Out of Chaos and Old Night
Here is a book which invites reading and rereading by everyone interested in Catholic apologetics, G. K. Chesterton, or the Modernist crisis and its implications and legacy. Gathered under the guiding hand of the English Dominican theologian and author Aidan Nichols are thought-provoking articles by international scholars on topics such as "The Catholic Church in the Modernist Revolution," "Chesterton and the Modernist Cultural Context," and Nichols's own "Chesterton and Modernism."
The anchor and longest contribution is by Ian Boyd, C.S.B., editor of the excellent quarterly The Chesterton Review and head of the G. K. Chesterton Society. He ferrets out (and presents verbatim) from Chesterton's uncollected journalism the few articles and letters which touch on theological issues raised by Modernism. As always, Chesterton's writing challenges the mind as it reaches profound conclusions, such as: "The dogma of the Church limits thought as much as the dogma of the solar system limits physical science. It is not an arrest of thought, but a fertile basis and constant provocation of thought."
G.K.C.'s thinking about spreading the good news is inspiring, given that his writings have been the catalyst for so many conversions. What were his secrets?
First of all, he rejoiced in the existence of God and in being alive to experience God's creation. "By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation--Christendom." His delight in God and his creatures led Chesterton to want to share with his readers and auditors truths about God and his Church in a personal way. "Our complex thinking . . . can be seen as a whole and loved like a person."
As Gabriel Daly, an Augustinian lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, points out, "Chestertonian apologetics was joyful, not to say rambunctious. It celebrated Christianity. . . . Chesterton, by his idiosyncratic use of irony, paradox, and epigram, was able to attack radical secularism with a religious optimism which arose out of the paradox of cross and resurrection. He practised a rollicking faith which celebrated life in all its.aspects."
This is a model for the interior disposition of those who would spread the good news: not a sour, judgmental attitude or one of haughty superiority, but delight in the truth and in each opportunity we have to pass it on to others.
Next, of course, comes knowledge of the faith, something which can be acquired by hours of reading and talking about it. But what to read or listen to on tape or video? It is no longer sufficient, given the number of Catholics who have fallen to the missionary persuasion of various sects, to take the attitude of the French convert who, when asked about his new beliefs, replied, "Ask them in Rome what I believe."
Then there is the final challenge--how to reach the hearts, as well as the minds, of those one wants to convince. In that regard Daly's article, "Apologetics in the Modernist Period," is most instructive. He shows the weakness of Catholic apologetics in the early part of this century, relying, as it did, totally on refining deductive arguments, "with no interest in the subjective dispositions of the potential believer."
The problem was, as Maurice Blondel pointed out, that "proofs are valid only for those who are thoroughly prepared to accept and understand them." It may be "logical" to devise invulnerable arguments and then leave it to God's grace to use them to bowl over the unbeliever, but such a take-it-or-leave-it approach lacks feeling.
Cardinal Newman summed up the problem this way: "I do not want to be converted by a smart syllogism; if I am asked to convert others by it, I say plainly I do not care to overcome their reason without touching their hearts."
And that leads to the necessity of knowing one's audience. Is it someone who has been taught from the Bible, but is restless because his Christian community has watered down the Word? Or is he hungering for the sacramental life which only the Church can provide in full? Or is one's listener too modern to be concerned about God or religion at all?
Here, notes Daly, we have the vast majority. "Christianity in the West is not under serious active attack; it is ignored and bypassed. The apologetical task is consequently far harder today than it was in Chesterton's age."
We live in a secular world. Widespread abortion, the abuse of children (which, we were told, would be eliminated by abortion), the poison of pornography, and the insatiable greed of the capitalistes sauvages tell us we are slipping back "into chaos and old night" (a wonderful Chestertonian phrase). The task of bringing light to these dark times is enormous, but it is one to which the Lord has charged us (Matt. 28:19-20).
-- Vincent Whelan
Chesterton and the Modernist Crisis
By Aidan Nichols
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: St. Thomas More College, 1990
Does the end justify the means? Are we ever justified in committing a "lesser evil" to obtain a "greater good"? Many contemporary moralists, including some Catholic ones, think so. This is especially true in the area of sexual ethics.
Catholic moral philosophers and theologians known as proportionalists contend that acts traditionally regarded as immoral can be moral and that, among several acts, the act which results in the greater proportion of good is the moral one.
Proportionalists argue that most of the moral absolutes affirmed by the Church aren't really absolutes. Abortion, contraception, homosexual acts, and fornication aren't always immoral and can be justified under certain circumstances.
The assumption upon which most proportionalists base their conclusions regarding these and other acts is that little, if anything, is always wrong per se. They contend that traditional Catholic morality plays with linguistically-loaded dice when describing certain acts as intrinsically wrong.
Murder, for instance, is defined by Catholic moral teaching as the unjust taking of innocent human life. Proportionalists argue this is a morally evaluative way to describe murder, a way which begs the question of murder's morality because the act is defined as unjust from the outset. A purely descriptive definition of murder wouldn't do this and is to be preferred because murder might be justified as a lesser evil under certain circumstances.
Proportionalists also challenge traditional moral absolutes based on the distinction between moral evil, which is a bad moral act or choice, and premoral or ontic evil, which is the deprivation of good which ought to exist but doesn't--a deprivation which isn't necessarily immoral. They argue that proportionately higher goods may be protected or greater evils avoided by the choice of what they contend is a lesser, premoral evil.
