There’s an old joke about a troubled man who goes to see a psychologist and is set doing the Rorschach inkblot test. Responding to the first image the man says, “That’s a man and a woman making love.” The second image? “That’s a threesome on a bed.” Third? “Two people copulating in a forest.” And on it goes for all ten images.
The doctor looks up from his notes and says, “Well, you’re clearly suffering from a high level of sex-obsession”.
“It’s not me,” the man replies. “You’re the one who keeps showing me dirty pictures.”
It would be unfair to suggest that this joke maps neatly onto the relationship between progressive and conservative Catholics in the current climate, but there is undeniably a point of correspondence. Catholics who count as liberal or progressive (and I’m not going to get dragged into a nomenclature war right now) often accuse conservative Catholics – not always fairly – of ignoring Church teaching on, say, social justice and human rights and being inordinately concerned about contraception, sex outside marriage, divorce, homosexuality, and the like. But conservatives tend to flip the narrative over. It’s the culture that’s obsessed with sex, they say, and progressive Catholics, in so far as they side with that culture and accept its norms, share that obsession. They may talk a whole lot about rights and justice, but what they really want is a relaxed sexual morality.
At times, I’m sure, the conservatives have the stronger argument, and at other times the progressive Catholics do. Mostly, though, pathologising one’s opponent like this is not helpful. And sometimes it is plain wrong. A case in point: Fr Raymond de Souza’s recent response to Amoris Laetitia in the National Catholic Register. Fr de Souza places the document within a familiar conservative narrative. It goes like this: Pope Francis, egged on by progressive prelates, schemers who wanted to push through changes in doctrine and discipline, found his wishes blocked by a stalwart traditional party; and even though he took this with bad grace at the time he had the good sense to accept the leash which the synod fathers put on him and to refrain from pressing for change; nevertheless, he couldn’t resist undermining the sense of universal doctrine by endorsing a local, case-sensitive pastoral attitude to those in irregular relationships, and for this reason “there will be serious challenges for theologians to reconcile this exhortation into the magisterial tradition”.
There is much that is wrong with this reading. Right now, though, I only want to look at one idea which lies at the heart of the piece – the idea which brought the psychologist joke to mind. Fr de Souza says:
To get a sense of how strange a circumstance we are in, try to imagine the moral analysis in Amoris Laetitia being applied to any moral question not raised by the sexual revolution. If the question, for example, were whether employers who were exploiting their workers were in an impossible situation that was otherwise too difficult to change, it is unlikely that the papal magisterium would propose that the general principles of justice might not apply in these complex concrete situations.
Let me translate this paragraph, in the light of the surrounding article, into plain language, free of intimations and euphemisms.
Pope Francis, along with his cohorts in the Kasper party, pretends to be motivated by lofty pastoral concerns on the matter of communion and the remarried, but really his motives are base. He just wants to accommodate the lax sexual morality of today’s Catholics. Proof? He is absolutist on the cool, lefty issues like social justice but utterly relativist on the unpopular, embarrassing issues relating to sex. It all comes down to sex, really.
Well, no, it doesn’t. This view is as wrong as it is cynical. The “moral analysis” that Pope Francis proposes is drawn from his certainty that the logic of the Gospel is about the primacy of mercy, and it leaves no-one “condemned for ever”. This, he declares, goes for everyone, “in whatever situation they find themselves”. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t include employers who exploit their workers.
Imagine a businessman who owns a chain of department stores that specialises in affordable clothing. He is a practicing Catholic, and he wants to grow in his faith, but he is in clear breach of the Church’s moral law in one respect. All of his garment manufacture is done in a sweatshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he is the only client, and the conditions there are egregiously bad. The workers put in six and a half days a week and are paid a pittance; they effectively live in the factory, eating, washing and even sleeping there, hardly ever getting back to their families and villages; the building is structurally unsound and poorly wired, making it a health hazard of the very worst kind; and there are lots of ten- and eleven-year-old children working there – the same long hours as the adult folk and without any education, playtime, healthcare or family life. It is a hell. It offends against every notion of human dignity and every principle of social justice enunciated by the magisterium since Rerum Novarum. No Catholic has any business supporting it – to say nothing of profiting from it. The case is cut and dried.
So if you have this businessman in your pastoral care, should you just throw the book at him? After all, so long as he knowingly benefits from this outrageous exploitation he is in a sustained state of serious sin – at least as serious as that of the divorced-and-remarried or of unmarried co-habiting couples. Would you tell him not to receive the Eucharist?
