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

Question M: What Are the Responsibilities of Moral Advisers?

All who preach the gospel and catechize provide moral advice, but their special responsibilities pertain to special roles in the Church, and will be treated in volume four. Moral adviser here refers to a more general and modest role, which most Christians sometimes must play, at least as parents, teachers, counselors, or friends. It is the role of helping someone who must make a choice but is uncertain about what is right.

1. Moral Advisers Should Be Both Teachers and Nondirective Counselors

There seem to be two possible, opposed conceptions of how to be a moral adviser. One is that, since moral truth is objective, the adviser should give instruction. The other is that, since moral principles are naturally known and moral problems arise largely from inner conflicts, the adviser, rather than offering instruction, should help the other party clarify his or her own insights, emotions, and desires.

Both views contain some truth, but neither by itself is adequate. As previous questions have shown, reaching moral truth does require knowledge of Church teaching and skill in its application. People with such knowledge and skill can and should teach others, helping them come to see moral truths they would not reach without help. But the process also requires clarification of emotional factors, recognition of various motives, and discernment. In respect to these latter factors the moral adviser rightly functions as a counselor who raises questions which only the person being advised can answer.

2. Moral Advisers Should Proceed Systematically

Although some problems are complicated and difficult, the general procedure appropriate for giving moral advice is rather simple.

a) The moral adviser must understand the problem exactly. Anyone proposing to give moral advice first should listen carefully and ask sufficient questions to understand the problem. Who must make the choice: the person seeking advice, or someone else, or some group? That individual or group alone, or as part of a larger decision-making body? What options are under consideration? What are the perceived advantages and disadvantages of each? Have other options been considered and discarded? Why does it seem that advice could be helpful?

Having gathered all the relevant information, the adviser can determine what sort of problem or problems need resolution: Is there a question about a moral norm, a problem about accepting side effects, a difficulty arising from a doubt of fact, a perplexity due to overlooking the morally right alternative, a matter of discernment, or some combination of these, or something else?

Of course, there are complex cases involving diverse problems, for example, the case of a divorced person who has attempted remarriage; here a moral adviser can help in appropriate ways. The relevant moral norms must be understood and correctly applied, and may not be overridden; but emotional factors also are important. While it is easy to exclude morally unacceptable options, careful discernment may be needed to discover precisely what should be done.

b) The moral adviser should provide any needed instruction. When the problem is wholly or partly due to ignorance—of a relevant norm, the correct application of a norm, the significance of a certain complex social or legal act, or something of that sort—the moral adviser must provide instruction. Advisers should be clear in their own minds about what is certainly true and essential to solving the problem, and should seek to win unqualified and firm assent to it. This is best done by laying out the grounds step by step, thus helping the one being advised to understand why the adviser thinks as he or she does.

Of course, not everyone can follow a complex line of reasoning, and, for faithful Catholics, not everything needs to be reduced to first moral principles. So, a Catholic moral adviser sometimes helps a fellow Catholic most effectively by simply clarifying the Church’s teaching and its application. It is not enough, however, for moral advisers merely to assert what they are certain is true, offering only their personal credibility as a motive for believing what they say.

c) The moral adviser should promote self-awareness and insight. When appropriate, the adviser should lead the person being helped to examine and criticize his or her own emotions. But advisers should not rely too much on their own intuitions about the significance of emotional factors. They should ask questions, not try to substitute their judgment for that of the person seeking advice.

d) Moral advisers should never try to discern on others’ behalf. While discernment presupposes faith, love, and knowledge of objective moral truths, in the end it depends on the individual’s awareness of his or her own emotions as an index of his or her own better self and unique makeup. No one else has access to these emotions, and in cases of discernment moral advisers never should advocate one alternative over another. Rather, they should help those they are advising to prepare well, to consider all the relevant data, and to focus on the relevant emotions.

