An Old Philosophy and a New Theology

Jean-Paul Sartre (ca. 1950) and the “Shadow Council” of 2015

(left to right) Portrait of René Descartes, by Frans Hals (ca. 1649-1700); Jean-Paul Sartre (1950); Cardinal Walter Kasper.

It is well known by now that there was a concerted effort on the part of some German Bishops, led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, to engage the 2014 Synod, and interject a liberal agenda into the 2015 Synod. This was an attempt to sway the Church into adopting a pastoral approach to Catholics divorced and civilly remarried, allowing them to receive Communion. They also attempted to assimilate those living a homosexual lifestyle into the norms of parish community, including allowing them to receive Communion. Once realized, it was effectively too late to prevent significant liberal content from being inserted into the texts and reports produced by the 2014 Synod; including the Instrumentum Laboris for the 2015 Synod. The good news is that the bishops loyal to the Magisterium, and the teachings of Jesus Christ, are taking guardianship of the 2015 Synod, and are working through the Instrumentum Laboris, even with its flaws, with the broader view of pastoral care and vocation of families.

I thought that it might be of interest to the readers to get a little more background on the movement that is trying to disrupt the will of God, and the proceedings of the 2015 Synod. Of particular interest is to go beyond the surface of liberal vs. non-liberal sidings, and look at the philosophical basis from which the liberal viewpoint makes its stand.

After the 2014 Synod, in May 2015, the group of German bishopsalong with the president of the German Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, and some like-minded French bishops and scholarsscheduled a private “study group” to meet at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The meeting was held May 25th, and was simply listed as a preparatory meeting for the 2015 Synod. “Simply listed” refers to its quietly acquiring access to a conference room at the universityit was not publicly announced, and it was closed to journalists, except for a few, carefully chosen by the group. Once the Catholic media became aware of the meeting and its secretive nature, it was quickly coined as “The Shadow Council.” This was an intentional reference to the liberal movement, during and after the Second Vatican Council, known as the “Pseudo Council.” They claimed to promote “what the Council intended” under the banner of “the spirit of the Council,” rather than what the Council actually promulgated in the 16 historical documents.

Now, as interesting as that might be, we revert back to May 2015. Although the insider journalists were reticent in their reporting, or at least delayed, some texts from the “Shadow Council” proceedings emerged on June 17th. The central lecture at the meeting was given by a French moral theologian, Fr. Alain Thomasset, SJ. Prior to the forming and meeting of the “Shadow Council,” the rhetoric of this movement was promoting a “theology of love,” as an alternative to St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which, for the past 40 years, has opened a vast understanding of human sexuality, and its place in the Church’s teachings. A “theology of love” would be a theology based on who-loves-whom, rather than on the complementarity of man and woman, for not only companionship and mutual love, but also for the procreation and raising of children. A “theology of love” opens the acceptability to all, and any, form of sexual relation.

Following on this trend toward a broader “theology” of human sexuality discussed at the May 25th meeting, Fr. Thomasset presented a paper entitled: “Taking into Consideration the History and Biographical Developments of the Moral Life, and Pastoral Care of the Family.”1 In this paper, Fr. Thomasset proposed a “narrative theology”—a more formal, and beyond the mere concepts of, a “theology of love.” A narrative theology would be based on the narrative of a person’s life: his experiences, the culture he was brought up in, and the experience of who he is. All of this would have to be taken into consideration regarding any judgment, or perspective of his actions, or lifestyle. In other words, any act or activity would have to be considered in the context of the individual lived experience. This theology would preclude any act as being designated as intrinsically immoral.

Now, to understand what is being proposed here, we need to briefly compare it to traditional moral theology, particularly traditional Catholic moral theology. According to what is evident in the inner thoughts of every human being (i.e., the conscience), there are things we ought to do, and things we ought not to do. This is obviously an over-simplification, but what it means is that particular human acts are immoral in themselves, objectively. Meaning that, regardless of circumstances, the act is immoral. Killing an innocent human being, for instance, is an immoral act that cannot be justified. Killing in self-defense, on the other hand, is not the same act because the person was not innocent because of his or her overt threat to me, or those around me. The external structure which supports our internal conscience is the Ten Commandments. Yet, just because they are given in a religious context does not make them applicable to religious persons only. The Ten Commandments simply externalize (by God) what is already in the human heart.

