On Accomodating Weakness in Spiritual Direction

On Accomodating Weakness in Spiritual Direction May 1, 2012

Some of my readers on the Perry Lorenzo thread are registering surprise at the conversation with confessors/spiritual directors I mention in which some have told me they sometimes deem it better, for the time being in a specific relationship, for a homosexual relationship to continue due to the fact that worse damage will be done a soul if it does not. One reader suggests this is consequentialism. Others somehow glean from this that I don’t think homosex a sin. I’m amazed.

Me: I think it’s standard issue Catholic pastoral theology and common sense to take into account human weakness and the overall good of the person in the struggle with sin. Think about your own struggles with chronic, besetting sin. The best advice I have ever gotten in the confessional is “Baby steps, not giant impossible demands you can’t meet”. Confessors are (at least according to the confessors I’ve talked to) trained to counsel penitents to do what they can, not to attempt some gigantic impossible act of stoicism that is a) rooted in pride, not grace and b) doomed to failure which will only push them into despair (also rooted in pride) so that c) they lose hope that they can overcome their chronic sin.

Those who demand that a penitent who is trouble by chronic sin Just Knock It Off or They Are Phoneys need to remember that the penitent wouldn’t, after all, be in the confessional if they weren’t already aware they were sinners and need to change. But sin is complicated and often involves other people and a complex web of responsibilities. So, to give just one possible scenario out of *millions*, I can imagine a gay penitent seeking to become a disciple of Jesus feeling honor-bound not to abandon a partner who is, say, prone to suicidal thoughts and terror of rejection. Or I can imagine a confessor telling somebody in the grip of ungovernable compulsion to try to take baby steps to mitigate that compulsion rather than telling them to quit cold turkey or face the wrath of God. Spiritual direction is a delicate art and the brutal simplicities of the combox culture of black and white are but one reason I would never in a million years suggest anybody who is seeking spiritual guidance or healing turn to cyberspace for it. It’s so very easy for folks in cyberspace to know all about what’s wrong with people who are struggling with temptation they themselves don’t feel.

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  • Harry

    I think this approach makes sense. Consider the missionaries to tribal peoples to whom polygamy was simply a fact of life. Obviously simply tearing apart the family wouldn’t be an option- neither tactful nor making obvious the love of Christ. Gentle steps would be absolutely neccesary- attempting to remove an ingrained part of a centuries old lifestyle that isn’t an obvious (like slavery or genocide) evil to those outside of Christianity takes compassion, tact and wisdom.

    • Mark Shea


  • I think it was more of a misunderstanding than anything else. Confessors need to help penitents “untangle” themselves from the knots of sin, and may need to counsel the penitent to keep fighting the sin, but to have patience with themselves as these knots are untangled, and take intermediate steps (or baby steps, as you call it) to facilitate the untangling of the greater knots.

    • Mark Shea


  • Mark, I really admire your approach to this. I’ve been reading some of the comments in the other thread amazed how some have pegged you as supporting sin. I’m thankful for these measured and graceful posts.

  • Michelle

    There is also the principle of seeking to mitigate harm. The classic example is of the mafioso who comes into the confessional determined to kill the traitor who betrayed The Family, or didn’t pay up on schedule, or whatever. If the confessor cannot talk the mafioso out of putting a bullet between the guy’s eyes, the confessor could legitimately ask, “Couldn’t you just break his kneecaps instead?” Applying this principle to an active homosexual relationship, I could imagine a confessor who couldn’t convince someone to break off completely with a partner counseling the person to slowly back away from the relationship or to not make the situation worse: “I understand that you are not able to leave your partner right now. Would it you be able to call off the ‘wedding’?”

  • As I said in my latest response below, it all came down to the word ‘allow’. And what the allow was referring to. If it was ‘stay in the relationship because something bad could happen if you leave’, well no problem there. If it was ‘go ahead and keep with the physical side, that’s OK, there’s bigger problems to worry about’, then that’s obviously a big issue. But as I see it now, it looks less like that and more like simple counseling of the ‘working out the faith’ brand, which is as I thought it was.

