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Terms Can Be Confusing
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Amoral? Immoral?
Liberation Theology Banned?
A Tax Error


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 of amorality.

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 working conditions.

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 accordingly.

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 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 Christ.

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. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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