediately) hurting anybody else. Conversely…

The Christian idea of vocation – the unique role that each Christian plays in the cosmic drama of creation and redemption – is one root of the Western idea of individualism, which was not, in its origins, a matter of self-constituting autonomy but of living out the singular, God-given destiny that is every human life. Moreover, the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation (God entering history in the flesh) and the Redemption (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:16-17]) gave the world a dignity it could not achieve by its own efforts.

ibid, pp.102-103.

            Essentially, the only thing that guarantees the rights and dignity of each human person is that they are made in the image of God, that God affirmed and consecrated the goodness of the human condition by becoming Incarnate in it, and that He thought it worth dying for. The secularist vision provides no real reason as to why human beings (of whatever condition in life, and no matter how ‘useful’ they might or might not be) should be considered of any more worth than any other animal, and its position on issues of human life such as abortion and euthanasia provides damning evidence that any commitment to such a vision is more rhetorical than substantive.

The other problem with the modern, secular vision of Europe, is in its basic premise that a.) it can be neutral towards worldviews, and b.) that this is the best environment in which to provide tolerance towards other worldviews, as well as freedom to embrace different philosophies of life. The first claim is manifestly untrue: none of us can be ‘neutral’ in the way we see life, and secularism is no different – it proposes a vision wherein religion does not and cannot have a public voice (ostensibly in the name of not excluding other religions), and then calls this position neutrality, when in reality this already presupposes that the only way to be neutral is to be secular. Secularism is an ideology like any other, and to claim it as some sort of ideological tabula rasa is gravely dishonest.

Secondly, it is a highly suspect claim that a secular Europe does make tolerance and freedom more possible than a Europe which embraces its Christian roots. For starters, without any established convictions about ultimate reality, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to say why we should be tolerant – all we are left with, if we exclude objective claims about reality, is scepticism and relativism (which themselves presuppose an a-religious worldview, and so are already themselves ideological positions), and finally indifference. We do not tolerate others because we respectfully disagree with them, and are willing to live alongside those with whom we disagree, but because we don’t believe in anything and see the various competing claims as ‘just’ private beliefs.

When these private beliefs, which all good secularists tolerate/are indifferent to, become articulated in public however, and especially when they impact upon the way in which certain aspects of civic life are conducted, the only option available is to silence those voices, because they do not fit the secular paradigm. Thus, rather than true tolerance, we have indifference coupled with repression – despotism, the soft way. The rationale for excluding these voices is also almost completely arbitrary – superficially it is in the name of maintaining a tolerant society, but in actuality it is geared towards ridding religion of any significance. Thus any dialogue on moral issues (which are always religious issues) becomes inevitably one-sided, and freedom is sidelined.

A different model is presented by the Christian vision of man, which sees each individual as inherently worthwhile simply because they are human, and reveres free will, which not only renders us responsible for our actions (thus providing grounds for good citizenship), but also sees the freedom of those with whom we disagree as something to be preserved, and this as an obligation to God, not legislators. This vision was given powerful articulation by (now Saint) Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation of 2003, Ecclesia in Europa, where he wrote that:

In building a city worthy of man, a guiding role should be played by the Church’s social teaching. Through this teaching the Church challenges the continent of Europe about the moral quality of its civilization. This social doctrine arises from the encounter of the biblical message and human reason on the one hand, and on the other with the problems and situations involving individual and social life. By the body of principles which it sets forth, the Church’s social doctrine helps lay solid foundations for a humane coexistence in justice, peace, freedom and solidarity. Because it is aimed at defending and promoting the dignity of the human person, which is the basis not only of economic and political life, but also of social justice and peace, this doctrine proves capable of upholding the supporting structures of Europe‘s future. It contains points of reference which make it possible to defend the moral structure of freedom, so as to protect European culture and society both from the totalitarian utopia of “justice without freedom” and from the utopia of “freedom without truth” which goes hand in hand with a false concept of “tolerance”. Both utopias portend errors and horrors for humanity, as the recent history of Europe sadly attests.

Ecclesia in Europa, 98.

