The Moral Vision of the Catechism

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April 19, 2012 12:00 pm

There is little question that promulgation of the Universal Catechism is one of the greatest events of this century — and perhaps for several centuries. It is a great privilege and honor to be here to comment on the moral vision of the catechism and to be in such distinguished company. I hardly feel myself worthy of the great honor of sharing the podium with such distinguished Churchmen and scholars, but as a philosopher I am accustomed to being the handmaiden of theology and am pleased to render what humble service I can.

An important feature of the moral vision of the catechism is revealed initially by its title: it is titled “Life in Christ.” Indeed, all of Christian morality can be summed up in those words for the moral life for the Christian is quite simply to “imitate Christ.” So what more needs to be said? Why did the authors of the Catechism create so much work for themselves — and so much reading for us — by devoting the longest portion of the Catechism or nearly 300 pages in the English edition to the subject of morality?

Reality is complicated and rich and although Christ Himself is the fullness of revelation, we, not being angels, need to work our way step by step through the many layers of meaning in life. No truth is revealed whole and simple to the human mind. Morality is a very complicated portion of reality because it is involves not only eternal truths but also the individual particular; it involves human character and choice and the daily mess of life. Thus it is appropriate that the human person have more help in the living of the good life than the true statement “imitate Christ.” The human person needs many aids, needs many sources of moral truth. The Catechism identifies the major sources of moral truth; it speaks of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of grace, of the beatitudes, of natural law, of human and Christian virtues, and of the Church itself. It teaches extensively about the commandments. These are all traditional themes in the Church’s moral vision. The presentation of them in the Catechism, however, reflects not only the role of these themes in the tradition but also reflects developments in the Catholic moral vision.

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John Paul II and the Family:

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April 16, 2012 6:32 pm

The Family: A Communion of Persons

Among the thematic concerns of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate have been the restoration of Christian Unity and the fall of Communism, and increasingly a plea to the West to abandon its materialistic ways. He has been working actively to advance these goals. Indeed, he played a major role in the fall of Communism, progress has been made in various ecumenical endeavors and arguably World Youth Days have begun to direct the youth of the world away from consumerism to supernatural realities.

A concern of seemingly equal importance for John Paul II has been the promotion of the Christian understanding of the family. He has expressed repeatedly that “at [this] moment in history, …the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it” (Familiaris Consortio 3). Thus, he seeks to fortify the family to withstand these attacks so that it can perform its vital role for the good of the individual, society, and the Church. John Paul II’s numerous and profound writings on sexuality, marriage, and the family are shaped by theological, philosophical, and political perspectives. From his pre-pontifical years, we have the philosophical, incomparable Love and Responsibility, and from the early years of his pontificate we have his elaborate theology of the body set out in a series of Wednesday audiences. The family is comprehensively treated in Familiaris Consortio and his Letter to Families; these are complemented by lengthy passages in his writings on women and also his writings on the laity and social justice. There are few portions of his thought that are not touched by concern for the family.

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Promoting Humanae Vitae and Natural Family Planning in the Parish

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April 4, 2012 6:57 pm

Priests often ask me what they can do at the parish level to promote Humanae Vitae and Natural Family Planning. What must first be established is the importance of this task. I firmly believe that if priests inspired their parishioners to do just two things, most everything else they want to do with them and for them would be significantly easier. These two things are:

  1. promoting Eucharistic Adoration and
  2. promoting fidelity to the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

Catholics who do both are generally receptive to all the teachings of the Church and much inclined to be generous with their time, talents, and money in various apostolic activities. They are likely to have happier marriages as well, and that brings an abundant number of blessings on the family, the Church and society. If pastors only knew how the Faith and happiness of their flock would increase by engaging in Eucharistic Adoration and in avoiding fornication, contraception, sterilization, adultery, and immoral reproductive technologies, they would work hard to find the best ways to promote Church teaching in these areas. A tremendous resource for priests who wish to serve their parishioners by preaching the truth about sexual morality is the set of tapes entitled “NFP Talks for Clergy” [1] Father Randy Moreau speaks of how he preaches NFP in his parish and the remarkable consequences of that preaching, couples tell of their experience with NFP, and Dr. Philip Fleming explains why contraception is bad medicine and NFP is healthy.

Priests should never underestimate the influence they can have. A physician friend of mine told me of a conference of Catholic physicians who at one time did abortions and prescribed contraceptives where each individual spoke of what had led to his or her conversion. She said over 99% said a priest had confronted them about the incompatibility of what they were doing with their Catholic faith, and that this conversation had led to them to stop doing abortions and prescribing contraceptives. She said the Catholic physicians whom she knows who continue to prescribe contraceptives have been told by a priest that it is morally permissible for them to do so. Priests make all the difference! If priests speak to the Catholic physicians in their parishes, [2] they have the opportunity to convert his or her soul, to have an enormous influence on his or her fellow doctors and patients and a powerful effect on the parish. If the Catholic physicians in the parish are known not to prescribe contraceptives, that news gets out and is a great witness to the other parishioners.

