Paragraph 1702 brings a new dimension to our considerations on the moral life: the idea that morality is corporate in nature as well as individual. The Catechism here borrows from its opening considerations on the nature of man as reflective of the life of God, who is triune or threefold, a perfect community of love. Specifically, the text speaks of God’s “communion of persons” and the unity of those persons among themselves. Para. 1702 introduces the corporate sense of goodness: we are created to work together in the fashion of God’s inner unity. Situated here at the introduction to the morality section of the Catechism, is it also reasonable to assume from para. 1702 that given the corporate identity of doing good, there is a kind of corporate judgment after death and/or the end of time?
Last Sunday's Gospel (Christ the King, Matthew 25: 31-46) closes the Liturgical Year on a high note or a low note, depending on how and to what degree we are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and otherwise improving the lot of the suffering and the less fortunate. Like the Beatitudes in Chapter 5 which introduce Matthew’s treatment of morality, the criteria set forth by the king in Matthew 25 are open-ended. There are no numerical or chronological guidelines set forth for the works of charity, though generations before and after Christ would invent guidelines, such as tithing or seasonal giving at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Years ago, I heard a Catholic moral theologian end his lecture with a peculiar thought: when you give a poor man a turkey for his family this Thanksgiving, make a commitment to build justice and opportunity in society whereby next Thanksgiving he can give you a turkey. Not all my moral professors were quite this prosaic, but they did talk considerably about “social justice,” which was something of a post-Vatican II change in emphasis from the moral manual era which preceded it, with its emphasis upon individual guilt and the confessional. After the Council the Church initiated communal celebrations of Penance, particularly during the Advent and Lenten Seasons, where parishes and groups would engage in collective prayers of grief and repentance. I notice a significant decline in such rites over my lifetime, possibly because we as Catholics are not conditioned to think collectively.
Human nature being what it is, I can understand a reluctance to consider wholesale embrace of corporate responsibility. Once the parameters of moral responsibility are expanded to collective matters, it is impossible to get anywhere without communication and common commitment, even (especially?) at a grass roots level. I speak from some experience here as a former president of an HOA who devoted considerable time explaining to people why they could not park RV’s on the street or use their neighbors’ lawns as public dog toilets. My expectations from higher forms of civil government decreased considerably after my tenure.
Para. 1702 takes us into the challenging world of society, the ultimate “communion of persons” here on earth, and its collective responsibility for the common good. Understanding and implementing a just society is not limited to Catholic morality, nor to religion in general. Remember studying Hammurabi’s Code from 1754 B.C.? [Hammurabi made provision for a primitive form of consumer rights and business ethics, among other things.] Four centuries before Christ, Plato observed the execution of his teacher and mentor Socrates for what amounted to the latter’s philosophical concepts and method; Plato would later write The Republic to explore the possibilities of finding a happy life in a society properly arranged and governed.
The inspired Hebrew Scripture lays out “the Law” in very specific terms as the only way for the Israelite nation to survive in an environment surrounded by enemies. While catechetics focuses on the specifics of the Law, notably the Ten Commandments, there is less emphasis upon the reality that God’s moral teachings are directed at the entire Israelite assembly. “You [plural] are my people.” All the twelve tribes are addressed collectively, and particularly noteworthy, all are punished collectively, most notably in the Babylonian Captivity but in many other catastrophes as well. [In the Book of Exodus, God punishes the Egyptians collectively, too, through the ten plagues.]
Civilization and technology have become so advanced and complex since Biblical times that discernment of the moral duty described in Matthew 25 becomes much more difficult. It is one thing to extend an individual charitable act—serving Thanksgiving dinner at a local shelter, for example—but another thing entirely to address the broader issues of homelessness, unemployment, domestic strife, substance abuse, and the many other factors that bring the needy to our churches and other charitable facilities.
