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Old wine, new wineskin…

Subjective Morality: The Error of Amoris Laetitia Condemned and Refuted before Vatican II

“Nothing under the sun is new”, King Solomon writes in Sacred Scripture, “neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us” (Eccl 1:10).

This is true also for “Pope” Francis’ allegedly new approach regarding sexual morality that he proposes in his infernal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, by which he slyly undermines all of Catholic morality by redefining the nature of sin and finding elements of virtue in vice, all under the guise of “mercy” and “accompaniment.” Yes, it turns out that this oh-so new “solution” from the “god of surprises” isn’t so new after all, doesn’t solve anything, and of course the only surprise you will get is one at the Last Judgment.

In May of last year, we had already published a post on this very topic:

Yes, the Pope himself has condemned and refuted the very principles and ideas slyly put forth today by the Argentinian Jesuit who goes by the stage name of “Pope Francis.” What was then called the “new morality”, “situation ethics”, or “ethical existentialism”, has now reappeared in slightly modified form and is being sold to the unsuspecting sheeple as a new “pastoral” approach to morality, away from “rigid rules” and on towards “mercy.”

In this post, we would like to share with our readers an essay found on this very topic that is more accessible to the average reader than a document from the Holy Office or a papal address might be. The article in question was published in one of the most eminent Catholic theological journals in the United States before the Second Vatican Council, the American Ecclesiastical Review. From 1943-1963, its very competent editor was Mgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, who was theological advisor to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani during Vatican II. Stunned by the theological incompetence, indifference, and Modernism he had to witness behind the council’s scenes, Fenton once remarked in his personal diary: “If I did not believe God, I would be convinced that the Catholic Church was about to end” (entry of Nov. 23, 1962; source).

Entitled “A New Conjugal Morality?”, the essay was written by Fathers Edouard Gagnon and Aidan Carr and was published in the September 1952 edition of the review mentioned. In it, the authors expose and refute a dangerous sophistical error in moral theology that was beginning to introduce itself into the minds of clergy and laity around the world: the idea that although something be objectively immoral and thus a sin, certain circumstances can nevertheless justify its commission in individual cases. Fr. Gagnon and Fr. Carr condemn this “principle of subjectivity” as “novel, provocative, and probably heretical.” The article concerns itself mainly with one particular sin of impurity, but of course the essential ideas involved are just as applicable to any other sexual sin, such as adultery — in fact, they are applicable to any intrinsic wrong whatsoever.

For the sake of clarity, we must point out that the sin of “onanism” referred to in the article is understood to mean “the marriage act performed with positive frustration of conception” (Dictionary of Moral Theology, s.v. “Onanism”) — in other words, contraceptive marital relations. Although this definition differs from how the expression is more commonly used today, it is the proper meaning of the term, because that is the sin Onan committed (see Gen 38:8-10).

We have sourced this article and are making it available for our readers in two ways: (1) the original essay scanned and made available as a PDF download; (2) the text of the essay retyped and published below as part of this blog post.

To download the scanned text as it appeared in the American Ecclesiastical Review in 1952, please click the title:

“A New Conjugal Morality?” (PDF)

American Ecclesiastical Review 127 (Sep. 1952): pp. 173-181
by Rev. Edouard Gagnon, S.S. and Rev. Aidan Carr, O.F.M.Conv.

The text appears retyped just below, with all footnotes given at the end. We have retained all formatting as it is found in the original, though we have added some links to the papal documents mentioned in the text, to assist the reader in retrieving them for his own perusal.


A NEW CONJUGAL MORALITY?

The upsurges of theological opinion within the bosom of the Church are an irrefragable testimony to the driving vitality of Catholic thought, but to pretend that all Catholic-inspired innovations constitute evidence of an easy adaptability to current trends is to belie reality. Truth is no chameleon. The beauty of Catholic doctrine lies chiefly in this: it is essentially an immutable deposit of truth, divinely prepared for man’s salvation. It is a safe-conduct guarantee through a hazardous terrain. While taking full account of human weakness, it has none of that soft, humanistic sentimentality that is ever ready to do business with intrinsic evil.

