Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
|Return to: Home > Archives Index > Moral Theology|
The Principles and Practice of Christian Morality,
Seen in the Light of Reason and Faith, and Applied to Modern Problems in
Personal Ethics, Marriage and the Family, and American Society.
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Western Michigan University
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: Difference between Ethics and Moral Theology - Why study Moral Theology? - Myth of identifying morals with mores - Man a problem to himself - The faith of Judaeo-Christianity
I. MORALS AND RELIGION
II. NORMS AND POSTULATES
III. AUTHORITY AND OBEDIENCE
IV. LIFE AND BODILY INTEGRITY
V. DRINKING AND TEMPERANCE
VI. CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
VII. BIRTH CONTROL
IX. SEX AND CHASTITY
X. JUSTICE AND MUTUAL CHARITY
BUSINESS AND FINANCE
LEGAL AND MEDICAL ETHICS
Moral theology is a deceptive term. It suggests a study of morally good conduct from the vantage point of religion, overlooking the fact that bad actions are technically just as "moral" as good ones and that religion in modern parlance can mean almost anything from "what a man does with his solitude" to the service and worship of God.
Ethics is often equated with moral theology but the two are quite distinct. Moral theology is a scientific analysis and application of those principles of human conduct which derive both from reason and revelation, whereas ethics or moral philosophy is based on human reason alone and without the additional criterion of the Judaeo-Christian faith. The latter imparts clarity, sharpness of vision and a depth of insight to which the mind, without divine assistance, cannot attain. It also furnishes motivation that goes beyond anything that merely human ethics could supply, since the conclusions of moral theology rest on the authority of God, communicating His will through the medium of the Church.
Why study moral theology? For the same reasons that we study any science: to acquire knowledge of an area of human wisdom, with a view to improving ourselves and contributing to the welfare of others. But "moral" (often used alone without "theology") has a value all its own. In a society that is ridden with contempt for ethical principles and blighted with crime in high places, a correct understanding of Christian morality should help a person to ride the waves of worldly seduction and withstand the temptation to compromise.
Moral sense, it has been said, is almost ignored by modern society, and where not ignored, a conscious effort seems to be made to suppress its manifestations. Irresponsibility is the order of the day.
Those who discern good and evil, who are industrious and provident, remain poor and are looked upon as morons. The woman who has several children, who devotes herself to their education, instead of her own career, is considered weak-minded. If a man saves a little money for his wife and the education of his children this money is stolen from him by enterprising financiers, or taken by the government and distributed to those who have been reduced to want by their own improvidence and the shortsightedness of manufacturers, bankers and economists. Artists and men of science supply the community with beauty, health, and wealth. They live and die in poverty. Robbers enjoy prosperity in peace. Gangsters are protected by politicians and respected by judges. They are the heroes whom children admire at the movies and imitate in their games.
A rich man has every right. He may discard his aging wife, abandon his old mother to penury, rob those who have entrusted their money to him, without losing the consideration of his friends. Homosexuality flourishes. Sexual morals have been laid aside. Psychoanalysts supervise men and women in their conjugal relations. There is no difference between right and wrong, just and unjust. Criminals thrive at liberty among the rest of the population. No one makes any objection to their presence.
The clergy have rationalized religion. They have destroyed its mystical basis. But they do not succeed in attracting modern men. In their half-empty churches they vainly preach a weak morality. They are content with the part of policemen, helping in the interest of the wealthy to preserve the framework of present society, or, like politicians, they flatter the appetites of the crowd.
This is not the diatribe of a cynic or the ranting of a demigod, but the sober judgment of a great scientist (Alexis Carrel) whose trenchant criticism has been honored by world opinion. His book, L'Homme Inconnu, in which the above statement appeared, saw at least fifteen printings in English (Man the Unknown) and was translated into all the principal modern languages. It makes plausible the charge that we are learning everything else in the universe except man. Alone among the marvels of God's creation, he is the most neglected. With billions spent in atomic research and the penetration of outer space, how grudgingly even a few thousand dollars are given towards a better understanding, say, of the causes of mental illness, juvenile delinquency and the incredible breakdown of American family life through divorce.
Moral science is intended to fill this intellectual vacuum and supply in some measure for the neglect of the past. It aims to place at the disposal of well-intentioned people the tools they need for making an ethical living in spite of unethical standards all around them. We do not say that knowledge is virtue, or that a man has only to know what is right in order to do it. There are irrational drives in human nature and a free will that can disregard the most suasive arguments of reason against doing wrong. Yet knowledge of what is right and wrong helps, and the person who understands why he should be good has a better chance of following the dictates of conscience than a moral illiterate, who may be otherwise intelligent in secular affairs.
A familiar myth that moral theology may help dissolve is the theory that morals are derived from mores, and that ethical standards are therefore as relative as styles of clothing or as changes in forms of art. In sociology, mores are described as folkways held by common consent to be conducive to the welfare of society, e.g., having only one wife at a time. Organizational mores are further defined to be the basic social structures and relationships of society that a given social unit regards as essential to its stability at a given time and place. These mores and the accompanying folkways, it is argued, are so inclusive that an adult member of society finds himself equipped to handle most problems involving social relationships in their terms rather than through reference to more objective procedures. Only in times of critical maladjustment in society do the organizational mores fail to furnish mores-controlled individuals with "instinctive" guidance in their social relationships.
