Can Catholics be moral people?

A newspaper cartoon showed a stalled car being fiercely hooted by the car behind. The driver of the stalled car walks sweetly over and she says: “Why don’t you start my car while I hoot your horn?”

I hope I am not the only person who has been rattled by pressure from another driver, and even done something thoughtless or potentially dangerous as a result. Most of us fear social embarrassment and, taken unawares – unlike the driver in the cartoon, we can be hustled into an unwise action. In such situations the pressure is immediate and strong; we even have a distinct physiological reaction to it.

In other situations the pressure of the group to conform is similarly powerful. Both the words ethics and morals come from roots which means customs or habits, and a pre-Christian view might be that your first duty is to follow the customs of your community. In one sense this is true: if we live in a community we have a general duty to be a supportive member and abide by its rules. But a Christian must ultimately derive his judgements from his perception of the truth; the values of the community cannot be directly a source of truth, though they may witness to it. The psychologists who have tracked moral development in children suggest that the move from deriving moral imperatives from the community to holding imperatives derived independently and potentially at variance with the community comes at quite a late stage of maturity; and many adults never succeed in making this jump.

But when the community we have in mind is the Church we may well feel that the situation is different. This community has the authority of God behind it, and when it lays down the moral law (as, for example, in the Catechism) we are expected to obey. The Church claims authority to interpret the natural law. Natural law answers the question: how must we act in ways which are in conformity with the nature God gave us? An example would be that since man is a social animal there are rules about telling lies or keeping promises; these are necessary for society to flourish. Another class of natural law rules is derived from structure. It is from this that, say, the rules about homosexuality or artificial contraception are derived. They have an added factor. For instance, where we can suggest that there are situations in which we would be obliged not to keep a promise, homosexual acts are always wrong because they are evil in themselves: you can read it from the structure.

There are big advantages here. We do not have to investigate these, and confirm them through our reason. That’s just a waste of time. We know they are wrong because the Church says so. All we have to do is to obey.

But I have already implied that those who allow others to decide — whether it is the State, or the Church, or our boss – leads to immaturity. Only when we are able to confirm good or evil through our own reason can we claim to be moral people. But then of course our reason, mistakenly or not, may tell us that the Church is wrong in a particular instance. We cannot then obey the Church for, as Aquinas teaches, we are obliged to follow our reason whether or not it is objectively correct.

So how do we, as mature people, get the balance right between the authority of the Church and the authority of our own rational decision?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Can Catholics be moral people?

  1. tim says:

    How can we answer this question in the abstract?
    In any particular case, I may reach a conclusion that appears to me rationally inescapable. I find this appears to conflict with Church teaching, which worries me. Is this conflict irresolvable? Certainly not necessarily. Maybe my reasoning is not quite so cast iron as I thought. I can go back and review it. Or maybe I’ve misunderstood Church teaching, or its application to the situation. That’s also possible, and worth reviewing. If – having checked both – the contradiction remains, what do I do? I don’t see why I should assume that one type of conclusion is inherently more likely to be correct than the other. If the situation arises, I may have to live with not being sure what the answer is. Tough!

    • Vincent says:

      Tim, I hope I haven’t missed your point. At the subjective level, which is what by definition, conscience is, what matters is what we conclude is the good thing to do. Discovering that involves considering the Church’s teaching and the reasons for it. It is perfectly rational to accept the Church’s teaching if we are uncertain, but we are not free to choose something which our reason tells us is wrong. Not even all the heavenly hosts can excuse that.

      • tim says:

        Vincent, maybe. But there are several problems. You are assuming a situation in which my reason is tells me something is wrong, and the Church tells me to do it. Like what? I think you have to demonstrate that there are things that fall into both classes – by giving an instance. Otherwise I can ignore the possibility. My reason tells me that I should accept the Church’s teaching. Also it tells me that I should do what is right. If it also tells me that the Church’s teaching is wrong, that is a contradiction – from which anything or nothing follows. I need a specific example of the problem. But I recommend you not to offer one, as I shall then seize on that and find uncertainties in either ‘the reasoning’ or in ‘the Church teaching’ or probably both, which are not likely to be helpful. You are offering me two (and only two) alternatives from which I am unwilling to choose – why do I have to?

