Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Ethics of Compromise; Or, Wittering

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavors to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defense;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

‘I believe God prefers drunkards to a lot of respectable people.’
‘For God’s sake,’ I said, for I was near to tears that morning, ‘why bring God into everything?’
‘I’m sorry. I forgot. But you know that’s an extremely funny question.’
‘Is it?’
‘To me. Not to you.’
‘No, not to me. It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man.’
‘It’s arguable,’ said Brideshead. ‘Do you think he will need this elephant’s foot again?’

—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

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Melinda Selmys has hit it out of the park once again with her latest, which I propose to shamelessly misappropriate.

The priest that I actually confessed to did what most priests (in my experience) do if you come to them with an NFP hard-case: he said ‘I don’t know.’ But then he added that if I was willing to stay afterwards, one of the other priests might be able to advise. I waited, and eventually a very kind, older priest came over and listened while I explained my situation. His advice was, ‘Every day, you should try not to sin. But if you do anyway, know that you have done everything humanly possible. Put it in God’s hands.’ It was in many ways very helpful—being told by someone in authority that I really actually had tried as hard as I could made a huge difference in terms of shutting down the shame and self-accusation machine. It was also meant charitably: this was a priest trying to somehow steer a path between the demands of the teaching and the needs of the person in front of him.

This isn’t unlike the experiences I’ve had in the confessional. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of priests who’ve been severe with me about my sins, however grave; the Church is famously uncompromising in the content of her teaching about sex, especially sex between men, but the application of that teaching to actual penitents is eager to absolve and console, in my (perhaps extremely fortunate) experience. Some confessors have been much too lax, and many have given useless advice. But they’ve overwhelmingly been gentle and kind, and often they have been wise too.

Unfortunately that is not the whole story.

It was, however, problematic advice in practice. What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life1 … but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure, it wasn’t really my fault.

It’s a problem, not just in NFP culture but in purity culture more generally. If your situation is in any way irregular—that is, if you are not having married sex primarily for the purpose of procreation, there is a more or less strong psychological incentive towards sexual expression that is not quite consensual. There’s a lot of understanding, a lot of leeway, for people who are just carried away by a desire that overwhelms them. But if you’ve arrived at a sober, rational, well-considered and empirically tested conviction that a sexless marriage would be a disaster, that pregnancy would be worse, and that NFP does not work for you … well, you’re out of luck. [...] Suddenly not only are you sinning, you’re veering into the territory of willful rejection of the truth. And into the near orbit of presumption. Until you repudiate the error of your ways, confession isn’t even an option.2 Of course most confessors have more sense than people in NFP forums and comboxes. They’ll point out that emotional factors are only one of the factors that can reduce culpability,3 that in an objectively hard case you probably don’t meet the criteria for full knowledge, that if you want to do the right thing but are finding it functionally impossible due to external circumstances this also impedes full consent, and so on.

And for a long time, for eight or nine years, this really was satisfying to me. It’s rigorously logical, yet leaves space for moral generosity and humility; it allows for the difficult combination of idealism and compassion, not only within the same philosophy, but within the same person. That’s nothing to shake a stick at. Plenty of moral traditions that have successfully retained the loyalty of millions for generations aim lower than this, while yet being less flexible. (Even contemporary secular morality, while it operates on different principles from Catholic morality, is far harsher with those who transgress its principles, demanding mass shamings, public and groveling apologies, even personal ruin as its penances.)

And then, one day, it wasn’t satisfying. It was still good. But it ceased to be adequate to the dilemma I was facing, because its proponents didn’t seem ready to grapple honestly with its consequences. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to move forward.

