Ethics is not simply a question of what "What should I do in this situation?" but also, and even more fundamentally, a question of who "Who do I want to become?
Shortly before his election to the papacy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said that one of the biggest challenges to faith in the modern world is relativism – the view that there is no moral or religious truth to which we are all accountable. Indeed, the relativistic perspective that dominates much of the Western world makes it very difficult for Christians to talk about morality.
"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism," Ratzinger said. "Whereas relativismseems the only attitude that is acceptable in modern times."
The person who is not a relativist today is often not tolerated in society. The pro-life woman, for example, who says abortion is wrong is likely to be called "judgmental." The Christian college student who says drunkenness and pre-marital sex are immoral will be brushed aside as "rigid," "out-of-touch", or "prudish." In this way, our relativistic culture tends to marginalize those who hold traditional moral convictions. As Ratzinger noted, relativism is emerging as a new kind of totalitarianism – one which seeks to push the Christian belief in truth further out of the mainstream.
"We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."
Ratzinger's comments are interesting not for the implication they have for understanding particular moral issues, such as questions about abortion, sexuality, or the use of alcohol. Rather, his insights remind us that faithful Christians and moral relativists have radically different worldviews. The problem is not simply that many people in our culture do not think abortion, pre-marital sex, or drunkenness are morally wrong. The problem is much deeper: many no longer believe in a moral standard altogether.
In a relativistic culture that assumes everyone should be free to determine their own values and live whatever way they desire, Christian talk about moral standards sounds like a bunch of rules imposed on people's private lives that restrict their freedom. This is why Christians must do more than address the particular moral questions of the day. We also need to engage at the higher level of worldview if we are to be effective in communicating moral truth.
But to do so is no simple task, and not one that can be done quickly. It is a lot easier to give a five-point argument for a particular issue than it is to understand, unpack and address one's entire outlook on life. To do that, it will be important to step back and consider key features of a Catholic moral worldview. This we will do over the next several columns, starting briefly with the following introductory reflections.
More than Rules
When teaching morality, I have often asked my students on the first day of class to write down two lists: First, a list of what they think are the top five to ten moral issues we face today and second, a list of what they want to be remembered for at the end of their lives.
When they tell me about their top moral concerns, the students typically mention a wide range of human life issues such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, war, and cloning. They also tend mention matters related to sobriety (drug use, drunkenness), sexuality (pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexuality), and general social-economic issues (poverty, corporate greed, the environment). After writing each of these topics on the left side of the chalk board, I then tell them that this list reflects a very modern view of ethics.
"Man finds himself only when he makes himself a sincere gift to others." Or, as Mother Teresa put it, "Unless a life is lived for others, it is not worth living."
Indeed, for many people today, the word "morality" has the connotation of being primarily about rules of conduct or a code for behavior, such as "thou shall not steal" and "Thou shall not commit adultery." The modern notion of morality tends to focus on assessing particular as good or evil. A rules-focused morality primarily considers the question of what – what should one do if faced with a particular choice or situation?
The classical tradition, however, had a much broader moral vision. The Greek word that ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle used to describe the drama of the moral life was ethikos, which means "pertaining to character." For them, ethics was more than a consideration of whether particular actions were good or evil and much more than rules that come into play in certain "moral situations." For them, practically every situation throughout one's daily life was a "moral situation" because ethics were fundamentally about a person's character – his or her dispositions to live a certain kind of life. As such, the whole person was considered by one's virtues and vices. How well one responds to hunger, fear, anger and setbacks in life; how generously one responds to the needs of others; how much one seeks wealth, pleasure and praise – these were the kind of topics often addressed in ethics.
Moreover, ethics ultimately considered where a person's life was heading, what kind of person one was becoming. In sum, ethics was not simply a question of what – "What should I do in this situation?" – but also, and even more fundamentally, a question of who – "Who do I want to become?"
