Who decides our morals?

When my wife miscarried at three months she pulled herself, haemorrhaging, to a tap so that she could baptise her baby. Why? Because she had been taught that an unbaptised baby will never get to Heaven. I commend her devotion, but just look at the situation: this child created to be fulfilled in eternity with God might, simply by chance, miss the whole point of its existence. Indeed at an earlier time it was thought that its destination was punishment in Hell because it was damned by the inheritance of Original Sin. Later we invented Limbo, but the principle was the same.

If that looks absurd to me – an active cradle Catholic – how would it look to an outsider? Flip through the New Testament and you will read the fundamental message that the vast majority of the world’s population is on its way to Hell. The only way to escape that fate is to be baptised and, in doing so, become a member of an exclusive organisation called Christianity. There are only one or two small exceptions, such as baptism of desire.

And, even the baptised are likely to stand in danger. How many of us can hold our hands on our hearts and claim that we have never committed a mortal sin – as so described by the Church?

I have tried to explain to outsiders that we have to interpret Scripture in terms of the context and knowledge of the times. They politely say they understand – but they walk off shaking their heads. And really I agree with them. Scripture is clear and emphatic about this. And the Church throughout its history has solemnly taught these things. If the infallibility of the Church cannot be invoked here, where else can it be invoked?

We are all aware of the decreasing proportion of Catholics in the developed world. And we know of so many who have in fact lapsed. I know, because it’s my generation, and many grandparents tell me that their adult children, to say nothing of adult grandchildren, have simply slipped away. It was a granddaughter of mine in her early teens whom I was teaching Catholic sexual doctrine. In fact she knew it well from her convent. She said “Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught, but I have to think about real life.”

I am aware that the beliefs and principles of the Church will often be rejected by the world. We should expect that. But I would be happier if we were associated with a moral law which others might envy, and which we fully understand and defend out of conscience rather than fiat;. For example, I will have no truck with abortion – I don’t need the Church to tell me that. But I am open to a more liberal attitude towards homosexuality – now that we understand the condition much better.

It is no surprise that Pope Francis is in trouble with the traditional conservatives. He favours active and continual exploration of the demands of morality. He respects tradition but has little time for accepting it as always the last word..

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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48 Responses to Who decides our morals?

  1. Bonsai says:

    Although I don’t know it, it seems relying simply on the “golden ticket” of baptism and walking away is completely insufficient. It seems we have to being constantly aware of the two most important rules which are loving God with everything we have and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Also…the opening paragraph was very touching. God bless you and your wife.

    • Quentin says:

      I have a picture in my mind: my wife, who died last year, at the judgment seat of God. And God frowning a little, as he will towards all of us. And she holds up her baby and says ‘This is what I gave to you.’ Which is why I know she is in Heaven.

      • Brian Hamill says:

        Dear, dear Quentin, I just could not let not let your remark pass me by without comment about God frowning a little at your wife, as he will towards all to us. Do you really think that is God’s attitude towards us? What did the Prodigal Father do to the Prodigal Son? He ran as fast as his elderly legs could carry him and just swept him up in a loving embrace and held him tight. The judgement seat of Jesus is the cross where ‘his arms are forever outstretched in welcome which shall never close against us until they close around us to bind us in an embrace which shall never be broken.’ If you were in God’s place in judgement on your wife’s life, would you greet her with a frown? If we, ‘evil as we are’, would greet our beloved with a smile and embrace, how much more does the Father of us all welcome us home? I told my own wife, who is still very much alive Deo gratias, many years ago that the greatest moment of our love would be when I finally handed her over to to the full and final care of the Person who has loved her from all eternity. That is a vision to cherish.

      • Quentin says:

        What can I say?

