Archive for April, 2014

Morality Part 2: Mercy, Motivation, and Conscience

In Morality Part 1, I explained how morality was about relationship, not rules.  Part 2 will begin to explore moral responsibility and the role of conscience.  But first, a word about mercy.

Yesterday, when I backed the car out of the driveway, I was too close to the neighbor’s fence and clipped, shattered, and broke off the side-view mirror.


Why?  There was no good reason.  I wasn’t distracted or stressed.  I have no one to blame but myself.  I literally hung my head in shame as I showed my husband what I had done.  Worse yet, I misread the text message that my friend sent.  She hadn’t asked me to pick her up; she had offered to pick me up.


I wasn’t even supposed to be backing out of the driveway.  The feeling of stupidity stung.

My husband was more merciful and compassionate to me that I was to myself.  “Try not to do that again,” he said as he hugged me.  He knew I was sorry.

As I tried to moved beyond self-condemnation to being present to the rest of my day (and of course figuring out the details of getting the car fixed) I thought a lot about my own practice of showing mercy, especially with my kids.

I find that my ability to show mercy is directly related to the person’s ability to take responsibility.  We all make mistakes; I sure as heck do.

I get really upset with my kids when they fail to acknowledge whatever wrong they have done – whether it’s due to ignorance, indifference, lying, or blaming.  But the times in which they come to me with honest remorse over something, I respond with mercy, compassion, and love – at least I try to.


When we talk about Moral Responsibility in the context of our relationship with God, it is important to remember God’s mercy endures forever (Psalm 136:25).  Every person in Scripture that approaches Jesus having taken responsibility for their sins is granted mercy and forgiveness.

  • Think about your own practice of mercy.  How well do you practice – or how much do you struggle with practicing – mercy?  Do you find it harder to be merciful with yourself or others?  

The “Why” Matters

Part 1 explained that morality is about relationships.

3 Dimensions of Morality

Yes, morality is about the interpersonal “how we treat others” (the Golden Rule–do unto others, for sure), but it’s so much more than just external behavior.  In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explains that focusing exclusively on how we treat others leads us to thinking that so long as we do the right thing, it doesn’t matter much why we do it.  On the contrary, it’s that internal motivation–the personal dimension–that reflects the quality of our character.  And God is quite concerned with the quality of our character.

When the Catechism defines Morality in CCC, 1750, it speaks of three “Sources” to be examined and evaluated.  The morality of human acts depends on:

  1. Object – WHAT – the action itself
  2. Intention – WHY – the motivation or reason why the action was done
  3. Circumstances – WHO, WHEN, WHERE, HOW – the context, all the contributing factors, as well as the consequences or outcome of the act

All three–object, intent, and circumstances–are examined when we evaluate whether an act is good or bad, and all three must be aligned with what is good for the act to be evaluated as moral.  It comes as no surprise that there are some acts (like terrorists murdering innocent people) that are objectively evil. But things get more complicated when people do good things for the wrong reasons.  Or worse, do something wrong so as to achieve some “greater good.”

The circumstances surrounding an act can contribute to increasing or diminishing the goodness or evil the act (for example, how much is stolen in a theft; how much damage is done). Circumstances can also increase or diminish the person’s responsibility (such as acting out of fear or under stress). However, circumstances themselves cannot change the moral quality of an action; they simply can not make an evil act good. (See CCC, 1756)

The Catechism is abundantly clear on explaining that it is never morally permissible to do evil to achieve good.  “The ends does not justify the means” (CCC, 1759).

  • Can you think of an example from your own life when you…
    • …did the right thing for the wrong reason?
    • …did the wrong thing to achieve some greater good?


So we know morality is about relationships, not rules.  And we know we need to consider the object, intent, and circumstances of an act when we evaluate whether or not it is good.  But how we decide what to do is a matter of conscience.  In fact, in all we say and do, we are obligated to follow our conscience. (CCC, 1778).

Conscience: here’s another aspect of Catholic tradition that is deeply misunderstood.  We talk about conscience being the “voice within” (CCC, 1776) and people either think of miniature angels and devils sitting on our shoulders or “hearing voices” akin to Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio.

A more helpful explanation of conscience sees it as both:

  1. The inner desire for goodness
  2. Choosing to do the right action

Yes, we are obligated to follow our conscience, but conscience is not what modern psychology calls our “superego.”

