One of the finest moral theologians I have known of was Fr Servais Pinckaers OP (1925 – 2008) who taught at Fribourg University. I was one of his students, and am proud of that fact. He is one of those who sought to wrest morality from legalism and casuistry to give it a spiritual basis. His insights and teaching were brought back to me as I continued to read Alan Watts’ Behold the Spirit. Watts is severe about the institutional Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, which he knew in the 1940’s when he wrote this book.
After many long chapters covering mystical theology, Watts wrote a brilliant analysis of Christian morality and the question of its basis. He begins:
The intellectual revolt of the modern world against what has been understood as Christian morality cannot be dismissed as mere perversity. The picture of the Church as a valiant minority holding grimly to its position against a vast rebellion inspired by the devil is an oversimplification which may appeal to those who love to strike heroic attitudes, but it renders the conventional Christian blind to his own moral failure.
I read that and then I consider the agitation of conservative Christians on the subjects of sex, homosexuality and abortion. Bring about a repressive state and all will be fine. Put them in prison, execute them, anything – as long as the Church is seen to be pulling the levers with the “secular arm”. Many of us resent the morality of infancy and adolescence and the way we are preached at without any consideration for the person. Fr Pinckaers had found that morality had sunk into legalism and superficial social conformity without any understanding of its inner meaning. Much of moral teaching, especially regarding sexuality, is founded on a Manichaean rather than a Christian attitude. What is even worse is that morality is set up as the finality rather than the consequence of Christian life.
I once wrote a posting on the various stages of maturity of a human individual which also applies to humanity as a whole. Treat adolescents as children, and they will revolt. The teaching method is just not not the same. Old Testament teaching was aimed at a human civilisation in its infancy. For humanity in its infancy, the Church’s teaching is authoritarian and legalistic, but not too rigorous. There is always some breathing room for childish naughtiness. After the self-conscious following of extremely high ideals by the adolescent, the adult settles into maturity. Morality comes from the presence of God in the heart. Fr Pinckaers insisted on a liberty of perfection, as opposed to a liberty of indifference, like learning to play a musical instrument: the freedom comes from hard work and asceticism. For the child, the right way comes from obedience, for an adolescent the aspiration to high ideals and the adult from that abiding presence of God.
Teaching a child morality is like training a dog according to the Pavlov theory. Good actions get rewards and bad actions merit punishments. I recall this verse from Psalm 37: The unrighteous shall be punished: as for the seed of the ungodly, it shall be rooted out. The righteous shall inherit the land: and dwell therein for ever. It reads like a headmaster’s address to morning assembly. The boys caught smoking in the bicycle shed will meet their dues in the headmaster’s study! Fortunately, there is a higher meaning in the Psalms as we are nourished each day in the Office. The enticements of heaven and hell, together with the prevailing notion of salvation, are characteristic of this infantilisation. At one time, the Church could bring hell to earth in the form of the Holy Inquisition.
The medieval Church’s response to sexuality was brutal repression. That was fine for dealing with physical instincts, less for modern man with the power of the imagination and fantasy. The Church was also direct in its positive precepts, like alms-giving or serving in the Crusades for example. The combat against sin was seen in militaristic terms in the same way. Luther would be the one to turn against this brutal effort to replace it with faith and divine grace. Protestantism reacted from the medieval vision of repression of sin and the quest for mysticism by a return to the Old Testament. The Reformation evolved towards a simple reduction of the Christian way to morality. Catholicism largely followed suit. Catholicism at its worst is bigoted, guilt-ridden, puritanical and morbid. Watts identified the Reformation as an adolescent stage of humanity against the Humanist and Renaissance background. There was a desire at first to make of gratuitous faith in God a priority over personal effort and merit.
Mature morality depends on union with God, love instead of hatred and violent repression, a view from above. As St Augustine said “Love, and do what you like“. If love is true, we can only do the right thing.
Dealing with evil violently brings out new evils of bitterness and bigotry. In days of old, evil was met with witch-hunting, burning people at the stake, torture and even Satanism – the very evil they sought to extirpate. The combat against sin must be freed from hatred. There was a point in the quote of Oscar Wilde “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful” (The Picture of Dorian Grey). This was no flippant rebuff of Victorian morality to justify sexual laxity but a much more profound intuition.
Not everyone is in a state of maturity, as we have found in the current pandemic. Most people take it seriously and follow the rules with the idea “Heaven help the politicians if they are lying to us!” We suspend our judgement and focus on the important thing of avoiding the disease and protecting other people. Those who are still psychologically children need fines and a good thrashing to keep them from saying that it isn’t their problem and go ahead with their social pleasures! This truth has come home to me very dramatically. The moralising church has its role, but not for all.
This is why I grow weary of hearing the same message about abortion. Abortion is something that is appalling, but the problem will not be solved by repression and relentless preaching, even less by acts of terrorism and fanaticism. Rather, the Church could turn towards improved social services, better care for the women who get pregnant “by accident” and better possibilities about getting babies adopted in the best conditions. This is only an example.
We must work at a new approach to Christianity for those who are tired of the things that repel them. This was a theme of Vatican II and its ideal of renewal, but collective stupidity and groupthink took over and offered something even worse. Something other and more profound exists, rather than secularism and atheism. It has to come out of each one of us…