Human acts are complex, but can be analyzed in the framework of the Ten Commandments as moral law, at least as a starting point. Traditional Catholic moral theology, however, has developed beyond a “rule book” mentality. Circumstances and situations are taken into account, not regarding the act itself, but rather regarding the culpability and severity of the act, and its results and consequences. A simple example would be that stealing $10 from Bill Gates is less severe than stealing $10 from “a-little-old-lady,” or anyone living in poverty. The act of stealing, in itself, however, is always immoral. You can already think of a series of “yeah, but …” or “what if …”, but the nature of the act does not change, and it applies to every human being. This is referred to as the nature of the act being objective, rather than subjective, or relative to persons or circumstances. Objective moral theology, as you can see, stands in direct contrast (or vice versa) to any form of narrative (moral) theology.

If you allow me a brief excursive, I promise it will lead us back to this point in my discourse.

Beginning in the 17th century, philosophers began looking inward, to the self, as the center of reality. René Descartes’s famous assertion “I think, therefore I am,” began this trend. Over the next three centuries, modern philosophy developed various forms of thought on this subjective view. Everything in reality is in relation to the self, everything is in relation to “me.”

If we would fast forward 250 years, we would find ourselves at a sidewalk café in Paris on the Left Bank of the Seine, in the intellectual milieu of the 1950s. Sitting at the table next to us might be Jean-Paul Sartre, and a group of friends and colleagues, discussing the overbearing political and philosophical structures that suppress individual freedom. A new philosophy, indeed, was being developed. A philosophy based on the individual existence of the person—this person, “me.”

From these intellectual discussions in the Parisian cafes, Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals around him, developed a formal philosophy forever known as “existentialism.” With no room or time to go into its complexities, let me make two points. First, although Jean-Paul and company expressed the new philosophy in art and literature (the works of Picasso, Kafka, and Sarte himself who depicted the existential conundrum), existentialism is not merely an artistic movement; it is a philosophy, in the strictest sense of the word. My second point is to list the five points of the “existential manifesto”:

  1. Existence precedes essence (“That you are” comes before “what you are”);
  2. Time is of the essence (this means that over time, and in time, you become who you are);
  3. Humanism (not in the social justice sense, but in the subjective “this human” significance);
  4. Freedom/Responsibility (the individual is free, but self-reflective of his actions);
  5. Ethical considerations are paramount (one must be moral, but morality is subjective).

If we fast-forward again to May 25, 2015, we find ourselves in a conference room at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The “Shadow Council” has convened, and its keynote speaker, one Fr. Alain Thomasset, S.J., is unveiling a “new” theology that he has coined as “narrative theology,” the central theme of which is described by Fr. Thomasset in the course of his presentation:

The interpretation of the doctrine of acts known as “intrinsically evil” is seemingly one of the principal fonts of the difficulty currently encountered in the pastoral care of families, as it determines, to a large extent, the condemnation of artificial contraception, of sexual acts by the divorced and remarried, and by homosexual couples, even when they are stable.

This understanding of some acts as intrinsically evil, he says, “seems incomprehensible to many, and seems pastorally counterproductive.” Fr. Thomasset goes on to say that while it “justly insists on points of reference as the targets of the moral life, it neglects precisely the biographical dimension of existence, and the specific conditions of each personal journey.”

Rather than considering the human act, and its intrinsic moral status, narrative theology insists that first consideration must be given to “the biographical dimension of existence {of the person acting} and the specific conditions of {that person’s} personal journey.” In short, the narrative of the person’s life determines the moral status of his act. This is the manifesto of narrative theology.

In other words, what or who the person has become, in the course of his life, determines the morality of his acts. I can only say this so many different ways before I say that “this is existentialism” straight off the pages of Jean-Paul Sartre’s manifesto! It is a “becoming of one’s own choosing,” and therefore, it is “acting according to what one has become!” The “Shadow Council” is taking this manifesto of a subjective narrative, and applying it to the acts of: “artificial contraception, of sexual acts by the divorced and remarried, and by homosexual couples, even when they are stable.”

Narrative theology, my friends, is nothing new. It started at a sidewalk café in Paris in 1950, over a cup of coffee, and a cigarette.

Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh About Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh

Ordained in 2008 to the Archdiocese of Miami; MA Theology from The Augustine Institute, Denver, CO; Master Catechist with the Archdiocese and Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation at St. Bonaventure Parish. Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.