Superego is the voice of some external authority that says “I should do this because I’m supposed to.”  Conscience is when we genuinely say, “I desire what is good, and I choose to do what is right.”  When you hear the voice of your mother in your head telling to send that thank-you-note or spend time visiting that obnoxious aunt, that is not your conscience; that is your superego.

As the mother of two boys who are 6 and 7 /2 years old, I must emphasize that superego has its place in helping us to form our conscience, but it cannot be mistaken for conscience.  There are a variety of reasons why people do what is right.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist that developed the theory known as the Stages of Moral Development.  There are different, age appropriate reasons why people choose to do what is right.

Kohlberg 2


Kohlberg explained that there are six stages of moral reasoning, which describe the different motivations people have for doing what is right.  Those in the first stage, Obedience and Punishment, do what is right simply to avoid punishment.  In the second stage, Individualism and Exchange, the rationale is self-centered and reward seeking.  Those in the third stage, Good Boy/Girl, are motivated by making a positive impression on people who matter to them.  In the fourth stage, Law and Order, the motivation is centered on following the rules.  Kohlberg says that most adults make their moral decisions in stages three and four.  Few people attain the fifth stage, Social Contract, whereby people consider the common good when deciding.  Even fewer reach the sixth stage, Principled Conscience.  It is in this stage which people choose to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do.

  • As you consider Kohlberg’s Stages for Moral Development, where would you place yourself?  Why do you find yourself doing what is right?  
  • What insight do you gain from thinking about Morality having Stages of Development?  Why is this significant to you?

Next up, in Part 3: How we Form and Inform our Conscience–and how does that impact our sense of Moral Responsibility.


Morality Part 1: It’s About Relationship

The other day at dinner, I tell my boys that I am looking forward to teaching a class that evening on Morality–a favorite topic, which I hadn’t taught in a while.  My 6 year old asks:

“Mommy what is mowality?”

I pause, since I usually begin by acknowledging that most of us presume morality is about following a set of rules, and it’s not… it’s about relationship. But in that moment I was challenged to accurately and succinctly describe it in a way that my 6 and 7 1/2 year old would understand.IMG_1199

“Morality is about what’s right and wrong, and why.”

Without missing a beat, he tells me:

“Oh, Mommy!  But you teach me and my brudder about that evewy day!”

I want my kids to be good people, so yes, every day I am concerned with the decisions they make and developing their character–whether they’re playing with friends, following through on responsibilities around the house, working at school, or paying attention to the needs of the world around them. Morality is concerned with what’s right and wrong, and why, but it’s not about rules; it’s about relationship.


The reason Why something is right or wrong has everything to do with relationship.

  • Think about three of your closest friends.  What are some of the “unspoken rules” that close friends follow to maintain a healthy relationship?  List these relationship-guiding rules out: trust, honesty, care and concern for one another’s well-being… what else would you add?

Who: From the perspective of Christian Morality, we are talking about living a good life in relationship with God.  What makes something moral or immoral is whether it strengthens or damages our relationship with God.  When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”

HowSo how do we strengthen our relationship with God?  By loving, honoring, and respecting God and all of God’s Creation.

The number one overarching principle that guides our approach to being in right relationship is a respect for the value, worth, and special dignity within each person as a child of God, created in the image and likeness of God.  Catholic Social Teaching refers to this as respect for human dignity, which finds its Scriptural roots in Genesis.

God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

I love how Richard Rohr explains the depth of what human dignity means:

“You are a son or daughter of the Good and Loving God. The Divine Image is planted inherently and intrinsically within you. You cannot create it, you cannot manufacture it, you cannot earn it, you cannot achieve it, you cannot attain it, you cannot cumulatively work up to it. Do you know why? Because you already have it! That is the core of the Gospel” (Adapted from Dying: We Need It for Life)

As Christians, we are called to respect human dignity with the care and concern of divine, agape love.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. (John 15:12)  

20090528_066 When we put together the Who and the How of morality, we can see that living a good life in relationship with God has three dimensions:

  1. Interpersonal– respecting the human dignity of others, which is demonstrated by how we treat one another.
  2. Personal – respecting one’s own human dignity, which is demonstrated by how we develop our internal quality of character
  3. Transcendent – respecting God, which is demonstrated by practicing the virtue of faith.

The Commandments, Beatitudes, and Virtues help flesh out the What of Catholic moral teaching with more specifics, but if we don’t begin with that understanding of being in right relationship with oneself, others, and the God who created us and loves us, then our approach to morality will be limited to simply “following the rules.”

