Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Headmaster of St. Alban's School, Sycamore, Ill.


ETHICS is the science of good conduct. It differs from Psychology, which is the science of behavior, and from Sociology and Political Economy, which from different angles study the behavior of people in groups, in that these sciences are chiefly interested in describing what goes on in the case of individual or group conduct, whereas Ethics begins by trying to determine the goal of human conduct and then uses the information furnished by Psychology and Sociology and Economics to help find the way to reach that goal.

The average person does not give much thought to abstract questions of right and wrong. The conduct of the individual in the moral questions of daily life is determined more by the customs and standards of the social group to which he belongs than by theoretical considerations. A child gets his ideas of what is right and wrong first from his family, then from his friends, from his school, from his Church, from magazines, and movies, and many other sources. At the start he accepts them uncritically, without any attempt to find out the reason for the Tightness and the wrongness of the things he is told are right and wrong. Sooner or later, to be sure, he begins to question the authority he has been accepting and wants to know the reasons for doing the things he has been told to do. But even then, for the most part, he is satisfied with conventional reasons and does not try to work out any very comprehensive philosophy of conduct for himself.

In a similar way the conduct of primitive peoples is governed by an elaborate code of regulations protected by taboos, which are for the most part accepted uncritically. It is not until they come in contact with other peoples and with other customs that certain individuals begin to compare and reflect and ask "why?" and theoretical ethics is born. In the case both of the individual and the group, the conscious study of the reasons for the good and bad in conduct is a relatively late development. But in both cases when the question is once understood it is seen to be of supreme importance. If there is a right and wrong way of life, to find out this right way and to be sure one is on it is the most important thing that can be done. If we once seriously ask the question whether human life has a meaning and a purpose, we cannot do anything else with much enthusiasm until we have gained at least an inkling as to what that purpose is and how we can relate our lives to it.


Those who have made a serious business of studying questions of conduct have found that their thought centers about two questions: first, what is the central purpose of life anyway (in the language of ethics, what is the "highest good"); and second, how can people's everyday lives be guided in such a way as to help them to achieve this central purpose. The first of these questions must be answered before one can begin to talk about the second, and to this first question there have been almost as many answers as there have been philosophers. In ancient days the Epicureans said that pleasure was the highest good, and they had a carefully worked-out plan for avoiding self-indulgence and discovering the pleasures that were most enduring. For the Stoics, freedom from desire, a sort of self-discipline which left one independent of wants, was the goal. Plato and Aristotle agree in a general way that the good of man is to be found in fulfilling completely his highest possible function. Among philosophers of more recent days there is Kant, for instance, for whom the chief good is the "good will" to be found in acting only in accordance with maxims which you would be willing to have made universal; there is Mill and the Utilitarians of the past century, with their attempt to base a social ethic on the old pleasure philosophy by making the test "the greatest good of the greatest number." There is Nietzsche, with his goal the "superman" and his gospel that of ruthless self-assertion.

I mention these conceptions of the goal of life and the purpose of conduct only to point out that for the student of Christian Ethics the question is already settled. The student of Christian Ethics has the whole Christian philosophy as a foundation. If we start by agreeing that there is a God who made the Universe and who rules the Universe, and that that God is a God of Love, and that He came into His world in the person of Jesus Christ to reveal to men what perfect love is like in human terms, and to bind His followers to each other and to Himself in a social organization, the Church, which should have love as its guiding principle--if we agree on this, it goes without saying that the service of God, obedience to His will, a life based on the sort of love which Christ talked about and exemplified in His life is the Christian's obligation. I do not mean that the questions of the existence of God and of the nature of His love and of the person and authority of Jesus Christ are not to be discussed. I mean that the discussion of these matters is the business of theology and apologetics. Christian Ethics is free to start with these principles as given, and to go on from this point.

It is not an unimportant fact, however, that a system of Ethics based on these principles meets the philosophical test. That this is the case is an additional witness to the truth of the Christian philosophy. Present-day writers on Ethics pretty well agree on certain fundamental points. One is that the chief end of life is the attainment of the "good" or of a system of related goods, and that the idea of the good is one which stands on its own feet--that is, it cannot be defined in terms of anything else. Another is that while goods are individual in that ultimately their goodness depends on their being appreciated (and that means being appreciated by an individual), nevertheless man is a social being and many values can be realized only in a social group. There is a close relation between the good of the social group and the good of the individual.

Just as the individual depends on the group for his physical and his psychological existence, so he depends on the group for most of his values.

