Scott Kline examines the content and method of moral reasoning in his book, The Ethical Being: A Catholic Guide to Contemporary Issues. Photo by Bryn Gladding

Delving into Catholic moral reasoning

  • June 15, 2013

The Ethical Being: A Catholic Guide to Contemporary Issues by Scott Kline (Novalis, 264 pages, softcover, $19.95)

It is not inevitable that a Catholic book about ethics must become a Catholic book about sex. Despite the popular notion that morality is the conservative, judgmental and unkind mode of talking about sex, Catholic moral science is not primarily a list of forbidden thoughts and acts which originate south of the belt buckle.

So blinkered and narrow is our general conversation about ethics that St. Jerome’s University professor Scott Kline has taken a run at trying to move us all a little bit past the sexual morass. In The Ethical Being: A Catholic Guide to Contemporary Issues, Kline gives us 240 pages of plain talk about the content and method of moral reasoning.

A man trying to push a car out of a mud hole can’t avoid getting some mud on him. And Kline can’t avoid talking about sex. There’s a chapter dedicated to sexual ethics but controversies about sex, marriage, equality of women, assisted reproduction, etc. can’t be confined to that one chapter.

Throughout, Kline refuses to tell us finally, firmly and definitively the answers to any of these contested questions. He accurately, competently and succinctly lays out Church positions and opposing positions when necessary — but this is not a bitter, defensive work of apologetics.

Kline insists we can’t just memorize the answers to pass the exam into heaven.

He is able to look at the origins and history of Catholic teaching and conclude it was never the purpose of any pope or synod of bishops to relieve the rest of us of the burden of moral reasoning.

Whether the conundrum is our unruly sexual lives (or other people’s) or the human urge to own and control as much money, land or power as we can, the Church engages in a constant process of distinguishing between right and wrong, good and evil.

Kline does not argue that right and wrong is just a matter of opinion, or that if you can come up with a convincing argument for abortion, serial monogamy, fetal stem cell research or pre-emptive war such things are therefore right, at least for some people some of the time. There are such things as moral facts.

But moral reasoning that does not take into account human experience, culture and history is not reasoning at all.

“This process of moral reflection is not merely an abstract, rational exercise, but a process that calls us to engage in the concrete realities of life, to live the virtuous life and not simply think it,” Kline writes.

Kline argues for virtue ethics based on human experience. He wants Catholics to judge their ethics against both human and divine standards.

The result of moral reasoning shouldn’t just be a cluster of acceptable answers to difficult questions. Ethics must show itself in lives lived.

Kline has set himself up for attacks from those who believe a couple of lines of the Catechism are all that’s necessary to know our sexual limits. He has also thrown caution to the wind on questions of war and peace, science and economics.

Capitalism is a set of social relations which are inherently unjust. Catholic social teaching has been critiquing that injustice for well over 100 years.

And Catholics have been ignoring Catholic social teaching for just as long. For most of us most of the time the inconvenient truths don’t exist.

As ethical beings we have an obligation to apply moral reasoning to how we are kept comfortable and safe in the industrialized West. Whether it is cheap clothes sewn in death-trap factories in Bangladesh or a booming economy at the expense of the environment, moral reasoning cannot stop at the borders of our comfort.

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