Thoughts on Objective Morality

One of the biggest “selling points,” if you will of conservative religion and of the Catholic church in particular is the idea of objective morality, that you are being provided with age-old truths that are thousands of years old and can be guaranteed not to change just because of the fashions of the age. Of course, it’s not that simple, but to my younger, more naive self, the promise of objective morality seemed like a welcome thing, especially since I was looking for capital T “Truth.”

However, as I soon figured out early into my journey into Catholicism, is that change must come to everyone and everything, even an institution as ossified as the Catholic church. This is why the 1961 iteration of the “Latin Mass” has become such a rallying symbol for traditionalists, because it’s a very visible symbol of the way things “ought to be”: an unchanging liturgy, a hierarchical church, highly gendered sacred spaces, and strict rules governing personal behavior for the laity. The perceived free-wheeling nature of the late 1960s and 1970s must have seemed like sheer chaos for those who found meaning and comfort in the regimentation of the pre-Vatican II white Catholic ghetto. The attempt to recreate this ideological and behavioral regimentation at St F was comforting for awhile, but it soon proved to be unable to answer my questions.

As I grappled with the “Obama drama” and the church’s teachings towards the Jews, it became increasingly apparent that conservotrad Catholic really only considered four issues to be always wrong in every time and/or place: homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex, and contraception. Slavery and racism are okay as your group (however that happened to be defined) isn’t affected. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen on a conservotrad blog or site, populated by individuals who would no doubt claim to be complete believers in moral objectivity suddenly start hemming and hawing when the subject turns to the slavery and/or racism. Then all of a sudden, the self-proclaimed moral objectivists claim various iterations of, “Well, we can’t judge people who lived in those days” or “Times were different then.” Either that or they claim that modern abortion is so horrible that whatever sins were committed by our ancestors pale in comparison (newsflash: abortion didn’t begin with Roe v. Wade).

I was also troubled by the fact that, despite the Catholic church’s proclamation of “Truth,” there was no more of a consensus on the controversial issues of the day than there were in other organizations. The various catechisms may tell you what the church hierarchy is supposed to teach, but it doesn’t mean than all the billions of Catholics scattered throughout the world are going to believe it all. To me, the lack of agreement over what constituted “objective morality” was most obvious with the issue of segregation; black Christians believed segregation was a sin, while most white Christians believed integration was the sin, with both groups using the Bible and the American constitutional tradition to argue for their respective side. If Christian morality is supposed to be so clear and unambiguous why did it take over 400 years for New World slavery to end and an additional one hundred years to get rid of de jure segregation (I won’t even get into how long it might take to end de facto segregation)?

When I read Ludwig Feurbach’s Essence of Christianity, it seemed to answer my question about how members of the same religion could have such different notions about morality, ethics, and God; if God was essentially a psychological projection, the sum of an individual’s most deeply felt ideals and aspirations, then it would make sense for believers from different cultures and ethnic background to have competing notions about the nature of God and what constitutes ethical behavior.

Although many conservotrad Catholics like to think that secular humanists are a wanton lot who deny a belief in objective morality, I will end this post by saying that I am a firm believer in objective morality, but I think that any combination of natural law theory and religious texts is a very poor basis with which to base one’s ethics.