            This vision does not mean returning to the Christendom of the past, with everyone professing the Christian faith. Not only is that an impossibility, but it is in some ways a situation the Church would not want to return to – the power she enjoyed in the past, and the closeness of its relationship to the State presented many temptations, and without them she can focus more readily on her essential task, which is the conversion of hearts, minds and souls. No, what Saint John Paul recommended is something that benefits all European citizens, of whatever faith, or none:

Because of its intrinsic connection with the dignity of the human person, the Church’s social doctrine is also capable of being appreciated by those who are not members of the community of believers. It is urgent, then, that this doctrine be better known and studied, and that more and more Christians become familiar with it. The new Europe now being built demands this, since it requires individuals formed in these values and disposed to working for the attainment of the common good. This will require the presence of Christian lay faithful who, by their various responsibilities in civic life, the economy, culture, health care, education and politics, are able by their activities to imbue these spheres with the values of the Kingdom.

ibid, 99.

            Europe cannot operate for long if it continues as it is now – a collection of countries joined to one another by political and economic alliances, and adherence to an increasingly small (and increasingly meaningless) set of shared values. It must, if it is to continue as a thing with a soul as well as an outer shell (and if it does not recover its soul, I fear it will not continue long at all) recover a sense of where the values that it is formally committed to come from, what justification it has for professing them, and where its cultural identity has its roots. The Catholic Church alone, with the resources of its rich history of patronising the arts, sciences and philosophy, as well as its contemporary statements on freedom, human dignity and tolerance, remains capable of offering us a robust vision of man which is able to do this.

There is much, much more to be said about this topic, but one important objection remains, and that is that the history of the Church is a chequered one, with instances of religious intolerance, and tacit approval of state persecutions blotting its past. However, one other benefit of a Christian vision of humanity is that at its heart is a divine initiative of the forgiveness of sins, which is designed to perpetuate itself in the life of Christian believers. To be able to confess one’s sins before God (as various Church representatives have done, at the highest level) and to ask for forgiveness, is to genuinely engage with the darker aspects of human nature, and to begin a process of authentic reconciliation and reform.

Repentance of this kind is not available to the secular mentality, which instead expresses itself in the jargon of political correctness and does not engage with the real issue of human sin (as sin is something that it denies) that underpins all our misdemeanours. This then is another way in which secularism presents a vision of Europe, and of humanity, which is narrow, without justification for its core beliefs, and in the long run, unsustainable of the things it holds dear, rendering it unable to effectively engage with other cultures (c.f.; Islam). Let us instead have the humility to turn back to our past, uncover the Christian roots of our cultural identity, and embrace a worldview that is profoundly committed to life, truth and real human happiness.

 

*Formally known as the ‘Treaty for Establishing a Constitution for Europe’ it was finally superseded by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, but this was principally concerned with voting procedures, the scope of EU legislation, and the rights of member states to leave the Union. The deliberate exclusion of Christianity’s role in the development of European culture and values remained.  

Saint Faustina Kowalska and The Mercy of God

The mercy of God, wrote Saint Pope John Paul II in his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia, can be considered, from the perspective of mankind (as opposed to God in and of Himself, who exists in perfect simplicity and so has no distinct ‘parts’), to be the greatest of His known attributes. As John Paul writes here in the thirteenth section:

Some theologians affirm that mercy is the greatest of the attributes and perfections of God, and the Bible, Tradition and the whole faith life of the People of God provide particular proofs of this. It is not a question here of the perfection of the inscrutable essence of God in the mystery of the divinity itself, but of the perfection and attribute whereby man, in the intimate truth of his existence, encounters the living God particularly closely and particularly often.

Dives in Misericordia, 13.

          Earlier in the encyclical, Saint John Paul points out that our experience of God as merciful, above all other qualities we may attribute to Him, derives from the fact that we know Him as Love, and so can say that mercy is ‘love’s second name’ precisely because this is the way in which we experience Him concretely in our lives:

Believing in the crucified Son means “seeing the Father,” means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-à-vis the reality of the evil that is in the world, affecting and besieging man, insinuating itself even into his heart and capable of causing him to “perish in Gehenna.”

ibid, 7.

          Saint Faustina Kowalska received many visions during her lifetime in which Our Lord re-emphasised how essential it was to see mercy as being at the heart of who God is and what He does for us, and commissioned Saint Faustina to bring the message of Divine Mercy to a world that was in the midst of great suffering, and was therefore sorely in need of hearing it. In the diary that she was urged to keep by her confessor, she wrote down the things that Jesus said to her, alongside her meditations upon the messages that she had received.

