Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Humility as Reality

This is a post in the vein of a couple previous posts regarding my general "pastoral" outlook towards sinners (and who isn't?)

For those who disagree with the Church's teachings on sexuality (but still try to maintain some semblance of uniquely Catholic doctrine) I've seen two main positions:

Either 1) they also reject the idea that the church is doctrinally infallible in the strict sense it officially teaches itself to be (often citing the examples of past "changes" in teaching that, in my understanding, are not at all comparable) or 2) they adhere to a notion that the Church's teachings on sexuality have never actually been promulgated at the level of infallible dogma (in the same way that, say, Trinitarian and Christological dogmas have been) and are therefore questionable.

I find both of these positions rather insupportable and intellectually dishonest (or at least based on willful misunderstandings) and also rather arrogant. But I've also seen, rarely, a third position, a sort of agnosticism about it, which I consider at least more intellectually honest and humble (even if I ultimately disagree). It's an "I can't think about that right now," sort of stance.

This third position is basically an attitude something like the old colonial attitude "obedezco pero no cumplo” meaning "I obey, but I do not comply" (which Arturo Vasquez
said, I think quite rightly, is "a position that is often hypocritical but also the most sane.") Though that may depend on your definition of hypocritical...

In other words, a few people will (at least vaguely) recognize the existence of the teaching objectively, but then convince themselves of a sort of "dispensation" for themselves (in the
internal forum) based on arguments (however finally untenable) from "conscience" about practical psycho-emotional necessity or the redeeming good human aspects of sexual relationships, etc. If one feels stuck between a rock and a hard place, if one feels "damned if I do, damned if I don't" by being forced by ones current psycho-emotional situation to make a choice between chastity and charity, or to have to sacrifice one value for the other...I certainly think choosing charity at least shows ones priorities are correct.

After all (they might say) nobody carries out the whole law perfectly all the time, and Catholics certainly believe culpability for things is often reduced or eliminated by mitigating factors. And there is often also implied in this attitude the very human instinct that maybe the ends can justify the means (or at least the choice of a lesser evil or imperfection) if greater good is coming of it, as long as no one gets seriously injured (I disagree in theory, but sympathize with the instinct).

As I said, I cannot ultimately agree that this is a spiritually healthy stance to take
in the long run, but it at least strikes me as honest and humble, containing as it does an at least implicit deference to Church teaching combined with a frank admission of ones own weakness. I am sympathetic to this sort of casuistry, which has something of the spirit (though not exactly) of the Eastern concept of pastoral "oikonomeia".

Again, I cannot ultimately agree; even if we all do negotiate our morals and accept a certain degree of imperfection in least some of us
abstain from communion until we've confessed (indeed, reception of communion used to be very infrequent among Catholics). Then again, confession is only valid with a true intent (at the time, at least) to stop...and perhaps these people are simply more honest about how (un)realistic such a "resolve" would be at this point in their lives. And some may conclude (again, in their private judgment in the internal forum) that they are in fact in a state of grace sometimes and thus that receiving the eucharistic presence is subjectively good for them spiritually even if (albeit) it expresses a state of full communion with the institutional church that doesn't objectively exist (at least not perfectly).

It is therefore, I think, possibly a stage some people need to go through in their spiritual journey rather than driving themselves crazy trying to become a Saint overnight "cold turkey" (or expecting them to be able to instantly break-off marriages or relationships) and is a position I would recommend that people who find themselves in such a situation and so currently adhere to "1" or "2" (which are basically just heresy) seriously consider as a better alternative compromise.

However, I'm not sure how realistic that is, as this also seems to be nowadays a highly specialized position and so I have not seen it often. Most people cannot bear such cognitive dissonance, at least not Moderns (the Medievals seemed to hold to it, on the other hand, almost as a rule); people are more inclined nowadays to alter the ideal to meet their practical possibilities rather than admit that they fall hopelessly short from the ideal
(at least not in a grave way). The notion of a "benign neglect" (as Arturo has also said) of the "peasant" class of believers (who didn't commune very often either, however) has given way to the Tridentine (and Protestant) expectation of perfect "clerical" adherence and weekly reception for all. I think a balance must be struck somewhere between the two.

A conscience claim of duress in practice may be perfectly valid, but it doesn’t at all justify rejecting the teaching in theory. The “correct” response is to act on conscience, yes, when forced to make a choice between two evils, but also to humbly recognize that this “double bind” requiring a conscience-claim is a result of your weaknesses, not conclude that it means the teaching is wrong in general.

Obviously, some people have, say, accepted more children even in destitute situations and somehow made it. More practically, other people have practiced NFP or celibacy without going crazy or becoming rigid or mean-spirited or ruining their marriage, have found a way to make it work out great!

It may not, currently, be possible for many people, psychologically and emotionally. That’s understandable, and they may have a valid claim in conscience to choose the lesser evil for now. But rather than reject the teaching outright, the goal should be to eventually, with God’s grace, become the sort of person or couple who can follow the teaching without being forced to sacrifice either chastity for charity or charity for chastity (as such people do exist!)

I would be the first to recognize a claim of duress like that, that abstinence as required for NFP might ruin a marriage or that celibacy might have negative psychological effects that make one a worse person, in other areas, in practice. It’s these “unideal” casuistic situations that conscience is for. And, in fact, I would argue that it is very morally mature to be able to have that sort of self-awareness about ones own psyche and about the emotional conflict that can arise between something with very concrete principles like chastity, and something more situational like charity.

But that sort of pragmatic realism doesn’t mean giving up the ideal or the theoretical teaching either. Because with God’s grace, we can become the sort of people who don’t need to sacrifice one value in favor of another, we can become the sort of people who can choose both at once. God never leaves us in an impossible moral “double bind” like that forever.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The mark of genius is the ability to hold two diametrically opposed ideas at the same time without losing the ability to function." And not everyone is a genius, so usually you'll see stance 1 or 2 which I have no patience for. But for those who hold this third position, I can at least profoundly respect it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From someone currently occupying category 3, thank you for your kind words.