The allurements of false “irenicism” condemned by Pope Pius XII in Humani generis of August, 1950, do not limit their charms to the realms of dogma, scripture and philosophy. Moral theology — as a conclusion from dogma — is peculiarly fitted to assume attractive but false fronts, simply because practical life at times makes immediate demands upon human activity far beyond the obvious content of speculative truth. The vagaries of costume that error dons are legion. As Humani generis points out, some modern writers advance their opinions cautiously and in a way that conceals their real meaning. Behind a façade of overly subtle distinctions, Birnam Wood-like, the errors move on the Dunsinane hill of orthodoxy.

May we respectfully call the attention of the clergy to a case in point? A very recent, quite appealing, but extremely dangerous doctrine has been spawned in France, and it is but recently commencing to insinuate itself into Catholic thought on our own continent [1]. Briefly, it is an attempt to justify onanism by an appeal to a principle of subjectivity. It is actually a moral booby-trap for the unwary, deceptively wrapped in a bewitching package.

Last November Pope Pius XII spoke to the Congress of Italian Catholic Midwives. Among other things, the Pontiff declared that the prescription against onanism holds good today just as much as it did yesterday. It will hold tomorrow and always, for it is not a mere precept of human reason but is the expression of a natural and divine law. It seems providential that the Holy Father’s clear and forceful reiteration of the prohibition of the natural law against the intrinsic evil of contraception in any form should come on the heels of a novel, provocative, and probably heretical doctrine. That this unacceptable opinion has not yet been particularly noted in American circles is simply because it is only now starting to assert itself here.

A FALSE FREEDOM

The proponents of this new doctrine — of course no error is ever entirely new — seem convinced that the changing circumstances of our times must be taken account of, and to this extent, that traditional conjugal morality should be modified. What until now has remained a rather vague feeling among some extremists, has now been expressed with open frankness and considerable éclat. At least this much can be said for the novelty: it would make the confessor’s task a hundredfold easier in his dealing with onanists. But as daily experience shows one, what is easy and what is right are often at variance. Over-simplification is at best a hazardous shift in moral matters. One logical conclusion flowing from an acceptance of the proposed doctrine would be to allow a confessor to absolve persons who, under traditional moral teaching, would have seriously to promise amendment before being validly absolved. An “Open Sesame” would be handily provided to married partners who happen to find classic but “outmoded” conjugal morality too constricting. The heralds of this movement solemnly proclaim liberation from an unbearable burden to those who are too weak or else are victims of circumstances. But this is an illusory freedom. One’s awakening is rude where morality is flouted. Or even where it is simply “adapted” to the exigencies of the moment.

The reasoning advanced by the exponents of this changed perspective is subtle enough, and is prefaced by the disarming assurance that there is no intention of contravening traditional conjugal morality. And to dissipate any fear one might have that “something is rotten in Denmark,” the confessor is reminded that he must use the greatest prudence in employing the principles formulated by the new doctrine. [2] But what seems forgotten or conveniently ignored is that strictures imposed on a doctrine’s application can hardly transform a doctrine’s essential character.

THE WARP AND WOOF

The fabric of the teaching we here contest is woven of these threads:

  1. A Christian morality necessarily believes in the Redemption, and it does so in such wise that it advocates a steady perspective of optimism relative to salvation, particularly in view of contemporary society’s insistent anxiety to free itself of a morality it judges impossible to observe and therefore unjust. And in consequence of its impracticality, the inflexible moral rule becomes — as far as the great mass of modern people are concerned — non-existent. [3]
  2. On the other hand, Faith, as right reason itself, does not permit one to deny objective morality, which is an ideal clearly corresponding to the demands of our human nature. Observance of this ideal, when possible, undoubtedly leads one to perfection. [4]
  3. Face to face with this ideal, and conscious of his deficiency, man admits to himself that he is at grips with something bigger than himself, and so a double reaction is possible, depending on one’s character. If one is proud, he molds morality to his own likeness, with a false subjectivism that assures him that what he does can not be wrong because he does it, and must do it. But, if one is blessed with a sense of Christian humility he will readily admit that “objectively he is a sinner” [5]. While aware of his unworthiness, still he is not unduly cast down nor does he despair. He remembers that God loves him and so all his objective faults are engulfed in the infinity of that divine love. [6]