  • I think where I find this confusing is the notion that when we go to confession we must have a firm purpose of amendment in order to receive absolution. To remove the question from the highly-charged one of same-sex attraction and acts upon that attraction, consider instead a couple married outside the Church for whom no annulment of the prior marriage(s) is/are possible. I would guess that a confessor would tell each partner (or the Catholic partner, if only one is Catholic) that a committment to living as brother and sister would ultimately be necessary–but could the couple (or the Catholic partner) receive absolution if they/he admit(s) that there is no intention to live as brother and sister and that they/he don’t/doesn’t foresee this ever being a possibility? In the meantime, can they/he consider themselves/himself Catholics in good standing and be readmitted to the Sacraments, or is it true that absolution would have to be withheld, and thus the Eucharist as well?

    Note that this isn’t a question about whether or not baby steps to lead people back to grace are ever necessary, but a question about their relationship to the sacramental life of the Church in the meantime. There seem to be a lot of people under the impression that these sorts of decisions are up to the individuals, and that participating in the sacramental life of the Church including reception of the Eucharist is not a problem for those in irregular marriages or alternative relationships (including cohabitation by opposite-sex as well as same-sex partners). But if the “baby steps” approach allows someone to have the intention of continuing in objectively grave sin while receiving absolution etc. then it would seem that this confusion is rather understandable–in fact, like I said at the outset, I’m sort of confused, thinking about it all.

    • antigon

      If Padre Neri is still about, I hope he’ll forgive me for finding one of
      his answers on the original thread on all this not a little troubling. I
      believe it was Mr. Manning who gave the hypothetical of a woman
      confessing to anger because her husband forgot to buy condoms (or
      Bloombergs, as we call them here in New York). The priest explains use of
      Bloombergs in intimacy are a sin too, but since the woman says she just
      rejects that teaching, I understood Padre to say that she would still be
      given absolution for the sin she did confess. Did he mean a full

      Manning’s example seems a little different than that of an addict,
      whether to sex or heroin or the Republican party, where some delicacy &
      priestly training, et. al. might well obtain if there is some indication
      the penitent yearns to be free of the addiction.

      But absolution when there is no, not to say no firm, intention of any
      kind? Or, to use an extreme example, absolution because penitent
      confesses to being brusque with his wife when she complained of his
      affair with their daughter, tho he recognizes nothing wrong with said
      affair &, despite priestly admonitions, refuses any intention to end it
      (because it’s an expression of love, which is the heart of the the Gospel
      message or some such)?

      Unless there is such a thing as a partial absolution, Father Neri seemed
      to say that he’d absolve the Bloomberged wife with reasoning that would
      also apply for the incestuous dad. Does Mr. Manning or Mr. Shea or some
      other reader also understand this to be Father’s response, or have I

      If I haven’t, is it not then the case, by Father’s reasoning, that one
      can have unrepented & unconfessed sins, discussed in the Confessional,
      nonetheless loosed for the sake of those one does confess & repent?

      Should he see this post, could Fr. Neri clarify that that’s what he means?

      That is, have I misunderstood his answer? Or does unrepented sin get
      absolved for the sake of sins that are repented?

      Or does he wish to reconsider his answer to Mr Manning?

  • Oops–in the above, I left out that the hypothetical couple I’m talking about was married outside the Church *because* one or both had been in a previous valid Catholic marriage which can’t be annulled.

  • Telemachus

    Intentions are everything, and actions speaker louder than words in the end. Chastity is a constant struggle for nearly everyone.

    God bless,

  • Chad Myers

    Regarding the original post, it should be noted that this is how God has dealt with all of humanity throughout the millennia. He called us to higher morality, but didn’t immediately expect the Israelites to stop having slaves (an extremely integral part of society in ancient times), to stop polygamy, to stop all sorts of things we abhor now. This is why Jesus expounds upon the 10 commands by saying things like “If you look at a woman in lust you have committed adultery in your heart” which is additive to the 10 commandments. God also tolerated polygamy in Abraham and Joseph among many others. God even gave them the “eye for an eye” dictum because it was better than the tribal retaliation escalation response which was the norm of the day. Now God tells us to “turn the other cheek”

  • Andy, Bad Person

    This whole thing sounds suspiciously like what Pope Benedict XVI was saying regarding AIDS in Africa:

    There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

    She of course does not regard [the use of condoms] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

    No one but the most theologically illiterate, or (more likely) partisan and dishonest, would suggest that the Pope is saying condoms are morally okay. He’s talking about baby steps, small increases in moral awakening.

