Bishop Keating Issues Pastoral on Morality and Conscience

Author: Michael F. Flach


No topic has dominated human conversation over the centuries as the issue of morality, of good and evil, of right and wrong, said Arlington Bishop John R. Keating.

"The Catholic position on morality is quite simple," he said. "It is God who sets the norms for good and evil, who decides what is right and what is wrongful human behavior.

"Our task as human persons is to discover what those norms are and to live our lives accordingly."

Bishop Keating's "Pastoral Letter on Morality and Conscience" -- released Sept. 17, the Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine -- is the fifth pastoral letter he has written since being installed as the second bishop of Arlington in August 1983.

The other pastorals have focused on "Consultation in the Parish" (1984); "Reverence for the Eucharist" (1988); "Catholic Schools" (1990); and "Handing on the Faith" (1992).

The first installment of Bishop Keating's newest pastoral appears on page 13 in this week's issue. The second and third installments will be published in the next two issues. Complete copies of the pastoral will be available in October through the Diocesan Communications Office.

In addition to Sacred Scripture, the bishop uses three main sources in his pastoral letter: the newly released "Catechism of the Catholic Church"; Pope John Paul II's 1993 encyclical letter "Veritatis Splendor"; and the Second Vatican Council's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" ("Gaudium et spes").

Under the framework of morality, Bishop Keating discusses natural law, the "pro-choice" conscience and the law of Christ. The section on "Conscience" focuses on the formation of conscience, conversion from sin, patience and penance.

The work of discovering right and wrong can proceed by looking at God's creation and by listening to God's revelation, said Bishop Keating. "The first way is open to all mankind; the second, only to believers.

"What we discover by the first way is called the law of nature or natural law," he said. "What we discover by the second way is the law of Christ, the law of the Gospel."

Man is endowed with a basic moral sense that exists in him regardless of any religious training or belief, said the bishop. "You don't have to be a person of faith or religious background to be able to tell the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong," he said.

"Even in countries that are officially atheistic, their laws will reflect norms of fundamental ethics...that murder, rape and larceny are wrong, that patriotism, honesty under oath and philanthropy are good."

The fundamental norms of natural law are discoverable by, and equally applicable to, all persons of all cultures, Bishop Keating said.

"Genocide was wrong in the Americas of the 16th century; it is wrong in 20th-century Rwanda. Slavery was wrong in the Roman empire; it was wrong in these United States."

The Ten Commandments are a formulation of several norms of the natural law, he said.

The bishop challenged the argument of some Catholics in political life who justify their "pro-choice" position on abortion by claiming they cannot impose their religious beliefs on others.

"The fallacy in this reasoning," Bishop Keating said, "is simply that the morality of abortion is not a religious belief, any more than the morality of slavery, apartheid, rape, larceny, murder or arson is a religious belief. "These are norms of the natural law of mankind and can be legislated even in a completely religionless society," he said.

"No one needs the revelation of God or an act of faith in his word to know that abortion is ethically and morally wrong," Bishop Keating said. "People of all faiths and of no faith at all can reason to that fact. Witnessing an abortion certainly accelerates the process."

Another item of "confusion" on the political agenda today, said the bishop, deals with the "pro-choice" approach to the legality and acceptability of homosexual rights and lifestyle.

"Some would have us believe that the traditional unacceptability of homosexual marriage is a matter of religious belief, and hence is unconstitutionally prohibited by civil law," he said.

"The Church is bitterly attacked for teaching that this is not a matter of sectarian belief, but of the law of nature itself known by reason and applicable to all mankind."

The results of opinion polls are sometimes presented as though they reflect the norms of morality, said Bishop Keating. "Polls, it should be pointed out, do no make morality; they simply indicate what degree of immorality exists in a given area," he said.

"The state has an obligation to sustain, safeguard and enforce the overriding norms of behavior known as 'human rights' or 'civil rights,' those norms that universally should be recognized and should regulate the behavior of all citizens as fundamental principles of the human family."

The fact that the Church reaffirms a human right does not make that right a religious belief, the bishop said.

"When the gift of religious faith intervenes," he said, "one's knowledge of the natural law, one's commitment to live in accord with basic natural ethics, is bolstered immeasurably.

"Religious faith, if based soundly on the word of God, clarifies, reinforces and vastly builds upon the natural moral sense of the human family."

Conscience, the bishop said, is an individual's ability to judge his behavior as closely as possible to the way God judges it.

"Spiritual development and maturity in an individual are best measured by one's honest ability to judge human behavior," he said, "not by the standards of the media and entertainment industries, nor by the standards of American criminal law or Supreme Court decisions, but by God's standards.

"In a widely dechristianized culture, as the Holy Father pointed out sadly, the criteria employed even by some Catholics in making moral judgments and decisions are often contrary to those of the Gospel." The process of forming one's conscience begins at home, said Bishop Keating.

The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" is an outstanding instrument of conveying God's moral judgments of human behavior, he said.

The catechism names various elements that form and develop right conscience: the word of God; examination of conscience; gifts of the Holy Spirit; witness and advice; and the teaching of the Church.

"Just as these elements are available to us to help us form conscience in the truth, we are often surrounded by contrary elements that serve to deform conscience," the bishop said.

"Especially vulnerable are young people, who can be mightily influenced by a cultural atmosphere which supplies norms of good and evil that are in conflict with Gospel norms."

The education of conscience "is a lifelong task that is certainly worth the effort," he said. Not only does the education of conscience guarantee freedom and engender peace of heart, but "it prepares us for the ultimate joy and rewards of eternal life."

The Church will remain faithful to the message and manner of Jesus by continuing to preach God's standards while dealing compassionately with sinners, the bishop said.

"While He walked this earth, Jesus not only exhorted all people to repentance so that they should abandon their sins and turn wholeheartedly to the Lord, but He also welcomed sinners and reconciled them to the Father." Jesus' patience and mercy toward sinners was perpetuated for all time when He entrusted for us the sacrament of Penance, he said.

"Not only is going to confession one of the strongest acts of the spiritual life, but receiving God's forgiveness, certified by the priest's words of absolution, is one of the purest joys of our faith."

Bishop Keating urged the people of the Arlington Diocese "to live the Lord's standards of morality and conscience" and, echoing the words of St. Paul to Timothy, to "hold fast to the faith and a good conscience."

This article appeared in the September 15, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.