This latter is not, we are reassured, the “faith without works” preached by Luther. It is rather salvation by one’s good will coupled to faith in God’s mercy. This confidence in divine mercy finds a happy support, humanly speaking, in this distinction between objective and subjective morality: what is of itself contrary to morality and the divine law, ceases to be subjectively imputable if the law becomes practically-speaking impossible for one to observe, as if he were no longer master of his acts. [7]

APPLICATION OF THE PRINCIPLES

The principles above explained are applied by their sponsors to the question of contraceptive marital relations in this way:

Suppose there arises a conflict between the objectively established requirements of conjugal chastity and the need of preserving domestic peace and understanding. This conflict may be rooted in the inability of spouses to have any (or any more) children without compromising the mother’s life, or perhaps without dangerously jeopardizing the already precarious financial status of the family. They maintain that they can not practice perfect continence and — for them at least — Rhythm is no solution. Surely, the argument continues, no one is bound to the impossible!

Even if the impossibility to abstain is attributable to the weakness of the husband or wife, isn’t it best and even needful to solve the case by excusing them of all subjective fault, or at least of all grave wrong? For who can judge what is impossible for another? Who (besides God) can determine the limits of one’s individual possibility? The passions of the flesh vary from one person to another. One meets people, the argument goes on to add, who are otherwise thoroughly obedient to all the demands of morality, but who flatly assert that marital chastity is simply an unrealizable ideal so far as they are concerned. They feel they can have no more offspring, at the same time they can not refrain from marital intercourse.

Caught on the horns of this dilemma, to what degree are the spouses accountable if they do have onanistic relations? One who commits an objective fault, it is replied, because one is unable actually to be in command of his situation, is excused of blame. It is not, the proponents of the new morality hastily allow, that the rule of morality ceases to exist. One ought indeed remain devoted to the rule, regret that he himself can not observe it, and meanwhile fervently hope that the day will soon come when he can personally abide by it. [8]

The fautores of this system play upon one’s heartstrings. They tell us of cases where the husband has become embittered and nervously unstrung by enforced continence, with the result that the home becomes a veritable hell. Or else one’s wife turns into an object of hatred because she is a continual but unsatisfying source of temptation. Is not, we are asked, the duty of maintaining a happy home a primordial marital duty? And does not this harmony in turn depend upon a mutually satisfying sex life? And further, if another pregnancy would perhaps prove fatal to the wife, would not the husband commit a grave sin in making her pregnant?

To sum up this argument: Since conjugal intimacies are a requisite condition for an affectionate and full marital life and since the proximate occasion of sin for the parties in question consists precisely in these necessary intimacies, therefore they are not guilty of sin if they perform the almost inevitable marital act in an onanistic manner. The proviso is added that they must not want the sin as such, would be happier if their situation were otherwise, and truly hope that circumstances will in time alter for the better in order that they may avoid this unfortunate difficulty. [9]

This merciful (!) solution is thus applied to a very carefully described case, but from it are deduced some “simple rules” enabling vexed confessors to judge similar cases, and thus to remove any subjectively grave culpability from practices hitherto considered evil. These “simple rules” are:

  1. The first sign of due orientation of one’s will is due orientation of one’s life viewed in its entirety. One who manifests a desire to serve God in everything else, but “sins” in the matter under discussion because of circumstances independent of his will, can not be presumed to have sinned mortally.
  2. The sign that the “sins” are caused by circumstances independent of one’s will appears in this: if in the past, when these unfavorable circumstances were not present, one observed habitually and with ease the moral law on this point. And because of this previous fidelity he feels sorrow now that he can no longer himself respect that same moral law. [10]

EVALUATION OF THE NEW SOLUTION

What judgment may properly be formulated on the evidence adduced in support of the novel doctrine? A judgment, first of all, that prescinds from any merely external authority and disregards the accidental reasons of convenience to which it so urgently appeals. A solution to a complex problem of morality does not become correct and acceptable simply because it happens to be pleasing and seems to answer genuine difficulties. Our scrutiny must go to the heart of the matter.

The promoters of the changed perspective argue that married people often are not prepared to accept traditional morality in this connection; that confessors achieve nothing by their “brutal providentialist attitude” [11]; that present economic and social conditions impose a need for prudence in determining the number of offspring [12]; that conjugal spirituality does not admit of an absolute continence which may well strain the bonds of love and even shatter the harmony of the home [13].

