Guest Editorial: Morality and Reality

Anne Dickinson
Issue 16, August 2005

In 1984 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave an address entitled "Bishops, Theologians and Morality" to the Annual Bishops Workshop run by the National Catholic Bioethics Centre in the United States.

When Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI the National Catholic Bioethics Centre brought this address out of its archives and made it available on their website. The address is twenty years old, but it poses questions which still need answers, and provides insights which have not lost their relevance.

In the address Cardinal Ratzinger was exploring the relationship between bishops and moral theologians, which he posed as a question: How can bishops work together with theologians, the bishops being charged with the transmission of the faith and the theologians being charged with the dialogue between the world of faith and the mind-set of the world at large? He set this question within the context of a larger question: What contribution can the Church make toward forging a balance between external progress and morality? What can she do, not just to keep herself in existence, but to open up once again the moral resources of humanity?

While the question about bishops and theologians belongs to a small group of people in New Zealand, the question about the role of the Church in "forging a balance between external progress and morality" belongs to all Catholics.

In wider society there are sometimes claims that the Church should restrict its activity to the purely private sphere. These claims ignore the nature of democracy, which at its best, facilitates and even demands the contribution of all, individuals and groups, to shaping society. In New Zealand over the last decade more and more channels have been opened up for participation in decision-making through consultation and dialogue processes, often with a legislated requirement for these processes to take place. In some cases, the legislation specifically requires consultation on spiritual issues as well as ethical and cultural issues. In using these processes and the media, the Church and individual Catholics are simply exercising all the rights afforded by democracy.

Cardinal Ratzinger clearly places morality in the public sphere by describing its relationship not just with the individual, but with the community:

"Morality is not an abstract code of norms for behaviour, but it presupposes a community way of life within which morality itself is clarified and is able to be observed. Historically considered, morality does not belong to the area of subjectivity, but is guaranteed by the community and has a reference to the community. In the lifestyle of a community the experience of generations is stored up: experiences of things which can buildup a society or tear it down, how the happiness of an individual and the continuity of the community as a whole can be brought together in a balanced way and how that equilibrium can be maintained...A crisis in morality occurs in a community when new areas of knowledge emerge which the current life patterns cannot cope with, to the point that what up until then appeared as supportive and proven appears now as insufficient, or indeed as contradictory or as an obstacle to this new knowledge and reality. Then the question arises, how can the community find a new way of life which will once more make possible a common moral existence for life and for the world itself?"

"New areas of knowledge" and the new possibilities offered by technology now pose challenges, not just for the community, but for the Church itself. The language used in a definition, to describe a concept or to express a norm, may suddenly become inadequate as technology exploits that language to create what appear to be ethical bypasses. For example, embryo adoption/donation and new forms of embryo research designed to get around ethical issues associated with the use of embryos increasingly challenge traditional definitions and concepts associated with marriage and with the beginning of life. One of the defining features of an embryo (and hence a human life) for Catholic ethicists has been the ability of the fertilized egg to organize itself to become a foetus and then a child. If the genes which allow an embryo to do this organizing are deliberately turned off in the process of creating it, is the result a disabled embryo or a disorganized mass of stem cells?

Morality does not exist in isolation as "an abstract code of norms for behaviour" - it must be applied to reality. Understanding reality is vital, as Cardinal Ratzinger says:

"Since conscience requires training, since tradition must be lived and must develop in times of change and since moral behaviour is a response to reality and therefore requires a knowledge of reality, for all these reasons the observation and study of reality as well as the traditions of moral thought are important. To put it another way, to seek a thorough knowledge of reality is a fundamental commandment of morality."

There is no doubt we need to understand the reality of new technologies, and that our Catholic "moral tools" must be able to meet the challenge they pose. But these realities interact with another reality, that of our own society. Do we understand the reality of our own society as far as morality is concerned, especially when it comes to engaging with society on moral issues?

For Christians, the various sources of revelation are a precious source of moral knowledge and guidance, but they often presuppose faith. As such, they can be an inappropriate means of engaging with those who do not share that faith.

However, there are concepts and values in the Gospels that are widely shared in society, particularly those concerning our relationships and responsibilities to one another. They may be echoes of a Christian upbringing for some people, or tenets of Christianity which have been incorporated into our society's mores because they are widely accepted. Understanding the degree to which this acceptance of Gospel values and natural law is reality in our society is part of understanding the realities of society itself.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes – the Church in the Modern World. The opening chapter is a powerful call for solidarity with the whole human family. This solidarity requires that we seek to understand as well as to be understood; that 'nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo' in our hearts. We can narrow our understanding of the realities of our society – including its Christian echoes – if we view it only through the lenses of stereotypes such as post-modern, post-Christian or 'socially engineered'. The process of moral exploration requires a threefold inquiry into our own Catholic moral tradition, new developments in science and technology, and the realities of our society. The issues are too important to build our understanding of one of these components on stereotypes.


Anne Dickinson is Executive Officer of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference.