How Avoiding Sin Can Lead to Sin

Monday, January 12, 2004



I received a couple of emails this last weekend expressing concern that my questions regarding women's ordination, contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, married clergy and so forth might lead to confusion in the minds of the less theologically educated.

The issue raised in these emails is not so much that my questions are not valid. Rather, since there exists a possibility that I might be wrong on any given issue, the feeling is that such questions should not be made public. The reasoning is that the Church has a role to morally challenge.

Since the Church claims to be a pillar of truth, even if there is room for some development of doctrine on a particular issue, it creates doubt in the institution to make these questions public. It weakens her moral challenge.

I sent some private responses on various points to those who emailed me. As I ponder the critique, I realized that I may have missed a pertinent point my critics were trying to raise. I believe that conservative Catholics often are trying to "play it safe" when it comes to saying that certain actions may not be sinful.

Take the issue of contraception as an example.

The conservative Catholic may have some questions about whether artificial contraception is always and everywhere a sin, just like liberals. Yet, because the Church teaches that it is always and everywhere wrong, such a Catholic reasons that it is safer not to use it, even if you otherwise would.

Such a Catholic is following a line of reasoning that says that there is probably no moral imperative to use contraceptive technology, and since there is reason to doubt its moral legitimacy, it is morally safer not to use it.

I suppose many people - even liberals - make moral decisions this way. When in doubt, don't do it.

I believe this is fine when making decisions for myself. I believe there is a danger to making moral decisions this way most or all of the time, and particularly if making those decisions for others.

The danger is that we begin to demand things of others that God does not demand. This is a misuse of God's name and violates the second commandment. I see this as precisely what the author's of the New Testament portray Christ criticizing in the legalism of the Pharisees. It is what Saint Paul criticized in the Judaizers. This line of reasoning can lead to scrupulosity, which is a sin, and a sin that can lead to neurosis. On the flip side, it can lead to crass works-righteousness, which becomes prideful presumption and judgmentalism toward others.

Here's how the danger plays out in reality....

A person hears the Gospel passage that we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Being unsure what perfection means, a person begins to play it safe as described above. Here's what happens next:

I decide that not only is artificial contraception potentially wrong, but since lust in the heart is wrong, and the Pope has even spoke against lust for a spouse, it would be better to remain celibate and remove all occassion of sin by becoming a hermit. This would be far safer than getting involved in worldly affairs.

Further, the Protestants warn against the dangers of gambling, drinking and smoking. Since there is no sin in abstaining from these things, I better play it safe and stop drinking, smoking, and gambling too. Indeed, since even a few Catholic moral theologians argue that smoking and gambling may be sinful, I probably should warn others of the danger. Maybe we should recommend to local pastors that the Church stop using bingo as a fund-raising technique.

Not only should I chose to become a hermit, but since I might be misinterpreting Saint Paul, I probably should get circumcised and eat kosher. Afterall, the Old Testament is pretty clear about this, and there is no sin in being circumcised or eating kosher.

Likewise, Jesus said to do everything the Pharisees command in Matt 23:3, so I probably ought to play it safe and follow the purification and Sabbath rules of Judaism.

Fasting is supposed to be good as well, so maybe I should fast at least twice a week like many early Christians. And just to be sure I am embracing the cross, it might be a good idea if I did a little flagellation and slept on a board. I could also replace my clothing with a hairshirt, or clothing made of burlap. There is no sin in these things, and I better play it safe if I want to be a saint.

Furthermore, since there is no sin being vegetarian, I probably ought to play it safe and become a vegan, just in case the Hindus are right. This also ensures kosher regulations are followed. There's no sin in being a vegan, and I don't want to risk losing salvation over a glass of milk.

Just in case I still slip up, I'll set up my hermitage next to a church so I can get to a confessional every day. This way, I'll have no doubt that I am in the constant state of grace. It should go without saying that daily Mass will be my routine. we have it. The way of perfection is to become an ascetic hermit.