Such a point of view eschews the hope offered by supernatural faith; it ignores the evidence developed in favor of a large family by sociology, psychology and medicine. And even granting — for the sake of the argument — the truth of the opposition thesis — has one therefore the right to countenance contraceptive practices? May a confessor absolve a penitent without more ado, once he discovers a vague good will? All other reasoning is peripheral compared with this central point: the intrinsic and unnatural quality of any use of the generative faculty by which the spouses perform the act destined to beget offspring, and yet endeavor to remove from that act its natural efficacy. [14]

In view of the objective malice of a penitent’s actions, can a confessor excuse him by agreeing that he is not at all fully responsible? The opposition writes: “The classical treatises on moral theology appear to be especially occupied with Christians of bad will, or at least more or less badly disposed. Besides, these treatises have been too prone to judge men habitually responsible for their acts” [15]. Is this not a generalization injurious both to the penitent and to the moralist, to suppose that men are not habitually responsible for their acts, or that moralists have over-stressed the negative aspects of human volitional activity?

And if this alleged irresponsibility is a reality, whence comes it? From some habitual incapacity to act in a human manner? But surely moral theology has always excused the faults of the mentally ill. Does it stem from invincible ignorance about the sinful character of onanism? That is hardly likely considering the publicity accorded the matter in Catholic circles, in parochial missions, in sermons, in instruction classes.

The new doctrine is prepared to excuse many onanists of grave fault because no one is held to the impossible. A risky sort of moral optimism, that! Like the optimism of the ostrich supposing itself snugly safe from danger when its head is cozily buried in the sand. To acknowledge oneself objectively a sinner, and to take refuge in the divine mercy can easily become a Quietistic doctrine and therefore an exceedingly dangerous one. Such an appeal to God’s mercy comes with ill grace from a camp unwilling, a priori, to examine the problem of conjugal chastity in terms of God’s supernatural Providence. A confessor who absolves a penitent pleading incapability to observe the commandments of God in married life makes short shrift of the words of the Holy Spirit: ”And God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it” (I Cor., X, 13).

Even if one admits the hypothetical possibility of there being an impossibility to observe conjugal chastity, that “impossibility” can be nothing else, in the final analysis, except a moral weakness. A weakness due in part perhaps to external circumstances, but due particularly and formally to a defective control of the sexual appetite. In his November address to Italian Midwives, the Holy Father excoriated this very teaching when he said that God does not oblige people to do the impossible, and so if for certain reasons some married couples must abstain from marital union, in such cases abstinence is possible.

One who would hold for the blameless character of any acts of onanism on the claim that it can not be otherwise, would by the same token have to exculpate: an adolescent whose solitary sins would no longer be chargeable to him since personal purity is for him an “impossibility” — an engaged person who anticipates married rights because marriage is not here and now possible — an unfaithful husband whose heart is helplessly given to his mistress — an unjustly deserted wife who seeks “compensation” with one not her husband. Indeed, in very many instances, the observance of the moral order demands heroism. But, as the Pope declared in his address to the Italian Midwives already referred to, it is wronging men and women of our times to deem them incapable of continuous heroism, a heroism that need not stop at the borders established by the passions and the inclinations of nature. Obviously, one who does not want to dominate himself is incapable of so doing. [16]

A CHOICE THAT MUST BE MADE

One must not only engage in a sustained effort to avoid sin; one must struggle also against the very conditions that make sin so likely. This is to demand sanctity of souls. No one can say that he is powerless in the face of temptation unless and until he has exhausted the possibilities of recourse to God and of mortification of self. And that is never. The “impossibility,” introduced by this novelty to shore up its facile solution to real difficulties, does not lift the force of obligation from the divine law. It does not excuse the blame of those who succumb to sin. In certain regrettable circumstances of contemporary life it is extraordinarily hard to work out one’s salvation. But worked out it must be, or all is lost. Even though grave inconvenience sometimes excuses from positive law, still it never excuses from natural law.

