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Moral theology: a reader

30 November, 1999

This is a selection of essays on some central moral concerns of modern life – how to approach moral judgements, what is the meaning of natural law and the role of faith in personal decision making.

194 pp, Veritas, 2006. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


Introduction – Patrick Hannon
Five Ways of Looking at Morality  – Donal Harrington
Is There a Natural Law? – Donal Harrington
Approaching Christian Morality – Vincent MacNamara
Christian Faith and Morality – Vincent MacNamara
Forming and Following One’s Conscience – Linda Hogan
Justifying Moral Positions – Vincent MacNamara
Moral Character – Bill Cosgrave
Can Goodness Be Taught? – Pádraig Hogan
Sin and Sinfulness – Hugh Connolly
A Feminist Approach to Sin – Elizabeth Rees
HIV and Catholic Theology – Julie Clague



This book is a selection of essays on some central concerns of Catholic moral theology, including conscience, approaching moral judgements, forming one’s conscience, the meaning of ‘natural law’, how Christian faith may illuminate both personal moral positions and decisions and the response of the Church to such problems as sin, forgivness, goodness, a feminist approach and the AIDS pandemic,

Each essay in the collection could prove useful for group discussion work, especially with beginners.  The book provides a workable framework that should be helpful for a systematic study of moral theology in the Church.it is especially suitable for use with Patrick Hannon’s Moral Decision Making (Veritas, 2005).

Chapter One : Five Ways of Looking at Morality
Donal Harrington

The main concern of this chapter is to present in outline five different but inter-related ways of looking at morality.

From What to How
People differ in their views on moral issues both in the Church and in society generally today. Such difference may well be the most striking aspect of the contemporary experience of morality, though some would find it confusing while others find it enriching. But underneath the different views people have on particular issues, there are different ideas as to what morality itself is.

These underlying differences are reflected in the language people use. One person says: ‘If you do what you feel is right, then you are right.’ Another says: Young people don’t know the Ten Commandments anymore.’ Yet another says:’All that really matters is love.’ Such differences themselves raise further questions. Should we do as we feel or as we are told? Is there an objective right and wrong? Is love enough?

For the moment, though, let us stay with the statement that people differ in their ideas as to what morality means. Frequently these ideas are more implicit than explicit. People may be quite clear in their own minds as to their views on the rights and wrongs of lying or violence or divorce or euthanasia. But their differences on such issues may conceal underlying differences about the nature of morality and of which the individuals themselves are not fully aware.

In order to get in touch with these underlying ideas, we would need to stand back a little from the firmness of our convictions and the heat of debate. We would need to turn the spotlight from what we think to how we think. We might then find that there is a range of factors that come into play in moral discussions, such as feeling and principles and love and consequences. We might find that our own personal style or method of thinking represents a good balance of these factors, or that it emphasises some more than others, or even that it concentrates on one to the neglect of others.

Some may have already worked out these matters for themselves. Many of us, however, will not have done so. Many of us have simply fallen into a particular way of thinking. That style of thinking may have come from our parents or it may have come from reacting against our parents. It may have come from the culture or it may be counter-cultural. But the point is that it is more like something that has happened to us than something we have really sorted out for ourselves. As a result we may be less free than we suppose in our ethical thinking.

The concern of this chapter is to make explicit some of these underlying ways of thinking about morality. We will identify and outline five different ways of thinking about morality. These are:

1 Morality understood as law;
2 Morality as inner conviction;
3 Morality as personal growth;
4 Morality as love;
5 Morality as social transformation.
It may well be that the reader will think of other approaches, or will prefer to put these ones differently, but these five seem to be fairly representative of the range of ways we see morality. While it will be easy to recognise all five, we may be able to recognise only some of them in a way we ourselves think. All five are right in the sense that each stands for some important aspect of morality. One might, however, feel that some present a fuller picture than others.

Somebody once used the phrase: ‘the truth looks different from here.’ The phrase suggests both a sense that there is something objective and a sense that there are different perspectives. There is something that we call morality, but it looks different from different perspectives. It is like looking into a room through its different windows; each view is real and true and still it is only one view. Somewhat similarly, each of these five ways of looking at morality is a valid view, but only the five together yield a complete picture.

Morality as Law
The first way of looking at morality is to see it in terms of law. This is probably the one that will be most familiar to us, both from our experience of living in society and from our experience in the Church. But it is also one that is often dismissed too hastily because of the negative connotations it can have.

In this view morality is something external, in the sense that it is not something of our own creation but rather something that imposes itself on us. It is given to us, not made by us; something we discover and not something we create. One thinks of the famous line in Sophocles’ play Antigone where the eponymous heroine resists the unjust laws of King Creon.

