July 21, 2011

What the Church ‘really’ says

By Andrew Haines *

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that might not win me many friends: “What the Church says” about many things isn’t clear. That’s right, the Church’s teaching on many topics is unclear.

I should immediately follow this up with the statement, though, that whether or not something is good or bad, right or wrong, does not always depend on the Church’s teaching about it. Indeed, to trade on then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous line that “Truth is not determined by a majority vote,” we must concede that what is good, right, and true is not necessarily determined by an ecclesial teaching.

Admittedly, some things are good because they’re taught by the Church — like the order of Mass, or the precept of making a sacramental confession at least once per year. In short, items of practice attain their value by virtue of being positively prescribed by one (i.e., the Church) who is herself good, right, and holy.

Moral things are a bit trickier, however, since they have a basis in nature. What I mean, here, is that things like abortion, contraception, IVF — and even lying and gluttony — attain their moral status as derivative of our human nature. The same is true for morally good acts, like telling the truth, obeying the law, and respecting one’s parents.

(Curiously, if this weren’t true — that is, if truth-telling and obeying the law weren’t naturally good — we’d have no reason to adhere to the laws and teachings of the Church. So in this sense, natural moral goods are ethically prior to supernatural moral goods.)

In short form, we might simply say that certain things are good or bad, right or wrong, because of what they bring about in the natural sphere. And other things — things that we ought to believe or do because of a prescript — rely on the natural law for their own value and authority. (Prescribed laws cannot justly contravene the natural law.)

Still, it’s pretty common for many of us — Catholics who want to live and take the faith seriously — to feel as though all good and right actions must have a voicing in the teachings of the Church. After all, we know, the Church possesses the fullness of revelation since she is the mystical Body of Christ, and since it is the Holy Spirit, the author of revelation, who energizes her and teaches through her.

Nevertheless, in evaluating God’s providential design, we shouldn’t shortchange the majesty and dignity of the natural order. (After all, Christ took on a complete human nature, so it’s nothing to scoff at!) A key element of Catholic doctrine is precisely this: that God imbued the natural world with order and dignity in accord with man’s ultimate vocation of holiness. That is to say, although nature is subject to the Fall, nature itself — i.e., the faculties of intellect and will, passions and “vegetation” — are nonetheless fitting to man’s final destination. We believe that Christ did not shed his human nature upon ascending into heaven; and neither will we.

All of this is to say that asking “What does the Church say?” isn’t a sufficient means of getting at the complete truth. Surely, if we adhere to what the Church does say — by her magisterial proclamations, etc. — we will avoid error as it pertains to the topics covered. But we ought not to rely merely on the expressed teachings of the Church in seeking to understand ever new and developing particular issues that we encounter in day-to-day life. (As an example, see last week’s article on “snowflake adoption.”)

This is what I mean when I say that “What the Church says” on many topics is unclear. I do not mean that the teachings of the Church are unclear. Rather, I mean that on many particular topics, the Church simply does not teach. (Logicians among us might identify this as a misattribution of a negative in a complex proposition.)

At any rate, when faced with a complex moral question or situation, the better questions to ask are: “Has the Church taught on this issue?”; and if not, “What is the proper way to go about understanding it by the power of reason informed by my faith?”

Armed with these two questions — and the capacity to back them up! — Catholics can confront, apprehend, and navigate even the more perilous ethical situations, including those that are arising for the first time in our very midst.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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