Although we are usually not aware of it, our moral attitudes have been shaped by centuries of philosophical and theological controversies. The ones that have shaped the modern world, and almost always for the worse, are nominalism and voluntarism. They are the wrong or at least inadequate answers to important questions: “Does reality have a logical, comprehensible structure, or is everything dependent solely on will, whether the will of God or the will of man?” The wrong answers to these questions continue to distort both secular culture and the culture of the Church. The distortions are perhaps most severe, or perhaps at least most visible, in sexual matters, such as the question of gender identity or marriage and divorce.

Dominicans in particular have seen in nominalism and voluntarism the source of severe distortions in Christian moral attitudes.[i] Both sides in the current controversy in the Catholic Church over the admission of divorced and remarried persons to the sacraments claim the other side suffers from these distortions.

To begin with the beginning.

The Greeks had confidence that the universe had a rational structure, a logical structure, and that beyond the seeming disorder there was a logos which was at least partially accessible to human reason. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament was influenced by this, and Christians believe that in Jesus the Word, the Logos, has become flesh and dwelt among us.

Greek philosophy and its heirs believed in the ability of reason to comprehend reality. Philosophers were realists; they believed that our ideas, our concepts, our categories correspond to something that exists out there, outside of our minds. We can form true ideas that correspond to the essences or natures of things.

Plato took this to an extreme with his doctrine of Ideas that have an eternal, independent existence. Aristotle and Aquinas thought that the underlying essences or natures did not exist independently, but nonetheless had a real existence in, not apart from, the individuals in that category. That is, there is no independent eternal idea of DOG, but there is a species of dog and this species is not simply a construct of the human mind but corresponds to something, a nature, an essence, outside our minds.

But for nominalists, only particulars exist. Our general ideas, our categories, our concepts are more or less arbitrary, mere names we apply to groups of particulars. Our ideas do not correspond to anything outside of us; they exist only in our minds. There are no natures or essences. There are only mental categories into which we place particular beings. There is no human nature, only particular human beings. Therefore there cannot be a natural law based on the essence or nature of something, since natures do not exist.

We decide which individuals we will put into a category; we do not discover the reality that unites and underlies a group of particular beings. Our ideas are only names, nomina in Latin; they are based on an act of our will, voluntas, not on an act of reason.

William of Occam is the philosopher most associated with nominalism, and from nominalism he deduced another type of voluntarism. If reality has no logical structure; it is governed solely by acts of the divine will, voluntas. For Ockham, God’s omnipotence dominated to the extent that God’s freedom had to be so absolute that it could not be limited by reason, by nature, by truth, by anything he had done in the past or promised for the future. God was free to be arbitrary, to change at any time, to change the laws of human nature (which is after all only a human category). God’s freedom was undetermined by anything. Omnipotence was the first and most important attribute of God; he could do anything; he was not subject to any higher law, including, some said, the laws of logic, even the law of contradiction.

Since reality does not have a logical structure, morality is based solely on the will of God. The voluntarists taught that God could command us to kill, steal, commit adultery, and we would be obliged to do so; some even taught that God could command us to hate Him, and we would be obliged to hate Him.

Because the omnipotence of God had already become prominent in medieval philosophy, the sovereignty of God was a leading doctrine of the Reformation. Luther said that “God is He for whose will no cause or ground may be laid down as its rule and standard…What God wills is not right because He ought or was bound so to will, what takes place must be right, because He so wills.” Calvin concurred; “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever He wills, by the very fact the He wills it, must be considered righteous.”

Submission in Arabic is Islam; and both nominalism and voluntarism entered Western philosophy at the time when Western Christendom was beginning to interact with the Islamic world.

Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address considered the analogues of Western nominalism and voluntarism in Islam and described the consequences of this voluntarism:

“This … might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God.”

Benedict sees this as a false idea of transcendence. On the contrary, Benedict insisted,  

“God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. “

Love transcends reason but it “continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is “λογικη λατρεία” [rational adoration], worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.”

Before I turn to how Catholicism has been affected by voluntarism, let us briefly look at how our culture has been influenced by nominalism. Pope Francis at the United Nations criticized “declarationist nominalism,”[ii] and I think this is what he meant: Today a person is a male; tomorrow he decides he is a female; and his reality is determined by an act of will, not an exercise of reason. A family is anything we decide it is and declare it to be; marriage is whatever we say it is. We do not perceive reality; we create it by an act of will.  An article I read, I think in the NYT, explained why reporters used the term fetus when talking about abortion but the term unborn child when referring to a miscarriage. The article explained that the parents decided whether the thing in the womb was a fetus which could be cut up and sold or an unborn child to be loved. Will has triumphed over reason.