Thus, a woman might be justified in aborting her unborn child if, after assessing the good and bad effects of her action, she decides a higher good would be obtained and greater evils avoided by her abortion.
Since morally evaluative language (such as defining murder as the unjust taking of innocent human life) is to be avoided when describing a situation, what is often depicted as inherently immoral by traditional Catholic morality, may, in the proportionalist view of things, involve the morally acceptable choice of a merely ontic evil to protect a greater good (or to avoid a greater evil).
What's the alternative to proportionalism and how is the Church's traditional teaching about moral absolutes to be saved in the face of such a thorough-going intellectual assault? One answer is an approach called the morality of principles, an excellent exposition of which is available in Catholic Sexual Ethics.
This book provides an outstandingly concise and readable refutation of proportionalism as well as a superb exposition and defense of the Church's moral teaching in general and sexual ethics in particular.
The authors--a Capuchin priest and two lay scholars--point to the philosophical, theological, and pastoral deficiencies of proportionalism. From a philosophical perspective, proportionalism's principle of the lesser evil--the notion that it's always possible to weigh up goods and evils in a given course of action and choose between them--is challenged.
The authors write that "common experience shows that the goods at stake when a person must make a choice--the very situation in which moral guidance is needed--are not commensurate. It is because the goods between which we must choose are incommensurable that we must in the end settle what we shall do by choosing."
The example already mentioned, a woman contemplating an abortion, is used to illustrate what the authors hold is an inability to weigh up or compare the greater and lesser goods and evils involved according to proportionalism's scheme of things.
How, they inquire, given the proportionalist principles, can a woman objectively compare the good effects which might result from the abortion, such as mental and physical health or financial security, with the evil of deliberately killing her unborn child?
Many proportionalists acknowledge they have no way to choose objectively in such circumstances. The authors cite Richard McCormick's remarks that in "fear and trembling do we commensurate" and that "we adopt a hierarchy" in comparing greater and lesser goods and evils. The problem is this amounts to rationalization and moral relativity, something proportionalists insist they want to avoid.
The theological problems with proportionalism are also great. The claim that it is an authentic development of Catholic moral teaching must be rejected because proportionalism undermines moral norms which are either infallibly taught by the Church or which at least can't be rejected by Catholics.
The Church's teaching regarding birth control, for example, has been challenged by proportionalists. In fact, the authors contend, proportionalism developed in the 1960s as a way of justifying the use of contraceptives.
Furthermore, the Church has always taught that certain things are evil per se and that we may not do evil that good may come (Rom. 3:8). Proportionalism undermines these principles by appealing to the consequences of actions. It claims to justify as the lesser evil the means employed to obtain an end by assessing (or "adopting" as Richard McCormick puts it) it as the greater good.
From the pastoral perspective, the authors of Catholic Sexual Ethics assert that proportionalism is demoralizing. If people are told adultery or homosexual acts aren't intrinsically wrong, they can lose the support which absolute principles provide in overcoming temptation. Proportionalist attitudes on the part of pastors offering guidance to such people may contribute to rationalization by those already inclined to act immorally.
In place of proportionalism, Catholic Sexual Ethics offers the morality of principles to defend the Church's teaching. This approach insists on moral absolutes and principles, while pursuing Vatican II's objective of a renewed moral theology. The morality of principles also avoids legalistic defenses of Church teaching. The authors write:
"Faith confirms that there are moral absolutes but also insists that moral absolutes are the requirements of love. The morality of principles recognizes that the implications of love are not simply rules but guidelines for authentic Christian life.
"Hence, proponents of the morality of principles point out that it is always wrong to do such deeds as faith has proscribed absolutely because acts such as these are incompatible with the goods of persons which God calls us to love and absolutely respect . . .
"Human goods are not ideals that dwell apart; they are the fulfillment of human persons, and flourish only in persons. Hence, to act so as deliberately to harm a basic human good is to act against the fulfillment of a human person. And that is incompatible with loving the person."
So God's commandments aren't arbitrary rules he lays down for us. They're not moral hoops through which we must jump to win the prize of his love. Rather, they embody principles which express God's love and what is truly good for us, while safeguarding us from what is really harmful.
This positive approach, which goes beyond mere legalism or an abstract sense of duty, is applied to all.aspects of Catholic sexual teaching. Chastity, for instance, isn't the suppression or denial of one's sexuality, but "a virtue concerned with the intelligent and loving integration of our sexual desires and affections into our being as persons, enabling us to come into full possession of ourselves as sexual beings so that we can love well."
Church teachings regarding abortion, contraception, adultery, and fornication are also discussed. The authors show why these things are wrong and what goods are at stake in committing such acts. Again, the emphasis is on explaining how immoral acts undercut human goods, rather than simply why the rules must be followed.
Some Catholics may be put off by this procedure, thinking instead that Catholic teaching should simply be obeyed, regardless of whether or not it makes sense. This attitude neglects the fact that while such absolute submission to the will of God is the goal, not every Catholic is at a point where he can make such a total surrender. Understanding why Catholic teaching is for his own good can make obedience easier.
Because of the tremendous challenge proportionalism and other moral errors present to traditional Catholic morality (the matter is so important the Vatican is preparing a document said to be critical of proportionalism), Catholics need just such a short, readable summary and defense of the faith in this crucial area as they have in Catholic Sexual Ethics.
-- Mark Brumley
Catholic Sexual Ethics
By Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle, Jr., William E. May
Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1985
Available from This Rock through the Mini-Catalogue.