If one considers the transformation of Plato’s Academy, champion of eternal truth, into a center of radical skepticism against which St. Augustine wrote his Contra Academicos, or contemplates the splits and changes that have occurred in all other philosophical schools, one will see that the preservation of Catholic doctrine over two millennia is a miracle. Considering likewise the countless divisions between and within the different Protestant confessions, as well as in other religions, it is evident that the way Catholic teaching has survived intact, becoming increasingly clear with each confrontation with error, is a wonder far greater than healing the sick or making the blind see.
Add to this the fact that many priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes not only lived very bad lives opposed to Catholic teaching, but rejected many Catholic doctrines, or simply did not believe them. Any purely human institution would long since have been dissolved, or suffered inner divisions and contradictions that would have been reflected in its creeds and official teachings.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Gamaliel declared the Church’s survival impossible unless it were established and preserved by God. The same line of thought underlies Boccaccio’s famous story in the Decameron, of the Christian merchant and the Jew, who converts precisely because the many unworthy and worldly men whom he met in the Vatican did not destroy the Church, which therefore must be of God. When one observes that “the Church” gloriously overcame the many crises it suffered, one can only mean the true voice and official teachings of the Church. One cannot deny that these same errors have lingered until the present day, and even gained force in many circles despite having been recognized and condemned.
In the last fifty years, the crisis that threatened the Church most gravely is one of moral theology and of the understanding of “natural law.” This crisis became dramatically clear after the publication of Humanae Vitae. At first, theologians who opposed the document sought refuge in the sanctuary of moral conscience, the supreme subjective norm of morality. Instead of seeing conscience as founded upon the objective truth about good and evil, upon the infinite dignity of God, and the towering dignity of man, instead of recognizing that conscience is called to form itself through the truth, these men saw it as a subjective generator of what is good and evil—for me. As if it were not necessary that conscience correspond to objective moral norms that are inscribed in the essence of things and of human acts, and in the eternal holiness of God.
Yet the moral-theological phalanx that turned against Humanae Vitae was not content with saying that the ethical errors and gravely disordered acts of those who practice contraception are purely subjectively justified by their erring conscience. Instead, these opponents suddenly wanted to claim the full objectivity of their opposition to Humanae Vitae, saying that we do not deal here only with erring consciences (tirelessly invoked by Rocco Buttiglione in his defense of Amoris Laetitia).
Defenses of the subjectivity of conscience still implied that the sinner, who found himself entangled in errors of conscience, should be better taught and humbly submit his judgment to the objective truth about the intrinsic wrongness of his acts. Rejecting this, the new proportionalist and consequentialist ethical theory (really a rehash of old ideas) allowed theologians to claim: Under many circumstances the acts Humanae Vitae called intrinsically wrong are, objectively speaking, not wrong at all. Those who disobeyed Humanae Vitae not only had every right to follow their own conscience, even against the Church, they were objectively right when they chose to do so.
Whether this position was called “proportionalism,” “consequentialism,” “purely teleological ethics,” “situation ethics,” etc., the point was the same: It threw overboard the central teaching of all ethics since Socrates, Plato, and Cicero, and throughout the history of the Church—namely, the teaching that there are intrinsically wrong acts. Acts such as lying, raping a woman, abortion, murder, euthanasia, using false judgments to fulfill one’s own lust—as did the old judges who accused Susanna of adultery because she had refused their evil wishes—are always wrong and gravely disordered. The young Daniel’s glorious act of uncovering their lie and injustice, and his just judgment against these evil old men, brings home with gripping force the existence of acts of injustice, lies, calumnies, killing the innocents, etc., that are absolutely and under all circumstances wrong; they are what is called an intrinsece malum.
Now this new moral theology, advocated by Fuchs, Demmer, Böckle, Schüller, and many others, denied that any act could be judged morally, except in terms of its good and bad consequences. Hence, there does not exist an intrinsically and always wrong human action. If an action, whatever its inner nature may be, promises to lead to a lessening of evils in the world, it can be justified. We can easily see that with this ethics nothing in Catholic moral teaching would remain intact. Because no act would be bad by its nature, but good or bad only with reference to the concrete complexity of life and the web of causes and effects.
