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Vol 37 No 4


Brian Lewis

Philip Malone MSC

Liz Hepburn IBVM

Tom Ryan SM

Neil Pembroke

Bruce Duncan CSsR

John Ryan


Kevin Mark


The complete idiotís guide to understanding moral theology


UNDOUBTEDLY THERE will always be a need for specialists. At the same time and with the DIY approach once again flourishing, the Complete Idiot’s Guide To series has become a useful adjunct for many people by providing much needed support and encouragement for the ‘would be’, ‘wanna be’ and even the ‘need to be’ people in so many aspects of their everyday living.

For those endeavouring to engage with, yet not overly conversant with the intricacies of their everyday moral life the appropriate volume of the series is, unfortunately, yet to be written, as indeed we are still waiting for Moral Theology For Dummies!

And while ‘reality TV’ has offered us Big Brother, Survivor and the like to challenge how our values, lifestyle choices and relationships are tested in the maelstrom of everyday living, there hasn’t yet been a ‘moral makeover’ series to sort us all out!

In the meantime, some reflections on what is involved for the ‘ordinary’ person may stimulate the DIY moralist in all of us to ‘have a go’! And this applies across the board: from ‘baby-boomers’ (or beyond), through ‘generation X’ and ‘generation.com’ to the emerging ‘generation Y’.

The first point to stress is that for the most part providing one’s own prognosis for the appropriateness or otherwise of most of our everyday moral choices is quite straightforward; as is the diagnosis when we reflect after the event on the choices we have made and their implications. There are a whole range of values and principles ‘out there’ and it doesn’t normally need a specialist to analyse our motives and our choices in relation to these values and principles. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we gossip, we are lazy, we over-indulge…we may not like it but we do; we may find it hard to accept but it is so; we may rationalise and excuse ourselves, but the fact is we are often quite deliberately at fault—according to our values and principles…and we know it. And if this sounds too negative, there are indeed the numerous choices we make to be caring, honest, life-style responsible, to put others’ interests first. We can choose well, and we know when we have.

But all that is merely consultation; understanding why we (need to) make ‘moral’ choices at all, ‘where we are coming from’, and what we go on to do about our choices—that constitute the real issue for moral living.

Mind you, there are those who are quite suspicious of any attempt at moral self-regulation. What we need, they feel, is someone in authority, clarity as to what we can or can’t do in any situation, pre-determined reward or punishment for specific activity; and there are many people, we are assured, who yearn for this competent authority and clarity of teaching…as well as its accompanying sense of guilt and shame, or affirmation and assurance. I, people, it is argued cannot be trusted with such personal responsibility in matters affecting eternal destiny. God has laid down certain (immutable) laws and ways of doing things; my, our, view of what is right and wrong is damaged by my, our, proclivity to evil, so we need someone who can simply mediate God’s eternal will / law to us. All I, we, need to do is align my, our, conscience with this teaching and I, we, can rest secure in the knowledge that I, we, are doing the right thing in any situation. Here is a neatly packaged morality of ‘what to do’…‘Good Master, what must I do to obtain eternal life?…Keep the commandments’.

On the other hand there are those who find this approach far too simplistic, inadequate in an increasingly complex world of competing and unclear values, and even demeaning of the individual person confusedly, though honestly, trying to achieve the best possible choice among a range of what are often recognised as completely unacceptable alternatives. What is needed, they feel, is a morality more related to the quality of person, the formation of people able to grapple with the, often, enormity of moral choice, and which gives recognition to the personal responsibility and accountability we all have before God and one another…and we are offered such an approach, for example in the Gospel of Luke (picking up on the First Testament): ‘Listen, Israel, you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and strength; here is the first and greatest commandment; and the second is like it: you must love your neighbour as yourself; on these two commandments depend the whole Law and Prophets…do this and you will live.’

