Moral Conscience Needs More Than The Catechism
How do we grow in light of the Church’s teachings? The answer isn’t as simple as it might seem. Sarah-Leah Pimentel explains.
For many generations of Catholics, religious formation began in the early years of our lives. There are holy pictures in our homes and we learn the names of Mary, Jesus and the favourite saints of the household at around the same time as we learn the names of our family members. Our parents teach us our first prayers.
The Church takes up the formal task of catechism for the parish children. For many, this formation begins at the age of six or seven and continues until confirmation. Confirmation used to happen at the age of about 10 or 11. Only more recently have we waited a little longer for our children to mature before asking them to confirm their commitment to the faith, at around the age of 16.
After this, all formal education around the faith ends. Somehow, we hope, the lists of do’s and don’ts and lessons around a relatively small range of moral decisions (which in the teen years seem to concentrate on sexual choices) are enough to guide the average Catholic through the ups and downs of life. To be a Catholic is not simply to follow a set of rules
Perhaps in earlier generations, when people lived simpler lives supported by cradle-to-the grave communities that remained unchanged for decades, this might have been enough. Life had its rhythms and limited choices. So did the Church. Together, the community and Church formed a sufficient foundation for most of life’s moral challenges.
This is no longer the case. Many Catholics today live in large, diverse societies in which one can choose to be anything and do anything. All is seen as valid and almost all is permissible. As a modern woman, I am delighted by the many choices life has offered me. My cosmopolitan existence has allowed me to encounter and befriend people from all walks of life. Some share my religious background. Many do not.
Two basic choices?
The lack of boundaries in modern living also makes it far harder to make those moral choices. It is almost as if modern Catholics have two basic choices. One is to return to the simplistic lists of dos and don’ts we learned as children and try to make all of life fit into those categories. In some ways, it makes things easier. Things are good or bad. Black or white. You don’t get lost in the moral abyss of doubt. But it also makes it far harder to experience or show mercy.
The other option is to delve into the difficult moral questions of a globalised world that no longer has the Catholic Church and its teachings as the moral centre of civil life. It is an uncomfortable space. It challenges the Christian to test, so to speak, the Church’s teachings against the myriad choices that society offers.
Unfortunately, the ten or so years of formal catechism that most Catholics receive before the age of 18 (that is, before life becomes complicated) does not offer enough of a foundation which can help them in making moral decisions. This is so for several reasons.
Firstly, childhood catechism is taught at the level that the child is at. “Do not steal sweets from your friend” is a very concrete message for a child. But as an adult, the lines of what could constitute theft can become very blurred. Paying tax to a government that misuses taxpayers’ money, or cutting back on employee benefits to maximise profit, or opting to purchase cheaper resources from companies abroad that exploit their workers, are just a few examples.
Can any of us honestly remember from our childhood catechism the Church’s teachings about bioethics? Or rather, did we even cover this topic?
Recently we were faced with social media claims that a cell line of an aborted foetus has been used to manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine. The pharmaceutical companies very strongly denied this, and the Vatican has said that “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted foetuses” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available to the public. But the “licit” uses of such vaccines “does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted foetuses”. As individuals, we cannot possibly make a fully informed moral choice on this, and a plethora of other issues, until we know what the Church teaches.
But even that is not enough. Ultimately, to be a Catholic is not simply to follow a set of rules. If we are relying on the Church to tell us at every turn how we should live, then we are not exercising the greatest gift that God gave us — our free will.
The gift of free will
Ultimately, the formation of a moral conscience is the exercise of our free will. To have free will is not to do exactly as we please without a care for consequence. It is a discipline that requires discernment, questioning, doubting at times. It is a process that invites us to examine the Church’s 2000-year wisdom and experience: to read what the Church teaches on a variety of issues, to listen to the full perspective of the Church’s thinkers, both contemporary and historic.
The formation of moral conscience is a prayer exercise: to kneel before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the courage and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to discern what God’s will is within the context of our individual challenge and the guidance of the Church. And ultimately, the moral conscience makes an informed decision. Time will test that decision and we may revise the decision, based on experience, additional discernment or a change of circumstances.
Very often, the choice may well be in accordance with the Church’s teaching. The difference is that we did not follow blindly but made our decision on the basis of a deep process of prayer and discernment.
Sometimes, however, that decision will be contrary to Church teaching. That does not necessarily mean that we have sinned. It may simply mean that our discernment took into account other factors, such as the greater good, or that we have not yet reached the maturity to make a different decision. In some cases, the Church also may not have complete answers and we chose a different way.
Ultimately, God will not judge us on the decision that we took, but rather on the spiritual growth that led to that decision. We read in the Gospel: “Not everyone who keeps saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom from heaven, but only the person who keeps doing the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7-21).
The Christian life is about so much more than following rules. It is a journey of discovering the will of God for our lives. No two journeys are the same. The rules help, but ultimately each of us must decide for ourselves.
Sarah-Leah Pimentel is based in Cape Town.
This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of the Southern Cross
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