One can always find cases in which committing murder, betraying the innocent, or many other abominable acts can have a greater number of good consequences than an alternative action. For example, betraying one Jew and sending him to his cremation, considered in isolation, is certainly a most horrible act, these authors admit. However, this same act, under some circumstances, may mean the death of just one man, instead of risking that the Nazis, because of my unwillingness to deliver this one Jew to them, are murdering my own family of eight. Therefore, under such circumstances, we would be permitted, or even obliged, to deliver this one Jew to be killed by the Nazis.
It is not solely a clear teaching of the Church, however, but it is also evident to human reason, that certain abominable crimes cannot at all be justified through pointing out their good consequences. Consider the abominable act the prophet Daniel would have committed, if he had himself condemned the innocent woman, in order not to put his career as young judge into peril.
It is hardly possible to exaggerate the immense proportions of the crisis in the Church produced by such a false and vicious ethical theory. It is able to find an excuse for any kind of sinful act. If mere consequences could make human acts morally good or evil, there would remain no injustice, no cruel abortion, nor any abomination that could not be justified under some circumstances.
To this crisis, Pope St. John Paul II reacted most forcefully. In his Familiaris Consortio, he reconfirmed the teaching of the intrinsic evil of adultery, and of contraception, by which the unitive meaning of the conjugal act is actively and deliberately severed from the procreative one. In Evangelium Vitae, he insisted on the dignity of each human being, who is simultaneously a human person. Hence, any attack against human life, from its very beginning in conception until true death (not merely so-called “brain death”), is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified by any good consequence that such an act might have (such as saving a life or a marriage, or preventing that the husband leaves his children, etc.). No, invoking the authority of St. Peter, and thus (in my view), declaring this teaching a dogma, John Paul formulated in Ch. 68 of Evangelium Vitae that in each and every living human being we must respect the full dignity of the person. Thus, any antilife act is intrinsically wrong and can never be justified in view of any external or posterior consequences.
Finally, in Veritatis Splendor, the pope put an end to this proportionalist ethics, affirming with utmost force that there are acts that are by their nature evil and morally wrong. Their very end and essential intention (finis operis) make them morally wrong regardless of the consequences. Veritatis Splendor condemned lock, stock, and barrel the moral-theological errors that denied intrinsically wrong acts. It thus gave Humanae Vitae its ultimate foundation in the unambiguous teaching that there are acts that are intrinsically wrong and cannot be justified in any situation.
Today the ethics rejected by Veritatis Splendor has raised its ugly head once again. It threatens to bring about the climax of the moral-theological crisis in the Church, because now it is not just a mob of some rebellious theologians and bishops who deny intrinsically evil acts. No, there are some formulations in Amoris Laetitia that have caused a deep shock in those of us who have fought, alongside St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, for decades against the immense evil of this false ethics. These formulations are what have provoked our “dubia,” questions posed at the highest level by four cardinals but expressed in various forms by bishops, priests, theologians, and journalists.
Could it be that Pope Francis threw away in Amoris Laetitia the moral-theological teachings that have been declared most solemnly to be the perpetual teaching of the Church and eternal truths about morality? It is against this background that the five dubia of the four cardinals must be seen. They are in no way anti-pope or damaging to the community of the Church, but represent a supreme service to the Church and to the pope, by pointing out a threat of destruction of Catholic moral teaching if Pope Francis does not clarify things or correct some assertions he made.
The dubia are a church-historical necessity. They are questions that should be asked by all cardinals and bishops, and by all laymen across the world. Yet the four cardinals who asked these questions in the most refined, polite, and fraternal way, were insulted, maligned, made to seem like heretics and schismatics. Cardinal Müller was forbidden by the archbishop of Madrid to present a book that interpreted Amoris Laetitia exactly along the lines of Familiaris Consortio 84 and in the same way the Polish episcopate did, whose position was approved by Pope Francis (“for Poland”). No, these four cardinals, two of whom have died, are heroes, servants, and brothers of the pope, who ask him whether the shocking impression given by some of his assertions corresponds to his will, or not.
The same kind of name-calling and persecution of those who defend the solemn teachings of the Church directs itself against many others. A topsy-turvy inquisition has been launched against orthodoxy, and truth is persecuted by those called to uphold it. I have become one of the victims of this reverse inquisition. Asking the pope, in a paper in total agreement with Veritatis Splendor, a question that coincided with one or two of the five dubia of the four cardinals was enough to get me fired by my archbishop whom I served faithfully during the past six years in Granada, Spain.
