March 19, 2012
Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
There are different ways of confronting the ethical
task of searching for the right solution to a moral question,
or what is called moral truth.
One approach, the older one, tends to consider
reality in the abstract and so to distance itself from the forces shaping the
contemporary world. It lays stress on the eternal, the universal and the
immutable and for the most part attempts to deduce conclusions from general
principles. For this reason it is usually called the
deductive method. In Christian ethics or moral theology, this way of doing
ethics emphasises law, authority and the hierarchical magisterium, and views
departure from them as disloyalty. As a result it aims at finding security,
simplicity and, as far as possible in moral matters, certainty.
Another approach, largely stemming from modern
ecclesial and theological perspectives on human existence, is much more attuned
to history and experience. This way of looking at reality focuses on the
particular, the individual and the contingent. It tends to argue inductively, beginning with life experience as its starting point
and working back from this to general moral principles. It places more emphasis
on persons and personal conscience than on law and authority, though of course
these are not denied. This approach has led to a readiness to re-examine some
traditional formulations that were authoritatively proposed to the Christian
community, a task that is far from easy and not always successful.
In the Church the change to the
second approach is
very evident, for instance, in the development of social morality. Pope Leo
XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum
projects an older world view with its divinely ordained, hierarchical model of
society, in which members are born unequal, private property is seen as almost a
metaphysical right and a static human nature is presented as the ground for an
immutable and universally applicable natural law. However, by the time of Pope
John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in
Terris and especially Vatican 2's 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church
in the World Today Gaudium et Spes the
focus has moved to discernment of the signs of the times as the distinctive
characteristic of the contemporary situation.
This change of emphasis becomes even more evident
in Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical on the development of peoples Populorum Progressio and especially in the same Pope's apostolic
letter Octogesima Adveniens in 1971,
which significantly departs from the first approach spoken of above. There is no
mention of a universal plan, based on natural law and applicable to all
situations. Rather, the Christian communities themselves are called upon to
analyse their own particular situation in the light of the Gospel and the
teaching of the Church in order to
discern what needs to be done in the way of social and political reforms. This
is a dynamic and challenging approach, which involves all the members of the
Church in the role of discerning and carrying out the Church's mission.
In other moral areas, particularly in the fields of
family, sexuality and bioethics, the magisterium of the Church has not been so
ready to change. Pope John Paul II's 1993 encyclical Veritatis
Splendor, in discussing fundamental moral principles, largely reflects the
first approach to addressing moral issues. The Pope tends to argue deductively
from an abstract human essence, seeming to neglect its embodied situation,
although there are some indications to the contrary.
However, in moral theology we have seen a serious attempt to implement
and follow through the second approach, without of course abandoning deductive
reasoning. There has been much more emphasis on the historical reality at issue,
that is, on the actual situation as well as on the level of development of the
person involved in that often complex situation. The impact of human experience
is given much greater importance and hence attention is directed to data drawn
from the social sciences, especially psychology and sociology, which help to
illuminate human experience.
A good example of these two different approaches is
furnished by the issue of contraception.
Both the above approaches have their own validity
and both are still used in moral decision making. The final resolution about how they are to be integrated remains in the melting pot, but some implications
of reasoning inductively are pretty clear.
rules are today understood as deriving in the first instance from the meaning
and value of the human person, as a long tradition affirms, but in descending
from such general principles to concrete moral conclusions the importance of
experience in determining what is or is not in keeping with the dignity of the
human person is emphasised more strongly today. This means that we are less
inclined to claim certainty about complex moral issues than was the case in the
past. This may be less be comfortable than the securities of the past but it is
more open to the demands of moral truth.
inductive method demands that more notice be taken of what others think about
moral problems. More attention has to be given to the empirical sciences
regarding human behaviour, human aspirations, fears, confusions and hang-ups.
Not that they have always to be taken entirely, especially if their conclusions
clearly conflict with fundamental moral principles, but they should enlighten
our thinking and help us in reaching sound judgments. The same should be said in
regard to the experience of the larger community and of other cultures. What
people generally think about moral questions needs to be taken seriously.
3. Wider consultation of this nature will enable
moral thinkers to formulate statements about morality with greater care and in
language and according to thought patterns more accessible and meaningful to
people today. Historically this has happened in regard to usury, once considered
wrong. A similar change from an earlier understanding of human liberty happened