  2. Geordie says:

    The New Testament does say that the road to damnation is broad and there are many who are travelling along it. However that does not mean they will end up in hell for all eternity. A little further on and Our Lord says that with God all things are possible.
    The New Testament also says that, unless a man be born of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. We know the Holy Spirit exists in the next life. Who can say that water doesn’t? We should concentrate on all things being possible with God and trust in His mercy, just as the good thief did.
    There seems to be some confusion with regard to Catholic moral teaching these days. However, for the most part it does save us from hell on earth if we try to follow it in our daily lives. One example may serve to illustrate this:-
    Today it was announced that 90 children a day are taken into care by local authorities. If modern society followed the Catholic teaching on marriage and fidelity with greater dedication, this sad state of affairs would be greatly reduced.

    • Vincent says:

      Geordie, one can interpret scripture in so many different ways, and make it say whatever you want. But I think you will find that, apart from the last few decades, the Church rather explicitly took the hard line on these matters. That was the Church claiming to be the only authority to interpret scripture. And that was what the faithful received.

      • Martha says:

        I have some difficulty with accepting the concept of development of doctrine, as it usually seems to result in making things easier, which is rather hard on those who have gone before.

  3. galerimo says:

    Good question Quentin. Who decides our morals, the Church or our own judgement?

    The greatest moral question of our time has had little attention from the Catholic Church. And the reason for this neglect is precisely this narrow framework of self preoccupied morality around “who’s in and who’s out’ where salvation is concerned.

    Our generation of Catholics have been active in the creation of a filthy world barely fit to support heathy living for the generations to whom we will hand it on. While we ponder our places in the Kingdom of God the door is closing on reducing carbon emissions to safe levels for human habitation.

    Hardly a word from the Catholic Church in the 80’s and the 90’s while the World Council of Churches was loudly challenging countries, corporations and individuals to reduce greenhouse emissions recognising the evil of human induced climate change. Did this planetary desecration not call for moral leadership and the exercise of the Catholic conscience?

    Thousands of people today have lost their homes with 17 dead from fires in California, much of the island of Barbuda has been destroyed in the Caribbean and a couple of weeks ago devastating floods swept away homes in Costa Rica – all very tragic evidence of the effects of global warming to which we have contributed and are continuing to do so.

    Intergenerational justice should be more prominent in our moral concerns if we truly believe that we have received our lives and our world as a gift from God, worthy of the feet of Jesus and with it’s clear air for him to breathe.

    According to the ‘Guardian ‘, the Church of England is at least considering dumping investment in fossil fuels from its £6.1 billion fund. Better still the Lutheran country of Norway dumped all coal-focussed investments from its 900 billion sovereign investment fund in 2015.

    Pope Francis may have got up the noses of the U.S. Republican Party and other climate skeptics around the world with Laudato Si, the most comprehensive statement from the Catholic Church on this issue so far, but it will be the wisdom and courage of good science and its practitioners that will decide the morals for concerned human beings on the most important moral question for our generation today.

  4. Horace says:

    As a Medical Student on one occasion when clearing up after a miscarriage I discovered a tiny foetus in its transparent enclosure.
    I thought that this was really beautiful and showed it to my nurse supervisor who, to my surprise, insisted on tearing open the enclosing membrane in order to baptise the foetus!

  5. Hock says:

    We are on a slippery slope if we choose for ourselves what is moral and what is not. Quentin has no problem , it would seem, with accepting the Church teaching on abortion , but many Catholics have no problem in being at best ambivalent about it and many more seeing it as not an issue to concern them and indeed promote it. Same with same sex marriage. Has not the Catholic MP Ian Duncan Smith expressed his continual support for both abortion and same sex marriage and yet apparently sees no conflict between his beliefs on these matters and being a Catholic.
    Thank heaven for Quentin Rees-Mogg MP who puts our Bishops to shame in upholding Catholic teaching on these matters because he is a Catholic and believes that this requires that he follows Catholic Church teachings.
    Incidentally I always thought that the Church has never said that anyone is in Hell. Not even Hitler or Stalin. We have the Saints of Heaven but no-one is positively destined as being in Hell.