    So what I’m saying, Mark, is that you sound a lot like the Pope. You know the one whom we all secretly know is a Nazi.

    • Mark Shea

      Actually, Benedict did get raked over the coals by the Legion of Rightwing Rectitude for his obvious pastoral common sense. Cyberspace is where lots of people are courageous about slamming other people’s weaknesses.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        Oh, I know. This entire subject reminds me of Benedict’s remarks for that reason.

  • Uh huh. I see.

  • ds

    When you confess, you are supposed to “firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.” How to square this with baby steps? Not to be argumentative or troll, but how do you honestly do this while knowing ur prob gonna sin again very soon.
    I go to mass and i pray for forgiveness for my sins, but before i get to the front of the line for communion my mind is already going in all kinds of sinful directions.

    • Mark Shea

      If I were you, I’d start by bringing scruples to confession. But that’s just me. Your mileage may vary. I’d certainly bring your question to a spiritual director/confessor.

      • ds

        I dont have scruples, would pictionary be okay? 😉
        But seriously, thanks for your reply.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    On the other hand . . . there is the question of the near occasion of sin; that sad experience teaches us that certain persons, places, or activities represent nearly insurmountable temptations for us. If we are really determined to put sin away from us, then sooner or later there has to be a cutting off from all that tends to lead us down the wrong path. This, sadly, may include relationships with persons we care deeply about, but in which relationships lust has set up an unassailable stronghold. As for a former lover’s dependence on us: surely neither you nor I is the sole human contact available to a soon-to-be former lover? Wouldn’t he or she have access to mental health assistance, support groups, church assistance, if not also the support of other family and friends, to say nothing of the grace of God?

    I don’t pretend to have the answers; just asking a few questions.

  • kmk

    Although I don’t have the time to read a lot of Perry Lorenzo’s blog (the little I read was awesome–what a loss for his community), am I naive or something to wonder if one of the problems in the first place might be the societal assumption that there are/were sinful actions on the part of Mr. Lorenzo and the person he lived with? It is fascinating to me that, with everything “out in the open” and out of the closet these days, our culture demands that we assume that if two persons of the same sex are sharing a household that they are automatically living in sin, or even that if a man is the least bit effeminate that he is gay or that he is living a loose lifestyle. In fact, we are not “hip” and are “incredibly naive” or even unempathetic and (strangely enough) judgemental if we don’t indulge in the labeling.
    My mother has been snickered at for years because she is the only one of her siblings who does not automatically assume that her cousin and her long-time room mate and friend are lesbians. They’ve never “come out”–why assume that we know? Why bring attention to it?
    If the persons are not out trumpeting their union or not in any way alluding to a sexual relationship, then how can we assume that sin is happening?
    It is one thing to be in a position where a family member or close friend has come out and is demanding that you embrace their alternative lifestyle or cohabitation–then the Holy Spirit is giving you the opportunity to boldly witness (in a loving and personal manner of course). But in the cousin’s situation (or Mr. Perry’s)–is it really naive or not Christian enough to give them the benefit of the doubt and just pray and leave the judgement (and the details knowledge, of course!) to God?

    • Mark Shea

      Exactly right. My assumption is that Perry was *not* sexually active. But it’s remarkable how easily so many commenters here assume he was.

