The editors at the Register thought it would be helpful to begin a twice-monthly column called Difficult Moral Questions, where readers send in questions of all sorts and I attempt to answer them in a way that both does justice to the reader’s particular doubts and is faithful to Scripture, Tradition and the authoritative teaching of the magisterium, especially of that great saint, pope and moral theologian, John Paul II.
For those who sincerely desire to live a Christian life, one of the greatest obstacles is uncertainty about what to do. Sometimes the uncertainty is no more than indecision. But other times it arises because I have doubts about whether what I am considering is the right thing to do. In this case, I am said to have a doubtful conscience.
Catholic wisdom has advised the faithful not to act upon a doubtful conscience, but to make a reasonable effort to overcome the doubt. One important way of overcoming doubts is by informing oneself about facts and moral principles relevant to understanding the questions one faces. This is an important part of conscience formation. We hope this forum may offer this kind of assistance in forming readers’ consciences.
How Can You Know Truth?
In this regular column, all moral questions will be assessed in the light of the moral principles and conclusions taught by the Catholic Church. But the forum’s purpose is not merely to get readers to conform to Church teaching. It is to help them to arrive at moral truth.
The Church teaches what she does on morality because it is true. Her teaching is not true simply because she teaches it. On moral matters the Church does not, indeed cannot, legislate conclusions. She can only affirm, clarify and publicize what is otherwise already true.
Therefore, when the Church teaches authoritatively on some matter, we have a resource to assist us in understanding the truth of that matter. Therefore, if the Church has taught clearly on some issue, I will take that teaching as normative for answering questions relevant to that issue. I will also do my best to explain why the Church teaches as she does.
If the Church has not taught clearly on an issue, I will explain whether or not there is a consensus of faithful Catholic moral theologians on the issue, and then explain the reasoning most commonly adopted by that consensus.
What if there is neither a clear Church teaching resolving the issue, nor a consensus among faithful theologians (say, for example, on the question of the morality of gestating abandoned embryos)?
The Problem of Legalism
In the past, Catholics were advised to follow what moralists called the principle of probabilism, which said that when faced with the question of whether some action is lawful, one may safely follow a permissive opinion of a theologian on the matter if that opinion is “solidly probable,” even if the opposing opinion is more probable.
This was an inadequate way to resolve doubts of conscience because, as the late theologian Germain Grisez noted 40 years ago, it treated the community of moral theologians as a kind of appeals court, and individual theologians as if they were court justices, and their opinions as if they were legal decisions. The Holy See was viewed as the high court, the final court of appeals, which settled all questions of uncertainty. In other words, the magisterium and body of theologians were viewed as legislative and judicial bodies establishing and interpreting a body of ecclesial law for the peaceful governance of the Church community.
The whole pursuit of resolving questions of conscience was reduced to the legalistic question: ‘How far can I go without committing a mortal sin?’ Worst of all, the most important question, indeed the overarching and singular question of conscience formation — of finding and following what is true — fell into the background.
I therefore do not and will not recommend probabilism in this column. If there is no Church teaching and no consensus of moral theologians on some matter, then one reasonably disregards the opinions of theologians on the issue, since their opinions do not — as opinions — provide any ground for assuming the truthfulness of the competing conclusions. What then should Catholics do?
They should examine the question in the light of what is clearly taught in divine revelation and by the Church; then in that light examine the reasons leading to the conflicting conclusions among theologians; and finally ask themselves which sets of reasons seem to be most consistent with the truths of divine revelation about which we are sure; and then adopt the conclusion that seems to them — in this case, our readers — most likely to be true.
In these cases, I will offer my own opinion and why I hold it. If there is space, I will try to explain fairly the opinions of those who think differently. Readers should take as matters of indifference who it is that’s defending either side, and look only at the reasons.
Good Can Be Found
Finally, when addressing a doubtful conscience in ourselves or those for whom we have responsibility, Catholics should be confident that there is never a situation in which a morally good option cannot be found and so a good choice made.
Choosing the morally good option might mean needing to accept evils that might otherwise not come about if I chose wrongly (e.g., Jesus’ choice to go to Jerusalem on that fateful Passover rather than fleeing like Jonah from the father’s will). But God will never place us in a situation where a morally good option is not available to us. And although he will forgive every sin no matter how grave if we sincerely repent, he never wills for us to sin.
How to Submit a Question
Submit your questions to email@example.com, putting Difficult Moral Questions in the subject line. Please identify your first name (or, if you prefer, a suitable pseudonym) and the state you live in (and country if not USA). If a question does not give enough details, I may elaborate it to make it easier to assess.