September 6, 2019

Evangelization and Catechesis Supplement

Challenges to sharing difficult moral truths can be overcome in relationships, prayer

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson processes on June 24, 2018, into a filled St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Perry County to celebrate a Mass to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Tell City Deanery faith community. Father Anthony Hollowell, administrator of St. Mark Parish in Perry County and St. Paul Parish in Tell City, says regularly attending Sunday Mass is a critical part of the formation of the conscience of Catholics. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson processes on June 24, 2018, into a filled St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Perry County to celebrate a Mass to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Tell City Deanery faith community. Father Anthony Hollowell, administrator of St. Mark Parish in Perry County and St. Paul Parish in Tell City, says regularly attending Sunday Mass is a critical part of the formation of the conscience of Catholics. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

The “age” to which St. Paul was referring in this passage from his Letter to the Romans was the culture of the Roman Empire in the first century.

But his words have tremendous relevance for Catholics living 2,000 years later half a world away from Rome.

There are aspects of the Catholic faith that run dramatically counter to the conventional wisdom of secular culture. So, Catholics today seeking to proclaim the Gospel and draw others to Christ and the Church at some point have to share some of these difficult truths with others who might at first be strongly opposed to them.

They include the Church’s teachings on the conscience, how it is formed and the existence of absolute moral truths.

‘Grace influences our reason’

Father C. Ryan McCarthy, pastor of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis who holds a doctorate in moral theology, emphasized that, according to the Church, the conscience is an “intellectual act of the mind by which it studies a question and determines what is right or wrong based on ethical, moral or philosophical principles.”

In contrast, he suggests that many people in secular society who appeal to their consciences to justify their choices or positions on a moral issue are actually “saying that they really feel this way or really want this to be the truth. But feelings and wants don’t make truth.”

Father Anthony Hollowell, administrator of St. Mark Parish in Perry County and St. Paul Parish in Tell City, has also earned a doctorate in moral theology.

He spoke about the relationship of the understanding of moral truths within the heart and mind of an individual, and the external moral truths that are knowable through human reason alone and by God’s revelation.

Forming one’s conscience to be in conformity with an objective truth external to oneself is challenging. For him, an essential aid in this lifelong task is “fulfilling your Sunday obligation.”

“There’s so much there in the Mass,” Father Hollowell said. “Grace influences our reason. It builds on nature. It’s going to transform us. As St. Paul said, ‘Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind’ (Rom 12:2). Your own mind needs to be changed. It needs to be formed.”

Servants of the Gospel of Life Sister Diane Carollo has faced the challenge of helping people to form their consciences in her many years of serving in Indianapolis as director of religious education, first at Holy Rosary and now at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish. This happens for her in a special way in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), in which adults are prepared to be received into the full communion of the Church.

“If a person is honestly seeking the truth, then that means that they’re going to be open to it, even if it’s uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s that sincerity, the good will, the openness to God’s grace that really does allow them to make drastic changes in their lives.”

At the same time, some people can’t yet accept some of the Church’s challenging teachings and drop out of RCIA.

“Do you go run after them? No,” Sister Diane said. “Because they’re not ready. They’re not ready to hear the truth or accept it. Something else will happen along the way that may redirect them.

“God uses everything and everyone to bring them to the Catholic faith. Positive and negative.”

‘Trading truth for comfort’

An essential aspect of the Church’s moral teachings is that there are some actions that are always objectively wrong. Torture and abortion are examples of this.

This is challenging for many people considering the Catholic faith because of the strength of moral relativism in the broader culture.

They may hold a certain position on a moral issue to be true for themselves but not necessarily for others.

Father McCarthy pointed out the inconsistency of such an outlook.

“If you say that there are no moral absolutes, you’ve made a moral absolute,” he said. “Usually if you push people on it, they will usually consent to some sort of moral absolute. You just have to ask the right questions.

“What we’re really looking at when people say that they don’t believe in moral absolutes [is] that they don’t believe in traditional moral absolutes and they want to come up with any number of their own moral absolutes. They want to reject some moral absolutes and embrace others.”

This individualistic rejection and embracing, Father McCarthy said, is often motivated by people’s willingness “to trade truth for comfort.”

“So, whatever makes another person or myself comfortable becomes the truth,” Father McCarthy said.

Father Hollowell said there is an added challenge to convincing others of the existence of moral absolutes.

“In a highly polarized culture, people are immediately sensitive around certain phrases and words,” he said. “They’ve made their minds up. It would be nice to be able to tell them about the Church’s teachings on marriage. But do you what know happens? There’s an immediate reaction against it.”

While it’s important to speak and seek to teach those truths, Father Hollowell said Catholics need to be the light of the world through their actions.

“The light of the world is something that you can see,” he said. “Christ didn’t say, ‘Be the megaphone to the world.’ Words are important. But a light is a powerful image.

“When we need to touch people’s eyes, and, through their eyes, touch their hearts. They need to see something in us … in order to convince them of a truth that they’ve already decided against.”

Father McCarthy emphasized that this light will shine most effectively on others through relationships.

“Very few people are converted to the faith by intellectual arguments,” he said. “They’re converted to the faith by relationships. So, when people experience true, good and loving relationships with Christians where they actually want and desire their authentic good, it motivates people to understand what motivates that act of charity.”

Letting God do the heavy lifting

Convincing people immersed in the values of contemporary secular culture of the Church’s teachings on conscience and the existence of absolute moral truths can be difficult even in the context of fruitful, authentically loving relationships.

Father McCarthy said that the heart of the Church’s continued effort to share these and other challenging teachings is the family.

“The best thing the Church can probably do in all of these things is to continue to reinforce the goodness and holiness of the traditional family structure,” he said, “because it’s in a traditional family structure where we’re usually exposed to the good, the true, the one and the beautiful.”

Father Hollowell also recognized that, while it’s essential that the Church teach moral truths that are opposed by many in society, the faithful should be prepared to reach out to people who have acted against them.

“From Adam and Eve forward, the biggest way that we learn about moral absolutes is by breaking them, suffering from them and learning our lesson,” he said. “That’s just human nature. We should teach, and we should affirm, and we must communicate [moral truths]. But we should also not be shocked by most of our peers, children and spiritual children learning about moral absolutes by breaking them.”

Sister Diane has worked closely with such people in RCIA. Prayer is a key response for her.

“I pray for all the RCIA people,” she said. “They have struggles that they have to deal with, with the sins that they’ve committed.”

She relies heavily on prayer because she knows in the end that she can’t bring about their conversion by herself.

“For the most part, my experience has been that people come to the truth and the Church because they need it,” Sister Diane said. “They need the truth, the Church. They need Christ. I don’t change anyone. It’s going to be God who changes them if they permit God to act within them.” †

 

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