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Moral judgments
October 27, 2014, 5:43 pm
Filed under: Opinion

How do we make moral judgments? I mean, given that we accept in general that there is “a difference between right and wrong,” which we expect even children to grasp, how do we decide which is which in particular cases?

For some people, the judgment seems to be purely subjective; if I (or my friends) like doing this, it must be alright. Really bad things are only done by nasty people, not like us. For others, it is a cultural and conventional thing; different societies have different laws and conventions. None are absolute. But if this is so, how do we judge “human rights abuses” in other countries and cultures which do not accept our standards?

For Christians, guidance in making moral judgments is to be found in the teaching of Jesus Christ, as found in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels and in St Paul. This takes up and universalises the teaching of the Old Testament given to Israel.

The great Fr Hunwicke of Oxford has recently offered his own thoughts on some modern “liberal” approaches to moral judgment. He asks three questions:

(1) Can you square it with the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical teaching of S Paul?
(2) Can you square it with the Lord’s parables about not knowing ‘the Day or the Hour’?
(3) Does it apply to murderers and paedophiles?

He then outlines three fashionable principles, and typical ways in which they are applied.

(a) Graduality. “People cannot give up their Sin instantaneously. They should be given the time, and the grace of the sacraments, to wean themselves off it gradually.”
(b) Acceptance without Approval. “Remarried divorcees may be in a position to which the Church cannot give formal approval; but she may welcome them as they are into her Sacramental life.”
(c) Elements of truth. “Outside the relationship of heterosexual monogamy, other models of relationship exist in which important elements exist of the values proper to Marriage itself: and it is these elements which we should emphasise (permanence; self-sacrificing love …).”

How would his third question apply to these principles? He asks the “liberal” moralist: “Would you accept that, since a paedophile has very strong inclinations, his aim should be to work hard to abuse children less and less frequently? How do you feel about the Church accepting that some paedophiles are gentle and affectionate to the children they abuse, and that we should concentrate our attention on those good elements of gentleness and affection? Take someone with a pathological impulse to murder: would you want the Church to continue to maintain the teaching of the Ten Commandments about Murder, but, without approving of the murders, to accept the unrepentant murderer as he is?”

He answers that almost certainly the liberal moralist would not wish to apply his principles of graduality, acceptance without approval and elements of truth to such cases: but why not? He suggests that liberals adopt two quite distinct categories of Sin. “There are sins which (most people would agree) are really sinful. Such as abusing and/or killing children. The clever little games (a), (b), (c), would never be acceptable here. But there is now, for the Liberals, an additional, quite different category of Sin. It consists of things which, because they are condemned by Christ or by long centuries of Christian Tradition, liberals might agree are in some sense technically sinful. But liberals do not feel that they are really wrong. So they devise sophisticated ways of avoiding the requirement of the Gospel: repentance and a firm purpose never to offend again and to avoid the occasions of Sin. Like children who have cheated and found out the answer to a sum, they start with the conclusion and then try to find the right ‘workings’ to get to the answer.” In short, says Fr Hunwicke, we are being offered two radically different categories of sin:

1. REALLY WRONG SINS; they really turn me upside down in my tummy.
2. SINS WHICH ARE ONLY TECHNICALLY WRONG; my tummy feels completely OK about them. We’ve just got to find a way for the Church to shift her line without completely losing face.

But neither in the Bible nor in two Christian millennia, says Fr Hunwicke, is there evidence for the second category.

In Chesterton’s “The Chief Mourner of Marne,” Fr Brown is condemned by a group of socialites for his apparently harsh attitude to a sinner- until they discover that the sin in question is one they regard as unpardonable. Fr Brown tells them, “You only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful… You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.” The priest, he goes on, must reach out to those who do things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend, to offer them the hope of repentance and absolution. The Church as teacher must point out to the world what is, and what is not, in accordance with God’s will, whether the world likes it or not. The Church knows that ignorance and muddle may reduce the culpability of individual sinners, a matter which ultimately only God can judge. But the Church cannot pretend that wrong is right, and those whose lives are manifestly at odds with the Church’s teaching, and who refuse to change, cannot complain if their participation in the full life of the Church is restricted. If (despite appearances) they are guiltless in God’s sight, they will not be deprived of his grace.


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