One issue many have with theology is that it often seems abstract, disconnected from the lived reality of day to day life. While this view is mistaken, there is one field of theology that very clearly affects day to day living by providing principles and ideas by which to live.
This field is moral theology, the discipline through which we study man’s action of man according to the revealed teachings of God. Most Catholics are aware that killing, stealing and lying are all sins. This often is informed by the moral teachings revealed to us through things like the Ten Commandments. But despite the rich moral teachings found in Scripture and Tradition, there is an obvious problem: not every moral issue of our day is directly addressed.
Knowing that the Church would have difficult moral issues to grapple with — issues like racism, abortion on demand, or contraception — Christ gave authority to the apostles to teach according to the faith received. As such, the Church has developed a tradition of moral teachings that go beyond what is explicitly stated in the Bible. Using this framework, disciples are called to do their best to see to it that their lives are in conformity with the teachings of Christ.
First, it’s critical to understand that actions are not considered moral or immoral just because popes and bishops have said so. Rather, these judgments are made based on a few basic principles. First, the Church takes into account the basic moral teachings we have received from Christ and the apostles, especially those found in Scripture. Then, the Church’s Magisterium assesses various developments related to a particular moral teaching in view of the Church’s tradition through the ages. Finally, reason is applied to these things, taking into account especially the nature of man and how God created him, placing these basic facts in conversation with the received moral teaching thus far. This is how, often, the Church makes moral judgments based on new moral realities. New moral teachings may be declared, but they’re always done in accord with the received tradition of the Church.
There are other principles to consider when pondering man’s actions, such as how an act relates to human dignity — specifically, how does a particular action honor or detract from this dignity? Another important principle in moral theology is the notion of the common good: how does a particular action contribute or detract from the good of all? These and many other reasons are part of any consideration of different moral teachings of the Church and cannot be ignored if one wants to be thorough in this discipline.
Unfortunately, moral theology is frequently resisted. Sometimes, people pass it off as the Church simply making more “rules” for how they ought to live. This is a false view that presumes the Church just makes things up as it goes along instead of making decisions in accord with both reason and revelation. Still others find it difficult to believe the moral teachings that make them confront their way of life. Especially today, the Church’s moral teachings on sexual ethics and gender find a difficult hearing. But because they are based on basic principles that come from revelation, it is the Church’s duty to express these teachings in such a way that helps people see that the Church is not attempting to oppress people but rather to set them free.
This brings us to a central theme of moral theology: freedom. Freedom is the major reason behind the totality of the Church’s moral tradition. It is the goal of the Church’s moral teaching. To be free means to live in accord with our nature, which means doing that which is in accord with our humanity and avoiding those things that impede our growth as human beings. Moral change is a difficult road for any to take, and it requires mercy and accompaniment on the part of others. The Church’s moral teaching, then, is never meant to be presented as a weapon to force some sort of moral submission on the part of another. Rather, it is to be presented as an invitation into the life of freedom, which Christ alone gives and for which we are created.