Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Moral or Immoral? How to decide regarding human actions in today's world

Cloak of Conscience, Anna Chromy: 2010
What an interesting and, let's face it, frightening summer this has been. The attacks on innocents around the world is becoming more frequent and startlingly more savage. The latest massacres of police officers and the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques in France while he celebrated the Mass causes such grief in me that I have a difficult time expressing how dejected I feel about what we have been witnessing. But, this is not about my feelings or yours -- it's about good and evil human behavior.

What are human acts? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a human act this way:
Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil (CCC 1749).
They are actions which are freely chosen; they involve discernment of the conscience; and therefore, they can held to moral judgment. But, there's a definitive qualifier --  the are one or the other: good or evil.

How does one go about determining the goodness, or the evilness -- the "what-ness" of the act. There has to be some determining moral factors involved. Again, it's not about how one feels about an action -- good things can often feel bad (vaccinations, surgery, ending a bad relationship); bad things can often feel good (premarital sex, drug abuse, excessive drinking, scourging someone on Facebook). Thank God for the hierarchy of the Church and the source of wisdom they put forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church! She instructs us this way on making moral determinations regarding human actions:
The morality of human acts depends on:
- the object chosen;
- the end in view or the intention;
- the circumstances of the action.
The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the "sources," or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts (CCC 1750)
We are given an outline -- determiners so to speak -- of how to approach the moral discernment of a human act. These three qualifiers must be considered; but based on what?

First, let's discuss the object of the action. This object is the matter of the human act, or the thing that will be acted upon. It is determined by the conscience to be either good or evil and the will is directed accordingly to act upon the true good, or to avoid the obvious evil (that is in a properly formed conscience -- this you will see is also an issues involved with the intention of the act). The object, for the act to be considered moral, must always be good.

Just considering the object of the action is not enough. One must consider: what is the intention of the act?  According to the Catechism, "the intention resides in the acting subject" -- in other words, it addresses why you intend to do what you are about to do. What is the end that you wish to achieve? (Here, your brain should be registering the old adage: the ends never justify the means.) Is the end you are aiming for good? Will it result in a good outcome? Is God and His will the ultimate good that is sought? The Catechism also reminds: "One and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, such as performing a service in order to obtain a favor or to boast about it (CCC 1752). In one fleeting moment a good action can become something less than good just based upon what is the perceived end goal of that action. And, thus, the intention of an action must always be good for that action to be morally good.

The circumstances of an action which are "secondary elements of a moral act" (CCC 1754). What exactly does that mean? They must be taken into account, but how do the circumstances (and the consequences) contribute to the morality of the act? The Catechism continues:

They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent's responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil (CCC 1754).
In brief, the circumstances can mitigate responsibility, but do not change the overall quality of the action. A morally evil action remains a morally evil action, but if one is somehow coerced or is ignorant of the fact, they are less culpable for the evil action, if not at all. And, it also offers a gradation of how good or how evil; clearly someone who takes a pen from work is not a equally guilty of evil action as someone who willfully takes the life of another person.

Then, what does this all look like by means of example? Here is one to consider:


  • I am going to give a friend a ride --  (could be good or evil based on unknown intention & circumstance).

  • I am going to give a friend a ride to the abortion clinic (could be good or evil based on unknown intention & circumstance).

  • I am going to give a friend a ride to the abortion clinic to peacefully protest for life (good object, good intention, good circumstance = morally good act).

  • I am going to help a friend by giving her a ride to the abortion clinic to procure and abortion. (evil object, potentially good intention, bad circumstance = morally evil act)
If any one of the three (object, intention, circumstance) is evil, the act is morally evil. All three must be ordered toward the good. Again, the act will remain morally evil even if the culpability or the quality of the action performed is mitigated in some respect based on circumstances.

Back to an earlier thought -- what of the conscience in all of this? The Catechism refers to the "judgment of conscience" in paragraph 1749. It is imperative that in order to make moral decisions/determinations -- in order to act in a human way, one must have a conscience conformed to the good. This conscience must be formed in such a way as to be able to clearly determine the goodness or evilness of an action. It cannot be swayed by the prevailing attitudes of culture and it must be taught right from wrong in such a manner as to be able to see the pitfalls of cultural tolerance as regards human behavior. Indifference, tolerance, relativistic tendencies, fear of rejection, sentimentality -- these are but a few of the cultural maladies that hinder the proper formation of conscience.

What is a properly formed conscience? The Catechism offers this:
A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings (CCC 1783).
The conscience must make judgments "according to reason" -- one must think things through, or discern, before acting. Another adage comes to mind: Look before you leap. There are things that must be considered -- sentimentality is not thinking; emotional responses often result in unforeseen consequences that are less than desirable. Since this is the case, the Catechism affirms that the conscience must be educated -- taught what it may have forgotten as a result of sin and concupiscence. This education is crucial, and as a result of a rather harsh swing toward secularism, it has been treated as a less than necessary area of the human person to receive training.

It is excruciatingly obvious that this neglect in proper conscience education ordered toward good is replete with terrifying consequences. When one falls out of step with the ordered good of the object, intention and circumstances; when one thinks that what they are doing is good based on falsehood and sentiments; when one determines that they are supremely in control without regard for the consequence of their actions on others, this is when evil flourishes.

The Catechism also directs that the "education of the conscience is a life long task (CCC 1784). Therefore, if we teach from the earliest years of formation that an evil is good, and a good is evil, if we misdirect the conscience based on lies and misguided interpretations of truth, what will result is a poorly formed conscience unable to rightly direct actions toward the ultimate good, or the will of God. The will of God becomes distorted, unclear and indiscernible to a malformed conscience. If this conscience further instructs and forms other consciences the problem perpetuates and becomes as is witnessed in recent events a pervasive issue of evil that is difficult to control. This in part can explain why good people are being slaughtered for what others perceive to be a "good", albeit a very deranged perception of good.

In all, there is much work to be done -- first in helping people see that their judgments are less than informed based on the state of their formation of conscience. This can never be achieved by unjust means -- one cannot drive the Bible into the brain of an atheist with a sledge hammer, just as one can never retaliate what is perceived to be an evil with further evil actions (self-defense is a topic for another time, I am speaking here of vigilante justice). First, prayer must proceed all that is done; thoughtful reflection on an action and it's morality is a must. Then, a concerted effort to share the good in a way that reinforces freedom through self control and the dignity of each and every person as a child of God must be at the forefront of the discussions, debates and decisions as a nation/world moves forward in uncertain times. Be reminded:
Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. (Eph 6:10-11)

This is the armor that is at the disposal of a people who a witnessing the chaos in the world today -- the strength and power of God in informing everything that a person does so that they might stand for what is true and good with a clear conscience.

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