In a particularly moving passage (1507 in the diary) she considers just how vast is the mercy of God, but also the fact that though His mercy is inexhaustible, His love is not coercive, and it is still necessary for us to let God in. Having said this though, the focus of her meditation here is (as always) on the power of God’s love, and that He can work with even the smallest amount of consent on our part – if we will only open our hearts to Him just a little:

All grace flows from mercy, and the last hour abounds with mercy for us. Let no one doubt concerning the goodness of God; even if a person’s sins were as dark as night, God’s mercy is stronger than our misery. One thing alone is necessary: that the sinner set ajar the door of his heart, be it ever so little, to let in the ray of God’s merciful grace, and then God will do the rest. But poor is the soul who has shut the door on God’s mercy, even at the last hour. It was just such souls who plunged Jesus into deadly sorrow in the Garden of Olives; indeed, it was from His Most Merciful Heart that divine mercy flowed out.

from Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (2014), pp.539-540, Marian Press.

            The first thing to note here is the strong biblical resonance in Saint Faustina’s description of what God can do with our sinful natures – where she says ‘even if our sins were as dark as night, God’s mercy is stronger than our misery’, one is reminded of the passage in Isaiah, where we read ‘the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you’ (Isaiah 54:10). The message that Saint Faustina has passed down to us is not a novel one – it is not only consonant with biblical faith, but close to the heart of it – but it is one that we need to be reminded of time and time again.

In fact, the Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated as ‘steadfast love’ is in many versions of the Bible translated directly as ‘mercy’. The important thing to note though, is that this term appears again and again throughout the Old Testament – whenever God talks to His people about His ultimate aims for them, and how He ‘feels’ towards them, it is in terms of this ‘hesed’ – merciful love. As for the New Testament, I think it sufficient to point to the person of Our Lord and His Holy Cross – all that was revealed about God’s character in the Old Testament finds its fulfilment and perfection here.

However, the most important feature of what Saint Faustina writes here is that God’s mercy, though inexhaustible, is dependent on our freely willed consent. There does, terrible as this is to acknowledge, remain the possibility that some will, when the last hour comes, have closed their hearts so completely to God that His love will not be able to enter in – He may ‘stand at the door and knock’ (c.f.; Revelation 3:20), and louder than ever before, but we must open the door to Him, and the sad truth is that some may have become so resistant to His grace in this life, that they will prefer to do anything but open that door.

How it may be for each one of us in our final moments only God knows, but the one thing we can be sure of is that if we do put our trust in Him, no matter how compromised our faith or weak our love, He will do something with it. As Saint Faustina writes, if ‘the sinner set ajar the door of his heart, be it ever so little, to let in the ray of God’s merciful grace…then God will do the rest’. He is merciful love, and as long as we trust in this, and in Him, we have hope. Lest we ever despair of this, and feel we have put ourselves beyond God’s reach, in another passage (1521) in her diary Saint Faustina recounts some words Jesus spoke to her, where He expresses just how greatly it is that He desires people to turn to Him:

The Lord said to me, My daughter, do not tire of proclaiming My mercy. In this way you will refresh this Heart of Mine, which burns with a flame of pity for sinners. Tell My priests that hardened sinners will repent on hearing their words when the speak about My unfathomable mercy, about the compassion I have for them in My Heart. To priests who proclaim and extol My mercy, I will give wondrous power; I will anoint their words and touch the hearts of those to whom they will speak.

ibid, p.543.

            Again, what Jesus says to Faustina here is perfectly in accordance with what we know from the Gospel, and which Saint Paul summed up so well in his First Letter to Timothy, where we read that God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (2:4) – i.e.; there is nothing God wants less than for us to fall through His hands. His whole nature is Love, so He eternally wants to share His nature with us and bring us into communion with Him that we might become what He had always intended us to be. Jesus’ words to Saint Faustina here, that she should tell priests to speak of ‘My unfathomable mercy…the compassion I have for them in My Heart’ is simply a fuller exposition of what we already know by faith – that God is Love.

An important clarification to make here though, is that Jesus is urging the priests of His Church to preach true mercy, which involves telling people the truth about themselves – that they need saving from their sins – and also that the unfathomable nature of God’s mercy is not cause for presumption. What the priests are being urged to preach therefore, is absolutely contrary to what we hear so often from pulpits today – the bland assertion that we are fine as we are and everything will turn out okay in the end regardless – and the promises Jesus makes of ‘wondrous power’ that will ‘touch the hearts of those to whom they will speak’ is dependent upon the true nature of God’s mercy being delivered, not a secularised version designed to appeal to people’s sense of self-worth.