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Natural Law and Sexual Ethics

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April 3, 2012 7:41 pm

I am honored to have my essay included in this series on natural law.  Many of the other contributors are among my heroes and friends.  One of my heroes, Alasdair MacIntyre, uses one of his favorite terms in his essay:  he writes of “plain persons” and their grasp of morality and natural law in contradistinction to the experts and professional philosophers and their grasp of these matters.  A few years ago in Dallas, Alasdair MacIntyre gave a talk entitled “Do plain persons need to be moral philosophers?”  When I was asked to give the response to his talk, I was most honored because I consider Professor MacIntyre one of the foremost moral philosophers in the world, and it was a thrill to comment on his work.  I felt dreadfully underqualified – I felt like a high school student going up against Larry Bird – until I realized that I did not need to respond as an expert, as a moral philosopher of his caliber, but that I could respond as the quintessential plain person – for that is what I am.  After all, I am Janet Smith, daughter of John and Anne Smith; I grew up at 5 Hill Street and went to Home Street School.  I could write more, but it is all very plain.

The point I am making here is not merely a flip one – designed to ease us into more serious matters through an attempt at humor.  There is a serious point here – natural law is the plain person’s morality – in a sense it is simply plain old common sense.  There are profound and sophisticated ways of explaining natural law, but the practice of reasoning in accord with natural law principles, according to the theory itself, is natural to plain persons – that is, natural to all mankind.  Natural law holds that many of the most fundamental principles of moral reasoning are obvious, that is, easily known by all.  Yet, in spite of the plain commonsensicalness of natural law, it can seem shocking and provocative in many ways, for like natural law, plain old common sense does not command a lot of followers these days and can be shocking when juxtaposed to the values of our times.

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Fetal Rights

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April 2, 2012 7:37 pm

Recent medical research indicates that tissue from the brains of fetuses could provide considerable assistance to individuals suffering from such diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It is also possible to transplant organs, such as livers, from fetus to fetus. To date, the US government has sustained a highly controversial ban against the use of fetal tissue for research purposes or for purposes of transplantation. This decision has met with great opposition from those who think that it is cruel and inhumane not to provide whatever relief possible to those suffering from various debilitating diseases. The availability of massive amounts of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses seems a great resource to many. Those who believe abortion to be a morally permissible act are not troubled by the charge that use of aborted fetal tissue amounts to complicity in abortion. Since they do not believe the fetus is a person, they maintain that it is permissible to use fetal tissue much in the same way one could use the hair gathered from the floor of a barber shop. They see use of fetal tissue as transforming what seems to be needless waste into a compassionate good.

Those opposed to the use of fetal tissue for purposes of research and transplantation have three major objections; 1) the fetus is not being respected as a human person of intrinsic worth but is being treated as an instrument; 2) use of fetal tissue amounts to complicity in abortion and demand for the use of such tissues will legitimate the abortion industry; 3) the ready access to tissue from aborted fetuses will lessen the effort to find alternative sources of treatment for sufferers of Alzheimer’s, etc.

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Life Issues in a Pluralistic Culture

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March 29, 2012 3:08 pm

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; nor woman neither . . .

Hamlet, II, ii, 310-319

The modern age shares too little Hamlet’s admiration for man and too much his disdain for man. We, like Hamlet, seem depressed and lost and unable to delight in the wonders of this world, perhaps because we, too, fail to embrace our duties and to act as we ought. Whatever the reason, the modern age seems not to experience awe at the thought of human powers and human nature. We take some pride in man’s technological advances but these hardly balance our experience of and fear of man’s inhumanity to man. Our century in particular has given us reason to think that man is “the paragon of animals” only insofar as he surpasses all other animals in his cruelty and bloodthirstiness. The millions dead because of holocausts, wars, and of famines that could be averted have brought us to have a dismal evaluation of human nature, an assessment confirmed by daily reportings of individuals who randomly commit horrific brutalities.

The rot in the state of Denmark, rather than serving to galvanize Hamlet into action, cast him into a state of doubt and depression. Our age exhibits the same signs; the offenses against life in this century have not served to increase our respect for life or our zeal to protect life. Rather, we have sunk into a state of lethargy and indifference, and as in the state of Denmark, the pile of corpses only gets higher. Indeed, abortion and euthanasia provide the quintessential evidence that we have lost our reverence for life. Some ethicists — highly respected and published by the most prestigious presses — now argue that some forms of animal life have greater value than the lives of some humans suffering various debilitating conditions. In the name of respecting life, researchers and physicians seem to be salivating over the prospect of using fetal tissue to treat a variety of diseases.

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