|Catholic Moral Theology:
"WHOSE SIN IS THIS ANYWAY?"
BY THOMAS G. LEDERER, M.A.
Murder triggered by unrequited love or jealous rage; political misdeeds out of greed and expediency; white lies, black lies, gray areas as pathological means for survival; abortion justified by convenience; substance abuse to anesthetize the unbearable pain of consciousness; careless decisions and alternative lifestyles destroying the nurturance of a nuclear family; human starvation allowed to exist by way of ignorance and the sin of omission; the systematic defamation and destruction of a human being in the name of a free press; humanity playing deity with artificial insemination, genetic engineering, and euthanasia; leaks, lies, larceny, and pay-offs as standard operating procedure in government; interpersonal relationships based on a primitive pleasure principle; an overall lack of respect for the gift of life.
It is safe to suggest that our myopic Western civilization has lost its sense of direction in terms of moralistic rights and wrongs. Amidst the looming tree clumps of misdeeds and deceptions, we humans seek forests of righteousness that have seriously decayed down through the passage of generations.
Despite contemporary public protestation regarding its modus operandi, down through the ages, the Catholic Church has consistently attempted to modify and enhance the moral behavior of humanity. While these attempts have not always been successful and have not always been carried out using the most constructive or humanistic methods, the Magisterium's determination to lead its flock down the straight and narrow paths of Christian morality have been consistently motivated by good intentions and a sincere effort to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as portrayed in Scripture.
The Church has never really claimed infallibility in its instructive demands for moral behavior, although declaring as one's source the word of God and the works of a messiah does not leave too much room for protest. The Church does not really steadfastly claim that, for 2000 years, it has always appropriately communicated its interpretation of God's expectations for human moral conduct. There is an acknowledgment that the Magisterium is subject to certain limitations of being human.
What is more crucial to a discussion of moralistic malaise is that, as a rule, followers of the Catholic faith as well as the rest of humanity have never truly demonstrated a consistent willingness nor a profound sensitivity to living their lives and treating their fellows as they themselves would be treated. The "Golden Rule" of the Judeo-Christian heritage has proved to be some obscure goal that is never quite attained--by anyone.
Therein lies the challenge faced by those in our civilization today who concern themselves with finer points of moral conduct. Aside from the philosophical and theological studies of morality, we are faced today with the realization that the evolution of human behavior will doubtless affect the very existence of life on our planet for future generations.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
Dr, John A. Gallagher, in his work Time Past, Time Future, offers some interesting insight into the history of moral theology.
Early Christian Patristic literature did not play a significant role in the evolutionary progress of moral theology. Catholic thinkers such as Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose dealt primarily with matters that arose from the Christian ministry and some of the moral implications of being Christian. There was the tendency to contrast Christian versus non-Christian, but little in directing followers specifically toward a more finely tuned moral existence.
There was also the irony in early Christianity that provided penance only once in a person's life, usually when death was at hand. Since a dying person had little chance to change their ways and to embrace a moral existence, there was no need for the so-called "penitentials" that were developed centuries later to help clergy dole out punishment as a deterrent to misbehavior.
Historical evidence suggests that penitential guides originated in 6th century Irish monasteries and found their way to various spots on the continent over the next four hundred years. The manuals were designed to instruct monks on the definitions and degrees of various sins and were used as guides in the administration of the sacrament of penance. Not only did the spread of these behavioral guides mark the migration of Irish traditions to other parts of Europe but also brought the discipline of the Irish monastery to the villages, to influence civil and common law, to affect the common people, and subsequently characterized European morality up through the 11th century.
In 1075, Pope Gregory VII issued a declaration of independence of the clergy from secular control, the so-called "disengagement of the sacred from the profane (page 12). Gregory--who had a legalistic background--and his proclamation shaped Canon Law of the Catholic Church and that remained
While moral discussions were somewhat stifled by preoccupations with Canon Law and scholasticism (e.g.. Peter Lombard's Sentences,) Peter Abelard provided some breaths of fresh air in the twelfth century with "his concern for the inner point of view in moral discussion, the attitude of a man rather than the nature of his deeds." (page 17) Abelard's perspective was centuries ahead of his time and established the groundwork for some of the systems of moral thought that relied more on reason and intent than dogmatic, inflexible rules and penalties.
