Friday, May 20, 2011

The Natural Law: Too Strict for Janet Smith?


Janet Smith, a well-known, 'conservative' moral theologian, recently published a scandalous article in First Things (June-July 2011 issue), where she tries to justify, in certain cases, the intrinsically immoral act of lying.   Smith rashly entitled her article: "Fig Leaves and Falsehoods: Pace Thomas Aquinas, Sometimes We Need to Deceive." Much worse and more heterodox theses have been proposed by theologians in the last fifty years, but this one is particularly scandalous because it comes from a woman whose  moral teaching had been considered trustworthy by conservative Catholics for decades.  It is also scandalous due to her being a professor at a major seminary.

And hers is not simply an innocent theological mistake.  She acknowledges that she is rejecting the teaching, not only of St. Thomas, but of the whole theological tradition and of the Magisterium of the Church (she even cites the new Catechism), namely, that lying is intrinsically wrong and, thus, can never be justified.  In particular, the Church teaches that the end does not justify the means; it is for this reason that lying for a good end is never justified.  We would not be surprised if this were just another forgotten traditional Catholic teaching of decades past that had been buried together with all other things pre-conciliar: but it is a standard moral doctrine of the "current" Magisteirum, found the teaching of even the recent popes, John Paul II in particular (in Veritatis splendor, for example), something that even the most "moderate" of Catholics would expect her to respect.

So Smith rejects this doctrine while being fully aware that it is the teaching of the Church, and still, she pretends that all is good and that she is not stepping outside of the bounds of orthodoxy.  Not only that, but those of us who disagree with her are automatically "rigorists."  She calls Aquinas a rigorist, but by extension it follows that everyone else, all Catholic moral theologians and ethicists,  Popes, Bishops, confessors, the faithful, even saints, were rigorists.  (Before 1960 she would have been reprimanded by the Church--and rightly so.)

She ends the article by saying:

It is with trepidation and, I hope, with due humility that I disagree with Aquinas and go on record as defending a practice that many moralists I respect think always wrong. Nonetheless, I also respect the practices of cultures, the intuitions of nearly everyone, and what seems to me to be sound reasoning about the postlapsarian nature of signification.

Seemingly in her mind, the intuitions of (post-Englightenment) cultures and the reasoning of (mostly utilitarian) contemporary moral theologians outweigh the authority of the Church and the consensus of the approved Catholic theologians throughout history.  She acknowledges that she is being theologically audacious, but justifies herself by saying that she is doing so with humility. 

See the interesting comments posted at Rorate Caeli regarding mental reservations.

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