    The Church does change gradually when the stance it has taken is unsustainable in logic but this has more to do with practicalities than morals.
    This is why the Pope is in difficulty. When you start to pull the rug from underneath people who have faithfully adhered to the Church’s moral teachings then you leave yourself open to the charge of ‘what’s next on the agenda. Is every moral issue up for grabs and interpretation?’
    Certainty can be an admirable trait when based on something concrete and uncertainty leads to an ‘anything goes’ mentality. Should that mean that some people drift away from the Church then so be it. What did Christ have to say when challenged on his teachings being hard ? He did not compromise, change his mind or meet his accusers ‘half way.’ He simply said to those remaining: ‘Will you leave me too? And got the response ‘Where shall we go Lord. You have the words of eternal life.’

    • John Candido says:

      ‘We are on a slippery slope if we choose for ourselves what is moral and what is not.’ (Hock)

      ‘‘Only a partial vision – Francis explains – regards the ‘deposit of faith’ as something static.’

      ‘Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.’ Pope Francis.

      All of the above suggests that developing Catholic doctrine is not a slash and burn exercise at one end, and neither is it a preserve everything at all costs, at another end.
      Theological truth is somewhere in the middle. Contested, argued over and in tension between conservatism and liberalism.

    • John Candido says:

      Are you saying that Francis is wrong about doctrinal development and the truth?

    • G.D. says:

      If only J. R. Mogg would follow catholic teaching on how to treat the poor too.

  6. Hock says:

    Senior moment. I should have correctly named the catholic MP: Jacob Rees-Mogg.

    In the meantime I have read John Candido’s comments, who quotes Pope Francis whose comments , if quoted correctly , clearly show why he is being challenged by ‘traditionalists.’

    Theological Truth, by its very title, cannot ‘lie somewhere in the middle.’

    • John Candido says:

      Sorry, the above comment should have been placed there.

      Are you saying that Francis is wrong about doctrinal development and the truth?

    • Quentin says:

      I was quite chuffed to see that Rees-Mogg had pinched my name. In fact I disagree with him. This was my letter published in the Telegraph:

      “SIR — Jacob Rees-Mogg does not need the authority of the Catholic Church to condemn abortion. If he holds that all individual human beings have a fundamental right to life he should ask his opponents which of those three characteristics are lacking in the foetus.”

      I think that it is a mistake to put our moral beliefs down to the Church, in public, when we can defend them rationally. Too many people assume that we are brain dead extremists, without us encouraging them.

  7. Hock says:

    I am saying that doctrinal development does not necessarily equate to the truth and that is why Pope Francis is being challenged. He is widely regarded in the wider world as being liberal and wanting to make adherence to the Catholic Faith easier by relaxing moral teachings and this has been seized upon as something very worthy and much needed.
    But it is not an attitude welcomed by everyone and the main opposition comes from within not without.
    There is strength in certainty as without it the Church ends up as the Protestant Church has with hundreds of off-shoots all preaching something different and holding services that have little resemblance to each other and moral stances that wave in the wind.

  8. G.D. says:

    “I am saying that doctrinal development does not necessarily equate to the truth …”

    So, the doctrines we have now, which were developed over the centuries, do ‘not necessarily equate to the truth’ …. couldn’t agree more.

    They point towards partial truths of the TRUTH …. Which is what Francis is saying as quoted by J.C. … ‘ ‘Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.’ who brings TRUTH.

    We develop our acceptance of it (TRUTH) as we ‘understand’ ‘experience’ and open up to the ‘influence’ of the Spirit. Which is always a personal choice; forever. No matter how the partial dogmas have been presented over the ages, in their many differing forms; or by whatever criteria we justify our choices.

    On a slightly different but related point … do we not confuse ‘teachings’ with ‘binding laws’?

