Ethics, Religious Instruction, and The Times

Anyone who consults the New York Times for ethical advice should have their head examined. This, a newspaper that never met an abortion that it didn’t like, and that gives a public forum to Peter Singer, the proponent of murdering infants and euthanizing the elderly.

But, some people obviously lack prudence, and consult the Newspaper of Record to help them deal with ethical problems. Thus it was that on Sunday, the following exchange occurred in a column entitled “The Ethicist”:

I volunteer as a Sunday-school teacher at my Catholic church. While I consider myself Catholic and understand Catholic beliefs, I do not agree with all that the church teaches. When a student asks me about a topic on which the church and I differ, may I reply with my own beliefs in addition to the official doctrine? B.J.,WASHINGTON

The Ethicist: Your church asked you to teach a class in Catholic doctrine, not one in B. J.’s views of Catholic doctrine, a reasonable, if personally inhibiting, request. But to give students a real understanding of both this doctrine and the state of the modern church, you may — you should — provide some context. It is a matter of fact, and not a trivial one, that many Catholics differ with their church on all sorts of things. (For example, Catholic Americans practice contraception at about the same rate as non-Catholics, official church policy notwithstanding.) To note that opinions differ within your religious community would be to convey something objectively true, pertinent to the discussion and informative for the students. You would not be offering your personal views, which are beside the point in this setting. Indeed, a Jew or a Muslim, a Hindu or an atheist, could honorably teach this class using these guidelines, giving the students a rich understanding of the subject without broaching the teacher’s personal beliefs.

UPDATE: B.J. presents church doctrine “their way” then tells his students that some Catholics feel different and discusses how. He urges his students to think about these things and discuss them with their parents.

Let’s consider how many ways this is wrong.

First of all, when a Catholic has an ethical dilemma, the right thing to do is to form a correct and Catholic conscience. To do that, we turn to Sacred Scripture and the authentic teachings of the Church, and we find a good advisor, somebody who is well-formed in their Catholic faith, who has sufficient knowledge and prudence that we can trust them to lead us to understand the will of God. We don’t consult with the New York Times, of all people. Talk about “blind guides”!

Now let’s look at the situation B.J. finds himself in. Remember now, this is not a college class in religious studies. It is a class with young children who need to be formed in their faith. Presumably, when a catechist is entrusted with this task, they understand that they have an obligation to present the authentic teachings of the Church. Presumably they also affirm that they will do so, at least implicitly. Parents certainly expect that they will do so, and so do the pastors who delegate this task to them.

Instead, here is the “Ethicist”, advising this man to forswear himself by breaking a solemn duty to the pastor and the parents and the children to teach authentic Catholic doctrine. And also participating in an active deception, by purporting to teach the truth but actually presenting false teaching as if it were a matter for “discussion”. So we’ve got a serious Eighth Commandment problem here.

We also have a person who will be exposing children to false doctrines, and leading them to believe that Church teachings are merely optional and are subject to private judgment. I doubt that B.J. is a crypto-Monophysite, or a semi-Pelagian, or that he seriously disagrees with the Filioque clause. Instead, I expect that the teachings B.J. objects to are all the usual dreary subjects of modern dissent — sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, divorce, contraception, etc. The stakes are high here — a false belief here could lead others into the serious risk of committing grave sins. B.J. is treading on very delicate, and dangerous ground here.

I think the Lord had something to say about that. Oh, yes, he was pretty clear:

whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Mt. 18:6)

The theological term for this is scandal, teaching others false beliefs and thus inducing them to sin. It is a violation of the Fifth Commandment, because it leads others to spiritual death.

The Ethicist should have said this to B.J.:

If you are a man of integrity, you have two choices, and two required actions. Choice One: Say nothing to the students about your disagreements with Church teaching, and instead do your job and present authentic Church doctrine, as you promised. Choice Two: If you cannot refrain from presenting your personal opinion as an alternative to the teaching of the Church, resign. Required Action One: Learn more about the true teachings of the Church. Required Action Two: Never consult the Times about ethics, but instead consult with good solid Catholics who are trustworthy guides to the will of God and form a correct and Catholic conscience in accord with Church teaching.

Church teaching is the Truth, not mere opinion that can be taken or left. We do nobody any favors by presenting falsehood as if it is on an equal plane with the Truth. In fact, we do them a grave disservice, and even endanger their souls and our own.

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