  • Alfredo Escalona

    Okay. I am confused. The questions I am about to present are done so in the hope that someone here can unscramble my confusion. They are not to be taken as challenging ANYONE here. They are a sincere attempt at acquiring moral and logical consistency for myself, by asking them in an environment where I am among people who care about holiness, so that I may transmit proper values to my children as is my duty.
    In what way is the recommendation of “baby steps” in the turning around of someone’s disordered appetites not consequentialism? To me, “baby steps” makes perfect sense, both tactically and strategically in our struggle against the Enemy, always has. It matches quite well my personal experience as well as my observations of other humans. Even in the Gospels, Christ himself speaks consequentially on the subject of divorce, saying… “In the past, because your hearts were hard, it was permitted to you. But I tell you, from the Beginning it was not so.” (And yes, I know that He who makes the Cake has powers and prerrogatives that we raisins have no right to demand . I truly understand that and believe that in humility and gratitude, with no resentment. I am long past my impertinent phase.)
    I also understand the slippery slope argument on consequentialism. Where does one draw the line? The Nazi at the door and the tick-tocking nuke in New York are seeming no-brainers to me, but it’s the day to day stuff that could lead a soul astray. I understand that.)
    What I perceive to be my religious instinct (and it could be an utilitarian instinct in sheep’s clothing, I know, which is why I’m asking here) tells me that each soul, when presented with a “situation”, needs to judge the comparative seriousness of the alternatives by the light of prayer (“Lord, You know I’m not committing this sin to offend you, it’s just that I can’t see any other way to prevent a much greater one”) and concientious judgement, understanding that this is to be done only in extreme circumstances, where no other alternatives seem available.
    Equally, though one of the most often used arguments against consequentialism is that no human can be absolutely sure of an outcome, and therefore should not arrogate to him/herself the Godly attribute of omniscience, there is such a thing as a virtue called Prudence, whose very definition is to behave oneself according to the reasonably expected outcomes of one’s (or other’s) actions.
    So as I said, I understand very well the prudence behind the recommendation of “baby steps”, but I can’t get around the fact that THAT is pure consequentialism.
    Do sins have no qualitative as well as quantitave dimensions, and is not Prudence the very act of disinguishing between them, choosing the least bad option when one truly can’t see any good ones? Is the severity of the sin of waterboarding a half dozen men in a house where one has discovered on a laptop confirmation that they’ve just unloaded a suitcase nuke from a freighter at Pier 13 comparable to the 6-8 million that would be incinerated (many if not most in a state of grave sin without enough time to repent?) if I don’t?
    And if I don’t, and the city is vaporized, and I shake my fist at God for doing nothing, and the answer comes back… “NOTHING? I sent YOU, you numbskull! You certainly seem to believe My Spirit moves My people to do things in My Name, and even inveterate sinners (for as it is said, sometimes I write straight with crooked lines), so what made THIS any different?!”
    What do I say then, in my white-washed, sanctimonious sinless state? If it is always right to pass the moral buck to The Big Man Upstairs every time things get dodgy, what happens to Prudence and worse, to Charity?

    Where am I going wrong? How do I explain this to my children?

    • The problem arose with the wording Mark chose in his post. The idea that a confessor would allow what many perceived to be sin – and mortal sin at that – was the issue. First, it wasn’t clear that Mark meant homosexuals in sexual relations were allowed to continue, but most took it that way (since I’m not sure if there is a problem with homosexuals simply being in a platonic relationship). And it was a fair question how that wouldn’t be a form of consequentialism to say ‘continue in mortal sin that a greater good may come of it.’ Not to mention just what problem a person could have that would be worse than losing his soul.

      Subsequent comments didn’t help, as the responses ranged from ‘there’s really nothing wrong here’ to ‘God has frequently allowed us to sin and sin boldly.’ Nor was it helped – IMHO – by the fact that the final post was more or less saying that the whole problem was the result of these rascally tribalists and partisans, rather than admitting it was a poor choice of words, that no priest is going to ‘allow’ mortal sin to continue, and that it’s a different issue when discussing counseling and how one works through such things so that they may be ended.

      If you’re confused, my guess is it’s because you were paying attention.

      • Sal

        Which is why, probably, that no one is responding to Erin or Marion’s comments. They are good questions, which I wondered about myself, but they are based on what Dave G. describes. I think this topic is done.
        And I’m still confused.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    In general, another consideration would be that of scandal – if a man were to live with a woman (sharing the same living space), even if the pair told the world that they were “just roomates,” people the world over would assume that the pair was conducting an illicit sexual relationship. Jewish and Christian leaders have always advised against such an arrangement, even if innocent, because of the public scandal involved, as well as the possible temptation to the pair. The tradition among observant Jews and Christians has always been that if a roomate arrangement is desirable, then a woman should choose a female roomate; a man, a male.

    Similarly, in general, if a man has a history of acting out on same-sex attraction, and this history is known to others, then even if he now lives chastely, for him to choose to live with a male roommate, particularly an SSA male roommate, then this would understandably lead to scandal, something that it is important for Christians to avoid in general, if possible.