    I can ‘teach’ as i do (confirmation included) about Church & Christ & morality, and, as far as i am concerned, that has nothing to do with imposing an ideology of ‘binding punishments’ if rejected nor ‘rewards’ if accepted. But everything to do with witnessing to the love i experience God Is.
    That kind of judgement (which both reward & punishment posits) is not for me.

    • G.D. says:

      ‘…. i experience God is.’ should have been followed by … Which includes doctinal teaching as an expression of that love, not a set of rules.

  9. John Thomas says:

    ” …liberal attitude towards homosexuality – now that we understand the condition much better.” Mmm. I wonder, sometimes, about this approach. So often, peoples’ “understanding” is merely the sanitized version of homosexulality that the mainstream media blasts us with all the time (in which it’s all, really, about lurrve). Get behind the MSM version, read a few accounts of the reality of homosexuality, and it seems to be rather more about constant physical gratification of self. “Liberal”? – I wonder about that also. There are things that call themselves “liberal”, “liberating”, etc. – but are they really always about freeing people? Truly-independent studies have shown that the result of many homosexual practices involve disease, pain, suffering and death: are we really really “liberal” in believing in an institution (eg. same-sex “marriage”) which promotes such practices, and their results? I doubt it. Maybe the truly “liberal” approach – that which truly frees people – is the one which says “for your own sake, you mustn’t …”

  10. Hock says:

    The question arises as to whether Quentin and Jacob Rees Mogg ( or indeed any of us who are Catholics and opposed to abortion,) would be so opposed if we were not Catholics and feel the need to uphold Church teaching on this issue, perhaps for no other reason then being a Catholic but hopefully having been convinced of the validity of it.
    Quentin is in a position to defend his beliefs ‘rationally’ but so are those in favour of abortion. Many of these are Catholics too and in positions of authority. I have given the name of one and I would suggest that a recent Labour PM who has now become a Catholic has long held very ‘pro abortion’ views and voted for easier abortion in Parliament at every opportunity. As far as I know he has never expressed any other view and so is at odds with Catholic morality on this issue but that did not stop him being welcomed into the Church, and by a Cardinal , I understand.
    I find Quentin’s own quotes from his own letter about Rees – Mogg quite baffling. Is it really not sufficient to accept Catholic teaching on the issue of abortion simply because of one being a Catholic?
    Before anyone jumps down my throat I realise that being opposed to abortion is not limited to Catholics and other Christian groups and I am sure there will be those of no faith who hold similar
    anti abortion views and opinions.

  11. Nektarios says:

    Now that you have given your views and opinions on morals ,let me ask you, what do the Scriptures teach? Do we agree with it, fight it, ignore it and go our own way?

    Secondly, let me ask our contributors, Where does the real authority come from concerning Morals?

    Once we have ploughed through all that, we can ask why is the Church, and not just the Roman Catholic Church, in such a state of confusion and effete concerning morals and practice?

    In answer to Quentin’s question, does the answers not begin to appear and manifest itself, if you follow through what I asked at the beginning of this post?

  12. Geordie says:

    G.D. how do you know Jacob Rees-Mogg doesn’t follow Catholic teaching on how to treat the poor?

  13. Martha says:

    I think there is room for much difference of opinion on the best way to help the poor, especially long term.

  14. G.D. says:

    it is a long term project Martha .. you will always have the poor with you … and many differing approaches might do good. But the policy that is voted for by the so called ‘leaders’ of this country are not doing anything to alleviate the problem … the opposite in fact. Including Mogg

  15. John Nolan says:

    Martha

    Quite. And wrecking the economy with irresponsible tax/spend/borrow policies will benefit the poor least of all. Perhaps G.D. subscribes to the Diane Abbot school of economic theory.

    • G.D. says:

      Never heard of her … but obviously this government follow her … ‘irresponsible tax/spend/borrow policies ‘ … are theirs. … By the way i am not affiliated to politics .. just have opinions. Sorry they show up this self serving government for what it is … but there you go …

      • John Nolan says:

        G.D.