Nor did I think that your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.

To speak of morality as law is to speak of it as being bigger than any of us. While society can make and change its laws, the moral law is different. It is beyond our determination and to it we must submit.

Because morality is understood as coming from outside of us, it is often associated with an authority figure. Morality is seen to come from our parents, or the parish priest, or the Pope. If this aspect is strongly emphasised, it can appear that a particular action is wrong or right because this figure says so, rather than on the grounds of rational arguments. Some people who see morality this way, when asked why a particular action is wrong, cannot give any reasons other than ‘because the Pope (or some other authority figure) says so’.

The truth, however, is that not alone does morality come from outside of us, but it also comes outside such authority figures. In other words, morality is founded on the nature of things and not on any individual will; it is objective. What morality understood as law emphasises is that there is a moral order to the universe and that it is not within any human being’s power to decide what that order is. At the same time we can work it out, through reflection and discussion. To help us work it out, authority figures interpret this order to us or for us; but they do not create it.

Because this view of morality is so closely associated in our minds with authority, our own role has often been cast in terms of duty or obedience. It is probably no exaggeration to say that, a generation or two ago, such words seemed to sum up what for most people morality was all about. Obedience was the fundamental virtue. One thinks of the words of Jesus: ‘Do you thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that was commanded of you, say “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'” (Lk 17:9-10).

We could easily slip into caricature when reflecting on the language of authority and obedience in morals, and so these words of Jesus are salutary. Of course, obedience may and often does become blind but in the present context what the word entails primarily is the recognition that the moral order is something greater than ourselves, not of our own making, and therefore demanding our profound respect.

The words reward and punishment are also very much a part of this way of looking at morality. They stand for the outcomes of moral behaviour. If morality comes to me as a demand from without, as law, and if the response called for is a sense of duty and an attitude of obedience, then reward is what follows on such a response, punishment on its opposite. The sanctions themselves may be anything from a sweet or a spanking for a child, to the eternal sanctions we know as heaven and hell.

Sometimes it is felt that this language betrays a selfish moral attitude. The morality of Christians is compared with that of others who have no religious affiliation. It is said that, for the latter, morality is purer because it is done for its own sake, whereas the religious motivation may be far from other-centred and more a matter of ‘saving my soul’. No doubt this is sometimes the case and it is another instance of how the view of morality as law may become distorted.

Morality as Inner Conviction
The term ‘inner conviction’ not alone describes the second way of looking at morality, but also captures the contrast between it and the first way. Whereas in the first way morality came from without, here it arises from within. This too can be  caricatured, as if morality were simply something we make up for ourselves as we go along. Rather, what is meant is that morality has been internalised. It is not simply an imposition by some authority, demanding our obedience, but it is a requirement arising from an inner conviction.

As a psychological experience, inner conviction comes later in life than obedience. A child can obey without knowing why; it is only later that we grow in the capacity to think for ourselves. But when we can think out right and wrong for ourselves, then we make the law our own. Now we can see for ourselves why the law commends this and forbids that. It is now an inner law, where values are personal convictions and not arbitrary impositions. In exceptional cases we may even come to the conviction that a particular formulation of the moral law is wrong or inapplicable or in conflict with moral value.

This inner law goes by the name of conscience and thus conscience is a key word within this second perspective on morality. Vatican II’s document The Church in the Modern World put it that ‘deep within our conscience we discover a law which we have not laid upon ourselves but which we must obey’ (paragraph 16). This is the inner law, the law which has become part of a person, a person’s own conscientious conviction. We come to the stage, for instance, when we no longer need another to tell us not to steal because we have come to see and feel its injustice for ourselves.

But at this stage, the language of law and obedience, which is used in the quotation from Vatican II, begins to appear inadequate because of its external focus. To describe what is meant by being moral or not being moral, words like integrity and authenticity are now more appropriate. If values are internalised and if conviction comes from within, then morality is a matter of being faithful to our inner voice or inner wisdom. This is what is meant by speaking of a person of integrity, one who does not betray deeply held convictions on what is felt to be right because of some temptation of gain or some pressure of the moment.

Likewise, the language of reward and punishment – as when it is said that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked yields to something less extrinsic. If morality comes from within it hardly makes sense to think in terms of an external authority conferring reward or punishment. Instead, reward and punishment are seen as self-bestowed or self-inflicted. This is where we speak of the alternatives of inner peace versus inner disquiet.

