Whatever Happened to Sin? A hidden heresy?
A debate on sin arose in the October edition of the Catholic Herald; Melanie McDonagh interviewed John Finnis describing him as a celebrated exponent of natural law. She reports that he has recently written “A Radical Critique of Catholic Social Teaching” about which she wrote “the gist of that much of what we understand by Catholic Social Teaching is tendentious, and bishops would do better to focus on teaching fundamental Catholic moral principles instead, leaving their application to laypeople who know what they're talking about … He is especially critical of bishops' conferences that issue lengthy guidelines on, for instance, migration or global warming, which are matters of legitimate debate”.
The following month Professor Philip Allot responded in a letter in response to the approach of Finnis: “We should speak out if we see evil in rampant capitalism, in perversions of humanising liberal democracy, and in the rise of of new forms of dehumanising absolutism, or in the human use of the natural world. These are moral judgements, not political opinions.”
Later in the same issue Thomas Storck laments that “There is a certain group of Catholics … who reject the entire notion of Catholic social teaching … To limit the Church's teaching to matters of private morality is to acquiesce in the effort to privatise religion and drive the Church from the public square.”
Now all three are considerable people. Wikipedia tells us that among other achievements John Finnis was Professor of Law & Legal Philosophy at Oxford from 1989 to 2010, where he is now professor emeritus. His most important work is Natural Law and Natural Rights the study of which I found very enlightening. Unfortunately much of his other work, as Melanie McDonagh mentions, is in books which are beyond the purse of most people.
I knew Philip Allott at school but was unaware of his subsequent career until now when I have read about him on the internet. His roles, publications and achievements are so numerous that it would be foolish of me to sum them up in a few words. Something of his distinguished career can be gleaned from his speech at his 80th Birthday Dinner at Trinity College Cambridge. 8 June 2017 “REMEMBERING EIGHTY YEARS OF THINGS PAST”1
Allott was for many years in the Foreign Office subsequently returning to Cambridge as Professor (now Emeritus) of International Law. “I have spent much of the rest of my life trying to help International Law to become a more sensible system.”
Evidently he has been someone who wanted to change the world and was in a position to do so although he is very modest about whether he succeeded in any way.
Thomas Storck has a website “that is dedicated to Catholic Social Teaching in its full breadth and depth.” As a keen reader of the Chesterton Review I have read his contributions and his book “An Economics of Justice & Charity” is one I have noted as something I must read one day.
Now it is fundamental to Catholicism that we not only have to have faith but we also have to perform good works if we are to get to heaven. This is where we differ from those Protestants who believe that one can be justified by faith alone. Good works can extend from making someone a cup of tea to promoting or implementing some grand political programme for the relief of poverty in a third-world country.
Expanding Thomas Storck's first sentence in full he wrote: “There is a certain group of Catholics, doubtless more often found in the US than in the UK, who reject he entire notion of Catholic social teaching”. I have no idea about the situation in the US but I have never come across such a group in the UK. Professor Finnis is not rejecting a Catholic response to social problems nor is he complacent about the ills described by Philip Allott e.g. rampant capitalism etc. What he is saying is that the solution to these problems are a matter of prudence and there will be honest differences of opinion as to how to solve them; Bishops should be wary of saying that there is one 'Catholic' solution to such problems.
However I as a Catholic layman, and I suspect I am not alone, are fed to the back teeth of being lectured by priests and particularly religious about structural sin and how wrong it is for many people to be poor and some rich. The reason for being fed up is that there is very little the ordinary Catholic can do about these problems except to feel guilty about some situation in which we had no detectable hand in creating. Yes I can contribute to some charity which alleviates poverty and I suspect they want me to vote for some political party on the left. But what else can I do? Not much other than being made to feel guilty. Obviously there are people who can do more: Thomas Storck can write books suggesting what can be done; Philip Allott has roamed the corridors of power and has been in a position to make some changes. But they are exceptional people.
