Moral choices do not have to be vacuous


I have been reading Russell Shaw’s book, Why We Need Confession, intermittently over the summer. As a Catholic theologian, he is making the argument for a return to confession, which according to him has been broadly abandoned by many in the Catholic church. It could be argued that it has also been abandoned by many in the protestant church as well. However, in this small book, he highlights some concepts about moral truth that may be helpful to recall. He specifically addresses situations when people exercise options that are against moral truth [I would call norms] because they see no other option available (i.e. “I didn’t have a choice”). He states,

First, there is a great deal of moral truth that, at least in principle, we are capable of knowing on our own, without the help of the Church. In general, this body of moral truth corresponds to the content of natural law.

Second, although we can know this body of moral truth on our own, very often we do not. Confusion, lack of time, our sinful inclinations, and other factors account for that failure.

Third, apart from revelation, we cannot expect to know a number of important truths pertaining to morality.

And, finally, the functioning of the Church as a teacher of moral truth is absolutely necessary with regard to the truths we can’t know apart from revelation and likewise necessary as a practical matter with regard to many truths of the natural moral law that we could—but generally don’t—arrive at on our own.[1]

We all have choices even in situations where they seem absent. I believe Shaw makes a great point in reminding us that the church exists to bring clarity to those very situations. The Scriptures repeatedly illustrate the value of wisdom and its location. Proverbs 2:6-13 indicates that wisdom originates with God, that “discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you,” and “wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse” (vss 11-12). Those who are trusting in Christ rest in his wisdom, who is the “wisdom of God.” When we rest in him we are wise (I Corinthians 1:26-30). The church, when acting on Christ’s behalf, can clarify moral choices. We have to be humble enough to inquire.

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[1] Russell B. Shaw, Why We Need Confession, (Huntington, Ind: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, 1986), 60.

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