Indefensible: Moral Teaching after 'Humanae Vitae'

By Dummett, Michael | Commonweal, February 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

Indefensible: Moral Teaching after 'Humanae Vitae'


Dummett, Michael, Commonweal


Not all religions have imposed moral precepts upon their adherents, but all those known as "world religions" have made such a firm connection between their practice and the practice of the moral virtues. Living a morally upright life is, in the teaching of any of these religions, essential for salvation, however the particular religion conceives of it.

A tight connection between religion and morality may be held to distinguish the advanced religions from more primitive ones such as the religion of classical Greece, greatly to the credit of the advanced religions. But these religions do not merely exhort their followers to live virtuous lives, they lay down what they take to be the correct principles of morality These may be challenged by philosophers and others: the philosopher Bernard Williams asserted with satisfaction that no one now regards chastity as a virtue. It is a mistake to believe that there is a universal morality shared among all human beings, or all civilized human beings. There is, no doubt, a consensus about the right way to behave in everyday life, not toward other people in general but toward those regarded as equals, but this covers only a few of our actions. Beyond that, religions differ almost as much in the moral principles they proclaim as in their beliefs about the world and the destiny of men and women.

Christian morality is distinctive, and goes back to apostolic times. In sexual matters it is severe, demanding monogamy, unlike Hinduism, Islam, and the Old Testament patriarchs, and rejecting divorce, unlike Judaism and Islam. It also condemns suicide, in opposition to the ancient Hindu practice of widows burning themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres, and to the demands made by personal honor in Japan, in ancient Rome, and among British gentlemen; the ethic of honor is opposed by Christian humility and forgiveness. Above all, Christ taught that there is no one who does not count: those of a different race, those of lower caste or none at all, slaves--all are our neighbors.

The Catholic Church claims to teach with divine authority the contents of revelation, but holds that much of the moral law is accessible to all human beings by the use of reason. As there is doctrinal development that draws out what had only been implicit in the original revelation, so there can be moral development leading us to perceive as wrong what we had previously taken to be allowable. This includes slavery and torture; the church is now moving toward condemning capital punishment, which its moral theologians have traditionally rated as legitimate. The traditional Catholic teaching laying down the conditions for a just war hardly needs reconsideration, since modern weapons of mass destruction render it obsolete by preventing any present or future war from meeting these conditions; and this fact has in effect been recognized by the church. The confession of past wrongs done by Catholics organized in St. Peter's by Pope John Paul II went far to repudiate many acts that have besmirched the church's history--the burning of heretics, the encouragement of anti-Semitism, the Crusades. But it was defective in attributing these wrongs to the actions of individual members and not to the church as an institution. Catholics accept the claim of the church to have been founded by Christ and to be protected from erroneous teaching by the Holy Spirit. But they cannot deny that it is also a human institution, and acts in the world as do other human institutions. It is necessary for them to distinguish between its actions that are acts of such a human institution and those that flow from its divine founder or come under the protection of the Spirit. That is a delicate line to draw, but it is plainly of the utmost importance to draw it. Many of the actions included in the public confession in St. Peter's were acts not just of errant individuals, but of the church as an institution. An adequate repentance and self-correction needs to recognize that. …

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Indefensible: Moral Teaching after 'Humanae Vitae'
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