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Ethics - the Problem
Ethics - the Solution
November 10, 2013
"We cannot know God without knowing ourselves." - John Calvin, Commentaries on Jeremiah
A brief definition of Catholic Ethics: (1) a system of philosophical inquiry divided into the three classifications of Deontology, Revisionism, and Virtue Ethics; (2) physical obedience to a commandment.
Of the several different forms of Christian Catholicism, this article focuses solely on Roman Catholic doctrines and practices.
Each ideology exists separate from the others simply because each ideology is different than the others. Each ideology has its own worldview, and each ideology survives for as long as there are humans who share a similar worldview. The only honorable and intelligent method of learning of an ideology's worldview is for the investigator to become a member of the ideology, to share a similar worldview, to master the ideology, and to fully believe that the ideology is the one truth in one's own life. Though I have read around three-hundred Christian theology books (the majority of the books were, of course, predominately slanted to favor the Protestant view), and though I have had the opportunity to live a life that has traveled through a few contrasting ideologies so that I might learn of their beliefs firsthand, it was never possible for me to become a Catholic monk due to my having already married, and so it is known beforehand that my interpretation of Catholic ethics is far from perfect or even so much as well founded. I may have been in the presence of Catholic priests, and I may have performed my labors while in the kitchens where nuns performed their daily chores, and I may have gleaned a quantity of firsthand observations of the Catholic individuals, but no ideology is properly represented by only a few dozen members, and never is an ideology adequately judged by anyone who is not himself a master of the ideology.
An interpretation of Catholic ethics written by any non-Catholic - including my own - is assured of containing misinterpretations. Nevertheless, still we can investigate how Catholic ethics are viewed from different worldviews, and we can weigh and compare how Catholic ethics may or may not agree with the nature of Creation and the laws of God that He placed into His Creation.
Perhaps a good starting point into the study of Catholic ethics is to look at a common writing by an individual who presented his work as being descriptive of Catholic morals. "Morals pertain to right living, to the things we do, in relation to God and His law, as opposed to right thinking, to what we believe, to dogma. Dogma directs our faith or belief, morals shape our lives. By faith we know God, by moral living we serve Him; and this double homage, of our mind and our works, is the worship we owe our Creator and Master and the necessary condition of our salvation." (The first paragraph of Explanation of Catholic Morals - A Concise, Reasoned, and Popular Exposition of Catholic Morals by Rev. John H. Stapleton, New York, Benzinger Brothers, 1913.)
As presented by Stapleton, his flavor of Catholicism places an emphasis on dictating commandments of end-product behavior (e.g. intercourse only within marriage and only for the purpose of procreation), while ignoring the act of explaining why the commandments are allegedly good or evil. As is predominate in all ideologies, Stapleton omitted explaining why a behavior is good or bad, and in place of the description he simply declared that his own interpretation of right and wrong is the only possible choice.
As an example of what ought to be taught instead of what ought to be obeyed, premarital intercourse is disfavored for numerous reasons, including (1) the act robs the individual of ever having a uniquely intimate relationship with any other mate (emotionally stunted for life), (2) if the person is of a caring mind and heart then the person will later regret the act (emotionally damaged for life), (3) the act is one of physical desire that is not guided by conscious reasoning, which diminishes the individual's future capacity for rational thought (intellectually stunted for life), (4) children born to the parents will suffer an attenuated capacity for emotional stability and clarity of thought (carelessly stunting the lives of future generations), (5) specific types of diseases would almost completely be avoided (caring for the welfare of all humans), etc..
Children are not born with a full width of adult knowledge, children must learn through firsthand experience what each individual thing is, and it is through the applying of logic to the memories of firsthand experiences that the child attains sufficient wisdom to discern how an act today will influence the person's life tomorrow. The effects of some topics - such as premarital intercourse - will not be fully recognized until the individual is thirty to sixty years old, which by that age the person no longer has the opportunity to choose what might have been right or wrong actions. To purposefully not describe to a child why an act has specific results, the absence of description all but forces the child to enter adulthood with every fault that a commandment is supposed to prevent.
Nature dictates human behavior, and since man did not create Nature, then man must use what intelligence he has to learn how to best adapt to the Nature created by God. Nature develops the human body in cycles and stages, where regardless of any man's laws a child will mature into puberty and adulthood. A healthy child will experience physical and mental stages that include the natural stage of rebellion in the teens, and no quantity of man-made laws and commandments will ever prevent the natural cycle that God created. The God-created rebellion will not listen to adult commandments, but the rebellion might listen to detailed reason and heart-felt concern. If an ideology truly did believe that God created Creation, then the ideology would respect the God-made cycles and stages of human growth. No government or ideology today respects Nature's cycles, and so it is to be expected that all ideologies have failed simply because all ideologies believe that they are somehow able to create commandments that supersede natural laws.
