By Jeffrey Tranzillo
The German bishops’ conference is hardly alone in exploiting, for “pastoral” reasons, the implications of Amoris Laetitia’s (AL) betrayal of objective moral truth. At the same time, the larger context of its recent decisions to admit select Lutherans, and select divorced and “remarried” Catholics, to Holy Communion seems to point also to a source of inspiration more original than AL’s subjectivistic moral relativism. Indeed, the source is more original than Catholic moral revisionism, than situation ethics before that, and than Kant’s turn to the subject, long before all that. Adam and Eve aside, it seems that the inspiration for the nationalistic, morally bankrupt ecclesiastical agenda of certain German bishops goes back to Martin Luther.
Luther’s subjectivism, driven, it seems, by his psycho-moral and psycho-emotional instability, led him into an ongoing series of anthropological, theological, and “pastoral” errors, some of which good Lutherans have rightly rejected (in that respect making them “bad” Lutherans), but which many German bishops have not. After considering some of Luther’s errors, we’ll be able to see better how the thinking and the “pastoral” policies of some German bishops are suffused with Luther’s thought. At the very least, they run parallel to it, as the logical consequence of the radical subjectivism they all share.
Instigating Luther’s rebellion against Church authority, and ultimately against divine revelation itself, was the rebellion of his own passions against the authority of his higher faculties. Luther based his whole theology on his personal experience of how useless his reason and will proved in controlling his passions. Accordingly, he denied that there was any need for them to exert that control at all. There was simply no “work” he could ever do to satisfy the justice of God, who, far from being merciful, was militant, wrathful, and vengeful. How, then, could Luther be saved? Subjectively interpreting the gospel to accord with his personal experience, he asserted that Christ clothes us with His righteousness, so that we “feel” clean, though we remain utterly filthy underneath, hence powerless not to sin.
Having embraced this novel perspective, Luther was naturally able to gain a large following by telling his hearers that they could sin boldly. They just had to believe in Christ even more boldly. But how do we believe boldly in the Savior if he cannot help us keep his saving precepts, whose observance he commands as evidence of our belief in him? According to Luther, we believe in Christ by throwing our sins onto him, so that he becomes the sinner in our stead. Reason is useless either to conceive of, or to fathom this (though Luther trusted reason to contrive this starkly unbiblical theory). We must simply have confidence that God mercifully redeems us thus in Christ. We are therefore saved by faith alone.
To justify a dissolute way of life that leads nevertheless to salvation, Luther posited a radical dichotomy between the soul and the body. The former pertains to one’s spiritual life–one’s relationship to God in faith–whereas the latter pertains to one’s life in the world. God has no interest in what we do in the body, for bodily actions constitute our “works.” By them, we sin only against our neighbor. It follows that our worldly affairs need be guided only by worldly standards. The gospel applies solely to our life of faith.
Since, for Luther, marriage serves only the twofold purpose of satisfying sexual desire and generating offspring (just as in animals), it is a strictly bodily and hence secular affair, to be governed by secular authorities and traditions. Having projected his own inability to control his sexual desires onto everyone else, moreover, Luther did not forbid adultery–at least in cases where a woman was unable or unwilling to satisfy her husband. Nor did he forbid fornication, charging that even Christ had thrice committed that sin. Insofar as we can get away with it, then, we can do as we please in the world, without having any pangs of conscience.
Accordingly, when one of Luther’s wealthy supporters, Philip of Hesse, sought Luther’s permission to take his mistress as a second wife, Luther advised him that in his situation, he could do so, as long as he kept the matter secret (to keep them both out of trouble with the civil authorities). When the “affair” became known and the civil penalty of capital punishment loomed large, Luther argued that he had only privately approved Philip’s sin, which meant that he publicly disapproved it.
Let us now look at some of the ways in which certain German bishops are piggybacking on Luther.
Subjectivism and the Distrust of Reason and Will
While some German bishops (among others) seem rather captivated by their own intellect, a closer look shows that they actually agree with Luther’s skepticism about human reason. After all, they seem utterly baffled about how sins like fornication, adultery, and sodomy could so violate human dignity and God’s will as to threaten those who practice them with eternal damnation. They tell us that in some cases, these sins give rise to certain good or “constructive” elements in the lives of their practitioners (e.g., AL, 292), and that we simply can’t ignore their experience. If the prophets, St. Paul, and even Christ seemed to have spoken in morally absolute terms about such matters, they were nevertheless limited in their moral judgments, for they lacked our contemporary psychological genius, and they were bound by the partial understandings typical of their own historical and cultural milieu.
Reason, therefore, could never be so sure of itself as to affirm absolutely that there are such things as objectively true and universally binding moral norms that are applicable to everyone in every time, place, and circumstance, and that singularly express true love of God, self, and neighbor. So much for the divine inspiration and the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture.
Like Luther, certain German bishops seem also to question the will’s ability to abide by the true moral good, even with the help of God’s grace. So they insist on the need for a pastoral approach that “carefully discerns situations” (AL, 298). For even in situations that involve the violation of a moral precept such as the Sixth Commandment, Catholics might, “in good conscience,” be unable to observe it because it conflicts with other important values that their “discernment” says they should realize–with the best of intentions, of course–given the concrete complexity of their circumstances.
