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Lured by the Spirit to an ethical life


We can be absolutely certain that God is good and wants humankind to be morally upright. The divine mandate for human beings comes through loud and clear in the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the rest of the scriptures and creeds taught by the church. But Christians may not be so sure of exactly how spirituality and morality relate to each other.

At least we know how scandalous it is when there is a radical disconnect between worship and ethical behavior. Who hasn’t been horrified to read of priests sexually abusing children, or nuns abetting genocide, or Catholics taking part in torture or death squads? Clearly in cases of ethical atrocities, religious practice has become separated from the fundamental command to do good and avoid evil.

Yet among ordinary Catholics who are trying to be good, the effort to integrate faith and moral behavior can be a persistent challenge. The faithful recognize that Christians must be doers of the word and not hearers only and that they have an obligation to walk the walk. But how can they live out the gospel in everyday moral living?

An adequate moral or ethical life requires persons to have good hearts, wise heads and virtuous habits of action. Happily, there is little doubt that human beings start out wanting to become good. Always and everywhere children become attached to those who nurture and care for them, and want to gain their approval. Guilt and shame appear very early in human development because children grasp the prevailing standards of morality and achievement and want to meet them.

A social species

Human beings are a social species with big brains and the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. Humans can imagine and think about things that are not concretely present. Persons seek meaning as well as love. Evolution innately equips us to seek realities beyond what can be seen.

The innate capacity for the operation of conscience comes from the ability to freely choose between behaviors and the possession of enough intelligence to adopt standards of worth that transcend the self. Wherever humans exist they produce art, music, religion, morality and cultural group norms. All non-impaired adult members of the human species possess a conscience, but Christians identify this powerful ethical pull with the work of the Holy Spirit. God as Spirit may be anonymous and work in hidden ways in the universe, but Christians recognize the One who lures them toward holiness.

Of course, people also possess a selfish drive toward survival that includes competitiveness and the desire for dominance. Hence the universal experience of every individual that they can choose between good and bad deeds. Humankind is basically good but also flawed by being subject to selfish and aggressive desires.

Psychologists now consider that we have been prepared through evolution to have an instantaneous response to events that then can be followed by a more reflective secondary response. The first spontaneous reactions will come from past learning and built-in biological urges for survival; the second response can be guided by new thinking and chosen aspirations or plans for the future.

This perceived duality and inner conflict has been the origin of morality and ethics. Their purpose is to help persons to think through choices and resist wrong decisions. Different cultures and different religions will operate in different ways to encourage cooperative moral behavior and discourage actions that destroy human flourishing.

Every known human group possesses moral standards and some form of ethics and some kind of religion. In some instances, members of a social group may not have connected their moral obligations to their kith and kin with their religious beliefs. Religions can exist that are mostly devoted to appeasing supernatural spirits and gaining magic control over nature.

However, in every highly developed universal religion, individual moral behavior is directly related to religious faith and practice. Christianity inherits the genius of the Jewish prophetic tradition that sees true worship of God in love of neighbor, aid to those in need and justice in dealings with others. Traditionally, the church has required that Christians attend worship and practice the 14 corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The final judgment of a Christian life -- whether one will be among the sheep or the goats -- has been seen to depend upon one’s moral behavior toward others.

Practicing justice

But today in a complicated and highly developed world it is harder to know how to practice justice. It is the institutions and social systems that give us the most moral quandaries. I don’t think Christians have too much trouble understanding how their faith applies in private life. Standards of respect and care, shown in word and deed, can be easily applied to one’s family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. Honor your old parents, love and be faithful to your spouse, care for children, grandchildren, friends and the neighbor in need. Be honest, don’t steal or cheat and strive to keep the Golden Rule.

A more puzzling ethical challenge arises in the matter of deciding an individual’s moral responsibility to work for social justice and good institutions. Individualistic Americans resist acknowledging the crucial importance of institutions and social systems. They seem more or less invisible until we bump up against some problematic abuse. We just don’t think enough about the way large systems shape our lives. For one thing, such questions can require expert knowledge, and for another the individual can feel helpless to effect change. Reforms may be needed in the church, Congress, tax law, health care, welfare, immigration, education and military policy, but what can we do about it?

The Catholic spiritual tradition offers help in both becoming good as an individual and in deciding what should be done in a larger social context. Whether dealing with individual morality or with larger ethical questions, Catholics are not left alone without resources. There are tried and true ways for Christians to integrate spirituality and moral challenges.

The emotions of charity and empathy are the primary ingredients of moral behavior. If we don’t care enough or empathize with others, then we won’t see or feel the need to act morally. Evolution has equipped us with an emotional system that works to inform us and galvanize us to action. Emotions make us pay attention to what is going on within us and in the environment. Emotional sensitivity allows us to receive the signals from self and others that point to situations where moral action is needed.

Emotions also help us to think better. Occasionally extreme emotional responses can highjack us and be counterproductive, but in general emotions provide the energizing power to focus our minds. Emotions signal that the matter at hand matters. Love and care are the supreme energizers of the Christian’s moral life. So how do we increase in love and beneficence?

