When I was a Seminary student, the Moral Theology curriculum consisted of two courses, each a semester in length. The two courses were taught by two different faculty members. I can say honestly that I learned nothing from either course – my apologies to my professors.
The two faculty members who taught the Moral Theology courses seemed very uncomfortable with the course material and the texts. Many years later, I came to understand the source of their discomfort (and the cause of my lack of progress in the courses).
When they were Seminary and grad school students, the two future faculty members were taught the strictly legalistic approach to morality that was ubiquitous in Catholicism prior to the 1960’s. Legalism, as an approach to morality, makes human decision making a matter of crime and punishment. Under this regime, the Ten Commandments, and similar teachings, are interpreted as laws that carry a criminal penalty when violated.
During their teaching careers, the two faculty members found themselves in a completely changed social situation. By the 1970’s, moral decision making and conscience formation had become exercises in promoting self-esteem. Morality ceased to be measured in objective terms, like criminal laws and penalties, and had come to be measured in strictly subjective terms like feelings and needs.
The two professors found themselves ill-equipped to make sense of a radical shift in perspective from morality as an exercise in legalism to morality as act of self-expression. As a student, I was confused by the discomfort and uncertainty displayed by those faculty members. Today, I understand their dilemma because I see it manifested in the lives of most Catholics. Morality in Catholicism today is a random mixture of strictly objective and strictly subjective judgments. It’s common today to apply morality objectively when dealing with others (in order to justify judgmental attitudes), and then apply morality subjectively to oneself (in order to justify selfish behavior). Neither objectivism nor subjectivism can address moral issues adequately. When the two opposed perspectives are amalgamated, the result is laughable.
Today’s first reading is the version of the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments are a favorite topic for moral rigorists and a target of scorn for promoters of self-esteem.
The rigorists who understand the Ten Commandments as criminal law predict dire consequences for those who violate them. This strictly legalistic interpretation of the Ten Commandments is usually accompanied by a legalistic understanding of conscience and conscience formation. Conscience, in this perspective, is a repository for legal formulations and phraseology; conscience formation requires little more than memorizing and assenting to the legal formulations.
Those with modern sensibilities see the Ten Commandments as impinging on personal freedom and interfering with self-esteem. Conscience, from this point of view, serves only to insulate one from the demands of responsibility by preserving as inviolate one’s felt needs. Conscience formation, in turn, is a matter of discerning one’s own tastes and proclivities.
The Ten Commandments, as enumerated in today’s first reading, offer a perspective on morality and conscience that differs significantly from both the legalistic and the “self-esteem” perspectives.
In the version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, commandments one through four describe how one should structure one’s relationship with God. Specifically, the commandments say that there is One God who deserves to be worshiped and that faithful worship of the One God excludes idolatry and superstition. Commandments five through ten describe how one should structure one’s relationships with relatives and neighbors. Specifically, these commandments require that one act responsibly and charitably toward other people.
The Ten Commandments describe relationships rather than criminal laws or self-concern. It is dehumanizing to reduce morality to a matter of crime and punishment; it is equally damaging to society to measure morality in terms of individual feelings or desires. In Catholicism, and according to the Ten Commandments, conscience is the ability to form just and merciful relationships, and conscience formation is the effort to shape one’s interpersonal relationships as accurate reflections of the mercy and fidelity that God shows to all.
The Ten Commandments are featured in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word as background to Jesus’ act of displacing the merchants and money changers from the Temple. The Gospel says that Jesus was motivated by zeal for fulfilling God’s will. (Jn 2:17) The Ten Commandments give a detailed explanation of the content of God’s will, namely, that all people are called by God to live in justice and peace with one another.
Our Lenten practices of penance, prayer, and almsgiving are intended to help us conform our wills to God’s will, specifically, to structure our relationships as accurate reflections of God’s mercy and justice. The Scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Lent ask each person to evaluate the adequacy of her or his conscience. To what degree is your decision making an accurate reflection of God’s forgiveness and providence? What do you need to change about yourself in order to have relationships that exemplify justice and mercy? The measure of morality, conscience, and conscience formation is the degree to which your actions are, for other people, an encounter with God’s loving kindness.