Roman Catholic theology never went to the extremes that the Reformation did in emphasizing the omnipotence of God, but among the Jesuits moral theology tended to focus on the will rather than on the reason as the locus of morality. The Jesuits were interested mainly in the interaction of God’s will and the human will. This variety of voluntarism stressed that the main content of morality is obedience to commandments, rules, laws, coming from an authority, a will, outside of oneself.

Germain Grisez[iii] describes the attitude toward the moral law that this produced:

“By keeping these rules one would merit heaven; by violating them one would deserve eternal punishment in hell. In this perspective, an understanding of the intrinsic connection between Christian life in this world and eternal life was far less important than a firm conviction that the disobedience of mortal sin must be avoided.”

This focus on law and obligation as the norm of moral actions created a legalistic mentality.

Grisez continues: “Legalism often causes the faithful to view the Church’s moral teaching as an imposition. The suspicion grows that the Christian life itself is a kind of arbitrary test for which different rules could well be devised if only the test maker chose. In these circumstances, the desire increases to do as one pleases as much as one can.”

Catholics therefore tend to see morality in terms of things that are forbidden, and even worse, tend to think that things are wrong only because God or the Church forbids them, not that God or the Church forbids them because they are wrong and destructive. And many Catholics tend to think that God and the church can change these rules and are simply mean not to do so. The moral life becomes a contest between the human will and the divine will, in which the human will pursues its own ends and tries to carve out a space for itself by obeying only those divine commands it has to obey to avoid damnation.

The voluntarist view of morality focuses on the obligation imposed by the authority of the divine will when it promulgates a law. The main point of the moral life is to avoid guilt which is a deliberate and conscious transgression of a known commandment.

The person who sees everything only in terms of obligation has a strong tendency to be a minimalist. How late can I arrive to mass, how early can I leave and still fulfill the Sunday obligation? How much am I obliged to give to support the Church? How much can I eat and not break the Lenten fast? And, the main concern of young males, how far can I go and not commit a mortal sin?

This is not a good attitude for a Christian. It becomes even more destructive when casuists minimize the obligations. Pascal in the Provincial Letters lambasts the Jesuits for their casuistry, for the mental contortions they went through to justify acts, such as dueling, that were clearly immoral. However, he acknowledged that the Jesuits had a defensible motive: they did not want by moral rigorism to drive people out of the church; they preferred to have someone remain in the church and be a bad Catholic rather than leave the church. They knew that some men would insist on dueling and would abandon Christianity if they were told they could not duel.

Pope Francis has ignited with his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia a controversy over the admission to communion of divorced and remarried Catholics. Each side claims the other side suffers from the distortions of post-Tridentine moral theology, which emphasized keeping rules rather than growing in virtue.

Francis criticizes what he sees as a legalistic voluntarism, a stress that the will of God must be obeyed because it is the law. His critics on the contrary see in Amoris laetitia an opening to antinomian voluntarism, that is, an implication that divine laws can be changed, and that the pope has the authority to change them. Archbishop Scicluna of Malta said, “Whoever wishes to discover what Jesus wants from him, he must ask the Pope, this Pope, not the one who came before him, or the one who came before that. This present Pope.”[iv] —An odd statement that seems to claim the pope is an oracle, like the head of the Mormon church, who can have new revelations.

Some cardinals and bishops, including our Bishop Lopes,[v] reason in this way:

Divorce does not dissolve a sacramental marriage. The marriage is real; it exists until death. A person who divorces his spouse and tries to enter into another marriage is in fact committing adultery every time he has intercourse. Adultery is always a mortal sin. A person in a state of mortal sin cannot receive communion, because his relationship with God is sundered. Therefore, a person who has tried to enter into a second marriage cannot receive communion unless he abstains from sexual intercourse. This is simply the reality of the situation.

The Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, a confident of Pope Francis, responded to this reasoning in a tweet: “Theology is not #Mathematics. 2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with #God and real #life of #people…”

This remark was a red flag to critics of the lenient interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, because it looks like Spadaro claims that God is not bound by logic, that He can make 2 plus 2 to equal 5 by an act of His will. This means that reality does not have a logical structure and morality is determined purely by God’s will. Spadaro would almost certainly reject this idea, but he has not explained what he really meant.

Of course, ignorance has long been recognized as mitigating or removing the guilt of breaking a law. Ignorance can be the result of a mental blindness, not simply a result of lack of information. Some divorced and remarried cannot see or accept that their second marriage is invalid and their relations are adulterous. Such people may be without subjective guilt.  They want to grow in virtue, to participate in the life of the Church, and to raise their children in the Faith. That is why they desire to receive the sacraments. Amoris Laetitia seems to open the sacraments to such people, and this is in fact how Cardinal Schönborn[vi] and many bishops have interpreted what Pope Francis wrote.

But it seems to me that this approach misses an important point. An erring conscience may absolve a person from guilt, but it does not prevent harm to God’s creation. Even if those who have attempted remarriage are without subjective guilt, their wrong actions are still destructive and harm reality. A sacramental marriage by its indissolubility is not simply a sign but a sacrament of the unbreakable love of God for the Church. That is, a sacramental marriage gives an unshakeable foundation to the family and is a mighty aid for the provision and protection of children, who are the main sufferers from the acceptance of divorce and remarriage and the atmosphere of instability it creates. An erroneous conscience may absolve a person from guilt, but it does not prevent him from hurting others.

Cardinal Ratzinger in one of his interviews recounts a conversation with an unnamed German theologian (I presume it was Hans Kung). The other theologian said it was good that the people of Europe were invincibly ignorant about sexual morality. They were going to fornicate anyway, so at least they were doing it without guilt, because they were not violating their consciences. Ratzinger asked if the Nazi SS men who killed Jews because they thought it was the right thing to do were also without guilt, because they were also following their consciences. The other theologian said yes, the Nazis who were following their conscience and killing Jews were without guilt. Ratzinger sensed there had to be something wrong with this analysis of the erroneous conscience.

The law is given as light to our eyes and a lamp to our feet. It is not good to be ignorant of it. It is not a set of more or less arbitrary rules; it is a guide to reality. It is not being merciful to people to let them live undisturbed in a false world of their own creation instead of the real world that God has created.

 Seeing the moral life as only obedience to rules is inadequate, but obedience to the rules is a necessary step for moral and spiritual progress, because those rules are a guide to reality.  Moral theologians who tried to get away from a purely rule-based morality and who tried to develop a morality of virtue whose aim is happiness never denied the validity of the rules. The commandments are the lowest rung of the Christian life; the Beatitudes and the infused gifts of the Holy Spirit are the higher rungs. But we can’t get to the higher rungs unless we climb the lower ones first. It’s only logical.

Pope Francis has a taste for chaos, a “mess” as he calls it[vii]; he is, after all, an Argentine. Not everyone enjoys or profits from confusion. As Cardinal Müller, the head of the CDF, said in an interview, “The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity.” Clarity is important because we should feel that moral demands are based on reason’s accurate perception of reality, not on the whim of God or of a pope.

Pope Francis has refused to answer questions that a group of cardinals put to him. The church is often reluctant to resolve a controversy prematurely, until issues are clarified. In the 17th century Dominicans and Jesuits argued violently about the nature of grace and human cooperation in grace. The Jesuits accused the Dominicans of being Calvinists, and the Dominicans accused the Jesuits of being Pelagians. This controversy was given the name De Auxiliis. The pope intervened; he forbade anyone from calling an opponent a heretic and said that the church would resolve the controversy at an opportune time.[viii] We are still waiting.

Perhaps Pope Francis is following this policy.[ix] But eventually the Church will have to arrive at some clarity and agreement about remarriage after divorce. Morality can’t differ from one diocese to the next. And do the irregular unions that Francis seems to tolerate include polygamous marriage? African bishops have a real problem with people in polygamous marriages who convert to Christianity.

But to return to our own lives and the basis for the repentance that Lent calls us to.  We should always strive to be conscious that God’s commands are not arbitrary, but are based upon reality, and that He desires our happiness. Most of the time we can see this, but we all suffer from blindness about particular faults – if you are married your spouse will inform you of them. Sometimes we can’t see why God has commanded or forbidden something, but we have to trust that He can see things more accurately than we can. We should strive to understand His point of view and make it our own, through the study of Scripture and of the teachings of the Church, and through conversation with Him in prayer. His ways are the ways to true happiness, and will fulfill our deepest desires.

