CathBlog - The end of the beginning


It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase “the end of the beginning”, and it might just apply to the Church now. 

In 1942, the Allies in World War II, after experiencing humiliating defeats at the hands of the Nazis and the Japanese over three Continents, got their first victory. It was in Egypt at El Alamein just west of Cairo. 

British, Australian and New Zealand forces routed German and Italian infantry and tank battalions. For the first time in the War, Churchill could claim a win. 

And he needed it to bolster flagging morale at home and have the Americans, who had just joined the war after Pearl Harbour in 1941, not feel they had entered a contest they would lose.

Churchill described the victory “not as the end or even the beginning of the end so much as the end of the beginning”. 

This thought flashed through my mind as news of Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on the permissible use of condoms rattled around the world. And following the comment to the interviewer in the recently published book came the chorus of responses.

They extended all the way from “why didn’t he wake up to himself ages ago” to “there’s nothing inconsistent in this statement with anything the Catholic Church has ever said on the subject because that’s what we’ve said all along”, and in between loads of modifications of these contrasting views of the statement of the Pope.

Those proposing that there is no change have a problem. On the way to a visit he made to Cameroon in 2009, he said that the use of condoms would contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS. While there were all sorts of qualifications, he did say their use “will only intensify the problem”.

Now he sees that there are circumstances where the use of condoms can be “a first step to responsibility” in sexual behaviour.

Perhaps this statement and the recent Papal interview just go to show that you can’t construct a moral approach to anything by stringing together a series of one liners and that newspapers are not the place you find a full discussion of anything that is, if it’s to be true to the human context, inevitably complex.

But the Church in its official pronouncements for over 30 years hasn’t helped itself. For that time and much longer, official Church pronouncements have laboured under the weight of a particular focus – a concentration on acts to the exclusion of every other factor – and a simple belief that assertion of moral absolutes will solve every moral issue.

Let me explain. The morality of anything or the consideration of whether someone is acting in a properly moral way, depends on the estimation made of these factors:

The intention of the person acting; The motivation (which is different from the intention) of the person acting; The act itself and whether it is constructive, destructive, too hideous to contemplate or fairly neutral, even beautiful; The context within which the act is performed; The consequences of the act and whether they are proportionate or disproportionate to the good that is being pursued.

In official Catholic circles, there has been an almost exclusive focus on the “act “ itself for some decades. In fact, the focus reached the status of Encyclical endorsement in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. 

That document, in a manner unprecedented in Papal documents, enshrined not only a view of the morality of an action as being found substantially in the moral character of the act but was also one that specified a particular method of moral reasoning and decision making as the only one supported by official Church teaching.

This was unprecedented because never before had a Pope specified a particular method of moral decision making – technically referred to as the deontological school – as supreme and the only one accepted in orthodox circles. Many Popes have taught what is or isn’t a moral good. But they’ve never legislated the way Catholics are to reach their moral conclusions.

As someone who traces his intellectual heritage back to St Augustine, Benedict XVI knows there are other approaches that have been significantly operative in the Church for up to one and a half millennia.

Augustine is well remembered for enunciating the way you can reason to the justice or otherwise of a war. His ideas were drawn on heavily by both sides (for and against) the recent intervention of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq.

Among the topics Augustine gives for assessing the morality or otherwise of a war is consideration of whether the action’s outcomes are proportionate to the cost (including the cost of human lives) and the expense of what will be required to reach that outcome. In other words, Augustine sees the consequences of an action as one of the factors to be considered in assessing the morality of an act, in this case a war.

Benedict XVI did not make the now familiar move of Catholic moral positioning of a moral act that allowed one question only to be considered – is the act intrinsically evil and hence absolutely forbidden or not? 

The Pope has introduced other issues as key considerations – the context and consequences of the act – to what is needed in the assessment of the morality or otherwise of the act. In this, he is reverting to a much older and better established tradition of moral assessment than that which has prevailed in recent times.

Looking at context and consequence doesn’t mean the Pope – and by extension the Catholic Church – has caved in to secular approaches to ethics commonly called “utilitarianism” (which really only considers what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people involved) or “situation ethics” that simply says “well, look, in the context, almost anything is permissible if you take into account the situation”. 

The first approach leads to making decisions as a form of arithmetic. The second opens the gates to whatever works in a particular situation.

Benedict XVI knows what Augustine also said about moral decision making and is not involved in anything so crass as either situation ethics or utilitarianism. What he’s done is a service to the Church: he’s recovered the fuller and richer tradition of the Church and thereby done us all, who are aware that complex questions never have simple answers, a big favour.

If it is “the end of the beginning”, then it’s only the start of turning back a one dimensional approach to ethical questions in the Catholic Church that focuses exclusively on an act. Why? Because there is more than a 30 year backlog of moral issues that had been dispatched as “intrinsically evil and absolutely forbidden”  that now are in need of further attention from the wider perspective proposed by the Pope.

Michael KellyMichael Kelly SJ is founder of Church Resources and currently executive director of Union of Catholic Asian News.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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