I made a commitment to teach a morality course for the faculty of one of our local schools, and today is the second of three after-school classes. This particular school had invited me last year for the introduction to theology course, the first in the series prescribed by our diocese for Catholic school faculty and staff as well as religious educators/catechists and parish ministers. This particular school is “juiced,” as there is a high energy level and enthusiasm for theological professional development across the board from the principal across the faculty that I have dealt with so far, about a dozen educators at the school thus far.
But I get nervous on Wednesdays, and it had nothing to do with the school. It is the subject, our 105 course on morality. There is an old joke among priests that the fastest way to derail a promising ecclesiastical career is by teaching morality in the diocesan seminary. Catholic morality, as a discipline, is a field of landmines, and as I say, many a Catholic ecclesiastical career has been dashed to pieces on its rocks. Obviously I am not worried about climbing the ecclesiastical ladder—that ship has long sailed, and it barely cleared the harbor at that—but teaching in the name of the Church continues to be a vital part of my baptismal stewardship, and I would like to continue making a useful contribution to that ministry.
Consider the dilemma: when anyone is assigned to teach Catholic morality. What exactly is the expectation? Is it to teach Catholics—seminarians, church ministers, lay people—what the sins are? If that is the purpose of teaching morals, the catalogue of sins is readily available in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and some would limit the scope of moral formation to precise knowledge of this manual of sins. The need for moral theologians and instructors would be minimal; just google up the conduct in question and check it out.
I don’t think anyone in Church responsibility really expects morality teachers to teach Catholic moral teaching in the fashion of spelling, though over the years of working with the internet and reading blog posts, I get the impression that a lot of Catholics themselves want that. There are a number of good folks who look upon the Church as the last bastion of truth and sanity in the world, and they much prefer trumpet calls of clarity to the arduous work of Scriptural, historical, and existential analysis that underlies every moral teaching of the Church. Parents who earnestly wish to raise moral children look to Church teachers—and particularly homilists—as dependable underwriters of what they understand to be precise moral standards established by God for all eternity.
Those of us who teach moral theology in any setting have the uncomfortable responsibility of explaining that morality is a complex discipline. Modern day morality begins with the Sacred Scriptures and the ways that the Church has interpreted the Bible in terms of morality. One frequently hears of the supremacy of the Ten Commandments—and even today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the Decalogue for its organization of moral discussion. But the fact is that in its original setting in the Bible, the Fifth Commandment forbids the killing of another freeborn Israelite male, period. A careful reading of the Pentateuch reveals a number of instances where killing (most often of a woman) is not just tolerated but commanded by the Law for sexual sins. Such was the case where even Jesus was called upon for his opinion of “a woman caught in the very act of adultery.” Her accusers added that the Law of Moses commanded the stoning of such a one.
Clearly, three millennia of the Judeo-Christian tradition have given time to assess the Fifth Commandment—to expand its reach, in fact—regarding such sins as elective abortion, embryonic destruction, and the killing of non-combatants in wars and combat. Our U.S. bishops—with much help from Sister Helen Prejean--have raised to public discussion the morality of state executions. One such bishop in our time, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, put forward possibly the most inspired interpretation of the Fifth Commandment when he coined the now-famous phrase, “seamless garment of life,” a term which curiously has not captivated everyone in pro-life ministry.
In short, the Spirit-filled Church has grown over time to a greater understanding of the Fifth Commandment as applied to the moral dilemmas of our own time, though not without stress. There are a good number of Catholics who endorse capital punishment, though it is hard to square this with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception to natural death, the latter term used quite explicitly in the prayers of the faithful in my church.
For reasons somewhat beyond my full comprehension, sins of the sixth commandment consume an inordinate amount of time, political action, and catechetical energy. I have attempted, over my lifetime, to discern why this is. There are some simple answers and complex issues in play. Many of the moral theology books I have read in my lifetime define 1968 as something of a watershed moment. That July Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, and given that Vatican II had ended just three years before, expectations were high (though not universal) that the Pope would alter the teaching on both scientific and theological grounds.
Paul VI was sometimes referred to as “Hamlet,” but the birth control question was particularly troubling for him. Again, Paul VI’s encyclical continues to be treated in texts to this day, and from what I have been able to piece together, the pope was deeply fearful of making a change for his fear that he might throw all teachings of previous popes up for grabs, so to speak. He was also penned in by the Manualist tradition which held that any sin dealing with human reproduction was ipso facto mortal, i.e. of grave matter. The idea of a hierarchy of sins was (and, I guess, still is) unthinkable in Catholic teaching in this era. Personally, I felt then and still feel today that the present teaching against artificial birth control (pharmaceutical and barrier types) rest too much upon “physicalism.” The intention to space children is not in itself sinful, all things being equal, given that my own diocese (and every other diocese in the country) has an office dedicated to natural planning.
Under other circumstances, the Church as a family would have continued to research the birth control question in a respectful and interdisciplinary way. However, the ground rules for issues of controversy were redrawn by Pope John Paul II, who upped the ante by making adherence to Church teachings on all matters of sexuality a litmus test of loyalty to the teaching authority of the Magisterium. Thus, the issue of birth control, for example, has passed from morality to ecclesiology. John Paul II attempted to put the sexual teachings of the Church in a grand synthesis of sorts in his Veritas Splendor (1993), but the fact remains that Catholicism is still a church of 2,3, or 4 children per family.
And it is to the adults of these families that we Catholic instructors go forth, like Captain Kirk, “where no man has dared go before,” between official Church teaching and the beliefs of Catholics who, fifty years after Humanae Vitae, trust their own consciences on matters of personal family life. I do my best to represent the Church’s teachings while respecting the sincere consciences of my students, but talk about "the rock and the hard place." And you wonder why so few volunteer to teach the “Morality 105” courses of this world.
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