        You’ve never heard of Diane Abbot and yet have analysed the voting record of a backbench Tory MP to reach the (erroneous) conclusion that his views are at odds with Catholic social teaching. Pull the other one …

      • G.D. says:

        Ah OK, never heard her economics i should have said.
        No analysis needed official voting figures for MP’s are available on the Web.
        Votes for cutting disabled benefits is one i consider against Catholic social teaching. No matter what the ‘official wording’ says. There are plenty of others but can’t be bothered to site them. Look it up for yourself.

  16. Nektarios says:

    Why is it we seem to preoccupy ourselves with secular morality? Is that Christian morality?
    Give in and engage with secular morality, philosophy and the like, realise one is being hijacked by the wiles of the devil.

  17. John Candido says:

    Pope Francis was giving a speech at the Department for the New Evangelisation and gave us a pointer about doctrinal teaching in general, that applies to the inflexible rigour of the church’s past understanding of salvation.

    In a report in ‘La Stampa’ by Andrea Tornielli dated the 12th October 2017 entitled, ‘Doctrine Cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop.’

    Francis’ elucidation of doctrine was explained as a continuous development.

    ‘…to reaffirm that doctrine and Tradition can really be preserved and handed down only by, “allowing it to develop.”

    Francis considers the fluidity of doctrinal matters.

    ‘Only a partial vision – Francis explains – regards the ‘deposit of faith’ as something static.’

    In balance, theological development is not an invitation to rewrite doctrine as to make it completely indistinguishable from what an original formulation postulated.

    According to Francis,

    ‘Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.’

    All of the above suggests that developing Catholic doctrine is not a slash and burn exercise at one end, and neither is it a preserve everything at all costs, at another end.

    Truth is somewhere in the middle. Contested, argued over and in tension between conservatism and liberalism.

    • Nektarios says:

      John Candido

      Well John, are we Apostles? Do we have such a gift of the Holy Spirit? None of us has the right or the spiritual backing of the Holy Spirit to follow Pope Francis leading on this. Nor does the teaching/doctrine of the Apostles affirm what he he suggesting.

      But to be charitable, when one is born again by the Holy Spirt, we are born as babes in Christ, and spiritual growth happens as we follow through the Apostles Doctrine,Teaching and Practice.If not we have no growth , nor basis to affirm we are Christians at all, even though on the surface one may be ever so devout and religious.

      If we have understood the spiritual life at all with its dangers, assaults upon it, we find most are divisions created by the wiles of the devil.
      In closing John, does not conservatism and liberalism belong to this world, what has either really got to do with the spiritual life.

  18. John Candido says:

    This some background information about ‘La Stampa’ which is an Italian newspaper.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Stampa

  19. Iona says:

    For what it’s worth, the Harper Collins Encyclopaedia of Catholicism defines doctrine as follows: “an official teaching of the Church. A doctrine that is taught definitively, i.e. infallibly, is called a dogma. Every dogma is a doctrine, but not every doctrine is a dogma”.

    Thus there doesn’t seem to be a problem with the development of doctrine (the encyclopaedia quotes the Church’s changing views on religious freedom), though a defined dogma can’t be changed.

    • G.D. says:

      Exactly Iona, thank you.

      Accroding to the ‘Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma’ by Ludwig Ott there are 426
      summerised statements …..

      http://www.catholicapologetics.info/thechurch/councils/summary.htm

      None seem to address specific moral topics though. Skimming through, some seem contradictory and/or at odds with some present teachings, as they are stated.
      Some i do like … (irresponsible cherry picker obviously!) … particularly

      4) Our natural knowledge of God in this world is not as immediate, intuitive cognition, but a mediate, abstractive knowledge, because it is attained through the knowledge of creatures. (Sent. certa.)
      6) God’s Nature is incomprehensible to men. (De fide.)

      But of course being the official doctrines they are not as, ‘244’) In the final decision on doctrines concerning faith and morals the Church is infallible.’

