Sunday, February 1, 2015

An Anatomy of Good and Evil

It is time for the Sunday Catechesis, that most popular of my columns, based on the stats. This week I would like to address something I have been aware of for quite a while, namely the very poor grasp many have of fundamental moral teaching – not just the different commandments and ‘shalt nots’ of the law, but an even more basic level – what is a moral act? What are we looking at when we are evaluating the morality of an action? The paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church where this material is found are pp. 1749-1756. I recommend reading them in full; here I will just give a prĂ©cis. 

Incidentally, this is a genuinely nuanced and complex element of moral thought in our tradition, so of course in a blog post I can only sketch the outline of it for you.

First, if an act is not done as a free and deliberate choice, it is not an act subject to moral evaluation. This is why emotions in themselves are neither morally good nor evil. They are not voluntary in themselves (the actions we take that arise from our emotions, on the other hand, are). Neither is a sneeze, a cough, a fall down a flight of stairs. Once freedom has left the building, there is absolutely no discussion of moral good or evil—it is the absolute presupposition for morality.

This is why morality is concerned with what is called the human act. Human beings do all kind of actions, all the various actions of a human. But it only becomes a human act, and hence a moral act, if the rational will has deliberated and chosen to do it.

What makes that human act good or evil? There are three ingredients that each contribute to the evaluation of the action. Think of a human act as a cake. There are the basic things that make a cake a cake—flour, liquid, eggs, leaven. Then there are the additional ingredients that make it the kind of cake it is—fruit, chocolate, etc. And there is the frosting that augments the goodness of the cake. If any one of these three is all wrong—if you substitute arsenic for flour, thumbtacks for raisins, or roofing tar for frosting—you are not going to have a good cake, no matter how good the other ingredients are, right? It is the same with any human act—all the parts of it have to be free from evil.

First there is the object of the act. This is the immediate ‘good’ that is chosen by the rational will. I choose to drink a cup of coffee in the morning. I choose to take some money lying on a table that is not mine. I choose to give alms to charity—the immediate chosen act, in other words, considered apart from any further goals or details. The moral judgment made in regard to the object is whether or not this good is in conformity with the true good, an evaluation made by considering everything we know about the moral law revealed to us by God and by our own rational reflection. We can see from the examples I give that an object can be itself morally good, evil, or neutral.

Second, there is the intention of the act. This is the further goal, the reason why we are choosing the immediate good of the object. What am I working towards here? What is the ultimate purpose of doing this? And is this ultimate purpose in accord with the true good of my person?

Third, the circumstances of the action affect its moral evaluation. These circumstances include the consequences of the act, and a host of other surrounding elements—the time and place it is done, the manner in which it is done, and many other things.

All three of these have to be consonant with the true good of the human person for an act to be a moral good. To perform an objective act that contradicts this good (taking money that does not belong to you, inflicting physical or mental pain on a prisoner) for a good end (to pay a bill, to get information from them) does not make the action good. On the other hand, to perform an act that is morally neutral or itself good (spending hours listening to a lonely person) with an evil intention (so as to seduce them into fornication!) makes that good object an evil act.

The circumstances cannot make that evil act a good act, and normally (since they are outside the act itself) do not suffice to make a good act evil, but they do affect the relative goodness or evil of the act. Whether one steals five dollars or five hundred is a relevant consideration. Duress or deep emotional distress and anguish may also be a circumstance that mitigates guilt considerably. Other circumstances, by contrast, can make the act more evil (I already have lots of money, say, and the person I am stealing from is a pauper).

In rare cases, circumstances may be such that an otherwise unobjectionable action is rendered evil (I am eating some food, with the good intention of sustaining life and health, but it happens to be the last bit of food in the house and one of my housemates, I know, has done heavy physical labor that day and needs the food more than I do).

Anyhow, there are tremendous nuances and fine distinctions that enter in with all of these matters—the Church’s moral doctrine is not only the simplistic list of rules people think it is, although there most certainly are rules—but that is sufficient for the day. Summary: for a free act to be a morally good action, it must not be objectively contrary to the good of humanity, there must be some good intention in performing it, and the circumstances must not be such as to maker that action bad. In short, to make a cake you need all the ingredients to be what they should be, and if one of them is rotten and foul, the cake is rotten and foul. So it is with every free human act.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - January 24-30

This week in Madonna House, I was actually away from the place most of the week. I was off giving a parish mission in this guy’s parish up in the north-east corner of the Pembroke diocese. I am very much in my talks-retreats-missions season of the year, and much of my time is taken up with getting ready for the next one and the one after that, while keeping up with my spiritual direction and other priestly duties. What is for most a quieter time in MH is factually one of my busier times of the year.