Precisely here is the crux of present-day society, notably in so closely organized a community as America. In a highly publicized statement on educational policy, the authors declared that, "by moral and spiritual values we mean those values which, when applied in human behavior, exalt and refine life and bring it into accord with the standards of conduct that are approved in our democratic culture." Thus morality belongs to the market-place, to be determined by the price-fixing approval or disapproval of the majority (or vocal minority) of the citizens, quite independent of anything objective communicated by the Creator through reason and religious faith and often in contradiction to the tastes of the multitude.
Moral theology seeks to cut through this miasma of relativism and establish human conduct on something more stable than the shifting sands of custom, and give it motivation far above the prevailing norms of conformity and the fear of being different.
For the first time in recorded history, man has become his own gravest concern. Scepticism in philosophy led to confusion in morals and conflict within the human soul, to a degree unparalleled in the annals of the past. Disorder in the psyche has created a whole new science, psychoanalysis, whose unique function is to ferret out the hidden subconscious causes of mental disturbance and thus restore balance to a disturbed inner core. In former times philosophers discussed the problem of man's relation to other men, to society and to God; now they discuss man as a problem to himself.
Through his scepticism the modern man is thrown back upon himself; his energies flow towards their source and wash to the surface those psychic contents which are at all times there, but lie hidden in the silt as long as the stream flows smoothly in its course.
How totally different did the world appear to the mediaeval man! For him, the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. Such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams. Natural science has long ago torn this lovely veil to shreds. That age lies as far behind as childhood, when one's own father was unquestionably the handsomest and strongest man on earth.
When Carl Jung wrote these words in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, he was not asking for a return to mediaeval astronomy nor questioning the advances of science whose discoveries have revolutionized man's understanding of the physical world. He was intimating, however, that a return to those eternal principles of morality on which Western civilization was built would result in a corresponding return to something of the peace of mind that humanity once enjoyed when the existence of God was acknowledged and life after death was believed.
One of the unrealities of life is the fact that so much is written and said about human misconduct we soon come to believe it is the normal condition of most people, and are tempted to suspect there is something wrong with us if we do not measure up to statistics. Interpreters of the two Kinsey reports, for example, felt that his books contributed materially to the difficulties encountered by young people in establishing good relations between the sexes. All boys and girls, it is known, are pathetically anxious to be "normal." Any trait which sets them apart from others of their age or social group is a source of anxiety. They are especially vulnerable in the whole area of boy-girl relationship. Whatever the crowd does is what they must do, at the risk of being considered peculiar and prudish, and also unpopular. So if the Kinsey report announced that ninety-one per cent of females have done heavy petting by the age of twenty-five, and eighty-one per cent by eighteen, the girl who is being urged by a boy to go beyond what her conscience tells her is proper feels herself trapped by these statistics. Unless she is erotically stimulated, or does not wish to be, she begins to wonder if she is normal. One counselor at a university stated that many boys he knew felt they were not actually virile unless they could keep up with the statistics which the Kinsey report offered for sex experience among males of their particular age group.
Without the moorings of moral guidance, it is no wonder that people (especially young people) are swayed by the prevalence of abnormality and seriously measure their behavior by the conduct of their peers. It takes more than a moment's reflection to be convinced we have a free will that can resist allurements, and need ample divine help to avoid committing sin. Unless the very existence of freedom is accepted and the reality of sin admitted, what else would a person do except follow the pattern of his environment?
But morality is not only a private affair, it is also a social concern. And on this level, too, the science of morals offers solutions to problems that would otherwise not be solved. Communism used to be a nasty word and Communists were pictured as long-bearded anarchists with time-bombs in their hands. That was in the days when the intrinsic evil of Marxism had not penetrated civilized society, and its idealism of saving the exploited masses from capitalist tyrants was not presented to a generation hungry for sacrifice in a cause higher than its own comfort and ease. It is no coincidence that Communism has a siren attraction for those who are nauseated with selfishness and want relief from the bourgeois amorality of their times. The testimony of Whittaker Chambers in his book Witness about his conversion to Communism is a striking illustration of the appeal to which many young people have responded.
The ultimate choice I made was not for theory or party. It was a choice against death and for life. I asked only the privilege of serving humbly and selflessly that force which from death could evoke life, that might save what was savable in a society that had lost the will to save itself. I was willing to accept Communism in whatever terms it presented itself, to follow the logic of its course wherever it might lead me, and to suffer the penalties without which nothing in life can be achieved. For it offered me what nothing else in a dying world had power to offer at the same intensity faith and a vision, something for which to live and something for which to die. It demanded of me those things which have always stirred what is best in men courage, poverty, self-sacrifice, discipline, intelligence, my life, and, at need, my death.
The faith of Judaeo-Christianity has sublimity that Communism can only palely imitate, it has vision of a life spent in dedicated following of God in human form who became poor and in want in order to draw the sons of men to follow Him, it calls for patient endurance and the cross to a degree that puts the Marxist to shame but this faith and vision must be known to be appreciated. Moral theology is not only, or even mainly, prescriptive; it is the science at once of the real and the ideal, of what the Christian conscience is expected to do under divine mandate and of what Christian generosity may aspire to under the impulse of grace.
Copyright © 2004 by Inter Mirifica
Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives
Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters