April 19, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: There are moral absolutes

John F. Fink“What is truth?”

That’s the question Pontius Pilate asked Jesus when Jesus said that he had come into the world to testify to the truth (Jn 18:37-38). It appears, though, that Pilate isn’t the only one who was confused about what truth is. Apparently so are most Americans.

Surveys consistently show that most Americans believe moral truth “always depends upon the situation,” and they reject the idea of unchanging “moral absolutes.”

This is especially true among young people. One poll showed that 83 percent of teenagers and 75 percent of young adults believe that moral truth always depends on the situation or circumstance. However, the majority of people in all age categories said this.

These people all seem to believe in relativism.

When asked how they base their ethical or moral choices, only 20 percent of teens say they do so on “principles or standards.” The most common answer is “whatever feels right or comfortable.”

Contrary to what all these people think, there are moral absolutes. There is objective truth, and it doesn’t depend upon the situation.

Although we should be saddened by the results of those polls, we really shouldn’t be surprised. As far back as 1993, Blessed John Paul II noted what he called “a crisis of truth.” To try to combat that crisis, he wrote his encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”).

He showed that he understood the attitude of the majority of those polled when he wrote, “In contemporary moral thinking, all discussions are closely related to one crucial issue—‘human freedom.’ Today people have a strong sense of freedom, due to a heightened sense of the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness” (#31).

However, later in that encyclical he wrote, “Human persons are free. But their freedom is not unlimited; it must halt before the moral law given by God” (#35).

We’d like to put a positive spin on the response of those surveyed who said they do “whatever feels right and comfortable.” Perhaps, if given the choice, they would have said, “I follow my conscience.” St. Bonaventure taught us, “Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger. This is why conscience has binding force.”

St. Paul taught the Romans, “They [the Gentiles] show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them” (Rom 2:15).

I hope this is what the people mean when they say they would choose whatever feels right and comfortable in a given situation. If they have a rightly formed conscience and they follow it, they will feel right and comfortable.

Some acts, however, are intrinsically evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “There are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil” (#1761).

Jesus said, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). †

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