What does the average layman do? Well he can follow the teachings of the Church: the “fundamental Catholic moral principles” of which Professor Finnis writes. But when do we ever hear a sermon on such matters? What has happened to these fundamental Catholic moral principles? Thomas Storck writes “To limit the Church's teaching to matters of private morality is to acquiesce in the effort to privatise religion and drive the Church from the public square.” I would query the logic of that statement but the truth of the matter is that the clergy does no such thing. They simply no longer teach “matters of private morality” but frequently limit themselves to teaching what it perceives to be solutions to social problems. Of course not all sermons are about social problems but those that are not are often trite and innocuous. For example only recently I watched a mass where the first reading was from Genesis and the gospel was Mark 7:14-23 which finishes with the words: And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery,coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” The sermon was just some remarks on the reading from Genesis. The list of sins in the Gospel was a bit too much for the celebrant.
The idea that some social problems arise from a failure to follow fundamental moral teachings seems to escape the clergy. When I watch the TV and some example is produced of child poverty it is almost always the case that a single mother is the example. Obviously it is desirable to provide her with economic assistance but where is the father of the children? Why are there so many single mothers? Is it not the case that the Churches have utterly failed to teach about marriage and the 'private morality' involved and have allowed the traditional family to be undermined? Why is proselytism or any missionary effort in the third world now decried? Has this not had some effect on the proliferation of corrupt regimes which keep the third world in poverty?
And it is not just the failure to teach fundamental morality by our pastors but also the undermining of morality by our pastors on such matters as contraception, homosexual acts, same-sex marriage and sex education programmes for the young. Do I need to give examples of such failures by our pastors? The list is endless. I wonder how many priests giving a homily on the second Sunday in Ordinary Time based on the readings mentioned the second reading which condemned fornication?
I used to think that one of the causes of all this was the dilemma faced by members of the clergy who lose their faith. To declare such a loss publicly is very difficult; not many are going to be able to find a remunerative alternative career. Better to keep quiet. You may no longer believe in the truths of the faith but you can see that the Church does some useful social work – so why not concentrate on that and ignore the rest? Keep in with your contracepting parishioners and do not frighten them.
The loss of faith has been further demonstrated in the liturgy. Why not waffle about how merciful God is rather than reciting the Confiteor? “We believe ...” which means the simple people around me may do so but I am above that sort of thing; fortunately now corrected to “I believe...” “Look not upon my sins …” say the celebrant has become “Look not upon our sins ...”. The beatitudes are about happiness rather than being blessed. “And with you” has fortunately being changed back to “And with your spirit”. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his own life” becomes meaningless if you have translated “anima” and “psyche” as “life” rather than “soul”. The previous frequent use of the word 'soul' in Masses of the Dead has virtually disappeared in the new rite. Completely in the German Mass of the Dead. It is a whole series of things that spring to my attention and cause me concern. Let us call them 'poisoned signs'.
But is it too simple that one can attribute all this, as I have done, to priests who have lost the faith? Recently I read Elio Guerriero's “Benedict XVI His Life and Thought” (Ignatius Press 2018). A curious feature of this book is that it describes what the author sees as the thinking of Benedict but never has any substantial quote from Benedict's enormous oeuvre. However I was astonished to read the following paragraph on page 230:
'In the preface to the first edition of his volume dedicated to eschatology, Ratzinger recalled that twenty years had passed since 1957, when at the age of thirty he had given the course on eschatology for the first time. Since then he had not only addressed over and over again the topics that emerged from it, but had made a true retractatio, an abrupt reversal with respect to the question of the soul. In his early years of teaching, indeed, he had adopted the program of so-called de-Platonized eschatology that entirely denied the idea of the soul, which was considered to be of Platonic origin and foreign to the world of the Bible. Later on, however, he had changed his mind, rediscovering “the inner logic of the Church's tradition”.'
So for some period of up to 20 years Ratzinger had been teaching that there was no such thing as the soul – a period that included Vatican II on which he had substantial influence. Now I have never formally studied theology but I learnt the Penny Catechism2 at my mother's knee and the first chapter of eight questions is all about the soul. And I learnt them by heart and can still recite them nearly 80 years later:
1. Who made you? God made me.
2. Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
3. To whose image and likeness did God make you? God made me to his own image and likeness.
4. Is this likeness to God in your body, or in your soul? This likeness to God is chiefly in my soul.
5. How is your soul like to God? My soul is like to God because it is a spirit, and is immortal.
6. What do you mean when you say that your soul is immortal? When I say that my soul is immortal, I mean that my soul can never die.