Also in the eleventh century, pastoral handbooks ("Summae Confessorum") were written to provide guidance to confessors while administering penance. These handbooks were an improvement over the Celtic penitentials in that they left behind the somewhat inappropriate realms of immediacy and common sense so dominant in the Irish monastic works and, instead, mixed law, philosophy, theology, and healing for the clergy to utilize when ministering to their followers.
Then, during the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas came onto the scene and revolutionized the religious perspective of morality. Thomas' work irreversibly altered the structure and content of moral theology and the resulting manuals; he precipitated theology becoming part of the university, not just a monastery; as part of the Renaissance, classical and Patristic authors were rediscovered and redefined.
"Aquinas revised Lombard's discussions of moral questions, synthesizing man's return to God through virtues in much the same order as Aristotle treated man's search for happiness." (Gallagher page 22)
REASON INFORMED BY FAITH
In his book, Reason Informed by Faith, Richard M. Gula defines morality; explains the nature of moral theology as it compares and contrasts to the study of ethics; examines the complexities of human nature; and spotlights faith-inspired reason as it guides human beings toward the love that God gives to and expects from those of us created in His image.
Gula launches his intricate examination of moral theology by stating, "The unity of the moral and spiritual life is emerging again through attention on the virtues and is in need of further development in the Roman Catholic tradition." (page 8) He adds that the realistic task of the moralist is to become a resource for moral living by offering sensitivity, reflection, and varied methods for establishing what sorts of people we should be and what types of action should subsequently result.
Bernard Lonergan is a 20th century source for a relatively new and enlightened perspective of the human condition. By utilizing his "turning to the subject" methodology, Lonergan introduces the person specifically/ humanity generally as a transcendent force to be reckoned with, above and beyond it fellow inhabitants on this planet. Gula summarizes Lonergan's progressive analysis of human reason with: experience, followed by the gathering of data, asking questions, getting some insight, and making a judgment. Even while maintaining scientific objectivity and sensible humility, all available evidence seems to point to humans as having exclusive planetary rights to this complex process. This ability, Lonergan suggests, allows us to know God and to appropriately respond to divine guidance that comes from our mediated connection, and can point us toward the morally better choices available to us.
As previously noted, what we now call moral theology has evolved over the centuries. Of primary importance in this evolutionary process has been a shift in focus, a shift in worldview, as well as a shift in method. Rules, laws, canon, specified sins have become secondary to blending morality with faith and Scriptural concerns such as realization of the covenant between God and humans, vocation, conversion, discipleship, and the imitation of the way Christ conducted himself while with us here on Earth.
A shift in the worldview has moved moralists away from the classicist perspective in which morality and laws were immovable objects instead of embracing a historically conscious process in which each component is a part of a whole which has yet to be discovered, an evolving, dynamic process replacing a stagnant process. Methodically, inductive reasoning replaced deductive reasoning.
According to Gula, the modern worldview respects the uniqueness of the person and the peculiarities of historical circumstances, and tends to be relative in the sense that everything is conditioned. He points to the Vatican II document the "Historical Truths of the Gospels," which "recognized that the books of the Bible contain the world of God in the limited words of men and women of various ages...The same limiting conditions which affect the Bible , its composition, and its interpretation also affect the dogmatic and moral teaching of the church." (page 34, Gula) Although Gula effectively voices both side to the contemporary arguments between the morality of the Magisterium and the morality of modern moral theologians, this quotation from the Vatican II document provides some provocative thoughts that should be held at close hand when examining Papal encyclicals as will be done later on in this work.
Much as a"gestalt," figure-ground analogy can lead us to a better understanding of God (we perceive the imperfect which implies something perfect), we do not necessarily need to know what the "good" is for it to be a goal and foundation of moral striving. From the "bad," we can deduce what the "good" is. However, there is specificity within Christian morality that does allow us to know what good God expects from us. From our theological understanding of God; through our Scriptural picture of Jesus Christ, his works, and his reflections on Old Testament writings, we can know what is expected of us in the name of Christian morality.
Reason and faith are two sources of moral knowledge. With the potential for reasoning as a basic given in our understanding of the human condition, faith in God and religious beliefs can be more than just a primitive longing for protection from the unknown.
