Monday, January 6, 2014

Right or Wrong

January 2014 FGO by Bro. Jason Rhoad

I have given ample space over the past couple of years to the “faith” side of “faith and morals”. I have discussed Marian doctrines, the mass, the sacraments, Papal infallibility, etc. and have attempted to explain why we believe what we do concerning these topics, ultimately tying it all back in to the teaching authority of the Church. But there is another side to the authority of the Church that I have not spent much time on in the past. So I figured we’d start the New Year off with a quick lesson on the role of the Church concerning matters of morality. Given recent events in popular culture and the fact that we as a society seem to be heading farther and farther down the path of moral relativism, now is as good of a time as any.

The question here is this: How do we know right from wrong? Some things may seem obvious to us. For instance, most would agree that it is wrong to murder someone in cold blood. (Notice I say most, as it is practically impossible to reach universal agreement on just about anything). But many things are not quite so obvious. Is it wrong to invest in a mutual fund that owns stock in companies that provide funding to the abortion industry? Is it wrong to stay in a hotel that offers adult movies as part of their television service (try to find one that doesn’t these days). There is a much larger discussion to be had here concerning formal vs. material cooperation with evil and immediate vs. remote material cooperation, etc., but while important, I don’t have the time or space to get too deep into that in this piece. Instead we’ll have to keep it a little more general. The point is these situations and others like them, raise many questions that we need to be prepared to answer. Not so much in a debate, but in our own Christian walk, trying to live each day doing the things God wants us to do and avoiding the things He wants us to avoid. So what does the Church teach concerning the morality of particular actions (or inactions)? How’s this for an answer: It depends. The fact of the matter is that the Church hasn’t, and really can’t, tell us what is right and wrong in every conceivable situation. Of course on the big things like abortion, euthanasia, etc. the Church does weigh in on specific issues, but often times in our walk, things seem to be much grayer. Therefore, the Church gives us some general guidelines to help us out. A good rule of thumb (and this is not from the CCC, just some good parenting from my Dad that stuck with me all these years) is if you have to wonder whether or not something is right or not, it’s probably not. In more formal language though, the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on both the ends and the means. Now this is counter cultural. We’ve all heard such sayings as “the ends justify the means”, or “all’s well that ends well”. What the Church teaches us is that in order for an act to be considered just or moral, both the ends and the means must be good, not just one or the other. Here is an example. St. Rose parish needs renovations that will cost $1 million dollars. Parishioner John Doe embezzles $1 million from his company and donates it to the parish. Well the end is good, but the means was not. Therefore the action is immoral. Or perhaps a more practical example. It may be possible to research and maybe even find cures for diseases by creating and destroying human embryos to harvest their stem cells (though there is no evidence for it, but for the sake of argument), therefore killing the embryo in the process. Even if a cure for some disease was found, we can’t justify the creation of life for the purpose of killing it, even if killing it might help someone else. The end cannot justify the means. The bottom line is that we can never do evil in order to do good. But even that has a caveat. There is something known as the principle of double effect. If our primary intent is good, but a secondary effect is that something bad will happen, it can still be morally justifiable because our intention is to do good. For instance, if during a pregnancy, it is discovered that the mother has uterine cancer, she can have surgery to treat that condition. A secondary effect of that surgery may be that the baby is lost. In a situation like that, the surgery is morally justifiable because the primary effect is to treat the cancer. It is not the direct, intentional, willing termination of the pregnancy.

It is easy to see how this can get a little complicated. That tends to lead to another common error that people make in regards to morality. You may have heard this one. “It is a matter of conscience.” While technically true, what people often mean is that they intend to openly defy the teaching of the Church concerning this or that issue of morality because they have to “follow their conscience” instead. It is true that we are obligated to follow our conscience. Our conscience is given to us by God to help us discern right from wrong. But what people often leave out is our responsibility to form our conscience rightly. A well-formed conscience will never lead us to do something immoral. So the key then is to form our consciences correctly. The way we do that is by listening to the teaching authority of the Church. That is what this comes down to. Our humble recognition that we do not have all the answers. That life gets complicated and messy. That we are blinded by sin. So thanks be to God that we don’t have to rely on our own subjective feelings about things. We can have confidence that God has given us the Church, with His promise of protection from error, to help to guide us in the moral and spiritual life. The same way we can know that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist, we can know that contraception is grave matter, because the Church teaches us so. Furthermore, without the Church to guide us, to layout the principles for us, it would be hard for us when new things pop up that couldn’t have even been imagined centuries ago. Things like human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, etc. would be up for grabs morally speaking. But by applying the Church’s teaching on the respect and dignity of all human life, we can come to know that these things are not morally justifiable. Without that compass, it is up to each individual to decide for themselves, the very definition of relativism.

The world increasingly tells us that there is no such thing as objective truth. What might be wrong for you, is right for someone else. Therefore we should live and let live, not judge or condemn, etc. While it might not be surprising to encounter this in the secular world, it is alarming when we see it inside Christianity. There are denominations out there that refuse to condemn abortion or same sex marriage. Even inside the Catholic Church, we have many Catholics who seem to think it is okay to pick and choose which moral teachings we like and pay no attention to the ones we don’t. If we’re honest, most of us are probably guilty of this in some form or another. It is part of our fallen human condition I suppose. But as we set sail in 2014, let us resolve to do a better job of not falling into that trap and instead humbly follow Jesus and his Church. In the words of St. John the Baptist, let us decrease so that Christ may increase.

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