A few keys to reasoning on and trying to understand Catholic morality

When I mulled over why there was so much anger and vituperation toward the Pope when he joined Twitter, this is one of the things I wrote:

Remember that those who are firing off tweets like that have neither the ability nor the will to actually discuss what the pope has written or said. They cannot address the underlying philosophy behind Catholic teachings. All they can do is snipe and smart-mouth.

I’m not a moral theologian, nor have I gone as deep into Catholic moral teaching as I would like, but I think that if you’d like to go onto the same plain as the pope, there are a few things that you should keep in mind when trying to evaluate whether a particular action is moral. (This is a post that might be most helpful to those who are non-Catholic or those who simply oppose Catholic moral teaching for whatever reason.)

1. Take emotions out of the equation entirely.

Really. Catholicism believes in objective morality, something that confuses this society that is sinking into the dictatorship of relativism. But I think you can figure out fairly quickly that when people mistake emotions for morality (or even decisions that don’t have a moral component but do have a practical component), bad has a higher potential of happening. Ask the teenager who slept with her boyfriend because she loved him, then got a bad surprise of one or multiple forms. Or ask the person who got mad at someone who betrayed him, and sought revenge. Where emotions fit into the equation would be the level of culpability associated with an act. There’s a big difference between punching someone out in a flash of anger after being insulted (which is harder to control) and deciding to jump him in an alley (which is premeditated). Though the act of violence is clearly immoral, how guilty the attacker is may vary based on the circumstances.

2. Doing the right thing may have negative (as in you don’t like them) consequences.

Therein lies a terrible challenge, especially in regards to the Catholic teachings on many sexual issues. What monster would delight in telling a rape victim that aborting her child is still 100% wrong, and what monster would cheerily tell a same-sex couple that they can never marry? I don’t like the idea of doing either, and judging by opinion polls, neither do a lot of other people, but according to Catholic teaching, these statements are both correct. But again, that’s an emotional response, isn’t it? It’s the emotional response that often brings people to incorrect determine whether something is right or wrong.

Here, let’s try it in a more neutral context — one where everyone is likely to agree. You are walking on a street, and you see a child in the middle of that street as a car speeds right toward him. You may make the moral choice to try to save the child, despite the clearly unpleasant possibility of being hit by the car and dying yourself and the even less pleasant possibility of failing to save the child and still being hit by the car and dying anyway. This is clearly a good and heroic choice, despite the negative consequences. So it’s not negative consequences, alone, that should rule over moral decisions. (I acknowledge, of course, that these are significantly different situations. But the common thread there is the idea of negative consequences, so

3. When the Church uses certain terminology, look it up to figure out what She means…

Because it may not be the same as how we generally read it or react to it. Case in point: “Objectively disordered,” from the infamous section of the Catechism on homosexuality. Ouch. It’s understandable that gay rights advocates would argue that this means the Church views gay people as disordered. And it carries an unfortunate connotation that probably should be smoothed over better in the next edition of the Catechism. But it actually means that this one inclination of a person’s behavior is not in line with the moral law. It separates the actions from the human being. Thus “love the sinner, hate the sin.” A lot of folks think that’s impossible, and a lot of folks claim to be doing so and are failing terribly. But it’s a good idea, anyway, to research what (orthodox) Catholic scholars say is being meant by a particular phrase or series of words.

4. Think your conscience is tugging at you? Be careful.

Because sometimes it’s just your emotions leading you toward wrong. If something feels wrong, it’s sometimes an indication that it is, of course. But it also means you need to seek legitimate advice (probably not from your friends) and research the potential moral issues associated with some actions.

So what does all this mean?

The key here is that if you want to consider the Church’s teachings, you have to be able to consider it on the philosophical plain on which it lies (mainly natural law). The issue I see with a lot of people who disagree with Church teaching is that they haven’t a clue where the Church’s teachings really come from. Then they end up being entirely unable to respond to what the Church is teaching, instead substituting profanity or “oh, c’mon, that’s absurd.” In turn, it’s difficult for most Catholics to try to explain Church teachings to folks who aren’t prepared to consider arguments made in a manner different from what they are accustomed to. If we want to have a real conversation on Church teaching (one that Church leaders such as Francis Cardinal George apparently want to have), then we need to have a common understanding. Otherwise, we’ll just keep talking past each other.


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