Here are two dangers of this way of thinking:

The Sin of Self-Righteous Pride and Presumption:
Now that I'm practicing this perfect asceticism, and we know that all Christians are called to perfection, I probably ought to get the word out that this is the way to be sure you are right with God, because the Gospel is clear that we are to preach the truth in season and out. Anything less than this life-style is imperfect, since I am following the exact path to perfection. Others are not as holy as I am.

Indeed, those married Catholics who are smoking cigarretts and playing Bingo and eating meat every day and only going to Mass once a week, and confession only every month or so - they aren't really "perfect" Christians. Since perfection is a command, not a suggestion, they might be going to hell. Thank God I'm not like the them.

This is the sin of the Pharisee who went into the synagogue with the tax collector. Christ says the tax collector was justified who kept his head down and prayed, "God have mercy on me, a sinner". Meanwhile, the Pharisee who fasted twice a week and followed the law to the letter was not justified.

When we stand before God at judgment, we should acknowledge that we sinners relying on Christ's free gift of grace for salvation, and not solely on our own goodness.

The Sin of Scrupulosity:
Here I am living the hermit life, and I am still tempted by sinful thoughts. O whoa is me, wretched sinner that I am. I cannot be saved. I am a worm and not a human being. O wretched person that I am.

Even as I go to confession, I am filled with doubt and despair. I sin with doubt even as I say the Act of Contrition. My very thoughts are sinful. I'd be better off dead. I can't be saved.

Such attitudes are the sin of despair, or very close to it.

Any active priest will tell you that nearly every parish in the country has people suffering with scrupulosity in it.

For those who expected me to say we should not avoid what we experience as occassions of sin, this will not be my point. Of course an alcoholic should avoid bars - but those who are not alcoholic do not sin by going by in bars.

We cannot make blanket statements about what constitutes an occassion of sin and develop a universal moral law based on the logic of the slippery slope. What may be an occassion of sin for one person is not necessarily and occassion of sinful for another.

Yet, we all know some alcoholics are tempted to say all people going bars are in sin. This type of attitude is what I chose to critique. There is a tendency in the "play it safe" mentality to call things sinful that simply are not sinful. There is a tendency to either become scrupulous and fall in despair, or become judgmental and project our personal struggles on others.

Effects of These Sins On Others:
Saint Augustine, for all his holiness, was human. He decided at some point in his life to so scrupulously live chastely that he left behind a woman and his own child with that woman. Christ tells us that the Gosepl will call us to renounce our families at times, but I do not think he meant we should be irresponsible. If he did, shouldn't we argue that all Christians must become celibate wanderers immediately?

I rememeber while I was going through Pre-Cana, my wife and I decided to participate in the natural family planning course recommended by our pastor. My wife and I wanted to have children, so we had no plans of using contraception, or natural family planning, and we still do not use it or have plans to use it.

Even though I have no intention of preventing conception, as anyone who has followed my blogging knows, I see an internal inconsistency with permitting natural family planning and not permitting artificial contraception.

The issue is not that the Church recommends abstinence during the fertile period when you want to avoid conception. That makes sense.

The issue is that the Church allows a couple to knowingly, deliberately and freely engage in conjugal relations that they know with absolute certitude cannot lead to procreation. The justification for this is that the unitive dimension of sexuality makes this morally permissible.

If this is true, why doesn't the unitive dimension permit temporary means of artificial contraception within a marriage bond? How does the the "artificiality" of contraception differ morally from the artificiality of using thermometers and measuring vaginal mucus?

My reasoning is that contraceptives are made from nature. If it is permissible to have sexual relations without intending procreation, we should be able to use whatever natural means God has made available to prevent conception.

If contraception is morally wrong, it seems to me that the reason must lie in the attitude toward child bearing and the intent to have sexual relations without intending procreation. If it's wrong to intentionally have sex that isn't open to procreation, then natural family planning is also a sin!