3. Moral Advice and Social Authority Should Be Distinguished

Many roles, such as those of parents and pastors, are complex: those who fulfill them must exercise social authority and also provide moral advice. This complexity easily can lead to confusion between the two responsibilities. However, moral advisers as such can only help others discover the moral truth; they cannot prescribe actions or give permissions.

a) Sometimes the distinction is easily maintained. If the one giving moral advice and the one receiving it both reflectively understand what they are doing at the level of moral truth, little difficulty arises, even if the process does not come to a satisfactory conclusion. Even though the effort has not entirely succeeded, the person receiving advice is aware of the responsibility to continue seeking the moral truth not yet found. Although the adviser may share in the teaching authority of the Church and those being advised may appear to dissent wrongly, but in good faith, from the Church’s teaching, both parties to the relationship are responsible to the truth and should conform to what they believe true in carrying out their vocational commitments.42

b) Moral advisers may not set aside their other responsibilities. Of course, if someone giving moral advice also bears the responsibility of social authority, this latter responsibility must be fulfilled. For example, a parent instructing children about how they should treat one another also should take steps to see that they do not treat one another in grossly unfair ways. In such a case, a person holding social authority sometimes will require as a matter of obedience what the subject otherwise would consider it permissible either to do or omit; then the obedient subject will do what the moral advice did not show to be obligatory in itself. For example, after explaining why one child should allow the other approximately equal time on their shared bicycle, the parent may rightly (as authority) tolerate some unfairness. But if the moral truth is not grasped, the authority eventually must lay down the law.

Sometimes, a person in social authority confronts a subject whose conscience conflicts with what the good of the society requires. It may happen that disobedience can then be tolerated, since, within limits, toleration safeguards individual dignity and conduces to peace, which also are genuine social goods. But if social authorities become convinced that the community’s good demands conformity, they should prevent the subject from acting according to conscience if they can do so. Thus, even religious liberty is limited by the requirements of public order, as Vatican II teaches (see DH 7).

c) Those in a legalistic framework have special responsibilities. While the present chapter’s whole treatment presupposes the inadequacy of legalism, it may be helpful, by way of contrast, to consider the responsibilities of those operating within a legalistic framework.

If those who give and receive advice both understand what they are doing legalistically, the adviser must proceed consistently according to that framework. Where doubts about norms are not resolved by the Church’s teaching, they can be settled by a correct use of probabilism or an acceptable alternative, which will protect social order as well as individual liberty and good faith.43 Legalistic moral advisers should not abuse their social authority by wrongly attaching sanctions to their moral advice; nor may they abuse their role as moral advisers by giving “permissions,” as if moral questions were subject to their social authority.

4. Moral Advisers of Legalistic People Have Special Responsibilities

Suppose an adviser understands matters at the level of moral truth while a person receiving advice understands matters legalistically: then the moral adviser who does not also have the responsibility of social authority should proceed entirely in terms of moral truth and should endeavor to lead the one seeking advice to understand matters this way.

If a moral adviser of someone imbued with legalism also has responsibilities as a social authority, these responsibilities must, of course, be fulfilled by giving appropriate directions. When subjects refuse to obey and wrongs are tolerated, advisers who also are social authorities should make it clear that, in not imposing sanctions, they are not extending approval to any action they believe is contrary to moral truth. In other words, advisers always should make it clear that an erroneous conscience, whose irreducible role is respected, is not the same thing as a correct conscience which will lead one following it to true fulfillment (see GS 16; CMP, 3.C). Failure to make this point clear risks scandalizing those who deserve sound moral advice, whether or not they are prepared to accept it.

5. Moral Advisers as Such Should Never Counsel the Lesser Evil

People are not led to moral truth by being advised to do lesser moral evils. For instance, “Practice contraception and avoid abortion!”—which until the 1960s was the teaching of proponents of birth control—might persuade someone to do a lesser moral evil, but such persuasion throws no light on the relevant moral truth. Thus, even if attempting such persuasion is justified in some case (see 4.E.2.i), it is not the business of a moral adviser and is likely to impede his or her proper work. Having undertaken to help another answer the question, “What is the right thing for me to do?” the advice to choose the lesser evil is almost sure to be taken as an indication that this is in complete accord with moral truth. Thus, someone who is both a moral adviser and a social authority, as parents are, has a reason not to attempt such persuasion even if it would be acceptable for someone whose only role was that of social authority, for example, a police officer or public health physician.

42. To be in good faith means to intend to judge according to moral truth but fail to do so through an error not one’s own fault (see CMP, 3.C). Some people who dissent from the Church’s teaching on certain matters do so because they have accepted subjectivism with respect to those matters: the idea that what they consider right is right for them, and there is no objective moral truth. Having rejected moral truth, such people are incapable of good faith (see CMP, 3.G, 4.A, C). But in the case under discussion subjectivism on the part of those advised is excluded, because they are committed to discovering the moral truth. So, if their error is not their fault, they are in good faith, and really are acting in accord with moral truth insofar as it is accessible to them.

43. Concerning probabilism and its alternatives, see CMP, 12.D, 12.1–2, and nn. 9–10.