In the recent row over the Holy Father’s statements about birth control devices, it was made very apparent how much the world hates the Church’s moral magisterium. Even bishops, shepherds of Our Lord’s flock, went on record opposing the teachings of the Chief Shepherd of Christians. While I was considering this revolting set of circumstances, it struck me how closely these events tie into our Crusade to restore faith in the defined dogma, “no salvation outside the Church.” There are differences, of course, in these issues: The popular and erroneous thinking about prophylactics is a heresy in the moral realm, while the denial of extra ecclesiam nulla salus is a heresy in the realm of faith. One pertains to moral theology; the other, to dogmatic theology. But these are exactly the two areas in which the Church exercises her infallibility: faith and morals. Right faith grounds us in divine Truth; good morals ground us in divine Love. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The doctrine concerning salvation has been infallibly defined by two popes acting alone, and one teaching in Council. So it has been thrice defined using the Church’s extraordinary magisterium. The teaching condemning contraception in all its forms (including the form addressed by the Holy Father in flight to Africa) has not been infallibility defined, but it is nonetheless a dogma infallibly taught by the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium.1 Denial of the former is the heresy du jour in the domain of faith; denial of the latter is the fashionable heresy in the realm of morals. And these two transgressions of divine law — indifferentism and onanism, to give them their proper names — have much in common. I say the comparisons tell us a lot more than the contrasts.
Both are examples of liberalism — liberalism being defined as “emancipation and independence of man, society, and State, from God and His Church” (Pietro Parente, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology). Indifferentism asserts a false liberty in how to achieve salvation, with an “independence” from “His Church”; onanism asserts a false liberty in the use of one’s generative powers, asserting an “emancipation” from the revealed (and even the natural) moral law. By indifferentism, the liberal chooses his own way to heaven; by onanism, he chooses his own way of using his body. What God has to say about either matter is irrelevant to the liberal.
Of course, one kind of liberal may say that the Church and its morals are true and necessary for him, but that others are free to choose their own paths, following their own consciences. Here again, as with much in the liberal agenda, all is subjective. If the others can get along without them, then God’s Church and His morals are not objectively necessary. God, the author and master of the human conscience, is thereby subjected to a tyranny of the human conscience.
Both forms of liberalism separate what God has joined together. Onanism separates the two ends of matrimony, divorcing marital love from the responsibility of properly rearing and educating children. Indifferentism separates salvation from the “society of the elect,” the Catholic Church.
Both errors are based on a false sentimentality and emotionalism. The liberal makes exceptions to the law of God against contraception, feeling sorry for the couple who cannot afford more children, or the unmarried (or even unnatural) couples for whom the law of God represents a harsh deprivation of intimate love, disordered and perverse though it may be. The same fellow will make exceptions to “no salvation outside the Church” because, he judges, it seems so mean for God to deny heaven to nice people who happen not to be Catholic. In both scenarios, God’s providence, His care for every soul, His sovereignty, and His truth all take a back seat to mere human feelings.
Both errors contradict reason. For the Catholic to assert there is salvation outside the Church, he will have to deny something that the Church professes (either the doctrinal definitions themselves, or the Church’s right to teach infallibly). Therefore, his claim to be Catholic is quite literally unreasonable. If he is a theologian who writes books on the subject, his denial will be more sophisticated, but the contradiction will remain; it may even be more obvious. The defender of onanism will propagate behavior known to be bad for the family and bad for people’s health (psychological as well as physical), while claiming to be advancing the cause of human felicity and progress. Given enough time, error will eventually make itself idiotic.
In “moderate” forms, both onanism and indifferentism promote certain “exceptions” to the general rules. Theologians who “reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation ” (Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis) will invoke theological constructs which are perfectly valid if understood properly — e.g., “baptism of desire,” “baptism of blood,” “invincible ignorance,” “development of doctrine.” But they will use them to dissolve the meaning of defined dogma. So, too, the moderate advocates of contraception will invoke certain teachings of the papal magisterium dealing with difficult cases in matrimony, and then turn NFP from something the Church merely tolerates in certain restricted cases, to a moral obligation for all Catholic couples to learn, so as to be “responsible” in begetting offspring. Thus, practicing Catholics are taught that a contraceptive mentality constitutes a moral imperative. This is sheer perversity.
Finally, both errors are contraceptive. Onanism contracepts natural life by frustrating the act of marital union; indifferentism contracepts supernatural life by weakening the saving mission of the Church. If, after all, contrary to what the North American martyrs — and all great missionaries — believed, one can be saved in other religions, why should we bother? In this way, just as the human race is experiencing a “demographic winter” by not sufficiently reproducing itself, the Church is experiencing an unprecedented crisis in vocations, liturgy, catechesis, the missions, and even in her very identity. Her mission, entrusted by God exclusively to her, is to save souls. In the name of indifferentism, that mission has been jettisoned by large segments of the Church.
Considered in this light, the phrase “culture of death” takes on a more grim aspect.
But let us not end on so sour a note. The fact that the Holy Father’s incidental defense of Catholic morals caused such a furor shows that the Church is still worthy of her Spouse: “If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you” (John 15:18).
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1Something need not be infallibly defined by the pope to be infallibly taught. The Church’s Ordinary and Universal Magisterium is also infallible. Vatican I teaches us, in Dei Filius: “Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.” For a fuller explanation, see: The Three Levels of Magisterial Teaching.