I explained this to the natural family planning instructors after class one day. I honestly expected them to say something like, "Well. You may have a point in saying that natural family planning can even be used with the wrong intent. "

Instead, their response was along the lines of this: "The Church does not call us to be morally irresponsible. Of course some people should limit the number of children for very good and moral reasons. It would be wrong to ask these married couples to abstain from sex altogether, and it would be wrong to force them to conceive when they are not ready. Therefore, the Church teaches that this is the means they should use to prevent conception."

Note that these instructors are taking for granted that the intent to have sexual relations without intent to procreate is not only permissible, but a moral responsibility for some people!

If these instructors are correct, having married sex with no intent to procreate is not only permissible, but a moral duty!

I must confess that Humanae Vitae seems to agree with them in places. While the letter prohibits artificial contraception, it clearly seeems to say that sex without the intent to procreate is not only permissible, but a duty at times.

If avoiding pregnancy is a moral duty, it is even more imperative that we carefully consider the means and make all morally permissible means available to them to fulfill their duty. It would be morally wrong to deny legitimate means to fulfilling said duty. Thus, if artificial contraception is acceptable, some couples may have a moral duty to use it. If it is wrong, it is important to not only assert this quoting authority, but to help people understand why it is wrong in comparison to natural family planning.

A similar moral problem can be seen in the issue of ordaining women.

Often, conservative Catholics look at the issue by saying that there is no sin in not being a priest, and there are other ways women can serve the Church. Thus, it is safer for a woman to obey the Pope than voice any desire to be a priest.

However, the issue is that if an individual has a particular vocation, it could be argued they have a duty to try to fulfill that vocation. If a particular woman experiences herself as having a vocation to ministerial priesthood, and God really is the source of this sense of vocation, she must pursue it.

Furthermore, it would morally wrong to stand in her way unless it can demonstrated that the source of her experience of sensing a vocation to ministerial priesthood does not originate with God.

Again, it would not be sufficient to simply quote an authority figure to prove this sense of vocation does not come from God. Such a woman will need some help understanding how authority reached its conclusions, and what her feelings about vocation really mean.

Further Spiritual Dangers:
Presumption and scrupulosity are most often fairly interior sins. They do not often have the grave effect on others that sins such as peophilia and murder would have. Yet, by encouraging Catholics to a sort of blind obedience through the "play it safe" mentality, we also make the Church vulnerable to the mentality that lead to the inquisitions and the crusades. The issue is following rules without understanding the reason for the the rules.

Here's how it works. You tell a person to obey the Vatican on contraception based almost solely on arguments from authority, and thereby, create the impression that the highest virtue is obedience to authority, even when it is a "blind obedience".

Perhaps there is some reasonable argumentation set forth for following authority. For example, one sets out to prove rationally that there is a God, and that Jesus is the Son of God. Then one sets out proving that the Papacy posseses the charism of infallibility through arguments from Scripture and Tradition. Then the conservative stops here.

Rather than demonstrating that the Pope's position on contraception is reasonable, the argument turns to doing whatever the Pope says because it is the Pope who said so, and it seems safer to follow the Pope than to question the Pope. Thus, if the Pope explicitly or implicitly supports the crusades or the inquisitions, it must be the right thing to do, because it is the Pope who said so - even if he is not exercising infallibility.

Note that the inquisitions, the crusades, and witch burnings are collective fear of sin and error leading to attempts to try to control others who evoke our fears.

"Playing it safe" through blind obedience can lead to people dying if we are not careful. Blind obedience can lead us to do things contrary to the nornmal healthy person's conscience, and contrary to God's true will. Fear can inspire spiritual disaster.

May God grant me the grace to never be so certain of my understanding of the truth as to kill another to defend my opinion!

What I am getting at here is that blind obedience sets the entire Church up for a violation of the second commandment. God's name can be used to actually pervert morality through the use of fear tactics and the encouragement of blind obedience!

