Theology and Ethics in Catholic Morality

In the week that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled 508 lawsuits brought by victims for £323 million, a pay-out for abuse cases against Priests and Religious, which shatters every known record for Church liability, Rocco Palmo wrote in The Tablet 21 July 2007. In the same paper Catholic commentator Clifford Longley takes issues with the Catholic way of doing morality which, he says, makes the victims invisible. What Longley is talking about here is the way sinful actions are responded to theologically. The main concern is saving the sinner who has an immortal soul endangered by their actions, hence the need for confession through which the sinner may repent and find forgiveness. But, Longley argues, where is the victim in this process? Where is the justice? There was a crime done against those children who were abused, as well as against God. It is not just the soul that is in danger but the victims dignity and wellbeing. Yet they do not feature in the process.

Longley argues that there is a lack of rights and justice morality which is concerned for the dignity of the human person, rather than the sinner. Ironically this is something the Church did express during the Vatican II council, which re-clarified Church doctrine. On the first page of the Declaration of Religious Freedom, the Church says the following, “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man.” (Paul VI, 1965). The Dignity of the human person, the rights of people not to suffer injustice or abuse, is central to catholic thinking on social justice. This concern for dignity and the rights of all people is present in those Vatican II Declarations but Longley can be forgiven for not really noticing them, when it comes to the abuse scandals, many of which took place after this time.

An area where the Church shows very active concern for the dignity of the human person is in matters of abortion and euthanasia where the idea of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person are bound together with the Church prohibiting both in the name of human dignity. It is not that the Catholic Church has ignored the issue of dignity and human rights, but according to Longley, it has not trickled into the issue of abuse against children by Priests and Religious.

Catholic morality would do well to look back over its shoulder at some of the things it said during the 1960s. Systems of morality must be applied throughout in an organisation like the Church, especially when it comes to issues within an organisation, otherwise the claim of double standards will be made. Very many Christians throughout the centuries were moved to defend those who were downtrodden and oppressed.

In the same week that the settlement was made, a TV documentary was shown following the politician David Steel returning to Kenya where his father was a minister during the troubles that led to independence. Through his research he uncovered a mass of evidence showing how his father had petitioned the British authorities to stop the illegal detaining and beating of thousands of Kenyans, often indiscriminately, at a time when Britain was not prepared to let go of the last of the colonies. David Steel’s father had a profound sense of the injustice being done against the people he ministered and as a matter of Christian conscience he acted. Christian morality is a powerful tool for the defence of the most vulnerable and it was with the most vulnerable of his time that Jesus spent much of his time. Church authorities would do well to reflect on these values and the prophets of Christian history who were prepared to stand against any injustice, even that of the Church or individuals within the Church. This challenge for the Catholic Church, illustrates the need to engage both theology and ethics when making sense of Christian morality.

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