Accordingly, moral discernment in conscience about the good I must do in my situation must give priority to the only thing I can “really” know, namely, my experience, my feelings, and my “good” intentions, as conditioned by historical, cultural, psychological, social, economic, and unique circumstantial factors. The moral “truth” that I arrive at, based on my “honest” introspection, then determines what kind of response is appropriate and possible for me, given the concrete complexity of my limits. As long as my intentions are “honorable,” therefore, I can licitly disobey what God has commanded, while having “a certain moral security” in conscience that, in doing so, I am doing what he wills for me under the circumstances (AL, 303).
Note that in its unrealistically optimistic formulation, this view (adopted by AL) departs from that of Luther, though its self-serving subjectivism still matches his. But at least Luther took seriously the fact that human nature is fallen, whereas some bishops seem to have forgotten about our concupiscent condition, as though there could be no hint of lust or selfishness beneath our “good intentions.”
Subjectivism and Biblical Interpretation
Insofar as my experience of the “good” thing to do in my situation reflects that of many other Catholics in similar circumstances, some German bishops (among others) believe that it ought to shape our understanding of the moral teachings contained in the Scriptures. Those teachings will then become “relevant” to our shared, contemporary experience. So many different conditioning factors are affecting us these days that most Catholics are no longer living according to the Church’s teachings, which means that “the faithful” have not “received” them. The Church must therefore “reappropriate” scriptural morality so that it accords with the experience of the immoral mob–the new center of the Church’s magisterium (an idea to which AL, 3, could be taken to lend support). This more “democratic” approach to morality harmonizes well with our Western sensibilities.
Making the individual or the collective libido the central biblical and theological hermeneutic provides us with the subjective “morality” we want. We must then adopt a subjective view of God to support it. Out of “mercy,” this new “god” no longer holds us to the moral standards he once prescribed for one and all, since a myriad of unprecedented, divinely unforeseen limiting factors impedes our ability to rise to them. Contriving a god suited to our moral irresponsibility is hardly something new. Luther had to counterbalance the vengeful God that his guilty conscience dreamed up with a view of God in Christ suited to the no-works-necessary biblical interpretation that suited him. He could just throw his sins–and, with them, his moral responsibility–onto Christ, who thereby becomes the sinner and the one responsible for the sins.
Subjectivism and Situation Ethics
Given their Lutheran orientation, the German bishops are evidently looking to justify adultery (with fornication and sodomy not far behind). That is, they are looking to pave the way for Catholic “second marriages” where a valid first marriage still exists; hence, they are looking to dissolve the truth of marital indissolubility–at least when the situation “warrants” it. We saw in the case of Philip of Hesse that Luther was the pioneer of this kind of situation ethics, or “moral discernment.” If we hear soon from certain bishops that marital vows need be kept for only as long as psychologically possible, we should not be surprised: Luther held that same position relative to religious vows.
Following Luther, some German bishops are tacitly winking at Catholic adulterers (which is the only realistic way of interpreting their admittance to Holy Communion), while publicly proclaiming that Church teaching on marital indissolubility has not changed, and that the serial bigamy of these adulterers falls short of the objective “ideal.” Luther had advised Philip of Hesse that it would not be sinful for the two of them to tell convenient lies about Philip’s bigamy. It seems that certain bishops feel the same way about Catholic adultery.
Subjectivism and Gnosticism
In a way analogous to that of Luther, some German bishops imply a sort of gnostic dualism of body and soul. For them, our subjective intentions define the moral quality of the actions we choose to perform, whereas what we are actually doing in the body (such as committing adultery or sodomy) says little about us as persons. This is to deny the effects, for good or for ill, that our moral actions have on us precisely as bodily persons (see 2 Cor. 5:10). Our actions in the body express, and reciprocally affect, our person. In denying this, the moral subjectivism of certain bishops exposes itself as resting on a false anthropology.
Subjectivism and Nationalistic Secularism
Having effectively dismissed the moral significance of what we do in the body, some German bishops are content, as Luther was, to let the state set the standards of our bodily conduct. They tell us, for example, that the Church must not oppose state sanctioning of same-sex “unions,” if that’s what “the majority” wants, for that is the very meaning of democracy. Of course, the same-sex issue will never “divorce” itself from the marriage issue. So the bishops’ position is essentially that of Luther: it is up to the state to regulate marriage, and the Church must abide by its decisions. Of course, that means the Church must recognize civil divorce and remarriage, “gay” marriage, and any other perversion of God’s plan for marriage that the state might contrive.
Whether certain German bishops are consciously emulating Luther is hard to say. But one thing is clear: Luther’s brand of subjectivism is serving well their subversive ends.
Jeffrey Tranzillo earned his doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of John Paul II on the Vulnerable (CUA Press, 2013). Some of his recent articles have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and he posts others on his own website, trulycatholicmatters.com.