The Cushing principle discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay—that expressing one’s beliefs in the public square or the halls of Congress imposes them on others—is false because it is based on flawed reasoning. That reasoning may be expressed as follows: Imposing one’s personal beliefs on others is wrong; expressing our beliefs on controversial issues in a public forum (such as Congress) imposes them on others; therefore, expressing our beliefs on controversial issues in a public forum is wrong.
The flaw is in the second (underlined) premise. To impose ideas means to force others to accept them. However, expressing beliefs does not force people to accept them. Even if we stood on a soapbox in the village square and shouted our beliefs, or took over a TV station and proclaimed our beliefs to the world, we would still not be forcing them on others. Influencing them, perhaps, but that is not the same thing.
As I pointed out in Parts 1 and 2, Cardinal Cushing’s principle has caused considerable mischief, including confusion among Catholics in general, and elected officials in particular, about expressing their convictions. To make matters worse, most of the Catholic hierarchy, rather than correcting Cushing’s error, have for the most part remained silent about it.
As a result, many Catholics have not only become timid about expressing their faith, but also less focused on that faith, more vulnerable to viewpoints that oppose Catholic teaching, and thus more likely to abandon the faith. This has surely been a contributing factor in the decline in the number of practicing Catholics of all age groups from 75% in 1955 to 45% in 2005, and among those over 60 from 73% to 58%. (Among Protestants there has been no such decline.) Moreover, a Pew study reveals that the number of U.S. Catholics declined by 3 million between 2007 and 2015 alone; also, that “for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church.” This represents “a higher rate than any other denomination.”
There are other reasons, of course, for the decline of the Catholic Church in America. The sexual-abuse scandal among the clergy is a significant one. The laity were deeply disturbed not only in the abuse of the children, but also in the hierarchy’s cover-up of the offenses and the less-than-penitent attitude many displayed even after the scandal was publicized.
Another, more fundamental reason for the decline is the perceived contradictions in Church doctrine. The phrase used in moral theology to classify an act that is unqualifiedly evil—that is, evil in its very nature—is “intrinsically evil.” Pope John Paul II explained that such acts are “incapable of being ordered to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.” He offers these categories of intrinsic evil: Whatever is hostile to life itself . . . violates the integrity of the human person . . . [or] is offensive to human dignity. His examples include homicide, genocide, abortion, torture, slavery, and prostitution. Veritatis Splendor 80.
The perceived contradictions are most prominent in the following Catholic teachings related to sexuality:
- Masturbation: “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful . . . have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” Catechism: 2352. [Underscoring added] Comment: A distinction could be made between intrinsically disordered and intrinsically evil but it would be a distinction without a difference.
- Contraception: “In contrast [to periodic continence] every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.” Catechism: 2370 [Underscoring added]
- Homosexual Acts:“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Catechism: 2357 [Underscoring added]
- Abortion: “By the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors . . . I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. . . .No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church” Evangelium Vitae: 62. [Underscoring added]
St. Thomas Aquinas considered the order of seriousness of the first three acts to be different, with masturbation being the least serious and homosexual acts being the most serious. (He included another, bestiality, as even more serious than homosexuality.) I have added abortion because it is the most contentious moral issue of our time and because I have no doubt that St. Thomas would classify it as the most serious of the group since it destroys innocent human life.
The confusion lies in the fact that the Catholic Church today ignores St. Thomas’ prudent distinctions entirely and classifies all four acts equally, at the highest level of sinfulness—intrinsically evil. That classification is not only confusing but astounding.
In recent years an even greater cause of confusion has arisen, ironically from the man at the highest level of the Catholic hierarchy, the successor to St. Peter, Pope Francis.
Not long after he became Pope, Francis gave a lengthy interview in which he stated, in a reference to abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, that “the church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
Comment: Exactly what constitutes “obsession”? Speaking and writing about what the Church teaches? What exactly is disjointed about the doctrines? Does he believe there are too many doctrines, as the word “multitude” might suggest? If so, which does he believe should be purged? And what should be changed about preaching to make it less an insistent imposition? Francis didn’t say.
Later in the interview he said, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”
Comment: Did he mean that examining the nature of acts, as theology has always done, is a mistake? That God takes no note of behavior that violates His commandments? Francis didn’t say.