    A relative of mine, a middle-aged widow who maintained the huge old family homestead alone (dining room could seat 50 comfortably), decided to supplement her income by renting out a room in the basement of her home. Various male students from a nearby college came and went over the years; they had their own private entrance to an airy and sunny room and bath two floors below those of my relative; my relative had her own full-time job and social life; the renters maintained their own schedules at school and jobs and social lives, and the two rarely intersected. Their relationship to my relative was like that of a friendly but distant neighbor. There was never any scandal about this because it was obvious to all that the only things being shared was the same roof and kitchen, otherwise my relative and the various young men lived completely separate lives, and were nearly always like ships passing in the night.

    Another single relative had a man living in her large house, too, for a time; he, too, was “living in the basement”, but this pair was definitely a couple, socializing together, going on trips together, not dating others. His name was frequently in her conversation when they were apart, and they were usually together. This arrangement was of a completely different character than the one described above, and was indeed scandalous.

    In general, to avoid scandal, people who are known to be likely to be tempted to carry on an illicit sexual relationship with each other, would be well advised not to share the same living space. (Not necessarily the same roof of a large establishment, but not the same living space.)

  • Alfredo Escalona

    OK… what I am taking away from this, so far, based on the above answers, is that consequentialism is to the soul like aggressive chemotherapy is to the body, bad for them PER SE in that it destroys all new cell growth/grace (thus making it difficult for a tumor to grow, but also all healthy cell replacement) and thus cannot be recommended to the laity at large PER SE… EXCEPT under the prescription and supervision of a trained professional, whose judgement and prudence is deferred to because of the extreme moral/physical hazard it can lead to if taken over the counter? I can see this, this makes good prudential sense…except…

    My sons, who would never miss a chance to respectfully assault my Fortress of Sillitude, would raise an eyebrow and say… “OK, Papa, what you are telling me is that if the Allgemeine SS comes knocking at my door, I should ask the good Rottenfuehrer if he would be so kind as to reschedule the appointment so as to permit me to consult my confessor before I answer his question?”

    Not trying to be snarky here, just sharing the lively sense of the grotesque I have somehow managed to pass onto the next generation and now must live with. The example goes to the heart of the very nature of consequentialism… yes, it is a sin… but can lesser sin, even a mortal sin, be prudent when faced with a worse alternative UNDER TIME PRESSURE, and would God forgive it, since He knows the heart of the sinner in his turmoil? This is the question that I need answered… It is no accident that almost all critiques of the prohibition against consequentialism are structured as cases “under time pressure”, again, because those cases go to the heart of the concept, whether a layman, if he/she has no opportunity to consult a priest, may may a prudential consequentialist judgement without a formal “prescription”.

    And if the answer is yes, that the person would be comitting an act that is intrinsically a mortal sin, but the imputability of that sin would be near zero considering the monumentality of the consequences if it is not committed… and if I KNEW that going in (which is why I’m asking now, when there is no time pressure) … do you see why I would feel like a moral imbecile and a monster if I did not waterboard those terrorists in the abovementioned scenario?

  • Ben

    Here are a few ‘official’ texts which might throw some more light on these matters. As will be seen, they ‘cut both ways’, combining pastoral gentleness and firmness.

    “It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin and who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive absolution.”

    (John Paul II, ‘Misericordia Dei’ 7)

    [The Pope is talking specifically about the 3rd Rite legitimately used in emergency situations, but he is simply stating an obvious general principle of the theology of Reconciliation. Sanctifying grace imparted by valid absolution is incompatible with the will to continue in serious sin.]

    ‘ Temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them…Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent…It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question”. ‘

    (John Paul II, ‘Veritatis Splendor’ 102-103) [i.e. we can never say it is impossible for someone to give up mortal sin in their particular circumstances, because grace is available.]

    ‘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.’

    (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 34) [The reference here, and in the excerpt below, is to couples striving to overcome the sin of contraception, but again the principle is more broadly applicable.]

    ‘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’ 8) [In other words, if a penitent is ignorant in good faith that something is seriously sinful, the confessor should let them remain in ignorance at least for the moment, if he foresees that once enlightened, in their present state most likely they will choose deliberate sin.]

    ‘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.’

    (Pontifical Council for the Family, ‘Vademecum for Confessors’ 9)

    ‘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 for the Family, ‘Vademecum for Confessors’ 11)

    • Ben, thanks for posting this! I think it clears up a point I was seriously confused about.

      • Sal

        Ditto, Ben. A very appreciated and much needed clarification.

    • kmk

      Another ditto. Thanks, Ben!

  • Ben

    The emoticon was an accident 8)