[i] Especially Servais Pinckaers, Romanus Cessario and Augustine De Noia,

[ii] “Our world demands of all government leaders a will which is effective, practical and constant, concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment and thus putting an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labour, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime. Such is the magnitude of these situations and their toll in innocent lives, that we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences. We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges.”

[iii] See his The Way of the Lord Jesus.

[iv] The bishops of Malta are merely following the directives of Pope Francis in their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, Archbishop Charles Scicluna said in a radio interview.

Archbishop Scicluna said that the Maltese bishops’ guidelines on implementation of the papal document follow the Pope’s clear indications. He admitted that he was surprised when the Pontiff, in a letter to bishops in Buenos Aires, said that “there are no other interpretations.” However, the Maltese prelate said, “one has to accept the interpretation that the Pope gives of his own document.”

In a recent homily, speaking on the same subject, Archbishop Scicluna stressed the importance of following the pastoral guidance of the Roman Pontiff: “Whoever wishes to discover what Jesus wants from him, he must ask the Pope—this Pope, not the one who came before him, or the one who came before that. This present Pope.”

[v] Bishop Steven J. Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (the U.S.-based structure for former Anglican communities who have joined the Catholic Church) has also written that the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage has not been changed, and that couples who are remarried without an annulment cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist without the intent to refrain from sexual relations.

“Pastoral discernment admits of no exceptions to the moral law, nor does it replace moral law with the private judgements of conscience,” Bishop Lopes wrote.

[vi] Cardinal Schonborn: The complexity of family situations, which goes far beyond what was customary in our Western societies even a few decades ago, has made it necessary to look in a more nuanced way at the complexity of these situations. To a greater degree than in the past, the objective situation of a person does not tell us everything about that person in relation to God and in relation to the church. This evolution compels us urgently to rethink what we meant when we spoke of objective situations of sin. And this implicitly entails a homogeneous evolution in the understanding and in the expression of the doctrine.

Francis has taken an important step by obliging us to clarify something that had remained implicit in “Familiaris consortio” [St. John Paul II’s 1981 exhortation on the family] about the link between the objectivity of a situation of sin and the life of grace in relation to God and to his church, and –- as a logical consequence –- about the concrete imputability of sin. Cardinal Ratzinger had explained in the 1990s that we no longer speak automatically of a situation of mortal sin in the case of new marital unions. I remember asking Cardinal Ratzinger in 1994, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had published its document about divorced and remarried persons: “Is it possible that the old praxis that was taken for granted, and that I knew before the [Second Vatican] Council, is still valid? This envisaged the possibility, in the internal forum with one’s confessor, of receiving the sacraments, provided that no scandal was given.” His reply was very clear, just like what Pope Francis affirms: There is no general norm that can cover all the particular cases. The general norm is very clear; and it is equally clear that it cannot cover all the cases exhaustively.

[vii] “They wrote a speech for me to give you. But speeches are boring,” the Argentine pontiff said to loud cheers, casting aside his script. “Make a mess, but then also help to tidy it up. A mess which gives us a free heart, a mess which gives us solidarity, a mess which gives us hope.”

[viii] Pope Clement XII, on October 2, 1733, issued the papal bull Apostolicae Providentiae Officio, in which he declared, “We forbid these opposing schools either in writing, or speaking or disputation or on any other occasion to dare impose any theological note or censure on the opposite school of thought or to attack their rivals in offensive or insulting language.”

[ix] Jesuit Father James Bretzke, a moral theologian at Boston College, noted that Pope Francis’ reluctance to further clarify the document and its application is intentional.

“Pope Francis is well aware of what’s going on, but I think he believes, methodologically as a way of governance, that these sorts of issues are best interpreted at the ground level,” Father Bretzke said. “He has by and large avoided the temptation to come down on high and cut off discussion or responses at lower levels, and not just in this area, but many others as well. This is the principle of subsidiarity in practice.”

As to how long the debate continues, and if it eventually works itself out, as Keating suggested, or remains a controversy for the next pope to address, are questions for the future. What the experts agree on is for the faithful to remain hopeful and to pray for the Church. (Our Sunday Visitor)

Leave a Comment