Catholic moral theology, one might think, should be a fairly solid, almost black-and-white picture after all these centuries. And I'm sure it is, at the moment, in places like Lincoln Nebraska, and Rome, Italy. But, here I am, in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The Catholic course I'm going to talk about here was presented by the Athenaeum of Ohio LPMP (Lay Pastoral Ministry Program.)
The course title was Christian Ethics LPC 177 Fall 2000.
The instructor was Fr. Larry Wyen, C.PP.S.
Conscience in Conflict: How to make Moral Choices; Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.; St. Anthony Messenger Press.
Moral Discernment; Richard M. Gula, S.S.; Paulist Press.
The Good Life; Where Morality & Spirituality Converge; Richard M. Gula, S.S.
The course description: "An investigation of fundamental principles of the Christian moral life. Special attention will be given to key concepts of Christian becoming: freedom, responsibility, law, grace, sin, moral discernment and discipleship."
Fr. Wyen’s teaching style was very practiced, engaging, lively, and effective. On each topic of moral theology, he would first give us the official Church teaching from his left (student’s right) side of the front of the room, usually holding and quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Then, he would rapidly move to his right (student’s left) side of the room, from which he would give us one or more “eminent theologian’s” differing viewpoint. These positions always opposed the moral theology expressed from the other (Catholic) side of the room. Then, he would move to the center of the front of the room, merge the two teachings, offer a challenge, and usually invite dialogue. The beginning moral theology question was almost always of the form, “How do you determine the correct moral direction?” His concluding teaching, in every case, was that we each need to privately discern for ourselves what is moral and what is immoral.
This moral theology teaching style was definitely thought provoking, and anything that stirs thought so thoroughly cannot be all bad. However, each time he moved from the Catechism side of the room to the opposing side of the room, Fr. Wyen left the Catechism behind, in this theoretically Catholic class room. And I wonder why I, as a devout Catholic, should seriously consider the ruminations of any “eminent theologians” who directly oppose the Catechism’s moral theology teaching, and give them or their positions any serious consideration at all in formulating “my own” morality. Every topic of moral importance, including even abortion and euthanasia, were treated this way. Case studies were introduced making each moral topic circumstantial, an exercise in situational ethics. The inescapable result was, in each case, through class discussion, a negotiated compromise between the Church’s teaching and some opposing teaching, which was usually diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Church. Situational ethics is not moral theology.
The merging of the official moral theology teaching of the Church with the opposing moral theology teaching of others, no matter how respected, is highly questionable in a class aimed at future Catholic ministers. The result: moral relativism, pure and simple. I strongly objected (not in the class) to a development of “my” morality at odds with that formed by my ethos, which is Christian, which is to say, of Western culture, which is, at its roots, Catholic. I had hoped to clarify and strengthen my Catholic morality, not to obfuscate it.
It seemed to me that, in Fr. Wyen’s view, so long as the official moral theology teaching of the Church was always carefully given somewhere in the material, it was perfectly acceptable to also move fairly far from that teaching. But I wonder at the purpose, when the differing viewpoints are not refuted in the teaching, and the ultimate final decision is left to the students, perhaps with one last reminder, for safety’s sake, of the Catechism’s teaching. In this class, the bottom line was that we, the students, needed to discern for ourselves our own moral course, after considering the Church’s teaching, and, equally considering the teaching of others who oppose the Church's teaching. In my opinion, this is not orthodox Catholic teaching, which is to say, it is heterodox Catholic teaching, to put it as mildly as possible. Truth is not a compromise.
So my first moral theology problem with Fr. Wyen’s class has been stated. Of the others, I have chosen four, which seemed to be the most egregious departures from the moral theology of the Catechism, and from Church history. All of them followed along the same lines in the classroom as outlined above, all involved non-class time discussions / correspondence / arguments between the professor and me, and all wound up with Fr. Wyen taking the side directly opposing the clear teaching of the Magisterium and me defending it.
Moral Theology Point: Papal Infallibility.
