May 5, 2022
When the Church speaks definitively on morality – says that without exception something is wrong – is it declaring a truth or laying down a law? Confusion about that is rampant today.
Recently I came across this statement by a writer in a Catholic periodical: “The Pope has not changed the Church’s teaching that sexual activity outside the marriage of a man and a woman is sinful.” The implication is that the Pope could change the teaching if he wanted to, since it’s only a matter of law and therefore subject to change.
I’m not going to name the writer or the publication because, given how widely this confusion is spread, it would be unfair to single out one writer and one periodical for correction. The name of the error, for those who like to name things correctly, is legalism, and it has plaguedmoral reasoning for a long, long time.
Returning to the example, its underlying assumption is that moral truth comes from being taught with authority (or, equivalently, enacted as law): change the teaching or the law, and the truth changes. But in reality it’s the other way around: if teaching or law is sound, that’s because it expresses moral truth – in the example, that sexual activity is morally good only in man-woman marriage.