"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Moral theology, moralism, and spiritual growth

Lately I've noticed a style of moral theologizing in which moral uprightness, understood as external conformity with precepts that can sometimes be quite technical, is presented as a sine qua non not just of the Christian life itself but even of—well, basic credibility. I don't want to call that Pharisaism, exactly; the precepts involved are typically more important, objectively speaking, than many of those the Pharisees thought important. But we have here a kind of moralism particularly seductive for highly intelligent Catholics who, if they succumb to it, thereby become prone to impugn the character of those who disagree with them about one or more of the technical precepts at issue. Such moralism is a problem for both "the Right" and "the Left," i.e. for the rigorists and the laxists. It is important that moral theology not become moralism because, if and when it does, it becomes at least as much an obstacle as an aid to Christian spiritual growth. Besides the uncharity it encourages in those who practice it, it has the (often unintended) effect of presenting Christian morality as a set of rules that, in the harder cases at least, most people would be no more able to understand than to live up to. My purpose here is to illustrate what I mean by considering how a recent moral controversy has developed online.

Consider a well-known case of public moral disagreement. In 2005 Terri Schaivo, a still-young Florida woman who had been in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) for over a decade, was euthanized by the will of her husband Michael. She was killed by the legally authorized withdrawal of the tube providing her with "artifical nutrition and hydration" (ANH); it took her less than two weeks to die of dehydration. The Vatican and most pro-lifers, including yours truly, regarded that action as murder even while it was only being proposed; politically, an ultimately futile effort was made to override the local judge and secure federal intervention to delay or prevent Terri's death. Along with not a few other bishops, the local bishop had seemed unable to issue clear moral guidance on the matter, which was a problem because Terri and her family of origin were Catholic and, as such, her family had sought support from the Church in their effort to prevent Terri's death. Partly if not wholly because of that unclarity, the US bishops sent a dubium, a formal "question," to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, about the sort of case that the Schaivo case was. You can read the CDF's responsum ('CDF-R' for short), which came last year, here.

If it isn't obvious to those capable of understanding the text of CDF-R, it ought to be obvious that the document warranted the judgment by Catholics that Terri's killing was, objectively speaking, murder. As I argued last year, the principles enunciated in CDF-R were a positive and authoritative development in Church teaching that had begun under John Paul II. Received and taught as intended, CDF-R would have the practical effect of making Catholic health-care professionals and families unwilling to see ANH as "extraordinary" care in cases like Terri's, and thus less willing to withhold or withdraw it in PVS cases generally than many Catholics had been in the past. But that's not what seems to have happened. Indeed, few minds seem to have changed one way or the other.

What seems to have happened instead is this. One side tries to spin CDF-R into practical irrelevance, consigning any better reception for the document than that to pro-life "extremism" (i.e., wingnuts); the other tries to depict as murderers, by formal if remote cooperation, anybody who had broadcasted the opinion that Terri Schaivo's killing was morally permissible. The former instances the moralism of the left; the latter, the moralism of the right. Each side impugns not only the arguments, but the personal credibility, of the other. I find that disturbing no matter which side it comes from.

To me at least, the moralism of the left is clear in how the slowly but steadily shrinking "progressive" Catholic intelligentsia has received CDF-R. Anybody who cares to learn what that reception has been has only to search the online archives of Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter. But I shall save everybody time by focusing just on the article I've just linked above, the one that spins CDF-R into "practical irrelevance." I shall save myself time and space just by linking my detailed critique of that article here for you to read for yourselves. But it is necessary for me to add a couple of things in this post.

One is that the author of that article is Capuchin Brother Daniel Sulmasy, MD, PhD, one of the most influential, if not the most influential, Catholic bioethicists in the U.S. As such, he has a reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy that is not entirely undeserved. I have heard him speak myself, at a lecture he gave in a Catholic parish near Duke University a few weeks ago; to my surprise, the talk turned out to be a 45-minute crash course in bioethics for lay Catholics. As a former bioethics lecturer myself, and one who is thoroughly informed about magisterial teaching on bioethics, I could find nothing objectionable in principle in Sulmasy's talk. But during the Q & A, he cleverly sidestepped the Terri Schaivo case. He pointed out, rightly, that ANH can be extraordinary and thus optional care, which is why John Paul II permissibly refused it when he was nearing death. Sulmasy also pointed out that a number of conditions need to be fulfilled if we are not to count ANH as extraordinary. There was no time to discuss that claim with him further, but I for one had no need to. A reading of his article and my critique indicates that he frames the conditions in such a way that Terri Schaivo's murder might have been justified. I leave it to readers to find the loophole.

This is the sort of laxism that the Jesuits, e.g., were often charged with even in the days before their vow of obedience to the pope was honored more in the breach than in the observance. It was said that the Jesuits construed moral norms designed to cover difficult cases in such a fashion as to license behavior almost indistinguishable from what one could expect from the heathen. I don't think that was usually true in the past; but it has certainly become so today, at least in those areas of life where prevailing secular morality has itself grown more lax. Such laxism is moralism because it suggests, without ever actually saying, that external conformity to "the rules," construed in a plausibly minimalist way, suffices to make everything OK. My own life experience, with the present sort of case and others, indicates that that is often not the case. And Sulmasy's brand of left-wing moralism becomes a bludgeon when those who reject the laxism are accused, in effect, of being somehow beyond the pale. You can see how subtly Sulmasy does that himself in his article, but he's not even the most egregious example. I myself have been accused of "Jansenism" for holding that the now-standard "three conditions" on counting an act as a mortal sin should be tightened up to take account of culpably malformed conscience. Among Catholics who know and care what Jansenism is, or was, that sort of charge functions as mere ad hominem even when it is not so intended.

And that brings me round to the right-wing moralism I've observed—in this case about the Schaivo case, but there are many others. Let's assume what I've already conceded: that what brought about Terri Schaivo's death was an act of murder. Let's even assume, for argument's sake, that writers who influenced others to disagree with that judgment thereby "cooperated" in some remote fashion with Terri's death. Does this mean that any such person is actually guilty of murder by "formal cooperation?" Clearly not. It depends on the influence they intended to have, the influence they actually had, the degree of their own culpability for their rejecting the moral truth in this matter, and the degree of others' culpability in sharing that error without having themselves done the actual deed. Trying or even succeeding in getting others to agree with them about the moral status of Terri's death is as bad as murder only if they were actually trying to induce somebody to yank the tube or, failing that, were disposed to yank the tube themselves if given the chance to do so. Merely contributing to a climate of erroneous moral thinking about a proposed course of action is not the same thing as being guilty of the wrong action itself. It is to be guilty of leading others into error about the applicable moral precepts. Just how guilty one is for doing that will, in turn, depend on how guilty one is for holding the original error, which only God knows, and how important the matter is. There is no one-size-fits-all human judgment to make here. But you'd never know that from what some pro-lifers say.

The kind of moralism I'm lamenting is not the only kind. It is not even the only kind among laxists and rigorists. What I'm lamenting is an over-emphasis on external conformity to technical moral precepts that few people even understand well enough to apply reliably on their own. It is possible to interpret such a precept too rigorously without thereby joining the wingnuts. It is possible to interpret such a precept too loosely without thereby setting oneself on the slippery slope to hell. Often, people who err on either side are guilty of nothing worse than not yet having learned enough about the full implications of the Gospel. For them, overcoming that problem is simply a matter of becoming more Christlike—not of picking the right side of a technical debate among moral theologians. To suppose otherwise is to make one's own spiritual growth more difficult.
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