Students of Ethics are also pretty well agreed that duty is something real. You can give a more or less complete psychological account of the origin and nature of our sense of moral obligation, but this does not in any sense "explain it away" and in no wise invalidates the authority and the commanding-ness with which the dictates of duty should be regarded. No matter how much philosophy or psychology I may know, my duty is still my duty, and if I believe I ought to do something that is the thing I ought to do. They are also pretty well agreed on the relation between "duty" and the "good" which, to put it briefly, is that duty commands the pursuit of the good. When we come to ask just what things are good or which of two goods is better, there is, to be sure, endless debate, but the foregoing outline of the nature of duty and the nature of the good and of the relation between them may be said to be pretty generally accepted. And it will be seen that this analysis of the meaning of duty and of the good fits harmoniously into the Christian scheme of things. We say that God is good. If this means anything it means that we already have an idea of what we mean by goodness, and we are saying that God is the kind of God who has that quality. God must, therefore, will what is ultimately best for the world, and whether we define duty as doing God's will or working for the common good is immaterial. The doctrine that God wills the good and that in working for the good we are not only "doing our duty" but also serving God is one of Christianity's contributions to ethical theory and is an example of the way in which the Christian point of view simplifies and unifies. Union with God on the part of the individual, "the attainment of everlasting salvation," has always been held out as the goal of Christian life, but it has always been pointed out, with different degrees of emphasis, that the Christian life is incomplete unless the individual is a member of the blessed community. The "Kingdom of God" represents a concept which has in it precisely these elements, a state of existence where God's will is done, and where individual values and social values are found to be one. In Dr. Hall's words:

"The chief end of man, also called the summum bonum, is 'to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever,' in a society and kingdom of perfected persons--the communion of saints. The joy and glory of this communion, in both its Godward and manhood relations, is based upon love; and this, in turn, depends upon a mutual congeniality of character which is the result of development of its human participants in the spiritual likeness of God after which they were created."


So much, then, for the question of the goal of the Christian life. There remains the second question, that of applying the principle of love to specific problems. Granted that the goal is "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever in a society of perfected persons," how are we to interpret this in terms of concrete moral problems as they come up? When we have a difficult moral decision to make, how can we tell which of a number of possible courses of action is the one which will lead to the goal?

In studying this problem it is convenient to distinguish three lines of approach, different, yet closely related. In the first place, Christian tradition and Catholic moral theology, built up out of the experience of years of Christian living and Christian thought, provide us with a norm that gives us direction in the ordinary affairs of life. We must not forget that, while difficult moral questions attract the attention on account of their complexity, by far the largest part of our Christian lives is lived in the realm of those precepts which we follow without thinking and those ideals which we accept and put into practice as a matter of habit without raising any question about them. There is a sort of traditional standard of Christian conduct which Christian people accept more or less generally, and make more or less effort to follow. This traditional teaching as it comes into the experience of the average Churchman is embodied in certain sayings of our Lord, notably the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandment, and some of the parables, some well known passages from the Epistles, the Ten Commandments, more or less misunderstood, the Duty to God, and the Duty to Neighbor in the Catechism; and for the more devout, the questions for self-examination to be found in devotional manuals. These precepts, grafted imperfectly onto a pagan code of conduct based on what "is done" and what "isn't done" in the social group he belongs to, pretty well cover the average Churchman's equipment to solve the moral problems that life presents.

A more explicit system of Christian moral teaching has, however, been definitely formulated in Catholic moral theology. It was St. Thomas Aquinas who organized the hitherto pretty much unorganized thought of Christian writers on moral problems into a unified system. In doing this he used the Ethics of Aristotle as a framework to build on. Following the lead of St. Ambrose and other writers on morals, he adopted Aristotle's classification of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude. To these he added the three theological virtues--faith, hope, and love--which represent the inner elements of character from which the cardinal virtues spring. Starting with these virtues, St. Thomas proceeds to discuss other related virtues and the principles underlying them, and the application of these principles to daily life.

The moral theology of St. Thomas has had a very real influence on English Ethics, but there has been almost no systematic attempt to reinterpret his moral theology for the Anglican Church in terms of present-day moral problems. In the introduction to Some Principles of Moral Theology, K. E. Kirk makes the statement that within the past fifty years only three books have attempted "to present the whole content of moral theology in such form as should guide the theory and practice of the Church of England." These are Skinner's Synopsis of Moral and Ascetical Theology, Elmendorf's Elements of Moral Theology, and Bishop Webb's Cure of Souls. These, and Kirk's more recent books, pretty well complete the list of Anglican books on this subject. Of course a vast amount of work in this field has been done by Roman theologians, but the standard Roman books on moral theology are legalistic and authoritarian in the extreme, and have to be used with the greatest caution by Anglican theologians. After all, the conscience of the individual is for him the arbiter of right and wrong. True, the first duty of the individual is to see that his conscience is educated; true, the precepts of moral theology are helpful guides in deciding questions of right and wrong. Yet the responsibility of the final decision must rest with the individual. When the individual, instead of trying to develop his own moral judgment, surrenders his moral judgment to a system of moral laws interpreted by an ecclesiastical hierarchy, the joy and the beauty and the spontaneity of the Christian life vanish.

The Roman Church has erred by insisting on too strict definition. This is a danger. Yet as Kirk points out, the other danger, that of vagueness and indefiniteness, is, if anything, more serious. And it is this danger that besets Anglican moral theology. The greatest contribution that Anglican theology could make to moral theory would be a revision of the traditional moral theology of the Church into a system which would have a clear-cut understanding of its own problems and a clear-cut definition of terms, yet which at the same time would leave room for that freedom and spontaneity which has always been the glory of the Christian life.


It is perhaps because of the negative and restrictive nature of traditional moral theology that there has been developing during the past 50 or 75 years a new approach to Christian Ethics--the "Social Gospel." The social changes brought about by the industrial revolution of the past century brought with them poverty and misery and distress for vast numbers of people. In spite of the fact that the Church was pretty well tied up to the employing class and generally quite willing to give its blessing to the status quo, there were from the first a few prophetic individuals, like Charles Kingsley and his followers, who saw that Christianity could not keep silent in the midst of such social distress without losing its soul, and who began to champion the cause of the poor and downtrodden and neglected in the name of Christ. The life and teaching of our Lord were restudied to discover His attitude toward the social problems of His time, and a very definite attempt was made to work out a Christian social philosophy based on the principles that can be found in the gospels. This movement was objective in that it approached the problem from the angle of curing real social ills, rather than from the angle of helping the individual to solve his own moral problems. It was radical in that it was trying, not simply to alleviate poverty and suffering with works of mercy, but to discover the causes of poverty and suffering and to get rid of the causes.

In recent years this approach to the problem of Christian Ethics has become more and more important, and the Social Gospel has taken quite definite form. The life and teaching of our Lord embody two principles: love and sacrifice. Jesus believed in the infinite value of every human being. He taught that God is our Father and that all men are brothers, and that it is our duty to serve each other. "Let him that would be greatest among you be as him that serveth." "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." So said our Lord, and He gave His own life as a sacrifice for mankind. His concept of the Kingdom of God, whatever else it may mean, makes it clear that the Chris-tan goal is a social matter, and not merely an individual one.

The principles of the value of human personality, of brotherhood, and of service give us a new approach to problems like that of slavery, of war, of race relations, of inhumanity in industry, and of all kinds of social injustice. The duties of employers, of employes, of business men in their relations with each other, of stockholders to the corporations in which they hold stock and to the employes of those corporations--these and many similar problems need to be worked out anew in the light of the teaching of Christ, and with the help of the best technical knowledge that can be had. Because Christian morality has been looked upon as somehow an individual matter these questions have too long been regarded as questions which are none of the Church's business. It is true that these questions often involve technical economic considerations. Sometimes political issues come in to complicate matters. Just how far the Church should venture into these fields is a difficult question to answer and has to be decided on the merits of each particular case. One thing, however, is certain, and that is that the Church cannot sit complacently by and keep silent so long as any of God's children are cold or naked or starving or sick or in prison.

This second approach to the problem of Christian Ethics is quite different from the traditional approach, and yet it is in no way inconsistent with it. It simply provides new facts and new material to help in the application of the traditional Christian principles to the problems of present-day life.


Another line of approach of which account must be taken in any discussion of Ethics is the contribution made by recent developments in psychology. Beginning with the publication of William James' Psychology less than fifty years ago, a tremendous advance has been made in our knowledge of the hidden forces that influence action and determine character. In particular the studies of Freud and Jung and Adler and their followers, and the application of their principles to abnormal mental conditions, have enabled us to understand more fully the workings of the normal mind and the interplay of forces that go to make up a healthy personality. As a science, psychology is young. Strange and improbable theories have been and are being propounded in its name, and like any new science its terminology is not yet established and there is disagreement about its principles. But in spite of its youth its contribution to Ethics has been an important one.

There are, to be sure, a good many psychologists who forget that psychology properly is a natural science and try to make it a philosophy or a religion. From the point of view of the moralist, so long as psychology sticks to its job as a science it can be of great service in helping to understand conditions and showing how to achieve results, just as economics or sociology or even sometimes medicine can. But when it sets itself up as a judge of ultimate goals it is on dangerous ground. Specifically, there is a danger that the emphasis on the study of the forces which determine action may lead to the disregard of the ultimate responsibility of the individual in determining his own destiny and either explicitly or implicitly to a denial of the freedom of the will. There is a danger that the deeper understanding of the causes of sin and sympathy with the sinner, valuable and important as they are, will obscure the distinction between right and wrong, and make men forgetful of the fact that behind human personality with its instincts and urges and wants and satisfactions there is that which is transcendent in man, and there is the ultimate fact of responsibility to God and to the moral law.

