Can Morality be Taught?

Chapter 10 from What Happened to Sin, by Seán Fagan. S.M.

The Columba Press, 2008.

The new thinking on many of the topics touched on in the previous chapters has been a source of confusion and upset for many people since the Council. But what many serious-minded people, particularly parents, teachers and pastors, are more immediately concerned about is what is sometimes called the ‘break-down of morality’. They can accept the ‘sinfulness’ of the ‘world’, but they feel helpless when faced with the seeming rebellion of the younger generation of Christians. They find it hard to understand how children of good, Church-going parents can so easily reject the moral standards they were taught at home, in school and in Church. The immediate reaction of a father or mother to a teenage member of the family on drugs, having a baby before marriage, or going for an abortion, is to ask: how did it happen, why did it happen? So often they insist: but I told them it was wrong, they know they shouldn’t behave like this. Sometimes the reaction becomes an agonising self-recrimination: where did we go wrong, did we fail them in any way?

Is it so bad?

It has always been the mission of prophet and preacher to point to the sins of society, to alert people to the immorality of the times. We need such reminders. But the moralising can be overdone. It has become almost a cliché to speak of the permissiveness of today’s world and complain about the Church going to the dogs. It is natural too to look for scapegoats. Some bishops blame theologians for ‘confusing the people’ (as though they were never confused by bishops), priests blame parents for not exercising control in the home, parents blame teachers and pastors for their failure to give clear moral principles, and everybody blames the ‘world’ or the ‘media.’

Each group pointing a finger at a particular scapegoat should realise that there are three other fingers on the same hand pointing back at themselves. ‘Passing the baby’ is part of the psychology of sin described in the Genesis story at the beginning of the Bible. Adam blamed Eve, who in turn blamed the serpent. Since each one of us is, whether we like it or not, ‘our brother’s and sister’s keeper’, we all have a share in the responsibility. The failure may be unconscious, and therefore without sin, but our unwillingness to accept responsibility or to do anything about it can indeed be sinful. It is not the purpose of this chapter to point a finger in any one direction, but rather to raise questions that will stimulate reflection. As in so many other areas of Christian faith and living, perhaps there are many things we have taken for granted in the area of teaching morality that need to be looked at a little more critically.

First and foremost, the facts must be seen in perspective, without panic. It is simply not true that the world is in a worse state now than ever before. Only people who know nothing of history speak like this. We may feel that we are further off from heaven than when we were children, but this is generally no more than feeling. The myth of the golden age is as old as human history; we all tend to look back nostalgically on the past and see it through rose-tinted spectacles. A generation or two ago perhaps there was less gang violence or sexual promiscuity in our immediate neighbourhood, but it is a very large assumption to claim that the overall moral climate was better. Social conditions were different, sanctions were stronger, and for many people the possibilities for wrongdoing were extremely limited. The old sailor with little material for confession after several years at sea could give as his excuse: plenty of temptation but little opportunity. For previous generations, even the temptations were limited. The fact is that the world has changed more in the past fifty years than in all of previously recorded history. Today’s youngsters have to cope with pressures far more subtle and complicated than those known to their parents, and they are faced with a vast variety of choices that were simply undreamed of in the past.


There is simply no way of comparing generations in any worthwhile way. The parent who begins a lecture with the words ‘when I was your age’ is liable to be told by the teenage son or daughter: ‘but you were never my age’. James Michener’s novel The Drifters is a graphic description of the vastness of the culture-gap between today’s adults and their teenage offspring. It is no longer simply an age-gap or a generation-gap. It really is a culture-gap. Many aspects of the cultural shift are highlighted by Alvin Toffler’s fascinating Future Shock, but philosophers and theologians claim that for the past few decades the human race has been undergoing one of the greatest cultural changes in its entire history. They describe it in terms of the shift from classical to historical consciousness. This change involves a whole new outlook on reality, and reaches into every area of experience. Vatican II adverted to it, for example, in the document on TheChurch in the Modern World: ‘The accelerated pace of history is such that one can scarcely keep abreast of it. … and so we substitute a dynamic and more evolutionary concept of nature for a static one, and the result is an immense series of new problems, calling for a new endeavour of analysis and synthesis’ (n.5).

