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?