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Chapter 5: Seeking Moral Truth: Moral Judgment and Problem Solving

Question C: How Can the Moral Norms Needed for a Christian Life Be Acquired?

Moral norms direct free choices by indicating which choices are good, which bad; they are important for several reasons. Some current theories about the origin of moral norms in experience are mistaken. Everyone has some natural knowledge of moral principles, which faith clarifies and develops. Catholics should be docile to the Church’s teaching authority and should study her social teaching. They should use their faith and the Church’s teaching to criticize moral norms from other sources.

1. Moral Norms Serve Several Important Functions in Moral Life

The obvious use of moral norms is to answer questions such as: What ought I to do? But they also are useful in three less obvious ways.

First, they can call attention to possibilities. A norm can awaken someone to the possibilities of making a commitment or doing something good which the person otherwise would not even think of. For example, “Workers should be paid a living wage” points to a responsibility shared by anyone whose actions affect wages and their purchasing power. Correctly understood, this norm can lead young people to consider a vocation to work for social justice, and can lead everyone to be more sensitive to the possibility of social injustice in everything he or she does.

Second, moral norms can call attention to overlooked moral issues. A norm can point out the moral dimension, otherwise at risk of being ignored, of a certain subject matter. For example, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Ex 20.17) calls attention to the fact that a person might commit a sin of thought even without committing an overt sin against justice.

Third, moral norms can call attention to emotional biases. A norm can draw attention to emotional factors by which one might wrongly be led to make a choice. For example, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom 12.17) directs Christians to consider whether a choice to punish a criminal is being made rationally or out of mere hostile feelings.

2. Certain Views of Experience as the Source of Moral Norms Are Mistaken

Experience of certain sorts not only contributes to moral insight but even is presupposed by knowledge of moral truth. In theories of morality, however, experience often refers either to awareness of people’s actual standards and behavior (which can be described by polls and surveys, and studied by historians and social scientists) or to the process of trial and error by which people learn how to achieve concrete goals (and so acquire technical knowledge). Different theories propose experience in either or both of these senses as the source of sound moral norms. But neither awareness of people’s actual standards and behavior nor expertise in achieving concrete goals provides dependable moral norms. Rather, any norms drawn from those sources must be criticized, using true moral norms as the standard. Moreover, so-called contemporary Christian experience reveals no new moral truths.

a) Valuable moral lessons sometimes are gained from experience. Something analogous to the process of trial and error often teaches morality, in the sense of calling attention to moral truths one has ignored, and so helps a person break out of self-deception and rationalization. If, furthermore, someone believes in providence and reflects on the matter in that light, it is clear that God has taught something through that experience. But the experience was not the norm’s source but only the occasion for understanding it.

For example, having sold himself on the idea that there is nothing wrong with smoking marijuana, Bill, a bright college student, is brought up with a jolt when his grades drop and his scholarship is withdrawn. The experience may lead him to reflect, ask what God is trying to tell him, and come to see that substituting good feelings for reality is wrong. But Joan, who has a similar experience, is not interested in moral truth, and so she does not reflect and gain insight. Instead, she simply observes that she cannot have and do everything she wants, and so must choose between smoking marijuana and regaining her scholarship.

b) Knowledge of moral truth presupposes certain sorts of experience. First practical principles, although self-evident, are not intuitions: insights without data. Human beings have natural dispositions toward what will fulfill their potentialities, and these dispositions sometimes motivate behavior which occurs without deliberation or free choice. So, people become aware of these natural dispositions, and this awareness (which is a sort of experience) provides data for the insights by which certain of the first, self-evident principles are known, such as “Life is a good to be protected” and “Knowledge of truth is a good to be sought.” Other principles, such as “Friendship is good” and “Peace of conscience is good” presuppose awareness of additional data, including tensions involving acts of the will.12

Moreover, to understand possible choices, another sort of experience is needed: awareness of human abilities and the opportunities for their exercise offered by various situations. Now, to formulate specific moral norms, it is necessary to understand possible choices, since the willing they would involve specifies kinds of acts whose moral character is indicated by the norms. Thus, while the truth of specific moral norms flows from that of moral principles (see CMP, 10.B, D), the understanding of those norms presupposes the experience required to understand the actions shaped by them.