But this is not the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture. Here, external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that [...] if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well, probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that. What people do instead is engage in a kind of psychodrama where you are tempted, you resist, you try to get away, but temptation slowly reels you in. It’s not quite your fault. It’s the feeling. The music. Your drink. The weather. Before you know it, almost against your will, there you are having sex like all the normal, badly catechized people. But at least you know enough to feel bad about it in the morning. Then you go to confession in the morning. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

This means that you can have a sex life … provided you’re not too hung up on giving clear consent. Because if you insist too much on explicit consent, sober consent, or worse, premeditated consent, this interrupts the entire drama. It shines too much light on its fundamental assumption that it is acceptable, indeed better, to lose control of yourself sexually than it is to rationally think about what will be good for you and discuss it clearly with your partner.

The moral revisionist (Christian or otherwise) will protest against Catholic principles on these grounds, while the traditionalist will protest instead against Mrs Selmys. I’m not prepared to do either, because I don’t understand.

On the one hand, I certainly see the revisionist’s point. It would be idle to deny that beliefs like those of Matthew Vines, Rev Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Justin Lee are appealing; but this does not make them either false or insincere (as I have insisted for years and shall continue to), and one of the strongest criticisms of Catholic teaching from that perspective is the anguish that our doctrine of chastity normally imposes on LGBT people. Is that anguish universal, or inevitable, or proof that the Catholic faith is wrong? No. But that’s cold comfort at best, and rank hypocrisy at worst, when offered by those who are exempt from such suffering to those who are subject to it continually. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he have faith, and hath not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

But for me, that horror isn’t enough to alter my beliefs, for the simple reason that the central symbol of my faith is my God being tortured to death. That, you see, is what a crucifix is. The God who makes these demands of us did not spare himself their costliness.

Which leads me to the orthodox Catholic perspective and its problems.4 The premises are straightforward enough: the thing that matters most, in life and after it, is being united with God, who literally is goodness, beauty, and meaning; anything that impedes union with God is accordingly something to renounce and avoid, whatever else it costs us; therefore, the visible and tangible costs of doing the right thing are rightly to be regarded as trivial.

Where it gets problematic is, one of the things the Church insists upon is that the visible and tangible cost of an action is actually important. Morally relevant, even: whatever we think of Just War Theory, one of the standard criteria for the justice of a war is that there should be a reasonable prospect of success—meaning that if there isn’t, even a war fought in defense of one’s country is not just (since it would be sacrificing lives to national pride rather than national well-being). And the thing about being somebody who needs to ask forgiveness seventy times seven times is, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the people around you. Sometimes a compromise really would be healthier; just as, in a logically parallel case, it is much healthier to insincerely renounce one’s faith rather than be killed for it. The Church admires and celebrates her martyrs. But she also admires and celebrates the Kakure Kirishitan, the underground Catholics of Japan, who were forced to practice insincere apostasy or else be exterminated; and who survived in secret, without a single priest, for two centuries of longing and faithfulness, until they were reunited with the whole Church under the Emperor Meiji.

And anyway, the objection to the life of reasoned compromise is that it can harden your heart against God. I don’t deny that. But does a life of incessant failure to live up to perfection always keep your heart soft to God? I’m seriously asking.

If we’re virtue ethicists, it seems as though the life of reluctant but considered, frank compromise seems to draw nearer to full integration—it at least encourages our sexual behavior to be ruled by the brain rather than the, uh, little head. If we’re baptized Kantians, the life of the second, intending chastity even while anticipating failure, appears preferable; never mind the question of whether it’s psychological possible to intend something that you have no reason to believe you can actually accomplish. (Can an underweight guy who doesn’t work out sincerely intend to lift three hundred pounds?) But then again, if we are meant to have faith that God can do the impossible in us, what does that look like, if it doesn’t look like attempting what seems impossible? How many times ought we to attempt what looks impossible before we accept that, for whatever reason, God does not seem to be granting this particular grace?5

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I wittered there to passersby, and that has made small difference.

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1To dispose in advance of one tasteless response to this remark, to the effect that what a person wants out of sex isn’t morally relevant: I see nothing wrong in a woman wanting certain things from her sex life, certainly not any more than a man wanting certain things from his sex life. There are other moral factors to consider than what we want out of sex; I even assent that what we simply want may be the least weighty factor; it doesn’t follow that it can be ignored, either in moral theology or in daily life. Moreover, it bears saying that I have a vague impression that such dismissiveness of desire is directed at married women more often than at men (in any state of life), which doesn’t square with St Paul’s teaching that a wife rightly has authority over the body of her husband—and seems a little sexist in differing ways towards both sexes, if that has anything to do with it.
2This is due to the, oh, mechanics of Confession (side note: I’ve found Catholic sacramental theology easiest to understand as being like the rules to an RPG; plenty of nerds will happily read six hundred pages of role-playing mechanics to make sure they aren’t confusing a warlock with a sorcerer). The formula of absolution is not magical; it is the concrete manifestation of God’s forgiveness of the penitent—which means that repentance, in the Greek μετάνοια (metanoia) or change of heart, which by its nature includes an intention to leave one’s sin behind, is required. This is not an arbitrary requirement, imposed by God as a way of making things more difficult for us: rather, the purpose of divine forgiveness is a restored union of life between the sinner and God, and the defining characteristic of sin is that it mangles that life; that life and that mangling cannot coëxist, not permanently anyway. Incidentally, this is also (probably) why our Lord commanded us to forgive up to seventy times seven times: because forgiveness, in a sense, operates of itself, and since we cannot read hearts we must always be ready to forgive, or else, when a sincerely penitent person asks us for forgiveness and we refuse it, it will be we rather than they who have broken the relationship.
3This again refers to mechanics. For a sin to be what theology calls mortal sin in technical terms, it must meet three requirements: grave matter (i.e., doing something serious in itself), full knowledge (i.e., understanding not only what the moral law says but why it says it, and being aware of other relevant facts), and full consent (i.e., deciding to do it anyway without being controlled by passions, addiction, forgetfulness, threats, or whatever else). If one or more of these conditions isn’t met, then the sin in question is what is called a venial sin: not that it doesn’t matter, but that it doesn’t kill the divine life placed within us through the sacraments.
4Problem here is not a synonym for inconsistency or falsehood or anything of that kind. A problem is to be solved; the proper response to inconsistencies and falsehoods is, rather, unmasking.
5We know, if only from the uniqueness of the Immaculate Conception, that God does not grant every grace to every person.


  1. I am so very glad that you still enjoy the practice of sacramental Confession, Gabriel. You see, for me, it has become a cheap a thing as commenting on some forum or blog online for a presbyteral parodohymnodist to take up in mockery or jest. Your genuine experiences and freely sharing of them of your own will remind me of a time long past where the sacred seal actually meant something. Hard to find that nowadays either among clergy or community. Wishing you a blessed Christmas....

  2. Well, I don't know, but millions of people used to confess the same sins week after week, back wHen we went to Confession every week. They knew that they'd commit them again, but they also knew they those were sins and they wished, in some way, that they could stop. It was good enough.

    The fact that one can't stop, the fact that one is reasonably sure that one won't stop before one's next Confession, does not make one's attrition (imperfect contrition) insincere, much less show that it is folly.

    We are impatient. We want immediate results. God is patient and will convert us when he knows it is possible (here or in purgatory).

    1. And maybe that is the answer. I don't know -- seriously. If that *is* the answer, I hope that I (and others) find out that it is. The reason I wonder is simply that I don't *know* that that's the answer.

  3. I wrote something like Ms Selmys’s point a few years back:

    “The problem with the "self-discipline" or "doing battle with oneself" discourse is actually that it usually ends up as a weird sort of dissociative dialogue. "How could I do something like that?! Bad me!" is actually phrased as a second-person address to oneself, it grammatically takes the second-person form "How could you do something like that?! Bad you!" So there is this bizarre dissociation and disconnect between the "scolding" speaker (the internalized voice of authority) and the "scolded" subject. The "superego" is identified in that moment as the "real" self, totally blameless, which is punishing this other "bad" agent inside ones mind (the "ego") for not obeying it as master, but rather doing these things that some third competing party (ie, the "id," a demon, The World, The Flesh, etc) told it to. When really they're all the same person!!! This isn't real ownership or contrition or integration, because the voice of "conscience" that is doing the "repenting" or abnegation totally dis-identifies with the bad action and attributes it to some second-person agent and external temptation. So there is no responsibility taken, it's just exactly the same passing of blame that happened with Adam, Eve, and the snake!

    The result is a cycle of guilt, repression, confession, swearing it all off, and then falling again...that I think many people get trapped in, but it only reinforces the behavior. It's the common cycle of an addict.”

  4. When I go down the road of reasoned compromise, I always find myself at the other end knowing that what it really meant was, "This is wrong but I feel like I should do it anyways because there is some part of my life I don't want to abandon to Jesus."

  5. I've been debating this myself. I fall on the side of having a moral code you can keep, or else it's not a moral code, it's just an aspiration, like a New Year's resolution. I don't judge people on whether they say they're going to lose weight starting in January. I judge people based on what they actually do. And if your "moral code" isn't really a moral code because deep down you know you're not going to be following it ... do you even have a moral code? If you constantly break rule X of your moral code, does that make you less confident in it in general, so that you start breaking rules A, B, and C as well? Does it, in short, habituate you to ignoring your own conscience?

    In my case it was a bit more difficult, because where NFP is concerned, there's always a way out. You just get pregnant. That's not objectively sinful. And it's as easy as falling off a log, with no quick moment of weakness that can undo it. And that, I have always understood, is what a married couple can do if they can't be abstinent.

    Of course you may find out later that all your children suffer from this, that your physical or mental health collapses, that you can't parent adequately, that one of your kids needs therapy that you can't afford .... but none of those things are *sins,* are they? But I'd challenge any parent to shrug off the suffering of their children as easily as we are told to shrug off our own suffering.

    1. I think I see your point, but I'd define a moral code pretty differently. My own reaction to a moral code that can be kept without any exceptional effort is that it's not much of a code. To quote Wislawa Szymborska's strange poem 'In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself':

      If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
      A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
      Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
      ... On this third planet of the sun, among the signs of bestiality,
      A clear conscience is Number One.

      This is not to say, for one instant, *either* that conscience is merely an aspiration and should be treated as trivial accordingly, *or* that corrosive guilt is in any way a healthy feeling. The paradoxical fact that both of those attitudes are bad is, in my opinion, one of the things divine grace is meant to deliver us from: both heroic attempt and honest realism have their place in the economy of grace. But if I personally were genuinely able to *satisfy* my moral code, either entirely or as near as made no important difference, I don't see how I could avoid self-righteousness, nor how I could sincerely believe that my code corresponded to moral reality rather than to what I wished to believe about moral reality. If you will, I regard *every* moral code as an aspiration, because I know of none that hasn't been broken on every point by its own adherents.

      My personal experience -- I cannot speak for others -- has been that breaking rule X hasn't at all weakened my confidence (objective or subjective) in rules A through C, *provided that* I don't try to adjust what my moral ideals actually are. It is those, rather than my own conduct or capabilities, that give me a sense of moral 'north' for my compass to aim at; when I break rule X, I certainly *ignore* my compass -- but that's different from breaking it or messing it up with a magnet.

      That said, I'm aware that the consequences of my personal flavor of immorality are comparatively self-contained (compared to other sexual sins, anyway), since nothing that I'm likely to do is going to conceive a child. Given the real differences in gravity of consequence -- which seem to me to impact the gravity of an action as a whole -- I'd hate to act as though the same response must be made to *every* situation that's logically analogous to mine. E.g., I'd be prepared to believe that a married couple, if they can't manage to do better, should use contraceptives, whereas someone like me should try and fail and try again indefinitely; or vice versa. I really, honestly do not know.