Saturday 29 August 2015

Notes on the Shadow Synod (Part 5)

Fr Alain Thomasset S.J
Father Professor Doctor Alain Thomasset, a Jesuit from Paris, was the next to speak. Why is it that whenever I see the initials S.J an amber light switches on in my head. In this case it is justified as he goes the full hog.

Professor Thomasset refers to the Relatio Synodi 2014, which was the document that came out of the first session of the Synod in particular to the “divine pedagogy” in clause 13. He says this shows how by His grace “divine indulgence always accompanies the path of men”. He says that those words in quotes come from clause 14. I think the idea he wishes to convey is that God is indulgent towards ours sins rather like a parent indulging or spoiling a naughty child by not correcting him.

The problem is that clause 14 does not actually say that. The English version says: “In this way, Jesus shows how God’s humbling act of coming to earth might always accompany the human journey and might heal and transform a hardened heart with his grace, orientating it towards its principle, by way of the cross.” The French version reads “De la sorte, Jésus montre que la condescendance divine accompagne toujours le chemin de l’homme, par sa grâce elle guérit et transforme le cœur endurci en l’orientant vers son origine, à travers le chemin de la croix.”. Thomasset has substituted the word 'indulgence' for the original 'condescendance'. What the Relatio is saying is that God has humbled himself or condescended to come to Earth in order to accompany the path of men. It does not say that he has come to indulge the ways of men. Not a good start!

Thomasset goes on to say that the vocation of the Church taking the example of Jesus cannot omit to take account of the history of people and to accompany them on their path of faith in a progressive revelation. He sees the biography of a person as being essential to a personalist ethic without giving up on normative indications. That is to say that in judging the act of a person one has to look at their circumstances whilst not giving up on the teaching of the Church. He implies that this idea of progressive revelation is in clause 14. Unfortunately for him clause 14 says nothing of the sort and speaks of Christ's teaching as being the fullness of revelation and not something that changes with time.

His next heading is the question of intrinsically evil acts. Of course the most renowned use of that term is in the Catechism when it defines homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered.   Such disordered acts of the will are a moral evil (CCC1761) so the words 'disordered' and 'evil' are synonymous in this context.  What most people do not realise is that the words 'intrinsically evil' are not some hyperbole but have a very precise meaning in Catholic ethics. To-day consequentalism is popular; that is to say that no act is evil of itself and one can only judge whether an act is good or evil by looking at the consequences. It is an idea that has come in various forms from Bentham, John Stuart Mill and others to this day. The Church rejects this kind of ethics and say that certain acts are evil in themselves, intrinsically evil, regardless of the consequences. What is important though is that the moral culpability of the person committing the act is quite a different and separate matter.

Thomasset has problems with this teaching of the Church because it determines the condemnation of artificial contraception, sex between the divorced and remarried and homosexual sex even in stable relationships. “If she [the Church] insists with reason on the objective benchmarks necessary to the moral life, she precisely neglects the biographical dimension of existence, and the specific conditions of each personal path, elements to which our contemporaries are very sensitive and have a bearing on the reception of Church teaching”. Thus Thomasset abandons reason in favour of sentiment.

Of course what he is doing is confusing the evil of an act with the culpability of the actor. He goes on to look at this subjective side of any situation and the place of conscience. How predictable! He says that clause 52 of the Relation raises this difficult of distinguishing between the objective situation and the surrounding circumstances. He points to clause 52 of the Relatio to justify his argument. Clause 52 was rejected by the Synod fathers but kept in at the request of Pope Francis. However whilst clause 52 mentions the distinction between the evil of an act and the culpability of the actor it does not see it as a problem. It is purely a problem for Thomasset. Predictably he brings conscience into it.

He then talks about how people find themselves in situations where duties seem to conflict and they have to choose. In respect of Humanae Vitae he says that nine Episcopates (among them the French, Swiss and German) declared that complying with it was a matter for the individual conscience. Well we all know about that and how in the UK Cardinal Heenan said it was just a matter of choice.

Thomasset then goes on about how the biographical and narrative perspective obliges one to evaluate the morality of an act not in respect of individual acts but on human acts in a history, According to him an isolated act is not a human act. Killing someone is a material act and is only one element in appreciating the complete picture in order to judge it as a human act. This is really confusing the issue. Is killing someone okay so long as there is no moral culpability? He says that most people would agree with him and offers as evidence a book he wrote himself.

Having dealt with what he sees as the subjective side he turns to the objective side and the development of moral norms and their limitations. He says the nature of an act depends upon its object which is “the proximate end of a deliberate decision” - a phrase he picks up from St John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor at clause 78 and with the authority of St Thomas Aquinas. He says therefore the morality of an act includes in part the intention and circumstances of the actor. So he goes on to say although a contraceptive act includes the intention to render procreation impossible that is not enough to judge the act. You have to look at the intentions and circumstances.

