As the Bard might say….

Four centuries after his death, Shakespeare remains a peerless playwright because of his remarkable insight into the human condition. Love, ambition, fear, guilt, nobility, pomposity, patriotism, absurdity, sheer wickedness – you name it, Will grasped something of its essence. His work continues to help us understand ourselves better because, whatever the changing of times and seasons, human nature changes very little.

Take, for example, the human propensity to dodge disagreeable arguments by way of evasion.

In As You Like It, the Bard neatly dissected the anatomy of evasion through the words of a clown, Touchstone, who outlines “the degrees of the lie:”

“The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct.”

Some twenty years ago, Fr. David Beauregard, a literarily-inclined Oblate of the Virgin Mary, used Touchstone’s taxonomy to challenge critics of John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. Reading Father Beauregard’s Shakespearean take on theological controversy recently, I was struck by how closely Touchstone’s catalogue of evasion tracks the dodgeball played by those who criticize the critics of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia, but who never engage the substance of the critics’ criticisms.

The Retort Courteous has come a little late to the game, but we now hear it from some of the shrewder and less edgy protagonists of Amoris Laetitia: The critics of the exhortation are well-meaning people, but a tad behind the curve theologically and pastorally.

As for the Quip Modest, well, that’s been in play for months: The critics, or so the line goes, misrepresent what the Holy Father was actually saying and what we, his defenders, have been saying the Holy Father’s been saying; there’s nobody here but us doctrinally solid, pastorally sensitive folk.

The Reply Churlish has not been lacking, as evidenced by several recent academic seminars: Why should we proponents of Amoris Laetitia engage its critics? We’re the future; the wind is in our sails; get used to it.
As for the Reproof Valiant, it comes in the familiar form of academic snark: Amoris Laetitia, its protagonists insist, is the Catholic tradition, and anyone who even suggests that elements of the exhortation may be in conflict with seemingly-settled matters in the tradition, or in conflict with revelation itself, is a dolt who doesn’t understand how to interpret Scripture or tradition.

The Countercheck Quarrelsome is rare in Rome, where bella figura remains prized. But one senior Vatican official, in an unguarded moment, has let it be known that there are those who agree with and understand Pope Francis, and there are those who are stupid. Quarrelsome, indeed.

Then there are protagonists of the exhortation, including bishops, who claim that Amoris Laetitia leads the Catholic Church into a bright future because it jettisons the notion of intrinsically evil acts: actions that are always wrong, irrespective of the circumstances. How would Touchstone categorize them? Here we are through the looking glass, for the claim itself might seem a defense, however porous, against the suggestion of an indulgence here in the Lie Circumstantial or the Lie Direct. Perhaps Shakespeare fails us at this point. I certainly hope so.

No doubt some criticisms of Amoris Laetitia have been crude and ill-tempered, assuming a malign intention on the Pope’s part that no serious Catholic should assume. But to hint, suggest, or assert that virtually all criticisms of the exhortation are stupid, or malicious, or pastorally insensitive is a very strange position for the Party of Dialogue in the Church to take. In the debate over Amoris Laetitia, we are dealing with matters of considerable doctrinal and pastoral importance. And what is at stake are not just arguments and academic egos but the happiness and beatitude that are the goal of the moral life. Surely sorting that out requires a spirit of tolerance.

Tolerance comes from the Latin verb tolerare, which means “to bear with.” So genuine tolerance does not avoid or evade or dismiss differences; it engages differences with charity and civility. Perhaps revisiting As You Like It will encourage those protagonists of Amoris Laetitia who’ve been avoiding a real debate to reconsider.

Featured image by Bruno Girin from London, United Kingdom – Bard, CC BY-SA 2.0,

COMING UP: Whose bourgeois morality?

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In the latest round of debate over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, a fervent defender of the document sniffed at some of its critics that “the Magisterium doesn’t bow to middle-class lobbies” and cited Humanae Vitae as an example of papal tough-mindedness in the face of bourgeois cultural pressures. It was a clever move, rhetorically, and we may hope that it’s right about the magisterial kowtow. But I fear it also misses the point – or, better, several points.

At the Synods of 2014 and 2015, to which Amoris Laetitia is a response, the most intense lobbying for a change in the Church’s traditional practice in the matter of holy communion for the divorced and civilly remarried – a proposal the great majority of Synod fathers thought an unwarranted break with truths taught by divine revelation – came from the German-speaking bishops: prelates who represent perhaps the most thoroughly bourgeois countries on the planet. Thus one does not strain against veracity or charity by describing the German-speaking bishops as something of a lobby for middle-class preoccupations. Passionate defenders of Amoris Laetitia might thus be a bit more careful when dismissing as a middle-class lobby those who raise legitimate concerns about the ambiguities in the document; what goes around, comes around.

There was, of course, far more going on in the 2014-2015 German campaign to permit holy communion for the divorced and civilly remarried than lobbying on behalf of the bourgeois morality of secular, middle-class societies. There was, for example, the ongoing, two-front German war against Humanae Vitae (Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning) and Veritatis Splendor (St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology). We are told, now, that a commission is examining the full range of documentation involved in the preparation of Humanae Vitae. One hopes that that study will bring to the fore what Paul VI realized when he rejected the counsel of many and reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to natural family planning as the humanly and morally appropriate means of regulating fertility.

For what Pope Paul realized – and what he had the courage to stand against, despite fierce pressures – was that a deeper game was going on beneath the agitations of various “middle-class lobbies” for a change in the Church’s position on artificial means of contraception. What was afoot was an attempt, reflecting currents in the German-speaking world of Catholic theology, to enshrine the moral method known as “proportionalism” as Catholicism’s official moral theology. And according to proportionalists, there is no such thing as an intrinsically evil act: every moral action must be judged, not only in itself, but by a person’s intentions and the action’s consequences.

This, Paul VI realized, would be a disastrous concession to the spirit of the age. But the proportionalists didn’t quit the field after their defeat in Humanae Vitae, and that brings us to Veritatis Splendor. John Paul II had spent the greater part of his academic and intellectual life trying to reconstitute the foundations of the moral life in a confused age dominated by (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a bourgeois culture and its laissez-faire concept of morality. He knew that the triumph of proportionalism and the vindication of its denial that some things are simply wrong, period, would gut the moral life of both its tether to reality and its human drama. And that, inevitably, would lead to unhappiness, misery, and social chaos. So in Veritatis Splendor, the most intellectually sophisticated and pastorally experienced pope in centuries reaffirmed, as the settled and unchangeable teaching of the Church, that there are intrinsically evil acts: that some things are just wrong, without exception, no matter the calculus of intentions and consequences.

And still the proportionalists wouldn’t quit; one German commentary critical of Veritatis Splendor went so far as to claim that the German-speaking world had a special, privileged responsibility for Catholic theology. It was a statement of breathtaking arrogance, not least because it was made by theologians whose local churches were largely empty of congregants, thanks in no small part to the bourgeois lifestyle of post-war Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

There are, indeed, “middle-class lobbies” in the Church, but they’re primarily the by-product of Catholic Lite and its destruction of Catholic life and practice. The sorry condition of German-speaking Catholicism is a case in point.