At times, perhaps, you might. If he showed complete indifference to the welfare of these workers and no inclination to improve things, you would probably have to confront him harshly with his sin. But – and this is the crux of the matter – you would have to take a good, hard look at the particulars of the case first. Did the man initiate this unjust arrangement himself, or did he merely inherit it? That might make a difference to his culpability. Maybe he’s already shown his willingness to set things right. What if he had already sent a team out to Bangladesh to investigate standards? Good. That suggests some kind of purpose of amendment.
But what if the team came back with a whole set of complications? A developed-world notion of a just wage is simply not a runner. It would upset the local economy and invite in corruption. In any case, paltry as the sweatshop wages are, they are substantially higher than the alternatives available to the poor of southern Bangladesh. And, yes, the conditions in the sweatshop are intolerable, but the manager is one of the better ones, and he has made an honest effort to improve things. He has carried out some structural repairs, has improved ventilation, and has organised more breaks for workers. He’s unable to do any more, however, as he doesn’t have funds to invest in the building, and his first priority has to be meeting the production quotas. As for the children on the payroll, they are mostly the children of women workers who are desperate for them to remain. These women have no-one to mind their kids while they’re at the factory, and besides they need the extra income.
The businessman could of course pull out of Bangladesh altogether, move the manufacturing end of the operation to a country with higher standards or bring it back to his own country. But what about the devastating impact this might have on the Bangladeshi workers? And what about the much higher unit cost of his garments? He won’t be able to compete with other department stores. Is this a hit he has to take? What about the many employees that would be laid off if he had to close some or all of his stores? Does he not have a responsibility to them too? And to his investors? And to his family?
It looks then like the businessman is, to use Fr de Souza’s phrase, “in an impossible situation that [is] too difficult to change”. As Amoris Laetitia puts it, “We know that no ‘easy recipes’ exist.” (AL, 298) What his pastor needs to do is “undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment” of the particular case (AL, 300), identifying “mitigating factors” (AL, 301), both subjective and objective. And that discernment “must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits” (AL, 305). He should ensure that the man clearly hears “the invitation to pursue the via caritatis” (AL, 306), and in this way begin that graduated path toward a full “integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love” (AL, 295). The solution will not be easy and will not be immediate, but through all this time the Church should be there for him – not just to proclaim the law but also to accompany him “with attention and care” (AL, 291), to instill in him “hope and confidence” (AL, 291), and to “help him understand the divine pedagogy of grace” (AL, 297) in his life. In short, everything that Amoris Laetitia says about the case of divorced and remarried Catholics also holds in cases of social and economic justice.
The big point of Amoris Laetitia, in fact, is precisely that these same considerations hold in all moral cases, of whatever hue. What we’re seeing, I think, is the rehabilitation of casuistry in the Church’s approach to practical ethics – a return to the practice of circumscribing the judgement of universal laws and absolute principles by paying close attention to the concrete circumstances of particular cases. If this is true, it’s a good thing. Casuistry was unfairly (if brilliantly) dealt a death blow by Blaise Pascal in his mid-17th century Provincial Letters, in which he used the excesses and abuses of some casuists to ridicule the whole practice. But, as modern casuists have been quick to point out, casuistry may be open to abuse, but that is not an argument against casuistry, only an argument against its abuse. The way this is put by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, co-authors of The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1988), which did much to revive interest in this approach, is that there is a difference between “good casuistry, which applies general rules to particular cases with discernment, and bad casuistry, which does the same thing sloppily”.
Discernment is the key. And discernment is stressed throughout Amoris Laetitia – not surprising from a Jesuit pope. In fact, the Ignatian stress on discernment no doubt accounts for why Jesuits were so prominent among the Catholic casuists of the 16th and 17th centuries. Ignatian spirituality stresses the need to take all attendant circumstances into account as one assesses the nature or value of an action or state, and that is what Pope Francis is urging now. In fact, he is taking this case-by-case approach beyond the strict bounds of moral casuistry into what we could call ‘pastoral casuistry’. In other words, it’s not all about judgements and consequences. The Church’s first and greatest purpose is to reflect, to articulate, and to mediate the mercy of God. Case by case, the Church must make judgements indeed, but only in the context – in the light – of that mercy.
As a purveyor of mercy, then, as a pastor who refuses to let the pastoral trail behind the doctrinal, Pope Francis shows himself to be a good moralist and a good Jesuit.