Meanwhile in MH, much is of a sameness from the prior instalments of this column. We continue to have a small number of guests, giving our life a quieter and more intimate feel. The work for the men has largely revolved around dealing with winter—lots of snow removal, path shovelling, wood sheds to fill. We mostly heat and cook with wood, and this is the season to be working in ‘the bush’, cutting down the trees needed for firewood and lumber for future seasons. It takes two years for the wood to cure properly for efficient burning, so this season’s wood will be burnt in 2017.

For the women, too, it is a time of year to simply keep things going. As I always say, there are perpetually meals to cook, laundry to do, office work and so forth. The handicraft center is a bit busier at this time of year than in the more outdoors seasons, and they are busy making the candles for our liturgies from all the donations of wax stubs and ends we get.

It is still a season of sickness as well, and our nurses have been kept busy enough with the various flus and other ailments. As our community ages, a certain amount of work is involved with the very simple needs of driving people to and from medical appointments and so forth.

We are getting ready for our winter staff study sessions, where we take a couple of hours on Friday afternoon to stop working and learn about some subject or other. This year, we will be looking together at various aspects of consecrated life in the Church, in response to Pope Francis declaring this year of consecrated life.

For fun, the skating rink has been a great draw this year, and there aren’t too many evenings or Sunday afternoons that do not see a crowd out there playing hockey or practicing their figure skating moves. We’ve also been having weekly documentary films in the evening on a wide variety of subjects in MH basement, calling it the ‘Basement University.’ This week’s instalment was on fractals, and someone wisecracked that it was the single nerdiest thing they have ever experienced at MH. I am not a mathematical type whatsoever, and was still away at the mission at that point. Attempts to explain to me what fractals are and why they are important met, I am sorry to say, with complete failure.

Also in the category of ‘fun’, for our post-lunch communal spiritual reading we are reading Fr. Eddie Doherty’s Cricket in My Heart, his autobiography covering more or less his meeting, wooing, and wedding Catherine Doherty, their coming to Combermere to start MH, and ending with his ordination to the priesthood in the Melkite rite. Eddie is a masterful and very funny writer, and this has been a nice light reading in what has been a somewhat heavy time (illness, death of Fr. Duffy, etc.).

It has also been a great chance for our younger members to get to know Eddie and connect with that history of the apostolate in a different way. Sadly, the book is out of print right now, so I can’t recommend it to you for purchase. (Edited to add: some of my faithful readers have pointed out that used copies are available, both at Amazon and at this link. Thanks, faithful readers!)

So I guess that’s about it for the weekly recap—at least the best I can do, given that I wasn’t even here this week! As always, know that as we go about our simple ordinary Nazareth life, we keep you all and the whole world in our prayers and hearts.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Madonna House Movie III: Family Matters

Thursday is movie day on the blog, and so here we are with part three of the twelve short films on MH we made this past year with the help of a professional film company.

This is one of my favourites of the twelve, for the simple reason that it is largely about Cana Colony, our MH outreach to families, which has operated continuously for over fifty years, and with which I have been involved for almost twenty years. Cana is a place dear to my heart filled with many treasured memories, and I know all of the couples interviewed in this video.

Without further ado, here is the video:

Notable Quotes: 
"We’ve come to other family camps, and this one’s different, because it has MH behind it."
"It’s natural that Madonna House, which has such a strong spiritual base, should minister to families."
"Way back in the 1950s, the Pope said to Catherine, don’t forget the families, because they are going to be under attack."
[MH staff] live a poverty, and it makes it OK to realize you can live a poverty as well… there’s a simple way of life that can be lived, and that happiness, that God can be found in that."
"Cana’s no easy experience when you embrace it because you usually have to clear out something that shouldn’t be in there,"
"There’s a peacefulness and a grace that comes from living this life of Nazareth that MH lives, and if we can be that safe haven and be that peace and grace of Nazareth in our families, then they can go out into the world and bring that peace and grace into society and into the world."

It is a genuinely creative decision on the part of the film makers here that, in the context of talking about MH's involvement with marriage and families, they depart from Cana to tell the story of Catherine and Eddie's marriage: the profound love they had for one another, their coming to Combermere together to what they believed would be a quiet life in the country, the beginnings of the MH community and its embrace of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and their subsequent decision to themselves embrace chastity as a sacrifice necessary for the secure foundation of the apostolate.