Christians are helped to good-heartedness by spending time attending to God’s inexhaustible love and mercy toward us and to the world. It is a psychological truth that what we look at, what we desire and love, will slowly shape our image. When Moses spoke with Yahweh, his face became radiant with light. God’s promise that with God’s people hearts of stone could be replaced with hearts of flesh has been in effect ever since.

Lovers become attuned to one another through the time and attention spent gazing at the other. Mothers and infants get in tune through the same processes of mutual attention. Only a prolonged dialogue with the source of all love and desire can increase our desire. Our fire is enkindled by God’s fire.

Transformed consciousness

Human consciousness flows onward in a dynamic stream and can be gradually transformed by lifting our hearts and minds to God. Prayer, worship and meditation place us in the presence of God’s love and enable us to respond and love in a Christ-worthy way.

Christians have been promised that they can become holy by the gift of the Holy Spirit acting within us. We cannot do it alone. The transformation that God works in us is really a matter of being taken into God’s family life.

As a member of God’s family, we begin to take a God’s eye view of things. As we increase in loving kindness, we grow more disturbed by the evils that exist within and without. Our own omissions, failures and sins bother us more deeply, and our examinations of conscience become more detailed and subtle. At the same time, the moral evils and sufferings of the world become more upsetting. The desire that God’s will be done on earth fuels a healthy kind of moral anger over abuses. So what do we do about it?

Here is where wisdom and good counsel become important in the moral life. It is too simple to ask what would Jesus do -- a popular question many people now often hear as WWJD -- because we live in different circumstances and have different gifts. Jesus tells us to go and do likewise, so we have to work out what that may mean in our particular case. To act morally and ethically, we need knowledge about ourselves, about the particular case, about the particular context and what would count as a good outcome. Ethics is an art, not a science. Yet choosing moral means to an end is necessary since, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “means are ends in the making.”

Facing a moral challenge, whether it be large or small, Christians should pray for guidance. In times of quiet meditation, there is space and time for God’s will to emerge in consciousness. Because of the danger of self-deception, it is also important to seek the wisdom and counsel of others. What does the church’s social teachings have to say on a particular problem? And what do the wise and good advise?

Humility impels us to gather information and consult others. Individuals engaged in moral decisions need all the help they can get. Even in private individual decisions, consulting others is helpful. Sometimes other people are able to help us see what gifts and talents we possess or lack. The old moral rule that “ought” implies “can” still holds. God does not ask us to do tasks that are beyond our abilities.

Other traditional wisdom about taking account of different states of life is also important. Earlier moral decisions to marry and have children must affect present moral obligations. It’s no good deciding to rush off to Calcutta to join Mother Teresa’s mission if you will abandon your children, your husband and the dishes. Past professional commitments also affect present ethical choices.

The assistance of the Holy Spirit

While the specific moral decisions of an individual are her or his own responsibility, the Holy Spirit assists in the operation of conscience. God gives us the perseverance to stick to the hard work involved in a difficult decision. Prudence is doing the best possible thing in the best possible way. Unfortunately, we have seen people do the best possible thing in the worst possible way, the worst possible thing in the best possible way, and so on. Innocent doves can often profit by cultivating the shrewdness of the serpent.

Meditating upon God’s truth, freedom and power may inspire Christians to more audacious visions of what should be done in a situation. Christians turned the world upside down because they did not adopt the world’s view of human possibilities. Christians operate guided by a vision of God’s Kingdom, and don’t settle for the status quo. With hope and confidence in God, Christians do not have to bow down before the bottom line, or choose to do evil out of some tragic necessity. The only moral failure for Christ’s disciples is to abandon the effort to do God’s good work. If worldly success follows then that’s wonderful, but God’s will above all things.

It is good to remember that those persons engaged in the most draining tasks find the strength to keep going by daily prayer and frequent worship. Celebrations of the Christian life enliven and enlighten the human spirit through the power of the Holy Spirit. The more exasperating and frustrating the call to love and justice, the more we need to beg God for fortitude.

Steadfast courage to keep going in the struggle to be good comes from relying on God. The more repetition and drudgery in the duty, the more we need the example of saints and the support of our community. Persecution and conflict can also beset the moral life. Evil persons hate the good and their tranquility. The greatest saints were like Christ in the way that their joy in God’s gifts inspired them to make sacrifices for others.

One other law of the moral life helps us on our way. The smallest moral act can bear much fruit. To take one step on the path toward God puts you in a different place with an ability to see further, and seeing more, we can care more deeply. Through caring more we can choose to act again, and yet again. When good choices have been repeated enough times, they become the moral habits we know as virtues. Perhaps one of the delightful ironies of the Holy Spirit’s work is that eventually moral behavior becomes second nature. Goodness flows from the joyful heart without struggle or even awareness. At that point, as St. Catherine of Siena has said, all the way to heaven is heaven. We’re home free once again.

Sidney Callahan is professor of moral theology at St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y., and a columnist for Commonweal magazine.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002