Ethicist: Few easy answers
Priest: Despite many grey areas in moral questions, we shouldn't be afraid
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
When it comes to making moral decisions there are few easy
answers, but people should not be afraid of complex moral issues,
said Fr. Richard Sparks, CSP.
"All moral issues are not clearly black and white or right or
wrong," he said. "Most people struggle with the grey areas, but
with enough guidance we can still discover right versus wrong."
Fr. Sparks, a noted author with a Ph.D. in moral theology from
the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., presented
"Catholic Morality for the 21st Century" at last week's
Leadership Gathering in Green Bay hosted by the diocesan
department of Total Catholic Education.
To assist participants in their moral decision making, Fr.
Sparks, who divides his time between lecturing on ethics and
serving as pastor of Holy Spirit Parish at the University of
California at Berkeley, shared his six 'Rules of Thumb' for
Catholic Morality. They are:
1. Morality makes sense. There really is objective right and
2. A healthy Image of God is essential for genuine
3. Accentuate the good over the bad.
4. "Conscience" is a verb, more than a noun. We do conscience
more than we have a conscience.
5. Not all moral issues are clear-cut, but some are (rape,
murder, incest, child abuse). So don't be afraid of moral
6. Morality is as much caught as taught, learned as much by
witness, storytelling and inspiration as by logic, argument and
"It is important to trust in God's help in making good objective
decisions. When making a moral decision, one must consider the
act itself, the intentions and circumstances. In cases where a
mistake is made, we must trust in God's forgiveness."
Fr. Sparks addressed a wide range of moral issues at the workshop
including capital punishment.
"The death penalty is more complex than it appears," he said. "In
theory, if a community needs to execute someone to protect the
community, that is acceptable, but is it necessary? There are
systemic problems in our culture leading to people being placed
on death row. We need to work on those rather than killing them
in the end."
Fr. Sparks, whose areas of special interest include biomedical
ethics, sexuality and fundamental moral theology, also explored
the issue of genetic engineering.
"It is not an evil thing to get information from genetic
testing," he said. "What you do with what you know is the moral
issue. If testing reveals the possibility of developing Hodgkin's
disease, for example, do we refuse you insurance? Who gets the
information? There are definitely confidentiality issues
"We also need to talk about what's bad and what is not bad
concerning genetic therapy," he added. "If genetic testing led to
all people in wheelchairs being able to walk, would that be a
good thing? I think so. What if it allowed the deaf to hear? It's
not as simple. Sign language is a language. You are getting rid
of a culture and a community. We need to look at by whose
definition is something bad."
Understanding the relationship between law and morality is
important in the moral decision making process, said Fr. Sparks,
who also gave talks on euthanasia/assisted suicide, sexuality and
"Law is the part of morality that we need to enforce," he said.
"Outlaw the worse stuff and mandate the best stuff. There is an
ethical decision in what to put in law. The marketplace
essentially decides this. Theologians, bishops and advisors can
inspire us to morality, but they can't legislate it. Law is
smaller. Morality is what is good. It goes above and beyond law."
"In many ways, morality is about educating people," he said. "I
like the television show West Wing. It is trying to show a White
House trying to do it right. Others like ER and Law & Order show
people trying to do it right. We can make great progress in
making moral decisions in our own lives by simply trying to do it