Walford waffles, again, on exceptionless norms

July 24, 2018 (Steven O’Reilly) – Stephen Walford has written another article in La Stampa, this one on the occasion of this year’s 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae (see Humanae Vitae 50 Years On:  Truth, Trust and Mercy, antidotes for the contraceptive mentality).  As it was Mr. Walford’s writings that first ‘dragged’ me into the blogosphere against my better judgment (see here), I could not help but comment upon his latest offering.  As regular readers of this blog may know, Roma Locuta Est has responded a number of times to Mr. Walford’s articles in an ever-expanding Summa Contra Stephen Walford (see Summa Contra Stephen Walford).  This article will be the latest chapter to the Summa.

The alarm bells certainly began ringing by the fourth paragraph of his article, wherein Mr. Walford says (emphasis added):

“One of the great aspects of the present Pope’s magisterium is that he takes a realist approach to doctrine, and how it is received by the faithful. In reality, the Holy Father long ago recognized–as did many moral theologians in the mid to late twentieth century– that a manual of “you can do this, but can’t do this” was an approach that sooner or later would be challenged by an ever increasingly educated laity. So what was missing in this approach? Quite simply the person of Jesus Christ! A moral theology manual absent of promoting a deep and loving friendship with the God of truth and mercy is decadent, and leaves more questions than answers. It does little to explain how the various prohibitions fit into the will of God, the theological reasoning for this, or address the reality of daily struggle for those trying hard to respect the teachings.”

The errors and amazing claims found in Mr. Walford’s article are many. Not least of which is the impression given that Humanae Vitae has ever been seriously taught to the laity in the second half of the twentieth century, let alone as part of a “you can do this, but can’t do this” list! If only Humanae Vitae had received even that much attention by the Catholic episcopacy it might be more widely followed by the Catholic laity today.  I attended Catholic schools from grade school through college. I recall very few moments where the teaching of Humanae Vitae was presented at all (countable on one hand!), and when it was it was certainly not in a “you can do this, but can’t do that” fashion. I am a regular mass goer. Yet, in my entire life, I have only heard the teaching of Humanae Vitae defended once from the pulpit.

Therefore, it seems to me at least, the problem at its core is not a laity that fails to “grasp” the truth of Humanae Vitae, the problem is an episcopate which – with few  exceptions – has utterly failed to teach it and to insist on the authority of the Church, founded by Christ, to do so. Generally, it seems the bishops would rather spend more time on issues that require less moral courage of them; preferring instead to have the latest cultural wind blowing gently at their backs (e.g.,  The Road to Hell is Traveled by Bishops in a Prius).  Yet, be that as it may, Mr. Walford makes the further amazing claim that something taught by the Church founded by Christ – done so with His Authority, such as the exceptionless norm of Humanae Vitae, can be described as “decadent.” But, this outlandish suggestion is surpassed by the claim that what is “missing” in this magisterial teaching of Christ’s Church is Christ Himself! And besides, one might also ask, what is wrong with “you must do this” and “you can’t do this” lists?  Are not the Ten Commandments such a list authored by God himself?  What is at work today in the Church today is an attempt to overturn the Decalogue and all exceptionless moral norms.

Mr. Walford does defend natural family planning (NFP) at points in his article, for example saying the Church “must never tire of announcing it, or search for new ways to explain it, and God willing inspire the faithful to fulfill it.” Unfortunately, he then, despite some brief nods to orthodoxy, adds (emphasis added):

But what of those struggling Catholics who cannot grasp this teaching? Those who cannot face more children and turn to artificial contraception? What role do confessors have in their spiritual life?

In the first instance, we must recall that nobody has permission to sin, and thus it can never be the case that artificial contraception can be approved of as a good moral choice. But the maternal nature of the Church can always look with compassion on those who make use of these methods to avoid pregnancy, and display the same mercy the Lord Jesus used often in his public ministry.