"Part of what it means to have a Christian character is to be able to live with a disposition of hope without crippling anxiety," said Gula. (page 53)
Gula strongly implies that such inclinations are not as instinctive as "fight-or-flight," but instead decisive movement to follow and emulate the teachings and the life of Christ. And Christian beliefs are not accidental or incidental to the morality of a Christian but specific responses to specific teaching of Jesus to renounce power, to do penance, to ask for and to provide forgiveness, to seek the good for others, and to love your enemies.
We have a cognitive, intellectual awareness of who God is and what his and Jesus' moral requirements are to form our ethical life patterns. There is a dynamic, interdependent relationship between reason and faith in which one helps shapes the other, hence Gula's chief premise, "reason informed by faith" is tautological.
One of the more elusive concepts of Christian theology is the intrinsic meaning of the Trinity. The greatly respected and highly spectacular theological brother act of Himes and Himes, Frs. Kenneth and Michael Himes utilize the Trinity as the place where, relationally, "the human person is the point at which creation is able to acknowledge gratefully the divine self-gift and to respond by giving oneself in return." (Gula page 65)
The logical extension of this assertion is that positive, constructive, supportive, loving interaction among people--loving as in the unconditional love (agape) we receive from God--is what ethics and morality must be based around. This is comparable if not interchangeable with the Quaker belief that the "Inner Light," that of God within us all, provides the common thread among all human beings to require us to love each and every person on this planet despite any and all differences.
Vatican II marked a shift from discussing "human nature" to the "human person." This acknowledgment opened many doors in terms of allowing aspects of life that affect humans to be considered in a much more individualistic manner, instead of just a generalized stereo-typical overview of human nature. Further, there is a basic freedom that allows a human being to express this individuality in the form of life choices and moral judgments apart from and within the limitations that we all have.
The Theory of Fundamental Option suggests that the roots of Scripture run deep with notions of our covenant with God through a direct pipeline to our hearts. Christian theology does not see the heart merely as an organ, a pumping device but as a representative target or source for God's unconditional love. Physiologically, thinking, feeling, loving with that mass of muscle we call our hearts is not possible; but it is helpful for us to envision divine love and matters pertaining to feelings and conscience being focused there. It, therefore, becomes possible to say that through our divinely inspired hearts we use our freedom for determining what the good in our lives is to become.
As part of the Fundamental Option theory, there is the Fundamental Stance that shows the overall moral direction that our lives are taking. The more specific notion of Fundamental Option theoretically divides our Fundamental Stance into smaller, more specific pieces, daily decisions and actions that comprise our generalized behavior.
The types of sin include original sin which Gula calls a "theological code word for the human condition of living in a world where we are influenced by more evil than what we do ourselves." (page 106) A venial sin is a specific act that puts us outside of God's prescribed life of loving actions toward others, while mortal sin suggests a larger more global pattern of behavior that consistently keeps us away from God's covenant.
Gula adds the social sin, a more contemporary concept of wrongdoing that a cynic may call an example of being "politically incorrect." Racial discrimination, economic exploitation, oppression are characteristics of social sins. Somewhat surprisingly, on several occasions throughout his book, Gula points to the Church excluding women from certain authoritative positions within the Church as being examples of social sin. In the eyes of some, such suggestions by the author might be the equivalent of one calling OSHA and reporting to them safety violations his or her company might be perpetrating on its workers.
Much as the heart is the logistical focus of God's love within the human, so too is it the locus for what we call the conscience.
"Conscience is the sanctuary and secret core, a place alone with God who's voice echoes in the depth of His heart," said the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. (page 130 Gula)
The conscience is seen as being divided into three parts, the human characteristic of being oriented toward the good; the process in which a human being makes a decision about the morality of an act; and, thirdly, the event, the judgment itself and its overall effect on the person. Gula calls this third aspect of the conscience as "the only sure guide for action by a free and knowing person." (Gula page 135.)
Much as children see parents as being incapable of error, for those raised within the rigors of Roman Catholic tradition, the belief that the Magisterium were often the bearers of infallible, inalterable, unquestionable information began to change dramatically with the coming of Vatican II during the 1960's. Especially now, when the Roman Catholic clergy has been targeted and (unfairly) vilified for the inappropriate behavior of a small percentage of its members, the authority of the Magisterium has been frequently and vehemently called into question. Gula asks what is perhaps a rhetorical question of why should the Magisterium play an important role in the formation of conscience.