7. Of which must you take most care, of your body or of your soul? I must take most care of my soul; for Christ has said, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matt, 16:26).
8. What must you do to save your soul? To save my soul I must worship God by Faith, Hope, and Charity; that is I must believe in Him, I must hope in Him, and I must love Him with my whole heart.
Those eight questions and answers are for me, the fundamental starting point for the religious life. But it now seems, according to a German school of theology, to which Pope Benedict adhered at one time, they are just so much nonsense in that there is no such thing as the soul. I was duly astonished. Indeed I was so incredulous that I bought Joseph Ratzinger's book: “Eschatology Death and Eternal Life”3. It is not an easy read for those like myself unversed in reading theology. It is an examination of the errors of many theologians; an examination which leads to a reassertion of the traditional teaching of the Church that we have a spiritual soul; that when we die we may go straight to Hell or Heaven but more likely we will go through a purifying process in Purgatory and on the last day we will be reunited with our bodies in a glorified form.
Reading Ratzinger's book there are constant echoes of the 'poisoned signs' which have caused me so much concern and cause so much confusion generally. Are we not dealing with a heresy? Contrariwise these German theologians in rejecting the orthodox teaching believed that 'The history of eschatology is nothing less than the history of an apostasy'4 Ratzinger wrote in 1977 that his support of the traditional view of Eschatology which deals with the four last things “runs contrary to the contrary prevailing opinion”.5 The Bible is not conclusive on eschatology – the orthodox view is based on tradition. Luther's rejection of tradition therefore rejects the orthodox view. Marxism offers an alternative – the possibility of a utopia in this world. The orthodox view reduced Christianity 'to the level of individual persons' ...rather than 'the confident, corporate hope for the imminent salvation of all the world'6 Does this not reflect the words of Thomas Storck above?
This 'contrary prevailing opinion' which sees salvation as just some future utopia on earth 'blazed up soon enough. It became Political Theology, the Theology of Revolution, Liberation Theology, Black Theology'.7 Ratzinger's response is to say 'The Kingdom of God, not being itself a political concept, cannot serve as a political criterion by which to construct in direct fashion a program of political action and to to criticize the political efforts of other people'.8 Our Bishops could well take note of that before pontificating upon what they regard as the 'common good'. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic the Government were not minded to close the churches. However the Conference of Bishops for England & Wales, using a pro-LGBT and pro abortion activist, persuaded the Government to close the churches citing the 'common good' and ignoring the spiritual life of the soul. An act of almost unforgivable wickedness.
Ratzinger goes on to say 'The Kingdom of God is not a political norm of political activity, but is a moral norm of that activity.'9 Thus political activity must be governed by morality rather than being derived from eschatology. We have seen plenty of examples of political activity where morality is ignored from the time of the Enlightenment onwards. Liberation Theology is just one example where it has been used to justify violence as a means to create a supposed Kingdom of God on earth. Ratzinger insists that political activity must be sundered from eschatology less it become a 'Gulag Archipelago'.10 Utopia – the non-place – the fantasy that takes no account of man's fallen nature which makes it impossible.
When Ratzinger moves on to the Theology of Death, he notes how contemporary society hides death away. Death becomes a technological issue to be handled by the appropriate institution rather than in a human situation such as the family home. Death is pushed away and trivialised. It is a banal event which does not happen to me but is merely a technological event carried out by technicians (e.g. as in abortion and euthanasia) and there are no metaphysical problems. He asserts that 'For Christian faith there is no such thing as a life not worth living'.11 And yet in cases such as that of Alfie Evans some of our Bishops have preferred to support the National Health Service as if it was an almost sacred institution rather than plead for the life of a child.
Denying the existence of the soul has led to a host of different theories. Ratzinger sets about showing how many of them basically just do not add up and are illogical.
