Recently, I was asked if it is moral to support the war in Ukraine or the war in Israel. Here is my short answer.
To address the topic of moral responsibility we must first define what “moral” or “morality” is. Merriam-Webster defines Morality as:
1 A: a moral discourse, statement, or lesson
B: a literary or other imaginative work teaching a moral lesson
2 A: a doctrine or system of moral conduct
B: moralities plural : particular moral principles or rules of conduct
3: conformity to ideals of right human conduct
Discerning the nuance of the question, I believe 2 A, a doctrine or system of moral conduct; and 3, conformity to ideals of right human conduct; are the most applicable. Deeper in, as this question seeks the underlying structure from which we can make our decisions, I am going to focus my answer on 2 A, a doctrine or system of moral conduct.
As we struggle to make sense of the conflicts in the world, physical, political, and philosophical, we are relying on our experiences and our understanding of right and wrong. While it is true that our experiences are “all we have” to draw from, we are aware that as extensive as they might be, they are still singularly ours. All our experiences are subjective; experienced and remembered through the lens of our lives. I am reminded of this very often as I share memories of my childhood with my sister who, often enough, has a different opinion of the same “experience.”
Historically, knowing that our personal experiences are inadequate to deal with most issues that involve a greater gathering of humanity, schools were created. Schools were originally simple gatherings to share information and knowledge with the goal of establishing common ground from which topics of concern could be addressed. The value of common ground cannot be overemphasized; common ground is the foundation of dialogue and makes resolution possible.
To answer the specific question above could lead us into a study of Thomas Aquinas and Just War Theory. Starting with Aquinas, we would then sample the thousands of pages discussing the application of Just War Theory in the hopes of matching it to the specifics of our conflict of concern. While this would be fun, it is well beyond what we can do here. Rather, I hope to simply provide a starting point of common ground.
Politics, economics, society, discourse, conflict, ecology; all of these concerns are bolstered by schools of moral thought. The application of moral though is called ethics, and ethical considerations are always informed by the specific situation of moral discussion. In other words, Ethics is based on well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)
Every discipline has a corresponding school of ethics and moral thinking. To establish common ground, the ground of ethical consideration must be established. For people of faith, all areas of consideration, politics, economics, society, discourse, conflict, ecology, etc., should be grounded in Moral Theology. Moral Theology is, according to Juliet Mousseau, RSCJ, Doctor of Historical Theology, Professor and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of San Diego;
[Christian] Moral Theology is a field of theological studies that applies central Christian beliefs to the problems of the world we live in. This approach to faith informs the day-to-day lives of the faithful, guiding their choices, decisions, actions, and reactions to events and challenges, from grand to minuscule. In short, moral theology provides principles for living in accordance with God’s word.
…moral theology establishes the behaviors and attitudes that allow us to live in union with Christ. These general life principles are meant to help followers make the right decisions according to their faith — but this is by no means an easy feat. … morality addresses such complex and nuanced topics as marriage, sexuality, medicine, social justice, wealth, business, war and more.
Traditionally, this standard may have been used to answer the question, “What should I do or believe?” However, [Christian] moral theology is grounded in virtue ethics, so the question becomes: “Who am I becoming as a result of this action or affection?” Since our faith journey is a wholly personal one, approaching daily decisions and choices with this question in mind helps us strengthen our relationship to our faith from within, rather than allow it to be shaped by external forces.
We all formulate our opinions of the war in Ukraine or the war in Israel, the behavior of the next-door neighbor, or the decision concerning saving the rare Bowhead Whale from the ground of our own experience. But that is not Common Ground. Our moral compass is not directed by our study of political ethics, economic ethics, ecological ethics, etc. but by our devotion to God and our growing understanding Christian Moral Theology. All and every concern must first be illuminated by the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and all moral and ethical consideration must conform to the biblical witness.
The standard question, What did Jesus teach? is not simply applied to the war, but to every action and issue of the war. This is the common ground on which all our decisions are made.
The study of moral theology gives us powerful tools with which to understand and share the Catholic tradition with others. Here, we explore the principles, teachings, and challenges that accompany Catholic moral theology, and provide a few helpful suggestions for living a moral life.
What Is Moral Theology?
Moral theology is a field of theological studies that applies central Christian beliefs to the problems of the world we live in. This approach to faith informs the day-to-day lives of the faithful, guiding their choices, decisions, actions, and reactions to events and challenges, from grand to minuscule. In short, moral theology provides principles for living in accordance with God’s word.
Our ability to study and adhere to moral teachings is, in itself, a gift from God. God bestowed upon us intelligence and reason to help us understand the world of creation, while also giving us free will to choose what we consider true and good. Each of us is made in God’s image and therefore we are good. At the same time, our free will allows us to choose to do things which are fundamentally not good. Moral theology gives us a standard by which to measure truth and goodness as God sees it.
Traditionally, this standard may have been used to answer the question, “What should I do or believe?” However, Catholic moral theology is grounded in virtue ethics, so the question becomes: “Who am I becoming as a result of this action or affection?” Since our faith journey is a wholly personal one, approaching daily decisions and choices with this question in mind helps us strengthen our relationship to our faith from within, rather than allow it to be shaped by external forces.
Teachings of Moral Theology
“Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.”
–Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1796
Whether in or outside of a religious context, all moral acts comprise three elements:
To be morally good, both our actions and our intentions need to align with the moral code. To that end, a morally bad intention leads to an inherently bad action, while a good intention cannot result in an objectively bad action. However, this does not give us carte blanche to act in any way we please as long as we “mean well” — there are acts that are fundamentally wrong, regardless of intention or circumstance. Examples include murder, adultery, deceit, or other destructive actions that compromise human health and well-being.
Catholic moral theology is grounded in the concepts of freedom, truth, natural law, human law, and human conscience (the general ability to know what is good and right, as it is willed by God). The moral framework built upon this foundation — the way in which we interact with or respond to these concepts — is shaped by principles from divine revelation, the interpretation of Scripture, and the tradition of the Church.
The principles of Christian morality are not arbitrary; they are among God’s divine gifts to humankind…Christ granted his disciples the authority to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim God’s word — essentially, to keep his love alive (Matthew 10:1). Christ’s disciples have tried to live out his call to love ever since, leaning on both Scripture and tradition as the basis for additional moral guidance that addresses contemporary challenges.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†