The confessor, for instance, with careful discernment can help the penitent in various ways: possibly utilising the doctrine of “good faith” as taught by St Alphonsus Liguori and approved by the Church (1), in which he may consider it inopportune to reveal the gravity of the sin if he feels material sin will become formal sin. He may encourage them to seek the “law of gradualness” taught by St John Paul II in which they honestly undertake a path to leave behind artificial contraception though a process of deepening their faith and trust in God’s help. As part of this process, ensuring the penitent does not make use of abortifacient pills could be a positive start. He can also discern–as Pope Francis has taught in Amoris Laetitia for the civilly divorced and remarried and the possible reception of Holy Communion–the amount of guilt, or the seriousness of the sin, and thus encourage them to receive the Holy Eucharist as a spiritual medicine for their weakness– when sin is venial rather than mortal. The truth about God and Catholic morality can never be simply about judgment and sin. It must include the revelation of divine mercy. This is not a weakness in doctrine, or a means to approve sin, but a magnificent divine attribute, so great that God lowered himself to share our humanity in order to save us.

Confronted with Catholics who fail to “grasp this teaching” or “those who cannot face more children,” the Church that should “never tire of announcing” Humanae Vitae gives way in the course of Mr. Walford’s prose to a Church that gives a wink to exceptions to exceptionless norms.  Unfortunately, given his defense of Amoris Laetitia with regard to adulterous acts (see Amoris Laetitia and the Confusion of those contradicting the Magisterium of John Paul II and elsewhere in the Summa Contra Stephen Walford),  Mr. Walford’s commentary on Humanae Vitae undermines an important Church teaching by providing a pathway to exceptions to intrinsically disordered acts which “do not admit exceptions” (cf. The Moral Norm of “Humanae Vitae” and Pastoral Duty 3).

For example, Mr. Walford’s appeals in the quote above to St. Alphonse Ligouri’s teaching on “good faith,” but this teaching applies in cases of subjectively invincible ignorance (1).  Such “invincible ignorance” does not apply in the case first suggested by Mr. Walford, i.e., where the Catholic fails to “grasp” the teaching.  That is, a Catholic who knows the Church teaches against the use of contraceptives, but who not “grasping” why the Church teaches it contracepts regardless cannot be said to be in a state of “invincible ignorance.” If one knows what the Church teaches, and that it in fact teaches it, we are bound by faith and love of God to obey the Lord’s commandments: “If you love me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15).

What is more concerning in Mr. Walford’s commentary is his misleading appeal to the “law of gradualness.” Still speaking of a priest accompanying a Catholic penitent on this question of contraception, Mr. Walford says (emphasis added):

He may encourage them to seek the “law of gradualness” taught by St John Paul II in which they honestly undertake a path to leave behind artificial contraception though a process of deepening their faith and trust in God’s help. As part of this process, ensuring the penitent does not make use of abortifacient pills could be a positive start.”

One must wave away the mist of ambiguity in Mr. Walford’s article to appreciate what he is truly suggesting.  But, under this application of the “law of gradualness,” Mr. Walford’s hypothetical priest might allow the Catholic penitent to continue to use contraceptives – or at least not attempt to dissuade him or her from doing so. The priest might, as a “positive start,” suggest the penitent “not make use of abortifacient pills.” Thus, this being a “positive start,” presumably, it appears the priest may tacitly if not expressly allow other contraceptive methods to be used by the penitent in good conscience, and thus allow reception of the sacraments. Mr. Walford does not explain to us what this priest might do if this Catholic penitent likewise fails to “grasp” the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception.  Might the priest in such a case recoil from even suggesting the avoidance of abortifacients, perhaps recommending something else for a “positive start”? Mr. Walford also doesn’t tell us – if the priest can muster the pastoral courage to tell the penitent not to use abortifacients – why he should not simply tell the penitent not to contracept at all!

