Catholic Ethics: Faith and Reason

The Church teaches that the entire moral law, in all of its requirements and prohibitions, is accessible to human reason alone, without Divine Revelation. Right reason, the God-given faculty of abstract thinking, can never err — if it is used correctly. But fallen human reason can and frequently does err. Therefore, God has given us the Divine Revelation of Tradition and Scripture, as well as the teaching of the Magisterium, so that the truths of the moral law would be known by us with greater breadth, depth, and surety than by fallen human reason alone.

In discussing ethics with my fellow Catholics online, I find that many persons believe only what their own fallen reason considers to be true. If the teaching of the Church is different from their own understanding, they do not accept it. Either they openly argue against magisterial teaching, or they radically reinterpret that teaching to accord with their own understanding. They are attempting to live the Catholic religion by reason alone, by their own fallen reason.

Most Catholics today have been immersed in sinful secular society for their entire lives. Even cradle Catholics have been influenced more by secular society than by the Church. Most of our schooling, reading material, news, and entertainments are secular in nature. The influence of the writings of the Saints, the teachings of the Church, and Sacred Scripture is very limited among Catholics today. And so most Catholics are “secular Catholics”. They think and act very much like the other members of secular society. They use contraception; they commit grave sexual sins. They adopt whatever the prevailing views are in society on marriage, family, politics, etc.

Secular Catholics then find themselves to be in conflict with Church teaching, especially on ethics. And when arguing about any topic in ethics, the secular Catholic wants not only a reasonable explanation, but one that will make sense to a secular mind. They want the Church’s teaching to be explained in secular terms, based on secular principles, and be convincing to a secular mind. And that simply is not going to happen.

The truths of the Catholic Christian Faith, even those truths entirely accessible to right reason, are heavenly truths. They will never make sense to a mind immersed from childhood in sinful secular society. Those who choose to be “of the world” are not going to accept Christ, who is of heaven. Once someone insists that the teaching of the Church must be explain to the satisfaction of a secular mind and of sinful secular society, a divide has opened up that cannot be crossed by reason alone. The truths of Jesus Christ on morality will never completely make sense to the reason of sinners.

So what then is the solution? Faith in Jesus Christ and in His Church. If you only believe the ethical teachings of the Church in so far as those teachings happen to agree with your own understanding, then you do not have faith — or at least you are not exercising your faith. Do not be “of this world” in your heart and mind. Live in the world, but keep your heart and mind focused on heavenly things. Believe what the Catholic Church teaches on morality, even when some of those teachings are contrary to your own understanding. That is the virtue of faith.

Faith and reason are never truly in conflict. If your fallen reason cannot make sense of a teaching of the Church on morality, believe it with the virtue of faith. And the result will be an enlightenment of your understanding. Reason enlightened by faith is greater than a faithless mind with a high IQ. Reason guided by faith cannot stray far from the path of truth, especially on the most important questions of life.

Sometimes, when Catholics argue against the teaching of the Church, you have to remind them that all the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium must be accepted on the basis of faith. Reason assists faith in knowing what to believe. But the virtue of faith is the primary means of accepting religious and moral truth, not reason alone.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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