I only asked whether or not an iron logic must draw the conclusion that there are no intrinsically wrong acts from the thesis that conscience can know in some cases that God Himself wills us to commit acts of adultery and homosexual acts. I explicitly left the answer to the pope. If he answered this question in the affirmative, I wrote, I would beg him to revoke this affirmation.
For asking this question, and for saying that if the pope answers my question in the affirmative, he should please revoke at least this one sentence, I was charged by the archbishop of Granada in an extremely sharp way. He forced my retirement from the Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair for Realist Phenomenology in the IAP-IFES (the International Academy of Philosophy-Instituto de Filosofía Edith Stein). This chair had been created for me by Don Javier Martínez in 2015, nine months after my seventieth birthday. It was especially absurd, then, that my dismissal was later attributed to the application of a collective law of retirement of professors at age seventy.
One year before, I had already been removed from seminary teaching for another article: “Amoris Laetitia. Joy, Sadness and Hopes.” The second article was punished with my immediate forced retirement, which was never communicated to me directly, in a signed letter, but only indirectly by some hints in emails and telephone conversations, and by a salary receipt. This receipt bears the same date, August 31, 2017, of the press notice in which, next to expressing “the immense sadness of the diocese over my article,” the whole world was informed, without any reason offered, that through “my article” (that was not even cited), I had “damaged the community of the Catholic Church,” “confounded the faith of the faithful,” “undermined the authority of the Pope, and served more the world than the Church.”
The fact that publishing an article, which many voices, including cardinals, archbishops, and bishops called a great service to Church and pope, which is completely faithful to the whole body of magisterial moral teachings of Pope John Paul II, and to a 2,000-year tradition of Catholic moral doctrine, can cause one to be fired by a Catholic archbishop, is shocking, as Robert Spaemann said.
My case is only one of many examples in the present Church. Was not the removal of Cardinal Burke from the second part of the Synod on the family and from all his high posts in the Curia a kind of inquisition in response to his questions, which have not been answered but punished? Is not the same assumption necessary to explain Cardinal Müller’s abrupt removal as Prefect of the Congregation of Faith? Is not the continuous and complete silence of the pope to the four cardinals’ questions a kind of “silent inquisition” and a victory of power and will over reason, a “papal positivism,” as Father Harrison points out in an excellent article? There are countless other examples. Is all of this not a sign that a longstanding deep crisis of Catholic moral teaching in the Church has reached a new and disquieting climax, being not only linked to the supreme authorities of the Church, but espousing a new style in the Church? Not answering questions or doubts at all, not giving reasons, but remaining silent and acting by sheer power! The moral-theological crisis has moved from the bottom to the top of the Church. The victims of judgments or actions against them are denied the opportunity to defend themselves against unjust charges, a natural human right that is explicitly recognized in canon law.
There is a strong dose of “papolatry” in all of this. As the pope is by no means infallible in every statement he makes, none of the fierce charges against my article and the dubia of the four cardinals, which are in perfect harmony with Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor, and with 2,000 years of moral teaching, can be justified. Moreover, the pope himself told the SSPX that they did not—and Pope Francis acted quite rightly in this—have to subscribe to all non-dogmatic documents of the Second Vatican Council in order to be fully reintegrated in the Church. In sharp contrast, Archbishop Martínez turned any doubt regarding even just one sentence of the non-dogmatic assertion of the pope in a document of incomparably lesser weight than Council documents into a sort of heresy or crime against the Church, sufficient to fire me instantly. According to chapter 3 of Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s admitting divorced and remarried and homosexual couples to the sacraments is, according to his own assertion, not a magisterial teaching. The fact that the pope’s own, and the Buenos Aires Bishops’, interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is not an act of the magisterium, is already clear from the fact that the pope explicitly accepted the contrary interpretation that nothing has been changed through Amoris Laetitia, for the Polish Church.