Part of the problem in today’s Church is that people talk about morality and the teaching of morality with practically no reference to this change. But the change affects both our notion of ‘morality’ and how it can be ‘taught’. It is taken for granted that there is a revealed and timeless morality that has only to be taught or handed on, but in fact there are question-marks over both the content of morality and the ways in which it can be taught. So many people look to the past or to some revelation from above as the source of moral teaching. But it is significant that even in the area of dogmatic truth, the Vatican Council speaks of revelation as an ongoing process, continuing into the present. It says that ‘Christ reveals us to ourselves and gives meaning ‘to the riddles of sorrow and death’ (Church in the Modern World, n.22). ‘Believers, no matter what their religion, have always recognised the voice and the revelation of God in the language of creatures` (ibid. n. 36). In his self-revelation ‘God spoke according to the culture proper to each age’ (ibid. n. 58). Speaking of revelation as a continuing process to be newly expressed for every age in prophetic witness, it says that ‘it is the task of the whole people of God, particularly of its pastors and theologians, to listen to and distinguish the many voices of our times and to interpret them in the light of the divine Word, in order that the divine truth may be more deeply penetrated, better understood and more suitably presented’ (ibid. n. 44).

Changing morality?

With regard to the ‘content’ of morality, enough has been said in previous chapters to make clear that no moral problem can be solved simply with a quotation from Scripture or an ecclesiastical document. There is no ‘package’ of detailed moral truths to be merely preserved and handed on intact to later generations. The Church’s function is to remain faithful to the spirit of Christ, to preach in word and deed the good news of salvation and the liberation we have in Jesus, and try to live out his commandment of love. But how the commandment of love is to be understood and implemented will depend on our understanding of ourselves and of our world in each culture. There have been radical changes in the Church’s moral teaching through the centuries. There is no shortage of examples: with regard to slavery, property, usury, war, women, sexuality, marriage, responsible parenthood, organ transplants, social justice, Church-state relations, conscience, conscientious objectors, freedom and human dignity, peace. It is a false loyalty to the Church, and no loyalty to God or to truth, to pretend that the changes were all minor modifications. Changes on all of these subjects were substantial, and often radical.

Had people been aware of the provisional character of most of the Church’s statements on moral matters, they would be less upset and confused when faced with change. But if the statements themselves had been presented less dogmatically there would be less need for humility in admitting that they needed to be modified or perfected. The Vatican I statement that the Pope is infallible when teaching as head of the Church on matters of faith or morals, is frequently quoted in support of a particular ‘teaching of the Church’, but it is seldom recognised that the Church has never made an infallible statement on a matter of morals. The point being made here is not that one can lightly dismiss the Church’s moral teaching because it is not infallible, but simply that people need to understand the changeability of morality. As already explained, this does not mean a morality without norms or a private conscience cut loose from objective standards. It simply emphasises the cultural conditioning of all concrete norms, and the fact that answers from the past cannot always solve new problems.

While we can rightly claim to have high moral teaching in the New Testament, a knowledge of history should keep us from boasting too much. Only too often through the centuries the Church imbibed and reflected the prevailing values of the times, and its record in the fight against colonialism, slavery, anti-Semitism, racism or anti-feminism is nothing to be proud of. Though we can make allowance for historical context, the Church was no better than the secular state when it justified torture and the death penalty for heresy. Please God, we have come a long way since then.

Common search

When it comes to discovering solutions to new moral problems, the whole people of God, pope, bishops, theologians, priests and laity, simply have to work towards them with their God-given human reasoning power. The simple commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ will not solve the intricate problems of medical ethics, nor have we any formula of solution for the new questions arising from the population explosion, genetic engineering or brain trans- plants. In this common search it should be stressed that in a sense the whole Church is a learning Church and the whole Church is a teaching Church. Married people have a lot to teach celibates about the experience of marriage, and priests and laity can learn from each other. Likewise, the Church learns from its past, from its mistakes, from other Christians, who have their own experience of the Holy Spirit, and from the surrounding world. Bishops and theologians have special teaching functions and they collaborate in promoting faith, and both groups serve the Church.

As part of their pastoral responsibility, the pope and the bishops have a special authority in the area of teaching, though they are by no means the only teachers in the Church. For Vatican II a central teaching was the principle of collegiality, that the Church is governed by the college of bishops, with and under the pope. They exercise a shared responsibility with the pope and are not simply his delegates. In carrying out this responsibility pope and bishops have a grace of state available to them because of their responsibility, but it does not operate automatically. To access it they have to take the ordinary means of research, study, consultation and prayer to discover and formulate their teaching. But they have no access to sources beyond the reach of the body of the faithful, nor are they empowered to produce ‘new teaching’, to tell the faithful things they would not otherwise know. In the area of infallible pronouncements on matters of faith, pope or council can only ‘define infallibly’ what is already the faith of the Church. In the question of categorical morality (i.e. teaching in particular areas of morality), right and wrong cannot simply be ‘decreed’ and ‘accepted’. It can only be preached and urged, backed up by persuasive reasoning inspired by the gospel and the tradition and experience of the Church. In this area, the support of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee the truth of the teaching, but simply prevents the Church from falling finally and definitively into error.

Teachers of freedom?

When Jesus took leave of his disciples, he commissioned them to ‘Go to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples’ (Mt 28:19). Thus, he entrusted his teaching function to his Church, to the whole community of his followers, to be shared in different ways by all. There are bishops, theologians, scholars, teachers, missionaries, counsellors, parents and friends. But the most important teachers for those born into a Christian community are their parents. It is from them that we get our faith and our understanding of morality. Their work is continued by teachers in school and by priests in Church. Parents, teachers, priests, all have their part to play in the teaching of morality, and in a sense all are extensions of the teaching Church embodied in the pope and bishops. But some questions arise about the teaching process today which may give food for thought to the various teachers in the chain.

Speaking of education, the Second Vatican Council affirms that ‘children and young people have the right to be stimulated to make sound moral judgements based on a well-formed conscience and to put them into practice with a sense of personal commitment’ (Christian Education, n. 1). It urges those responsible for educating others to try to form ‘people who will be lovers of true freedom, who will form their own judgement in the light of truth’, and it stresses that ‘one of the key truths in Catholic teaching is that our response to God by faith ought to be free’ (Religious Freedom, nn. 8, 10). Paul frequently speaks of ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Rom 8:21). He urged the Galatians to ‘Stand as free people, and do not allow yourselves to become slaves again’ (5:1). He told the Corinthians that ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom’ (2Cor 3:17). Jesus himself promised his followers: ‘If you obey my teaching, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:31-32).

These quotations come from a variety of contexts and would need careful explanation, but there is no denying the emphasis on freedom. The salvation we have in Jesus means liberation from the slavery of sin and from the imprisonment of ignorance and fear. A basic concern of Christian formation, therefore, should be to enable people to grow as free persons, to encourage personal responsibility and moral maturity.

Inhibited growth

But our teaching has frequently been unsuccessful in this, and large numbers of people are imprisoned by an immature conscience, live in constant fear, and have seldom experienced true freedom. This is not the place to discuss the various methods of catechesis, but a point may be raised for those who hanker after the clarity and security of the old catechism and the black-and-white absoluteness of the moral rules that went with it. The traditional catechism was largely a condensation of the theology text-book, a summary of grown-up beliefs. It was taught to children to prepare them for life, as though they were simply adults in miniature. We looked for an adult response of faith from adolescents and young children, and in many cases we took it for granted that they had such faith because they had learned the answers to our questions.

In the area of morality, we did not make quite the same mistake, because we taught them rules reinforced by rewards and punishments, which is what they understood in those early years. In the same way as they learned behaviour acceptable to the parents (toilet training, table manners, etc), they learned a list of ‘sins’ punishable by God in hell and good deeds rewarded by God in heaven. God was used as a cudgel to ensure that they would conform. Indeed he was sometimes used as a threat to have them conform to the social prejudices of the parents. Children were told that ‘God would not like’ certain things, although there was no way of knowing whether he had ever even expressed an opinion on them.