      It must be that those who form doctrine are given ‘Supernatural Revelation’ (188).

      How fallen men can formulate a sure & certain condemnation of an act, that put others beyond the salvation accomplished (accomplished for all!) by Christ, and claim that would definitely be of/from God’s definitive sanctioning is beyond me. Even if the ‘Supernatural Revelation’ about the morality is correct.
      Thanks be to God i’m not in a position to have to.
      Thanks be to God doctrines can and do develop.

      Thanks be to God it’s not a sin to be a sinner.
      (Through no fault of our own seeing as doctrine teaches it was through our first parents fault … the mind boggles).

  20. Nektarios says:

    Iona,
    As long as it is Scriptural and Apostolic. There is no other authority.

  21. Geordie says:

    Nektarios, who selected the writings to be included in Scripture and the writings to be excluded?

    • Nektarios says:

      Geordie
      Well, the early Church did, for these were the letters or Epistles that were circulated in the early Christian Church having the Authority of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit leading and guiding the Church. Many other writings would appear in the early Christian Church and were for the most part not accepted into what we now know as the Canon of Holy Scriptures of the New Testament.

      • Geordie says:

        Nektarios

        So it is the Church who has the authority to decide what is authentic and what isn’t. It still has this authority today to accept some interpretations of Scripture and Tradition and reject others.

  22. John Candido says:

    Nektarios et al,

    We are not Apostles but we have the Holy Spirit.

    ‘None of us has the right or the spiritual backing of the Holy Spirit to follow Pope Francis leading on this. Nor does the teaching/doctrine of the Apostles affirm what he is suggesting.’ (Nektarios)

    I never thought that Francis could be characterised in such a manner by anyone on SecondSight (SS). Shocking!

    ‘In closing John, does not conservatism and liberalism belong to this world, what has either really got to do with the spiritual life.’ (Nektarios)

    Where does one begin?

    Why not pick up a copy of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and start reading any one of the following documents.

    ‘Gaudium et Spes’, also known as the ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church on the Modern World’.
    ‘Dignitatus Humanae’ known as the ‘Declaration on Religious Liberty’, or ‘Unitatis Redentigratio’, known as the ‘Decree on Ecumenism’, and ‘Nostra Aetate’, known as the ‘Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions’.

    The church is not a mirage for ultra-conservatives because it appears to remain static over a couple of millennia. The church’s theology has changed over the centuries and the Second Vatican Council is evidence that the church attempted to update itself in the light of the Holocaust during WWII and many other factors due to modernity.

    If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable when reading any parts of the following documents, it is a sign that the Roman Catholic Chuch has changed, dear boy!

    I understand that with some exceptions, SS is a haven for some unreconstructed, off-the-scale ultra-conservatives who proudly put their credentials on public display.

    It underlines why some of its valiant commentators allude to or implicitly suggest, that Pope Francis is a barely tolerable aberration out of left-field or a sad case of a misinformed, well-meaning pope with an inadvertent penchant for quasi-heretical views.

    Time is the great deliverer of justice.

    In due course, he will be put in his place as soon as the next conservative iteration has been elected, costumed, trotted-out in his new regalia and safely sitting in his place, to the great relief of the curia and career Vatican bureaucrats. Both of whom will gladly triple-check all of his speeches writings and utterances so they may not trend towards any form of modernity.

    Traditionalists are another animal altogether. They yearn for a forgotten time of triumphal authority and feel constantly neglected by the church. They see themselves as the only true version of Catholicism and feel trapped in a never-ending fury against the church over liturgical rubrics and doctrinal orthodoxy, and the modern world which it views fearfully and contemptuously.

  23. John Candido says:

    Apologies, the following sentence,

    ‘If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable when reading any parts of the following documents, it is a sign that the Roman Catholic Chuch has changed, dear boy!’

    Please replace the word ‘following’ above, with ‘aforementioned’.

    Thank you.

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