First, regarding the matter of papal infallibility. Fr. Wyen, in his lectures, hand-outs, and even one of the text books, indicated an extremely limited sense of the magisterial teaching authority of the pope, which is quite at odds with the Catechism and multiple Council proclamations. We conferred off-line verbally and via e-mail, and in the end, Fr. Wyen persisted in this extremely limited view of papal infallibility, which he promoted in the classroom as official Church teaching on the matter.
The teaching in question: There are three and only three conditions for an infallible teaching: 1. Must be a collegial act dealing with a revealed truth concerning faith or morals. 2. There must be an explicit call for absolute assent. 3. The pronouncement must be the unanimous teaching of all the bishops. (Conscience In Conflict, Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., page 50.)
Both the text book and Fr. Wyen falsely claimed that this was the teaching of Vatican I and Vatican II.
This teaching is just flat wrong. On the first point, the Pope may issue an infallible teaching without any collegial act. On the second point, the Pope is not limited by anyone, including Fr. Overberg and Fr. Wyen, to any particular language in his infallible teaching. On the third point, the Pope may teach infalliby alone. My argument quoted mainly but not exclusively Lumen Gentium, found toward the bottom of the Infallibility page, which describes the whole notion of Papal Infallibility. It became quite clear that Fr. Wyen, who repeatedly referred to the spirit of Vatican II when promoting our new freedom and all the Church changes was not familiar with actual Council documents, particularly Lumen Gentium. Even after reading it, he still maintained his flawed argument. Papal infallibility is crucial to moral theology. There can be no moral theology, or even a Church, as it is today, in the absence of Papal Infallibility as laid out in the link above.
Moral Theology Point: Artificial Contraception.
Second, the matter of artificial contraception. Fr. Wyen, from the “middle” of the front of the room, indicated that it was up to us students to discern whether it was sinful for us. The off-line dialogue between him and me degenerated into whether papal encyclicals, published in many languages, addressed to the entire universal Church, containing definitive teachings on faith and morals, were infallible teachings; I also feel that the main moral theology issue, summarized in CCC 2370, was given short shrift.
So here we have a black and white issue.
The very year, 1930, that Protestantism (Lambeth Conference) began going contraceptive, Pope Pius XI published CASTI CONNUBII, in a Papal definitive statement addressed to the universal Church, the teaching that contraception remains a mortal sin.
In 1965, Vatican Council II document Gaudium et Spes prohibits methods of birth control found blameworthy by the ongoing authority of the Church.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI published in HUMANAE VITAE, in a Papal definitive statement addressed to the universal Church, the teaching that contraception remains a mortal sin.
You can see these documents and a whole lot more, from the Catholic side of the street, at the Contraception page, which shows the whole Church history on the topic of artificial contraception, which Fr. Wyen champions, with the apparent support of the Particular Church of Cincinnati that employs him. Fr. Wyen claims that the Papal Encyclicals Casti Cannubii and Humanae Vitae are not infallible teachings; Vatican II says otherwise. I think Vatican II is correct on this. (See the Infallibility link above.)
Humanae Vitae started something in America. The Pope called for a commission to study the matter and report to him on it. After some study, they took a vote, issued their findings, which were positive for contraception, and then - horror of horrors - the Pope had the unmitigated gall to go against a Democratic majority! Paul VI read the recommendation, consulted two thousand years of Catholic history, more thousands of years of Jewish history, all of which clearly opposed contraception, and then he, and the Holy Ghost, issued Humanae Vitae.
A bunch of bishops openly opposed it; why Rome didn't use the hammer, I don't know. A bunch more of bishops with yellower bellies sat silently on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs. Damned few defended the ancient teaching. Because this open defiance went unchallenged for so long, perhaps out of fear of a greater schism or something, we now have these generations of bishops and priests who are convinced that Vatican II ushered in a new era of change and moved us into an era of softer enforcement of doctrine at the diocesan level. All in the Spirit of Vatican II, of course. But those who use that term, in my experience, have never read the documents of Vatican II, or they'd be whistling a different tune.
