Saturday, March 04, 2023

On Cardinal McElroy on Mortal Sin

 I've noted before that these are not days in which the best and brightest Catholics become bishops, and recently in the Jesuit journal America Cardinal McElroy has been trying to prove me correct. In it, he is defending some previously poorly defended remarks of his, and the linchpin of his argument this time around is the following:

For most of the history of the church, various gradations of objective wrong in the evaluation of sexual sins were present in the life of the church. But in the 17th century, with the inclusion in Catholic teaching of the declaration that for all sexual sins there is no parvity of matter (i.e., no circumstances can mitigate the grave evil of a sexual sin), we relegated the sins of sexuality to an ambit in which no other broad type of sin is so absolutely categorized. 

 In principle, all sexual sins are objective mortal sins within the Catholic moral tradition. This means that all sins that violate the sixth and the ninth commandments are categorically objective mortal sins. There is no such comprehensive classification of mortal sin for any of the other commandments.

This is truly astounding. How does one become a bishop without ever having learned that literally all direct and deliberate commission of acts that violate any of the Decalogue commandments are mortal sins? In Catholic theology, the Ten Commandments are treated as a summation of natural law (with, in the case of the Sabbath precept, a specification from salvation history) published for the particular purpose of tracing, to borrow from Herbert McCabe's explanation of Aquinas's view, an outline of friendship with God. A mortal sin in Catholic moral theology is what is in direct violation of friendship with God (it is distinguished from a venial sin in that venial sins impede without directly violating friendship with God). Thus every act you deliberately commit that directly violates one of the commandments is a mortal sin as to its object (i.e., as to what you are trying to do in the act itself). 

The claim McElroy is making doesn't even make sense on its own terms. Read those last two sentences again. The sixth and ninth commandment in the numbering being assumed here are "Thou shalt not commit adultery" and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife". What he is saying is that deliberate commission of an act that violates the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, or tenth commandment is not necessarily a mortal sin as to its object. The first commandment forbids idolatry, remember. McElroy is claiming that Catholic moral theology holds that it is not necessarily a mortal sin to bow down to idols and serve them or to do something similar enough to violate the spirit of the commandment. McElroy is claiming that Catholic moral theology does not hold that directly violating the commandment against murder in letter or in spirit is to be categorized as a mortal sin.

What is actually happening here is that McElroy is more or less plagiarizing (and slightly garbling) Charles Curran -- even if the claim about parvity of matter did not establish it, the mention of the 17th century does. As anyone who has ever studied the history of Catholic moral theology knows, in the 17th, 18th, and into the 19th centuries, it is extremely diverse and complicated. It's the age of casuistry, where a lot of moral theology is done by examining particular kinds of examples (cases of conscience). In this period, it is so widely recognized that on every single one you can find a wide spectrum of different positions in the authorities that perhaps the biggest dispute in moral theology at the time is over how one should and should not handle this disagreement. So why does McElroy think the opposite happened in the 17th century when it came to sins against the ninth commandment? Because in The Origins of Moral Theology in the United States, in the course of reviewing a manual by Sabetti, and making a similar claim about the manualists, Charles Curran happened to remark that in 1612, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus "forbade Jesuits to teach the possibility of parvity of matter in sexual sins." It is worth noting some features that are in Curran that mysteriously vanish in McElroy, that make Curran's claim slightly less egregious than McElroy's. Curran is looking specifically at American influences; Sabetti was a Neapolitan who taught for an extended period in Maryland. Curran does take him to be fairly representative of the manualists at large (he doesn't have a high opinion of the manualist tradition at all), but Curran is not actually making the claim that all of Catholic moral theology reduced to the manualist approach. Further, the 17th century thing in Curran is specifically about the Jesuits, not about the whole Church; the Jesuits in the early modern period were often accused of laxism (I suppose they often still are), and therefore one finds sporadic attempts to set specific boundaries to deal with this increasingly bad state of affairs. We do not really know the full reasons for Aquaviva's decision on this point; Curran doesn't quite say but could be read to imply that it was some sort of general programmatic decision about the graver character of sexual sins (rather than, for instance, Aquaviva just getting a lot of complaints on that particular topic and so making his life easier by cracking down on that particular topic without intending to imply anything about any other topic), and McElroy apparently reads it that way.

Curran is in fact wrong; it seems to me, in fact, that he is deliberately and uncharitably hatcheting Sabetti. Sabetti does say that sins of lust are grave in their whole kind (contrary to what you would guess from Curran, he says this of other things, too), but he explicitly says that this is on the understanding that we are talking about cases in which we are directly and deliberately willing the 'venereal delectation'. If we are considering cases where it is only indirectly willed, we can have parvity of matter. In other words, in the context in which he is saying this, he is assuming a much narrower field of action than Curran is. This could be just misreading, except every time Curran refers to what Sabetti says on this point, he drops Sabetti's restriction to direct cases (si est directe voluntaria and the like) and ignores entirely the fact that Sabetti says that everyone recognizes that there can be parvity of matter in indirect cases.