c) Moral truth must be used to judge the norms accepted in a society. People often suppose moral norms to be like other social norms, for example, laws and rules of etiquette. Children, of course, acquire by experience many norms embodied in the culture in which they are raised. But that sort of experience cannot show that these norms are morally sound; it shows only that they are socially accepted. For instance, most children in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in the United States before the Civil War, were brought up to think that owning other people is morally acceptable. But even though slavery was socially accepted and seemed to many people as natural as marriage, the norms embodied in cultures which accepted slavery were contrary to moral truth. That essential insight, nevertheless, was one which children could not gain from experience, that is, from their awareness of their society’s standards. In other words, it is possible to learn by experience what people in fact do today and what contemporary society finds acceptable. But these are only states of affairs, to be judged by moral truth. They are not standards of morality superior to the principles and norms human beings naturally know—principles and norms reaffirmed and further specified by God’s revelation, which is handed on by the Church’s belief and teaching.13

Norms accepted in a given society at a particular time, such as those approving slavery, obviously can become irrelevant and out of date.14 Failing to distinguish between such norms and moral truths, some people think contemporary experience provides a ground for criticizing the Church’s moral teaching, including even certain moral norms asserted in Scripture and/or taught constantly and most firmly by the Church. If the distinction between moral truth and the norms accepted in a particular society at a particular time is kept in mind, one can see through this mistake. Neither the experience of people in former times, such as those in which slavery was accepted, nor the experience of people today is self-validating. Both must be judged by moral truth, which cannot be learned from such experience.

d) Trial and error teaches what works, but not whether that is good. Some people, including Marxists, claim truth is found only as it emerges from committed praxis. Others, including some moralists in the more prosperous nations, claim that moral norms are generalizations from people’s experiences in trying to live fulfilling lives. Committed praxis and people’s experiences in seeking to be fulfilled do indeed yield a certain sort of practical knowledge; it concerns how to pursue particular ends—for example, social revolution or individual satisfaction—and perhaps even how to be creative in transforming society and seeking personal fulfillment. However, practical experience does not provide any ultimate standard for judging that the ends pursued, the means used, or the types of creativity achieved contribute to integral human fulfillment.

Those claiming to derive moral truth in this way, from the experience of committed praxis or of the effort to live a fulfilling life, actually presuppose standards they never critically examine. Marxists, for example, presuppose certain moral truths: that many forms of modern economic activity are unjust and alienating, and many who exercise economic and social power unjustly oppress others. Since Marxism proposes to overcome social evils, its goals are assumed to be morally good. With the further assumption that the end justifies the means, the evidence of experience about what works is taken to reveal moral truth. However, in the light of moral truth the world for which Marxism hopes can be seen to be no less unjust in certain respects than the world it would replace; and the assumption that the end justifies the means has led Marxists to commit terrible violations of actual human persons’ dignity and rights.15

Although their assumptions and goals are different from those of the Marxists, certain moralists in the affluent nations proceed in a similar way. The desirability of having satisfying experiences and avoiding suffering is taken for granted, while the prospect of a certain measure of satisfaction or misery is taken to be a proportionate reason for making exceptions to any moral norm as circumstances may require.16 When such ideas are vulgarized and put into practice, ordinary people assume that moral truths can be tested by experimentation; for example, someone might discover whether adultery is morally acceptable by trying it. Experiment and inductions from it, however, can only show what is, not what ought to be. They can be useful in working out technical rules, which guide action to reach concrete goals efficiently—for example, how to commit adultery without getting caught—but they are not useful in criticizing moral norms.

e) Christian experience does not reveal new moral truths. Pointing out that the Holy Spirit continues to work in all believers, some invoke the experience of contemporary Christians, the so-called sense of the faithful, as a source of moral truth (see note to 1.I.1.b). Experience indeed can lead Christians to understand more deeply the revealed truth they already accept by faith, and each Christian also needs experience to discover certain elements of God’s plan for his or her life, for example, to discern the elements of personal vocation. But if the “sense of the faithful” is invoked against truths belonging to the moral order revealed by God and handed on in the Church, that is tantamount to claiming that this supposedly Christian experience is a fresh divine revelation, amending the revelation Christians of former times received and handed on. However, the notion that Christians today are receiving a fresh revelation through their experience is untenable: God revealed himself personally in Jesus, and made known in him the full mystery (see Jn 15.15, Eph 1.9–10, Heb 1.1–2; DV 4). That revelation develops through tradition, but neither needs nor is open to amendment by a fresh revelation.

