Of Paradigm Shifts

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Image: John Henry Newman (1844) by George Richmond

By Russell Shaw, The Catholic Thing, April 8, 2018

Russell Shaw

Flipping through a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot that I’ve had since college days, I recently came across one I had never read before. The title was “Thoughts After Lambeth.” It turned out to be Eliot’s commentary on the Lambeth conference of 1930. Lambeth conferences are gatherings, held every ten years, at which bishops of the Anglican Communion meet to weigh a variety of matters – some doctrinal, others of an administrative nature – that require attention.

In Eliot’s astute and occasionally acerbic evaluation of the 1930 Lambeth, one section particularly caught my eye: a five-page treatment of Resolution 15 in which the Anglican bishops, for the first time ever, extended guarded, conditional approval to the use of contraceptives by married couples in cases where there is both “a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood” and “a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.”

As I read on, I was surprised to discover here a brief but enlightening description of what these days is being championed by some Roman Catholics as a “paradigm shift” in the way the Catholic Church thinks about morality.


As far as I can determine, this talk about a paradigm shift had its beginning nearly two years ago in an article published by Cardinal Walter Kasper in a German journal and now part of a new Kasper book. Cardinal Kasper, it will be recalled, led the charge five years ago on behalf of giving communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics who haven’t received annulments of their first marriages, a practice guardedly endorsed in chapter eight of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life, Amoris Laetitia.

            According to Cardinal Kasper, the framework of approval for this controversial practice can be extended to many other matters as well. Contraception is a notable example. Thus he argues that we now have, thanks to the Pope and Amoris Laetitia, a paradigm shift in moral theology. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago have lately repeated this idea of a paradigm shift.

Obviously, T.S. Eliot was not thinking of all this when he wrote in 1931. While Eliot, an Anglican, thought Lambeth’s position on contraception was right, he also confessed that he would have preferred a more general statement than Resolution 15. This then led him to contrast what he called the “Roman view” of morality with the view proper to the “English mind” – which I assume can be taken as the mind proper to Anglicanism.

Let me quote the relevant passage in Eliot’s text lest there be any doubt whether I am representing him accurately:

To put it frankly, but I hope not offensively, the Roman view in general seems to me to be that a principle must be affirmed without exception; and that thereafter exceptions can be dealt with, without modifying the principle. The view natural to the English mind, I believe, is rather that a principle must be framed in such a way as to include all allowable exceptions. It follows inevitably that the Roman Church must profess to be fixed, while the Anglican Church must profess to take account of changed conditions.

What Eliot says about the “Roman view” would no doubt have to be reconsidered today in light of what Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical on moral principles, Veritatis Splendor, says about absolute moral norms.

But the fact remains – and this is the point I’m making here – that what he says about the Anglican mind (“a principle must be framed in such a way as to include all allowable exceptions”) could serve as a concise statement of what the paradigm shift advocated by Cardinals Kasper, Parolin, and others proposes to bring about.


If that were to happen, it would mean a seismic shift in the Church’s positions not only on Communion for the divorced and remarried but also on contraception, same-sex relations, abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, lying, some forms of theft (“I only took what was coming to me”), and a great deal else.

            So how, someone might ask, would moral principles be formulated in this new paradigm? Take contraception as an example – an example likely to get extensive attention this year, the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae.

The paradigm-conditioned principle might be along the following lines: “The Church cherishes and upholds as an ideal for husbands and wives that each and every act of marital intimacy be open to new life, and married couples ideally should will and do nothing directly to impede that possibility. But in the circumstances of the present day, the Church, as a loving and merciful mother, does not seriously expect all couples to live by this ideal and does not pass harsh judgment on those who don’t.”

Extend this to moral issues generally, and we see the undoing of the edifice built up and defended by Catholic thinkers and the Church’s magisterium over many centuries, which the situationists, consequentialists, and proportionalists have labored to dismantle for years.

But let me give the final word to another Anglican – though one who would soon cross over to Rome. In a sermon called “The Religion of the Day,” John Henry Newman skewered proponents of “the brighter side of the Gospel” who stress its “tidings of comfort. . .precepts of love” in preference to “all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects.”

After developing this thought at length, Newman concludes, with words that even today retain their power to shock:

Here I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction that it would be a gain to this country were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion. . . .Not, of course, that I think the tempers of mind herein implied desirable, which would be an evident absurdity; but I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy, and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquility.

More desirable and promising, one might say, even than a paradigm shift.


*Image: T.S. Eliot (c. 1930) by William Rothenstein 

**Image: John Henry Newman (1844) by George Richmon