      • G.D. says:

        Was it not a firm teaching that there was no salvation for those that die not shriven members of the Catholic Church years in the past?
        Am sure many people reasoned that was wrong. And had your dilemma.
        What followed is development of truth.
        Now we have a different teaching.

        If we hold the paradox in faith – objective church teaching & subjective knowledge – we have development of truth.
        If we choose either or we have nothing.

  2. tim says:

    GD. My preliminary answer to your question would be, No. If you’d said “Many people used to understand the Church as teaching that…” [etc.], that would be quite plausible. But that’s different.

  3. John Nolan says:

    Most people are not educated enough, nor even intelligent enough, to engage in abstruse debates about ethical questions. Many of their opinions would be anathema to the liberal elite if they ever heard them (which of course they haven’t, since they too busy massaging their own egos with what like-minded people write in the Guardian).

    Yet ordinary people have a moral compass which they have absorbed in some way (they have certainly not been taught a set of moral precepts) which inclines them to do good rather than bad. Call it conscience if you will, but man is an innately moral animal.

  4. G.D. says:

    Having read the post (rather than just skimming it!) …. Is it not a benefit to community for the community to encourage diversity in it’s members?
    Is it not ‘the community that has the authority of God’?
    The more the church community members are encouraged, taught, and allowed to have subjective views, without sanction, the more the community can interrelate and share of the subjective authority that each has been granted by God; and a fuller realisation of what is actual truth (moral or otherwise) for the whole can be lived.
    (Form an objectified synthesis of subjective community truth? Which would reflect the Union of God more aptly maybe?)
    ‘Unity in diversity’ only happens with mutual acceptance & responsibility.

    I realise there must be laws for cohesion and well being (and people have differing roles/positions to fulfil) and many are obvious. (But ignored, if it can be got away with, by most).
    But, what i’m trying to point to is the not so obvious ways we hinder each other. Ways that increase the degradation of ethics in objective society and subjective individuals; and so increase disunity.
    A degradation becoming more and more acceptable in all walks of life and ways of relating. Am sure the poorest have ‘pecking orders’ just as much as the richest, and all in between.

    A question i have had for years is …
    Is that mutual acceptance (respect for the Unity in Diversity) impossible for us because – ? – of a need by some to control others, and by others the need to be controlled?
    Them that want neither not acceptable, because they threaten (unconsciously) the egos of both controller and controlled?

    Can unity in diversity only occur when the needs for control AND being controlled are no more?
    (As in the Trinity).
    And only then ‘Absolute Truths’ become the guiding principal? ….. …. Just a theory.

  5. John Nolan says:

    ‘Form an objectified synthesis of subjective community truth’. Ouch! G.D., I would be grateful were you to leave suchlike utterances to Nektarios, whose speciality they are.

    ‘No-one is exempt from talking nonsense; the misfortune is to do it solemnly’ (Montaigne).

    • G.D. says:

      You seem to take my () statement as the essence for critique John. i have nothing to follow it up! Except to say … a shared individual ‘subjective awareness’ of the Objective Truths of God ….
      (Oh, Nektarios where are you???? You are needed!)

      Any comment about the body of my comment/questioning? ……
      ‘The more the church community members are encouraged, taught, and allowed to have subjective views, without sanction, the more the community can interrelate and share of the subjective authority that each has been granted by God; and a fuller realisation of what is actual truth (moral or otherwise) for the whole can be lived’ …..
      (should be ‘so the whole can be lived’ ) …….. in union as one, as the Trinity does, even.

    • Nektarios says:

      John Nolan

      Thou shalt not take the name of Nektarios in vain!!!

