The third in a four-part weekly series on the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, “Called to Holiness and Mission: Reflections on Christian Moral Living Today.” See part one: The Splendor of Truth: How to live by learning from God; and part two: How laws, natural and divine, guide us toward the good
In the great opening scene of the movie “A Man for All Seasons,” Cardinal Wolsey, the chancellor of England, and Sir Thomas More are discussing a matter of great importance: the failing marriage of King Henry VIII with Catherine of Aragon and Henry’s subsequent infidelity with Anne Boleyn. The cardinal wanted to use the queen’s purported sterility as a rationale for petitioning Rome to declare the marriage invalid so that Henry could be free to marry his paramour and produce a legitimate heir.
It’s a great scene, particularly because it deals – along with the entire movie – with the question of conscience. Sir Thomas More was unwilling to go along with this plan, which was backed by many leading ecclesiastics in England. It wasn’t that those men believed that marriages could be dissolved for any reason. But they were also practical men, and dependent on the king for their livelihoods, and so they were willing to do what they had to in order to bring about a pleasant resolution.
Thomas More, however, was a man who believed in the consistency between interior thought and exterior reality. He knew that the king’s actions were unjustified, and he also knew that attempting to bend the laws of the Church to suit an unfaithful husband was simply not right, even if that husband was the king of England.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus gave St. Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, saying, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Catholics accept that the authentic teaching authority of the Church is able to teach definitively on matters of faith and morals. In short, the Church – by the authority given to her by Christ – can bind the consciences of the faithful to believe certain things.
While this may grate against our contemporary sensibilities, this is actually very freeing. The Divinity of Christ, the real presence in the Eucharist, the inspired nature of the Sacred Scriptures: all of these are laid down by the Church to be definitely held by the faithful.
Also, in the realm of morality, the universal Church – faithful to the Lord’s commands in Scripture – has consistently and infallibly taught the necessity of avoiding all idolatry and occult practices, of keeping the Lord’s Day by attending Mass, and of honoring one’s parents and those in authority. The Church teaches the gravity of bearing false witness against another, as well as the necessity that the marital act be carried out exclusively by a husband and wife in a manner open to the procreation of children.
As for the solemn obligation to love the poor and help improve their lot, Christ himself has given us a most serious teaching that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
Each of us is called to form his or her conscience in light of these and many other teachings of faith and morals. While it is true that I am bound to follow my conscience, even if it is in error, it is equally true that all of us have a serious obligation to investigate the Church’s teachings and measure our beliefs against them. Failure to do this is itself a violation of conscience.
Certain teachings of fundamental moral theology help shed light on our actions. What the Church has taught since the New Testament era – and which St. John Paul II insisted was still very much valid – is that specific sins can alter our fundamental option for or against God. A person who kills another person after reflecting on it and with full consent of the will has committed a mortal sin, which results in a loss of sanctifying grace. Such actions are to be distinguished from venial sins, which, while wounding our relationship with God and others, do not destroy it.
Moral theology reminds us that every action has three elements: the act itself, the intention of the moral actor, and the circumstances surrounding the action. Virtuous actions are good in all three elements. In contrast, let’s say I give someone a bottle of wine for Christmas. On its surface, that is a fine thing to do. But if I know that the person has recently struggled greatly with alcohol – and is in fact going to AA meetings – then bringing a bottle of wine is actually an evil action. The circumstances change the act entirely! On the other hand, the circumstances can also mitigate the seriousness of certain actions, especially those done out of habit or fear.
To take another example, we can consider lying. On the one hand, lying is one of those sins which is intrinsically evil. That means that no good intentions and no mitigating set of circumstances can ever make lying morally licit. At the same time, though, we know that there are various degrees of seriousness to lying. Lying under oath to condemn an innocent person is gravely immoral; lying to one’s roommate about how many cookies one has eaten is probably not. Both are wrong, but one is gravely wrong and the other only slightly.
This is in contrast with other types of sins which do not have the same gradation of seriousness (i.e., they are always seriously wrong). Understanding these can be extremely helpful in making sense of the world and our actions in it.
Thomas More followed his conscience, even though it put him in conflict with virtually all the most important people in England. This steadfast fidelity would eventually lead to his martyrdom. But More’s was a properly formed conscience, and he recognized that abandoning what he knew to be right would be a loss much more devastating than that of his earthly life.
May St. Thomas More intercede for us, that we may know what is to be done in our lives, and then, by God’s grace, let us do it.
Father Eric J. Banecker is pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Philadelphia.
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