But on the question of whether 'salvation' is merely the implementation of God's Kingdom on earth at some distant date Ratzinger comments: “The biblical representation of the End rejects the expectation of a definitive state of salvation within history.”12 Further “A planned salvation would be the salvation proper to a concentration camp and so the end of humanity”13 - one thinks of present day China and its attempt to create a Utopia about which Msgr. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, has said "Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese" 14 But for Ratzinger what is important is 'that faith in Christ's return is also the certitude that the world will, indeed come to its perfection, not through rational planning but through that indestructible love which triumphed in the risen Christ.'15
Ratzinger's book was published in 1977 and shortly afterwards the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 17th May 1979, published a 'Letter on Certain Questions on Eschatology' which is basically in accord with Ratzinger's views. He therefore added an Appendix I to the second edition of his book on Eschatology entitled 'Between Death and Resurrection: Some Supplementary Reflections' commenting on the Congregation's Letter.16 If one does not have the time to read the whole book this Appendix is a very useful summary of his views.
The position which Ratzinger opposed in his book is the denial of the existence of something called the soul – a denial principally by German theologians. For them the concept of a soul is merely an idea imported from Platonism; it reflects the deplorable dualism found in Descartes etc etc. The alternatives to having a soul have been worked out in various forms such as the immediate resurrection of the body on death, a complete denial of resurrection at all etc etc all of which he shows to have no basis in scripture and is logically implausible. But perhaps the most important idea behind the denial of the soul is that of the Kingdom of God being something that will be created on earth at some future date as a result of political action and planning enacted by human beings.
In the Appendix Ratzinger points out that such views deny the last sentences of the Creed viz: 'I believe17 in … the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come'. That denial effectively denies the whole of the Creed he says.18 He quotes the very strong statement in the CDF's Letter: 'The importance of this final article of the baptismal Creed is obvious: it expresses the goal and purpose of God's plan, the unfolding of which is described in the Creed. If there is no resurrection, the whole structure of faith collapses, as Saint Paul states so forcefully (cf. 1 Cor 15). If the content of the words "life everlasting" is uncertain for Christians, the promises contained in the Gospel and the meaning of creation and Redemption disappear, and even earthly life itself must be said to be deprived of all hope (cf. Heb 11:1). '19
The Letter draws attention to the dangers of these idle speculations: 'But one cannot ignore the unease and disquiet troubling many with regard to this question. It is obvious that doubt is gradually insinuating itself deeply into people's minds. Even though, generally speaking, the Christian is fortunately not yet at the point of positive doubt, he often refrains from thinking about his destiny after death, because he is beginning to encounter questions in his mind to which he is afraid of having to reply, questions such as: Is there really anything after death? Does anything remain of us after we die? Is it nothingness that is before us?' Perhaps Hans Kung sees immortality merely in the statue he has of himself in his garden.20Unfortunately matters have moved on since 1979 and the confusion amongst the faithful is even greater particularly as it is very rare that any priests preach on the four last things.
Ratzinger talks of the irresponsibility of certain theologians: 'Because the “fundamental truths of faith” belong to all believers, and are, as a matter of fact, the concrete content of the Church's unity, the fundamental language of faith cannot be regarded as something for experts to work out. And for the same reason, that language which is the bearer of unity cannot be manipulated at will.'21
Just how widespread are the erroneous ideas that Ratzinger attacks? 'The crisis became manifest after the Second Vatican Council … The impression arose that Christianity in all its aspects was to be sketched out anew.'22 He even goes so far as to use the word 'necrophilia'.23 In Appendix II 'Afterword to the English edition' he recounts that in 1977 'I took up a position which was sharply opposed to the post-conciliar consensus of a seeming majority of Catholic theologians'.
Thus we have a set of views which deviates from the fundamental truths of the faith and is widespread amongst Catholic theologians. We have a major heresy that has seeped its way into the Church. Ratzinger quotes G.Nachtwei, a theologian sympathetic to his views: 'He calls attention to the fact that the most “up-to-date” eschatological theses were in many cases turned straight into preaching and catechesis, without any intervening interval to allow a suitable pause for reflection.”24 It is a heresy which is seemingly widespread in the clergy and has been fed to the laity, lacks coherence and comes in many forms. Like many ideologies people just get part of the heresy rather than the full picture. Ratzinger complains of 'a lack of philosophical seriousness' 'simplemindedness' 'absence of awareness' and a 'noticeable paucity of reflection.'25
For me the prevalence of this heresy explains the 'poisoned signs' which I have mentioned above. Perhaps only a few explicitly deny the existence of the soul but there is a tendency to emphasise the importance of the material world at the expense of the spiritual.