In the next post, I’ll discuss the role of conscience and moral responsibility.  For now, consider how you think about morality:

  • What attitudes or assumptions do you bring to a discussion of morality?  Are they helpful or limiting?
  • Think about your relationship with yourself, with others, and with God.  In what ways do you see love and respect for human dignity guiding your behavior in those relationships?  Where do you succeed in practicing this “respect”?  Where do you struggle?  Is there one area that you feel called to work on improving?

Have Hope

Looking ahead, at the next few months (or years), what do you hope for?

If I asked what would you wish for, would your answer change at all?

Although we often use the words hope and wish interchangeably, there’s a huge difference.  Both are future oriented—for things we want to happen.

When we wish for something we want to happen, we do so in a passive way: wanting something to happen to us without any effort on our part.

I wish we would win the lottery.

 When we hope for something we want to happen, we actively participate in bringing it about.

I hope my children grow up to be good, generous, loving people.

 So then, when we consider that hope is a theological virtue, what we’re saying is that we are actively participating with God.

 The theological virtue of hope can be defined as trusting in the promises for the Kingdom of God and cooperating with God’s grace to make the future happen.

Participating with God involves trust.

  • I trust that I am doing my best, taking personal, proactive responsibility.
  • I trust God to do the rest.

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Balancing the two – personal responsibility and trust in God – is a challenge.  Most of us struggle with one of the two extremes:

Too Much God, Not Enough Me


Too Much Me, Not Enough God

 Too Much God, Not Enough Me

You know the story of the man and the flood?

A man who lived by the river heard a radio report predicting severe flooding.  Heavy rains were going to cause the river to rush up and flood the town, so all the residents were told to evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, “Hey, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What are you doing here?”

When our reliance on God comes at the neglect of human action, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Instead, we practice some wish-based “Cheap-Hope” where God will provide becomes equivalent to saying God will do it all for me.

Jesus invites us to participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God.  (Read more about participation in my post about The Good Shepherd and Sacraments.)

Sometimes, all we can do to help a situation is pray.  And we should always pray.  But when we can do something more–and it falls within our realm of responsibility–we should do so.

God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), and bestowed upon us gifts and talents that he expects us to use (recall the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30).  We need to take these seriously as we practice the virtue of hope.

Too Much Me, Not Enough God

Then, there are those of us who take it to the other extreme: relying on human action alone and excluding God.

We recognize that the person in despair lacks hope.  But too often this isn’t an inability to practice the virtue of hope.  Rather, despair–hopelessness–is a sign of a serious depression.  Help is available for those who need it.

Who struggles with the practicing the virtue of hope?

  • The Type-A who obsesses about every little detail
  • The Control Freak who cannot let go
  • The Worrier who is filled with anxiety
  • The Complainer who loses perspective

When we think that everything is up to us, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Here, the lack of hope involves the failure to trust God.

When Maureen was asked to be the Spiritual Director for the next Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP) retreat, she was overwhelmed.  “I can’t do this; I’m not qualified.”  The Continuation Committee recognized her gifts and talents, but Maureen was filled with anxiety.  “This is an enormous responsibility.  I cannot possibly lead and guide these women on their journey.”  In prayer and conversation with her loved ones, Maureen came to see that she was assuming that she alone was responsible for the direction of the retreat.  Rather than envision her leadership as participating with God, she feared it was all up to her.  Once she grounded herself in the virtue of hope, she was able to accept.  Throughout the process of formation, Maureen had to constantly remind herself that she was not in this alone. Rather, she was working with God: doing her best and trusting God to work in, with, and through her.

Whether it’s our parenting, our professional career, or our relationships, practicing the virtue of hope means that we are participating with God.  Moreover, we are inviting God to participate with us in every nook and cranny of our lives.

Practicing the virtue of hope also means participating with others.  We need to allow and encourage others to participate to the best of their abilities.  That means putting down our “If you want it done right you have to do it yourself” banners.  The social justice principle of subsidiarity means that we let each person do for themselves what they can.  There is goodness in that.  It’s how Jesus did things, too.

Like any virtue, practicing hope is something that we can get better at doing.  As a teen, I often prayed the Serenity Prayer.


As an adult, I find that the Prayer of Oscar Romero speaks to the depths of my heart as I struggle to become better at practicing the virtue of hope.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. Romero 3

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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