Last week I stumbled across the document issued recently by the Roman Catholic bishops of Malta. It is an attempt to establish “criteria” for “applying” the now-infamous Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. If I were a traditional Roman Catholic, I would find this document depressing for its lack of any theology, its woefully inadequate argumentation, and, perhaps above all, for its callous pastoral implications.
The document is nonetheless fascinating, for it offers a glimpse into contemporary sexual ethics, cast in a theological idiom. Make no mistake: This not a Christian critique of the world but an attempt at accommodation with the world. Most notably, the document contains no concept of adultery as being a crime against God. Much that the bishops say about the damage done to children and to spouses by adultery is true. Anyone in any kind of pastoral position will recognize immediately the descriptions of the devastation that adultery unleashes on its victims. Yet the biblical notion of adultery as above all an offense to Almighty God is conspicuous only by its absence. The note struck by the adulterous King David in Psalm 51—“Against you, you only, have I sinned”—is nowhere to be found. It is surely odd that God should be absent from a definition of the problem of adultery, in a document produced by those professing to be his representatives. Perhaps, like Laplace, the bishops have no need of that hypothesis.
Paragraph 9 of the Maltese bishops’ document is one for the ages: We are told of “complex situations” that might make it “humanly impossible” to avoid illicit sex. I wonder what those situations might be? Getting so hammered in a bar late at night that you have no idea to whom you are or are not married? This doesn’t seem a particularly complex scenario, and yet I am hard-pressed to imagine any more likely candidates for these nebulously complicated contexts to which the bishops wish to point. The cynic in me simply says this is one almighty “get out of jail free” card—not only for the adulterers, but for the bishops.
As inadequate as Paragraph 9 is, Paragraph 10 is worse. Here we are told that, as long as adulterers have concluded that their situation is fine, then there is no problem. Step out of the confessional, Psychological Man, for your sins have been shriven. No—let me rephrase that: Your sins have ceased to be sins at all. The triumph of the therapeutic and the aesthetic is complete. Move over Thomas Aquinas, there is a new guide to morals on Malta: Oprah Winfrey. “I just know in my heart that it is OK.”
Joking aside, the saddest thing about this document is that those involved in pastoral care know the huge damage adultery and sexual incontinence do to wronged spouses and to children. In their pandering to the sexual mores of the present age and their apparent unwillingness to take a clear stand, these bishops, whatever their good intentions, are ultimately siding with the wicked and mercilessly sticking it to the innocent. They can dress it up in the language of compassion, but this document is anything but compassionate. When parents commit adultery, it is often the children who are harmed. It is just another form of child abuse, this time of children as third parties.
I am not a Roman Catholic and not a huge fan of much Roman Catholic theology. But I had long thought that, when it came to social teaching and hard-headed moral thinking, the Roman Catholic Church was light years ahead of most Protestants in both sophistication and precision. That no longer seems to be the case. The best one can say is that the style of this document is provided by soft soap, and the content by Oprah.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.