Teaching Catholic Ethics: A Proposal

Best way how to teach Catholic ethics to youth is through a personal example of faithful Catholic parents, priests, relatives, teachers, or neighbors, properly interpreted and appreciated. However Catholic ethics can be imparted through the classrooms of Catholic schools as well. Classroom can reinforce or weaken that living example, by suggesting a certain interpretation of it.

Parents send their children into Catholic schools to learn how to live a good life, to correctly interpret good examples they see, and better understand the sometimes-invisible heroic effort behind them. This is a spoken or unspoken expectation that should guide the Catholic education. This essay proposes how that can be accomplished.

Educators have studied different levels of competence that the students achieve in their subjects. In some fields, it is enough to remember terms, definitions, and facts. However, in the fields that are to be practically used, a higher level of competence should allow the students to put the new knowledge into practical use and apply it to solve problems. These different levels of education objectives are formalized by Bloom’s revised taxonomy where the “remember” level is the first level and “apply” level is the third level, out of the total of six levels.

To reach this higher level requires an extra effort on the part of both teachers and students. It is no longer enough to memorize the terms, definitions, and facts, but students must also be able to solve practical problems. The topics must be taught in a sequence that allows the problem-solving throughout the course and starts with simple problems and progresses towards more difficult ones.

The author experienced this dilemma of Bloom’s levels within the field of software engineering, The students enroll in software engineering courses to learn how to develop complex software applications. Yet most of the textbooks and course outlines were oriented towards Bloom’s first level. They emphasized traditionally taught, but rarely practically used topics and neglected the skills that software developers use daily. To bring the course to the third Bloom’s level required different selection of topics, a complete reorganization of the course, and a new textbook. The author suspects that to move teaching Catholic ethics from the Bloom’s first level to the third one requires a similar overhaul.  

Pope St. John Paul II, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, offers the biblical story of the encounter of the rich young man with Jesus as the summary of the Catholic ethics (Mt 19:16 – 26). This brief dialogue contains less than 240 words, yet it provides an integrated overview of the entire Catholic ethics. It can be expanded by other biblical citations to cover the ethical issues in more detail and after this expansion, it lends itself to teaching entire Catholic ethics at Bloom’s third level, serving as the guidance how to structure the complete course. The author’s book “How to live a good life following New Testament ethics” offers an example how this expansion can be done and concentrates on different reasoning in different ethical “pillars,” i.e. prohibited acts, prescriptions (virtues), priorities, and providence/grace.

The students, at the end of the course when they are already instructed in integrated Catholic morality, could be warned against ethical errors they are likely to encounter, and Bloom’s first level is enough for that. However, there are too many ways how to err, and only the current common and serious errors should be selected. There is no need to reintroduce largely forgotten historical errors and cover them in the class, just because they have been traditionally taught.

Prevailing errors of the surrounding culture are constantly changing, and the list of errors covered may require frequent revisiting and updates. Fundamental option is a common error in certain circles, and it is discussed at length in Veritatis Splendor. Adherents of fundamental option claim that a single decision to accept Jesus as a savior is enough and by implication, the arduous path of growing in virtue through the entire life is no longer necessary. This teaching is offered by some protestant sects as an easy alternative and a lure.  The book “How to live a good life following New Testament ethics” discusses relativism, proportionalism, and simplistic distortions of freedom and tolerance. Various books and articles dealing with the “most common teenager problems” suggest additional acute errors worthy of attention, including materialism, lack of self-esteem, replacement of real-life friendships by distant virtual ones, and search of magic powers instead of God’s grace.

A course structured according to this proposal will prepare students to make the sometimes-difficult moral decisions during their lives. It may even guide non-Catholic students who attend Catholic schools, to live a good life.

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