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.

Paradox in Biblical Ethics

There is a broad agreement that Christians should follow biblical ethics, i.e. the ethics that is presented on the pages of the Bible. The bible teaches specific ethical rules and it also teaches ethical reasoning that tells how to apply the rules to the concrete situations. It is possible to apply good principles in the right or wrong way.

A careful reader of the bible immediately encounters a paradox, illustrated by the following two citations:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”  (Mt 5:21-22)

“One sabbath when he went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees, they were watching him. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, “Which of you, having an ass or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.” (Lk 14:1 – 6)

Note that in both passages, Jesus demonstrates ethical reasoning, i.e. shows how to apply ethical principles in specific situations. However, in each of them, the reasoning is different. In case of “You shall not kill” (Mt 5:21), the reasoning is very cautious and very scrupulous. It sets up a protective border between the offense (killing) and the contemplated act and prohibits even acts that are far away from killing, although in an extreme case they could lead to it.  Followers of Jesus are expected to respect this wide boundary. In a terminology of later centuries, Jesus reasons in this case as a strict rigorist.

However, the reasoning in the second passage is very different. In that case, Jesus treats the Sabbath rest as a guideline that is subject to our judgement and suggests tradeoffs with other considerations. To show mercy towards a sick person or to solve an emergency by rescuing an ox who fell into a well are explicitly cited as permissible acts during the Sabbath. Jesus still upholds the Sabbath rest, but allows use of discretion and judgement to resolve a specific issue at hand. In the later terminology, Jesus on this issue demonstrates the reasoning of a lenient laxist.

Rigorists and Laxists

For some reasons, to accept different reasoning in different situations turned out to be too much for some people. The Pharisees were an early example, as they adopted an across-the-board rigorous approach. They applied the same strict reasoning to all ethics cases, including the Sabbath rest. They produced a lengthy list of activities that they deemed to be prohibited on the Sabbath. When Jesus violated their idea of the Sabbath, they reacted with condemnation. Today’s rigorists try to reduce all ethics to prohibitions (or duties which prohibit inaction) and display the same rigorist mindset in all ethical situations.

Laxists, on the other hand, emphasize the use of judgement and balancing of various considerations, which is appropriate for biblical prescriptions like Sabbath rest, but apply this reasoning across-the-board. They are always willing to consider various exemptions and trade-offs, even in the case of clearly stated prohibitions. Many ethicists like this approach because it gives the actors wider latitude and emphasizes a human judgement rather than obedience. It seems to give the moral actors a more adult role.

Pillars rather than Silos

In order to follow Jesus and his ethical teachings, we must accept both types of reasoning and apply them correctly in the appropriate circumstances. The early rigorists, Pharisees, are criticized in the pages of the New Testament, indicating that the across-the-board rigorist approach is not a satisfactory approach to the biblical ethics.

On the other hand, laxists should note that unless they are engaging a rigorist strawman, they face very few biblical prohibitions and encounter them relatively rarely. In his dialog with the rich young man, Jesus restates only four prohibitions: ““You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness.” (Mt 19:18)

While these prohibitions are few, their violations have very serious consequences and can lead to catastrophes in the lives of the actors and their companions. That was pointed out by Veritatis Splendor, a breakthrough encyclical by Pope St. John Paul II that coined the notion of “intrinsic evil” for acts that violate biblical prohibitions, no matter what the intention of the actor is. The encyclical points out that in case of the four prohibitions, laxists assume the role that only belongs to God. (Veritatis Splendor 102)

In the biblical ethics, the prohibitions and prescriptions create an organic whole, the pillars on which the biblical ethics rests. First, we have to ask whether the act is permitted and only if it is, we should balance the various considerations and trade-offs in order to optimize the outcome. Hence the two kinds of reasoning both have a specific complementary role and they are not isolated silos or competing options.

