On our Facebook page, one of my colleagues referenced an article they found from the Catholic News Service:
Life isn't black and white – teach priests to discern the gray, Pope says
Needless to say, I was thrilled to read this article. I love it when the Pope listens to me! Allow me to explain...
For the many years I've been involved in adult catechesis and the RCIA, one of the running themes through our process is this concept of "navigating the gray." We have a good understanding of right and wrong, but the reality of our lives is that not everything is black and white. My job as a catechist is to give you the tools to help you navigate the gray areas.
When it comes to issues of sin and morality, the Church teaches that we must have "an informed conscience." In other words, we need to understand what's right or wrong so that we can make the right decision. After all, the key elements of sin include "grave matter," that is, knowing that something is wrong, and "full consent," meaning that you know it's wrong and you do it anyway. Without an informed conscience, both these conditions for sin fall suspect.
As Church we are fairly good at teaching what's "right" and what's "wrong." They form an ethic that defines for us the boundaries in which we should live our lives. The trouble is, as I have taught for years, and as the Holy Father states, our lives are not black and white.
Now I must also recognize that there are plenty of people who might disagree with this idea. In fact, you can read some of those arguments in the comments section of the article. These people who are criticizing the Holy Father follow a belief of "moral absolutism:" that there is in fact nothing in between. Either something is right or something is wrong. You can't have both. Do these people have a point? Yes. In many ways they make a compelling argument. But to those ideas I would also argue that such a philosophy fails to recognize the nuance or context of a situation. Here's an example:
The church teaches that we should not kill. It is not our right to take a life because we did not grant that life. Further, to take someones life marginalizes that person's humanity and negates the fact that this person is a vessel for God's love. To kill someone has us putting ourselves and our needs above that of the other, which is clearly not the Christian perspective. On the other hand, the church also teaches that we must protect and respect our bodies as they are both a gift from, and a temple for, God. So what do we do when someone wants to kill us? Do I kill them to protect myself?
Now this is a fairly pedantic and overused example, but it does demonstrate two important points. First is that sometimes what we teach can be contradictory. In fact, the primary guide we follow, the Bible, is full of contradictions (which is why our belief structure necessitates a consideration for our learned tradition). Second, and most importantly, is the trouble with this idea of moral absolutism. That there can be only one right way or wrong way. Another word for this would be "extremism." And has been proven time and again, extremism leads to a lack of mercy. Such absolutism or extremism completely negates our Christian understanding and practice of forgiveness. And that alone makes practicing extreme ideologies a sin.
As Catholics, as adults, we face situations everyday that are not easy to see as right or wrong. So how do we react? How are we to respond? The first necessary step is to have a good understanding of what is right and what is wrong. And we as Church have a duty to clearly define these boundaries. Only then do we have the tools necessary to forge an informed conscience... to have what we need to "navigate the gray" and chart a course to the light. And guess what... sometimes we might get it wrong. But that's OK, because in Christ we have an advocate. Someone who through his humanity can understand, and through his divinity grant us forgiveness. It's why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The moral absolutist would like us to think that our lives are like a roadway... one in which we must "stay to the right." But even with the highway's dips and turns, the analogy fails to reflect the reality of our lives. Instead I suggest that our lives are more like a wild river than a roadway. Like the mighty Colorado making its way through the Grand Canyon. Wide in parts, narrow in others. Sometimes smooth and meandering, sometimes fast and rough. Sometimes meeting up with other rivers, sometimes diverging, forcing us to decide which way, and sometimes forcing us in a particular direction. Sometimes we get caught in the rapids. And as with all rivers, it doesn't give us the option to go back. To do so fights against the flow of the river. The energy we expel by trying to go back only weakens us and turns us away from what's ahead. We're always moving downstream... always going forward. We can't go back. We can only learn and continue on.
Teaching our seminarians about right and wrong is necessary. But teaching them also to recognize that our lives are not black and white, helping them to see that we live in the gray, is also necessary. Like so much in our faith tradition, it's not "one of the other", it's "both and..." We need to know what's right and wrong, but we also must practice mercy and forgiveness. Only then will they have the tools to teach us how to navigate the gray, ever shepherding us toward the Father.
I love it when the Pope agrees with me!