What “Accompaniment” Really Means

These reflections are written against the background of the way in which many activities, once treated under the natural law, came to be considered human “rights” under civil law. A couple of decade ago, it became clear that the subversion of natural law would be carried out under the aegis of “human rights” as understood in particular by Hobbes. Thus, we have today, in many political societies, abortion, single-sex “marriage,” homosexual living, fetal experimentation, and euthanasia—things logically connected with each other that are called and enforced as positive “human rights.” Their denial, even in speech or print, is often considered to be alienating to the public order. Their opposition can be punished in some civil societies by fines or imprisonment.

How did a startling change take place so rapidly? The pattern was as follows: Take “thou shalt not commit adultery” as an example. (The pattern is the same when it comes to abortion, single-sex “marriages,” or euthanasia.) The stability of marriage was an issue in both civil and divine law. It had its rationale in the nature of marriage, children, and the conditions of their well-being in families. The first declination from the norm was a sense of compassion, mercy, or sympathy for the difficulties of one or other partner (usually not children) in what was called “a bad marriage.” Divorce passed from an exception to a common practice. Compassion and sympathy looked not at the facts of the situation but at the feelings of those with difficulties.

Next we were told that we must “tolerate” such de facto situations. We must not criticize or ostracize these suffering people. We must accept what they do in good faith because they do it. They have a “right” to practice what they think is necessary. We cannot be rigid. We are told also that there are no objective truths. All is relative to the situation, time, and place. Finally, no one is allowed to disagree with the “rights” of others. When we reach this final step, the natural law foundation is simply overturned in the name of “rights,” which themselves have no basis except in positive law that can always change. The opposite of what was once considered wrong is now held to be good and a “right.” What were once called “virtues” are now called “vices.”

II.

Some years later, we notice that new words slip into general usage. We may hear that a word like “paradigm” is found in the vocabulary of some particular discipline, like theology, where it does not rightly belong. When this word shift occurs, it is usually a good idea to take a second look at the word’s new usage. More may be at issue than is seen at first glance. In particular, the word “accompany” is currently a word that has become more and more prevalent. We do well to judge how it is now used. It appears to connote something slightly different from the old expression: “Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

Popes, bishops, and other spiritual figures in particular now regularly use the word. It is proposed as a solution for what many seem to be an insoluble problem, the classical problem of just where does one cross the line dividing good and evil. Machiavelli rightly pointed out that when we do pass over this line, we have a new sense of freedom as we can henceforth use both evil and good means for our own purposes.

People insist on knowing how to deal with those individuals who insist that what they are doing is both good and religious, even though it is ostensibly contrary to what is set down in the tradition of both reason and revelation. Social workers use the word “accompany.” Psychologists use it. It is a word whose time has arrived. In current usage, it is designed to give moral support to what are called difficult decisions in conscience when, supposedly, objective intellectual certainty is not clearly forthcoming in a given instance.

In lieu of anything else or of doing nothing, it is claimed, we can always “accompany” a confused, lonely, doubting, agonized, or determined person along his already chosen path. We do not want to see him lonely or to feel abandoned by believers and friends who have no such troubling problems. We are to have “compassion” for his lot. The one option that seems in principle ruled out is the one that involves goodness of the law or reason. Observing the law remains an option, however difficult that observance might prove to be.

III.

We are familiar enough at a concert where a tenor is “accompanied” by a piano or a guitar. Aunt Monica was “accompanied” by her daughter to the theater. On their trip to Spain, the soccer team was accompanied by several local sports reporters. Thus, to “accompany” someone means to provide assistance, help, presence, confidence, or background to a main event. Our decisions are now seen in the light of others’ advice and sympathy. We can at least support them.

In recent moral and theological discussions, however, “to accompany” seems to be more nuanced. We hear of women going to abortion clinics being “accompanied” by someone to give them moral encouragement. Practicing homosexuals like to have others side with them in their firm belief that nothing is wrong in nature with their actions. It is the Church that is wrong, so the resulting tension is borne with the help of others. The companion helps these alienated people to keep resolute, often even against scientific and medical judgments. What they do is quite all right according to their own insights. Confessors are encouraged to “accompany” the divorced and remarried on their way to communion if the couple is convinced, after sober reflection, that their case merits encouragement whether it conforms to the law or not.