Pillars of ethical reasoning are not unusual or incomprehensible

The pillars of ethical reasoning are intuitive and easy to grasp, with many common situations serving as an analogy. When playing chess, we first encounter prohibitions: “Do not make an illegal move.” “Do not touch a figure that you do not intend to move.” Violations of these prohibitions lead to an immediate loss of the game.

Only when all prohibitions are meticulously observed, we can consider the prescriptions that help us to play a successful game of chess: “Select the appropriate opening.” Try to control the center from the opening to the end.” These prescriptions need to be balanced against each other and exceptions in specific situations should be considered. They represent a completely different kind of reasoning that takes place only after the meticulous observation of the prohibitions takes place. If the prohibitions are not observed, there is no space for a practice of prescriptions.

Another helpful analogy is reasoning about big goals. A car trip is such an example. Suppose that Hannah, who lives in Detroit, was invited by her friend in Chicago for a weekend visit. She is a teenager, has a new driver’s license and knows how to drive, but never before took a solo road trip. She comes to you and asks, “Grandpa, how can I get to Chicago to see my friend?”

First, you might warn her about the prohibitions: “Hannah, do not drive on the left side of the freeway. It would be so dangerous that it would threaten not only your trip to Chicago, but your entire life and other people on the road as well.”

Then you would say something about the prescriptions. “Hannah, before you leave, make sure that your car is in good shape and that you have enough cash with you. On the road, watch your fuel gauge and when it gets low, stop and buy gas. Observing prohibitions first and prescriptions later, each with a different kind of reasoning, will give Hannah a good chance to successfully reach Chicago and meet her friend.

These examples show that there is nothing mysterious or inaccessible in the pillars of biblical ethics.  We may note that there are additional pillars that can be gleaned from the pages of the bible: The biblical ethics has a purpose and leads towards a goal, which is reaching the Kingdom of God. The actors must maintain proper priorities in order to reach that goal, not to be scared off or distracted. There are also favorable circumstances that allow the actors to pursue the goal, God’s providence and grace. All these pillars constitute an organic ethical system and it is intuitively clear which pillar and which type of reasoning is applicable to which situation.

A more comprehensive summary of the biblical ethics and of the four pillars of prohibitions, prescriptions, priorities, and providence/grace can be found in Václav Rajlich: How to live a good life following New Testament ethics.

Not So Silent St. Joseph

St. Joseph is one of the most impressive individuals of the New Testament. He was the protector and earthly legal father of Jesus. He is venerated as a patron saint of the Universal Church, of the Americas, and of many countries as well, including Austria, Belgium, Canada, and China. He is also a patron saint of fathers, workers, travelers, and immigrants.

He is a role model of many virtues, including prudence, fortitude, leadership, enterprise, and diligence. His virtues helped him to deal with the many challenges in his life and allowed him to serve as a good protector and provider for his family. Many authors have commented on these virtues, so we will not repeat them here. Instead, we will concentrate on a less explored St. Joseph’s virtue: sincerity. 

Sincerity governs communication with others. It builds on truthfulness, which is the only acceptable foundation of good communication as everything else (lying) is sinful and ruins the trust between people. However, truthful communication needs additional refinement. Listeners are entitled to know facts important to them, but there is also confidential information to which they have no right. The virtue of sincerity helps a speaker to assess which information to reveal to whom. This additional communication virtue is an offshoot of the cardinal virtues of justice and prudence. It is the sweet spot between two extremes: secretiveness (insincerity) that reveals too little and indiscreetness that reveals too much.

The defect of secretiveness leads to revealing too little. For example, family members and others with whom we interact are entitled to understand our conduct that affects them. Sometimes the understanding is easy, but sometimes it requires an explanation. When considering how much to explain, we should not overestimate their ability to understand. They may be genuinely puzzled or bewildered if our behavior is incomprehensible to them.

