In the last two posts, I shared aspects of Catholic morality I admire and believe represent Christ’s moral teachings and life. Part 1 shared stories of personal encounters with godly and ethical Catholics who helped me grow more like Christ. Part 2 enumerated Catholic moral theology and general practices I believe promote good Christian moral teaching and are rooted in scripture.
This post has taken me longer to write. Not because I didn’t have clear concerns but I wanted to do it in the spirit of Christ. The Catholic church has championed so many things I believe in and that I believe Adventists and other Christians need the Catholic church to help champion. These include the love of the Trinity, the sufficiency of Christ, the importance of marriage between a man and wife, the importance of obedience to law, the reality of sin and I deep belief in an eternity.
I want to stand with Catholics on defending those truths. I want individuals to know—especially in this increasing pagan and secular society—that Christians are against the hedonistic and violent world America is helping to create. By focusing on the dynamic love between the Trinity the Catholics are centering us back to the very element that keeps sanity in humans and in our world. Our heavenly Father is a great and active love but wants us to follow Him. This is the engine of morality, the “behind the scenes” power, that makes all our moral lives possible. Without a God of love to worship and serve we have no hope for permanent moral wisdom and the benefits of moral growth and living. Love between God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit is the creative life-giving power that is alone bolsters the Christian’s hope for living right physically, spiritually, intellectually, socially and morally.
In addition to God’s love, Catholics have repeatedly defended respect for human dignity and reverence for life. I support their fight whole-heartedly. They are amazing champions in this area. A nation that is now in a drunken stupor with wholesale abortion and euthanasia needs the sober Catholic voice reminding us this is NOT GOD’S WILL. While I support rare use of these, our society is becoming so disrespectful of human life it is chaotic and abusive and working against Jesus’ plan.
In addition to these two spiritual foundations for morality—trinity and human dignity—there is one more I reviewed that I want to champion again before I critique my Catholic friends. I thank the Catholics for keeping alive natural law morality. By showing morality can be traced to the created order they have made morality more accessible to those who struggle with even theological propositions and supernatural realities. This has created a useful common ground and shared language by which important moral commitments and practices can be kept alive.
So, I see many areas where Catholics have done more than their share to keep Christian morality alive in an increasingly profligate and secular world.
Now, I have a more melancholy task to raise concerns about Catholic morality. I do so to help all Christians improve their moral commitments. I approach this task with Paul’s advice to Timothy ringing in my ears: “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, young men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1, 2). Catholics have helped me sooooo very much and several helped me in my own spiritual re-birth while I worked and learned leadership process in Akron, Ohio. I still owe them deeply for their mentoring, guidance and leadership training. I want nothing more than there well-being.
But I see about 8-10 areas of Catholic moral theology or practice that I believe are causing distortions to ethics and morality. The first five moral distortions I discuss in this post are fairly unique to Catholics. The next posts looks moral distortions that have spread from Catholics to other Protestants, one of which my own Adventist community has struggled with deeply.
I trust many Catholics recognize that their church has not always been on the right side of Christian ethics. I trust they read history and see how the medieval Catholic system persecuted and killed thousands of people—mostly other Christians—for their faith. These misguided attempts to advance Catholic dogma (crusades, inquisitions, wars) were against their own teaching of a Trinity of love. Their response to their Protestant brothers and sisters during the reformation were also inappropriate. These past mistakes should be a sober invitation not to believe automatically that everything the Catholic system is engaged in is morally appropriate. Five areas especially concern me today:
Catholic moral theology and practice distorts Christian morality when…
ONE: Catholic church leaders fail to control the sexual abuse scandals within their clergy and fail to handle well the scandals that they do discover. Catholics have muted their own moral voice in the world on sexual and marital ethics because of this. Non-Christians have a new reason not to trust the moral teaching and advice of Christ as its largest representative group bleeds with moral hypocrisy. These scandals call into question Christs’ ability to breed purity, sobriety, self-sacrifice, and self-control. Can Christ deliver his followers from sin?
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” -Mark 9:42 (also Mt. 18:6)
And a related passage:
“Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” -Luke 17
Several solutions are being instituted which I hope will help the Catholic church decrease this moral hemorrhaging: better monitoring, better protocols of meeting with individuals only in groups, better judicial review, etc. The Catholic hierarchy should serious consider a more systemic solution: which I suggest in the next area…
TWO: Catholic moral theology promotes the value of marriage, but then tell priests they can’t marry. If marriage is so good, shouldn’t Catholic clergy also have the freedom to decide if they want to enjoy the growth and accompanying challenges that marriage brings. As a natural as well as a divinely ordained outlet for sexual expression marriage may not only help priests find a better outlet for sexual expression but also provide a useful training in the dynamics of unifying love. Marriage mirrors the dynamic individuality-unity at work in the Trinity of Love As pastors wrestle with spouses who are separate, but equal amazing blessings could come to Catholic clergy that would also help them in both pastoral and theological ways.