The intention may be good in that intercourse reinforces the union of the spouses. He applies the same idea to the divorced and remarried having intercourse. He then refers to Familiaris consortio and clause 84 (incidentally misquoted in Instrumentum Laboris 2015) saying that St John Paul II said that one has to take into account the “diversity of situations”. Actually that phrase does not appear in clause 84 which says “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.” The French text has “l'obligation de bien discerner les diverses situations”. JPII is not talking about the couple looking at their situation but pastors doing so after the event. Thomasset though is suggesting that the couple weigh up the pros and cons of their situation and decide accordingly. This is proportionalism.

He continues by referring to clause 9 of Familiaris Consortio which is entitled Gradualness and conversion and deals with the gradual movement away from evil towards the gifts of God. However, according to Thomasset, Pope John Paul did not develop this idea. Thomasset is presumably saying that the couple can therefore continue with their sin until they decide to move away from it. Having said that in his proportionalist view there is no sin anyway why should anyone move away from the act?

Of course this is all very selective quoting from Veritatis Splendor which contains a very clear condemnation of consequentalism and proportionalism. It is worth reading clause 71 to 78 to see all this in context. In particular in clause 78 after the sentence quoted by Thomasset above about “the proximate end of a deliberate decision” it goes on to read:

'Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil". And Saint Thomas observes that "it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. 'There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just' (Rom 3:8)”.'

Which rather sinks Thomasset's argument.

His next section is about how 'moral norms are always to be understood in the context of an historical process which implies the experience of the believers'. That is to say we are not stuck with Jesus's commandments for all time. The sensus fidei argument is trotted out. Bishop Egan has given useful guidance on this in his talk, about a year ago, to the Society for the Protection of the Unborn. He said:

“As Newman himself discovered, in a dispute about doctrine such as the fracas of Arianism in the Early Church over the nature of Christ, the orthodox position that the Church eventually upheld was not a via media or middle-ground between two extremes. It was in fact one of the extremes, held by a minority. This is often the case. Many people think that truth lies somewhere in the middle, yet it may not be. To take the example of contraception: some accept the teaching; others reject it. Yet this does not mean that an intermediate common-ground position – ‘Accept it if you can’ or ‘It’s up to your conscience’ - is the doctrine Christ wills for His Church. The truth of a doctrine is not necessarily the balanced view: it is the true view.”

Next Thomasset seems to be suggesting that doctrine should flow from the pastoral rather than the other way round. So he concludes that the divorced and remarried should not have their sexual acts condemned as the couple are not morally culpable. This would open the way to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. Always the two are conflated as if the sacrament of penance was not always available. Further for married couples artificial contraception is okay provided it is non-abortive and the couple remain open to the gift of life. (Not quite sure how you do that!). Curiously he does not mention the position of the unmarried where I would have thought his proportionalism would make the use of contraceptives even more acceptable. Lastly the homosexuals living as a stable and faithful couple should not have their sexual acts condemned. It is interesting to note that in the UK at the insistence of the LGBT lobby infidelity is not a ground for divorce in gay marriages which suggests that fidelity is not going to be high on their agenda. For Thomasset such a relationship can be a way to sainthood. The mind boggles as to what the future might hold if he got his way!

He rambles on about pastoral accompaniment according to the criteria he has set out with a final call to virtue including chastity! Dear me what the Jesuits have come to. In all these talks what seems to be overlooked is that we are promised eternal life if we keep the commandments. As St John Paul II says in Veritatis Splendor:

The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man's freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end: this eternal law is known both by man's natural reason (hence it is "natural law"), and — in an integral and perfect way — by God's supernatural Revelation (hence it is called "divine law"). Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man's true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness. The first question in the young man's conversation with Jesus: "What good must I do to have eternal life? " (Mt 19:6) immediately brings out the essential connection between the moral value of an act and man's final end. Jesus, in his reply, confirms the young man's conviction: the performance of good acts, commanded by the One who "alone is good", constitutes the indispensable condition of and path to eternal blessedness: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). Jesus' answer and his reference to the commandments also make it clear that the path to that end is marked by respect for the divine laws which safeguard human good. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life.

What he is saying is that essentially sin is bad for you whatever your intentions. Thomasset on the other hand is saying something like “If you drink bleach it is quite alright if you mistakenly thought that it was a gin and tonic”. Try it.


  1. Nicolas, Thank you for the masterly exposition of statements made at the 'Shadow Synod'. What those faithful to Christ's teaching are up against is far, far worse than I thought. If we believed the Episcopalians to be beyond the pale, they are nothing compared with the magnitude of this betrayal. May God protect us and His Church from the wreckers.

  2. I think you will find that the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to homosexual acts as 'intrinsically disordered', not 'intrinsically evil' (CCC 2357).

  3. Adrian: Absolutely right and thank you for the correction. I should have checked! I was misled by Thomasset using the words 'intrinsèquement mauvais' where 'mauvais' means bad or evil. Still the word 'disordered' in that context implies that something is against the order of creation and thus wrong or evil. Indeed CCC 1761 specifically states that a disorder of the will is a moral evil.


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