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AUSTRIA, December 14, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — A Cistercian priest has outlined the intellectual underpinnings of what he sees as the “current conflicts in moral theology” arising from various interpretations of Pope Francis’ April exhortation Amoris Laetitia, conflicts which resulted in four Cardinals asking the pope in September in their now famous “dubia” if his teaching conforms with perennial Catholic morality on marriage, the sacraments, and conscious.  

According to Father Edmund Waldstein of the Cistercian monastery of Heiligenkreuz in Austria, the key to understanding Francis is to be found in what the pope sees himself doing, namely “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces,” an enigmatic but crucial phrase found in the pope’s exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

Waldstein suggests that the pope’s recent praise for dissident moral theologian Fr. Bernhard Häring — described by the pope as someone who helped overcome a decadent scholastic moral theology that had been fixated on negative commandments while opening up a way for moral theology to flourish — shows the pope as a partial subscriber to the “historically conscious” strand of moral theology.

According to Waldstein, Häring follows the Hegelian abandonment of “nature” and of an “objective teleological order” where it is left to “history” to judge which “social developments are in accordance with the flourishing of human freedom and which are not.” He says that Häring with his new morality is “proposing something similar for the life of the Church.”

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Waldstein quotes Richard Gula’s 1989 book on Catholic morality Reason Informed by Faith to draw out the implications of the new morality which result in what Waldstein calls a “subjectivist, modern account of the good” with its “account of freedom” that follows from it.

The modern, historically conscious worldview, on the other hand, sees each thing as part of a whole which has yet to be discovered. Since life is an ongoing process of knowing more and more, thinking in developmental terms is quite natural. The historically conscious view conceives the person as growing closer to the truth but not being so bold as to know the whole of it anywhere along the way. This point of view recognizes that all knowledge is conditioned by time and place, limited self-awareness, and limited grasps of reality. “Specific,” “individual,” and “changing” are adjectives which characterize this point of view. Change, development, and revision are not signs of imperfection but ways of coming to the truth. This point of view believes that, although we come to possess truth slowly, we are not wandering aimlessly with nothing to give us direction. The truth can be grasped in some reliable way, allowing us to obtain a foothold in our journey before moving on to new discoveries.

Historical consciousness recognizes that humanity is both a product and a maker of history. For this reason, historical consciousness requires that all statements of moral teaching be interpreted from within their context and for a new audience. Since it does not absolutize any one particular culture or one particular moment in history as having grasped the whole of truth, the modern worldview is not satisfied with the mere repetition of the formulations of another age for a new era with new people and new experiences.

Waldstein sees Häring’s moral theology as an application of the historically conscious worldview to morality as well as a “great example” of what the pope means about beginning  processes as opposed to occupying spaces. Writes Waldstein: 

Häring’s theology is focused on the free response of the Christian to the love of God given in Christ. This response of the Christian is a dynamic process in which the Christian learns ever more what an adequate response could be. In this process the Christian must follow his conscience, which might initially be an erring conscience, but which will slowly lead him to a more and more adequate response to God’s love.


One must, he argues, follow one’s conscience even in opposition to the authority of the Church. Even if the Church is right about the matter in hand, it is better for authorities not to apply any pressure on someone who disagrees in conscience, as if they were to act against their conscience out of fear, this would be a sin, whereas to act against the authority of the Church in good conscience is not a sin. The person who consistently follows conscience will eventually come to see more perfectly what the response to God demands. So, to exert pressure would be to “occupy space” whereas to respect conscience by advising someone to follow private judgment against Church authority would be to “initiate a process” which will lead them toward the truth.

It now becomes more clear what Pope Francis means when he states in many of his magisterial writings that “time is greater than space” and priority must be given to time and to “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.” For the pope, “time” is the march, taken as a whole, towards truth while the marcher, who is in a particular “space” along the way, can never say with certainty that he knows the whole of it. To “initiate a process” for the pope means to agitate circumstances in a given “space” along the march of “time” to bring about future manifestations of truth. 

As the Pope writes in Evangelii Gaudium: “What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events.” 

This explains the pope’s consistent distancing himself from a morality that he describes as “black or white” because it would be a claim to know the full truth about a matter in a given moment in “time,” or in the Pope’s words, it would be to occupy a “space.” It also explains, according to Waldstein, why the Pope may not have answered the five yes-or-no questions from the four Cardinals, because that would mean to occupy a “space,” to propound a “truth” as fully known at a given moment in time. 

Waldstein writes that while it might be possible for moral theology to learn “certain things” from the ‘historically conscious worldview,’ a moral theology, however, that consistently followed historicist principles would “find itself giving up essential truths.”

He notes how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed questions about the usefulness of the ‘historically conscious worldview’ in its 1975 instruction Persona Humana.

[T]here can be no true promotion of man’s dignity unless the essential order of his nature is respected. Of course, in the history of civilization many of the concrete conditions and needs of human life have changed and will continue to change. But all evolution of morals and every type of life must be kept within the limits imposed by the immutable principles based upon every human person’s constitutive elements and essential relations — elements and relations which transcend historical contingency. These fundamental principles, which can be grasped by reason, are contained in “the Divine Law — eternal, objective and universal — whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community, by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of Divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever increasingly the unchanging truth.” This Divine Law is accessible to our minds.

Writes Waldstein: “There is, then, a fundamental order that persists throughout all historical change. And this order is accessible to our minds.”

Waldstein concludes that while he does not think the Holy Father to be a “consistent follower of the ‘historically conscious’ strand of moral theology represented by the likes of Häring,” nevertheless “the whole approach of ‘initiating processes’ that marks his teaching on the moral life in Amoris Laetitia and beyond is bound to raise difficult questions about the extent to which that approach can be reconciled with the perennial teachings of the Church.”

“The dubia of the four cardinals raise those questions with great clarity and precision. A clear and precise answer would be most helpful,” he writes. 

Pater Waldstein's entire blog entry can be found here.

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