Having made this clarification though, the core message remains – God is merciful Love, and this is what we must take to heart. So often we feel that God must have run out of mercy for us; so often we feel like He must have heard us confess such and such a sin just one too many times, and despairing of ourselves, feel that He must also despair of us. What Our Lord delivered to Saint Faustina though, and what He urged her to deliver to a world in dire need of love, was that His mercy is limitless, and He never tires of forgiving – it is we that tire of asking for forgiveness. We must remember that Jesus ‘came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matthew 9:13), that He knows we are not perfect, and so out of His love for us He will be there to pick us up every time we fall, helping us to leave our sins behind, and teaching us to be merciful too.

Saint John Paul II: Suffering Love

Saint John Paul II’s pontificate was marked by many things which contributed to both his personal popularity and the effectiveness of his evangelism – charisma, courage, and strong communication skills were foremost amongst these. The enormity of his personality though, has sometimes obscured one part of his life that has just as great a power to convince and attract people to the Faith, and what for me truly marks him out as a saint – the suffering he endured, and the steadfast love of God that helped him endure it.

Saint John Paul’s mother died when he was just eight years old, and his only remaining sibling (an elder sister had died before he was born), Edmund, died three years later. By the time he reached the age of twenty, his father, whose faith had so inspired the young Karol Wojtyla, also died, leaving him an orphan by 1941. On top of this, the Nazis had invaded and occupied Poland in 1939, and during their occupancy he lost many friends to the concentration camps. It was at this time that he began training for the priesthood, inspired by the example of his father’s dedicated prayer life, and started attending an underground seminary run by the Archbishop of Krakow.

In 1944, a year before the Germans finally left Poland, Wojtyla was hit by a truck, and it was during his recovery in hospital that his vocation to the priesthood was confirmed. In 1946, he was finally ordained priest, and left for the Angelicum in Rome to defend his doctoral thesis on Saint John of the Cross. He returned to Poland in 1948, and by 1954 had earned another doctorate, this time from the JagiellonianUniversity in Krakow. However, he did not receive his degree until 1957, as the Communist forces that now occupied Poland had the theology department shut down.

As well as enduring years of the Communist regime, where as the eventual Archbishop of Krakow he would be routinely followed and have his apartments bugged, and have to tolerate the activities of the Church being suppressed in general, he also had to witness the tragic aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, where the careful documents drafted by himself and many others were used by opportunist liberal movements throughout the Church to lay waste to much of what he held dear.

Finally, he was raised to the pontificate in 1978, and the following year visited his native Poland, setting off the beginning of a homegrown uprising against the Communist state, and providing the impulse for the Solidarity movement, simply by invoking the power of the Holy Spirit to liberate humankind and awakening the latent faith amongst the Polish people – the impact he made would prove to be greatly influential in bringing down Communist regimes across the Eastern Bloc. In 1981 though, at the age of sixty, he was shot, in an assassination attempt by a Turkish fascist, and lost nearly three-quarters of his blood before finally recovering. He would later visit his assailant in prison, offering him forgiveness and friendship.

Later in life, after all his travails and all the achievements of a wide-ranging and greatly influential papacy, where he attempted (and to some extent managed) to correct the aberrations of the post-conciliar era, establishing the principle of a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ that would draw people to reassess and re-appreciate the conciliar documents in the light of Catholic tradition, he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, losing a great deal of his mobility, and finally his ability to speak. This was a life full of achievement and industry, but also a life marked by great suffering. How did he endure it, and what does this have to do with his sainthood?

John Paul himself provided the answer in an apostolic letter written in 1984, entitled Salvifici Doloris, where he outlined the Christian response to the problem of pain and suffering. In this, he realised that our suffering will always remain inscrutable to some degree, and to attempt to eliminate the mystery is not only naïve, but also undermines the genuine pains endured by so many over the ages. Instead, he examined a variety of features of suffering, and the concomitant responses that the Faith provides. Amongst these are, for example, the idea that suffering can humble us, and even transform us – here Saint John Paul draws on the examples of the many saints throughout history whose conversions occurred due to a period of profound suffering; it is only when they (and by implication, we) are brought to a low ebb, that we can see what is really essential in life.

