the dictatorship of
Edward Sri is assistant professor of theology at Benedictine
College in Atchison, Kansas and is the author of Men, Women
and the Mystery of Love.
before his election to the papacy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
said that one of the biggest challenges to faith in the modern
world is relativism – the view that there is no moral
or religious truth to which we are all accountable. Indeed,
the relativistic perspective that dominates much of the Western
world makes it very difficult for Christians to talk about morality.
having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often
labeled as fundamentalism," Ratzinger said. "Whereas
relativism . . . seems the only attitude that is acceptable
in modern times."
person who is not a relativist today is often not tolerated
in society. The pro-life woman, for example, who says abortion
is wrong is likely to be called ‘judgmental.’ The
Christian college student who says drunkenness and pre-marital
sex are immoral will be brushed aside as ‘rigid,’
‘out-of-touch’ or ‘prudish.’ In this
way, our relativistic culture tends to marginalize those who
hold traditional moral convictions. As Ratzinger noted, relativism
is emerging as a new kind of totalitarianism – one which
seeks to push the Christian belief in truth further out of the
comments are interesting not for the implication they have for
understanding particular moral issues, such as questions about
abortion, sexuality or the use of alcohol. Rather, his insights
remind us that faithful Christians and moral relativists have
radically different worldviews. The problem is not simply that
many people in our culture do not think abortion, pre-marital
sex, or drunkenness are morally wrong. The problem is much deeper:
many no longer believe in a moral standard altogether.
a relativistic culture that assumes everyone should be free
to determine his own values and live whatever way he desires,
Christian talk about moral standards sounds like a bunch of
rules imposed on people's private lives that restrict their
freedom. This is why Christians must do more than address the
particular moral questions of the day. We also need to engage
at the higher level of worldview if we are to be effective in
communicating moral truth.
to do so is no simple task, and not one that can be done quickly.
It is a lot easier to give a five-point argument for a particular
issue than it is to understand, unpack and address one's entire
outlook on life.
teaching morality, I have often asked my students on the first
day of class to write down two lists. First, a list of what
they think are the top five to ten moral issues we face today
and second, a list of what they want to be remembered for at
the end of their lives.
they tell me about their top moral concerns, the students typically
mention a wide range of human life issues such as abortion,
capital punishment, euthanasia, war, and cloning. They also
tend mention matters related to sobriety (drug use, drunkenness),
sexuality (pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexuality), and general
social-economic issues (poverty, corporate greed, the environment).
After writing each of these topics on the left side of the chalk
board, I then tell them that this list reflects a very modern
view of ethics.
for many people today, the word morality has the connotation
of being primarily about rules of conduct or a code for behavior,
such as "thou shall not steal" and "Thou shall
not commit adultery." The modern notion of morality tends
to focus on assessing particular as good or evil. A rules-focused
morality primarily considers the question of what – what
should one do if faced with a particular choice or situation?
classical tradition, however, had a much broader moral vision.
The Greek word that ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle
used to describe the drama of the moral life was ethikos, which
means "pertaining to character." For them, ethics
was more than a consideration of whether particular actions
were good or evil and what rules come into play in certain moral
situations. For them, practically every situation throughout
one's daily life was a moral situation because ethics were fundamentally
about a person's character – his or her dispositions to
live a certain kind of life. As such, the whole person was considered
by one's virtues and vices. How well one responds to hunger,
fear, anger and setbacks in life; how generously one responds
to the needs of others; how much one seeks wealth, pleasure
and praise – these were the kind of topics often addressed
ethics ultimately considered where a person's life was heading,
what kind of person one was becoming. In sum, ethics was not
simply a question of ”what should I do in this situation?”
– but also, and even more fundamentally, a question of
who – "Who do I want to become?"
I ask my students about the second list regarding how they wanted
to be remembered after they died, I typically receive two kinds
of responses. First, the students mention various qualities:
they want to be remembered as being loyal, kind, generous, sincere,
hard-working, loving, honest, selfless or courageous. I write
these on the right side of the board and point out that these
qualities are virtues. This list more closely reflects the classical
understanding of ethics being primarily not about rules or certain
moral issue but about virtues and one's personal moral character.
Am I becoming a more generous person? A more patient person?
A more honest person? These questions get more to the heart
students also tend to mention various relationships for which
they want to be remembered: they hope to be known as a good
friend, a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, a good
Christian, someone who "made a difference" in other
people's lives. This underscores another aspect of a Catholic
moral vision: ethics is all about living our fundamental relationships
well. Am I a good son? A good husband or wife? A good father?
A good friend? A good citizen? A good son to my heavenly Father?
These are the questions at the center of a Catholic moral worldview.
The moral laws and how they relate to particular situations
must always be seen in the larger context of how they help us
to live our relationships with God and neighbour well, for,
as we will see, that is where we find happiness.
our relationships well is crucial for a successful life, for
human persons are made for friendship. We are made for communion
with others. We are made for relationships of self-giving love.
into the fabric of our being is this law of self-giving: only
when we live our relationships in imitation of the self-giving
will we find happiness and fulfillment in life. As Vatican II
taught, "Man finds himself only when he makes himself a
sincere gift to others." Or, as Mother Teresa put it, "Unless
a life is lived for others, it is not worth living."
one does not need to be a Christian or believe in the Bible
to grasp this point. Even ancient philosophers saw that human
persons were made for friendship and that we find fulfillment
in life only when we live our relationships well. Aristotle
taught that a good life is all about living true friendship
virtuously. No other good on this earth, be it wealth, pleasure,
health, or power, would be worth having if one did not have
friends: "For without friends no one would choose to live,
though he had all other goods." Accordingly, St. Thomas
Aquinas defined the supernatural virtue of charity (love) as
friendship with God.
sum, ethics is primarily not about following a set of rules,
but about living our relationships with virtue and excellence.
Indeed, when Jesus Himself was asked to sum up the moral law,
He did so relationally, focusing on love of God and love of
article is reprinted with permission from
Lay Witness magazine.