The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 2, 2001 Issue
Local News

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 wrong.

2. A healthy Image of God is essential for genuine Catholic-Christian morality.

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 complexity.

6. Morality is as much caught as taught, learned as much by witness, storytelling and inspiration as by logic, argument and proofs.

"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 involved."

"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 social justic.

"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 right."

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