Catholics Must Rise above Conventional Morality

by Joyce Stolberg

We have welcomed our new group of inquirers, answered questions, and have begun our series of catechetical instructions. As we move closer toward formal entrance into the catechumenate in late autumn, we invariably approach the discussion concerning moral issues. This year the lesson is highlighted and hastened by the imminence of our national elections.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) made a doctoral presentation in 1958, which blossomed into his theory of moral development in the 1960s and to his life's work. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of his famous "Heinz's dilemma" (1963). Heintz, after doing all in his power to purchase a drug properly, must decide whether to steal it in order to (hopefully) save the life of his wife. If you studied Kohlberg's work you know that the issue is not whether, but why, Heintz should or should not steal the drug. Kohlberg postulated that the moral thinking of most adults falls on a conventional level: either do what society deems "good" or function in a way that maintains the social order.

Conventional moral thinking might have been enough for Catholics in the early 1960s. Social norms have changed drastically over the past 50 years: what the larger society considered "good" or "praiseworthy" 50 years ago might now be considered at least archaic, but more likely bigoted and anti-social today. For example, in the early 1960s the value of prenatal or unborn life, care of the aged until natural death, the permanence of marriage, and the reservation of sexual activity exclusively to heterosexual marital relationships, were all part and parcel of conventional thinking. Birth control required self-control. The 10 Commandments ruled.

What does "conventional moral thinking" look like today? Abortion is such a commonly used legal option that unwilling young women are often pressured into the procedure, the elderly and terminally ill are routinely sedated and starved, serial sexual relationships are "normal" and anyone who dares to challenge "gay rights" is subject to punishment. Freedom of religion has morphed into prohibition of any religious expression in public places. Artificial birth control and related "reproductive services" are considered "good" by conventional society and have morphed into mandatory health care, free from normal co-pays, which Catholic institutions are required to include in their insurance policies. Sex education, combined with abortifacient drugs, now being dispensed in schools, amounts to programmed perversion. All these attitudes clearly militate against Catholic teaching and against our basic Judeo-Christian 10 Commandments.

Yet, in the 1960s a few leaders, such as Martin Luther King, dared us to go beyond conventional norms to act in civil disobedience by protesting discriminatory laws that clearly trampled human rights. These morally distinguished challengers upended the social order, bringing equal rights to all citizens regardless of race. For his disobedience, Kohlberg awarded Martin Luther King the highest moral rating. In the 1960s, participating in the Civil Rights Movement was an option. Now in 2012, all Catholics are called upon to challenge and rise above conventional norms of morality, just as Peter did in Acts 5:29, "But Peter and the apostles said in reply, 'We must obey God rather than men.'" When the things that society deems "good" are intrinsically disordered, or when the social order encompasses morally untenable norms, we as Catholics must observe and teach God's law in opposition to societal mores.

When our government, through the Health and Human Services mandate, forces us to pay for morally abominable "services" we must disobey, challenge, and protest. When our culture expects school-age children to have sex, we must inculcate in the youth under our care a determination to resist peer pressure.

So, where does this take us when we are teaching the 10 Commandments and the basic tenants of Catholic morality? We must call our inquirers, candidates, and catechumens to a standard of morality that runs directly counter to the society within which they live. In particular, we must courageously teach a respect for all life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage as a permanent union between one man and one woman, and abstinence from all sexual activity outside the sacred bonds of matrimony. We ourselves must understand and be able to explain why the Catholic bishops and Catholic institutions are so vehemently opposed to the health and human services mandate.

The gulf between conventional moral thinking and essential Catholic morality has been increasing every year. Yet, when we clearly and honestly challenge our candidates and catechumens with the demands of Catholic morality, the Holy Spirit consistently provides them with the grace to respond and grow toward a very high level of moral thinking and action. For example, many who had been cohabiting when they began our RCIA processes have, with the grace of God, chosen to discontinue doing so.

Let us revisit the 1960s for a moment. Those who faced the evils of segregation squarely and risked brutality and jail time for civil disobedience brought about major change in the prevailing social order. If all Catholics today reject the norms of society and demand a higher standard of morality, we can reverse the descending trend of moral norms in our society today. Christ calls us in Luke 13:21 to be the yeast that raises the dough, "It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed [in] with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.” We are not meant to be part of the lump!