QUESTION: “I often struggle to explain the Church’s moral teachings to people. Can you offer any guidance on how I can more easily and effectively help people understand these teachings?”
ANSWER: This is a great question, and an increasingly important one. As our society’s moral norms diverge more and more from the Church’s, it’ll be increasingly important for us to be able to both explain those teachings and to show why they are Good News for us as human beings.
We’ll begin with the second point. Part of the challenge in sharing our faith—especially when it comes to morality, and most especially when it comes to topics of sexual morality and identity—is that these teachings can come across to people of our age as prudish, rigid and joyless. Instead, we need to show that, as counterintuitive as it may be, the opposite is the case: rather than be an obstacle to happiness, our moral doctrines are in fact the path to authentic flourishing, freedom, joy, peace and fulfillment.
Take note of the word “show” in this context. As important as it is to explain to people that this is in fact the case, it’s even more important that we show that in our own lives, that we manifest it and bear witness to it. To that latter point, several decades ago Pope St. Paul VI made a point that remains true today: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi [On Evangelization in Our Time], 41).
So, we can ask ourselves, do I strive not only to live out the teachings of the Church, but also to do so with joy and enthusiasm? Or do I do so begrudgingly “because I have to”? And if that’s where we find ourselves, let us ask the Lord during our prayers to deepen our understanding that these teachings are in fact the path to an abundant life (Cf. Jn 10:10), and to deepen our own happiness and fulfillment as we live them out.
Now back to the first of our initial points. It’s also important that we develop our ability to explain the teachings of the Church, including her (controversial) moral teachings. As is often noted, none of the Church’s teachings are “made up”… they all come from God himself, and they are the fruit of his divine wisdom and intelligence. As such, they are completely, entirely and utterly rational. And that, in turn, means they are understandable.
To be sure, understanding those teachings isn’t always easy, oftentimes because they run contrary to the way our society thinks and acts. Regardless, though, the fact remains that these teachings are rational, they are logical … we just need to be open to them.
The good news here is that for those of us who are open to them, we can deepen our understanding of the rationale of these teachings, and in so doing, more effectively share them with others. Our task, then, is to take the time and effort to do just that: to study our faith and seek to better understand it.
Fortunately, we are blessed to live in a time when it’s never been easier to find resources to help us grow in our understanding of our faith. We’ve assembled a few of those resources at sfcatholic.org/beauty.
There’s a final point we need to address as well. We face a particular challenge in our own time when it comes to sharing moral truths, and that is this: as a society, we don’t think about morality very well. It’s not just that we have wrong or bad moral ideas, it’s that we don’t think about morality well at all.
This is easily demonstrated by asking a simple question whenever we think about a morally objectionable act: “Why not?” In other words, “Why shouldn’t I/we do action x, y or z?” Unfortunately, many Americans are unable to give an answer to that question, to explain why x is wrong. Instead, we tend to think, feel or say things like, “Well, just because!”
There are all sorts of problems with this sort of “morality by mere intuition” (“well, I/everyone just know(s) that x is wrong”), but for our purposes here, we’ll highlight one: people aren’t used to thinking or reasoning about their moral views. So when we try to explain to them the logical nature of Catholic moral teachings, we’re not just asking them to accept a counterintuitive morality, but we’re asking them to reason about morality to begin with. And when you aren’t used to thinking or reasoning about morality, it’s really tough to do so.
Therefore, it’s particularly crucial that we beg the Holy Spirit to give us the right words to best explain to others the beauty of our Catholic faith, that they might both understand and embrace these life-giving teachings.