Is the Church Old Fashioned?

Is the Church Old Fashioned?

Fr. Francis Michael Walsh

Professor of Moral Theology

Redemptoris Mater Seminary

Yona, Guam USA


In the wake of the election of Pope Benedict XVI, a number of articles have appeared in the secular press expressing the hope that the Church would reconsider her teachings regarding certain issues that the world sees as “old-fashioned.”  Certain things, say the critics, need to be “updated” to be in step with the changing times.  Normally what are cited as in need of change are issues where we experience the cross.  The cross is a mistake, say the critics.  The pope should change the rules so that the cross will go away.


The next time you hear this refrain, take notice how the world understands the moral life.  The world understands morality as a series of rules, imposed by some external power and extrinsic to the pursuit of happiness.  If you keep the rules, you get rewarded.  Getting your reward is what makes you happy.  In this way of thinking, virtue is not its own reward.  Virtue is what qualifies you for your reward.  Being good may be (and usually is) tough and bitter (so we think), but getting an ice cream cone for being good makes virtue a bit easier to swallow.  This is the world’s view of morality.


The Catholic Church has a different view of morality.  Instead of being a set of rules, morality is a set of truths about the human person.  We are so constructed that only certain things will satisfy us and make us happy.  Morality is all about what works and what does not work to make us happy.  Sin is sin simply because it does not work to make anybody happy, no matter who he or she is.  Something is a sin, not because the pope said it was a sin.  It is a sin because it does not work.  No matter what the pope (or anybody else, for that matter) does or does not do can change the truths of human nature that determine what will make you happy.


There is, however, something that makes the call for “updating” sound initially plausible.  Circumstances change, and as a result, so the argument runs, the judgments we make regarding individual cases need to change also in order to be current.  The next time you hear a version of this argument, keep in mind that you are listening to a half-truth.  When the Church makes a discernment regarding the morality of something, there are three things she takes into account.


The first is the nature of the good that the person seeks as the end of his action.  That end has to be compatible with our ultimate end, God.  One has to have a good intention in acting.  Normally, this is not hard to show.  After all, who among us seeks evil under the guise of evil?  We do the worst of things under the impression that we have a good intention.  Even Hitler committed his crimes with a “good” intention, namely, to make the world a better place.  That was the justification for the concentration camps and all the killings that took place there.  This is why a consideration of the end is not enough to determine the morality of an act. Here you can read some catholic jokes and improve your mood.


There is a second element in the evaluation of a moral act.  This second element is the means that one chooses in order to obtain the desired end.  This means is called the object of the act.  The end does not justify the means.  The means has to be justified independently of the end.  Not all objects are compatible with God.  Some objects take us away from God by leading us to live thinking only of ourselves.  There are intrinsically evil acts because there are intrinsically evil objects, objects that cannot be reconciled with the nature of God.


Some objects are good only relatively.  They depend on the circumstances in which a person finds himself.  Some goods are compatible with some circumstances, while others are not.  For example, there is nothing wrong with having sex, as long as the other person is your husband or wife, a small circumstance that makes a big difference. You can also read one of our previous posts with similar content about the theology of the body.


A consideration of changing circumstances is already built into the Church’s way of determining right from wrong.  That is why anyone who invokes the plea that the Church needs to stay abreast of changing circumstances needs to specify what he has in mind.  Remember God does not change.  The objects and the ends that are incompatible with him as our finally end will never change.  The only thing left to reconsider is the circumstances, but this is already done as a matter of course.  So what is left?  Nothing!  People who want the Church to change her moral teaching generally have not thought through the consequences of what they are asking for.