Remaining Silent on Moral Matters

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2013 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Recently I heard a story of a priest who speaks of the regret he now feels at the approach he took as a young Catholic pastor in a U.S. diocese. In short, he'd resolved never to challenge the congregation on their moral lives, that is, never to bring up difficult issues of personal morality, for fear that such topics might cause others to feel uncomfortable. His intention was to keep the parish atmosphere light and communal, thus excluding even the slightest mention of any issue or topic that could cause others to feel out of place.

He admits that his approach was, in the short run, successful; he filled the Church to the rafters. What he found, however, was that after a number of years, people left. The reason is that they got tired, bored, and so they sought excitement in other more interesting and challenging pursuits. He admits and regrets that he failed to challenge their moral lives - which needed challenging - , and it was this neglect and the resulting lack of moral awareness on their part that allowed them to eventually abandon the practice of the faith.

The human heart necessarily seeks happiness; it is the ultimate end of every choice we make. And happiness has certain characteristics: it is sufficient unto itself, complete, and enduring. That is why all the great thinkers have been unambiguous that happiness is not pleasure, nor is it honors, but is rather a specific kind of achievement, a moral achievement, that is, a life of virtue. Happiness is a matter of character, not personality, and our eternal destiny is a matter of character, that is, it depends on the kind of person we have made ourselves to be by the moral choices that we have made throughout our lives.

The human person needs to sense that he is on the road to happiness, but this cannot happen to a congregation that is fed on morally under-nourishing food. If a person is not challenged to aspire after something higher, that is, to aspire towards greater moral integration in his own personal life, he will not feel that he is on the road to something greater. The result is that he will begin to look for that road elsewhere, without knowing precisely what it is he's looking for. That is why those Churches that have given up on a traditional proclamation of the gospel that includes a powerful message of personal sacrifice and fidelity to the commandments, in favor of a more socially "relevant" and morally innocuous message are now easily identifiable from the sidewalk; for they have undergone expensive makeovers and are now highly sought after condominiums. But where there is real moral and spiritual growth, there is no boredom.

The decision to avoid whatever might cause people to feel uncomfortable is simply indefensible, not to mention irrational. Consider what any good doctor does when he has before him a patient who feels sick. He presses down on one part of the body and asks: "Does this hurt?" If not, he moves on to another part: "Does this hurt?" etc. If nothing hurts, the patient is probably healthy. But if the patient grimaces in pain, the doctor knows something is wrong; for that pain is a sign that the patient is not entirely well. To refuse to press down for fear that this might cause the patient to feel uncomfortable is negligence deserving of a lawsuit.

The same is true in the spiritual life. If someone is upset upon hearing, for example, that reading pornography is morally wrong, or that one has an obligation not to vote for a political candidate that supports the destruction of the unborn child in the womb, or is upset when a priest begins talking about moral matters that bear upon one's sex life, etc., that reaction is a sign that something is profoundly amiss in the life of this person and that he or she is not entirely healthy (morally and spiritually). Such reactions are not indicators that these issues should be avoided, but symptoms that indicate what needs to be treated.

There are prudent ways to challenge a congregation, and there are imprudent ways to do so. That many pastors have been reckless, self-righteous and insensitive in the past is no reason to remain silent now, any more than medical malpractice in the past is a reason for doctors to avoid intrusive and careful examinations, not to mention unwelcome advice on what and what not to eat.

That some pastors could go through their entire priesthood unable to draw such obvious conclusions is difficult to fathom. We can speculate on the possible causes - and there is no doubt in my mind that the reasons have little to do with theology and everything to do with psychology - , but whatever the reason, it is even more difficult to understand how such a person who regularly reads the breviary can fail to notice a fundamental conflict between his own pastoral approach and the theme of the readings, repeated every fall season, that bear upon the shepherd who neglects his flock for the sake of his own comfort and peace of mind: "You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death" (Ez 33, 7-8).