Whither We Goeth?
This will be the last formal Monday entry on Morality for about a month, as I am taking a break to collect my thoughts, see some new landscape, work at my clinic, and—a last minute’s insertion in the calendar—hopefully get a good look at the total eclipse of the sun on August 21 from a vantage point with special memories. During my college years at Catholic University I was assigned to help during summers at the Franciscan parish in Anderson, South Carolina, down the road from Clemson University. I worked in Anderson in 1970 and 1971, during a very uneasy time of integration. During my second summer, there was a resurgence of the Klan, and several FBI agents would visit our church from time to time, as we served the black Catholic community. The Catholic churches in Anderson were still de facto segregated in 1970. St. Mary’s Church is alive and thriving today, and the dead center of the eclipse runs through the city, so what better excuse to see what has developed over the nearly half-century since I last played basketball with the neighborhood kids. (Clemson’s champion football coach, Dabo Swinney, was one-year old when I arrived in SC in 1970—doesn’t that make one feel old?)
The Monday Morality stream has grown into a troublesome two-year old, and when I get back to weekly Monday posting, I am not certain how to progress in an orderly fashion. There is so much about Catholic morality posted daily on both Catholic and secular media steams that I never saw much point in the Catechist Café becoming just one more echo. Moreover, although the Café itself has morphed into a general public platform, the original intent remains education. Rather than take positions or comment on matters such as national health care, my goal has always been to get to the underlying principles in Catholic thought. Probably nowhere is this harder to do than in the field of Catholic morality. Consequently, I have thought long and hard about what our future “outline” would look like.
I considered using the Catechism itself, in the way that I use Sacrosanctum Concilium from Vatican II in discussing the sacraments on Saturday. But SC is a shorter and more workable document that reflects a real if imperfect attempt by the Church to address God’s pilgrim people in a true historical sense—tempered by culture and the philosophy of the times. By contrast, the Catechism’s treatment of morality appears written outside of human experience, for a world that only a mathematician could love. In fairness, the Catechism is a vast improvement over its predecessors in its inclusion of the New Testament and the virtues in its discussion of morality. Alas, the corpus of its moral teaching falls to the perennial weaknesses of all such attempts: (1) a claim of timelessness and immutability for matters that do change; (2) failure to acknowledge the basic principle of law that no legislator can anticipate every human circumstance; and (3) lack of communication with human philosophy, culture, science, and the arts.
The quest for the heart of the moral mind dates back at least as far as Socrates, but moral instinct is evident in older Greek tragedies and in the heroic poetry of Homer, to cite two examples. And here I am focusing only upon the world of Western Europe; the richness of Eastern moral thought long predates Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics of the fourth century B.C. Aristotle, for his part, was a profound influence upon Catholic thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas.
The fact that Aquinas and other medievalists spent so much energy upon ethics, virtue, and the human mind is good evidence that Catholic moral teachings—even those enshrined in timelessness in the Catechism and the moral manuals of the last five centuries—were never as clear and complete as we would like to believe. Aquinas’s teaching upon the principle of ensoulment—when does an embryo receive a soul and become a human—is patterned after Aristotle’s belief that the embryo passed into human-hood in forty days if a boy, and eighty days as a girl. The Church’s teaching today—that humanization and ensoulment occurs at the time of the fertilization of the egg—would never have been possible without Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s 1676 discovery of micro-organisms with the newly minted microscope. Catholic Morality’s partnership with the development of human knowledge is rarely acknowledged in catechetics, perhaps because “change” connotes a loss of power in the teaching (and the teacher.)
The Christian tradition, of course, looks to Jesus Christ as the model for what philosophers of every age refer to as the “good life.” But the Church has labored for centuries to understand the translation of Jesus’ virtue into the “existential” of the here-and-now. The story of the rich young man underscores the quest. When an idealistic follower of Jesus asks what he must do, Jesus at first prompts him to obey the commandments, as they were taught and understood in Jesus’ time. But the man replies, “I have followed the commandments from my youth” and he presses for the next step. Jesus tells him to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor, and then follow him. The Gospel records that he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Is this man a moral failure? I hardly think so. What a fine world this would be if everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments. But the crux of the story is its emphasis that obeying the Law is an entry into something greater; the moral guidance that flows from the tale is the recognition of human weakness and courageous virtue. This is the conundrum of Evangelical biblically based morality—its emphasis upon a selection of texts fails in the same way that manualist Catholic morality fails—fixation on text over the lived reality of striving for a virtue that demands increasingly more.
The making of moral choices (or the failure to do so) animates human life—even the arts, from Oedipus Rex to The Sopranos. Our catechesis of morality deserves that multi-disciplinary exploration that indeed makes up our very identity as humans. God has created us with infinitely more complexity than our textbooks. Thus, I am not going to use the Catechism per se when I return to fulltime moral posting late in August. I don’t have a full blueprint yet, but I’m in this for me as well as for you.
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