Ultimately though, the key Christian response to suffering comes in Jesus Christ Himself, who enters into our experience, sharing and bearing all the trials that we have to face, and enduring them obediently, even unto death. He does this for no other reason than that He loves:

Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love, to that love of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross constantly takes its beginning. The Cross of Christ has become a source from which flow rivers of living water. In it we must also pose anew the question about the meaning of suffering, and read in it, to its very depths, the answer to this question.

Salvifici Doloris, 18.

            In His Passion and death, and in the whole of His life, which He lived in patient and loving obedience to the Father, Jesus showed a way through suffering and evil, a way characterised by self-giving love, which is wholly concerned with the other. When this love has taken one’s heart captive, good can be wrought from evil, and suffering, rather than defeating a person, can serve to purify that love and make it shine ever brighter outwards into the world around. John Paul realised this, and in committing his life completely to Jesus, in deciding to follow Him and any crosses that may come his way thereafter, his heart was filled with that same love. It was this that enabled him to act with such courage and exhibit such joy in the face of so many trials and grievances.

Paradoxically, in opening oneself up to Love in this way, one becomes even more susceptible to suffering – love is costly, and it is easier, safer, to shut oneself away, protecting oneself from the potential hurt that comes from opening the heart up to the world. However, to make oneself secure in this way is to become less than fully human, and it is precisely this attitude of self-protection and fear that (amongst other things) Jesus came to deliver us from – ‘perfect love casts out fear’, as Saint John wrote.

Our response to the love of God shown to us in Christ must instead be to ‘open wide our arms’ to Him, as Saint John Paul said himself upon becoming pope. We must take the plunge, open the door (c.f.; Revelation 3:20) and let the Love of God in – if we do so, we will be transformed; we will be made free, and introduced to a new, more profound and lasting joy, but we will not be thereby made more secure. John Paul cites the example of the parable of the Good Samaritan, to show how this Gospel of Love calls us to show compassion, to suffer with others, and that in this making ourselves available to the other, we find the true existential meaning of suffering:

Following the parable of the Gospel, we could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions. The person who is a “neighbour” cannot indifferently pass by the suffering of another: this in the name of fundamental human solidarity, still more in the name of love of neighbour. He must “stop”, “sympathize”, just like the Samaritan of the Gospel parable. The parable in itself expresses a deeply Christian truth, but one that at the same time is very universally human. It is not without reason that, also in ordinary speech, any activity on behalf of the suffering and needy is called “Good Samaritan” work.

ibid, 29.

            Due to our union with Christ, we can see all our suffering as being transfigured by that sacramental bond, and can therefore offer up those sufferings to Him in order to realise that union (c.f.; Colossians 1:24). Also though, as part of Christ’s Body, the suffering of others can be seen in a new light – as one that prompts us to pass on the gift of love that we have received in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. If our hearts have been truly awoken and liberated by the love of God, then we cannot but see the suffering of others as an occasion to spread and share that love, recognising the solidarity we have with each and every person, a solidarity which otherwise is so often sadly ignored.

It is this transformative love of and for Christ that enabled Pope John Paul II to live the life of heroic sanctity that he did, and enabled him to not just endure but triumph over the sufferings that came his way. By treating each trial as an opportunity to either share the love he knew, or to himself be made more perfect in love, he was able to grow ever closer to God, and receive the peace and joy that comes with that closeness. It was this love, peace and joy that spilled out into the lives of those around him, and touched so many of the people that he met.

Love hurts, and following Christ is costly, but as we look to the examples of people like Saint John Paul II, we see that if we are not to be overcome by the suffering of the world, then we have to look for answers not in a theorem, but in a person – Jesus Christ. Only by giving ourselves completely to Him, and allowing the rivers of living water that pour ceaselessly from His Sacred Heart to enter us, can we face suffering with anything other than resignation (if we face it at all). The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us that ultimately Love will triumph, and the lives of saints like John Paul II provide us with plentiful examples of how this triumphant Love can transform the lives of those who follow Him.

