How Objective Moral Authority and Compassion Fit Together

How Objective Moral Authority and Compassion Fit Together April 10, 2024

Although morality is not the sole purpose of religion in this world, it is nonetheless an important function. If God intervenes in the world of human experience, what moral implications does this have? Postmodern thinkers seem to say that the only options from which we can choose are cold logic and heartfelt compassion. This is, however, a false dichotomy. Since the attitude of the general population moves towards an absolute primacy of “compassion,” society at large perceives objective moral authority as a threat.

The Prevalence of Moral Confusion

Does such a dichotomy exist? Do pastoral agents have to choose between compassion and doctrine? Is a pastoral approach diametrically opposed to a doctrinal approach? I don’t think so; the most pastoral approach is always going to include a careful consideration of correct doctrine.

Many people in our world seem to enjoy moral confusion. They justify their position by claiming “compassion.” However, they err when they do so since compassion must always be founded on concern for the true human dignity of the person. To achieve correct moral judgment, we must take correct moral doctrine into account.

People Putting a Puzzle Together
Balancing Moral Authority and Compassion | Courtesy:

The Importance of Right Doctrine

Religion cannot be reduced to merely a body of moral norms. Nevertheless, a religion that gets these moral norms wrong is committing a fundamental disservice. If a religion purports to be a vehicle of truth, the moral norms it imposes should correspond to objective truth.

Recently, Trent Horn and Lila Rose debated Destiny and Jazmen Jafar regarding the sense and meaning of human sexuality. The conversation went a lot of different directions. Trent Horn and Lila Rose did a great job defending basic human decency in their discussions of the social value or degradation due to “sex work.” One comment on the video captures the essence of the debate:

“We don’t believe that having sex with animals is wrong because we’re not religious” has got to be one of the best arguments for religion.

The debate highlights the importance of having objective truth as the basis of moral debate. Otherwise, there is no way to have true common ground. At the end of the debate, Trent Horn makes several assertions of common ground that they share. Although they seem to have diametrically opposed opinions throughout their discussion, they do show that they value some of the same things.

The Philosophical Basis for Human Dignity

Pope Francis tasked the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to prepare a document detailing moral questions regarding human dignity. Some people have anticipated the release of this new document from the Vatican with great trepidation since some other recent documents have seemed to increase confusion rather than clarify it. The title of the document is “Dignitas infinita,” or Infinite Dignity. It begins with a philosophical foundation of human dignity.

Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter. This principle, which is fully recognizable even by reason alone, underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights (Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas infinita, 1).

The language of the document seems almost reminiscent of certain formulations within the Declaration of Independence. The Church has used this framework to establish a firm foundation to argue for the dignity of every human person. The staunch defense of human dignity allows the Church to testify to the dignity of the unborn, the foreigner, the poor, and even the criminal.

The Theological Foundation of Human Dignity

Dignitas infinita does not waste any time in establishing a complementary theological foundation for human dignity immediately after laying the philosophical groundwork:

In the light of Revelation, the Church resolutely reiterates and confirms the ontological dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed in Jesus Christ. From this truth, the Church draws the reasons for her commitment to the weak and those less endowed with power, always insisting on “the primacy of the human person and the defense of his or her dignity beyond every circumstance” (Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas infinita, 1).

In this statement, the Church remembers its own theological nature. When the Church engages in political discourse, it contributes to our understanding of human dignity as a gift from God.

For the Church to formulate truly pastoral guidelines, as are plentiful in this document, it is vital to always remember the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the underlying arguments. At the same time, it is important to continually take the pulse of the world in which we are living, so that our message does not fall upon deaf ears but rather reaches those people who need it so desperately.

What are your thoughts? Please comment below.

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About Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, LC
Fr. Nicholas Sheehy was ordained a Catholic priest in 2013 for the Legionaries of Christ. He has been involved in youth work including missions, retreats and apostolic outreach in Germany, Italy, the United States and Central America. He is passionate about the New Evangelization and formation for young adults and married couples. He is a spiritual director and retreat director, offering marriage preparation and marriage counseling through the Divine Mercy Clinic and Family Center. He is currently Executive Director and Chaplain of the Newman Center at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Pasadena, California. You can read more about the author here.
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