A Question of Character
When I ask my students about the second list regarding how they wanted to be remembered after they died, I typically receive two kinds of responses. First, the students mention various qualities: they want to be remembered as being loyal, kind, generous, sincere, hard-working, loving, honest, selfless or courageous. I write these on the right side of the board and point out that these qualities are virtues. This list more closely reflects the classical understanding of ethics being primarily not about rules or certain moral issue but about virtues and one's personal moral character. Am I becoming a more generous person? A more patient person? A more honest person? These questions get more to the heart of ethics.
Second, students also tend to mention various relationships for which they want to be remembered: they hope to be known as a good friend, a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, a good Christian, someone who "made a difference" in other people's lives. This underscores another aspect of a Catholic moral vision: ethics is all about living our fundamental relationships well. Am I a good son? A good husband or wife? A good father? A good friend? A good citizen? A good son to my heavenly Father? These are the questions at the center of a Catholic moral worldview. The moral laws and how they relate to particular situations must always be seen in the larger context of how they help us to live our relationships with God and neighbor well, for, as we will see, that is where we find happiness.
Made for Friendship
The ultimate friendship we are made for is with God. Indeed, the goal of a human life is to enjoy friendship with God forever in heaven. Accordingly, St. Thomas Aquinas defined the supernatural virtue of charity (love) as friendship with God.
Living our relationships well is crucial for a successful life, for human persons are made for friendship. This can be seen in the first chapter of the Bible: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). Notice how God uses the first person plural: "Let us make man in our image and likeness, after our likeness." Christians have seen in this an early hint of the three Persons of the Trinity. And this tells us a lot about our lives. Since God exists as a communion of three divine Persons giving themselves completely in love to each other, the fact that we are made in the image of that God – not some vague supernatural "higher power," but the Triune God – tells us we are meant to live like the Trinity. We are made for communion with others. We are made for relationships of self-giving love, so that our lives might truly reflect the Trinity in whose image we were created.
Written into the fabric of our being is this law of self-giving: only when we live our relationships in imitation of the self-giving love of the Trinity will we find happiness and fulfillment in life. As Vatican II taught, "Man finds himself only when he makes himself a sincere gift to others." Or, as Mother Teresa put it, "Unless a life is lived for others, it is not worth living."
But one does not need to be a Christian or believe in the Bible to grasp this point. Even ancient philosophers saw that human persons were made for friendship and that we find fulfillment in life only when we live our relationships well. Aristotle taught that a good life is all about living true friendship virtuously. No other good on this earth, be it wealth, pleasure, health, or power, would be worth having if one did not have friends: "For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods" (NE 1155a1-3).
The Christian tradition affirms this insight from Aristotle, but goes a step further. The ultimate friendship we are made for is with God. Indeed, the goal of a human life is to enjoy friendship with God forever in heaven. Accordingly, St. Thomas Aquinas defined the supernatural virtue of charity (love) as friendship with God.
In sum, ethics is primarily not about following a set of rules, but about living our relationships with virtue and excellence. Indeed, when Jesus Himself was asked to sum up the moral law, He did so relationally, focusing on love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:36-39). We need to follow God's moral laws, but, as we will see in subsequent columns, those laws must be seen as being given by God to assist us in living a good, happy life – a life focused on loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as Christ loved us.
Edward Sri a professor of theology and Vice President of Mission and Outreach at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. Sri is also a founding leader with Curtis Martin of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). He resides with his wife Elizabeth and their eight children in Littleton, Colorado. Among his books are Into His Likenes Be Transformed as a Disciple of Christ, Praying the Rosary Like Never Before: Encounter the Wonder of Heaven and Earth, Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love, Love Unveiled, Rediscovering the Heart of the Disciple: Pope Francis and the Joy of the Gospel, Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II's 'Love and Responsibility', The Bible Compass: A Catholic's Guide to Navigating the Scriptures, A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy, Mystery of the Kingdom, The New Rosary in Scripture: Biblical Insights for Praying the 20 Mysteries, and Queen Mother. Visit Edward Sri's website here.Copyright © 2011 Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II's Love and Responsibility
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