To my knowledge, Roman Catholicism does not explain to its followers why an act is good or bad, but rather Catholicism merely proclaims that its followers must obey commands (all other ideologies behave similarly, including atheism, science, psychology, philosophy, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and every form of academic endeavor from the first grade to post-graduate; Catholicism is most assuredly not the only one at fault, nor does Catholicism hold a greater blame; Catholicism is composed of humans, and it is the common human nature itself that does not hold the potential of describing one's own thoughts). Nevertheless, never should a commandment be demanded without first explaining to the person (1) why the commandment exists, and (2) why it is in the person's own best interest to accept the behavior as a valid choice. If the speaker cannot describe in detail why the commandment should be obeyed, then the speaker does not know why the commandment exists. No human should ever follow a commandment without first asking questions to determine through logical analyses if the commandment is useful or destructive.
Healthy individuals possess a conscience and a sense of fairness - a logical balancing of weights that declare to the individual which direction that an act or behavior weighs heaviest. If an act is determined through logic to have been too heavily weighted in favor of the individual him/herself, then the residual logic (conscience) may become a mental burden that demands that the individual choose another act that would be perceived as paying the debt so as to enable a logical balance. An example might be that an individual speaks an unkind word to another person, and to rebalance the conscience the speaker may then choose to apologize and offer a material gift to compensate for the unthoughtful behavior that caused another individual to feel grief. Judaism has the tradition of repaying theft by returning to the victim seven times what the thief stole, a tradition that appears to adequately compensate the victim while being sufficient to ensure that the thief will mentally sum the conclusion that stealing is more costly than to have not stolen.
The healthy mind requires a means of balancing the logically weighed sums of one's own behavior, and the balancing is usually not difficult if the imbalance is in relationship with another person of whom the individual can meet in person to repay the debt, but if an individual feels that s/he owes a debt to God, of whom the individual cannot physically approach in person, then there may only be two logical methods of balancing one's conscience; (1) confession in prayer with the belief that the injustice to God is forgiven, and (2) confession to a priest, with the belief that having confessed to the priest is sufficient for God to forgive one's mistakes.
The act of confession within the Catholic church may or may not be a perfect tradition, but the act can and does provide for positive psychological health within individuals who are mentally capable of possessing the logically-derived sense of fairness. The item of importance at the moment is not whether a tradition might appear right or wrong to an outsider, but whether the tradition actually performs some good, and in the tradition of Catholic confession there is the potential for tremendous good that cannot be attained from any other source.
If, as Stapleton alluded, that the commandment of Roman Catholic confession is deemed a moral act, then although the use of the word 'moral' may be unsatisfactory, still, the act of confession itself vaguely and very faintly describes the end-product of an individual's own chosen standards, of which we might lend a sizable leniency towards saying that confession is the exhibition of inward ethics being externally manifested in the moral behavior of confessing one's self-convicted errors.
Too, a portion of Catholic confession requires that the confessor confess each mistake, which requires that the individual be consciously aware of their own errors, which is a parallel to the several eastern philosophies that teach a conscious awareness of one's own thoughts and actions. The Catholic tradition of confession may appear peculiar to those of us who are not participants in the religion, but we do recognize the beneficial advantages of confession, and we might speculate that perhaps at one time an early priest may have institutionalized confession while he was under the opinion that the advantages of Catholic confession would outweigh the disadvantage of perhaps not being quite as perfect as we might prefer.
It is easy to prove all things to be false, but what is not so easy is to find what might have been true things that are now hidden in traditions, and the only method of discerning truth from tradition is for the person to live the traditions while observing how the traditions affect the individual him/herself, and it is the effect that is the true thing, not the tradition.
The majority of Christian ideals - as written in the Christian Bible, especially forgiveness, our forgiveness to others - are based upon good positive behaviors that are beneficial to individuals with healthy minds, and though the ideals may not have been given a lengthy explanation of why the ideals are beneficial, still it is often sufficient enough for an individual to merely believe the ideals to be true for the ideals to have a positive influence.
One of my great joys is to meet individuals who have mastered their ideologies: the Buddhist master who moves with such grace and awareness that everyone near him is bettered for being in the presence of his beautifully positive nature, as is the spiritual Christian whose Buddhist-like grace and awareness is flavored with the additional beauties of radiant love and compassion. No religion nor science is composed solely of perfect beings, only a rare few from each ideology ever attain quality, and it is fully expected that a sizable number of secluded Roman Catholic monks achieved a similar quality of mastery as has been found in other ideologies.
Catholic ethics are no better defined than any other ideology, but some of the traditions do illustrate how positive standards and healthy minds may be bettered, not through the traditions themselves, nor through a knowledge of what might constitute an ethic, but through the personal faith that the traditions are of value, and it is the faith itself that is a portion of that which is an ingredient of creating all positive things.
"Hence we have then only the true knowledge of God, when we not only acknowledge him to be the creator of the world, but when we also fully believe that the world is governed by him, and when we further understand the way in which he governs it... " - John Calvin, Commentaries on Jeremiah