Many people outgrew the childish fear provoked by the ‘God as threat’ as they matured morally. But much of the Church’s practice continued to rely on this fear in getting people to ‘behave’, and many were thus kept at a childish level of response. In the area of dogma we treated even small children as adults in the material we taught them, while in the area of morality we continued to treat grown-ups as seven-year-olds. Missing Sunday Mass was declared to be a mortal sin, punishable by hell-fire, while for centuries we did nothing to make the Eucharistic celebration a meaningful experience. For some people, it is still a matter of ‘obligation’. Like any large society, the Church needs law, but the multiplicity of laws attempting to provide for every foreseeable eventuality would seem to imply that people are not to be trusted to do the right thing in a given situation. It was forgotten that people only become trustworthy through the experience of being trusted.

Less than a hundred years ago Pope Leo XIII wrote to the archbishop of Paris: ‘To the pastors alone is given the power of teaching, judging and ruling; the people must allow themselves to be governed, corrected and led to salvation.’ In spite of the insights and ideals of Vatican II, this paternalistic attitude is not quite dead in the Church. It is traditional Catholic teaching that parents must make decisions for their children, but they can be guilty of sinful neglect if they do not help the children to grow towards freedom and autonomous decision. This is particularly true in the area of morality. Is it not bordering on the sinful when Church practice tries to guarantee morality by pressure and sanctions, apart from those cases where sanctions are absolutely necessary? So often there is an appeal to ‘loyalty’ and ‘obedience’ to accept a particular ruling instead of an effort to convince and persuade people’s conscience. Authority is too frequently substituted for reason.

Challenge from youth

People who are accustomed to having most of their moral decisions already made for them, who have been trained to think of morality in terms of obedience to rules handed down, are ill-equipped to make conscientious judgements when they are suddenly told to ‘follow their conscience’. This is the dilemma of many parents at the present time when they are challenged by their teenage children. They do their best to ‘hand on’ the moral truths they themselves received from home, school and Church. They grew up in a society where conformity was rewarded and questions seldom allowed. But their children live in a different world.

The ‘traditional teaching’ can be passed on in terms of moral precepts, but it is much more important that children be taught the mechanics of moral evaluation and personal conscientious judgement. With methods appropriate to each stage of their psychological development they should be helped to see what factors need to be considered in any given situation, how they are to be balanced one against the other, and how one decides on what is morally the best thing to do. The answer cannot be given in advance. But once they leave childhood, nobody can make their decisions for them. It may be upsetting for parent, teacher or priest to see the youngsters decide on and do things we consider ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’, but unless they have the freedom to make mistakes, whether or not they actually make them, they will not grow in moral matur­ity. God respects our freedom in the initial act of faith, and we must respect it in each other. The person who is prevented from ever making a mistake may also be prevented from ever growing up.

Sharing values

Parents, teachers and Church leaders may hand on the moral wisdom of the Church enshrined in commandments and rules, but the real problem is to communicate the values behind such norms. Information is not enough. Likewise, mere conformity, or obedience to an external law (thou shalt not steal, kill, etc.), is not virtue. The virtuous action is the one done out of the conviction that it is the right thing to do. But it is too easily assumed that values (like truthfulness, sincerity, justice, etc.) can be ‘transmitted’. In fact, values are not personal values unless they are ‘discovered’ and personally chosen as worthwhile, as something worth striving for, paying for, making sacrifices for, as values one wants to live by. The challenge is to create an atmosphere and environment in which children and young people discover moral values as truly valuable.

They will not be convinced by exhortations from parents or others to tell the truth, go to Church, or be fair to others if they find those same authority figures continually telling ‘white lies’, being careless about Church attendance themselves, or boasting to each other of ‘good’ business deals which patently involved unjust practice. Even small children are highly sensitive to such inconsistency, and what they follow is not what they are told verbally, but what they see ‘done’ and what they think ‘works’. Parents sometimes complain of the ‘materialism’ and ‘permissiveness’ of the younger generation, but are quite unaware of how much these things are part of their own thinking and how much their practical judgements are influenced by them in spite of theoretical attachment to the principles they preach. Our own double-think in many areas of morality may be partly responsible for the moral confusion or rebellion of the younger generation.

Moral development

There is a vast amount of research by developmental psychologists from which valuable lessons can be learned by those concerned with moral formation. The lessons are not only for parents forming their children, or teachers dealing with students, but also for Holy Mother Church itself helping the faithful towards the freedom of the children of God. Kohlberg and practically all the experts in this field have found a consistently direct connection between conscience and parental punitiveness. Punitive aggression by the parent leads to aggression by the child, but it does not lead to moral learning. The old pattern of lecturing, rewarding and punishing may produce conformity, which may have the appearance of virtue, but it does not lead to moral development.