St. Joseph was a descendant of a royal family. That is why he had to travel for a census to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestor, King David (Lk 2:4). We can be certain that St. Mary, who accompanied him, knew and understood the reason for the trip. What was supposed to be a relatively short trip transformed into a sequence of life-changing events of epic proportion. There was a birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Lk 2:6-7), the threat to Jesus’ life from the local ruler Herod (Mt 2:16), the flight to Egypt (Mt 2:15), and return after several years in exile (Mt 2:21).

Scripture provides unusual explanations of the big decisions that St. Joseph made: An angel advised St. Joseph in his dream to flee to Egypt and to return when the danger passed (Mt 2:13, Mt 2:19-20). How did the Gospel authors know these explanations? St. Joseph must have shared them with St. Mary, who in turn shared them to the evangelist who recorded them in the gospel.

Imagine if St. Joseph had been secretive, kept his reasons to himself and told St. Mary without any clarification: “Let’s go to Egypt” and later, “Let’s go back.” By such behavior, he would have created an enormous strain in his marriage. On the other hand, accepting these extraordinary explanations was heroic by St. Mary and we must admit that it exceeded what can be expected of most wives of our times.

There is also an opposite vice of excess, revealing too much, called indiscreetness. As mentioned earlier, St. Joseph was a descendant of King David. However, his royal family fell on hard time. Consequently, there was no royal palace, there was only a modest house in a small village, and hard work in the profession of carpentry and in homemaking. The ruling royal family, Herodians, were on a constant lookout for anything that would threaten their power. When the three wise men inadvertently confided in Herod, there was an immediate danger to the life of Jesus (Mt 2:16). After that experience, St. Joseph avoided living in Bethlehem, the city of his forefather King David. Instead, he lived in an obscure Galilean village of Nazareth. He kept the information about his royal descent confidential, sharing it only with his immediate family. In Nazareth, he and his family lived a quiet life like those in the present-day Witness Protection Program.

Many people commented on the St. Joseph’s discreteness and sometimes mistakenly dub him “man of silence.” It is true that he kept dangerous information away from curious neighbors and that the New Testament does not record any of his pronouncements. But he was not secretive and communicated his dreams and reasons to St. Mary and later to Jesus. He was an example of sincerity, saying what needed to be said and not saying what needed to be kept confidential.

In this, he is a role model for husbands and fathers. We can emulate the sincerity of St. Joseph by telling our companions important things about our past, traditions, customs, expectations, and dreams, and in this way to help them to understand our present-day behavior. We should do it even if we do not live in a perfect holy family but in an imperfect one. Their response may range from appreciation to disbelief or ridicule, but still we should find the fortitude to do it, because it is required by the justice towards our companions and it is the only path towards long-term peace. Where secretiveness prevails, misunderstandings often follow and result in mistrust and strife.

Unfortunately, current culture often offers bad examples of insincerity. In order to sell products or political candidates, insincere actors cover up inconvenient facts. Instead of debating issues at hand, they switch the topic and attack the other party for something unrelated. Instead of finding convincing arguments for their positions, they spend their energy digging out embarrassing dirt on their opponents. Allowing these attitudes to pollute our communications would be devastating to our relationships.

As mentioned earlier, indiscreetness is a vice of excess and it leads to revealing too much, including needlessly exposing faults of loved ones. Also, there are braggarts who want to impress their audience and are willing to disclose things that should stay hidden. This vice also breeds misunderstandings that threaten the peace in relationships.

Serious insincerity and indiscreetness violate cardinal virtues of justice and prudence and may be serious sins. Moreover, it takes only a small step to magnify these vices into outright dishonesty and lies.

Good communication, based on truthfulness and sincerity, is pleasing to God and to people of goodwill. It brings us closer to the Kingdom of God, where peace and harmony prevails. Let us call on St. Joseph to intercede for us and help us to live the virtue of sincerity, and through it, to bring peace into our relationships!

Human Mercy Revisited

I dreaded my job interview at Zbrojovka Brno, a manufacturing company about 130 miles southeast of Prague. But the reality was even worse than my fears.

