Q: In my Catholic high school, I am
taking a course on conscience. Examples
are given of decisions that can variously
be described as “moral, nonmoral,
immoral or amoral.” I question the concept
Is this a selective thing? Can you make an
amoral decision and later make a moral or
immoral decision about the same subject?
Is it possible to make amoral negative
decisions? Can I passively make positive
decisions? I know that I make decisions that
affect other people every day, but I don’t
stop to think about whether they are moral
or not. I simply make the choices.
A: That class certainly has you
thinking! Since you did not provide
any examples of these decisions, I
feel the need—as a former high school
teacher myself—to provide some.
Donating blood or a kidney to someone
is probably a very moral thing to do.
Murdering a person is clearly immoral.
The term “nonmoral” suggests that
the particular action has no genuine
moral component. For example, it is
morally good that I wear clothes, but it
is not morally significant whether
today I wear a denim shirt or a polo
shirt, shoes or sandals. Although these
choices are influenced by taste, the
occasion and the weather, they are not
morally significant—unless the clothing
was stolen or created under unjust
The term “amoral,” however, is more
complicated. The Compact Edition of the
Oxford English Dictionary indicates that
this term was first used by R. Stevenson
in 1882. It defines amoral as “not
within the sphere of moral sense; not
to be characterized as good or bad; nonmoral.”
By this definition, choosing a
polo shirt or a denim shirt could be
described as an amoral decision. Your
textbook, however, reflects current
usage in considering the term “amoral”
as different from “nonmoral.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) defines amoral as
“being neither moral nor immoral;
specifically: lying outside the sphere to
which moral judgments apply (science
as such is completely amoral—W.S.
Thompson); lacking moral sensibility
(infants are amoral); being outside or
beyond the moral order or a particular
code of morals (amoral customs).”
The term “amoral” can disguise what
is more honestly and accurately described
as “immoral.” Science as such,
for example, cannot be completely
amoral for at least two reasons: It already
assumes that it is morally good to understand
nature accurately; science is also
at the service of human persons who
can question the morality of a proposed
action. The “science as such is completely
amoral” approach would justify
the medical “experiments” conducted
by doctors in Nazi concentration camps!
Although an animal can be described
as intelligent in some ways, it is incapable
of moral reasoning. That is a
uniquely human possibility.
An action can be immoral, although
God may not judge the person as morally
culpable (blameworthy). Thinking
that a particular gun is a toy, a child
may point it at someone, pull the trigger
and kill that person. The end result
(killing) is immoral, but in this example
the child lacked the reasoning ability
to be morally culpable. God knows
the truth of each situation and judges
Can amorality be a selective matter?
If it is truly selective, then it isn’t “amorality”—unless you are talking about a
true sociopath who cannot admit that
his or her desires might hurt individuals
and society at large.
If a friend has ever negatively impacted
you in a serious way—for example,
by stealing from you—aren’t you
very clear that this choice was immoral
rather than amoral?
You wrote that you do not stop
to think whether your daily choices “are moral or not. I simply make the
choices.” That will be true for a tiny
fraction of your choices. Most of them
are morally significant.
The more you cultivate the habit of
making good moral choices, the more “natural” they become. Even so, genuine
conscience decisions are usually difficult
because through them we are living
out our dignity as people made in God’s
image and likeness. Our moral conscience
grows as we mature and learn
new facts. For instance, a child cannot
ask whether a shirt was made under
unjust working conditions, but a moral teenager or adult can ask that question.
Saintly women and men—whether
canonized by the Church or not—show
us the costs and rewards of acting according
to a properly formed conscience.
Liberation Theology Banned?
Q: I have noticed that articles and editorials
in St. Anthony Messenger often have a decidedly left-wing bias, especially
when writing about Central and South
America. I thought that liberation theology
was frowned upon by the late Pope John
Paul II as dangerously playing into the
hands of the Communists! I am looking for
more balanced information.
A: The classic definition of theology
is “faith seeking understanding.”
Honesty and humility are necessary
virtues for theologians and writers. Articles
and editorials in St. Anthony Messenger have always striven to reflect both
virtues. In doing so, we have reflected the
Church’s teachings and have also identified
issues that are complex.
So did Pope John Paul II. In 1984
and 1986, the Holy See’s Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued
instructions about liberation theology,
respectively titled Instruction on
Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” and Instruction on Christian Freedom
and Liberation. See www.vatican.va for these documents. They warn
about possible distortions of the gospel—
the first Instruction more than the
second one. These documents stand—with their cautions as well as their
defense of God-given human rights.
The Catholic Church has learned,
however, that it cannot automatically
bless everything that describes itself as “anti-Communist.” Doing that might
open the Church to being manipulated
by individuals and groups that covertly
reject the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Promoting genuine justice for all
members of society is the best way of
combating Communism. That’s what
the Solidarity movement did in Poland
and what many Catholics have tried to
do in Latin America.
The difference is that Solidarity’s
main opponents were clearly Communists.
Some of liberation theology’s
fiercest critics have been Catholics and
other Christians eager to protect their
economic position at all costs—even
if that means saying that all those
favoring liberation theology were Communists,
which simply is not true.
The 1984 CDF Instruction states that
its purpose is “to draw the attention of
pastors, theologians and all the faithful
to the deviations and risks of deviation,
damaging to the faith and to Christian
living, that are brought about by certain
forms of liberation theology which use,
in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts
borrowed from various currents of
Marxist thought” (Introduction).
The Instruction immediately states: “This warning should in no way be interpreted
as a disavowal of all those
who want to respond generously and
with an authentic evangelical spirit to
the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ It
should not at all serve as an excuse for
those who maintain the attitude of
neutrality and indifference in the face
of the tragic and pressing problems of
human misery and injustice. It is, on
the contrary, dictated by the certitude
that the serious ideological deviations
which it points out tend inevitably to
betray the cause of the poor.
“More than ever, it is important that
numerous Christians, whose faith is clear
and who are committed to live the
Christian life in its fullness, become
involved in the struggle for justice, freedom
and human dignity because of their
love for their disinherited, oppressed
and persecuted brothers and sisters.”
Our articles and editorials always aim
to reflect the entire Good News of Jesus
Q: My late husband was a licensed tax preparer; I did the bookkeeping.
After my husband died, I gave a relative the necessary
information for tax filing. I later realized that I had overstated business
expenses. What should I do? Am I liable for those back taxes?
A: Regarding legal liability, you should talk to a lawyer. The moral
theologian whom I consulted responded: “The general norm
is that restitution is to be made to the party against whom
the injustice was committed—in this case, the government. The person
who made the accounting error has the responsibility to call this to the
attention of the person who paid taxes based on that data. That individual
is responsible for paying the adjustment.”
If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here.
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