  6. Brendan says:

    If John Nolan is right ( I agree first on natural intuitiveness and a reasoned level ) , and therefore man is an ” innately moral animal ” ; he must know subjective ‘ good ‘ for himself and his fellow man as opposed to ‘ bad ‘ for his community ( Quentin’ s take ) .
    Religion ( Christianity ) having codified this innate knowledge ( and activity whether one realises it or not ) into ‘ rules ‘ for the common good must therefore claim moral ascendancy , from its obvious root. As a constituent of Christianity , Catholics ( claiming primacy in that ) must therefore be ‘ moral people.’
    We are blessed as Catholics to have certainty ( through Gods positive intervention ) of Church Teaching on Faith and Morals ; but because sin abounds in us and effected in our existence

  7. Brendan says:

    If John Nolan is right ( I agree first on natural intuitiveness and a reasoned level ) , and therefore man is an ” innately moral animal ” ; he must know subjective ‘ good ‘ for himself and his fellow man as opposed to ‘ bad ‘ for his community ( Quentin’ s take ) .
    Religion ( Christianity ) having codified this innate knowledge ( and activity whether one realises it or not ) into ‘ rules ‘ for the common good must therefore claim moral ascendancy , from its obvious root. As a constituent of Christianity , Catholics ( claiming primacy in that ) must therefore be ‘ moral people.’
    We are blessed as Catholics to have certainty ( through Gods positive intervention ) of Church Teaching on Faith and Morals ; but because sin abounds in us and effected in our existence to breed confusion and moral chaos ,we can never achieve by our own reasoning – assuming a good level of maturity – always to be certain of finding /knowing the right moral stance in our world.
    Along with unassailable Church Teaching , something else beyond man is required ….supernatural grace to cement those things ….” written into our hearts ” ( replete in/throughout Holy Scripture ) . So just relying on the philosophical ( Aquinas ) does not get one out of the moral maze.
    As I see it – among’st the imponderables/uncertainties of human existence – this is probably on a cognitive/intellectual level , why I can reason ( with some confidence ) and remain/be Catholic in Faith.

    • G.D. says:

      Brendan, ‘because sin abounds in us and effected in our existence to breed confusion and moral chaos ,we can never achieve by our own reasoning’ … ‘with unassailable Church Teaching , something else beyond man is required’ …. is that not the paradox (that we, in our sin perceive) BETWEEN the subjective and God’s reality manifest? Remembering that church teaching has been filtered through man.

      • Brendan says:

        G.D. – Paradox ? Yes , to the world in its finite state . But as we have so far ‘ established ‘ man is more than just flesh and blood , through Natural ( Gods ) Law. – printed in mans’ soul/DNA. But in our dimension the link between finite and infinite ( God ) can be bridged by ‘ grace ‘( gift from God ) . For the Christian then , in ‘ faith ‘ the paradox is dissolved in ‘ infinite love ‘….who is God. This is a massive leap for our ‘ material ‘ world by intellect alone to acknowledge ( although for some it is the ‘ first stage ‘ in a process )….without ‘ faith ‘ it is vulnerable to the capricious winds of fashion and the shallow immediacy of the zeitgeist. Faith in God has an unchanging communality , ever refreshing, answering the very core of what it is to be ‘ human. ‘
        The ” balance ” is in finding it in the uniqueness of our individuality/ personality ,God given……. and lived-in -Christ. There goes St. Paul again G.D., my favourite !

  8. tim says:

    I’m having real trouble with this one. Maybe I’m immature (but how serious is this?). Nobody will give me an example, which may be prudent, because we might rapidly become entangled in specifics. But, generally, what is meant by ‘our reason’? Strictly, we reason by deduction from premises. Where do the premises come from? How do we know they are correct? Is that what we are talking about? Or are we talking about ‘an informed conscience’ – ‘one instinctively knows when something is right’? The Church also reasons from premises, most of which, most of the time at least, Catholics will presumably accept. If we can point to a flaw in Church reasoning, then (I suppose) there is at least an argument that we are not bound by the Church’s conclusion. But then what we think of as a conclusion may in fact be a premise – a free-standing teaching, consistent with other premises but not derived from them. Essential Church teaching is guaranteed against error – but this guarantee does not extend to arguments in support of the teaching.

