Since the 1960s, progressive Catholics have promoted a new morality to replace older, normative approaches that they believe foster guilt and exclusion. Prominent cardinals and bishops have embraced this “New Paradigm” and are using the international synodal process to spread it throughout the Church. They insist the change is required by “science” and a better understanding of both the human condition and Jesus. In reality, it’s based on misrepresentations that can’t lead to the abundant life Christ offers us.
The Progressives misrepresent science’s purpose and scope. The physical and human sciences focus solely on the empirically discernable operations and interactions of the cosmos and human beings. Consequently, they don’t (and can’t) examine the relation of our spatial-temporal and sociological existence to any transcendent origin, meaning, or goal.
For example, science can verify that an embryo belongs to the species homo sapiens, but can’t establish the rights of the embryo (or mother) regarding an abortion. Such judgments require ethical considerations that lie outside of empirical analysis.
Ethics evaluates human intentions and actions, and rightly takes into account empirical information about humanity. Ethics acknowledges, for example, that people can innocently act wrongly through ignorance or lack of freedom. So, it’s necessary to consider from a scientific perspective how knowledge and choice can be influenced physically (e.g. by genetics and bio-chemistry), psychologically (e.g. by trauma or dysfunction), and socially (e.g. by socio-economic and cultural conditions).
There’s no doubt that for Christians empirical knowledge provides a crucial context for understanding why people think and act as they do and, hence, for guiding the evangelical work of accompanying them from error and sin to sharing the abundant life of God’s children. Those insights help us to deal patiently and properly with diverse stages of personal development, uninformed or compulsive behaviors, the struggle with selfishness and sin, and the on-going purification of mind and heart that Jesus desires for everyone.
Nevertheless, science can’t determine ethics and so its findings must be interpreted and used in ethical matters with great care. Caution is needed because, after the Fall, we aren’t fully the human beings God created us to be. “What is” often isn’t “what ought to be.” This means that empirical observations can find certain inclinations, ideas, or actions statistically normal and apparently beneficial when, in fact, they’re ethically inauthentic and harmful.
Given science’s limitations, the claim that “following the science” requires a new morality is a red herring. After all, most traditional moralists accept contemporary science without having to change paradigms.
Evidently, philosophical and theological agendas, not empirical facts, lie behind the New Paradigm. It’s designed to replace the Church’s traditional understandings of human existence, Christian life, and Jesus with the Progressives’ own, incompatible vision. That’s a revolution, not merely an updating of morality.
To better grasp what’s at stake, consider God’s ordering of human sexuality to the procreative, conjugal union of husband and wife within marriage and family. Chastity – living sexuality according to that order – is normative for everyone, married or single.
In this traditional paradigm, unchaste behavior isn’t authentically human and therefore can burden, harm, or misdirect personal development and relationships regardless of conscious intention or awareness. For that reason, masturbation, pre-marital sexual activity, homosexual acts and partnerships, polygamy, remarriage while a spouse is still living, and contraception are to be avoided – and are sinful for anyone who freely commits them knowing they’re wrong.
The advocates of the New Paradigm believe being open to those behaviors provides a Christ-like affirmation for people who with good intentions live that way. Declaring that such actions are impediments or injurious to human flourishing is viewed as a judgmental rejection based on unachievable ideals. Accordingly, formerly “unchaste” behavior can now be called “good.”
This approach fundamentally misrepresents Jesus and his saving work. Christ calls everyone to share his life by abandoning their sins and innocent errors. That’s why he insisted on conversion of heart, mind, and behavior through fidelity to him and his Gospel.
Jesus confronted error and sin in his public preaching and in private conversations like those with Nicodemus and the Adulterous Woman. He didn’t refrain from teaching things people found offensive. And he commanded that those who refuse correction be separated from the Church’s fellowship.
Of particular interest for present purposes – and for bishops promoting the New Paradigm – is how Christ both affirmed and confronted Peter at Caesarea Philippi. He called him “The Rock” and then denounced him for misrepresenting the path to salvation, saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
We can see that for Jesus, affirmation involves correcting us and providing space for our struggling with – but not for our clinging or yielding to – the errors and sins he reveals. This isn’t rejection; it’s his love freeing us to see, admit, and confront our problems.
By the gift of that love, Jesus enables all Christians to persevere with faith and hope in the struggle against error and sin. Denying the necessity of struggle or the possibility of perseverance is thus a denial of Christ, his call, and his love’s power to sustain and transform us.
It’s evident the New Paradigm’s misrepresentations and continued attraction are rooted in its adherents’ thinking “as human beings do.” This is why they don’t see that adopting their paradigm would leave humanity “affirmed” yet imprisoned by sin and error. That’s not the Good News.
Christ sent his Apostles to teach the world “to observe all that I have commanded.” Before that, he assured them his commands can always be lived because “What is impossible for man is possible for God.” His resurrection confirmed that truth and freed us to follow him.
It’s scandalous that in our day many successors of the Apostles don’t teach or believe Jesus’ assurances that authentic Christian life is possible. Their worldly vision, expressed in the New Paradigm, distorts the Gospel and therefore can’t successfully guide anyone, or any synod, along the liberating, life-giving path Christ lays before us.
*Image: Get Thee Behind Me, Satan by James Tissot, c. 1888-1896 [Brooklyn Museum]
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s Pope Francis, Fr. Martin, and Faith without Reason
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s The Crisis We Are Living