Cherishing Life - The Guardian, 26 May 2004
posted on 26 May 2004
Many people, including some Catholics, misunderstand the nature and purpose of moral teaching. Moral living implies duties and obligations based on the difference between right and wrong. For Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of all Catholic theologians, morality is rooted in the most basic and universal desire, the yearning for happiness and fulfilment. A responsible and truthful consideration of that desire gives rise to an ethic of human flourishing, which is rooted in human nature, rather than in a set of laws imposed from outside. In other words moral discernment is a response to the fundamental question: what kind of person am I called to become.
Today the Catholic Bishops in England and Wales publish a document called Cherishing Life, which offers the reader a clear and accessible explanation of Catholic moral teaching. We begin with a reflection on our human nature and then look towards its fulfilment in the happiness which derives from true friendship with each other, and with God. I hope that this will prove to be an antidote to a caricature of Christian, and specifically Catholic, morality which has developed over the years. It is wrong, for example, to imagine that Catholics are unusually preoccupied with sin. It would be more accurate to say that we are preoccupied with the notion of forgiveness. Cherishing Life has not been written with a view to grabbing headlines. It is careful to begin with fundamental principles, the absence of which render moral decision-making precarious, arbitrary and, ultimately, confused or destructive. It starts from the profound conviction that all human life is sacred. Human life is not only a gift from God, it is a sharing in the life of God who shared His divine life with us in Jesus, His Son. From this point we can begin to explore the implications for each of us of the moral dimensions of life and living.
In attempting to uncover the hidden depths of Catholic moral teaching in the contemporary setting, we are guided by the overriding gospel value of love and respect for every person. The Church has a duty to proclaim moral truth with clarity but, as our document is careful to point out she must be careful, as it is written in Isaiah, 'not to break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick'. Each of us is on a journey, a journey back to God. That journey should be exhilarating and life-giving. It also requires us to make difficult moral choices. At every twist and turn along the way, at every crossroads, there are challenging decisions to be made. We do not make those decisions in isolation. We make them in the context of our human relationships, and in the midst of the communities in which we live. The Church itself is a community which offers compassion and understanding, as well as guidance and teaching, to its members, all of whom will struggle to lead moral lives.
The structure of Cherishing Life is inspired by the prophet Micah's appeal that we should 'love tenderly, act justly, walk humbly with our God'. The opening section 'Walking Humbly' underlines how vital it is to place our relationship with God at the centre of our striving to live moral lives. He is both our inspiration and the source of compassion, forgiveness and renewed strength to which we return in our moments of weakness. The second section 'Loving Tenderly' begins with a recognition that 'love is the absolute foundation of Christian life and morality'. From the starting point we explore the ways in which love can truthfully be expressed, and the challenges we face in living relationships of love. We pay particular attention to marriage which we uphold as the model of faithful and committed union between a man and a woman, and the ideal context for the raising of children.
In a final section on acting justly we look at euthanasia, abortion, the use of force, war and terrorism. In each of these issues our overriding obligation is to safeguard and promote the inherent and equal dignity of all human life, from its natural beginning to its natural ending. Each of us is created by God, free to make our own moral decisions. No-one can control our conscience for us. We are personally responsible for our actions. We are not passive creatures of a wider social, political and moral culture. Sometimes we find this hard to bear; but we cannot in truth escape from it. Cherishing Life is not only a guide to the Catholic community in its journey towards the fulfilment of our Christian calling and mission. It is also a contribution to the broader public debate around a whole range of moral issues which challenge us today. Catholic moral teaching, like Catholic social teaching, has both a distinctive, and a valuable contribution to make to the common good of our society. I hope that Cherishing Life, will be valued as a source of hope and inspiration well beyond the confines of the Catholic community.