    Leave ‘reason’ on one side. If my conscience tells me something is permissible – or required – that the Church says is wrong or forbidden, I have a dilemma. I surely have a duty to resolve it? And in any particular case, on review, I may decide that my conscience is ill-trained, or that my logic is faulty – or that I’ve misunderstood Church teaching, or that my source of it is not authoritative. Even if I can’t see which, can there be virtue in a meta-rule that tells me to trust my own judgement rather than (what I understand to be) the Church’s. So what Is the point of a general discussion?

    Help!

    • Quentin says:

      Tim, I well understand the difficulties caused by using an example, and I’m afraid the one which comes most immediately to mind is that overworked case of artificial contraception.

      The prohibition of this is based on natural law; this is stated in Casti Connubii (1930) and reaffirmed in HV without being reargued. This is a deduction of reason; openness to conception is inherent to the structure of sexual intercourse. Since God created this structure we defy him by artificially stifling that element. And this remains so irrespective of motivation.

      Since this is a deduction of reason, it must be open to a critique of reason. So an opponent of the Church’s view might start by saying that the whole reproductive system (in all living creatures) is not a direct creation of God; it comes about through evolution. (I have pointed out elsewhere that the rate of human fertility developed over millennia in conditions where a high number of conceptions was required for society to reproduce; this is no longer the case.)

      He might go on to say that, although unhindered sexual intercourse most completely expresses the total commitment of married love, it does not follow that it is invariably a requirement. That is, in certain circumstances, a more caring love for each other and for the marriage may be expressed through using artificial contraception. We cannot put structure ahead of our judgment of what love requires.

      Imagine a situation of a marriage in which sexual closeness is an important factor. The couple have a large family but the wife has a condition (let’s say a potentially life threatening tendency to clot) which precludes her conceiving again. What decision are you going to make? And does not reason play a large part in that decision?

      • pnyikos says:

        The usual answer is that there is no 100% effective method of contraception short of sterilization. The Creighton (symptothermal) method of NFP is as good as any of the others, but it places greater demands on the couple (especially the woman) than the popular methods — which are popular precisely because they call for a minimum of effort.

        But in the larger context of reason, I have not found any arguments for why contraception is necessarily wrong. I am a child of my era (though to a lesser extent than almost anyone) and have not seen any convincing argument against it. The usual arguments rely too much on a shared background which I do not have: my formal Catholic education ended with matriculation, and I have not had any classes in theology (let alone traditional Catholic theology) at the university level.

        But in fairness, I should add that I am also not impressed by the arguments of the other side. I am as enthusiastic a believer in evolution as anyone, but I also allow for the idea that God may have had a hand in evolution, subtly guiding it along to produce the kind of intelligent creature for which He was aiming. As the agnostic Loren Eiseley put it at one point in his famous popularization, The Immense Journey ,

        “Perhaps there also, among rotting fish heads and blue,
        night-burning bog lights, moved the eternal mystery,
        the careful finger of God. The increase was not much.
        It was two bubbles, two thin-walled little balloons at the
        end of the Snout’s small brain. The cerebral hemispheres
        had appeared.”

        I am not deterred by the various arguments against divine guidance as to how imperfect a creature man is. The notion of God being perfectly omnipotent has little or no warrant in the Bible.

      • St.Joseph says:

        pnyikos
        I am surprised with your comment that you say so much and know so little.!

      • tim says:

        Thank you, Quentin. Yes – this is an example – rather a special one. I might argue that it is an example of ‘trolleyology’ – in which you are put into a hypothetical situation, and not allowed to argue about the premises which are set. I generally resist these on principle – there is nearly always another way to avoid the dilemma, which the setter of the problem has ruled out a priori (or will, when one suggests it). I don’t think this will do here. It’s a fair question – and I think the only answer is that, if I were faced with it, I don’t know what I would do. Judging from experience of somewhat similar incidents, what I might actually do would not necessarily be primarily determined by principle (but that’s another evasion, no doubt!). All I can offer at present is a general maxim (not necessarily supported by Church teaching, or philosophical fundamentals): “Hard cases make bad law!”. So much the worse for legalism, you may say?