I am thinking of one social issue that is fresh in everyone’s mind, the recent mass shootings from Orlando to Texas. National polls consistently agree that after each massacre Americans want more mental health services for intervention before such heinous crimes, and some restriction on the high-powered weaponry that makes a mass killer more effective. It is impossible to be neutral on the matter of mass murders; in my heart of hearts I believe my fellow citizens have moral stirrings that “something should be done” even if there is considerable disagreement on strategy.
The fifth commandment guides the Judeo-Christian tradition: murder is identified as a capital evil, and mass murder exponentially more so. Traditional Catholic morality would look to the identity of a murderer and the appropriate response. Post-Conciliar moral theology looks to preventative responsibility, our need to protect life from conception to the grave, in a “seamless garment” as the late Cardinal Bernardin famously put it. For an example of how Christian and Catholic moralists do their work today, look at this index from the current Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. One of the challenges to moralists is the hard reality that certainty diminishes as one moves from the general to the specific. The same is true in civil law; the Supreme Court cannot overturn the Second Amendment, but it can rule on its specific reach, as it did yesterday for Maryland and Florida.
I have not had an opportunity to review Catholic moral writing on appropriate moral responses to the killings over the past several years. However, a reasoned moral position would need to address and weigh several factors. Overriding all others is an often-overlooked unity of ethical principle shared by the Catholic moral tradition and the founding principles of the United States; Catholicism holds the sanctity of human life on the highest plane (as is evident from para. 1702) while the first statement of purpose of the United States defines the basic right of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In this sense church and state share a foundational common cause.
Moving from the general to the specific presents, not surprisingly, a variance of opinion on the practical ways to guarantee life. In popular on-line discussion, the argument is often reduced to two rather absurd extremes: ban all guns or uncover all potential mass-killers (and do what, a mental health counselor asks.)
At the Council Lateran II in 1139 A.D. the Church condemned the use of the crossbow, a case where the technology of weaponry ran ahead of the ability to defend against it; the crossbow was the first armor-piercing projectile. The Church’s teachings on war and engagement from medieval times has also had significant interest in protecting innocent bystanders and noncombatants. Christian tradition has something to bring to the civil table on the matter of the kinds of weaponry available in the marketplace, precisely on the grounds that there is no defense against the kind of assault perpetrated in Las Vegas. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently immoral about gun ownership per se, for reasons of sport, hunting, home security, investing and collecting purposes, etc. A Catholic moralist would probably concur with civil laws regarding safety, storage, and the common good [e.g., registries and reporting stolen weapons] as well as responsible use by law enforcement.
The matter of mental health and its role in mass killings is complicated on many levels, and at the end of the day what you must address is the question of habeas corpus. I would never say that the mental health profession has foolproof methods of predicting behavior. The general principle and expectation in the courts is that we as providers have collected a database of past behavior from our patients on which to predict future behavior. We are bound to report imminent threats to prospective victims, of course. But mental health care cannot intrude into the lives of people who don’t seek it, without due cause.
Moreover, having undertaken due diligence, what does a therapist—or law enforcement or a family, for that matter--do with an individual with an inclination toward destructive behavior based on prior history? Devin Patrick Kelley’s history is particularly troubling because he was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, and a sizeable history of the Texas church shooter’s personality issues sits in government computers to this day. Do we move in the direction of preventive detention? Institutionalization? Forced pharmaceutical intervention? How is a balance reached between protecting the rights of the mentally ill and the potential breech of safety posed to citizens whose government is committed to protecting their right to live and develop a future?
As I warned earlier, the move from principle to policy is extremely difficult. In the example I cited of mass shootings, the compromises across the board will have to come from the legislative and judicial arms of government. But Catholic morality is clear that our baptismal personal responsibility extends into the care and nurturing of the larger community beyond my personal piety. Again, I see common cause between the Church and the American founding fathers—both advocated for an engaged and thoughtful electorate.
This entry today is perhaps too lengthy…but don’t worry that future Monday posts will become an unbearable chore. Consider today’s post as an introduction into the Catholic’s moral positioning vis-à-vis the marketplace of public ethics.