It's not so much the enforcement of moral theology doctrine that troubles me so much as interpretation of it. Fr. Wyen argued that I, like others, was trying to use Vatican II to justify Humanae Vitae; the fatal flaw in that argument is that Vatican II came first, in 1965; Humanae vitae came second, in 1968. The bottom line is, these guys have been teaching the goodness, or at least the acceptability, of artificial contraception for years, and the "official" Church is and has always been diametrically opposed to the moral theology they have been teaching here.
Moral Theology Point: Doctrine Can Change, and even Reverse.
Third, Fr. Wyen’s statements that the Church has changed her teaching (doctrine) over time to such a degree as to have reversed some of them. This is ground I had gone over before with others, including teachers of other LPMP classes, with some noted here in the Catholic American Thinker. The example given by Fr. Wyen: the Church’s official teaching on slavery.
Ho hum, heavy sigh and here we go again.
Go to the Church Teaching on Slavery page to see what the consistent teaching has been, from day one. Fr. Wyen, like so many others, just made this statement as part of his teaching, with nothing whatsoever to back it up. Maybe they were all educated at the Athenaeum. Just like the other teachers I encountered in other LPMP classes who taught this exact same error, he was presented with direct evidence of the invalidity of his teaching, he produced nothing to defend his teaching, and the teaching to the class stood unchanged. Some students from my class probably still believe that the evil old Catholic Church once promoted slavery, but then changed her mind when it became unpopular.
Moral Theology Point: Habitual Masturbation.
Fourth, Fr. Wyen’s treatment of habitual masturbation, even carried into marriage, being something less than mortally sinful, so long as the bathroom door is carefully kept locked.
What can I say?
When he was on the Catechism side of the room, masturbation was a sin. Then he went to the Freudian - Marxian - Darwinian side of the room, and was transformed. You should have seen the smile. "What's the harm in it? Who does it hurt?" I could almost see a forked tongue flicking about. But then he came to the "reasonable" center of the room, and it was once again you decide time, with the once more repeated advice to keep the bathroom door locked.
If you've been to the Contraception page link above on this page, you might want to revisit. That doctrine history contains overlapping unchanging doctrine on all forms of unnatural sex, including masturbation. But of course that link is relying on the history of the Roman Catholic Church; it looks to me like the Church of Cincinnati was just born yesterday.
We argued pretty long on all of these issues and others. Most of his hard-copy arguments were hand-written notes on printed copies of my e-mails or returned assignment papers; his own e-mails were always quite brief. We had many fairly long verbal discussions.
In one, we were arguing the dichotomy between subjective knowledge of objective moral truths. In my argument, solid objective truth rules; in Fr. Wyen's argument, subjective truth was given much more leeway. In my argument, when someone subjectively feels that something is correct when objective reality, as from Revealed Truth, declares it incorrect, then, objective reality rules. Fr. Wyen disagreed. (The only possible way to subjectively know something is to subjectively feel it.)
I related the story in current news about the New York Bishops ad limina visit to John Paul the Great in 1983. The visit involved two dining groups with John Paul, one for Breakfast and one for lunch, each with about 25 or so Bishops at table with the Pope. At lunch, during soup, the ordinary Bishop of Long Island was talking to John Paul, who seldom speaks at these events, telling him that there were so many American Catholics who suffered from “invincible ignorance” in matters of Divine Revelation that “invincible Ignorance” should help many of them get into Heaven.
At which John Paul II put down his soup spoon and spoke. He said it is true that there is much invincible ignorance in the world, and because of this invincible ignorance on Divine matters, many Catholics will get into Heaven. But the Priests and Bishops who are responsible for this invincible ignorance will certainly go to Hell.
And then John Paul the Great picked up his spoon and continued eating his soup.
A growing smile of recognition on the face of Fr. Wyen revealed that he had heard this story; when I finished, he laughed, saying "That John Paul! What a sense of humor!"
But no one at the Ad Limina visit was laughing.
Moral theology requires fixed, rather than random, moral norms. Moral theology is not situational ethics. I took this Athenaeum of Ohio LPMP course expecting to learn Catholic moral theology. That is not what I learned.
Pray for the Archbishop; pray for the teaching office of the Archbishop; pray for the Particular Church of Cincinnati.
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