May 03, 2013

Moral Compass: Introduction

Moral questions, to a large extent, shape Church-and-world interaction today. This is different from early Christianity. Back then, religion was bound up intrinsically, and almost synonymous with, culture: for instance, St. Paul had to theologically defend the faith to Jews, Pagans, Gnostics, and Stoic Agnostics. The Roman emperor frequently called councils to reconcile between arguing bishops. In the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope had to hash out the theological nature of the episcopate, and on whose authority bishops were appointed. However, today, the complex theology of Trinity and Jesus' humanity and divinity rarely enter the public sphere. Instead, the Church is confronted, daily and with great zeal, on a moral level. The fact that God could have a specific plan for human action, deviation from which is detrimental to the human person in both temporal and eternal ways, has been called into question not only on specific points, but entirely. Arguments go on, not only between Catholics and non-Catholics, but between Catholics themselves. This is perhaps the worst sort, Catholic arguing with his brothers and sisters, and the individual theologian arguing against the authority of popes and councils, because it presents a face of disunity rather than a face of charity to the rest of the world.

Why do Catholics argue with Catholics, when we share moral teachings, creeds, catechisms, and an altar? Most Catholics agree that there is a Natural Law, a Theology of the Body, or Ten Commandments, but differ about how to apply these to any given scenario. The dignity of the human person, the Law of Love, basic human rights, and “What would Jesus do?” are frequently cited as answers to our moral dilemma, and yet discussion, dissonance, and detraction continue.

What changed over the centuries to cause such a newfound dilemma? If homosexuality wasn't a problem that the Church had to face in the 15th century, why is it in the 21st? That question is far beyond the scope of a blog post, even if the Pope were the author. Maybe a master's thesis: I'll get on that, maybe. At any rate, right now, I can offer a brief look at one possibility of why morality could be called fundamentally into question, and one possible solution.

A substantial change over time, from the classical and medieval to the modern and postmodern, is in point of reference. Whereas society (Aristotle's polity or Plato's republic) was the referential unit for morality in antiquity, the individual has become the reference point in modern and postmodern times. Descartes' cogito ergo sum becomes the foundation for modern moral judgments: a certain action, by an individual moral agent, is morally licit if the particular subjective elements of their decision correspond to some objective, external standard. Instead of thinking “How does my society do things?” we begin to think “how should I do things?” Whereas before, there was no plethora of moral codes to choose from - you simply selected the one you grew up in - now we find ourselves constantly deciphering and making our own way through a veritable sea of moral codes.

However, I don't want to say the olden times were better. Societies are just as bad as individuals at deciding what is and isn't good. It was okay in Rome to throw your baby off a cliff if you didn't feel particularly inclined to keep it, and in medieval Europe it was okay for a knight to keep any number of ladies with him on a quest while his wife played a medieval Penelope, waiting for him at home. Therefore, instead of saying we should use a societal or cultural point of moral reference, I would rather like to posit that God can serve as the only referential point for proper moral discourse.

Now, I realize that this isn't very ecumenical. My purpose here is not to reach out to Atheists, or Agnostics, or to solve political questions. My purpose is to resolve conflict between Catholics, so that we can, in a unified manner, witness to Christ within culture.

Talking about God as a moral reference point can be done in three ways: ontologically, relationally, and analogically. I'll talk about each of those in that order, in upcoming posts.

I'll bring you some more later on.



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