But wait, there’s more! The episode continues: ‘And wishing to justify himself, the lawyer asks (along with the ‘DIY moralist’) ‘and who is my neighbour?’ Well, Jesus suggests, grapple with the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’…and ‘go and do likewise’! Here is morality determined far more by appropriate response than from a simple answer to a posed question; moral choice emanating from the quality of person choosing rather than from the authority of someone else determining what must be done.

Of course, we do not—must not—approach the issue of moral living simply in terms of ‘either–or’ in relation to the above approaches. Moral formation takes time, we need support in coming to appreciate for ourselves and make our own the values and principles we should live by, we need continual updating with which to make informed moral choices, and regular servicing to ensure smooth functioning as moral persons. Ultimately, what makes my choices moral, and what makes choices mine, is the acceptance of responsibility by me for the choices made and their implications, and that they are the best informed and formed choices I can make at the time, and in the circumstances. Awareness and acceptance of responsibility and accountability make for appropriate moral choice.

No doubt there had been a one-sided approach to teaching moral theology. Certainly, in the 1930’s, it was clearly stated in a popular text, ‘the primary object of moral theology is to teach the priest how to distinguish what is sinful from what is lawful; it is not intended for edification nor for the building up of character…the manuals deal with what is of obligation under pain of sin; they are books of moral pathology’ (Slater). And in the 1950’s in response to a couple of attempts at integrating moral theology with spirituality, commentator JJ Farraher SJ, commented—complained—that it was most improper to try to mix the two: sin was the proper concern of moral…spirituality was the realm of ascetical theology. Such a clear distinction may make sense in a world of philosophy and definition, but with the onset of psychology, sociology and anthropology with their emphases on relationships, personal development and cultural diversity, integration of morality and spirituality makes far more sense in exploring the intricacies of moral (character) formation and choices.

This helps to explain why there has been a (need for) stronger DIY emphasis in moral theology in recent times. And this is consistent with what Vatican Council II stressed in its documents on Religious Liberty, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern

World and on Priestly Formation
But let us not simply blame Vatican II (again!). The Council did indeed emphasise the personal dignity of the individual human person, and consequently the freedom and primacy that must be accorded the individual in making moral choices; the Council did stress the connection between personal formation and character building that underlie such choices; and the Council proclaimed strongly the social dimensions of Christian moral living: responsibility and accountability, and choices appropriate to the situations in which we find ourselves. In this sense the Council was undertaking its proper twofold mission: renewal of the tradition of the Church, and adaptation to a new environment. The Council was doing what was needed, and repeating what had been done time and again throughout history.

Jesus himself set the example and style with regard to appreciating Judaism and the coming of God’s Reign. Then just as the post-apostolic and patristic Church looked to Greek philosophy, Roman Law and the Imperial Court for its language, organization and its face to the world; just as the medieval Church was challenged and energised by the rediscovery of Aristotle’s philosophy, which provided a balance to the (neo-) Platonism which had dominated the scene for so long; just as the Catholic reformation drew on the development of international law to provide an authoritarian rather than a prudential model for moral theology; and just as there was a need for prophetic figures like Alphonsus Ligouri to counteract the harsh and insensitive moral theology of Jansenism…so Vatican Council II encouraged us (once again) to welcome and incorporate new approaches into our moral theology. Recognising and responding to the ‘signs of the times’ gives the opportunity of presenting to our world and its people the rich tradition of the church in a new and meaningful way.

What has changed? There are those who think (regret) that moral theology seems different from before Vatican Council II—‘wishy-washy’, ‘you can do whatever you feel like these days’, are just a couple of their critiques. This can hardly be the experience of younger people, though, who have no practical experience of this supposed change, since Vatican II is pretty much to them what the Depression and World War II were to people of my generation—what our parents always used as the reference point for real life: ‘when I was young..’! It is, after all, all of forty years since the start of the Council. A lifetime or two for many; and therefore, dare I say it, ancient history.