The inner peace of a good conscience attends the knowledge that I have been true to my principles. The reward is all the greater if this integrity has been achieved at some price, if it has cost some sacrifice along the way. On the other hand, an inner disquiet accompanies the realisation that I have failed myself by going against what I know to be right. I feel guilty, my conscience is pained. To the conscientious person, no externally imposed punishment could be more painful than this disappointment with self.

Morality as Personal Growth
With this third way of looking at morality we achieve a very valuable expansion of our understanding. What sets it off from the first two ways is that, whereas they focus mainly on our moral behaviour in itself, what we do and what we shun, now the focus is shifted onto ourselves. We move, in other words, from the action being done to the person doing it. Our attention shifts to what is happening the person as a result of the action.

Take, for example, the telling of lies. We can speak in terms of a commandment that prohibits telling lies, and we can even inquire what exceptions there might be to this command. In terms of morality as inner conviction, we can speak of a conscientious conviction as to the wrongfulness of deceit and the harmfulness of deceiving. But this third view of morality adds a further perspective by asking: what happens the person? It suggests that the real tragedy in deceit lies not in the infringement of a law but in a person’s becoming dishonest, or in a relationship becoming false thereby.

In the moral tradition this way of seeing things is represented by the language of virtue and vice. While this language has lost much of its richness today (think of phrases such as a person of ‘easy virtue’ or ‘the vice squad’), within the moral tradition it refers to a way of thinking about morality
that emphasises the personal qualities that are the outcome of behaving consistently in determinate ways. Virtues and vices are the good and bad dispositions or qualities that result from and the inspire our actions.

If I repeatedly lie, I become more of a deceitful person, and the more I do so, the more am I inclined by this vicious quality to behave thus on future occasions. And the same is true of the converse. Thomas Aquinas remarked that it is very hard for people in the state of grace to commit sin, because their whole inclination goes against it. Thus virtues and vices might be called moral habits. They are dispositions which arise out of patterns of behaviour and which then dispose the person to act in certain ways in the future.

It is worth noting that this way of thinking is of great antiquity, just as is the language of law. While the Old Testament was setting forth what we know as the Ten Commandments, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle were articulating a view of morality in terms of virtue. Their influence is reflected in the fact that the great thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, in composing the moral section of his compendium of theology, the Summa Theologiae, chose virtue rather than commandment as his framework the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance. It is only in more recent centuries that the language of law has dominated to the extent of almost eclipsing from our horizon the language of virtue.

In shifting the focus back to what is happening the person, we also move from a more static to a more dynamic view of morality. The first and second views tend to be concerned in their different ways with the rights and wrongs of particular actions. But if the focus is on what is happening the person, then that allows us to speak of change in the person, be it development or regression. This is the language of moral conversion. It gives us access to the dynamics of challenge and change, of what it is like for people to try to change for the better.

Finally there are the outcomes of morality as understood within this view. Previously we had spoken of reward and punishment and of good or uneasy conscience. In this third view we would speak of the contrast of wholeness versus fragmentation. The personal qualities that we call virtues are
many, such as truthfulness, courage, humility, non-violence, compassion. Each might be seen as a partial realisation of self. So growth in virtue is a many-sided challenge and as growth proceeds on different fronts, albeit unevenly, we are becoming whole, the fully-rounded persons that God envisaged in our creation. Conversely, when virtue is mingled with vice, to that extent the thrust towards wholeness is frustrated and our moral being is becoming fragmented.

Morality as Love
For all that we have referred to already, there are still vast areas of morality that we have not touched on. This is because the first three perspectives all concentrate on the moral agent as an individual person. The remaining two perspectives add to this considerably by seeing morality in terms of relationship and by seeing the moral agent as fundamentally social. This, of course, is a welcome corrective to individualistic tendencies in moral thinking.

In speaking of morality as love, we have in mind the idea that we are primarily relational beings. To explain this we might think of the analogy of the pieces in a chess game. Apart from their place on the board the pieces are incomprehensible, shorn of their essential meaning. Likewise, people are social. They exist in relation to one another as do the pieces on the board.
Apart from the other we are cut off from essential aspects of what we are. Even hermits have spoken of their ‘leaving’ the world as a way of coming closer to the world.

Contemporary philosophy highlights the category of ‘the other’. This suggests that the primary moral experience is an experience of other persons. Or, to use an image popular in moral theology, the structure of moral reality is one of ‘invitation and response’. Because we inhabit the same space, each of us, simply by virtue of our common humanity, exerts a call or invitation to each other. My presence before you is implicitly a call on you for your kindness and courtesy, a call on your sense of fairness and your sense of sympathy.