The Fundamental Option

The theory of the fundamental option is a difficult topic to discuss, for many reasons – the primary one though is that it describes something that is very close to the true state of things, and yet does so in a way that is both misrepresentative of those truths, and very attractive to modern minds; another is that it has a direct emotional relevance to all of us (or at least someone we know). I shall address the first point towards the end of my post, but before I take a look at the second, I will briefly outline the essence of this theory, so that it is clear from the start what I am (and am not) talking about. To set the historical context though, first voice must be given to Karl Rahner, who can be said to be the originator of this theory in its fullest form:

Freedom never happens as a merely objective exercise, as a mere choice “between” individual objects, but is the self-exercise of the man who chooses objectively…This self –realisation is a task he cannot avoid and, in spite of all the differences within the concrete material of his self-achievement, it is always either a self-realisation in the direction of God or a radical self-refusal towards God…This act is indeed realised and can be exercised only by means of those individual acts of man which can be localised in space and time and which can be objectified with regard to their motives. Yet this basic act cannot be simply identified by an objective reflection with such an individual act; it does not represent the merely moral sum-total of these individual acts nor can it be simply identified with the moral quality of the last of the free individual acts exercised (before death).

From Theological Investigations, Vol VI (1974), pp.185-6, Darton Longman & Todd Ltd.

            His essential meaning then, if I read it rightly (although I am never hugely confident of reading Rahner correctly!) is that each one of us has a fundamental disposition towards God or away from Him, and this disposition cannot be measured in terms of any individual moral (or immoral) acts committed, or even the accumulation of several moral decisions made during a period. For instance, I could steal a sandwich, or commit adultery, perhaps more than once in succession, but this would not necessarily alter my fundamental option towards God, and furthermore, according to this theory, there is no way of knowing whether it has been altered or not. This ties in quite nicely with the contemporary idea that even though so-and-so may routinely lie, cheat on their tax returns, or have affairs, they are ‘basically a good person’ – a way we have of reassuring ourselves that we and those we love, despite the fact that our culture has officially disavowed itself of the concepts of sin and guilt, can have a clean conscience about such things.

This latter point is why the fundamental option is so difficult to discuss – I have family and friends who are either explicitly atheist/agnostic or Christians who have lapsed and/or decided that the objectivity of certain moral injunctions is up for debate. I am sure this is the case for many others too. So, when we hear that a theory provides support for the idea that despite our actions and theirs going against the prescribed moral codes of the Church and the natural law, that we are basically good people, it is unavoidably attractive. Add to this that it seems to correlate rather nicely with certain sayings of Jesus (c.f.; Matthew 15:19-20) and the case starts to seem most alluring indeed. But, and this is a big but, it clearly goes against the traditional and consistent teaching of the Church regarding mortal sin, and the effect that it has on the state of the soul. So, the question arises – who do we believe; the Church or Rahner and (more particularly) those who have developed his theory in an even more radical direction, allowing the acceptability of acts officially designated as grave matter by the magisterium? Also, and this is the more pastorally pertinent question, though not unrelated to the first – which is really the more reassuring of the two positions?

The basic issue with this theory is that it places a separation between acts and acting person. Whilst I would certainly not want to claim that proponents of the fundamental option think that ‘anything goes’ – it is clear from their writings that they believe one’s fundamental option can eventually be altered, though when this occurs, only God knows – in practice it does allow people to believe that despite committing what the Church has called ‘intrinsically evil’ acts, their love for God (which is basically what Rahner means by a ‘self-realisation towards God’) remains. Yet, the teaching of the Church regarding mortal sin states that it ‘destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him’ (CCC 1855) and ‘necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation’ (CCC 1856).

Here we see one problem straightaway – fundamental option theory undermines the Sacrament of Confession. If mortal sin does not violate our relationship with God, then why would reconciliation with Him be necessary (in fact, one could probably chart the rise of such alternative theories in moral theology within the Church with the decline in visits to the confessional)? Indeed, according to the theory, if one cannot know when one’s fundamental option has been altered, the need for confession devolves into a matter of mere emotion and subjectivity. It matters not then whether grave acts have been committed, but how one feels about things; and if consciences have been compromised by an habitual transgression, then the weight of guilt is not felt at all, the confessional remains empty, and the soul remains turned away from God.

