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Dialogue Mass - CXXX

Francis’s Remedy for ‘Rigidity’ in Morals:
Situation Ethics

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
As we have seen in the two preceding articles (here and here), Pope Francis has been conducting a campaign against “rigidity” in moral issues, particularly in the area of the Sixth Commandment.

But this is simply a cover for moral relativism, for the kind of Situation Ethics (masquerading under any other name) espoused by dissenters from Humane vitae such as Frs. Charles Curran, Hans Küng and Bernard Häring. In the area of marriage ethics, there are no grey areas: Adultery, in the Church’s 2,000-year-old teaching drawn from the Divine Law, is a non-negotiable, black-and-white issue.

A “grey” Pope, however, is a contradiction in terms, for it indicates a failure of his primary duty to communicate Divine Revelation by means of the Ecclesia Docens, without which we would not have the certainty of infallible Truth.

But for the proponents of Situation Ethics, there are no moral absolutes that can give universal, binding, immutable norms of morality. In their view, every moral decision must be based on a unique situation judged according to individual standards of what is right in a given circumstance and at a given time. Morality, then, is simply a matter of individual preferences.

Fr. Curran attacked Catholic morality in 1968

The solemn warning on this issue given by Pope Pius XII in 1952 has obviously been set aside:

“The distinctive mark of this morality is that it is in fact in no way based on universal moral laws, for instance, on the Ten Commandments, but on the real and concrete conditions or circumstances in which one must act, and according to which the individual conscience has to judge and choose. It is in these situations that human action takes place. This is why the supporters of this system of ethics affirm that the decision of one’s conscience cannot be made to conform to ideas, principles and universal laws.”1

A strong flavor of situational morality can be found in many of Pope Francis’s teachings, especially concerning the Sixth Commandment (about which he accused traditionalists of having a “fixation”). That he wanted priests to exonerate adultery is clear from the context of his recently issued Amoris laetitia.

There, he had encouraged priests to set aside the Law by admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion, in the name of “accompaniment” and on the basis of discernment in individual cases. But once intrinsically disordered acts are exonerated in one area, the whole of the Natural Law is undermined in every area, and the entire edifice of Catholic doctrine would be brought crashing down by inevitable logical consequence.

Amoris laetitia (§ 305) does precisely that when it claims that “the natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions.” This is a quote from a document produced by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission in 2009, whose title, "In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law," reveals its non-Catholic nature.

It is gravely damaging to the Faith for several reasons. First, the Catholic Church does not need to go in search of a universal ethic because she already possesses one in the Deposit of Faith which is to be guarded intact by the Hierarchy and handed on to future generations. But Francis wishes to liberate modern man from what progressivists see as rigid, archaic rules and codes.

Second, the objective Moral Law presupposes the order willed by God for all His creatures. It is necessarily an a priori truth because Christ, Who embodies the Word, and through Whom all things come into existence, was “in the beginning” (John 1:1); and, as the Gospels also record, our knowledge of what is required for the good life is based on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4) i.e., not by deciding our own moral behavior from subjective experience. Francis and the Theological Commission deny that they are promoting Situation Ethics, but they fall into self-contradiction by supposing that Natural Law can admit exceptions.

Third, the objection to “an already established set of rules” being universally binding is a clear rejection of the Ten Commandments which Christ imposed as a fundamental and indispensable requirement for anyone who would be His disciple. In matters of marriage ethics, Francis talks as if Catholic morality was an invention of theologians:

Pius XII

Pius XII condemned the very attacks against Morals made by Francis & modern theologians

“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.”2 (Emphasis added)

Instead of preaching the Gospel, however, he and his collaborators on the Theological Commission twist and distort it by taking the widespread practice of adultery in modern society as a fait accompli to which Christian life must adapt itself. This is exactly what constitutes Situation Ethics as it had been defined by Pius XII in 1952:

“It is an individual and subjective appeal to the concrete circumstances of actions to justify decisions in opposition to the Natural Law and God’s revealed will.” (Emphasis added)

Their progressivist teachings thus constitute an attack not only on the indissolubility of marriage, but also, as Pius XII explained, on the very Person of Christ as the Word of God.

Häring – key to understanding Francis

Tyrrell was not the only major 20th-century figure whose modernist ideas were wholeheartedly adopted by Francis. The German Redemptorist moral theologian, Bernard Häring (one of the main leaders of public dissent from Humane vitae in 1968), also exerted a malign influence on his thinking with his “new theology” of marriage. Häring, it must be remembered, was a member of the Commission that produced Gaudium et spes, the Vatican II document that inverted the primary and secondary ends of marriage and described it vaguely as a “communion of love” (§ 47), and an “intimate partnership” (§ 48).