Even the lecturing has its weaknesses. Parents often admonish their children for bad behaviour with the complaint: ‘You should know better!’ In many cases, the youngsters do know, and the gap between knowing and doing is one we all experience, and even St. Paul admitted to it. But over and above this tension, which is simply one of the effects of original sin, there is the fact that so much of our moralising is cerebral, limited to abstractions, and presented in words that are not meaningful to young children. An eight-year-old sees no connection between the principles he is taught about respecting other people’s property and taking fruit from a vendor’s basket. The reason why our efforts at moral training so often meet with disappointment is that they rely too much on the intellectual approach. Children are sometimes called ‘little liars’ at an age when they haven’t the faintest idea of what a lie is in moral terms. They tell lies out of fear or as an enjoyable exercise of creative imagination, but they have no intention of deceiving anyone, much less of harming. Adults who read moral meaning into quite innocent events or insist on extracting ‘confessions’ under threat of punishment can be guilty of mental cruelty to children. Such attitudes not only do a great deal of psychological harm, but actually stunt the moral growth of children.

Lack of love

There is considerable statistical evidence to show that delinquents tend to come from homes where an excessive amount of corporal punishment was administered. When children who suffered in this way are old enough, their reaction to the blind, unreasoned way in which they were handled is expressed in anti-social aggression. They have not learned respect for authority and show no signs of a healthy conscience. The excessive nature of the punishment and the inconsistency of its application leaves them feeling a lack of love and of basic trust, thus depriving them of two of the essentials on which mature moral living depends.

Strange as it may seem, the children of totally permissive parents are deprived in precisely the same essentials. The parents may give them money and seemingly endless freedom, in fact everything except what the children need most of all, namely the gift of themselves and their genuine care. Such children may boast to their peers that their parents do not care how much they spend or where they go, but when they get into trouble the boast sounds very hollow. Deep down, they know that what they are really saying is that their parents don’t really ‘care’. Of course, it may well be that the parents do in fact care, but their neglect or ignorance of what caring really means can prevent the children from discovering and feeling their love.

It follows that some form of moderate punishment can be an element in moral training. It can help in the development of responsibility as young people learn to accept the consequences of their actions. Likewise, rules have their part to play insofar as children discover that even limitations on their freedom are for the sake of a greater freedom. But neither punishment nor rules will result in moral development unless the individual gradually discovers personally that it is good to do the right thing.

This discovery is a slow process. In fact, developmental psychologists, as was mentioned in chapter 7, have discovered at least four clearly-defined stages of moral awareness that the young person passes through from childhood to late teens. Some adults progress a further stage or two, but many never even make it to the fourth and are still stuck on a lower level. How many grown-ups still have the childish attitude: ‘If only God didn’t exist, what a great time I could have!’ Any efforts at moral formation must take account of the gradual nature of this development, with special emphasis on the word ‘growth’. Moral formation is a lifelong process of growth, not merely in knowledge, but in sensitivity, imagination and feeling, a growth in wholeness.

Whole person

The moral response must be a response of the whole person, so the formation of conscience cannot ignore the emotional and affective aspects of life. Reasoning, will and emotions are all involved. Reason is essential. Knowing the good is not just a matter of being told what is right, but of understanding and being convinced that it is right. The efforts of all educators of conscience, therefore, should concentrate on raising the level of people’s reasoning in moral matters rather than imprinting rules and regulations. Many parents are at a disadvantage insofar as their own experience was largely the acceptance of rules, so they cannot be blamed when they feel helpless as they see their rules and values questioned or rejected by today’s youth. It is not their fault that they were not encouraged to question or reason, that they were simply told what was good for them. A one-sided preaching on obedience, dependence and humility made them feel guilty at the mere thought of questioning. They deserve a great deal of sympathy, but they need support and help.