3. One Should Learn the Moral Norms That Faith Teaches

People have some natural knowledge of God’s plan for human fulfillment—namely, his law written in the human heart (see Rom 2.14–16; CMP, 7.A)—and this natural knowledge is purified and completed by divine revelation (see CMP, 7.B). This natural and revealed knowledge in turn provides the whole normative basis for a Christian’s moral judgments. Since Christian morality and prudence exist, and since the gospel also clarifies and confirms many of the moral norms knowable by natural reason, one should try to learn all the moral norms which faith teaches.

a) One should make a personal effort to appropriate God’s word. It is necessary to listen to the word of God, primarily by reading Scripture and participating attentively in the liturgy. Scripture should be interpreted rightly, by adhering to the Catholic tradition, setting aside the mistaken moral opinions God’s people sometimes followed, and discerning the true moral order God reveals. It is summed up in the commandments to love God and neighbor, which are articulated in a special way in the Ten Commandments.17

Prayerful reflecting on revelation is needed in order to appropriate its truth, that is, to find the moral norms it contains and see their potential relevance for one’s life. In appropriating moral truth in the light of faith, a person should be careful to distinguish absolute from nonabsolute norms, for example, the command not to commit adultery from the precept to obey civil authorities.

Someone sins who omits to learn the moral requirements contained in God’s word and to engage in the prayer required to appropriate revealed moral truth. But probably such sins are almost always venial, since people who recognize a grave responsibility in these matters are unlikely to choose not to fulfill it.

b) One should be docile to the Church’s teaching authority. Personal reading of Scripture and prayer are not enough. Individuals can go badly wrong, especially insofar as their personal inclinations are not those of saints. People should check their personal faith and insight into God’s plan against the Church’s faith and moral teaching. Vatican II teaches:

 In forming their consciences, the Christian faithful ought to give heed to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church [note omitted]. For the catholic Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ, and also to declare and confirm by her authority principles of the moral order flowing from human nature itself. (DH 14)18
The responsibility to assent to the Church’s teachings has been treated in a previous chapter (1.H–I).

c) The Church’s social teaching should be studied. Some Catholics accept only some of the moral norms the Church teaches: those bearing on private life. But in shaping his or her Christian life a person also should apply the moral norms contained in the Church’s social teaching:

 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (Jas 2.14–16)
While the Church’s social teaching may seem quite theoretical, she does not offer it to project a better world for the sake of utopian speculation. The Church has no plan for an ideal sociopolitical order; instead she articulates relevant moral norms. Her social doctrine can become effective only if Catholics use these norms to judge the social situation confronting them, and then use that judgment as a basis for doing what they can to change the situation for the better.

Of course, it is necessary to distinguish between teachings proposed as certainly true and “prudential judgments,” which popes and other bishops sometimes propose as guidance for the faithful without asking for or expecting their religious assent. While in some cases the latter are clearly labeled, in other cases their tentative character is indicated by various signs. For example, a judgment not proposed as certainly true might be expressed only informally or communicated only to some public authority, rather than published in a document addressed to the Church’s teachers and/or members as such; it might take a new and very specific position on a particular situation, rather than recall and apply a common and constant Church teaching; it might use language which is indirect or tentative rather than straightforward and unqualified.19

4. One Should Criticize Other Norms in the Light of Faith

Although true moral norms are known by reasoning from naturally known principles (see CMP, 10) and are clarified, confirmed, and completed by divine revelation, Christians, like everyone else, also gather many norms from other sources. Referring to these, St. Paul teaches: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12.2). Besides gathering norms from Scripture and the Church’s teaching, therefore, a person must use those same sources to criticize the norms received from parents and teachers, and the norms proposed by society, for instance, those embodied in the customs of one’s culture, the laws of political society, the norms of etiquette, standards suggested by psychology and the social sciences, and so on.20

