Moral Pedagogy in Morality

Forming our conscience is key to live in the love of Christ, a “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith,” as St. Paul states (1 Timothy 1:5). This is why we should “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-19).

How do we form our conscience well so we can act responsibly and out of love? Reflecting on God’s Word and his Creation, the Catholic Church has built up a body of moral teachings. There is a pedagogical progression in this formation that advances from parental admonishment to the meaning of spousal love.

One of the first moral principles that parents usually teach a child is the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets,” in other words, treat others as you want them to treat you (Matthew 7:12; cf. Luke 6:31; CCC 1789). This rule is about fairness that children intuit, although they often need reminding.

The Golden Rule is common sense and we could discover it—like most moral principles—without God revealing it to us. But like little children need parents to put words to their emotions and intuitions, we need God to reaffirm what is obvious, especially when we are just starting on the road of moral decision-making.

Parents often teach their children by giving them consequences for their actions, both of reward and punishment. God does the same throughout the Old Testament, rewarding good behavior and punishing evil. God reveals that our ultimate goal is heaven, which we will reach if we follow God’s great commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Hell (eternal damnation) is the consequence for refusing to love God, fleeing the light that reveals the morality of our deeds (see John 3:16-21). Heaven is the reward promised those who love God with all their heart.

Objective Moral Norms: God’s Eternal Law

Parents often set rules for their children, setting clear limits on what is right and what is wrong. God does the same thing for us in the Ten Commandments, which put into words what is already written in our hearts, as St. Paul says:

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires… They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse” (Romans 2:14-16).

God’s revealed law is the objective, firm, stable, enduring, and universal precepts that express in words what he established in the nature of the universe he created. Inert objects follow the laws of nature that are discovered and expressed in the objective, firm, stable, enduring, and universal laws of physics, such as the law of gravity. Living plants and animals follow the laws of biology, which describes the behavior of living entities.

God established all these laws when he made creation. They are universal because they apply to all material beings; they are firm, stable, and enduring because there is no time or place in the created universe in which they do not apply to the beings they describe—no material being is exempt from God’s Eternal Law; they are objective because they do not depend on the outside observer describing them.

What we call the Natural Law is that portion of God’s Eternal Law that applies to free human persons. The Natural Law is another way of saying human nature, expressing it in firm, stable, enduring, and universal precepts for human behavior. The Natural Law directs the conscience of persons who remain free; the rest of the Eternal Law bind all material beings to follow out of necessity the law of gravity and the other laws of nature in the Eternal Law.

Man is free (CCC 1731) and God’s Natural Law for us gives the conscience the freedom and dignity enabling us to know and love… to know, love, and serve God and others.

Fr. John R. Waiss


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