But, leaving aside this digression, it is clear that in Mr. Walford’s interpretation – in which the penitent progresses by steps that might lead to eventual future compliance with the ideal taught by the Church – is a corrupted understanding of the “law of gradualness.”  Speaking of the the proper understanding of the “law of gradualness,” Pope John Paul II taught that married couples must not look upon the law as an ideal to be attained in the future but “must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord” (Cf. Familiaris Consortio 34)  John Paul II wrote (emphasis added):

Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. “And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. (Familiaris Consortio, 34)

Thus it is clear, John Paul II rejects the view proposed by Mr. Walford of a “step-by-step advance” with “positive starts” and other intermediate steps. There are not different degrees of the law, as if there are progressive steps in compliance that may be morally used – or winked at by an accompanying priest – by “different individuals and situations.”  There are no permissible exceptions. Thus, John Paul II adds: “it is part of the Church’s pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm” (FC 34).

Near the conclusion of his article, Mr. Walford makes reference and quotes a clarification issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith entitled: The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and Pastoral Duty.”  Mr. Walford provides the following quote, he thinks, to drive home the argument made in his article:

“The same Christian moral tradition just referred to, has also always maintained the distinction – not the separation and still less an opposition – between objective disorder and subjective guilt. Accordingly, when it is a matter of judging subjective moral behaviour without ever setting aside the norm which prohibits the intrinsic disorder of contraception, it is entirely licit to take into due consideration the various factors and aspects of the person’s concrete action, not only the person’s intentions and motivations, but also the diverse circumstances of life, in the first place all those causes which may affect the person’s knowledge and free will. This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception.” (The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and Pastoral Duty 3.  Published in L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, N. 9, 27 February 1989, Page 7)

But, if one reads the source material for this quote one is struck by what Mr. Walford leaves out of his quoted material.  This is unfortunate because it becomes clear when one does read the material in a broader context that the document selected by Mr. Walford actually contradicts his own argument. Consider, in this same document immediately following the break in the quote where Mr. Walford leaves off, the CDF added (emphasis added):

“In this line, the concept of the “law of gradualness” has been rightly developed, not only in moral and pastoral theology, but also on the level of pronouncements of the Magisterium itself. However, this law must not in the slightest way be confused with the unacceptable idea of a “gradualness of the law”, as is clearly and explicitly stated in the Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (see n. 34).

One cannot assess personal responsibility without referring to the conscience of the subject. In keeping with its own very nature and purpose, conscience must be “clear” (2 Tim 1:3), called as it is to an “open statement of the truth” (2 Cor 4:2). Moreover, the moral conscience of the Christian, that of a member of the Church, has a deep inner ecclesial orientation, which makes it open to hearing the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church. The Second Vatican Council addresses spouses thus: “Married people should realize that in their behaviour they may not simply follow their own fancy but must be ruled by conscience – and conscience ought to be conformed to the law of God in the light of the teaching authority of the Church, which is the authentic interpreter of divine law in the light of the gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 50).” (The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and Pastoral Duty 3. Published in L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, N. 9, 27 February 1989, Page 7)

Consequently, we see that Mr. Walford has left out a key part of the CDF’s guidance. First, that the “law of gradualness” is not to be confused with the “unacceptable idea of ‘gradualness of the law'” which appears to be what is really suggested by Mr. Walford’s article (NB: I addressed FC 34 earlier in my article above and its rejection of a step by step advance in terms of “gradualness of the law”).  The idea of progressing in degrees (e.g., Mr. Walford’s “positive start of no abortificients”) is rejected by the CDF as it was by John Paul II. Nor is this failure to provide a fuller quote, which might alter the interpretation provided by Mr. Walford to his readers, an isolated one in his article.  Earlier in his article, Mr. Walford footnotes a reference to the Pontifical Council for the Family’s Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life in his article (cf. 3: 8) regarding “good faith.”  If only Mr. Walford had read down the next several paragraphs in that document he would have seen his presentation of the “law of gradualness” was erroneous.  After discussing the teaching on “good faith” (cf. 3:8); the document goes on in the next several paragraphs to state the following with regard to the “law of gradualness:

9. The pastoral “law of gradualness”, not to be confused with the “gradualness of the law” which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands.