When all is said and done, the contribution of psychology to Ethics is in the realm of therapy rather than in the realm of theory. Psychology can throw much light on the workings of the human soul. It can help us to understand why we do what we do and how we can change what we are doing and do it differently. It can even help us to see more clearly why certain things are right and certain things are wrong. But in the last analysis there are very few points where the conclusions of psychology demand any serious modification of traditional ideas of right and wrong. The moral principles of the Christian Church, as found for instance in St. Thomas, represent a compilation of the practical wisdom and moral experience of the Church over many centuries. The traditional reasons for the principles often sound unconvincing to modern ears. But the principles themselves are true. They have stood the test of time. They have been wrought out of the Church's knowledge of human nature--those elements in human personality which do not change in spite of changing social conditions and changing customs.


There is neither time nor space in this article to discuss in detail the qualities which go to make up the Christian character, or the laws and the interpretations of laws which should guide our footsteps into the way of peace. It will have to be sufficient to point out that the traditional Christian Ethic affords a scheme, which, with some modifications in view of changing social conditions and some help from psychology in clarifying its fundamental concepts and in showing how its principles can most effectively be put into practice, will still point the way toward the Kingdom of God.

The greatest need of the Church today is a more explicit ethic and more knowledge on the part of its people as to what that ethic really is. It is safe to say that 90 Churchmen out of every 100, if their beliefs were analyzed, would be found to have in the back of their minds the idea that Jesus taught a highly idealistic way of life which is all right for parsons to talk about but which it is no use to try to make work in the affairs of daily life. Something tells them that one ought not always give his coat away to any beggar that asks for it, and that there are times when turning the other cheek is not the most appropriate reaction to a blow in the face. Yet at the same time they have the idea that if they were really good Christians these are the things they would do. And so people's lives are frustrated by an ultimate scepticism with regard to Christian Ethics. They go to church and sing hymns and listen to sermons, but at the bottom of their hearts they believe that the Christian Ethic (about which they have no very clear idea anyway) is impossible. This kind of faith never transformed any worlds. Such a situation paralyzes moral effort.

What is needed is no lower ideal, God forbid--but an ideal which is all the higher, because it appeals to the individual as being reasonable and really worth striving for and really offering a solution to the problems of the individual and of society. The Christian Ethic, however, is not something which can be formulated by a theologian shut off in his study. It is not a static thing--it is a growing thing. It is a part of life. It is something which each individual Christian must discover for himself, and in discovering it for himself he will make his contribution to the growth of the whole. It cannot be achieved until more Christian people make a serious effort to work out the application of the Christian ideal to their own personal problems, and to the social problems with which they are familiar. After all, Christian living is not a science. It is an art. Jesus said, "If any man will do His will he shall know of the doctrine." Aristotle said that only the good man can know what is good. Both these sayings sound like absurdities. How can you be sure that you are doing God's will unless you know the doctrine? How can you be "good" unless you know what is "good" to start with? But the meaning is clear enough after all. Living a good life is a progressive matter. Only the person who lives a good life so far as he knows it will be able to see clearly what is right in the more difficult situations. Or to put it in more familiar terms, the difficult part of the moral life, at least so far as knowing what is right is concerned, lies in the application of the more general moral laws to specific situations. This is where the individual conscience comes in. For this we need the guidance of God, the Holy Spirit. For this we need prayer, meditation, Bible study, all bound together in a definite, consecrated effort to know God's will.

Christian living is an art, and you cannot make a beautiful Christian life by rule any more than you can make a beautiful painting or a beautiful poem by rule. And likewise you cannot make a beautiful painting or a beautiful poem if you violate the rules of painting or of prosody. Increased skill in the art and knowledge of the science go together. Moral theology and ascetic theology must go hand in hand.

The attempt to walk in the footsteps of Christ is the most glorious adventure that there is. It is an adventure which demands not only willingness to undergo suffering and hardship, willingness to make sacrifices, willingness, that is, to do the right at whatever cost. But it demands also an effort of the mind, a conscious and explicit and ever-expanding effort, to learn more of God's will and of its application to the affairs of men. Not until more people embark on this adventure will the Gospel of Jesus Christ be the transforming power it should be in the lives of men and in the development of the social order.

Project Canterbury