I have been part of a team writing this column for over a year. Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is the other part of the team. Recently, he wrote a column [“The Man Behind the Legend, 30 Years Later,” THE HOYA, Jan. 30, 2004, p.3] on one of his heros, another Jesuit, Fr. Robert Drinan. That column seems to have stirred a number of people to write letters. The controversial point for many people is Fr. Drinan’s public record when he was in Congress and after he left on the question of abortion. Fr. aher is not the only Jesuit on campus who found himself in some controversy. Fr. Kevin FitzGerald of the Medical Center has been fielding questions on the issue of cell research at Georgetown edical Center.

In the midst of these different debates I found myself responding to questions from students and the press. Often, the question started out like this: “What is the Catholic position on . ?” These two episodes and the questions around them have helped me sharpen my vision on the Catholic tradition and its understanding of morality. My vision is now shaded in gray.

We are a society that likes clear, direct answers to questions no matter how complicated the question is. While we decry “sound bites,” we crave them. As a culture, we love answers that are black and white, clear and simple. Unfortunately, I would argue, many of the important human questions in life are not binary. They are not simply black or white, yes or no. So, it is frustrating to me when someone wants you to give them the Church’s moral position on a particular question in a sound bite.

Many people disagree with the Church’s moral tradition on many different points. Some reject the tradition all together. But, I think there is a richness, often lost, in how the Catholic tradition thinks about moral issues. It does hold that there are certain moral prohibitions and precepts that cross cultures and nations. These teachings are broad and general and they are concerned with protecting the dignity of the human person and they provide a framework for our moral discernment. But, at the same time, the Catholic moral tradition recognizes the complexity of particular situations. Judgments about particular situations involve examining the consequences of our choices, the intentions of our actions, the motives of our actions, and the obligations we seek to fulfill. The Catholic tradition has long recognized that all of these elements are part of the complexity of any particular moral judgment. That is why the Catholic tradition has long resisted the impulse to simplify the moral world. One might think of the act of killing as an example of complexity. The act of killing another human being is usually regarded as wrong. But the Catholic moral tradition resists a quick judgment about an act of killing since not all killings are morally wrong. For example, there is justified killing in self-defense and there is justified killing in a just war. In recognizing the complexity of the moral act the Catholic moral tradition has honored the conscience of the individual agent and reminds us, as we watch others, to judge with charity.

In our day we are faced with many new, complicated moral questions. The new advances in reproductive medicine, for example, would have been thought of as science-fiction 50 years ago. Today these advances raise all kinds of new, complex moral questions. Such questions are not only complex in their own right but they become even more complex when they are engulfed in public policy debates. These questions are morally complex on their own and they resist sound bite answers. Creating policy or law in a society that is secular and morally diverse adds yet another level of complexity.

In the face of these complex moral questions it is tempting to reduce them to simple terms and look for sound bite answers. But the Catholic moral tradition reminds us of the complexities of the moral world and reminds us that the moral world is rarely seen in black and white but more in shades of gray.

Fr. Kevin Wildes, S.J., is an assistant dean for the College and can be reached at wildeskgeorgetown.edu. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT . appears every other Friday.

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