One of the greatest needs in the Church for many years has been for adult education, with a program whose content and methods are geared for adults, not a repeat of childhood learning. It is too easy an excuse to claim that ‘people are not ready for it’, that the ‘simple faithful’ do not want to be disturbed. It can be sinful neglect on the part of the Church to continue a policy that actually keeps people at a lower level of moral development, one that prevents them from giving more of their intelligence to God. This need is being met quite successfully at the present time and the lay men and women who respond are excited and enthusiastic in their commitment to courses. But the weakness is in Church structures which fail to take advantage of this enrichment of the faithful for the health and development of local communities. A sobering thought for church leaders is the comment of Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, now 75 years old, in an interview published in the London Tablet when he said he was distressed that there are not brighter men in the Church hierarchy. He attended every meeting of the synod of bishops since 1980 and said: ‘When I look at the synod assembly, so many good people are there with really pastoral hearts. They are good shepherds, But from time to time I think it would be good if 5 per cent of them were also thinkers, that don’t lack hearts. We need among the bishops and cardinals some really intelligent people.’[1] One of the great advantages of Vatican II was that it had the assistance of many of the world’s top theologians all during its work.

Personal values

Raising the level of people’s reasoning in moral judgement is one of the essentials of moral formation. But since the reasoning will be not only about facts, but also involve a response to values, people need a community and atmosphere which will enable them to discover real values for themselves. They need a community at home, in school and in Church in which they discover for themselves how good it is to live by the principles of justice, truth, sincerity, fidelity to promises, concern for the weak, respect for persons. It is difficult for them to discover such values if they have never experienced them in a meaningful way in their own lives, or if these values are clouded or betrayed by the institutions or standards of society. The real values in our lives are the standards we live by, not the abstract ideals we verbally subscribe to.

Since the whole fabric of Christian living is simply the putting into practice of Christ’s law of love, the basic value underlying all the others is love. Children and young people need to see that there is real love behind all the rules and regulations, that to search for solutions to moral problems is really to look for the best way to respect each other’s rights, to love each other, and to enable each other to grow. The love in question is not conditional love, in which the parents love the child only insofar as it is an extension of themselves, reflecting their opinions and meeting their demands. It is genuine love, reflecting God’s own love, in which the child is loved for its own sake, in spite of its faults.

This is the test for many parents today, when their teenagers experiment with drugs or sex, neglect or reject their religion, or become total drop-outs. A good practical definition of love is ‘staying in relationship’. It calls for a great deal of selfless love and real concern to keep open the lines of communication with a son or daughter who seems to reject everything we stand for. But to reject them is to reject the future generation of the Church. To close our hearts against them is to teach them that the Church is simply a club for nice people, not the community of the followers of Jesus in which forgiveness and reconciliation can be experienced as a gift from God. Prayerful reflection on the figure of the father in the parable of the lost son (Lk 14:11-32) may remind us of the Christian ideal in this kind of situation

Maturity the goal

The purpose of this chapter was not to outline a program of moral formation, nor to criticise the methods of the past, but to draw attention to the need for a critical look at the simple phrase ‘teaching morality’. It is understandable that those in authority, parents, teachers, priests and bishops, should feel responsible for those in their care, feel the impulse to guard and protect thern, and worry when they seem to drift away or show signs of becoming independent. They also feel responsible for the institution they represent, family, Church, society, and they naturally tend to conserve and protect the wisdom and traditions of such institutions. A static society tends to have a static Christianity. But in both cases there should be less concern about conservative protection and more emphasis on growth and development. If they have the emphasis in the wrong place Church leaders can too easily become preoccupied with control rather than moral influence, and imagine that they have no authority unless they have power, hence the recourse to threats and sanctions.

The differences are important and far-reaching in their consequences. Preoccupation with power and control leads to a negative, condemnatory attitude to new ideas, an intolerance of pluralism, a deadening uniformity, an oppressive centralisation, and no consultation in decision-making, all of which militate against the personal growth of individuals and communities. Too much control can stifle initiative, and power easily provokes fear. The challenge to all teachers of morality is to release the God-given potential that is in each person, to create the encouraging, supportive community in which every individual is helped to grow towards ever greater self-autonomy and self-esteem. When Paul speaks of the variety of gifts in the Church, ‘apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers’, he stresses that they are for the building up of the body of Christ, to enable all of us to ‘become mature people, reaching to the very height of Christ’s full stature’ (Eph 4:13).


  1. The Tablet, 31 May, 2008.

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