Back to McElroy. On the basis of his plagiarism and misunderstanding of Curran, who is misrepresenting Sabetti, who is only one manualist (albeit one whose textbook was widely used in the United States), McElroy makes the broad and surprising pronouncement that all Catholic moral theology since the seventeenth century holds that in the cases of the sixth and ninth commandments alone are all violations mortal sins. It's perhaps less surprising that he protests such an irrational state of affairs; I would protest it, too, if it were true. And then he goes on to argue that such an absurd thing just doesn't fit with "the Catholic moral universe" in an argument that is utterly breathtaking:

It is automatically an objective mortal sin for a husband and wife to engage in a single act of sexual intercourse utilizing artificial contraception. This means the level of evil present in such an act is objectively sufficient to sever one’s relationship with God. 

It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to physically or psychologically abuse your spouse. 

It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to exploit your employees. 

It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to discriminate against a person because of her gender or ethnicity or religion. 

 It is not automatically an objective mortal sin to abandon your children.

The mind boggles. I mean, I look at this argument, and my jaw drops open, and my mind is boggled. The entire argument is just bogglement. McElroy is arguing that:

(1) Catholic moral theology implies that a contraceptive sexual act is always the kind of act that by its nature is a mortal sin.

(2) Catholic moral theology holds that domestic abuse, exploitation, racism, and abandoning your children are not always the kinds of acts that by their nature are mortal sins.

(3) Therefore, the thing to do is to stop thinking of contraceptive sexual acts as always the kind of acts that by their nature are mortal sins.

As more than a few people have noted, Catholic moral theology is in fact very clear that domestic abuse, exploitation of laborers, and racism are mortal sins as to object. But it is astonishing for a bishop to argue that deliberate contraception should not be regarded as always a gravely wrong kind of act on the ground that even beating your wife is not (and apparently should not be) regarded as always a gravely wrong kind of act. What could conceivably have been going through his mind that led him to think that this was a reasonable and intelligent argument?

It's a minor issue compared to McElroy having somehow managed to take his previously dubious position and defend it by making it sound literally insane, but it's worth pointing out that the repetition of 'automatically' has no significance here. To say that X is 'objectively a mortal sin', in the sense that McElroy has to mean, is to say that the kind of act you are trying to do (the object) is a direct violation of friendship with God; it's a basic claim that you can do acts that are objectively mortal sins without yourself committing a mortal sin -- for instance, if you are doing it under circumstances that mean that you are genuinely confused or heavily pressured, or some such, it's possible (although it very much depends on the exact circumstances) that you yourself are doing it venially. Extenuating circumstances can have the result that what would have otherwise been a mortal sin, in your particular case was a venial one. But it's the object, not your disposition to it, that makes the act the kind of act it is. If you deliberately murder someone, extenuating circumstances might mean that you yourself are partially excused from the seriousness of what you are doing, that you are not fully culpable for it; but circumstances do not change the fact that you murdered someone, and murder is, considered in and of itself (in terms of its object), an act that is inconsistent with love of God and neighbor and therefore what McElroy calls 'an objective mortal sin'. If an object ever makes an act an 'objective mortal sin', it always does, because the object, making the act have the intrinsic nature it does, is what defines the objective moral status that goes with acts of that nature. Likewise, if you can have an act with an object such that that kind of act may or may not be mortal, then that kind of act can't be objectively mortally sinful at all, because the latter can only mean (if anything) 'mortally sinful insofar as we consider the object on its own'. Introducing 'not automatically' just muddles further an already muddled argument.

Fundamentally, McElroy commits an error that seems commonly made by people who like to propose sweeping revisions of Catholic moral theology: Having apparently only developed his own understanding of Catholic moral theology to the level of a child's crayon drawing, he draws the conclusion that all Catholic moral theologians other than himself (and apparently Charles Curran) have been children, so that they never actually had any reasons for any of the things they said. In reality, if you are going to make any criticism of Catholic moral theologians for most of the past four hundred years (and there are criticisms you certainly could make of many of them), 'not having carefully thought about what they were saying' is absolutely not one of them. If your diagnosis of them boils down to 'They were idiots', you should really rethink your assessments.

ADDED LATER: Darwin has a nice discussion of the problems with the broader framework of McElroy's argument.

(Also fixed a few typos that were residues from a revision.)

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