Behind the new usage of this word is a marked decline in our notion of what a sin is, of our voluntary responsibility for it, or even of our knowing its chief cause in our own freedom. In medieval scenes, and even up till recently, a condemned man on death row would be “accompanied” by a chaplain or priest. But here the idea was not just to “accompany” the condemned man. It was to provide a means for his repentance if he still needed it or, like the Good Thief, to prepare him for a death he deserved if he was, in fact, guilty. Neither the chaplain nor the condemned man himself was interested in his ruminations about whether the act he committed was really a crime or not. The Good Thief told the Bad Thief quite frankly that both were condemned justly.

Much is written about the fact that God is merciful, which indeed he is. Sins can be forgiven and will be forgiven if they are identified, acknowledged, and repented with the intention of not repeating them. What will not be forgiven is calling what is a sin not a sin and then acting accordingly. And even calling what is good an evil can theoretically be forgiven provided the truth is finally upheld. Mercy, however, does not eradicate the objective order. It only indicates how difficult it often is to know and keep the commandments and follow the guidance of reason.

The accompaniment problem arises at this point. Someone who does not or will not admit the terms of the objective order will still claim to be living as if he is in the state of grace when, by all evidential circumstances, he is not. The confessor or advisor cannot simply say that the rejection of the objective order is all right in this singular case. Neither can he disregard the bindingness of the objective law in this case. What is left of this “accompanying” that does not “reject” the one who cannot or will not see what ought to be done?

IV.

At first sight, this issue seems to be little more than the Aristotelian notion of prudence. Prudence is the judgment that, taking all the circumstances into consideration, the act is either evil or good. Prudence is the active virtue that sees what is there beyond the letter of the law. However, when all is seen, prudence judges what is or is not in conformity with the law in these circumstances.

In Aristotle and Aquinas, furthermore, we were supposed to take counsel with the wise about a given situation. We did not have to rely just on ourselves. This counsel is the form “accompaniment” took in classical thought. We seek, with the help of the wise counselor, to clarify the objective alternatives at hand. The prudent man sought the objective good in complex situations. If this type of analysis were all that was at issue today in the use of the word accompaniment, no real problem would exist.

The classic view was that, in all actions, there is an objective good and bad in every case. The final prudential judgment concluded with, all things considered, “this is” or “this is not” a good means to our final end. Our character referred to the way we made these decisions and their content habitual. Is the current turn to “accompaniment” merely another look at the classical notion of prudence and counsel? At its best, that is what it strives to be.

However, too often, it looks like an attempt not to see what is the objective good or evil in particular circumstances. It seems to permit the calling of what is bad to be good or vice versa. It is one thing to inquire whether this proposed act is a marriage (or a robbery or a murder) or not. It is another thing to know that it is a marriage and yet still violate its terms.

In the first case, we are giving advice about what is really there in the complex circumstances of a human situation. In the second case, our accompaniment is not solely giving advice about the goodness or badness of a particular case. It rather withholds making a decision in order to allow to continue what may be disordered.

We see the word “accompany” used mostly when things that were once clearly thought of as sins or serious faults are now judged to be “rights” by the public even though the Church and reason do not. The question many ask now comes down to whether the Church will, through the subtle use of the notion of accompaniment, in practice or in theory, allow the line between good and evil to be crossed in the name of mercy and compassion. In other words, is the subjective conscience now always right? There is no place where any objective order can in practice be affirmed as binding.

The notion of taking counsel is a good thing. A problem arises when compassion takes priority over the objective facts of a case. People do suffer from the complexity of actual cases. They also suffer when they misjudge the actual situation. We expect those who accompany us first be concerned with the truth of the objective order. Distinguishing between good and evil is at the foundation of civilization. The claim of the Church has been that, over the history of civilization, it has remained on the side of the good. It has never affirmed the possibility of evil as a criterion of the good. The new doctrine of accompaniment seems to allow a way around this distinction. This is both why accompaniment has become so prominent and why, in its neutral form, it ought to be rejected.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

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