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Moralosis misdiagnosed

A new contagion has been identified.  It appears to have broken out already in Ireland.  It’s poised to break out in California.

Moralosis” is its name.

In an engaging commentary, John Waters defines this virus as “an attempt to separate the ‘moral issues’ from the core of Christianity.”  He sees the effects of this disease in his native Ireland, where a senator claimed “it’s no wonder people feel disillusioned with the Catholic Church” after she listened to a priest at Easter Mass preaching about abortion. It also seems to ail the California State Assembly, which will soon vote on a bill the would ban the sale of books expressing free religious speech in the realm of “sexual orientation change efforts.”

Waters rightly identifies the problem in the societal tendency to dismiss any statement of moral conviction as mere “moralism” that cannot be tolerated by an enlightened public. The symptoms are clear. But the diagnosis misreads the cause of the problem.

The instantiating sign of the emergence of this disease, for Waters, is Pope Francis’s first interview (9/19/13), published worldwide in Jesuit magazines. In response to a question about pastoral work with Christians living “in complex situations that represent open wounds,” the pope said that the Church cannot insist on speaking only, or all the time, about moral issues. As he added there and has explained elsewhere, matters of morality are consequences, not starting points for, the proclamation of the Gospel.

According to Waters, the pope’s “central point appears to be that an ‘excessive’ emphasis on moralism serves to suffocate the deeper message of Christianity.” The papal position, in this diagnosis, appears as “a hastily conceived attempt to communicate a degree of relaxation in respect of certain aspects of Church teaching.”

Upon further examination, however, that analysis misses the mark.  What the pope encourages is communicating a message that seeks to dress people’s wounds before, not instead of, providing longer-term treatment based on the truth of the Church’s teaching.  He prescribes not the relaxation of doctrine (about which his words are clear), but the medication of mercy as a first response.  In other words, for the physician-pope emphasizing “the heart of Christ’s message” is not an excision of morality from Christianity, but a necessary salve that distinguishes pastoral theology from religious ideology (cf. Evangelii gaudium, no. 34).

Returning to the initial diagnosis, there’s a note in the chart that warrants further consideration.  Waters supposes that “Most Catholics would agree that the Church should not pursue rules and ethics as discrete, self-standing realities, but only as concepts contextualized in the patterns of human freedom – a freedom defined ultimately by the Resurrection.”  But do they?

The real abnormality in attempts to quarantine moral positions from the public square is the failure to see the Church’s teaching as rooted not merely in faith but also in reasoning about human anthropology and freedom. Nowadays, unfortunately, what people want outweighs what is true.

Pope Francis’s interview didn’t cause this, though how people interpret his words may well be a contributing factor.   Moralosis has long affected every kind of healthcare because of the perennial condition of being human.

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