Demands for Certainty Are Not Always Reasonable

Jerry Novotny OMI – My last article touched on the official objective teaching of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality. “The Truth: Catholic Church and LGBTQ+”. I would like to follow-up this topic with an article on the subjective pastoral approach by sharing an article I received from my good friend, Douglas McManaman, who helps out as a Deacon in a Canadian Parish. Deacon Douglas McManaman is a writer for, a teacher of Catholic sexual ethics to high school students and has written a number of books and many articles. I thank Deacon Doug for granting me permission to post this article. When dealing with homosexuality or any other social issue, we ought to look at both the Objective and Subjective. To avoid one leads to confusion.

Demands for Certainty Are Not Always Reasonable

By Deacon Douglas McManaman

Many of the articles coming out against Fiducia Supplicans are interesting to read, but most of them seem to assume the point the author needs to prove in the first place – the fallacy of begging the question. Moreover, what they all seem to have in common is a complaint of ambiguity. I am going to argue that when dealing with pastoral matters, ambiguity is inevitable. The reason is that the more general the level of discussion, the greater the clarity; but as one moves towards a more concrete or less abstract level of discourse, things become rather murky, because they have become more complicated.

This is a basic philosophical principle. For example, I can estimate the height of the tree in my neighbor’s front yard: between 1 inch and 100 meters. That estimate enjoys the benefit of absolute certainty. I can estimate the price of the house that’s for sale across the street: I’d say it is between $100 and 10 million. Very broad, very general, but certain. My estimates, however, are also relatively useless; they are useless to a tree cutter (in terms of what tools he’s going to need), and they are useless to a potential buyer of the house. To make the estimates more useful, I have to become more precise. However, there is a trade-off; the greater the precision, the more vulnerable to error my estimates become. So, let me say that the house across the street is $950,000. That’s a more useful estimate, but it is much less certain, for it is more vulnerable to error – the house may just as well be $900,000, or $875,000, etc.

We have a great deal of clarity in the Church when it comes to certain theological and moral questions, but pastoral questions bearing upon individual persons are full of ambiguity, unlike general moral questions like abortion or euthanasia. The Church is clear that sexual activity outside of marriage, that is, sexual activity that is not an expression of marital union, is morally deficient. It’s not terribly difficult to show that. But that really doesn’t help me much when I am dealing with someone struggling with loneliness, sexual passion, self-acceptance, addictive propensities, doubts about faith, etc. It’s not enough to simply say: “Sex between two people of the same sex is a sin! Can’t bless sin! Have a good day!”

There is a myriad of factors outside of a free-will that account for a person’s character traits, foibles and idiosyncrasies, factors that mitigate a person’s degree of responsibility and which demand from a counselor a certain course of action, tone of voice, things to say and not say, etc., and a good pastor must be able to intuit this rapidly. It is supernatural charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as counsel, as well as the charism of discernment, that enable him to achieve this to some degree. Adults should have far more patience and typically provide more room for error for children than for their fellow adults. Similarly in the spiritual life, but very few adults have reached spiritual adulthood, and a pastor who consistently fails in such discernment and treats a person accordingly gives rise to needless suffering and conflict, like a bad parent would.

The spiritual life of a person is a movement, a process, and a good pastor is in many ways like a good teacher who is able to determine students’ various learning styles and the level at which they currently operate, in order to begin at that point. The problem with education in former times was that this preliminary determination was for the most part neglected; for it was assumed that everyone learns the same way, so those who fell behind were simply regarded as less intelligent – these latter were left to deal with confusing and painful emotions to which this isolating state of affairs gave rise. All such students really needed were teachers who understood that not everyone learns the same way, at the same pace, nor begins with the necessary conditions for success at the expected time. Teaching is an art, and so too is the work of a genuine pastor, and it requires much more than the knowledge of general principles.

There are priests – and Pope Francis is fully aware of this – who have as much pastoral sense as a monkey wrench and seem to think pastoral counsel is all about issues, doctrine, teachings, sections of the Catechism, etc., and that once we have clear answers to general moral questions, dealing with people is a straightforward and easy matter. But life is full of ambiguity, precisely because it is so complex. Papal critics are demanding certainty and lucidity on a level at which certainty and lucidity are not possible. Fiducia is without a doubt vulnerable to abuse and misinterpretation, because the discussion takes place on a lower level of abstraction, as pastoral questions always do. But there’s no getting away from that. I bless prospective married couples all the time, most of whom are living together. Am I blessing their sin? No. Am I condoning their living together? No. Should I pry into their lives to get details regarding their living arrangements, before giving them a blessing? No. If two men or two women approach me for a blessing, I have to be able to determine what it is they want from me, without prying, without turning them off completely, and I have to make them feel welcome, etc. If I know they are gay, do I assume they are having sex? Perhaps it is more likely than not, but I don’t think I should assume anything; for there are chaste gay couples whose relationships are not principally about sex. And what do I say in my prayer of blessing? I can ask the Lord to grant them the grace to live in a way that is pleasing to God, among other things. Fiducia is clear that this should not take place in a liturgical or formal setting, since that would lend the impression that we see this as akin to marriage, and we do not. So, what should we do when two people of the same sex approach for a blessing? Do we just say no? It seems to me that a good pastoral approach will for the most part consist in blessing both persons, blessing their friendship, their commitment to one another, calling upon God to impart to them the grace to want to do what God wants them to do, and leave it at that.

A Church that operates on a very general level in order to avoid ambiguity becomes relatively useless (like the useless estimates of the tree height or housing prices). If the Church is to become more useful to the faithful in the modern world, ready to deal with new matters that are of importance to people today, she’ll have to take risks and pronounce on such matters, knowing that given the ambiguity that is part and parcel of this level of discussion, her teaching will be subject to abuse and misinterpretation, sort of like the aftermath of Vatican II. We are dealing here with a trade-off. Would it have been better had the Second Vatican Council not happened, keeping things “simple, clear and unambiguous” as things apparently were prior to 1962? Many traditionalists think so, but how can we know what the Church today would look like had that been the case? Perhaps society would be paying as much attention to the Catholic Church as they do now to the Amish.

There is no doubt that there are legitimate arguments on all sides of this debate, but I always thought there is an advantage to being a Catholic – we don’t have to spend our days studying all the arguments to determine the right course of action, for we have a Magisterium that has a teaching charism and we are called to be loyal to the Holy Father:

This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to the decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which. a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.(LG 25)

Many liberal Catholic moralists had no use for this section of the Lumen Gentium; today it seems the tables have turned – it is conservatives who seem to be tossing this out the window when the Pope begins to take us down a road that is new and uncomfortable. I’ve been told that obedience is the hardest counsel of the three, and rightly so. Bishops typically demand obedience and deference from the faithful and their priests, but how can those who have shown anything but loyal submission of mind and heart in recent months evade the charge of hypocrisy? They can dissent, but I can’t?

I’ve been asked how necessary Fiducia was at this time, that is, just before Christmas (2023). I have no idea, but how necessary is all this fuss about it? I have faithfully taught Catholic sexual ethics for close to 40 years, but I don’t particularly understand the current preoccupation with this issue. I’m not gay, and so I don’t see things from that perspective, but if I were gay and trying to be a faithful Catholic, I might be rejoicing over this document and might take it as a great Christmas gift. Basically, I have to trust that the Holy Father has the charism of office and is moved by the Holy Spirit to address what needs to be addressed in this highly complex world whose complexity escapes the comprehension of any individual as such, including an individual pope – which is precisely why he requires a charism that I simply don’t have.

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