A New Christian Morality?

It’s funny how human history is stubborn. Indeed, often times in our lives, we run into certain unexpected things that we thought we have surpassed. Or things we thought would never happen. And when we find that those things do not coincide with the reality of things, we are besieged by an uneasiness, an intimate uncertainty, because our heart does not lie. Even more, in my case. I have been attentive to the march of ideas for several years now and that restlessness is even more profound.

The source of this discomfort is no small thing. Over the past few days, the Pontifical Academy of Life of the Vatican posted an article on its website written by a theologian, which contains a series of affirmations and claims which the Catholic Church has long rejected. The article’s claim is quite clear: that the existence of what are called intrinsically immoral acts needs to be revised.  And the most pressing thing is that this thesis has already been used a few days ago by another renowned theologian, Father Maurizio Chiodi, a member of the Academy. He uses this claim to reinterpret the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI on contraception under the light of Amoris Laetitia.

For some people, perhaps, this situation is not their concern, given that they do not share the same faith. Or if they do, they do not care much. But I think that if you look at it objectively, the critical juncture is not so. The implications of this change would be tragic.

The thesis of the German theologian Gerhard Höver is that the term “intrinsically immoral,” applies to a certain human act and requires a more nuanced analysis. And that therefore, in order to decide whether a specific act is moral or not, one must look at the circumstances and not the act itself. Thus, particular actions such as adultery, contraception, or abortion, or any other act, from cloning to euthanasia, could qualify as intrinsically immoral only under certain circumstances.

Everything would depend on situations. So, in judging each case, one should be very cautious by taking into account the biography of the person or persons involved. Höver says – following Pope Francis – that the important thing is to accompany the person. Judging reality as it is, concludes the German professor, shows how weak the traditional method of moral assessment is. What was this traditional approach? That there are actions that are in themselves immoral, independent from circumstances. This new view of morality, however, would reject that there is a moral objective criterion to moral actions. And thus, there will not be bad abortions or bad adulteries. But rather, they will be assessed to be such only depending on circumstances. In short, the immorality of something would be determined by the situation, and thus, nothing will be true or false, but relative.

This moral view,  it must be reminded, is not new. Protagoras formulated it in antiquity. The sophist argues that if of each thing there can be said one thing and its opposite, then in order to find which one is true, one has to find which of those opinions has more people on its side. The measure of all things is man. Or at least, the majority of them.  And so more opinions equals more credibility.  Reality is not measured by intrinsically good or bad acts in themselves.  In short, this is the Magna Carta of subjectivism in the West. Professor Höver’s thesis is nothing but a sophisticated version of that tradition: we are human beings, and we are ultimately the measure of our actions – of what is right and what is wrong. And yet, if this is true (which I believe is not), what do we make of human rights? Are there human rights only according to the circumstances, or do they exist in themselves, independent of any situation?

If the reader has patiently accompanied me up to this point, then she will note the source of my concern: that the claim published in the Pontifical Academy of Life website affirms something that, in itself, contradicts the two-thousand-year-old teaching on intrinsically immoral acts of the Catholic Church. Is this a salvo in the trend to change the traditional moral paradigm as some prelates have suggested? Is this a progressive “overcoming” of what was taught by John Paul II? I hope not. I am aware that our memory is fragile, and we tend to forget. We are human, after all. Perhaps, we are leaving behind old views. However, I am also sure that the denial of the objectivity of certain moral principles is the sure route to a conception of life where the only thing that will prevail is power defined by the stronger party. This is the fateful premonition of Paul VI when he warned us that this type of view would lead to a deplorable moral relativism, which would quickly undermine all the heritage of the moral doctrine of the Church. Are we witnessing some of this already?

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