One who would tolerate weakness of the flesh among the young whose marriage is retarded by the unfavorable economic organization of society, or who would countenance unchastity among the married, renders them no service either here or hereafter. God is wise and good. His law is clear and practicable. In the full observance of it alone can man find happiness. The profound and dreadfully real difficulties experienced by some married couples in their efforts to reconcile Christian virtue and personal gratification should remind them that mediocrity is not their lot.

They must choose between Christ crucified and their own sinful pleasure; between the gracious acceptance of sacrifice and a life of sensual pleasure that offends their God and opens the floodgates of remorse and unhappiness. The priest who would seek the glory of God will not look for an easy solution to the problem. He will look for a true one, albeit a hard saying. He will bring the troubled penitent to understand God as a loving Father Who aids His children to perfect themselves and to save their immortal souls.

To offer as a plausible hypothesis the doctrine that the moral law is ever unobservable — even if all men transgressed it by their sins — is to deny divine wisdom. And man can not do that without ceasing to be a man.

____________________
FOOTNOTES

[1] A clear expression of this doctrine first appeared in an article written by Canon Jacques Leclercq for the French pastoral review Le prêtre et la famille (Paris, 1950, pp. 7 et sqq.), published by the “Association de Mariage Chrétien.” The doctrine there expounded has since passed over to the American continent in an article “Changements de perspectives en morale conjugale” in the Revue Eucharistique du Clergé (Montreal, Sept.-Oct., 1950, pp. 454 et sqq.). The footnotes to the present article refer to the Canadian publication.

[2] “Changements de perspectives en morale conjugale” in the Revue Eucharistique du Clergé (Montreal, 1950), p. 457.

[3] Cf. op. cit., p. 460.

[4] Cf. op. cit., pp. 458-60.

[5] Op. cit., pp. 460-61.

[6] Op. cit., p. 459. The exact wording of this text, of capital importance, is as follows: “Le chrétien porte constamment en soi la conscience de son indignité, mais celle-ci ne peut, ni le troubler, ni l’abattre, ni diminuer son potentiel vital, parce qu’en même temps, il se sait aimé et sait que toutes ses fautes disparaitront dans l’infini de l’amour, du moment qu’il se reconnaît pour ce qu’il est, qu’il ne s’attribue pas ce qui n’est qu’à Dieu es s’abandonne à l’amour. Ce n’est pas le salut par la foi sans les oeuvres, comme le voulait Luther, mais le salut par la bonne volonté humaine et la foi en la Miséricorde.”

[7] Cf. op. cit., pp. 464-66.

[8] Cf. op. cit., p. 465: “Si vraiment ces époux ne peuvent se contenir, dans quelle mesure sont-ils responsables? Celui qui commet une faute objective, parce qu’il n’est pas capable de se dominer, est excusé de sa faute. . . . Il n’en résulte pas que la règle morale tombe. Il doit y rester attaché, regretter d’être incapable de la respecter et souhaiter d’y arriver. . . .”

[9] Cf. op. cit., pp. 466-67.

[10] Cf. op. cit., p. 472.

[11] Op. cit., p. 473.

[12] Cf. op. cit., p. 549.

[13] Cf. op. cit., p. 462.

[14] Cf. Casti connubii (N.C.W.C. translation, p. 20) : “. . . any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

[15] Op. cit., p. 470.

[16] Cf. the address as reported verbatim in the Brooklyn Tablet (New York, Nov. 10, 1951), p. 6.


Those familiar with the Amoris Laetitia controversy will immediately see the parallels between the false morality that is proposed there and the errors condemned in the text above. In fact, the similarity is so stunning that one might almost say that Frs. Gagnon and Carr wrote their essay precisely to condemn Amoris Laetitia. Although Francis’ exhortation aims directly at justifying adulterous relatonships rather than onanistic sex, the principles involved are the same.

It is clear, then, that there is nothing really new in Francis’ “pastoral solution” to the problem of “divorced-and-remarried” couples. The only thing new about it is that it now comes from the purported (but not genuine) Roman Catholic Magisterium, leading countless souls to hell. “…Therefore God shall send them the operation of error, to believe lying: that all may be judged who have not believed the truth, but have consented to iniquity” (2 Thess 2:10-11).

Lord, have mercy!

Photo Credit: “Catholic Church (England and Wales) General Audience with Pope Francis” via photopin (license)