Perhaps "the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord" (Ps 111:10, Pr 1:7 and 9:10). Yet, in the Hebrew, "fear" does not necissitate a cowering terror. Rather, the notion expressed is more that of awe and reverence. Furthermore, even if terror were the beginning of wisdom, it is not the final goal of wisdom. "Perfect love cast out all fear" (1 Jn 4:18) and perfect love is the goal of the Christian life (cf 1 Cor 13:13).

Obedience is not cowering in blind fear of authority. The very word "obedience" is rooted etymologically in the notion of hearing and listening. Humility is rooted in the notion of being grounded.

The obedient person is not someone who grovels in fear. Rather, the obedient person is someone who is open to a change in mind and heart grounded in reality. Such an openess arises out of trusting love in the divine power that inspires awe. We do not follow blindly out of terror. Rather, we trustingly follow the One who has earned our trust!

God earns our trust because God loves us and desires that which is life-giving and good for us. God speaks through conscience, and we discern his voice through rational reflection aided by grace and the revealed teaching of the Church. We know we are hearing God's voice because it rings true in the heart. The voice of God is reasonable, for God is the creator of the human mind and he made it a rational mind.

This does not mean that we comprehend all things rationally. Some truths go beyond reason, including love and freedom. Yet, no truth is irrational and internally inconsistent. The First Vatican Council affirms that no truth whatsoever is contrary to reason, whether revealed or derived through natural reason. So, one of the first things we do in discerning God's voice in conscience is to reflect rationally on what is proposed.

If the Church proposes non-infallibly some teaching that seems internally inconsistent, there is a good chance an error is being made either in the proposition itself, or our individual understanding of the proposition. The only way to clear this up is through open dialogue - asking questions.

Certainly, we also bring the light of the truth of revelation to bear on our questions along with our God given human reason. The Pope and the bishops have authority from Christ, and we accept the inspiration of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. What they teach as infallible today is clearly consistent with the teachings of Christ. My questions are entirely over issues that have not yet been defined infallibly.

We all know that at the non-infallible level, the Church's leaders have taught and done things that are morally abhorrent - and fear was used to keep people from challenging them - whether fear of physical harm from an inquisitor, or fear of hell encouraged by a popular preacher.

If people are called to be hermits and live an ascetic life-style, their motivation should not be fear of sin. Rather, the calling to celibacy should be a postive embracing of a particular vocation to relate to God and others in a specific way. It may be hard for those of us who do not have such a calling to understand how can one can embrace something positive in the ascetic life-style, but I personally know hermits who claim they do so!

The difference between positive and negative motivation is like a man who marries for love, and a man who marries out of fear of what his parents think of his remaining single. Those who do not feel the positive draw to the ascetic life-style should not embrace it, and those who feel a postive calling to such a life-style will not fall into scrupulosity or presumption, because fear of punishment is not the motivation.

We must test our interpretation of Scripture, Tradition, and even the teaching authority of the Church in light of reason. It is one thing if something is proposed that goes beyond reason. For example, the Trinity of persons in the single essence of God goes beyond rational comprehension. However, it is not self-contradictory, because there is no confusion of philosophical categories. We do not say that there three persons in one person, or three essences in one essence. Rather, we say there three persons in one essence.

A less mentally strenuous example of a teaching going beyond reason is the matter and form to be used in the Eucharistic host. The teaching that the matter of the Eucharist must be bread made of wheat and water is not purely rational - but it is not irrational either.

When we are discussing speculative theology, mystical theology, or sacramental theology, we typically are in an area where there needs to be a profound openess to mystery - that which surpasses reason, even if not irrational.

On the other hand, in the realm of moral theology, reason is a much more useful tool. Indeed, the Church teaches that all people are born with the gift of conscience, and that conscience is a judgment of reason!

Indeed, the Church proposes that certain moral principles derived from reason are consistent with Catholic theology. These are said to be known through "natural law", meaning that the human mind can come to the same conclusion as the Church completely unaided by revelation!

In the realm of moral theology, what the Church proposes must never violate reason, and when she says a moral doctrine is in accord with natural law, such a doctrine must be expressible in terms an atheist can grasp, understand and even accept intellectually if not in practice!