To be facetious, one might say listening to the moral pronouncements of a priest or a member of the ecclesiastic hierarchy is better than following the advice of your bartender or your barber, or worse yet, your therapist. In all seriousness, as stated by Pope John Paul II, with the track record of our society today, given the rationalizations of moral misdeeds, the violence, the social sins of omission, the secularization of our society, the rejection of Church authority has most certainly played a role in the scourge of immorality presently drowning our planet much as did Noah's flood.
It is advisable that we listen to the Magisterium because we humans obviously need some assistance (from someone!) in determining right and wrong. Despite some of the recent scathing literature to the contrary (e.g. Eunuchs For the Kingdom of Heaven by Uta Ranke-Heinemann) the Church's credentials down through the ages have been second to none in terms of consistently seeking out the advancement of the human condition. There is also that indefinable, mystical, spiritual power and force, the Holy Spirit, if you will, that certainly seems to finds its way to us more prominently through the Church and its leaders than through any other source.
On the down side, the Church has never claimed to issue an infallible document on morality (for some, that would be considered part of the up side.) As a result of there being no claim of perfection in the Church's moral messages, the door to revision, re-evaluation, and incompleteness is left wide open.
Generally, for humans to consider themselves Catholics and subsequently followers of Christian morality, there is necessary a certain amount of loyalty, faith, and respect for the Scriptural interpretation of Jesus' life, as well as for the spiritual successors to Christ in their efforts to interpret messages of living for the rest of us.
A number of different methods have been developed by moral theologians over the years as a means for helping to pin down specific actions based on moral beliefs.
The so-called Three Font Principle assesses an action based on its intention, the act itself, and the circumstances. The Principle of the Double Effect takes the works of Thomas Aquinas and Jean Pierre Gury and provides method for defending actions that might otherwise on the surface considered to be immoral. While well intended in terms of helping to systematize our need for evaluating human behavior, these systems and their proclivity toward Proportionalism and Relativism (i.e. that which may provide subcutaneous justification for some outwardly repugnant behavior) have created a firestorm of controversy between the Vatican and contemporary moral theologians. The October 1993 Papal encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" is thought to have been prompted by these concerns. The encyclical will be discussed further on in this paper.
If humans are to truly believe in the insights offered to us by Scripture, then there are certain requirements to be followed as part of God's covenant with us. We must live in nourishing relationships, give love freely and without condition, offer a reverential openness to the mystery of God's actions, a conversion toward a God-oriented life, and responsibility for working toward the good works of God despite worldly obstacles and resistance.
Scripture is looked upon by moral theologians as a normative criteria for Christians and Jews as the revelation of God's reality, who God is, what He wants for us, and what are the implications us being given a defined presence of God in human history. Considerable progress has been made during this century in Scripture scholarship. Modern theology has traveled eons beyond the days of proof texting in which pre-critical scholars would attempt to prove predetermined concepts via a fishing expedition through the waters of Biblical expression.
However, today with exegetical methods examining the original context of Scripture and the hermitneutical interpretation of what the text means here and now, Scripture in the modern age has a newly-acquired relevance in which it becomes a living word as opposed to historical words without present day application. By systematically analyzing parables, hyperbole, and commandments that appear in Biblical readings, we can interpret and be morally guided by these divinely inspired moral imperatives.
According to Richard Gula, there is an ethical wisdom/knowledge that is accessible to all (not just religious followers) who are willing to critically reflect upon the human experience. This concept is referred to as Natural Law. Natural Law according to the Greek Stoics emphasized Nature as unchanging and rigid. Therefore, Natural Law required us to conform to a natural order of things. Aristotle contended that it is a rational act to employ reason to follow the inclinations of Nature seeing as it is indeed the very source and cause of all being. A Roman named Upian may have set civilization back a few centuries when he conjectured that humans were much more like than unlike animals in their behavior and he emphasized the physical aspect of humanity beyond feelings, love, reason, and thinking.