MH is a family, a spiritual family, and our life is so intimately connected with the kinds of things families are taken up with--small acts of humble service, the daily effort to love one another as we all share the same roof and table, forgiveness, mercy, forebearance, and a host of things that are all summed up in the commandment of Christ, to love one another as he has loved us.

Because of this, there has always been a vibrant connection between the MH vocation and life and the lives of the families who come to Cana or who live in the area. Different vocations, yes, and the differences are important, but our spirit has nurtured and nourished the lives of many hundreds of families over the years through Cana and elsewise.

All of which is to say that the Cana registration season is underway, and if all this looks interesting to you, why don't you check us out? The contact info for registration is at the bottom of the page I link to there. Come on, everybody - let's go to Cana this summer!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Spirit of Chaos, Or Making A Mess In The World

It’s Wednesday, and so time for the ‘papal examen’ once again. I have been taking the Wednesdays to go through the Pope’s wonderful address to the Curia before Christmas, which many took as a scathing rebuke of ‘those guys in the Vatican’, but which have decided to regard as ‘a mighty fine examination of conscience for all of us.’

We are at the fourth of the fifteen ailments he listed in that talk. It is thus:

The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism. When the apostle plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place, he becomes an accountant or an office manager. Things need to be prepared well, but without ever falling into the temptation of trying to contain and direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is always greater and more flexible than any human planning (cf. Jn 3:8).

We contract this disease because “it is always more easy and comfortable to settle in our own sedentary and unchanging ways. In truth, the Church shows her fidelity to the Holy Spirit to the extent that she does not try to control or tame him… to tame the Holy Spirit! … He is freshness, imagination, and newness”.

Now, this one is a bit of a challenge for me to write about. Anyone reading this who knows me personally might accuse me of many crimes against God and humanity, but would probably never accuse me of being hyper-organized in them. Getting everything planned out to the last detail is not exactly my normal modus operandi. Uh… yeah, no.

That being said, let’s look at this. I live in community with a couple hundred people, and do a fair bit of spiritual direction besides, so while I personally err on the side of barely managed chaos, I am certainly familiar with the phenomenon of excessive organization. I would have to say, mind you, that Madonna House tends to avoid this particular trap in general. It’s a very well-organized, well-run community, but we have learned over the years that the Holy Spirit not only wants but demands room to move in our common life.

Whenever we have erred on the side of getting things a little too planned out, God seems to delight in throwing us a curve ball—essentially whatever we planned just blows up in our face. We have experienced this over the decades so many times that most of us in MH develop a pretty good sense of when we have organized things just enough and need to stand back and leave the rest to God.

I think it is fear and a lack of faith that might drive this excess of planning, this desire to have everything nailed down. There is always, in Christian life, an absolute need really to allow the Holy Spirit to work things out. We cannot plan things so well as to be assured of a good outcome. So often, when we try, we slip into a subtle egoism: what we are seeking is not God’s will and the kingdom of heaven, but our own little ideas about what is supposed to happen.

I see this struggle in lots of circumstances and situations. Perhaps most sympathetically and understandably, I see it in the many good Catholic families I know. Mothers and fathers worry about their children—that is the nature of things, and a good nature it is. But it is a dreadful mistake to let that worry devolve into trying to control every aspect of the child’s life, of the family’s life, and to believe that if we just get everything organized rightly, establish the home in perfect spiritual and physical order, then the kids will be all right, and grow up to be good virtuous Catholic men and women.

Well, no. Human freedom and God’s grace are these irreducible realities in every human life. And this is not a bug, but a feature, as they say in the computer industry. Human virtue and human sanctity grow out of the mysterious encounter of the human soul with the Spirit of the living God, not from having everything super-organized. And we have to allow room for that encounter to happen, messy and chaotic as that may make our lives at times.

Waiting on God and waiting on one another. Whether it is in a family, a religious community, or the Roman Curia, this is the deep patience of the Gospel that we need to ensure that it is God’s will and God’s kingdom, not our will and our puny little kingdom, that we are building with our lives.

So it is a matter of not fearing that chaos, that seeming disorganization. In truth, there is a deeper order, a more profound organization that is occurring when we choose not to plan everything out all the time: the choice to live under God’s authority and listen to the Spirit in our daily lives, and so have our own souls in right order before Him.