I believe Catholic leaders undermine much of what they have to say about marriage, divorce and homosexuality by continuing this practice of banning clergy from marriage.
THREE: Catholic moral theology sets several types of leaders and Mary, the mother of Jesus, as humans who act as mediatorial agents between God and humans. If Catholics want people to stay focused on Christ as their high priest (Hebrews 9), they should continue to point to Jesus as the ONLY priest we need for confession and intercession. We don’t need pastors for interceding as sin bearers or a Virgin Mary to eclipse the sufficient sacrifice and mediatorial character of Jesus. This distorts morality in several ways. First, it suggests God’s righteousness is not about redeeming the lost but about being so distant from fallen humans that only good works on our part can bridge that gap. The implication is that He is too aloof to do His own work of reconciliation. This distorts the fundamental righteousness that makes God so much more lovely than we could have ever imagined. He condescends to us, even while we were enemies of his. His authority to forgive sin is basic to his character and this placing of other humans in the place of God distorts that righteousness. God doesn’t need coaxing to convince Him to love the unlovely. His morality and love is to seek those who are lost.
Second, when we have full access directly to God it strengthens our own moral agency by setting us as responsible directly to God and as undeserved attention of His will to our lives. We have direct relationship and that empowers us to victory. I believe constantly appealing to earthly mediators weakens the Christians’ personal ownership of spiritual and moral growth that God wants them to have.
Finally, this doctrine subtly obscures Christ’ current priestly ministry as advocate in the judgment hour. Catholic focus on the atoning sacrifice of God on the Cross is correct, but if they fail to follow Jesus wherever He goes, they fail to remember He was raise, He was exalted to the right hand of God, that He ever makes intercession for us, and that He is engaged with the Father in the most amazing process of reconciliation known as the Hour of His Judgment. Focusing the Catholic mind on priests robs the Catholic community of this present reality of both direct responsiveness to God as mediating and judging redeemer.
FOUR: The conscience and morality are often merged in Catholic thought and can lead to distortions of several types. First, consciences can be corrupted. Like water that gets salt in it, consciences can either be too harsh or too soft on moral teachings and therefore not the best guides to moral truth. I prefer thinking of conscience as being trained by the Word of God and thus, the Word of God is the best resource that, in the moral hierarchy of decision-making resources, sets it as a trump over conscience. “If our hearts condemn, God is greater than our hearts.” (1 John 3:20).
Furthermore, consciences, once strengthened by the Word of God, can speak against tradition and thus this challenges the constant temptation of Catholic morality to appeal to tradition. Tradition plays a role, but in much of the Catholic morality I read for this they put tradition ahead of conscience and Scriptures. That is not safe for several reasons. First, the Word of God with the work of the Holy Spirit is the engine of moral progress as it convinces of sin, righteousness, and judgment (see John 16).
Sadly, the Catholics have a history of not respecting how educated consciences have tried to reform its practices. A reading of the Protestant Reformation shows that to be true. And more recently, Hans Kung’s memoir My Struggle for Freedom showcases how slow the church has been to respond to clear teachings of scripture.
I share many Protestant concerns about Catholics that they don’t show respect for the private right of judgment for those who want to exercise their God-trained conscience against Catholic tradition. In fact, the Catholic verbal support for the conscience needs to extend to those who are guided by scripture and the community of faith to raise questions against tradition. While the Catholic record on support for religious liberty has improved, they have in the past been on the wrong side of letting people make their own religious choices in matters of worship. It is no wonder that it was in the United States—a nation with many Protestant’s that religious liberty got its deepest rooting. See Nicholas Miller’s documentation of the theological roots of religious liberty in the United States.
FIVE: Catholic theologians talk about the beauty of God’s law and suggest its binding impact but at times dilute some of the directness of certain commandments. I have been concerned about their deemphasis of the command against making graven images. Although the official church argues that it upholds the original 10 commandments and wiki supports this I have seen consistent downplaying of some commandments.
This sends a mixed moral message by implying the spiritual and moral law represented in the 10 commandments were ill-conceived. Second, it suggests the Catholic had authority to fix these by a process of de-emphasis. (we take this issue up again when we talk about the wholesale rejection of Saturday as the Sabbath in part four post). We return to this issue in the next post where we talk about the near universal acceptance of Sunday as the Sabbath and how that has undermined God’s work.
These five areas are places that Catholic moral theology and practice have distorted Christian morality. In the next post, I include additional areas that Protestants and Adventists have joined in with additional support for moral distortions.