Thomas Aquinas played a major role in the development of Natural Law as a vehicle for determining moral behavior. While he utilized reason as a primary component in his formula for assessing morality, and was doubtless the pioneer in laying the basic framework for modern moral theology, that he held on to certain aspects of Upian's obsession for the physical world did the realm of Catholic morality undue harm. That Thomas could not totally free himself from seeing human behavior as closely linked to animalistic instincts is still being sorted out today in the raging battle between moral theologians and the Magisterium.
From the 14th century right up until Vatican II, moralistic concerns based around natural order were given much greater weight than those based around reason. The "Manualist" (i.e. morality out of the clerical manuals of rights, wrongs, sins, and punishments) brand of moral theology was predominant. Violation of the order of nature was seen as having very serious implications because God and Nature are one. Reason is from man, Nature, on the other hand is from God, and God is affronted when one violate Nature.
"The danger of physicalism is to derive moral imperatives from bodily structure and functions and to exclude the totality of the person from his or her relational context in making a moral assessment," said Richard Gula in his chapter on Natural Law Today. (page 233)
Gula goes on to state that Nature is not God's representative but it represents God's created material through which we humans participate as co-created with God. The Thomistic approach (where he was able to leave Upian behind) saw reason as dominating morality not the physical order of things, and it emphasized grasping truth through logic, intuition, affection, and sense. Natural Law indeed functions more as a dynamic approach to discovering moral value than as a body of established content.
On August 1, 1987, Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter in which he stated his intention to write an encyclical dealing with some fundamental aspects of Catholic moral doctrine. On October 5, 1993, "Veritatis Splendor" was released to approximately coincide with the publication of the newly revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, which systematically presents the official Catholic vision of Christian moral teaching. Because of the great detail included in the Catechism regarding specific moral issues, the Pope was better able to utilize Veritatis Splendor to concentrate on fundamental moral theology without having to dissect specific issues. Moreover, the Pontiff was taking the opportunity to rebuke Catholic moral theologians whom he felt had strayed from the precepts and basics of what the Magisterium sees as revealed moral teachings.
The encyclical is addressed specifically to the bishops of the Church as they are reminded of their obligation to reinforce the word of God, the message from Christ through Scripture, and the power of the Holy Spirit in communicating to humanity what God expects from us in terms of moral conduct. The purpose of the encyclical appears to be to pull the reigns in on certain moral theologians and perhaps some members of the Magisterium who have taken tremendous liberties with the spirit of freedom granted by the Second Vatican Council.
Much as would any concerned father, the Pope is attempting to use strong words to correct the actions of those who may have exceeded intended boundaries when told they were free from some previous restrictions. The Pope is obviously disturbed by what he sees as moral chaos engulfing the world and, within the powers of his office, he wishes to do what he can to correct what he can.
It is interesting to note that the announcement of the Pope's intention to write Veritatis Splendor was made on August 1, 1987, in commemoration of the second centenary of the death of St. Alphonsus Liguori. St. Alphonsus was known as "the patron of confessors and moralists." (page 334 "Origins") He lived during a time when the primary task of clerical morality was to categorize sins, evaluate laws, heed warning to the flock to avoid sin, and to appropriately punish those who stray. Although he may be considered a legitimate antecedent to the modern moral theologians that Pope John Paul II was taking aim at with his encyclical, St. Alphonsus was very much from the old school of legalism.
Yet there is a note of irony in that St. Alphonsus is given credit for his being a major proponent of "Probabilism, a system of moral theology based on the general notion that where the morality of an action is doubtful, an opinion that be accounted probably defensible may be adopted even against an opinion that may be accounted more probably defensible." (page 503 MacGregor) In other words, while the Pope was taking issue with those who were, to a fault, using subjective devices in making moral evaluations, he chose to launch his project on a day commemorating someone who definitely found room in morality for subjective judgments.
The first part of Veritatas Splendor consists of a Biblical discussion between Jesus and a rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew (19:16-22.) Jesus responds by pointing out God's goodness as the perfect source and example for human behavior; and he also indicates that there is nothing on this planet, nothing in our lives that should get in the way of following God's will, His law, or the "new creation" as revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. The Pope concludes this first section by noting that the Magisterium must take the role of Jesus in such a dialogue with followers of the faith.