Within this perspective, being moral is a matter of being faithful to the fact of our interrelatedness and to the demands of relationship. It is about becoming alive to the fact, and being responsive to the demands that it entails. It is about going beyond ourselves, transcending our own egoism and egoistic horizons, and in the process realising our existence as love realising that what we are and can be is simply ‘love’.

The alternative to this is betrayal. Betrayal means any stance or act or omission that amounts to a denial of our common humanity. Because morality is cast in terms of interrelatedness, what wrong-doing amounts to is basically a matter of betrayal of others or another, rather than a private matter. However, it should also be said that in failing others we are also failing ourselves. In not responding to the demands of a relationship we are also betraying ourselves and missing out on our own self-realisation.

When morality is seen as love, the outcomes of being moral might be expressed in terms of communion versus isolation. Whereas reward and punishment refer to what happens people as a consequence of their actions, these terms speak of what happens to a relationship. Insofar as people assent to the invitation-response structure of existence, they grow in communion; insofar as they do not respond to the demands of relationship, they betray, and the outcome is isolation.

The words communion and isolation give a deeper insight into the meaning of reward and punishment. If morality is about responding in relationship, then communion is clearly the ‘reward’, though reward is no longer a serviceable term, as it suggests something extrinsically added, whereas communion is the intrinsic outcome of being faithful to each other. Likewise, isolation is punishment in this intrinsic sense rather than an externally imposed sanction. When we recall that without relationship there is no flourishing, we can appreciate how great a punishment it is.

Morality as Social Transformation
The fifth and final way of looking at morality opens on to yet a further horizon. It continues to see morality as a relationship but it goes beyond the small world of interpersonal relationships to the larger world that is society. And just as the view of morality as love was seen as a corrective to individualism in morality, so this broader view is to be welcomed for transcending the tendency to live within our own small circle without any great advertence to the moral issues affecting society or the world as a  whole. It also transcends the tendency to tribalism, the attitude that sees moral obligation extending only to our own – the attitude Jesus had in mind when he said: ‘For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?’ (Mt 5:46).

So moral obligation, like the ripples in the water, keeps reaching outwards. There is nobody who is not our neighbour; all humanity in some real way calls for our response. The word that stands for this perspective is ‘justice’ – a word that has come dramatically to the centre of moral consciousness in contemporary society. This is not to say that justice had hitherto been neglected; rather it has emerged with new meaning.

The classical definition was that justice is the constant determination to give to every person what is due to that person. However, it is fair to say that we have tended to think about this largely with reference to one-to-one relationships. What is new about today’s sense of justice is its sense of responsibility, not just to the individual other, but also for the ‘whole state of affairs’. This is captured by the now widely used term ‘social justice’.

In this fifth way of looking at morality, being moral is about being personally affected by suffering and injustice and being motivated to do what one can in response. It is about a sense of solidarity with victims, all who lose out or are discriminated against or suffer, be they as near as next door or far across the globe. And responding is not just a matter of providing immediate aid; it also involves asking why the wrongs are happening and questioning the way things are structured in society.

The opposite of such solidarity is individualism. The pressure of competition encourages the individualistic mentality that it is everyone for himself or herself. When this mentality pervades, justice is reduced to keeping within the law; and any sense of solidarity is numbed by the pressure to get on and to succeed. It is not that getting on and succeeding are anything but good, but that something serious is wrong when their pressure is such as to numb the sense of solidarity, or even to rationalise it away in phrases such as ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ and ‘it’s their own fault if they’re poor’.

The possible outcomes of morality on this view could be described in terms of social peace versus division. When there is a lively sense of solidarity there is the possibility of transforming society into a place where the humanity of each is cherished and where nobody’s suffering is tolerated. In the Christian tradition this is what is known as peace. To quote again from The Church in the Modern World (paragraph 78): ‘Peace is more than the absence of war … A firm determination to respect the dignity of other persons and other peoples, along with the deliberate practice of fraternal love, are absolutely necessary for the achievement of peace.’ Whereas if the individualistic ethic prevails, to that extent the divisions that are already there are only deepened and, as the saying goes, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Finally, a further dimension of this view of morality should be acknowledged. It is that, as the concept of justice has broadened in recent times in the way described, it has also come to embrace the issue of humanity’s relationship to the environment and to proclaim this to be a moral question of immense proportions. In some real sense, our ‘solidarity’ is to be with all of creation. We are to understand all creation as one great community or partnership of being and we, the conscious or reflective level in the whole of creation, are called to learn respect and to repent abuse. 

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