I was sitting across the desk from a stern-looking apparatchik who was dressed in perfectly ironed Mao-Tse-Tung-style workwear, adorned by a red star lapel pin. He was slowly thumbing through my file, briefly reading the documents, some of them undoubtedly provided by the neighborhood watch. The awkward silence gave me plenty of time to reflect on how I got here.

As a college senior in 1962, I worked part-time at the highly-respected Department of Automation at Czech Technical University in Prague. My hope was that, after graduation, I would stay in the Department as a full-time lecturer.

Our graduating group received a list of job openings that exactly matched the number of students in the group. Among them, the lectureship in the Department of Automation was the most coveted one. The bottom of the barrel was a shift supervisor of a typewriter assembly line at Zbrojovka Brno, managing approximately 300 low skilled workers. 

College administrators delayed job assignments. Only after the final semester ended, they announced a meeting where decisions would be made.  Unfortunately on that date, I was scheduled to be out of town because earlier, I signed up as a tourist guide. I wanted to earn some extra money to help pay for my education expenses.

I tried unsuccessfully to cancel the contract but ended up traveling to Tatra Mountains in Slovakia with a group of tourists. I was now legally responsible for them and took a great risk when I left them to fend for themselves for three days. It took me one full day to get back to Prague by train, one day I set aside for the job meeting, and another full day was needed to get back. But when I arrived to Prague, I learned that the college administration postponed the meeting again.

It was impossible for me to stay in Prague that long and leave my tourists in the Tatra Mountains alone. Desperate, I walked into the office of a professor whom I trusted and explained the situation. He assured me that he thinks that I deserve the position in the Department of Automation and promised that he would do his best. He told me to return to the Tatra Mountains and that everything would be fine. Only later did I learn that he broke his promise and said at the beginning of the meeting: “Václav is not here. After all of you have your picks, we can assign to him whatever is left.” The job I was given was the shift supervisor in Zbrojovka Brno.

The apparatchik stopped reading documents from my file, looked at me, and asked: “You do not want to come to Brno, do you?” In a strained voice, I answered: “You are right, I do not.” He again thumbed through the folder and said: “You are good at mathematics, correct?” I said, “Yes.” He read several additional documents in the file for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, he said, “We are a big company. We have a Research Institute of Mathematical Machines in Prague. Have you heard of it?  I will send you there.”

The Research Institute for Mathematical Machines was often in the news. It was the premium research institution that was developing computers, an exciting new technology at that time. To work at the Institute was something I secretly dreamed about, but such a lofty goal seemed completely out of reach. Stunned, I said, “That would be excellent!”

That was my entry into the world of computers. I worked at the institute for more than 10 years as a researcher and later as a scientist. This work laid the foundation for my rewarding life-long career, first in Czechoslovakia and later in the United States.

My cynical friends always argued that the apparatchik just corrected a misallocation of the regime’s resources, where a potentially useful researcher was set to fail as a shift supervisor. However, I am convinced that he saw reports of my negative views of Communism and therefore he took a substantial risk. I believe that he had to justify his decision to his party bosses, that he had to fill a detailed and carefully worded report, and that he showed genuine mercy towards me. I consider him living proof that mercy is not only the crown jewel of Christian virtue, but also a natural human trait, written on peoples’ hearts as Saint Paul asserted, even when those people are far from God (Rom 2:15). Nowadays, we call this trait “empathy.”

Dictionaries define human mercy as a benevolence that is shown by a person in a position of power towards somebody in need. The phrase “to be at somebody’s mercy” means to be under somebody’s power. The moral compass written on our hearts (our empathy) tells us to be merciful to those who are at our mercy. It has been a favored topic of the Popes, Christian authors, theologians, and mystics. I often ponder whether I, a Christian, always showed mercy towards those who happened to be under my power.

