One thing I hopefully learned through my extensive seminary training (in both philosophy and theology) was to be a more critical thinker. I do not usually take what is told to me as gospel without first dissecting it thoroughly while thinking about it over some extended time. Don’t be surprised if I tend to pick apart statements and examine word usage. (Maybe, at times, I analyze some matters too much.)
Over time, I have learned to sift through arguments that were based solely on emotion rather than fact. I tend more readily to recognize ad hominem attacks on people which have nothing to do their actual stated beliefs. I look for theological statements to contain genuine substance and for preciseness in doctrine rather than buy into buzz-words and catch-phrases. I want consistency, clarity and minimal ambiguity. Maybe this is because I had to stand in front of high school students for a couple of decades trying to articulate the faith as unambiguously as possible.
So, what do I make of some of the confusion that currently exists in the Church? This situation definitely does not help believers (or even non-believers). What has infiltrated the Church has been referred to as a “weaponized ambiguity.” Can divorced and re-married Catholics receive Holy Communion? Can homosexual unions be sanctioned by the Church? Is abortion ever justified? Are Catholics who practice artificial contraception in the state of mortal sin? It seems to depend with whom you speak. You can get a different answer to each of the above—sometimes with a wink and a nod—from priests, bishops, theologians, etc.
This vagueness creates havoc with our objective morality and tends to legitimize a moral relativism (situation ethics). Sin, despite its gravity, becomes a subjective opinion rather than an objective truth. The danger in all of this uncertainty and confusion is that eternal souls may be lost forever in the process. It is our obligation in the Catholic Church to lead people to Christ who is the way, the truth and the life and not back to one’s misinformed, erroneous conscience.
As a confessor for over thirty years, people have told me stories about how Father told me that it was not a sin or that Father told me just to follow my conscience. In actuality, priests like me are not helping anyone by hiding the truth from them and leaving them in the state of sin. Making a person feel good about himself or herself for a time never truly addresses or remedies any immoral act and its consequences. If sin is truly bad, people don’t need to be enslaved by it but rather freed from it. Sin and evil don’t suddenly become something else by our willing it so, our misnaming it or our justifying it. And in order to follow our conscience, it needs to be rightly-formed.
There are about 2000 years of Catholic Church teaching we are able to reference to find what various saints, councils, pontiffs, etc. have articulated through the years. While our understanding of Church doctrine may mature with time, no officially defined dogma or traditionally held teaching can be radically changed or suddenly eliminated. Be a critical thinker and especially take the time to investigate anything that seems strange or contrary to any long-standing doctrine or moral teaching. It is much better to be safe than eternally sorry.
Fr. Ed Namiotka