When asked what he thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s phrase “think with the Church,” he responded that it does not mean “thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”
Was he suggesting that it is acceptable for those unschooled in Church teachings—for example, in moral theology—to reject those teachings? If so, on what basis? Feelings? Personal opinion? Did he mean to imply that truth is relative? Francis didn’t say.
It is hard to imagine a single interview that could sow more confusion among the laity, clerics, and even prelates than this one has sown. Nor is it hard to see that elected officials might read Francis’ casual attitude toward Catholic teaching as a reinforcement of the Cushing principle and feel even more justified in voting for partial birth abortion, euthanasia, and whatever else secular culture recommends.
Given such confusion, how can the Catholic hierarchy—that is, the Pope, the Cardinals, and the Bishops—persuade the laity that they are faithful disciples of Christ, and thereby stem the ongoing exodus from the Church? I offer these recommendations addressed to members of the hierarchy:
1) Understand that the Holy Spirit speaks to whomever He pleases and not just to the anointed; and with that understanding in mind, listen with humble, open minds to the testimony of lay people as well as clerics, especially testimony that differs from your own thoughts and pronouncements.
2) Acknowledge the wisdom of Aquinas’ distinction between venial and mortal sins and correct the careless classification of virtually all sexually-related sins as “gravely disordered” and “intrinsically evil.” (This carelessness has caused many people to dismiss all Catholic teaching as exaggerated and overwrought, thereby preventing full realization of the evil of abortion.)
3) Revise the classification of masturbation from “intrinsically evil,” and thus a mortal sin, to a venial sin that, in some cases, can lead to more serious sins of lust.
4) Ponder the absurdity of condemning contraception as a “grave disorder” that is “inherently evil” because it violates the integrity of heterosexual coitus, while simultaneously giving tacit approval to the homosexual imitation of heterosexual coitus (sodomy). Ponder, too, the utter disgust felt by older Catholics and former Catholics when they learned that at the same time their natural marital love was constrained by the largely ineffective rhythm method, and the alternative “marital chastity,” many in the clergy were enjoying what the Church had long condemned as unnatural, perverted acts. Pondering these matters is excellent preparation for the following recommendation.
5) Support changing the classification of contraception from “intrinsically evil” to not sinful at all when used in marriage after prayerful reflection and for unselfish reasons, such as limiting family size to a number within the parents’ financial and emotional ability to provide for adequately. This was essentially the position offered in the majority report of the Pontifical Commission at Vatican 2. In the end, of course, Vatican 2 accepted the minority report, and Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, which infallibly confirmed the classification of contraception as intrinsically evil.
Admittedly, the theological issue here is thorny and raises many questions. For example, what circumstances are necessary for a decision to be infallible? Also, would the “infallibility” of a decision be null and void if the Pontiff had been misled and thus deprived of a full understanding of the issue, or if he had been coerced or manipulated? These are not unreasonable questions. At the time, over 600 theologians agreed that “Catholics could dissent from and disobey the moral prescriptions in [Humanae Vitae].”
Over the last 55 years, millions of Catholics have adopted the theologians’ perspective and practiced contraception in violation of the Church’s teaching. What is more, most of those who have remained in the Church have continued to receive Communion without guilt and without the slightest objection from their priests or bishops. That mass disregard of one important teaching has arguably led to disregard of other teachings and, for some, abandonment of the Catholic faith altogether. These facts suggest the need for the Church to change its stand on contraception.
6) Discuss all these matters in journal essays and formal statements, humbly admitting where the Church has failed the faithful and suggesting reforms. Refuse to sit quietly on the sidelines, expecting someone else to do what is needed or hoping (in vain) that the passing of time will hide the deepening confusion and/or nurture the comforting but false belief that all is well in the Church.
7) Be especially bold in publicly rejecting the Cushing principle, particularly in the case of Catholic politicians. Emphasize that Catholic politicians, like others, have a right to be guided by their religious beliefs, and in fact a moral obligation to do so when the issues concern citizens’ rights and/or welfare. (The alternative is to be guided by other people’s beliefs that oppose one’s conscience, and that is absurd.) Emphasize, too, that all politicians have an obligation to use the democratic process to resolve differences in viewpoints.
Finally, what is essential for any of the above to be accomplished:
8) Understand that the “go along to get along” mentality found in religious as well as secular domains is a sure way to enable evil to triumph over good. Accordingly, put speaking truth and serving those you are responsible for guiding spiritually above any interest you have in advancing in the hierarchy.
Copyright © by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved