This is the third installment of the three-part essay “Integrating Philosophical Paradigms toward Theological Unity” by Deacon Tracy Jamison, OCDS, PhD. Click here for part 1. Click here for part 2.

It is often difficult to balance compassion with truth, but both are necessary in Christian mission as well as every other human relation which is ordered to the cultivation of moral virtue. In our various social interactions and political endeavors, we naturally tend to emphasize one element to the exclusion of the other, and thus to fall into either a pan-subjectivism or a pan-objectivism, depending on our antecedent metaphysical assumptions. Therefore, it might be helpful to examine the impact of modern metaphysical assumptions in areas of Christian witness which especially require a balance between compassion and truth.

Three such areas at present which can be inductively analyzed and analogically related are the need to respond to the errors of both the transgender-rights movement and the abortion-rights movement, as well as the need to practice the art of fraternal correction and pastoral accompaniment. In this third and final essay, I will examine these three areas of pastoral concern.

Most philosophers who are realists teach that natures are known by the exercise of their specific powers, not merely by their visible appearances. Appearances can be deceiving. There is a real distinction between a material substance and its sensible accidents, and there is no good reason to deny it. Substances exist in themselves, while accidents exist in another. Substances and accidents both have essences, but those of substances are more fundamental. It is physically possible for an animal that appears to be a cat to be a dog or some other species in reality, and for a non-living substance that appears to be water to be hydrogen peroxide in reality, and so on. By divine power it is even possible for what appears to be bread and wine to be flesh and blood in reality (as affirmed by the traditional Christian doctrine of the Eucharist). Maintaining a real distinction between appearance and reality is simply common-sense. Thus, we must admit that it is physically possible for an animal body that appears to be male to be female in reality, and vice versa. And it is also true that real differences are sometimes empirically difficult to determine.

Sex (i.e. being male or female) in living substances is a modal difference and is a naturally inseparable accident. It is not a specific difference (such as being a cat versus being a dog). The human species exists as male and female, but each sex is equally and fully human, just as all the human races are equally and fully human. In the past, the term “gender” was equivalent to the term “sex,” meaning innately and biologically male or female. But nowadays the term “gender” is typically used to signify something psychological, subjective, and more or less capable of being cultivated, such as having the feelings, desires, emotions, or conduct which are characteristic of males or females. The modern term “gender” is thus often used specifically to signify being masculine or feminine, not male or female.

Many people today also accept the much more radical claim that even the term “sex” signifies something merely subjective and capable of being cultivated, not a natural, innate, or biological identity. Modern and postmodern subjectivists attempt to subjectivize everything objective, which is logically impossible because there is a real distinction between what a thing objectively is and how it subjectively acts and feels or visibly appears and presents to others. Sex is not merely a social construct or subjective distinction.

Certainly it is true that cognitive agents possess social and psychological factors which are relative or subjective. If the term “gender” is used to signify such factors which are typically masculine or feminine, then we can grant that it is possible for a person to have either the masculine or the feminine gender and at the same time to be its sexual opposite in essence. There are various social and psychological conditions under which a person may act or feel like a woman and actually be a man, or may act or feel like a man and actually be a woman. But whether a person is objectively male or female is not determined by psychological states or how he or she subjectively feels and acts or presents and appears to others socially.

Sex is biological and cannot be reduced to that which is signified by the modern concept of “gender,” regardless of whether such factors are cultivated or innate. Being sexually male or female essentially involves physical differences and natural powers with material organs for the production of spermatozoa or eggs, and thus it cannot coherently be construed as something merely cultural or subjective. As Aristotle and other realists taught us long ago, all natural powers are irreducible to the physical organs which enable them to be exercised. Anyone who attempts to reduce natural powers to physical organs while claiming that physical organs are social constructs is undermining the rationality and objectivity of empirical science itself.

Morally speaking, what a person objectively is must have priority over how a person subjectively feels, and one’s subjectivity ought to be cultivated in harmony with what one objectively and biologically is, as much as possible. Personal identity includes one’s specific nature and essential modalities, but it does not include the subjective content of one’s thoughts, desires, and feelings. There are in fact psychological disorders in which a male is unable to feel and act like a male, and a female is unable to feel and act like a female. Such afflictions and orientations are not necessarily cultivated or curable, but even when they are not curable and have not been deliberately cultivated, they still do not determine one’s identity. Such afflictions and orientations are similar to being born with a permanent disposition to alcoholism or some other compulsive behavior. With the therapeutic treatment of any such affliction comes the unavoidable moral question of when compassion becomes enabling.

Since the human organism is innately ordered to a mature sexual state that is either exclusively male or female, it is physically impossible for a human to objectively be both male and female at the same time. This is not true of all other living species, of course. In the human organism, genital ambiguity is a developmental disorder. Cases of genital ambiguity in human infants can usually be resolved by the majority of signs being either toward male or toward female, and the surgery can then proceed accordingly. It is possible for a doctor not to be able to discern whether a person is male or female, but only very rarely are the signs weighted equally toward both male and female, and even in such a case the inability to empirically judge whether a person is male or female does not mean that the person is actually both male and female. Potentialities such as faculties reside in the soul of a living organism and are irreducible to its organs. Objectively an individual human body is naturally and developmentally ordered either to the mature female state or to the mature male state, and medical procedures ought to respect that natural normativity. Nowadays, however, such an imperative is controversial, and the design of human nature itself is considered morally irrelevant.

It is in fact possible to be male objectively and feminine subjectively, and to be female objectively and masculine subjectively, but pan-subjectivism has inclined our culture to reduce all objective differences to merely subjective factors. If someone insists “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body,” then we can grant that the person could unfortunately be psychologically masculine though biologically female, and that she could be unable to change her psychology to match her biology, but that would never morally justify any medical procedures to change her biological sex. The same is true of a male person who is subjectively feminine. We need to recognize and reject the intrinsic evil of what the transgender-rights movement is proposing.

Of course, we also need to be pastoral and affirm the feelings and afflictions that make people suffer psychologically as well as physically. Legitimate pastoral concern always requires sensitivity, balance, and accompaniment without compromising moral principles. The natural-law principle of double-effect allows us to cooperate with evil materially under certain conditions, such as providing therapeutic communication. But we also have a moral duty to witness to moral truth, to dissuade others from sinful conduct, and to avoid the danger of scandal. Such principles can be used effectively to decide in particular cases whether to participate in affirmations which represent someone’s psychological states but are objectively false as, for example when a person who is one sex wishes to be treated as that of the other and attempts to control appearances and pronoun references accordingly. But we must always affirm that surgically altering biological organs contrary to a person’s objective nature merely for the sake of psychological or social reasons is never morally justifiable. Deliberately rejecting one’s own sexual identity is a moral error. The subjective and cultural affirmation of one’s nature is morally permissible and praiseworthy, but the subjective and cultural contradiction of one’s nature is morally wrong and inauthentic.

An examination of common metaphysical assumptions is absolutely necessary for socially sustaining moral virtue. Everyone is either a realist, a conceptualist, or a nominalist, at least implicitly. Realism or essentialism is the doctrine that general terms signify universal concepts, and that universal concepts signify the real natural forms or commonalities of things. Conceptualism likewise affirms that general terms signify universal concepts, but it then proposes that universal concepts signify only particular things on the basis of similarities; thus, it claims that there are no natures or commonalities in reality, and that formal identities exist only in the mind or in praxis. For this reason, conceptualism tends toward positivism or pragmatism. Nominalism is the doctrine that general terms signify concepts, but that concepts signify only particular things and therefore are particular as well, even in the mind; not only are there no real natures of things (as conceptualists maintain), but there are also no universal concepts. According to nominalists, only linguistic terms are universal, and only in the sense that they signify socially constructed sets of things conventionally grouped for various conscious and unconscious practical purposes. Nominalism typically collapses into some form of relativism.

The transgender-rights movement is clearly subjectivizing and relativizing what an essence is, in accord with their radical philosophical nominalism, contrary to reason and any reasonable metaphysics. The movement condemns both weak and strong forms of essentialism and insists that subjective factors have priority over a person’s biological nature. This proposal follows directly from their metaphysical assumptions about truth and goodness. The inherent binary nature of human sexuality makes perfect sense so long as we remain common-sense realists like Plato and Aristotle and recognize that sex is an inseparable faculty that resides in the soul and is irreducible to material organs. Just as every human person who is blind retains the innate faculty of sight even though suffering from a neurological impediment to its exercise, which may or may not be curable, so also every human person is either male or female and retains the faculty of maleness or femaleness even when his or her sexual organs are damaged, removed, or surgically changed.

The abortion-rights movement, like the transgender-rights movement, is largely motivated by a misguided sense of mercy and compassion which is grounded in philosophical nominalism. Abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically evil acts of killing which deliberately thwart objective goodness for the sake of subjective goodness. History repeatedly teaches us the lesson that human societies systematically sustain structural injustices by cloaking them in the appearance of altruism. Every community or nation that tolerates an evil activity does so for the sake of some apparent good, and people who facilitate and perform abortions often have good intentions. Intrinsically evil acts can appear desirable for any number of extrinsic reasons, and the motivation for such an act is always to be found in some extrinsic good, not in the act itself. That which is objectively evil often subjectively appears to be good—even to be the most compassionate thing to do—all things considered. In condemning abortion as an intrinsically evil act, which it objectively is, we can still acknowledge that abortion-providers sincerely want to help their clients make informed decisions about effective means to personal happiness. Abortion-providers are usually unaware that they are doing anything wrong, and they are overtly committed to helping women lead happier lives. Some of them are devoid of all compassion, but most of them are sincerely compassionate, and their compassion might even seem to extend to the unborn, just as euthanasia generally seems like an act of mercy. Good intentions, however, can never justify an act which is intrinsically evil.

It is important for us who are firmly committed to defending the sanctity of human life to understand the perspective from which abortion-providers typically assess the nature and moral value of their own work, which they believe to be compassionate. Given our awareness that a misguided sense of compassion is leading people into a serious injustice, the most compassionate thing for us to do is to tell them the moral truth whenever they are open to receive it. But our moral condemnation of the great evil of abortion must also be accompanied by an adequate understanding of the complicated personal motivations of those who are desiring and facilitating it. Indeed, many abortion-providers are Christians who sincerely believe that they are following Christ’s commandment to love God absolutely and to love their neighbors as themselves. In any case, the basic moral reasoning of abortion-providers is materially unsound and has common characteristics. For one thing, it metaphysically assumes that personal comfort is essential to personal happiness. Under this assumption, abortion-providers are inclined to believe that their clients will attain happiness only through self-awareness and discovery of personal truth. And abortion-providers often suppose that their clients will discover their personal truth whenever they know which course of action is most likely to maximize everyone’s overall comfort for the foreseeable future.

Abortion providers also recognize that this process of self-discovery is fallible. Many of their clients have difficulty knowing what they really want. Occasionally a client will choose to have an abortion and then find herself rather uncomfortable and miserable when it is all said and done. This outcome is regarded as unfortunate. If the abortion-provider wants to keep the client happy and is genuinely concerned to avoid sending her home with a lot of negative emotions, the provider will attempt to help her get in touch with her true feelings as soon as she walks in the door, well before she does something that she might regret. Most abortion clinics have well-established procedures to assist the client to decide whether she really wants to have an abortion. Abortion-providers also typically assume that arguments of a moral or political nature are an ineffective means to helping a client to explore her feelings about having an abortion. Certain counseling techniques, however, are very effective in this endeavor. Compassion therefore leads most abortion-providers to avoid arguments and to offer counseling. Above all, the goal is to promote the personal comfort of the client. If it seems that an abortion will make the client feel better, it is recommended to her as an acceptable course of action. But if it seems that an abortion will make the client feel rather bad, she is encouraged to continue the pregnancy. In this way, abortion-providers seek to respect a client’s individual conscience and to affirm her personal freedom.

Believe it or not, when helping a woman to decide whether to have an abortion, abortion-providers do not necessarily exclude the feelings of the unborn. They routinely encourage the woman to consider what quality of life and level of comfort she will be able to provide for her baby if she decides to continue the pregnancy. If the baby will be unwanted and will live in conditions of poverty or deficiency, then the act of abortion seems like a compassionate way to spare the baby a much greater degree of pain and misery. It is not difficult to understand that in many situations an abortion seems like the most loving and compassionate thing to do—even what one ought to do. Abortion-providers therefore can easily view themselves as moral and compassionate, but the ultimate standard of judgment which they consistently invoke in the abortion decision is that of how the woman who is going to have the abortion is going to feel about it. Accepting this standard as the determining principle, their clients are encouraged to act in accord with whatever happens to feel good or bad in particular circumstances. As one abortion-provider put it in conversation, such freedom “empowers women to love themselves unconditionally in the abortion decision” and “encourages them to consider the real possibility of experiencing negative feelings such as guilt, shame, or grief” and to proceed cautiously. Many people find this form of empowerment and encouragement to be a sensitive, loving, caring, nonjudgmental, and compassionate approach to helping women. Those who reject it are often condemned as insensitive, unloving, uncaring, judgmental, and uncompassionate.

If we are firmly committed to the sanctity of human life, then we must ask ourselves how we ought to respond to this well-organized but incoherent and unjust exercise in sensitivity and compassion. One possible response would be to accept our opponents’ standard of judgment and then try to help abortion-minded women to see that an abortion is probably going to make them feel really bad. We could talk about abortion solely in terms of the personal comfort and quality of life of those who would be affected by the act. Perhaps abortion-minded women will see that we have just as much love and compassion as abortion-providers do and will then listen to our advice and follow our moral guidance. We must also understand, however, that if we leave people with the fundamental lesson that maintaining comfort and avoiding painful consequences are the ultimate points of reference in moral decision-making, then we have done them a great disservice and have sacrificed moral truth for the sake of compassion. For a choice to be morally good it must have a morally good object as well as morally good intentions and desirable consequences. There are moral norms which admit of no exceptions. The act of abortion is never morally justified. We must always encourage people to do the right thing and to do it for the right reasons. Things will continue to turn out badly for new parents and their children so long as they persist in approaching important decisions in life with the mentality of maintaining personal comfort at all costs.

Everything in a person’s life hangs on the fundamental decision to undergo a personal conversion to a fully moral point of view and to the acceptance of moral norms which admit of no exceptions. Certainly, we must always be sensitive and compassionate toward others, and avoid making judgments about their subjective culpability, but a true concern for their well-being requires that we address the basic needs of their intellects as well as their emotions. It is far more important to connect people with the objective moral order of the universe than with their hidden feelings and personal opinions. A true love for our neighbors must call them to commit themselves to an objective point of reference outside of themselves in the realm of moral truth, which is what everyone really wants, in every age and every culture. It would be a serious mistake to regard our neighbors as so dissolute as to be unable to recognize the beauty of virtue, or to suppose that they lack the grace to make a basic moral commitment, or the freedom to avoid the kinds of actions which are never morally permissible. The human heart tends to rationalize and excuse its own intrinsically evil acts and inordinate attachments to comfort, but it also never loses its more basic attachments to consistency and authenticity.

Everyone in every age and every culture has had to decide, either reflectively or unreflectively, but always with the help of grace, whether true happiness is found in personal attainment of comfort or is found rather in personal commitment to a life of virtue—a commitment which requires nothing less than a life-long struggle for subjective detachment from feelings and comfort. Those of us who are firmly committed to the sanctity of human life can help new parents recognize that what they really want is to commit themselves to their unborn babies in the beauty of moral virtue, even though this personal commitment will undoubtedly require from them a great deal of self-sacrifice. Such a commitment also requires a great deal of self-sacrifice from us, the neighbors of these parents, because true love demands that we generously support virtuous parents who are giving themselves to their babies in difficult circumstances. True love and compassion are always willing to sacrifice comfort for virtue.

Whenever an act is intrinsically wrong, it is never morally permissible. There are, however, are many acts which are morally wrong by their motives and/or circumstances, not by their very nature. An act which is usually wrong but is not intrinsically wrong can become morally permissible when the motives of the agent are good, and the circumstances provide a reasonable justification for performing the act. It is not intrinsically wrong, for example, to humor someone who is suffering from a delusion. In some circumstances it can be morally justified, while in other circumstances it cannot. In therapeutic or pastoral accompaniment, it is often necessary to avoid challenging a person’s claims which are known to be objectively false, such as the claim to be one sex rather than the other, or to be married rather than to be an adulterer or fornicator. The goal is to move the person to a greater acceptance of the moral truth, but often an indirect means must be employed, since challenging the delusion directly only serves to strengthen it. It is not morally obligatory in every situation to inform a divorced and remarried couple that they are living in adultery and to call them to repentance immediately and explicitly, and neither is it an effective means to move them toward greater consistency with the precepts of the natural law and the Gospel. Such a couple typically sees nothing wrong with what they are doing, so we must first help them to think consistently about the permanence of marriage and to understand clearly the reasons why the attempt to replace one’s spouse is morally wrong. But there are in fact many situations which do immediately carry a moral obligation to speak the truth explicitly about the nature of sex and marriage and other controversial issues, even when we know the truth will give offense and effectively alienate people from us. We are not falling into situational ethics when we admit that such situations must be judged on a case-by-case basis, so long as we understand and maintain that intrinsically evil acts are morally wrong in every situation and circumstance. Traditional natural-law ethics has always encouraged the exercise of prudence and accompaniment in the task of fraternal correction and moral instruction.

Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is not in discontinuity with the papal magisterium of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. It is concerned to emphasize the necessity of personal attention to human subjectivity in the Christian art of pastoral ministry, but it is nevertheless careful to balance sensitivity to mitigating psychological and social factors with respect for moral absolutes and the demands of the Gospel which must never be compromised. The exhortation is an apostolic call to maintain a reflective equilibrium in the moral and pastoral discernment between that which is objectively and universally true by moral necessity and that which is subjectively and existentially true in particular situations and concrete circumstances. There is no need to set up a false opposition between these two co-essential dimensions of moral and spiritual guidance. Virtuous people who are inclined toward pan-objectivism sometimes become unnecessarily but understandably alarmed whenever they receive an exhortation to practice accompaniment and to give proper attention and adequate consideration to the inherent complexity of individual consciences, subjective motivations, and particular circumstances. For example, there are always two pastoral extremes that must be avoided in the art of moral guidance: making exceptions in areas that admit of no exceptions, such as negative moral precepts, and disregarding the sincere personal intent of members of the community to grow spiritually and by the grace of God to bring their thoughts, desires, and actions into greater conformity with the objective values of the moral order and the kingdom of heaven. Amoris Laetitia calls for pastoral virtue, which is the mean between the two extremes. There is an inner world of difference between inauthentic disciples of Christ who want to make their own subjective desires the standard of goodness, and authentic disciples of Christ who are begging for ministerial and spiritual assistance in the personal transformation of their subjective desires to correspond to what is objectively good.

Furthermore, objectively immoral lifestyles are often accepted and sustained by persons who are confused and lack subjective moral culpability. Sometimes the inculpability is due to factors which cannot be changed, such as permanent psychological impediments, developmental disorders, or brain injuries. In Roman Catholic discipline and practice, if there are clear signs that an authentic penitent is subjectively inculpable of an objectively immoral lifestyle due to mitigating factors, then he or she can be validly absolved and receive Communion. In calling attention to such situations, Amoris Laetitia need not be read as making changes to Catholic moral teaching or contradicting any of the pastoral norms previously established by authentic papal authority, including John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. Amoris Laetitia does not suggest that anyone who has not repented of mortal sin can be given pastoral permission to receive Communion. Neither does it allow a person to seek civil remarriage after being unjustly abandoned and legally divorced by an unloving spouse. The exhortation merely asks for greater personal attention to be paid on a case-by-case basis to subjective factors and mitigating circumstances. Its concern is entirely practical, emphasizing the virtue of prudence and the correct application of general moral principles to particular circumstances through concrete pastoral judgments. It calls for Christian pastors to practice authenticity and the other virtues which are necessary for prudence. Thus, it simply qualifies the application of pre-existing pastoral norms. In the admission of the faithful to Communion, it emphasizes the necessity of absolution and the state of grace, and it does not set aside the requirement for the divorced and remarried either to separate or to live together in complete continence. At no point does it suggest that penitents be allowed to follow their own judgments of conscience if they do not agree with the judgment of the Church. The exhortation is obviously attempting to recommend the mercy and compassion of Christ toward sinners who, with the help of grace, are subjectively struggling to overcome vices and to conform their conduct to the requirements of the moral order. It does not endorse any kind of moral laxism or situational ethics. It recommends a balanced approach to compassion and truth that should be acceptable to all Christians.

The main reason why Amoris Laetitia has not been a unifying document is that the danger of schism is being created and sustained by those who disregard the hermeneutic of continuity and set up a false opposition between co-essential aspects of pastoral discernment and guidance. A lack of integration is evident in the pan-objectivism and unbalanced rigidity of those who reject Amoris Laetitia, and it is also evident in the pan-subjectivism and unprincipled laxity of those who invoke the so-called spirit of its teaching in order to advance their own progressive agendas, such as overturning the authentic Catholic doctrine that contraception is intrinsically evil, as taught by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. By setting up and sustaining a false opposition, members of the clergy and laity at both extremes are failing to preserve the wisdom and balance of an integrated philosophical realism. In general, lack of philosophical integration is an impediment to moral, theological, and spiritual development. The existential norms for human authenticity must be applied to the Christian task of growing in virtue and holiness.

Moral and pastoral errors typically originate in metaphysical and logical errors. No science is more practical and relevant than metaphysics. All human cultures and Christian communities suffer from metaphysical and moral illnesses. As we work to restore moral health to our own cultures, we must make it clear that our prescriptions are based in reason and natural law, not in faith alone. Under the influence of modern and postmodern pan-subjectivism, many secular cultures have rejected not only Moses and Christ, but also Plato and Aristotle. This explains their confusion and lack of consensus about the nature of the good. The good as such is that which is suitable in proportion to one’s specific nature and essential modalities, and the moral good is that which is suitable to human nature as such. Genuine moral dialogue toward truth and virtue always requires an examination and evaluation of metaphysical assumptions, as well as a phenomenological re-cognition and re-evaluation of valuations, with proper sensitivity to human subjectivity and cultural differences.

Let us pray that the practice of synodality under the magisterial direction of Pope Francis will effectively facilitate a better understanding and a greater consensus about the true nature of the good, which is implicitly known and sought by every human person in the ordinary exercise of practical reason.

Image Credit: Photo by José M. Reyes on Unsplash 

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