Human reason can be deductive or inductive. Deductive reason moves from general principles to a particular application. Inductive reason moves from particular obervations made empirically to draw general principles. Catholic moral theology is typically deductive rather than inductive, but there are theological schools that look at it both ways.

In order to avoid such catastrophes as the crusades, the inquisitions, witch burnings, support for slavery, and so forth, we need to remember what the Bible and the Church herself teach are the central commandments and the central principles of moral theology. If we cannot demonstrate a deductive path from these general principles to a particular application, there is a high probability of error.

Christ proposes in the Gospel that the two great commandments and the golden rule are the basis of all moral law.

Paragraph 1789 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states quite clearly that the golden rule applies in every moral decision. If those holding teaching authority in the Church and their apologists cannot demonstrate how a certain moral teaching is rationally consistent with the golden rule, we should not feel compelled to blindly obey.

Herein lies the key to why some people withhold assent on some of the issues currently taught by the Vatican. We are basically asking those who hold that artificial contraception to prevent conception is always and everywhere wrong, even within a marriage bond, to demonstrate how every instance of its use is a violation of the golden rule.

If this cannot be done, and it is true that there is a moral imperative for some people to avoid conception, it may be morally wrong not to permit artificial contraceptive techniques to be developed further and used appropriately.

Instead of constantly shifting the debate to whether it is safer to follow the hierarchy in blind obedience, we are claiming that the safest course to moral certitude is to continually reflect on the two great commandments and the golden rule.

If one can trace the deductive reasoning from the golden rule to a particular application, quoting authority can still be done for rhetoric effect, but it is largely unnecessary to actually persuade. Most people want to follow the golden rule, even if they don't believe in Christ.

I would argue that conservative Catholics ought to form a mental habit of continuously tracing the deductive line of reasoning back to the core moral principles of the golden rule and the two great commandments for all moral questions.

In many cases, you will be able to easily defend Church based on these principles. In some cases, you will be able to defend the Church, but it may take some thought. When the argument is made from the golden rule to demonstrate a moral point, real moral challenge occurs! The Church will not lose her ability to morally challenge if she focuses on doing this!

In some cases, you may find yourself coming to the conclusion that the golden rule would lead you to the exact opposite conclusion as the conclusion reached by teaching office of the Church. This should not undermine your faith in God or the Church. Nor should it cause you to hide your questions under the guise of false humility.

Rather, you should feel humble enough to admit you are confused, questioning and seeking. This humility will free you to voice your question so that others may help you find an answer. Faith is not certitude on this or that fine point of law. Faith is trusting that God is with us in this process, and will remain with us when we take that risk and stand accused (see Rev 12;10).

In your confusion, God will send an answer, or you may be the one through whom Christ will work to lead the Church to reform a teaching. This would be just as Christ did through the abolotionists who opposed slavery. Realizing this possibility does not lead to sinful arrogance unless you become close-minded in the process.

There is a paradox here that appears to be a contradition on the surface, but is not when you reflect on the mystery. Like all great mystery, it is reasonable, and yet enigmatic.

A humble person does not seek to end the discussion, but to keep it open. A humble person does not have all the answers, but has many questions (even if the question is framed in the style of an argument). A humble person accepts that we cannot know everything, and does his or her best in life with that. We seek certainty in the application of the golden rule in every circumstance, knowing that sometimes we just have to live with our best educated guess for today - and realizing our view might change tomorrow. We listen to the Church's side as well as others.

The humble person is always open minded to hear a new argument for and against Church teaching. The humble person is able to listen to others, and the one who can listen is able to love, and love casts out fear. Obedience to God and to the Church is more meaningful when we become open to the possibility that both myself, as an individual, and the Church as a community, are in need of constant conversion.

We "play it safe" only as a temporary measure to be used minimally until we can get more information, because the Gospel is going to challenge us to take risks - perhaps to risk our very lives and reputations, like the Master.

Questions are not the death of the Church or its ability to morally challenge. Questions keep her alive.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:03 PM

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