Bernard Häring

Fr. Bernard Häring, enemy of infallible teachings
& model for Francis

In spite (or, perhaps, because of) Häring’s long track record of vocal opposition to infallible teaching on Catholic Morals, Francis clearly thought of him as a model leader. He praised his pioneering efforts in the renewal and “progress” of Moral Theology, and Häring himself for being “the first to start looking for a new way to help Moral Theology to flourish again”.3

But Catholic Moral Theology, backed up by hundreds of years of Tradition, was already flourishing in the pre-Vatican II era before it was consigned to the trash heap by groups of progressivists at the Council. Its reputation was destroyed by corrosive criticism from an influential lobby of clergy who accused it of being “legalistic,” “rigid,” sin-obsessed, rules-based and subservient to the Magisterium – all of which made it, in their eyes, completely useless for the needs of modern freedom-loving people.

What attracted Francis to Häring’s “New Morality” was its aim to abandon the “rigidity” of true Catholic Moral Theology which was based on the Natural Law, objective truth and immutable moral principles, and was taught through the scholastic system. (Pope Pius X had stated in Pascendi that modernists held Scholasticism in contempt). In his book on “Christian Personalism,” Morality Is for Persons, Häring had redefined the meaning of Natural Law:

“Natural law means the sharing of existential experience and reflection by persons”.4

This makes the Natural Law a mere social agreement based on the conventions and customs of man, rather than emanating from the Divine Word which imposes duties and obligations on all people, in harmony with human nature.

Amoris laetitia & the attack on the Natural Law

It is enlightening to note the close link – sometimes word for word – between the manner in which Häring presented the concept of Natural Law and that of the Theological Commission which furnished the material for Amoris laetitia. Francis quoted from the Commission which taught that, “within a pluralist society,”

“moral science cannot furnish an acting subject with a norm to be applied adequately and almost automatically to concrete situations; only the conscience of the subject, the judgment of his practical reason, can formulate the immediate norm of action … Natural law could not, therefore, be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision.”5

But here the Commission departs from the Church’s doctrine. It sees the Natural Law, not as a fixed “given” emanating from the Divine Legislator, but as something that “humanity … always seeks to give itself” 6 and that is continually evolving:

“This natural law is not at all static in its expression. It does not consist of a list of definitive and immutable precepts."7

And it has to be interpreted anew by subsequent generations:

“It is a spring of inspiration always flowing forth for the search for an objective foundation for a universal ethic.”

The Commission goes on to say that “the norms of behavior in society should have their source in the human person himself, in his needs, in his inclinations,” and supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the Magna Carta of modern ethics. But this sort of “Personalism,” beloved of the modernists, is contrary to Catholic doctrine because it turns the Moral Law into a subjective creation of man. It also denies that it was fixed in God’s mind as part of the Eternal Law of nature, i.e., prior to any operations of the human will. Even a child can understand the a priori nature of God’s Commandments.

With the “New Morality,” the foundation of the Natural Law is thus destroyed. It would be more accurate to say that this “New Morality” is no morality at all, for it panders to concupiscence and lures souls with the siren song of freedom to pick and choose according to their baser instincts. It is, therefore, only a Potemkin façade to hide a sordid reality.

And as the Ecclesia Docens no longer sees itself as the custodian of the Revelation given by God, or competent to preach Christian morality as obligatory, it is not surprising that all manner of immorality has proliferated unchecked throughout the Church and in society.

In a hypocritical display of self-defense, progressivists often claim that they are “following the Gospel” in the true liberty of the early Christians by connecting directly with the Spirit of Christ, without the intermediary of the juridical structures of institutional religion. This, of course, is a classical Protestant position. Yet it has now metastasized almost throughout the whole body of the Church under the influence of Vatican II’s “Religious Liberty.” In his efforts to break down the “rigidity” of Catholic teaching, Francis is endangering the survival of the Church and the salvation of souls that depends on it. That he wanted the Church to disappear and be reinvented in a new transformation is obvious from his statement in Evangelii gaudium:


Francis dreams of the Church abandoning ‘self preservation’

“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (§ 27)

So much for his love of the Church: he is not concerned for her preservation. In fact, his arguments against “rigidity” have no foundation in Catholic Tradition. Furthermore, they are completely devoid of credibility because they have been proposed by progressivists who have lost contact with reality, both natural and supernatural. The evidence shows that Francis is simply rehashing errors that were typically made by progressivists in the 1960s to support positions promoted by some of the foremost modernists in Fr. Tyrrell’s day, and for which they – and he – were excommunicated.


  1. Pius XII, "Soyez les bienvenues", Speech to the Participants in the Congress of the World Federation of Catholic Young Women, April 18, 1952, AAS 44, 1952, p. 414.
  2. Francis, Amoris laetitia, § 36.
  3. Francis, ‘To Have Courage and Prophetic Audacity,’ Dialogue of Pope Francis with the Jesuits gathered in the 36th general Congregation, in Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, La Civiltà Cattolica, November 24, 2016.
  4. B. Häring, Morality Is for Persons: The Ethics of Christian Personalism, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971 p. 162.
  5. Francis, Amoris laetitia, § 305, apud International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law, 2009, § 59.
  6. In Search of a Universal Ethic, § 115.
  7. Ibid., § 113.

Posted August 23, 2023


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