A Guide for the Perplexed

The Bible As Moral Teacher

The acrimonious debate that churned through the Catholic community this past spring over Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama has quieted down—note the warm reception Pope Benedict offered the president and his family in July, and the Vatican’s words of praise for Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. Still, the roots of the debate remain deep. Should the Catholic Church in this country maintain a staunch prophetic stance on fundamental moral issues, without compromise or even dialogue with those who hold different views? Or does our Catholic heritage invite us to engage people of goodwill who may have significantly different moral perspectives?

In 2008, the Pontifical Biblical Commission published a major statement, The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct, that addresses this debate. The 235-page text, six years in the making, has received little notice, mainly because the Vatican press, for financial reasons, has so far published few copies of the English version and provided scant publicity. That is really too bad, because it is an excellent statement on a complex topic timely both for biblical scholarship and for today’s Catholic community. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the commission, one of nineteen international colleagues who worked on the project.) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as president of the commission through most of the text’s formulation, presiding over virtually all its working sessions with a light and gracious hand. By the time the statement was completed, Ratzinger had become Benedict XVI. It was as pope that he gave his final approval to the text.

The statement does not attempt to solve complex moral issues by wielding the Bible as a proof-text. Instead, it explores how an ancient text—an inspired one—can shed light on modern moral dilemmas. The broad reach of this enterprise characterizes Catholic moral tradition, and, I believe, refutes those who persistently condemn differing views on complex moral issues. The fact is that people of goodwill within all cultures and traditions strive to discern appropriate moral values, using both reason and experience. Moral reflection drawn from the Scriptures does not negate or diminish this effort, but should complement and illumine it—just as authentic human reflection enriched by cultural experience and perspectives can help us discern the values inherent in the Scriptures. “On many points,” the commission’s statement asserts, “the Bible shows a convergence between its morality and the laws and moral orientations of surrounding peoples.” This convergence, which points toward “a natural wisdom,” allows and encourages today’s church “to enter into dialogue with modern culture and with the moral systems of other religions or philosophical doctrines in a common search for norms of conduct regarding moral problems.”

The approach taken by the commission testifies to the sophistication of the modern church’s use of the Scriptures, including (though not limited to) historical criticism. The statement has a twofold structure. Part I scans the canon from Genesis to Revelation, searching for enduring traits in its vision of the human person and the moral values that should guide human conduct. Certain classical concepts emerge. The biblical view of the human person is one that sees an openness to the transcendent as crucial; that portrays human life and creation itself as a gift of God, to be reverenced and respected; that endorses human reason and human freedom; that sees God entering into a covenant with the human family and, based on that covenant, drawing out principles of communal responsibility, justice, and compassionate love—especially for the vulnerable. As the Scriptures unfold, certain classic texts emerge as crucial expressions of this biblical “anthropology”: the Decalogue; the emphasis on justice in the prophetic literature; the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount as distillations of Jesus’ teaching; the emphasis on community in the Acts of the Apostles; and the vision, foreseen in the Apocalypse, of a new heaven and new earth where justice is restored and peace abounds.

In part II, the statement turns to criteria that can guide use of the Bible in moral reflection. In each case, the commission identified examples of moral issues facing the world today. The two primary criteria derive from the biblical canon in part I: first, Christian morality should ultimately cohere with the collective portrait of the human person presented by the canon; and second, it should also accord with the example and teaching of Jesus himself as presented in the New Testament. This is not to claim that contemporary ethics or moral reflection must use biblical language and categories (something that Catholic social teaching has rightly resisted), but that the essential values derived from the church’s reflection on its biblical tradition should not be absent from, or contradicted by, any authentic moral system.

The statement enunciates six other guiding criteria, rooting each in the biblical tradition and suggesting ways each might inform and enrich contemporary moral reflection:

• The criterion of “convergence” recognizes moral values common to both the Scriptures and secular human cultures, forming a basis for respectful dialogue between the church and people of goodwill engaging complex moral dilemmas. Pope Benedict emphasizes that in his most recent encyclical, Caritas in veritate, acknowledging other visions of the human person and society that parallel the Christian vision and offer opportunity for dialogue and mutual learning. Examples of such a dynamic abound within the Bible itself: Israel drew many of its legal and moral codes from surrounding cultures, and Paul derived moral lessons from lists of virtues and vices drawn from the non-Christian moral philosophers of his time and culture. In our own day, we might think of the civil-rights movement or women’s emancipation. Religious motivations and committed religious people were involved in both movements, but so was a healthy impetus from “secular” culture. Indeed, in the recognition of women’s rights, including their full participation in society, the church has often lagged behind prevailing secular views.

• The criterion of “contrast” recognizes that in some instances the Bible prompts the church to take a prophetic stance against false values. Here the statement makes a connection between the Bible’s condemnation of idolatry and the modern imperative to oppose social or political ideologies—such “isms” as capitalism, materialism, consumerism, individualism, hedonism—that ultimately attack the dignity of the human person and deny the transcendent. One might think here of the church’s strong and vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, a prophetic call that fell on deaf ears in the White House. And surely the church’s consistent stance on protection of the unborn and the most vulnerable in society is an example of a strong prophetic moral witness, often in resistance to the prevailing view in our society.

• The criterion of “advance” illustrates that the Bible allows for progression in moral discernment, such as a more emphatic rejection of violence and vengeance. Consider, for example, the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. Growing awareness of the catastrophic results of a nuclear exchange and a realization of the limits of just-war theory stirred the Catholic community to state that the use of nuclear weapons was morally inadmissible, a stance not previously held by the church. In drawing their conclusion, the U.S. bishops made a direct appeal to the biblical witness. We might think, too, of the modern church’s opposition to the death penalty—a prophetic stance that also shows an advance in the moral discernment of the Catholic community.

• The criterion of “community” is especially characteristic of the Bible’s moral reflection and offers a strong challenge to an overemphasis on the individual in contemporary society. Communal responsibility, which derives from the very nature of the human person in the biblical vision, is ratified by the covenant and undergirded by the love command at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Here our biblical moral heritage offers a direct challenge to the “bowling alone” syndrome of our secular culture.

• The criterion of “finality” opens moral reflection not only to the transcendental dimension of the human person, but also to the ultimate destiny of the human family and of creation itself—a destiny of transformation and renewal. This vision of the future informs our understanding of moral obligations in the present. The biblical and Christian stance it inspires can come into play, for instance, in ecological discussions; Christian faith opposes a value system that exploits our resources without regard for the future and the hope of a redeemed and renewed creation.

• Finally, the criterion of “discernment” recognizes that the complexity of both biblical tradition and current moral issues calls for careful reflection, prudence, and discriminating judgment. Such discernment cannot be confined to individual conscience, but remains the responsibility of the whole human community and of the church itself in dialogue with contemporary culture.

Some observers, faced with an official text on morality from the church, instinctively cringe, expecting stiff admonitions and strictures. Such is not the case here. “Rather than to give clear and precise directives,” the commission concludes, “the purpose of our reflections is to commend an approach to morality in a different spirit, a breath of fresh air, derived from Scripture itself.”

A breath of fresh air, derived from Scripture. I see this text, endorsed at the highest levels of church authority, as a statement Catholics can be proud of—and one that can assist the entire Christian family. Not overly technical, it can be read by people with no biblical expertise. It illumines a long tradition of moral reflection rooted in the Scriptures themselves and carried over into the theological and pastoral traditions of the church. It recognizes that at times the church has benefited from respectful engagement with the moral values and instincts of the surrounding culture—indeed, that this engagement has often led the church to advances in its fidelity to the gospel—while in many other instances, the church has found itself in a prophetic stance, compelled to give forceful witness and resist prevailing false values.

One takes away from this complicated reality the knowledge that engaging the moral dilemmas of our society should not incline us to strident and condemnatory rhetoric and a rejection of dialogue. A thoughtful and in-depth reflection on our biblical heritage points in a different direction.

Published in the 2010-02-26 issue: 

Donald Senior, CP, is president of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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