How is it, then, that the archbishop of Granada is more papal than the pope, and turns the Buenos Aires interpretation, which he accepted and demands to be accepted by his clergy, into a kind of dogma that justifies my suspension from the seminary teaching for asking critical questions about it, and seeking the clarification or revocation of some assertions in it, pointing out that the sense in which they are being read by many contradicts revealed truth? And how can it be that now, in response to the second article, a Church authority regards a mere question, similar to some of the four cardinals’ dubia, put to the pope, as sufficient ground for my expulsion from a chair? Is asking a question now harmful to the Church, regardless of whether it is asked for good reasons or not? Does it not have to be answered (for neither the pope nor the archbishop answered the question), so long as the questioner can be sent home?
I love Archbishop Martínez and admire him for founding an excellent cultural institute, a new publishing house, a school of sacred music, an institute for women, and other good works. I have never seen an archbishop who initiated so many good activities and entities. I admire him especially for having created the Instituto de Filosofía Edith Stein and the Lumen Gentium Institute, which keep seminarians from being educated in all kinds of philosophical and theological errors taught in the Jesuit faculty of theology inside the Universidad de Granada. Because of this admiration, I wanted to remain in Granada for the rest of my life, and donated many books and unedited writings, including my own, to IFES.
That the archbishop does not remove Catholic theologians who spread errors and heresies while teaching in the name of the Catholic Church, but instead expels me from a chair he had created in a non-Church-affiliated school of philosophy, is beyond my comprehension. Such a persecution of someone who defends teachings that are entirely compatible with the Catholic Church is harmful not only for me, but for the archbishop himself and for the Church itself.
For this reason, I have found it appropriate—on the advice of a very saintly and brilliant cardinal of the Catholic Church—not to accept humbly and silently episcopal slaps in the face for telling the truth and asking questions of the greatest importance to the Church. Instead, I have resolved to fight against misrepresentations of truth and against injustice, both by an ecclesiastic and a civil legal action. Power must not be allowed to dominate over reason in the Church. Gravely damaging and false accusations are not to be simply accepted, not just in my case, but also in many other cases of a persecution of Catholic believers in the name of a pseudo-inquisition.
I have tried, and will continue to try, to propose a conciliatory and peaceful settlement before the peace Court in Granada, but not at the price of truth and of justice. For if I did forego truth and justice or duck down upon being illegitimately castigated, I would indeed damage the ecclesiastic community, confound the faith of the faithful, and undermine the true authority and reputation the pope, who is the visible head of the Catholic Church and the true representative of Christ on Earth.
May God give us a glorious resurrection of truth, of reason and of faith, in the Catholic Church, and may He prevent a new climax of the moral theological crisis in the Church from tearing down the most solemn Church teachings on the divine commandments and natural law! The light of true morality, together with the higher light of the supernatural morality of the Sermon on the Mount, is entrusted to the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church under the authority of the pope, who is called to be the Rock on whom Jesus built His Church, a truth I profess. And precisely because I profess it, I feel the obligation to accept the invitation Pope Francis addressed to all of us: to challenge him wherever we think that his words deviate from the truth of Jesus Christ, whom the pope is called to represent, but not to replace by proposing a new teaching. If this new teaching, or even just one phrase contained in Amoris Laetitia, clearly seems to shake the foundations of the moral order, I am not just permitted but obliged to speak out. In doing so, the philosopher follows the example of St. Paul, who criticized the first pope publicly and sharply, as he tells us in the Letter to the Galatians and as St. Thomas Aquinas beautifully defends. I would not deserve the name of a philosopher and would betray Socrates and Christ (who addressed the first pope with the words “Get behind me, Satan,” when Peter spoke against the will of God) if I acted otherwise and, for base fear of the consequences, failed to speak the truth and to ask necessary questions.
Thus, I repeat again my plea to Pope Francis to answer the question put to him, and to answer unambiguously, with a simple Yes or No. If he answers that one of his affirmations has the logical consequence of denying intrinsically wrong acts and runs counter to the constant teaching of the Church, I implore him, in the name of God, Who Is THE TRUTH, to retract any affirmation that is counter to the truth and Church Teaching.
I do not act this way because I believe myself, in insane pride, to be more infallible than the pope. Rather, I do this because I profess a faith whose Scriptures teach us that sometimes a donkey can see something the prophet fails to see. If the prophet in such a case slaps the donkey, whom God sent him, he will receive the stern reprimand God gave the prophet through his angel.
Josef Seifert is former Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair of Realist Phenomenology at the International Academy of Philosophy.
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Photo by Alfreda Borba via Creative Commons. Image cropped.