Engaging the Moral Issues of our Moment

"We have so much to celebrate in our world. We also have much to confront..." 

20 August 2017 General Interest

By Fr David Ranson, Vicar General

Over these weeks, as a community of Christian faith, we are being confronted with very significant social issues that touch upon some of the core principles of our understanding of life and of our religious practice. The period is perhaps particular given that it is not a single issue with which we are dealing, but multiple matters:

• The Australian Government has announced its intention to conduct a postal survey on the matter of same-sex marriage, such that legislation for this might be introduced before the end of the year;

• A Private Members Bill is to be introduced into the NSW State Legislative Council in September with the intention to provide the possibility of legalizing voluntary euthanasia and assisted dying. Similar bills are being introduced on other State parliaments;

• The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse has, on the 14 August, recommended the removal of the legal privilege associated with the Sacrament of Penance, so that clergy, in the exercise of that Sacrament, would not be exempt from the requirement of mandatory reporting;

• And underneath all these lies the question of the exercise and protection of religious freedom within our Australian society.

It is difficult to think of another recent period where such significant moral and religious issues have presented with this kind of immediacy and urgency.

How might we consider the issues before us, and how might we act in the most effective way possible, informed by the principles of our Christian and Catholic perspective, for the sake of our social future?
Let us begin to address this question by exploring some of the social assumptions that characterize our contemporary context, and out of which emerge the various positions with which we are dealing.

We live in one of the most exciting times in human history. Never have we had as much access to our past. Never have the possibilities for our future been as extensive. The rate of change in the last fifty or sixty years has outpaced any period earlier. The digital revolutions have altered the way in which we engage our world and one another. Technology has made possible advances unimaginable only a few decades ago. Notwithstanding the enormous challenges of mass migration, climate change and geo-political instability, we stand on the cusp of a new era of opportunity.

This remarkable possibility, however, does not present with cohesion and focus. With the eclipse by the middle of the 20th century of the philosophical project we call modernity, we enter the future without a unifying narrative. Everything now claims attention for legitimacy; every claim is regarded with value, even though experience demonstrates that where everything is tolerated, intolerance bounds. This is what we might call the paradox of postmodernity.

Within this context, the Canadian philosopher of religion, Charles Taylor, especially, has highlighted for us the way in which meaning today is derived almost entirely from personal experience.1 The individual ‘self’ has now become regarded as the repository of truth. Further, it is how I feel that determines the rightness of something. Unless I feel something has value, it has none. This we might label ‘the tyranny of affect’, and it is particularly endemic in the way that most of us think and speak today. Most of us may not be aware of it. However, if we listen for it, we hear it everywhere.

The outcome of this evolution in consciousness, particularly in the West, is that Truth becomes entirely internal, something wholly subjective. The idea that Truth exists outside of ourselves, that it is something objective, something we receive, and to which we are accountable, has become increasingly foreign. It is not the collective wisdom forged through the Tradition of a people to which I am now accountable, but to that which I have determined to be personally authentic, according to how I feel.

The loss of the Transcendent in a secular society exacerbates this self-reference - perhaps epitomized in the narcissism of today’s leadership through which we witness the fragmentation of political processes. The secular itself is something about which we should not be afraid: it is the domain of civil and political life created on the principles of sound reason. However, a secularist agenda, which is something different from the secular sphere itself, seeks to banish any reference to the Transcendent in life, in favour of that which is entirely empirical and immediate. It cannot admit of the religious word, the religious gesture, or the religious symbol - all of which it regards as an affront to what is rational, even though the most beautiful moments in human history have most often been inspired in the flourishing of the religious imagination. And above all, the secularist agenda cannot admit of the religious conscience. It asserts the demands of moral responsibility as a higher category of discernment than that of the religious conscience, as we see in the recent recommendation of the Royal Commission regarding the seal of Confession.

The religious imagination has been replaced by the technological. We cannot but marvel at the possibilities of technology across so many aspects of our existence. And yet, we can also be unwittingly seduced into a fantasy by technology – the fantasy that everything is possible. And if it is possible, why can’t we do it? And so, possibility and prosecution become thought of as without distinction. If something is possible, I have a right to pursue it, if I feel that it is good to do so. However, with the banishment of the Transcendent from social consideration, this appeal to rights takes on an absolute character. It is not human rights as such to which we appeal. It is ‘my’ rights that we demand. I have a right to choose; I have a right to decide. I have a right to do anything that I feel to be right for me, so long as it does not adversely affect anyone in a way that is immediately visible. This primacy of personal rights, as distinct from a community’s rights, erodes our sense of a social conscience – that something should be followed not because it might be good for me, but because it might be good for the community at large.

There is a second fantasy into which we can be seduced by technology. This is the illusion that we are in control, and that life itself can be controlled. It translates into what we might call an antiseptic mentality which cannot engage the inevitable reality of human suffering, and which seeks to sedate difficulty and hardship – all that is perceived as negative in life. Worst, and in line with what we have outlined earlier, life is evaluated primarily through the pleasure principle, through the “feel-good” syndrome. If something does not feel good, then something must be defective, inadequate, wrong. Suffering is not to be redeemed; it must be anaesthetized, literally – as we see in the demand for the right to end one’s life neatly, and with complete control.

All of this might sound unrelentingly pessimistic. However, I am not pessimistic by nature. I am an optimistic person. And I believe the world to be good. This, however, does not entail abandoning my critical faculty that seeks to name things for what they are, and to discern in what is good in our world and our society the threads of social thinking which, notwithstanding the goodness of our society, weave together to bring forward new trends in our community, and which because of their momentum become difficult to counter and resist.

We have so much to celebrate in our world. We also have much to confront: the primacy of individual rights in opposition to the rights of a community; the assertion of the self and its perceived rights as
the arbiter of truth and rightness without attention to the social wisdom of centuries experience; the dissolution of the Transcendent into the technological illusion of limitless possibility; the assumption that the ‘feel-good’ determines the value of our experience. From these frameworks of thinking, spawn the various issues with which we are confronted today. And I dare say we will increasingly be confronted by yet similar issues in the years ahead. How can we not be, when the thinking I have sought to outline here has become so ingrained in us?

Most importantly, all this means we are not only confronting specific issues such as same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. We are also having to confront much deeper, more pervasive, more ingrained ways of thinking. And this is what is most difficult, and why it is especially challenging to have our voice heard in the increasing chatter around us. From the perspective of our Christian faith, and from the perspective of our long 2000-year Catholic Tradition of rational reflection, we cannot, however, but resist those trends which we consider to rob us of our humanity which we proudly propose is not simply discovered in how we feel personally, but how we relate as a community. The Christian is not interested in what is good for them individually; the Christian is passionately concerned with the world and the type of society which might promote genuine human flourishing, or otherwise.

Engagement with our world, its issue and its trends, is not an optional extra for the Christian. The question is not whether, but how, to engage our world - especially when it is imbued with a way of thinking that runs antithetical to our Christian perspective of what best makes for human flourishing.
To this question, we turn next.

 1 See Charles Taylor’s two magisterial works, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), and A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). 



Catholic Diocese of
Broken Bay

Building 2, 423 Pennant Hills Road
Pennant Hills NSW 2120

PO Box 340
Pennant Hills NSW 1715

Phone 02 9847 0000
Fax 02 9847 0001

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