The threats to the Church’s infallible moral teaching — which abound today in erroneous notions of law and justice and judgment and mercy — have precursors in what can only be called classical dissent.
Genuine exercise of Magisterial teaching has its authority not in virtue of the arguments with which it is propounded but simply in virtue of itself. Of course, some teaching is infallible and thus its authority is greater than that which is not infallible. However, even non-infallible teaching calls for religious assent of mind and will. It may be that a sincere expert encounters reasons grounded in the faith or some other certain source not to assent to a non-infallible teaching. This must not be the norm but the exception. Further, one should not limit infallible teachings simply to the extraordinary Magisterium (ex cathedra statements and Ecumenical Councils). The Church teaches infallibly on matters of or pertaining to faith and morals when she teaches the matter “always and everywhere”. This “always and everywhere” is to be taken in the sense of moral unanimity of bishops united with the pope. That intending to have artificially contraceptive intercourse is a grave evil is an example of such a teaching. That the only sexual act that is not a grave evil is that between a married woman and man open to new life — this is another example. These teachings are not up for grabs.
Richard Gula seems to have a different conception of Magisterial authority. He writes:
The great disadvantage of having an institutionalized authority in the church is that, if it does not function well in a cooperative fashion, it can obscure the human character of the process of formulating a moral teaching…. To obscure this process can result in creating an ‘extrinsic’ authority for teachings. ‘Extrinsic’ authority fails to recognize that a teaching is as strong as the thoroughness of the homework which produced it and the cogency of the arguments which support it (Gula, Reason Informed by Faith, p. 154). [Remark: This is an error, not what I propound.]
Note that this is to reduce Magisterial authority to the arguments it propounds in support of its claims. Gula does admit that there is an advantage in having a Magisterium, since it can provide a structure for theological conversation. Further, he claims, the Magisterium can help guide one in the formation of conscience.
Nevertheless, Gula he goes on to describe the way one appropriates magisterial statements on moral issues as follows. So he contends: One should treat the Magisterium as a key conversation partner adding key information, but not as infallible oracle (on those matters presented infallibly in either ordinary or extraordinary ways). However, perhaps one sees that one is not morally capable of adhering to the moral teaching. One is financially strapped and morally weak. If this is the case, one may legitimately, he states, decide not to obey the teaching but to commit what the Magisterium teaches to be sin. He calls this merely prudential judgment (Reason Informed by Faith, pp. 159f). He essentially is grounding the judgment of conscience in the personal estimate of what someone can do. Traditionally, however, conscience was considered the faculty whereby one judges what one must do or not do, in light of God’s Law (natural or revealed) in the concrete.
In particular, Richard Gula reduces moral norms – which the Church teaches apply always and everywhere – simply to ideals of the best behavior. That is, he confuses the limitless upward call with the minimal moral demands. He argues that what the Church holds to be the minimal moral demands are in fact the limitless features of the call to perfection. Thus, he exonerates the moral agent who cannot live up to these minimal demands:
“Pastoral moral guidance is the art of the possible. That is to say, it focuses on the person and what that person can do based on his or her capacity of knowledge, freedom, and emotion to appreciate and choose moral values enshrined in moral standards” (Just Ministry [New York: Paulist Press, 2010], p. 231). [Remark: This is an error, not what I propound.]
Gula thus endorses a kind of “gradualism of the law”. Once again, I repeat, Gula does not throw out moral norms all together. However, he changes their character: Instead of being absolute norms that should confront a person’s conscience, if it is well formed, they are simply ideals for which one should strive. So, Gula does not want us to think that a person is guilty simply because he knowingly violates a moral norm. The person is only guilty, Gula contends, if he can obey the norm. It may be, Gula contends, that one cannot obey a moral norm. In such a case, a person who knowingly does the action is not guilty. Gula defends the claim thus:
“This tradition [of the Catholic moral reflection] realizes that ought implies can” (Just Ministry, p. 234). [Remark: This is an error, not what I propound.]
In dogmatic fact, the way that this conditional (if you ought to do X, you can do X) is authoritatively interpreted — and NO ONE MAY BROOK THAT INTERPRETATION, Given that it is infallible and eternal, and thunders anathema against the contradictory — is that because of grace every justified person can obey the moral law. (And every non-justified person is offered grace sufficient for conversion.) Thus, according to Catholic faith, the ought is a given, and the can therefore follows because of grace. Gula reverses this. He claims that the ought will follow only if the can can follow. But he claims that it can happen that the can cannot follow. Further, he suggests that if we are in the situation of being moral guides, we ought to hide the full force of the moral norm from such a person:
“This means that we are not to require a particular obligation in practice, however justifiable it may be theoretically, if the person, for good reason, cannot perform it. While everyone is required to do what he or she can, no one is ever required to do what is beyond his or her reach” (Just Ministry, p. 234). [Remark: This is an error, not what I propound.]
Gula bends conscience around the person’s capacity so that the person will not judge himself guilty when he cannot obey.
Contrast Gula’s stress on “limited possibilities” and “gradualism” and on a conscience adapted to one’s capacities to Paul’s incriminating words in Romans:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God…. Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:19f). [Remark: This is Revealed Truth, which no one may brook.]
On Gula’s analysis, sin is probably not possible. Or very difficult. A Notre Dame prof taught me, “None of us is smart enough to commit mortal sin.” I remember thinking to myself, “What a condescending piece of nonsense!” (At the same time, it’s kind of like getting a back massage after committing mortal sin. You say to yourself, “Not bad. I’ll go sin again.” And this is once again proof that it is the spirit of Antichrist. For the Christ says, “Do not sin again.”)
JPII underscores the severity of the Law. He does not seek to minimize the law, out of a bleeding heart desire to get everyone into heaven through HUMAN efforts. Rather, he points to God’s grace, which enables obedience to the Law of God. JPII in his marevelous Veritatis splendor, art. 102 (citing Trent):
“Even in the most difficult situations man must respect the norm of morality so that he can be obedient to God’s holy commandment and consistent with his own dignity as a person. Certainly, maintaining a harmony between freedom and truth occasionally demands uncommon sacrifices, and must be one at a high price: it can even involve martyrdom…. But temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them…. Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent: “But no one, however much justified, ought to consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments, nor should he employ that rash statement, forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot and he gives his aid to enable you.”
So, we CAN obey all the Law. Under anathema (pronounced on every last human person on the face of the earth, until the end of all time) must we hold this, no matter who we are.
SO, the Law is NOT A MERE “IDEAL” as some are dangerously saying, unto the real perdition of real people. The bleeding heart of humanism will not save anyone. Only the bleeding heart of Christ, who offered perfect obedience and calls us to be perfectly obedient. From VS, art. 103:
“It would be a very serious error to conclude that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a ‘balancing of the goods in question.’ But what are the ‘concrete possibilities of man? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection in Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows form that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit” (citing an address of his own on responsible parenthood, delivered March 1, 1984).