      • Quentin says:

        “Hard cases make bad law!”

        Why not “Hard cases make good law!”? If I read Francis rightly, he is allowing for the possibility that we might reject the written law, and replace it with the law of love. Either way he is asking us to accept moral responsibility. We daren’t just leave it to the Church – washing our hands with holy water.

        If you have a few minutes have a look at https://secondsightblog.net/2016/01/28/conscience-and-moral-law/

        where I wrote on the relationship of conscience and law. It also contains a link to Ratzinger’s view – which inspired my piece.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Quentin,
        Your question ‘The couple have a large family but the wife has a condition (let’s say a potentially life threatening tendency to clot) which preludes her conceiving again. What decision are you going to make? And does not reason play a large part in that decision.

        The decision That I would make and that is when having given birth to a large family and under those circumstances, I would be sterilised.
        I am late answering this as I fell on the patio and damaged my back!

        I am also not too sure what you mean by artificial contraception, do you mean condoms?
        I am concerned about the discussions between the bishops who are questioning Pope Francis’s comments on re-marriage and the reception of Holy Communion.
        I do find this very difficult to understand how the bishops. also those who have signed their opposition to his remarks do not examine their conscience
        I believe the Holy Father is silent so as to give them all a chance to really think about the situation that the Church has found Herself in by the lack of proper marriage instruction since Vatican 2.we can not deny how silence has been a very big issue with regards to the use of the abortfacient pill and other abortfacient methods, which I think that they were aware of these methods perhaps not them being abortfacients on the unborn child from conception. Nevertheless contraception.
        They speak about the reception of the Blessed Sacrament being a mortal sin whilst still in a Sacramental marriage, however, would the marriage be Sacramental if using abortfacients.?Even if they were receiving the Blessed Sacrament whilst aborting babies through ignorance, Where does the Church stand on this issues of neglect.
        I am not speaking out of ignorance in these matters as I who have struggled with nearly all the bishops in the UK for support since the early eighties for nearly 30 years afterwards!
        I would like to see real justice being done, and I think Pope Francis is trying to do this the best way he can!

  9. Geordie says:

    Judging from some of the posts above, it seems as though some Catholics are adopting the Anglican approach in accepting a Broad Church. Once the Catholic Church accepts women priests we’ll be back together again.
    The Catholic Church accepts the primacy of conscience but if your conscience differs from Church’s teaching, then your conscience is not properly formed nor informed. Yet we find that the modern Church has now rejected many teachings of the past. (E.g. Salvation outside the Church; the attitude towards Jews and Judaism; eating meat on Fridays) Were the people who ate meat on Fridays before the 1960s condemn to hell for all eternity and were those who ate meat after the 1960s okay? It seems daft to me.
    I’m a Catholic because Our Lord founded only one Church but some of the teachings of our hierarchy now and in the past are risible. It may seem arrogant of me but I try to follow my conscience even if it may be ill-informed. I trust God will accept me even when my moral choices are wrong.

  10. Martha says:

    pnyikos 4th Dec 10.06 pm
    “The notion of God being perfectly omnipotent has little or no warrant in the Bible.”

    Biblical scholars could probably demonstrate that God has in fact revealed His omnipotence, and His Church teaches that it is one of His attributes. That does not mean that He chooses always to use His power to ensure that His creation develops smoothly and without difficulties, and to prevent what we see as disasters. We do not know what is in the mind of God, but we do know that the anomalies, and the seemingly wrong paths are there because He allows them, and in His creation of angels and of man, He chose to give freedom and thus to let Himself be constrained to a certain extent by evil.

    • pnyikos says:

      Sorry to be so late in replying, Martha. I’ve been subjected to an unusually evil attack on another forum and it has taken up a lot of my time. The problem has, however, gone into hibernation until January.

