Absolute Moral Truth: Who Do You Trust?


There was a reason why Rome was accorded spiritual honor in the early Church. It wasn’t necessarily because it was the first, because it was preceded in importance by the early Eastern patriarchates in Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch. It wasn’t because it was the capital of the empire. My understanding is that Roman martyrs and bishops maintained such a firm faith witness in the face of persecution, and that the Church of Rome had a sober, careful, and faithful approach to the Gospel, that other Churches accorded it a certain status.

John Allen replies and makes a request of open book readers in response to this substantial thread from yesterday on unity.

One comment worried me a bit:

My sense is that the great divide in the Church — which is reflected in our western culture — comes down to morality and personal behavior, and is well addressed by JPII’s ‘Veritatis Splendor.’ VS makes the bold statement that there is such a thing as absolute moral truth: and that the Church (read Magisterium) can recognize and define it.

“Recognize and define” … the latter is covered by tradition: an evolution of the early Church’s regard for the way Rome did things. “Recognize” is a bit tougher to perceive these days.

And if we reject the idea of absolute moral truth — and the Magisterium’s ability to recognize it and teach it — are we not rejecting the very notion of our ability to find the truth? And if we are not all seeking truth, can we ever be united?

I think the divides in the Church are about more than moral behavior. Feminists (for example) might say it’s about sexism. They might propose ordaining women. Aside from the question of lawfulness, there isn’t something inherently immoral about a woman priest. Some might quibble how it falls into the categories of faith or discipline, but I’ve yet to see someone make a case for immorality, given the question of lawfulness is settled.

I’ve never felt that progressives were particularly leery about absolute moral truths. I think there are wide areas of doubt on Church practices of discipline. And perhaps some people confuse or misalign items in the boxes of morality, faith, discipline, tradition, or whatever.

I think an easy case may be made that popes supply a visible and credible witness. The curia and the rest of the Roman bureaucracy work against that witness. Individual bishops probably provide a decent, if mostly bland witness. Bishops as a whole probably damage it.

I’m not saying that public immoral behavior undercuts the actual Magisterium. But we can’t deny it creates an obstacle for more people who would otherwise be inclined to accept a teaching, use that as the reference point for reflection. Instead, Catholics of all ideologies employ that “hermeneutic of suspicion” as the starting point. Maybe the bishops are indeed sexist and blind to their sexism. Some people would say so. They might infer that on some issues, the bishops themselves are tainted by the culture. That kind of thinking feeds into the portion of Western culture that criticizes and suspects its leaders. It’s not a good thing, but it’s undeniably part of the landscape.

I don’t have a clear solution for getting around that.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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