10. On the other hand, to presume to make one’s own weakness the criterion of moral truth is unacceptable. From the very first proclamation of the word of Jesus, Christians realize that there is a “disproportion” between the moral law, natural and evangelical, and the human capacity. They equally understand that the recognition of their own weakness is the necessary and secure road by which the doors to God’s mercy will be opened.

11. Sacramental absolution is not to be denied to those who, repentant after having gravely sinned against conjugal chastity, demonstrate the desire to strive to abstain from sinning again, notwithstanding relapses. In accordance with the approved doctrine and practice followed by the holy Doctors and confessors with regard to habitual penitents, the confessor is to avoid demonstrating lack of trust either in the grace of God or in the dispositions of the penitent, by exacting humanly impossible absolute guarantees of an irreproachable future conduct.(Pontifical Council on the Family. Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life  see 3:9-11.  The italicized emphasis in section 9 above is in the original document)

Reading this fuller quote, as with the other cited example, one readily sees Mr. Walford had the unfortunate luck of ending his reading one or more paragraphs too soon. If he had read on in this document, he would have seen that the “law of gradualness” requires a “decisive break from sin” – and that the “law of gradualness” is not something that recognizes gradual compliance, as if by installments, towards the ideal at some point in the future. No. There must be a decisive break with sin, not baby-step compliance that may be winked at (e.g., positive starts, to be followed by successive or intermediate steps as if by degree). Instead, the “gradualness” taught is one that recognizes human frailty, i.e., that an individual or couple may struggle over time to bring their behavior in line with the decisive break from sin required of them by God’s law.  Thus, in such cases of habitual sin, the confessor is instructed to avoid “demonstrating  lack of trust either in the grace of God or in the dispositions of the penitent, by exacting humanly impossible absolute guarantees of an irreproachable future conduct.”   This is a proper understanding of the “law of gradualness.”

One final comment regarding the following observation made by Mr. Walford in his article:

“Interestingly, for those critics of Pope Francis, it is noticeable in this extract just how similar the language and teaching is to that found in Amoris Laetitia paragraphs 301-302, and we must recall that this CDF document originated during the intense middle years of St John Paul II’s papacy, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect.  “

Evidently, Mr. Walford’s would like to apply his interpretation of the “law of gradualness” to the divorced and remarried without annulments when it comes to reception of Holy Communion.  However, we have already seen his understanding of that principle is erroneous.  Secondly, the prohibition against such divorced and remarrieds is not predicated on their subjective culpability, but as taught by John Paul II, it is predicated on the fact their status as public adulterers objectively contravenes God’s law:

They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. (Familiaris Consortio 84, emphasis added).

Thus, even if we were to assume there might be factors mitigating the subjective guilt of the divorced and remarried for adulterous acts, the presence or even lack of any subjectivity culpability would not impact the teaching of John Paul II.  The teaching is based on the fact that their state and condition as public adulterers “objectively contradict the union between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”

Mr. Walford is wrong about Humanae Vitae and his application of the “law of gradualness” which would, in effect, approve or wink at exceptions to what are  exceptionlesss norms. With friends such as Mr. Walford, Humanae Vitae needs no enemies.  

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA)




The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin. Nonetheless, in these cases, the confessor must try to bring such penitents ever closer to accepting God’s plan in their own lives, even in these demands, by means of prayer, admonition and exhorting them to form their consciences, and by the teaching of the Church. (Pontifical Council for the Family, Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, 3:8.  February 12, 1997):



4 thoughts on “Walford waffles, again, on exceptionless norms

  1. Donald Wuerl has said ( https://youtu.be/EilxXRaHhrk ) that the “state of the soul” of a would-be communicant must be taken into account when determining who may receive Communion.

    Thus, it is not the objective, public behavior of, e.g., Nancy Pelosi or Tim Kaine, but their subjective guilt, that determines whether they may receive Communion. Since no minister of Communion can have knowledge of this, Communion must never be denied. This is, in fact, the consistent McCarrick-Wuerl position.

    Thus, McCarrick-Wuerl flatly contradicts St. John Paul II.


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