      I will cross the bridge of Biblical scholars when I get to it, e.g. if someone actually cites a Biblical passage that supports perfect omnipotence or an exegesis which claims support. The one place where I recall God’s perfection mentioned is self-disqualifying: Jesus saying “Be ye perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

      And I don’t think this omnipotence is a Church dogma. The Catechism may claim it, but the Catechism does not have the status of infallibility.

      One case of God being said to constrain himself the existence of original sin: visiting Adam’s sin on all his progeny. Ezekiel 18:1-2 seems to say that this is not the way God works. Even if this is an incorrect interpretation on my part, it certainly does tell me that God could easily have had the consequences of Adam’s sin stop with him and Eve.

      • Martha says:

        Thank you pnyikos, for coming back to this in the circumstances.

        I can’t really think of a better way of expressing my belief than by saying it is that God must have chosen to let evil have influence in his creation, allowing death and destruction to be an intrinsic part of the development of the world, and freedom to be an essential attribute of mankind. It is rather late in the UK for me to look up the exact reference, but didn’t Christ say to Pilate that if He wished, His Father could summon legions of angels to protect and save Him. When He chooses, evil will finally be completely defeated, and perhaps the reason for its reign and power will be revealed.

  11. G.D. says:

    “But when the community we have in mind is the Church we may well feel that the situation is different. This community has the authority of God behind it, and when it lays down the moral law ….”

    Were not the chosen people, with the ten commandments and copious Judaic Law, the same as the church now, with the authority of God behind them?
    Jesus had a few things to say to them that upset the blindness and self complacency of that ‘establishment’. Taking ‘his judgements from his perception of the truth’.
    And was treated with contempt.

    As now those who question, in good conscience out of love for the church, the ‘reasoned authoritative’ views. And are not ‘allowed’ to be taken seriously. (Not talking about EXTREME revolutionaries that would throw out the baby and all!).

    Are we living through a similar time of change now i wonder?

    Are some members of the church growing up to “holding imperatives derived independently and potentially (potentially!) at variance with the community”.
    Remembering that they too (judged heretical by the reason of other members as they may be) are, in sincere good conscience, seeking the truth & God and the good of the ‘Church of God’.
    That they too are ‘products’ of that same community; and remain members of it.

    Is that not how truth is revealed – by the gaps between ‘law’ & ‘conscience’ – conversing/relating and reconciling the differences.
    Do we really need to crucify each other? Or can we try, in open trust and love, try in good conscience to reconcile the differences?

    Will we learn from the Jesus phenomena, or do it all again; as then?

  12. galerimo says:

    “How odd of God to choose the Jews” – the British journalist is supposed to have remarked.
    God’s own choices can certainly seem to require a bit of balance.

    And when Brother Roger received communion from Cardinal Ratzinger at the funeral of Pope John Paul II he was a Protestant pastor. That decision seemed a bit out of balance too given Church rules.

    And according to the International Theological Commission ““natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”. So should we pray for “inspiration” in response to Quentin’s question (Thank you Quentin). And in that way “as mature people, get the balance right between the authority of the Church and the authority of our own rational decision”

    or

    Simply pay attention to the single law of love as Jesus dangerously proposes for the basis for how his followers behave.

    And just for balance The Jewish rejoinder “Not odd of God. / Goyim annoy ‘im.”

  13. Geordie says:

    St Joseph,
    I’m not a theologian but I believe there are theologians who see no objection to women priests. I have no strong opinions about the ordination of women. However my contact with Anglican ordained women has made me think. Two Anglican women vicars, whom I know, have been an inspiration to those around them. Their selfless devotion to Our Lord and His Church has been a great example to us.
    However, I shall continue to accept the Catholic Church’s teaching until it is changed (if ever).

    • St.Joseph says:

      Geordie.
      Thank you for your reply.
      I do understand what you are saying.
      But mothers are mothers not only for child bearing, as St Joseph was a father ,though a step father,
      I believe it is not a teaching that is considered an opinion. However Anglican Orders are different to Catholic Orders, so I understand how it is acceptable to those. I do not understand how Catholic theologians could agree , however they do have liberal minded theologians in the Catholic Church who don’t understand Ordination.

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