So what has changed? The teaching has not changed. What is different is the language, the imaging, the emphases: from philosophy to psychology, from definition to relationships, from the abstract to the specific. Not the moral teaching. The values and principles for living as a Christian in today’s world remain the same. It is the (re-)emphasis on personal responsibility and accountability that takes pride of place once more and the concomitant need for personal formation—echoing Thomas Aquinas (patron saint of theologians) and Alphonsus Ligouri (patron of moralists); the need to cope with new moral issues and their implications (now and into the future); the need to (re-)evaluate social and cultural mores in environments and situations far different from that of any previous time; the recognition and acceptance of the call by the Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution in the Modern World for all people to accept and assume their responsibility as Christians, in Baptism, and their professional positions in the world at large, to live out and bear witness to the power of the Spirit which energises and enthuses us in the promotion of God’s Reign. The fact that so many have accepted the challenge, have continued their education in the faith as adults, are actively engaged in ministry and public life has engendered this difference in the way we perceive our responsibilities and approach our moral choices, which are, after all the practical consequences of taking such a stance. This is what Vatican II emphasised and exhorted us to be in our world today, and it is also a continuation of traditional moral theology.

And it demands a mature, response to both personal formation and our understanding of personal choice. In traditional moral theology conscience has always had three dimensions, though only one has been to the fore in recent times. The tradition recognises the role of law, commandment, authority in matters of conscience; we need guidance if we are to understand and follow God’s plan for us; we look to the teaching Church for such authority and guidance—a teaching Church rich in history and experience when it offers advice and direction. This has been the recent emphasis for conscience. But conscience also plays an important part in the reality of personal moral choice. It is ‘prudential’ in character, carefully and wisely supporting our conscientiousness not just to the values and principles to be upheld in our choices, but significantly prompting us to make those choices—in light of the values and principles—which are most in harmony with the actual situation of choice and the available alternatives. Again, this is the tradition, and Thomas and Alphonsus are among the leading lights in proposing this understanding of conscience along side—even more so—than conscience as a choice to be obedient to the authority of God directly, or as it is mediated to us.

And indeed there is a third aspect of conscience which, though hardly credited with conscience choices, is integral to the traditional understanding and challenge of conscience. Pope John Paul II touches on this in Chapters 1 and 3 of Veritatis Splendor. It is the role of conscience as ‘prophetic’, when we go beyond duty to the heart of loving our neighbour. It is the choice the rich man could not accept in the following of the Lord; it is the choice of the widow to put all her money into the Temple donation box; it is the choice of Maximilian Kolbe, of Mother Teresa and of countless others to give their lives for another in need; it is the choice of parents and relatives to devote themselves entirely to the care of sick children or of children to care for aged parents…there are so many ‘prophetic conscience choices’ made everyday, and it is good to recognise and acknowledge them for what they are.
To be conscientious in the traditional sense—not simply to be obedient to ‘the dictates of conscience’, but personally engaged and intimately involved in the process of moral choice, we need formation. Again, not simply information, important and significant as it is, but more so, formation. My actions and choices will emerge and result from the type of person I (habitually) am.

In this context, the linking of morality and spirituality necessarily converge. In general humanitarian terms—as we remember from Aristotelian and Stoic studies, it was character formation and the development of good habits (virtues) that led to the wise or moral person in society, and gave such people a place of honour. In line with this has been the emphasis in recent times—or more correctly, reemphasis or renewal—of the study of virtue and character formation in moral theology. Quality of person equals quality of moral choice. And the need for formation towards such personal quality is reflected in the studies of Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan and others.

For the Christian, indeed, for any person committed to a religious way of life, the simply humanist formation, our search for meaning, needs focus. For many this has been so obvious that the phenomenon of young (and older) people seeking enlightenment and guidance in life to counterbalance the materialism and amorality of their native environment, by embracing meditation, yoga and other religious formative practices found in the religions of the East is taken for granted, if not fully understood. Yet Christianity, while not at all without its meditative and reflective atmosphere, is a religion of engagement…not simply a search for meaning but a desire to find appropriate direction in life as well; equally obvious, then, fulfilling the command of loving God and our neighbour, indeed, loving as Jesus has loved us—washing feet, embracing lepers, giving his life for us—needs a character formation, an habitual face to the world that comes from a spirituality based on justice, love and peace.

