Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Moral Theology 101

That nasty issue Lying for a Good Cause has reared its ugly head again, thanks largely to a series of editorials in Gilbert Magazine, Janet Smith's attempts to make an apology for lying from a Thomistic perspective, and Brandon Watson's rebuttal to Smith.

And yet, now that we've had a few months off since the last outbreak of pustulence, it has begun to occur to me that Peter Kreeft's "Just Say Know" argument in defense of lying (Just say, "I know this to be right intuitively") appeals to so many people not simply because he argues (quite rightly) for a broader understanding of Reason, nor that he argues (quite rightly) that we have a moral common sense, but really because our moral common sense has not been transformed by Christ. And this is not surprising.

In our everyday moral common sense, we think of things in this way. "Well, I know it's wrong to have sex with my boyfriend even though everybody's doing it. I do feel a little guilty about it and everything, and it would definitely be wrong if it were simply sex, but we love each other! When you love each other, that changes things. And when he told me he loved me in the back seat of his Hyundai, well that changed everything." And so forth.

We assume that our intentions change the nature of our acts. We assume as well that the circumstances in which we find ourselves change the nature of our acts. Our moral common sense tells us this and it is almost always right in telling us so.

However, we do not get it. Our moral common sense is damaged, not only because we are fallen men, but also because we have never read the following, nor have we been taught it:

The morality of human acts depends on:

- the object chosen;

- the end in view or the intention;

- the circumstances of the action.

This is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which goes on to say

1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting "in order to be seen by men").

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts - such as fornication - that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

Now setting aside for a moment the question of the authority of the Catechism and how we should use the Catechism, let's take an example or two to illustrate the above.

1. Speeding in a car (the object) is wrong, but if done to get a sick child to a hospital (intent), particularly when there are few cars on the roadway (circumstances), speeding may not be wrong at all; in fact it may be right and necessary.

2. Sexual intercourse (the object) is good, but if done out the desire to satisfy mere lust (intent) or between unmarried people (circumstance), the act becomes wrong.

3. In fact, we can speak of sex between unmarried people as a separate act, fornication. Fornication, the Church tells us (much to our chagrin) is one of those kinds of acts that are intrinsically evil, acts the object of which can never be excused or made good by either intention or circumstance. It doesn't matter if your boyfriend says he loves you (circumstance) or if your intention is to express your love for him (intent).

4. Likewise, abortion enthusiasts argue that while the object of abortion is wrong (killing a baby), the intent or circumstance can excuse this wrong (the mother wants to be happy - her intent; she is poor or single - her circumstance, etc.) But the Church wisely teaches, and holds firm to the teaching despite the vast pressures of society, that abortion is intrinsically evil, that the nature of the act (its object) is wrong always and everywhere.

(We are speaking here only of the objective nature of acts, not of one's subjective culpability in performing an act. One may perform an objective evil and yet not be personally culpable of sin, but that's another issue.)

And the whole crux of the matter regarding our most fond and favorite sin, lying, is that the Church, much to our suprise, tells us that lying is among those acts that are intrinsically evil and may never be done anywhere, even with the best intentions or the most pressing of circumstances. It entails a disorder of the will and is a moral evil.

A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means (CCC 1753)

So one reason people get so angry on this issue is they really don't understand the basics of what an act is and what makes it right or wrong. They are not thinking with the mind of the Church, as they have not been taught to think with the mind of the Church.

Now those of us opposing lying are often called Pharisees because people think we are slavisly devoted to the Catechism. And many deconstruct the Catechism in one clever way or other, saying it's not magisterial, it has no bearing on our lives, we shouldn't view it as a playbook that needs to be consulted, etc.

What these critics don't understand is the Catechism is a distillation of the teaching of the magisterium of the Catholic Church on Faith and Morals, and hence a kind of outline on the Mind of the Church, or if you will, the mind of Christ.

Rejecting this teaching when it doesn't suit us or when we don't fully understand it is human nature and quite understandable. But our challenge as Christians is, as St. Paul tells us,

"Be not conformed with this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and appropriate and perfect will of God." Romans 12:2

We are not to conform ourselves to the moral common sense of this world, but we are to be (by God's grace) transformed by the renewing of our minds. May our minds on this issue, and on all things, be renewed in Christ, transforming our very selves.

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