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25th of February 2018

Moral Values

“The Greatest Sin is losing the sense of Sin”

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago walks away after meeting Pope Francis during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 7. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In an October 1946 Radio Message to the Participants in the National Catechetical Congress of the United States in Boston, Pope Pius XII spoke a prophetic word: “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.” Early in his pontificate, on January 1, 2014, Pope Francis echoed Pius in a homily. One wonders, however, whether Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, and Cardinal Francis Coccopalmerio are as adept as Pius in comprehending the impact of sin upon human nature—and hence upon human reason—as it savagely wounds and seriously disturbs our nature’s proper functioning, particularly in explaining the dynamics of marriage and family life in contemporary culture?

In his recent address at the Von Hügel Institute, St. Edmund College, in Cambridge, England, Cardinal Cupich claimed:

Pope Francis offers in Amoris Laetitia a new way of relating to the lives of families today by introducing a set of hermeneutical principles. These principles are deeply rooted in Scripture and Tradition and yet are profoundly attentive to the dynamics of marriage and family life in the contemporary world.

Francis’ first principle is, according to the cardinal, that “if we accept that families are a privileged place of God’s self-revelation and activity, then no family should be considered deprived of God’s grace.” Putting aside the questionable claim that the family is the privileged site of God’s self-revelation (where is the Church in this view when, according to Catholic ecclesiology, it is the Catholic Church that has the fullness of the means of salvation?) this principle excludes attending to the sinful dynamics of marriage and family life in contemporary culture. There is much talk about grace, but no attention is given to sin. Thus, while he focuses at the start of his speech on Gaudium et Spes, Cardinal Cupich presents an anthropology that actually overlooks the teaching of Gaudium et Spes §13—and hence of Christian revelation—namely, that there is a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness in human life, and hence within our culture:

Examining his heart, man finds that he has inclinations toward evil too, and is engulfed by manifold ills which cannot come from his good Creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his beginning, man has disrupted also his proper relationship to his own ultimate goal as well as his whole relationship toward himself and others and all created things. Therefore, man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains. But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out that “prince of this world” (John 12:31) who held him in the bondage of sin. For sin has diminished man, blocking his path to fulfillment. The call to grandeur and the depths of misery, both of which are a part of human experience, find their ultimate and simultaneous explanation in the light of this revelation (GS,§13; emphasis added).

St. John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus §25, echoes Gaudium et Spes §13 but also quotes §16 when he wrote that “man, who was created for freedom, bears within himself the wound of original sin, which constantly draws him towards evil and puts him in need of redemption. Not only is this doctrine an integral part of Christian revelation; it also has great hermeneutical value insofar as it helps one to understand human reality. Man tends towards good, but he is also capable of evil.” It is precisely this integral part of Christian revelation, which is central to Christian anthropology, that is missing in Amoris Laetitia. And it is also missing in Cardinal Cupich’s recent address as well as in Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s 2016 Commentary on Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia.

In Chapter 6 of his brief study, Coccopalmerio concludes with the claim that Pope Francis’s “hermeneutics of the person”—in short, the pontiff’s Christian anthropology—affirms that “the person has value in itself” and “is therefore important and lovable.” In short, “the person, and therefore every person in whatever condition they find themselves, has value in and of themselves, despite the elements of moral negativity.” Put differently, using traditional theological distinctions, Coccopalmerio is distinguishing the order of creation and the order of fall into sin—except he doesn’t say anything about the order of the fall into sin and the latter’s impact upon human nature.However, John Paul II affirms this distinction in orders (see Part I of his magnum opus, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body), as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its teaching on a theology of sin and also on marriage (§§385-421, 1601-1620). But, in a lopsided manner, Coccopalmerio hermeneutics of the person does not reflect an integral hermeneutics of creation, fall into sin, and redemption. In particular, unlike Gaudium et Spes and John Paul II, he—as well as Cardinal Cupich—pays no attention to the “great hermeneutical value [of sin] insofar as it helps one to understand human reality.”