Vatican Council II invited us to reflect on the essential dignity of each human person. What needs also to be stressed is that such reflection is not simply a glorification of the individual over against everyone else. Perhaps if we were to reflect on the existential dignity of every human person we might get a clearer picture of what the Council called for. We are all brothers and sisters, all with the right to share the basic goods of family and friend, housing and shelter, nourishment and development, all of the freedoms…let alone the extras. In a world where none of these can be taken for granted by the vast majority of the world’s population: our sisters and brothers, to live as a Christian, to be able to make any, let alone appropriate moral choices demands an intense character formation built on a powerful spirituality. The God I believe in is the God I respond to. What does this really mean, what are its implications, (how) can I respond morally, and habitually?

One final thought in our DIY moral reflection. Even if we do find it more congenial to limit our understanding of conscience to ‘being obedient to authority’, even this is not as straightforward as it first appears; nor does it get us off the hook personally by making the authority responsible for our moral choices. Apart from the old ditty: ‘Mr Brown was very good, he went to Mass on Sunday; but he died and went to Hell—for what he did on Monday!’ the very words ‘obedience’ and ‘authority’ are far more insightful—and demanding!—than we usually give them credit for.

Take ‘obedience’, for example. We usually see this as our response to being told what to do (or not to) and our need to follow instructions; as in the army, police force, prison, school! The consequences of disobedience are easily spelt out in terms of punishment, deprivation of freedom, and so on. However, for those who take this attitude, the word ‘obedience’ has as yet unplumbed depths. It is not simply a question of ‘I hear therefore I do’. The Latin ob-audire entails a whole attitude of listening, and invites a committed personal response to what is being proposed. Some reflection on Jesus’ dealings with Scribes and Pharisees gives us an idea of the difference between hearing the Word of God and truly listening, between an act of obedience and real moral choice. ‘Listen Israel’ we hear often in the First Testament; ‘Amen, Amen I say to you’, and ‘Listen, you who have ears’, Jesus says often to emphasise the need not merely to hear the literal word, but the intent of what is being proposed and how it involves me personally. Teaching in parables carries the same intent; we don’t wait for someone to tell us the answer, the stories are open-ended, inviting an individual response to the message of the story.

And as for ‘authority’. No need to reiterate Jesus’ strictures on those who ought to know better yet abuse their power over people by making excessive moral demands on ordinary folk. A more positive approach encourages us to reflect on ‘authority’ with a more congenial, yet deeper appreciation. If we return, for a moment, to our Greek culture and the wise people, they had the responsibility both to witness to and encourage in others a virtuous life. In the Roman equivalent, Senators, especially the older and therefore supposedly wiser ones served a comparable function in society. The derivation of the image and role, though, is what is interesting. These Senators were auctores, the people ‘with authority’ and the word comes from the more basic augere, an agricultural term! The word means to prepare the soil, to provide suitable conditions for growth, or in more general terms, to allow, to enable, to support, to encourage. It means, then, that authority, properly understood and properly used, is for the benefit not so much of the one who exercises authority but for the one being promoted, developed, encouraged by those with responsibility. Such an understanding of the nature and use of authority certainly poses an important task for those in charge, but by no means exonerates the ‘subject’ from listening, learning and then responding in an appropriate way.

The link between morality and spirituality, the important part to be played by character formation, the need to be properly obedient, prudential and prophetic in formation of conscience, are all integral to an appropriate appreciation of moral theology today. DIY may be a passing fad in the entertainment world; it is at the heart of moral and Christian living.

How this all relates to community living, let alone to how it can be properly expressed in worship is important, but food for thought at another time!

Philip Malone MSC lectures in Moral and Sacramental Theology at Yarra Theological Union and other institutes in Melbourne.