Ethics should be taught and studied, but education alone can’t ensure ethical living. That’s because doing good and avoiding evil isn’t something that we learn by way of commandments and concepts, at least not primarily. Better to say that living ethically is written into our core as human beings. We possess a conscience, a God-given ability to discern good from evil.
Sister Jeanne, a character from Alice McDermott’s novel The Ninth Hour (2017) explained this in way that her parochial school students could understand.
“WHO’S THE DUMBEST BOY IN YOUR CLASS?” she once asked us….” And if the teacher’s dividing up sweets and gives him only one while everyone else gets two, what will he say? He’ll say it’s not fair, won’t he? If you call him out playing ball when everyone can see he’s safe by a mile, what will he say—dumb as he is in school? He’ll say, it’s not fair, see? And how does he know? Did he learn what’s fair from a book? Did he take a test? No, he did not.”
In our daily living, ethical concepts and commandments don’t much come to mind. We simply see someone in need and we respond. Or we don’t. Another example. We know what we’re about to say is something that we wouldn’t want said to us or about us, yet we say it all the same. This knowledge didn’t come from a textbook or a classroom.
It’s not that the Church’s teachings, civil laws and education don’t play a critical role in the formation of our consciences. They do. The point is that all mentally healthy humans have a conscience. Wherever life puts us, however poorly we’ve been raised, we know the difference between fair and unfair, between kind and unkind, between good and evil.
Soon to be canonized Saint John Henry Newman said the same in his peerless Victorian prose. The Church serves conscience by helping to form it, but conscience itself comes directly from God.
Conscience is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.
Sadly, an obsessive concentration upon commandments and concepts leads too many of us to think of morality as a list of things we’ve done wrong or as actions we must not take. This is surely true, but the deeper truth, which the Church and her Gospel teach, is that living rightly is more about what we should do, what we fail to do, than what we must not do.
To preach Jesus is primarily to preach a path, a call to action, not ethical precepts. We can declare precepts to be fulfilled, but Christ is a path, leading us all the way home. This is why a truly good confession should contain more sins of omission than commission. The things we could have done and didn’t.
Once again, Sister Jeanne has a way of putting it:
Sister Jeanne believed that fairness demanded… chaos be righted. Fairness demanded that grief should find succor, that wounds should heal, insult and confusion find recompense and certainty, that every living person God had made should not, willy-nilly be forever unmade.
You know what’s fair and what isn’t, don’t you?” Sister Jeanne would ask the sick child, the grieving orphan, Sally herself when she was old enough to understand the question. And us.
“And how do you know?”
Sister Jeanne would put a fingertip to the child’s forehead, to the child’s beating heart. “Because God put the knowledge in you before you were born. So you’d know fairness when you see it. So you’d know He intends to be fair.”