Are you the person you want to be?


Joe Gunn

July 15, 2013

Do you live an ethical life? Most of us would certainly answer "yes" right away. We'd like to think that we have fine values and that we always make good decisions to act in the world based upon these.

But when I stop to really ponder this question, it is not so easy to answer. When I look into my closet, I'm not totally sure that every shirt was made by a reputable company that doesn't exploit sweatshop labour.

Although I bike to work or take public transit, our family owns a car which we fill with gas that emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

Whenever I enter the polling booth, I feel numerous prejudices pulling me to support various candidates and parties - not one perfect ethical choice is always predominantly available among them.

I know my private actions have public consequences, but I don't always know if I'm making the best ethical decision.

For centuries before the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was based on (sometimes narrow readings of) the "natural law" tradition (recognizing objective truths that human beings can deduce through reason).


Seminarians were trained for their role as confessors to answer moral questions with the use of manuals, and moral behaviour largely entailed compliance with the manual's prescriptions.

Traditionalists might still predominantly see the practice of ethics as simply referring to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but that document itself states, "Application of the natural law varies greatly; it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times and circumstances."

So ethical reflection requires interpretation. As contemporary Catholic Christians, what guides us in trying to resolve the challenge of living an ethical life?

A new book by Scott Kline (The Ethical Being: A Catholic Guide to Contemporary Issues, Novalis, 2013) wisely recommends that we consider four sources of Catholic ethics: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

As Kline explains, the Reformation principle of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) encouraged Protestant ethicists to be more insistent on the centrality of the Bible than their Catholic colleagues. But especially since Vatican II, Catholic ethicists have added more weight to scriptural exegesis, without the weaknesses of proof-texting or overly literal readings.


Catholic social thought has been a wonderful gift to the Church, and over the years as we engaged in ecumenical social action, several Protestant colleagues have told me how much they admire this wonderful tradition.

(Pity we rarely hear sermons on Catholic social thought, and that teachers in Catholic schools and seminaries can attain their positions without deep backgrounds in the Church's social doctrine.)

Reason must also be present in rigorous reflection on ethical issues in order to avoid the pitfalls of whim, self-interest or mere opinion masquerading as faith.

Finally, the Catholic ethical tradition, however reluctantly at times, must also recognize a fourth source of ethics: the experience of the people of God, discussing and debating issues.

Although we can count on these sources, ethical decision-making is still complicated. How else could we explain the title of J.T. Noonan Jr.'s book on the development of Catholic moral teaching: A Church That Can and Cannot Change (Notre Dame, 2005)?

After all, the Church's magisterium approved of slavery until the late 19th century - a teaching we would now easily recognize as in error. Other Church teachings have evolved over time as well, on topics such as divorce, usury and freedom of conscience.


Kline's book is a useful guide to help readers grapple with Catholic thinking on such topical concerns as sexual ethics, life and death issues, and capitalism.

Since he himself is not only a professor (at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont.) but also an active practitioner (he chairs the ecumenical peace organization, Project Ploughshares), his chapter on violence and peace is especially relevant.

Personally, I yearn to see a papal encyclical on the environment, with more of a creation-centred approach to Catholic environmental ethics. Kline adequately covers this newer ethical topic, but unfortunately without references to recent documents from the Canadian bishops.

Kline helps us understand ethics as systematic reflections on morality, and thus an ongoing discipline in a Christian's life.

His challenge to us is to always ask, "Who is the person I want to become?"

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)