An Encounter, Not an Ethic

My cover story in the Tablet about the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride earned me two friendly rebukes from thoughtful commentators whose opinions I value, one from the right and one from the left. Interestingly, both took issue with the exact same sentence in a 1,400 word essay. I wrote: "Today, in America, the Catholic Left reduces the Church’s mission to a social-justice ethic and the Catholic Right reduces the Church’s mission to its ethics on sexual morality."

My critic from the left said that he knows many social justice activists who are deeply committed to the Church, they put the Eucharist at the center of their lives, worship and pray with fellow Catholics and are keenly attentive to the spiritual life. I do not doubt it. But, in some of their public pronouncements, you sometimes lose sight of the mysteries of faith. By way of example, every Good Friday, some groups sponsor a special "Way of the Cross for Economic Justice." I am sure that this is well intentioned. And, I am sure that those who suffer economic justice can feel a special affinity with the Crucified. But, I worry that if on this most solemn of days, we focus on our own crosses rather than on His Cross, we have missed something.


My critic from the right noted that, as my article concerned the issue of abortion, it left the impression that I considered abortion a matter of sexual ethics. I certainly do no such thing. First of all, as a simple matter of strategy, in American culture, any ethical issue that is framed in terms of "choice" has already been decided and choice wins. More importantly, the Church’s opposition to abortion is clearly and unambiguously an issue of anthropology, not ethics. We believe that abortion is wrong because of what we believe about the dignity of the human person and, therefore, that the act is morally wrong. That said, if you look through fund-raising letters from conservative groups, you will find that abortion is listed alongside gay rights, pornography, and drug abuse among the lists of moral wrongs that are crippling our society. The linkage of abortion to sexual morality is not mine: I was calling attention to a phenomenon in the culture.

I do wish I had said, "some on the Catholic Left" and "some on the Catholic Right" rather than the more sweeping claim that the actual text suggests. But, I stand by the statement. The point I was making was that there is a pathology in American religious experience, the reduction of religion to ethics, and that this reduction limits the Church’s ability to proclaim the Gospel. It is a point that has been made repeatedly by Pope Benedict XVI, that moralism can get in the way of preaching the Gospel if the Gospel is reduced to morals, although not attributing the pathology solely to American religious experience. The insight received its most clear and vivid statement in the remark of Father Luigi Giussani, who observed that "Christianity is an encounter, not an ethic."

None of this is to say that social justice and sexual morality are not important; they are! And, I would argue that they are integral to the Christian life. But, they flow from a prior commitment to the Crucified who Lives. When people say that they think Jesus was a great ethical teacher but they deny the dogmatic claims about his divinity, remind them that the people who knew Jesus best, the people of His day, put him to death as a criminal. Ask them if they can cite any other great first century ethicists or, more pointedly, any other first century criminals whose verdict they think should be overturned. The fact is that unless Jesus has been raised from the dead, there is no reason to quibble with the sentence imposed upon Him by Pilate and the Sanhedrin.

For us Catholic Christians, it is because the tomb was empty on Easter that we can now embrace Jesus’ call to social justice and chaste living. And if, at the end of my life, a priest or friend tells me I should be content that I achieved some measure of social justice or that I have lived a chaste life, I am going to tell them to leave me alone. As a Catholic Christian, I hope for a social justice that does not have to be continually fought for generation after generation. I hope for a chastity that is not a challenge and knows no temptations. And, I want to know, on my deathbed, that I will live forever with those I love. That is the promise of Christ. Again, I apologize for any confusion my article caused on this point and for my failure to say "some on the Left" and "some on the Right" resulting in what was perceived as a slur against good people whose lives are above reproach.



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Kevin Jam
8 years 7 months ago
Well, Mr. Winters, it looks as though you are somewhere in the middle. Not a bad place to be. Interesting and thoughtful essay.
ed gleason
8 years 7 months ago
I would add that a chaste life and living a concern/action for the marginalized are both   constituative parts [the sine qua non]  of living the 'encounter'.. It's why it is called The Way..
Kate Smith
8 years 7 months ago
You earned the rebuke, MSW.  I have commented on this problem in your thinking before.  You are prone to mistaken generalities in service to a point you want to make that matters more to you than accuracy in your generalities.
Franky, and honestly, I have NEVER met a Catholic from the "left" who "reduces the Church’s mission to a social-justice ethic".     Every Catholic I have met who has a passion for people living in povertly comes from a deeply committed and experienced spirituality.    I am curious how you miss that.
8 years 7 months ago
My vision of the Catholic Church and its religious (with some exceptions) since I went to first grade has been one that generally practices what it preaches even if many of the lay within it give it only lip service.  And what it preached was love for others.  I was  steeped in examples of what I call social justice though no one used that particular term when I was growing up.  I not only learned about what tens of thousands if not millions have done before me in the name of the Church but what thousands were currently doing in the present.  The nuns, brothers and priests were all examples of people who had given up their lives for others and for the most part were good examples of the love of others.  In some way we were meant to imitate these people as best we could if in only some small way.  And besides these religious I found innumerable examples of lay people who also practiced what the Church preached.  An amazing organization, The Church, to have produces so many dedicated to a very ideological pursuit.
The Church also has rules which are meant to be followed because they too are based on love of others.  Some of the rules are very demanding and not easy to follow.  Also it is often very difficult to make this connection for some of the rules but in reality they are there for love.  Whether they be rules about sexual practices or how to treat others or discipline yourself, they are there for love.
So I fail to see a distinction that some are making about whether one is from the Left or the Right or liberal or conservative (political meaning of the terms.)  These are terms that make no sense to me in understanding Catholic dogma.  The terms ''left'' and ''right'' are archaic terms for political expression and one of them does not make any sense any more even in the political spectrum.  That is ''right'' which represents a group of people that no longer exist in Western society.  So when these terms are applied to Catholics, they are at best confusing and in reality do not describe anything meaningful about a Catholic.  Hence I suggest they should be abandoned.  As far as liberal vs. conservative in terms of religion these mean to me whether there should be a loosening of Catholic doctrine or dogma or not and should not be confused with terms that are used for political purposes which have no applicability to such a discussion.
Brian Killian
8 years 7 months ago
I would say that the Left tends to reject the Church's sexual morality, while the Right tends to reject its social morality. Both tear the Gospel apart.
When you're in the Catholic cafeteria, you can sit on the left or the right.
James Lindsay
8 years 7 months ago
I agree that Catholicism must be more than an ethical system. Indeed, the ethical system must be based on the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This opens up the essential question on what the passion was really about. Was it the paying of a blood debt or was it God becoming man and suffering to experience the emptiness of human existence in the guise of the suffering servant? If the former is true, than morality must be something decreed and keeping one's soul pure really is the purpose of Christianity. If the latter is true, however, the former view is not possible - or consistent with a morality based on the premise that Jesus is humble of heart, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. One can justify all sorts of oppressive nonsense if God seeks perfection of conduct. However, if he seeks perfection of Love, morality is at once easier and harder at the same time - as for most of us following rules is quite easy - but loving perfectly and unselfishly - now that takes work.


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