At the risk of being repetitious, the following is taken from the Vatican II document "The Historical Truths of the Gospels":
"To discover God's revelation we must take into account the historical situation, the philosophical worldview, and the theological limitations of those who wrote these books. The same limiting conditions which affect the Bible, its composition and its interpretation also affect the dogmatic and moral teaching of the church." (Gula page 34)
The powerful faith-inspiring passages that the Pope extracts from the Bible and his evangelical interpretation offer the reader some of the beautiful root origins and foundation for Christian belief. However, even the devoutly brilliant minds that worked on the Vatican II documents recognized that there can be no absolutes in a world inhabited by human beings. Even the word "truth" is open to interpretation from layperson to layperson, from priest to priest, from Pope to Pope. It is perhaps why no Papal document on morality has ever been considered infallible; it is why scholars such as St. Thomas, St. Alphonsus, Jean Pierre Gury, Lucien Laberthonniere, et.al. found ways to gently bring relativity, subjectivity, probability, logic, and reason into the black and white realms of dogmatic Catholic morality.
Despite how appropriately outraged Pope John Paul may feel about the immorality that seems ever increasing within our civilization, he may be off the mark when he blames the subjective elements of moral theology, the theologians themselves, or those who would choose to misinterpret the freedoms that accompany being human.
If a youngster sits in his Algebra class and wonders how he will ever use any of what he is learning, he is probably asking some good questions. When have any of us been called on to figure out how fast a train may be traveling when it left Chicago ten minutes ahead of the train that left St. Louis in a thunderstorm? There is no relevance unless the young lad grows up and works for AMTRAK and is asked to find ways to determine how fast trains are traveling when they are derailed. More to the point, it is delightful to read some new subject matter such as was found in Richard Gula's book on moral theology and then to wade through (to the best of one's ability) Veritatas Splendor and actually find concepts and terminology and jargon being utilized as they were being taught.
Pope John Paul II most likely would find some of the concepts in Gula's work troubling, most likely those that suggest that the Church is committing social sin when it limits the ability of women to hold positions of authority in the Church. Yet, Gula's book is by no means subversive in nature. Even to the novice moral theologian it is obvious that Gula is a brilliant, devout, holy, dedicated Catholic and very supportive of the Magisterium and its attempts to bring God's love to the world.
Yet, Gula might indeed make the Pope's list of those who are contributing to world's ills by promoting the notions that sins are debatable, that there is subjectivity within the nature of a crime of passion or principle; that an abortion to save the life of a mother is not an open and shut case; that the infinite number of genetic, sociological, anthropological, and spiritual differences among all the many peoples of this planet make absolute moral theology difficult if not impossible.
To summarize what may be a very naive attempt to interpret the sincere efforts of a discouraged pontiff, it is clear that contemporary moral theologians cannot and should not shoulder the blame that the Pope suggests they must bear. Most moral theologians if not all of them would agree with the Pope about what are inexcusable sins and what sins cannot be reasoned away. However, taking away the option of using reason to assess moral behavior is a more dangerous threat to human freedom than are some of the excesses that the Pope uses as examples.
The global reaction to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatas Splendor was mixed. Rumors that the encyclical would come down hard (again) on the issue of artificial contraception or that Veritatas Splendor might be put forth in a spirit of Papal infallibility were proven to be inaccurate. There were sighs of relief from some academic communities that had been expecting the worst. Some took issue with the length of the document, its dryness, its so-called convoluted logic, and the unspoken between-the-lines sub-context perhaps motivated by his concerns about sexual conduct.
"John Paul, however, teaches, that the individual conscience should not play a role in determining which moral principles are inviolable," said Dennis M. Doyle, a university professor. "(He says that) these principles are determined by the church's authority through natural law in the light of divine revelation. The conscience should play a role only in applying such principles in concrete circumstances."
Professor Doyle continues, "If I read the document correctly, the Pope is not exactly offering strong support here for legitimate disagreement as an officially endorsed option. He is expressly forbidding it when it comes to negative precepts identified by the Church as inviolable." ("Commonweal" page 13)
Rev.Charles Curran, a professor at Southern Methodist University and an out-spoken proponent of the freedom to disagree with the Magisterium calls the anticipated effect of the papal encyclical as "bleak." ("Commonweal "page 14)