Friday, 13 April 2012

Do's and don'ts

Catholic social teaching – a branch of moral theology – is often misperceived as a list of do's and don'ts. Mostly don'ts. Don't defraud the poor, don't cheat and lie, don't pollute the environment, don't torture prisoners, and so on. The list is pretty much endless, and many of the Church's strictures (especially concerning sexual behaviour) are more honoured in the breach than the observance, even by Catholics.

The Church used to say she was upholding a set of "norms" to which we should conform. To behave in accordance with these norms is to be virtuous, to fail to do so is to commit a sin (in Greek "to miss the mark"). Thus the Church offers Christ as "the norm" for all human behaviour, the "concrete universal", the model of holiness to which with the help of grace we should try to conform ourselves. He is the embodiment of Catholic social teaching, indeed of all Catholic teaching.

But in the modern world the word "normal" is barely comprehensible. The word "norm" conjures up a statistical norm, created by measuring the way a majority happens to behave, whether sinfully or not. From being prescriptive, norms are now regarded as merely descriptive. In a world where the bridges between "is" and "ought" have all been smashed, normal behaviour is simply what most people do.

Would it therefore in some circumstances be preferable to use the word "ideal" – to hold up generosity, or kindness to neighbours, or faithfulness in marriage, as ideals to which the Church is calling us? But that word, too, has its problems. It implies an aspiration, one
that is subjective and easy to dismiss with a shrug as unrealistic or romantic. And how can failing to achieve one's ideal, or even failing to aspire to it, be counted as a sin? The difficulty of explaining Catholic teaching remains.

The Church does not define or defend her "ideals" lightly, because she believes they describe the way we need to behave if we are to achieve integrity, fulfilment, and happiness. They follow from the way we are, the way we are made to be. Even if most people, indeed most Catholics, behave differently (and even if they seem to suffer no immediate ill effects from doing so), that does not alter the facts of our nature. It might be easier to behave as all our friends behave, and hard to see why we should not, but the essence of humanity does not change, and neither does the way we attain lasting happiness.

But how do we express this teaching? By a doctrine of "natural law"? But is today the idea of law is no less problematic than that of "norms" and "ideals", as Remi Brague points out in his book The Law of God. There he traces the evolution by which, with the separation of will from reason, the cosmological from the ethical, the laws of nature from the moral law, in the High Middle Ages, what was lost was the sense that God himself is subject to a law, the law of love, in which both will and reason find their home. The moral law then became nothing but an act of will imposed by God, and ultimately by man as God receded into the background. For Prof. Brague, according to Christianity God gives himself "before asking anything of us and instead of asking". He wants nothing from us but to receive his gift and to give ourselves freely in return. Instead of offering the Law as a way to salvation, he offers himself as "viaticum" (provisions for a journey) in order to make it possible for us to love as he loves.

Our moral teachers should explain and show more clearly why the Church's ideals of human behaviour constitute the way to happiness and beauty, so that those of us who stray may have good reason to turn our feet back in that direction. But most moralists rest content with affirming the list of rules, at best explaining why they are consistent and coherent, in a language that fails to communicate to those who do not already accept the authority of the Church. Surely it would be better to explain the teaching as a complete way of life, and a vision of reality; in other words, as a spirituality rather than a rulebook? And better still to live that way oneself, so that everyone could see revealed in us the joy that comes from walking towards the light.

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