Human Mercy in New Testament

Jesus of Nazareth taught extensively about both God’s and human mercy and presented the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example to emulate. The Good Samaritan saw a roadside victim of a crime, stopped, and treated his wounds. Then he found an inn where the victim could recover and he assumed the victim’s financial costs (Lk 10:29-37). He sacrificed his time, energy, and money on behalf of the victim.

Since mercy is a natural virtue, as the apparatchik demonstrated, it is understood by many and garners wide approval, even among people who are far from Jesus. As a consequence, there are people who covet the good reputation that merciful acts bestow, but do not want to pay their costs. Their incomplete acts of mercy serve them, rather than the others. As a thought, consider a Fake Samaritan who would bring the victim into the inn and through deception or coercion, would make the innkeeper responsible for the victim’s costs, disregarding the possibility that this may cause financial difficulties.  Such an act is more a self-aggrandizement and a camouflaged act of injustice, rather than mercy.

We also note that the Good Samaritan, as merciful as he was, had his limits. Although he was a man of some wealth, he could not afford to cancel his trip and to stay in the inn until the victim fully recovered. He humbly accepted that he had done all he was able to and left the scene. He did not impose an unjust burden on the inn keeper, but he also did not impose an undue burden on himself.

Jesus of Nazareth illustrates these limits more explicitly in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The wise virgins refuse to share oil with foolish ones because there is not enough for both (Mt 25:1-13). The lesson is clear: Mercy does not require the impossible, or threaten person’s other serious obligations, or sacrifice one’s fundamental rights. Such an act would be a posturing, a foolish show off, an excess, and a sign of pride. In all humility, we have to admit that sometimes, our power is limited and we may not be in a position to do more.

As previously mentioned, true acts of mercy must not unjustly transfer the cost of mercy to others. However, that cost needs another look, as there are true and false costs. Jesus of Nazareth clarified that in the parable of laborers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-15).

In this story, the householder hired some laborers early in the morning and out of mercy, he also hired some idle laborers in the late afternoon, knowing that their contributions to the effort would be small. In the evening, the wages were paid and the early morning laborers expected that they would be paid more than the laborers hired later in the day. The early morning workers were upset when both groups received the same wage.

However note that there was no injustice. The householder paid them their just wage. He was careful that the cost of mercy did not unjustly fall on the early laborers. That is, he did not cut their wages to pay the late laborers. Their problem was an unfounded expectation and envy. The householder rightly concluded that he had done no injustice and persisted with his mercy towards the late laborers.

While we note possible distortions of the merciful act, Jesus of Nazareth reminds us that exercise of genuine mercy is an essential part of Christian life. While sacrifice of comfort or resources may be a part of a merciful act, it is not an acceptable substitute for mercy (Mt 12:7).

 Although we should not exceed our capabilities in our acts of mercy, we should not underestimate our capabilities either. Sometimes, we may fail to act mercifully because we may be overwhelmed by various trifling concerns and distractions that do not leave a room for merciful acts. Jesus of Nazareth addressed this issue in the parable of sheep and goats (Mt 25:31-46). The “goats” in the parable have not realized that they have been endowed with possessions of food, clothing, or freedom, and wasted their opportunities to show mercy towards those who are lacking these things. The “sheep” in the parable are a metaphor for those who got it right and engaged in the acts of mercy by sharing these blessings with the less fortunate. In the final judgment, the “sheep” win eternal life while “goats” go to eternal punishment.

In summary, mercy is a natural virtue. It is a part of our moral compass and helps to smooth the hard edges of social life. It garners wide social approval and has a pivotal role in Christianity. However, like all virtues, the practice of mercy is an art and requires us to consider a wide range of circumstances. The Gospels illustrate true mercy and warn us about pitfalls that can turn the virtue of mercy into a vice of injustice, excess, pride, envy, or omission. Only true mercy that avoids these pitfalls leads towards peace and the Kingdom of God.