A Means of Disowning the Past

As has been widely reported, San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy recently published an article in America proposing that the Church revise her teachings on sexuality.  There have already been thoughtful critiques by Archbishop Aquila, Bishop Barron, and George Weigel, among others. So I’ll leave that controversy aside.

But students ask me: “How can a Roman Catholic Cardinal propose simply abandoning the millennium-long teaching of the Church?”  Well, that’s a good question, and I have no real answer.  But I have my suspicions about some of the influences that may have led to it.

I’m working on a book on modern “historicism” and its effects on modern moral theology. One of the fundamental presuppositions of many modern moral theologians that a baby-boomer bishop like Cardinal McElroy would have studied in his extensive education would have been the presumption that human nature changes over time and between cultures.

To be clear, the claim isn’t simply that technology advances and cultures change. Rather, it’s the more radical claim that human nature itself changes.  This theme was drummed into the heads of students repeatedly.  Allow me to cite a few passages from the Introduction of Christian Ethics: A Reader, which contained articles by most of the most prominent moral theologians of the day, such as Charles Curran, Bernhard Häring, and Josef Fuchs.

In the introduction, the editor speaks of the importance of “historical consciousness” to moral theology: “an awareness of the time-conditioned nature of human existence, has influenced contemporary theology through a revision of what it means to be human.” He contrasts this with the past emphasis on “the authoritative decision of what natural law prescribes for all people of all times” when “there was little consciousness of the interdependence of moral knowledge with the total cultural, social, political structures and environment.”

Another author exhorts the reader that “the work of theologians has to be seen always within the frame of society and Church and their respective self-understanding” and condemns the past when “the self-understanding of the Church was static, as was also the understanding of human nature and natural law.”

The “state of being man,” says another, “does not exclude that the human state may differ in different epochs and cultures, just as it is actualized in different individuals and life situations without placing man’s nature in question.”  Another affirms that “the existentialist affirmation that man creates his essence by the decision he takes rather than comes into the world with a ready-made essence represents a profound insight. To be forever progressing is a characteristic of man; the world around him is his world, the world for him, the word of his own ceaseless making and realization.”

Still another declares: “Precisely to the extent that man’s being changes with time [so] must the applicable ethical norm also change in every case.”  What about divine revelation?  His reply: “Even moral precepts in the NT must be checked since they were directed to Judeans, Corinthians, and Philippians, and in the twentieth century, we are simply not the same men they were.  The difficulties of a natural law grounding of moral precepts cannot be avoided by recourse to Scripture, since its own ethical message must be interpreted.”

And “It is today an historical fact,” claims another author, “that the sexual morality handed down in the Church came under the influence of certain non-Christian (Jewish and pagan) evaluations in the first Christian centuries and is conditioned by them,” hence they are no longer applicable today.


Of course, “sexual morality” is where all of this was going.  No one suggested that the Church’s prohibitions against unfair labor practices should be revised now that we have a more advanced understanding of economics.

“The mind’s grasp of human realities, and self-understanding can be altered,” writes another author. “One thinks, for example, of the efforts toward an expanded conception of marriage and sex in the milieu of the Catholic Church in the recent past.” He says, “one thinks,” but it would be more accurate to say “all of us in my group think” this way.

Another considers it absurd that “sexual norms enunciated in the fifth or fifteenth century continue to be absolute in the twenty-first century. What Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, or the Council of Trent knew about sexuality in the past cannot be the exclusive basis for a moral judgment today about sexual action.”

“There are moralists,” writes another, “who would suggest, for example, that adultery is morally indifferent, if not approvable, for two individuals who have particular needs under particular circumstances.”

One might want to keep one’s wife away from that priest.

Even more troubling is the author who writes that “values, like. . .the proscription of the taking of human life without consideration of its concrete circumstances, are contingent and changing; they arise historically and belong to the changing nature of human beings grounded in the historical and existential.” So I guess abortion and euthanasia are negotiable now.

And finally, there’s this from another article:

Any moral theorist or moral agent, therefore, who wishes to make a moral judgment about any human action in the contemporary world must keep in mind that people living in the past, no matter how intelligent or how saintly, simply did not know the reality of the human person as fully as we know it today.  Given what we know today of human biology and physiology, and, therefore, of human sexuality, for instance, [Josef] Fuch’s judgment appears incontrovertible: “one cannot take what Augustine, or the philosophers of the Middle Ages knew about sexuality as the exclusive basis of a moral reflection.”

So, if you were a young cleric who styled yourself one of the “best and brightest,” getting a “high-level education” at all the “best” institutions with all the “best” people during this period, then you might be persuaded to think this way. And as a result, you would have acquired a thick insulation against any arguments from Scripture, tradition, or the saints, so your highly-prized “listening” would be very, very selective.


*Image: Flevit super illam (“He Wept Over Her”) by Enrique Simonet, 1892 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]. Simonet’s painting evokes Christ’s prophesy pf Jerusalem’s destruction in Luke 19:41: And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it.


You may also enjoy:

Stephen P. White’s A Road to Nowhere

Robert Royal’s Our American Catholic Rubicon

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.