It is wrong to follow other standards without criticizing them by faith. Nevertheless, some follow alien standards in a gross way: by using the rationalization that everyone is doing what they wish to do. And others subtly adopt worldly standards by gradually demanding less and less of themselves and of other people, so that eventually they come to think of true moral norms either as rigoristic or as ideals rather than binding norms.

12. See Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 32 (1987): 108–9.

13. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona humana, 3–4, AAS 68 (1976) 78–80, Flannery, 2:487–88.

14. In some societies, no distinction is made between law and morality. In societies in which the distinction is made, not everyone recognizes it or consistently attends to it. And even if a society other than the Church explicitly holds a norm to pertain to morality, that position can be mistaken, since no other society is divinely preserved from error in its moral judgments.

15. On the relationship between praxis and moral truth, see: Peruvian Episcopal Conference, Document on the Theology of Liberation (Oct. 1984), 43–49, OR, 4 Feb. 1985, 7.

16. Not all proportionalists hold so simple a theory of value, but see, for example, John Giles Milhaven, Toward a New Catholic Morality (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970). Nevertheless, even the subtler forms of proportionalism fail to provide an acceptable theory of moral judgment (see CMP, 6). Moreover, every proportionalist must seek some way other than applying moral norms to determine both the goodness and badness of diverse consequences and how good or bad they are, and this need leads proportionalists, even despite themselves, toward subjective evaluation of consequences as experienced. See Bartholomew M. Kiely, S.J., “The Impracticality of Proportionalism,” Gregorianum 66 (1985): 676–83.

17. See Patrick Lee, “Permanence of the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Modern Commentators,” Theological Studies 42 (1981): 422–43; Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “The Place of the Decalogue in the Old Testament and Its Law,” Interpretation 43 (1989): 229–42; Reginald H. Fuller, “The Decalogue in the New Testament,” Interpretation 43 (1989): 243–55.

18. It would be a mistake to suppose that Vatican II’s formulation here supports the view that moral norms are extrinsic to the core of the gospel, “that truth which is Christ,” so that the Church’s moral teaching can be rejected without rejecting Christ himself. Many moral norms are revealed explicitly (see CMP, 7.B) and all of them are implicit in God’s self-revelation in Jesus, since he perfectly instantiates human nature and humankind’s divine vocation, fully revealing the human to humans (see GS 22). Thus, John Paul II, General Audience (24 July 1991), 3; L’Osservatore Romano, It. ed., 25 July 1991, 4; OR, 29 July 1991, 7, teaches: “One thing is certain—the life which Jesus Christ, and the Church with him, proposes to man is full of moral demands which bind him to what is good, even to the heights of heroism. It is necessary to observe whether, when one says ‘no to the Church’, in reality one is not seeking to escape these demands. Here more than in any other case, the ‘no to the Church’ would be the equivalent of a ‘no to Christ’. Unfortunately, experience shows that this is often the case.”

19. An example: John Paul II, Message to Special Session of the United Nations for Disarmament, 8, AAS 74 (1982) 879, OR, 21 June 1982, 4: “In current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.” One can recognize that this statement does not propose a judgment as certainly true by the fact that it was addressed to the General Assembly of the United Nations rather than to the bishops and faithful of the Catholic Church, by its isolation in taking a more specific position on nuclear deterrence than that taken by any previous papal statement or Vatican II (see GS 80–81), and by its use of the indirect expression “may still be judged,” which stops short of asserting the position expressed.

20. Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, ASS 12 (1879) 104–5, PE, 80.10, points out that although ancient philosophers found some truths, these were mingled with many appalling errors, and that the early Fathers and Doctors of the Church “took up and investigated the books of the ancient philosophers, and compared their teachings with the doctrines of revelation, and, carefully sifting them, they cherished what was true and wise in them and amended or rejected all else.”