Now, Amoris Laetitia affirms that mitigating factors and complex situations make it impossible for us to say that the divorced and civilly remarried, or, for that matter, by implication, a cohabiting couple (whether homosexual or heterosexual) “are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (§301). One of the reasons given for this claim is that a couple “may know full well the [moral] rule [namely, that sexual intercourse of a man and a woman outside of marriage is morally wrong], yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent value’” (§301; see also §298). Is this reason sufficient in specific cases to claim that individuals are not culpable for living in a state of mortal sin or deprived of sanctifying grace, as Francis and Coccopalmerio claim?

Significantly, Cupich simply abandons all discussion of culpability—crucial for the moral logic of pastoral reason in Amoris Laetitia in discerning whether “all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL §301). He merely makes the unqualified assertion that no family whatsoever (“not restricted to those [families] who meet the Church’s marital ideals,” according to Cupich) should be considered deprived of God’s grace because they are the privileged site of God’s self-revelation.

Regarding the claim of diminished culpability that follows from having great difficulty in understanding the inherent truth or good regarding limiting pre-marital sex to marriage, it is clear that rejecting this precept does not as such diminish culpability because an individual may “‘take little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when [his] conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin’ [Gaudium et Spes §16]. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1791). This, too, is Aquinas’s view when he speaks about how understanding a moral precept may be distorted “by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition.” None of these factors figures centrally in Al’s account, nor in the accounts of Coccopalmerio and Cupich, regarding civil marriage or cohabitation (Amoris Laetitia §294).

Pope Pius XII, in comparison, has a sense of sin’s hermeneutical value in explaining human reality, particular through natural reason. In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis he refers to the concrete situation in which we exist as fallen human beings and the noetic effects of original sin, which leaves the proper ordering of our intellectual powers to the truth in a precarious, confused, and disordered state (see §2). In this, Pius echoed Thomas Aquinas, who argued that the knowing powers of human reason suffer the wound of ignorance and are deprived of direction toward truth; additionally, that the disordered state of our intellectual powers also affects “man’s desire to know the truth about creatures,” for he may wrongly desire to know the truth by not “referring his knowledge to its due end, namely, the knowledge of God.”

Furthermore, according to Aquinas, a man may fail to know that something is true because human reason may be perverted. Indeed, he identified five ways in which that may be the case: passion, evil habit, and evil disposition of nature, vicious custom, and evil persuasion. J. Budziszewski, in Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, succinctly explains Aquinas’ view:

Corruption of reason by passion: Momentarily blinded by grief and rage, I unjustly strike the bearer of the news that my wife is deep in adultery with another man. Corruption of reason by evil habit: little by little I get into the habit of using pornography or cutting corners on my taxes. At first my conscience bothers me, but eventually I can see nothing wrong with my behavior. . . . although I am still capable of restraint, it is more difficult for me than it might be for someone else. Corruption of reason by evil disposition of nature: a defect in one of my chromosomes predisposes me to violence, abuse of alcohol or homosexual acts. although I am still capable of restraint, it is more difficult for me than it might be for someone else. Corruption of reason by vicious custom: I have grown up among people who do not regard bribery as wrong, and so I take it for granted. Corruption of reason by evil persuasion: I use electronic tricks to make free long-distance telephone calls, justifying my behavior by the theory that I am merely exploiting the exploiters.

Thus, wounded human nature does not merely suffer the loss of a supernatural addition to our natural human reason. Aquinas, for one, makes clear that original sin, which wounded human nature, involves the dissolution of a natural harmony pertaining to human nature, which he also calls a “sickness of nature.” As he stated: “original justice was taken away by the sin of the first parents. as a result all the powers of the soul are in a sense lacking the order proper to them, their natural order to virtue, and the deprivation is called the ‘wounding of nature’. . . . in so far as reason is deprived of its direction toward truth, we have the ‘wound of ignorance’.” Thus reason is, as Etienne Gilson put it, “stripped of its disposition for truth.”

It isn’t that wounded natural reason as such is unable to grasp certain truths about God, man, and the world after the fall; rather, the necessity of divine revelation is justified by the “weakness of human reason which, left to itself, would inevitably become entangled in the grossest errors.” In conclusion, since the fall had an effect on the whole of human nature, including natural reason, human reason has been “wounded and weakened by sin” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio §51). Hence, any account of human reality that ignores the great hermeneutical value of sin in that account cannot be said to be deeply rooted in Scripture and Tradition, contrary to the claims of Cardinals Cupich and Coccopalmerio.

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