But, the cry goes up, is the soul really turned away from God? Aren’t we still basically good decent people? Putting to one side the whole problem of our overlooking too readily our own faults and judging too readily those of our neighbour, I would suggest returning to the words of Jesus, who reminds us that ‘the tree is known by its fruit’ (Matthew 12:33), i.e.; the fundamental option theory falls down on its own premises – yes, man can only be judged by what is in his heart, his fundamental orientation towards God, but this orientation is known and proved by the very acts he commits. Saint John the Evangelist captures the essence of this doctrine also when he says ‘if we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth…by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments’ (1 John 1:6; 2:3). This is perfectly consonant with the Church’s teaching on mortal sin – that one’s works are an expression of that fundamental orientation towards God within, and are the evidence of it, or of a lack of it.

So, the committing of mortal sin does indeed act as an indicator of whether or not we really love God, but can it really mean that there is no love of God in us at all, that our relationship with God is violated, as the catechism says? Saint John Paul II discussed this very issue in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, and concluded that:

In point of fact, man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made “a free self-commitment to God”. With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf.Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses “sanctifying grace”, “charity” and “eternal happiness”. As the Council of Trent teaches, “the grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin…such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity.

Veritatis Splendor, Sections 68 & 70.

            The Church’s position can’t really be put much clearer than that – it is from out of our ‘fundamental option’ that one chooses to commit particular acts, and by doing so, one shows that deep down, we don’t really love God quite as much as we thought we did, nor respect his law.

The question remains though, what do we say to ourselves and those around us who have loved ones that have quite definitely, and sometimes repeatedly, violated the moral law? To commit ourselves to the official teaching of the Church, which is very clear on this matter, and which has an authority greater than any school or movement in moral theology at any given time, must mean that we condemn these people to being in a state of separation from God, and therefore in danger of damnation. This, for those of us who love them, is intolerable. However, the catechism again here comes to our aid (highlights are my own):

Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin. Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offence. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offence, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

(CCC 1859-60)

            Unintentional ignorance of the moral law, and even more so of the teachings of the Church (even within it) is, I would argue, rife in contemporary society – this clearly provides a great deal of mitigating circumstance for those whom we are concerned about, if they are really and sincerely ignorant of the seriousness of their transgressions. Also, the mention of ‘promptings of feelings and passions’ as a factor shows a great deal of psychological wisdom on the Church’s behalf in assessing the character of our sins. We can take great solace in the Church’s compassionate assessment of our frailties and penetration into the manifold subjective aspects of the moral decisions we make.

Furthermore, to answer the question I raised earlier regarding the relative pastoral implications of the two positions I have been discussing, I would argue that by taking mortal sin more seriously and in taking into account the psychological realities committing these acts actually involves, the Church lays out a much better foundation for healing people’s souls (which is after all, its primary job, even though some voices would have us think otherwise) and reconciling them to God. Also, in cases when it is plain that people we know and love are repeatedly falling short and drifting away from God, we can know with greater confidence when to offer our help to bring them back to Him (and also ourselves, lest we forget to first take the plank out of our own eyes!)

Recognising the seriousness of mortal sin, the expression of our true relationship to God in committing such sins, and yet providing allowances for particular instances of such based on individual knowledge and understanding, not to mention the Sacrament of Reconciliation itself (the ordinary means of conveying God’s grace with respect to the forgiveness of sins – His grace is, of course, not limited to it), a most wonderful instrument for healing souls and returning them to the path of goodness and happiness, is a much more compassionate alternative to that of the fundamental option theory.

This latter theory undermines the seriousness of sin, as well as the foremost means of dealing with it (Confession), gives people no means to know whether they are in a right relationship with God, and allows them to drift further and further away from Him in the illusion that they are ‘basically good people’, thus letting their consciences become progressively more clouded, and endangering their souls. Its alluring nature is in its superficial similarity to the traditional teaching, and its being rooted in the grasping of a half-truth with respect to our fundamental orientation.

This over-emphasis of one aspect of a particular Church doctrine to the detriment of the balance and integrity of that teaching in its fullness is the hallmark of all heresy, and is why it is so often as attractive and insidious as the fundamental option theory undoubtedly is. The genius and beauty of orthodoxy is to maintain this fullness in all its splendour, and to further refine it in the light of attacks on its authority. In this particular instance, the teaching of the Church on mortal sin reminds us simultaneously of the seriousness of rejecting the divine law, and of the unlimited nature of God’s mercy – that we are dealing here with a God who forgives unconditionally and repeatedly, who knows our weaknesses and understands our frailties, and who will offer us the chance to return to Him again and again, right to the very end.