  1. It is indeed delightful to hear Deacon Peter Trahan pointing to the existentialists as the source of the subjective moral theology outlined by some so called liberal. It is the desire to avoid the reality of existence. What is has to be real! And it has to e outside my mind! That is why I have always loved St. Thomas Aquinas. He is immersed in reality. That is much more interesting than being immersed in one’s consciousness as many of these “narrative theology” exponents are. I get the feeling they are afraid of reality! Maybe they need to know the Real Person of Christ more personally and the whole world will then appear more clearly. And we can guide people towards that complete Reality which Christ is!

    • I find your comments very helpful, Fr Walter. Since 1999
      I have used my Christendom Awake website to make the
      writings of orthodox theologians more accessible. In recent times
      I have tried to become familiar with the thought of Thomas
      Aquinas but find this study very difficult; I am not trained as a
      Philosopher or Theologian. I would appreciate it if you would
      kindly suggest suitable books and resources.

      Best Wishes Mark Alder, Enfield Uk

      • “Three things”
        Firstly, Mark Elder, there are a variety of good introductions to St. Thomas Aquinas. One book to which I return, again and again, is by Francis Copleston SJ and is simply called Aquinas, published in 1955; secondly, there is a series of good books by Fr. Francis Selman: Aspects of Aquinas. In addition, Selman has also written the following: The Soul – An Inquiry; and, what is more, a useful introduction to metaphysics, that beginning to think on the basis of all kinds of characteristics of the world in which we live and move and have our being: From Physics to Metaphysics. In general, too, it is good to use an encyclopaedia (e.g. and look up all kinds of articles on different aspect of philosophy and you will invariably encounter references to St. Thomas Aquinas e.g. existence; essence; accident; substance; substantial change etc. Finally, if you can bear it, Volume I of From Truth and truth, will be coming out in the New Year. In Volume I, Faithful Reason, Chapter I is called: What is Philosophy? And Chapter 2 is called: A History of Being in the “Present”. In other words, read around and come back to Copleston and others until it begins to make sense.
        Secondly, and more generally, what people seem to forget is that “conversion” is from sin; and, being a sinner, entails being convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit. Thus it is not a matter of simply recognising that I am doing wrong and struggling against it as, in due course, it may lead us into more serious wrongdoing because, ultimately, there is a spirit of self-improvement and pride at work. Rather, there comes a point when we need to encounter God as “the One who can help”; and, whatever the characteristics of this encounter, there is a difference that God, His Word and His Church makes to our lives. Lest we forget, though, while there is a continuity between natural and Revealed truth, there is also a discontinuity. A natural truth, such as that it is wrong to use a person as a means to an end, while capable of illuminating human experience and action, is not the same as an encounter with God which delivers us from sin. The woman caught in adultery was given the power of Christ’s word to deliver her from sin. I have experienced the love of Christ that has overturned my inability to marry and to found a family. In general, then, natural and Revealed truth are “related”; but, in the end, there is a power of salvation which is greater than self-development.
        Thirdly, there are many ways that we need to understand the culture in which we live but, according to Ratzinger, there is a widespread need to understand Creation; and, thinking about it, perhaps we need to understand that God acts: He acted at the beginning; and, subsequently, He acts at the beginning of each one of us; and, finally, He acts at all times to bring about our salvation and glorification. In other words, God acts and His acts are acts of love.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    What seems missing in this article is any reference to the lived experience of the people of God. I am not a philosopher, but find there is great need to find a way to allow God’s mercy to touch those in most need of mercy–those living in the darkness and the shadow of death. I meet people who have met the judgment of the Church but know nothing of God’s mercy. The discussion at the Synod may have been influenced by existential philosophy. That may be a good thing, that may be a predominant philosophy for most contemporary people. Thomas Aquinas was not afraid of Aristotle, who as you know proposed ethical proposition not in conformity with the Catholic Dogma. So why can’t contemporary people be open to explore ways of responding to the pastoral needs of the people. We are a world Church, and if I am not mistaken the Japanese Bishops said that the natural law does not make sense to the Japanese people. I suspect that there problem is not western existentialism. I agree with Fr Walter Maken that we need to guide people to the reality of Christ. How if we cannot enter into the mind and heart of contemporary people?

  3. Avatar Woody Jones says:

    As a fellow struggler lacking philosophical training, I have recommended to me by a good Dominican priest from the Saint Joseph province as an easy intro to Saint Thomas the little “My Way of Life” volume in the Precious Blood series. Also useful is Msgr Glenn’s “Tour of the Summa” (see his discussion of false prudence), and a couple of Peter Kreeft books on the Summa.