So how has this affected sin? If all I can look forward is some future worldly utopia then in listening to the news it does not sound very likely to happen in my lifetime. If I am dead and no more, then what sort of hope is that? We are constantly told that God loves us. The incorrect translation of the Beatitudes insist that we are 'Happy' when we patently are not. There is a pretence world “Happy are those who mourn” etc. How do we deal with suffering if we have no soul and there is no afterlife? Why should I bother about some future utopia in which I will not share? Why should I avoid sin if I have no soul to lose? What does it profit a man to gain the whole world? Well quite a lot it seems if I have no soul to lose. We do not need to worry about our sins as God is merciful and one day there will be a utopia for all: Universalism. Indeed we need to follow the spirit of the age as the German Bishops are proposing in abandoning the teachings of the Church on sexual morality.
So sin has lost its importance in the eyes of many. God will forgive you whatever. The sacrament of Confession is largely ignored and indeed is often not available. Any talk of sin is ridiculed as being just Catholic guilt which we should have grown up out of. The problem that arises when the clergy no longer teaches about sin is that many still sense that some things are wrong. If the Church does not deal with this and we become an increasingly atheistic culture we turn to legislation to deal with matters for which the Church previously catered. Thus we have the idea that legislation can make people good. Hate crime is invented and legislated against. We have political correctness and then the woke culture. We must not say certain things. Talking about coloured people instead of people of colour can lead to the end of a person's career. We are moving towards a new morality enforced by legislation reminiscent of the worst excesses of Puritanism; free speech is no longer acceptable if what we say is deemed hateful in anybody's view. There is certainly no forgiveness.26 A chance remark made decades ago will be brought up and condemned regardless of context or any change in the person's views subsequently. A job or a career will be terminated. This is the path to the Gulag that Ratzinger feared.
A concentration camp survivor and future Bishop, Johannes Neuhausler, wrote in 1946 wrote about the Nazis' attack on Catholicism: 'Attack on the papacy, attack on the bishops, attack on all the clergy, attack on religious instruction, attack on prayers and the crucifix in schools, attack on all Catholic groups, constraints on church services, constraints on Catholic religious orders, tendentious portrayals and misrepresentations; diatribes against Christianity, goodbye to the Old God … rage against “worthless lives”'.27 Does that at least not ring a bell?; the removal of crucifixes in Catholic hospitals, religious orders deemed unfit to teach the young, adoption societies closed down because they would not accept 'same-sex' parenting, the closing of churches, failures and compromises in religious instruction particularly as regards sexual morality, lukewarm response to attacks on human life?
The big difference is that much of this is self-inflicted rather than, so far at least, the result of the imposition of a pagan ideology. However due to the negligence in teaching the fundamental Catholic moral principles and observing them this is beginning to happen and we may well find matters getting worse under a pagan ideology. We need to fight against this and as Cardinal Sarah has said we need to find God once again.
2Known as the Baltimore Catechism in the USA.
32nd edition The Catholic University of America Press Washington D.C.
4“Eschatology Death and Eternal Life” p.5
5Ibid Forward p.xxv.
15“Eschatology Death and Eternal Life” p.213
17Again translated as 'We believe' prior to 2012.
19This is taken from the official Vatican translation of the Letter into English rather than the translation in Ratzinger's book' which is undoubtedly a translation from the German translation. See: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19790517_escatologia_en.html
21“Eschatology Death and Eternal Life” p.244
26This pitiless absence of forgiveness is something Douglas Murray has drawn attention to in his book “The Madness of Crowds” and elsewhere see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_RrYz85E1A
27Quoted in Peter Seewald's “Benedict XVI A Life” Volume 1 p.154.