I am continually impressed by how deeply utilitarian thought patterns have infiltrated our mindset. Actually, what I really mean to say is not “our” mindset as if there were some kind of “collective brain” (based on the traffic I drove through this morning I don’t buy that), but rather how often my thinking is utilitarian. This way of thinking seems to me subconscious and involuntary-the kind of thing that, if left unexamined, I would never give a second thought to. Now that I am gradually wading into the deep end of the Catholic pool, however, I am constantly reminded how anti-utilitarian Classical Christianity really is. As such, I find a constant need to question my way of thinking. While demanding, this is an absolutely critical activity for Catholics.
The Catholic Church has definitively rejected consequentialism as a basis for ethics, and in doing so is essentially spitting in the face of all moral philosophy since the Enlightenment (well there is that Kantian-categorical wrinkle but few people today are “openly Kantian” in their ethics). The magisterium, thanks in no small part to St. John Paul II, has also embraced a rich philosophical and theological “personalism” that is an integral part of Catholic moral teaching. The entire superstructure of Catholic ethics rests on a different foundation than utilitarian ethics, and as such, to truly understanding Catholicism on this point, one must be prepared to enter into an entirely different worldview. That being the case, I’m going to briefly summarize what I think are the key features of Catholic moral teaching, before giving a few personal examples.
First, here is what the Church has to say vis-à-vis basic moral reasoning:
1750 The morality of human acts depends on: – the object chosen; – the end in view or the intention; – the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.
1751 The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. the object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.
1752 In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. the end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. the intention is a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken. Intention is not limited to directing individual actions, but can guide several actions toward one and the same purpose; it can orient one’s whole life toward its ultimate end. For example, a service done with the end of helping one’s neighbor can at the same time be inspired by the love of God as the ultimate end of all our actions. One and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, such as performing a service in order to obtain a favor or to boast about it.
1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. the end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).39
1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.
Catholic moral teaching is remarkably holistic, much more than utilitarian reasoning. It is both firmly objective (there is a staunch moral realism to Catholicism) and subjective (intention and circumstances do in fact matter). As Peter Kreeft explains:
Each of three common oversimplified moralities focuses on only one of the three factors and ignores the other two. Legalism focuses only on the objective act itself, as specified by the moral law. Subjectivism focuses only on the subjective intention. And “situation ethics”, or moral relativism, focuses only on changing situations or circumstances. Catholic morality is more complete, realistic, and balanced.
The objective dimension is often the hardest to swallow in this day and age, no doubt because-as Catholicism sensibly realizes-it entails recognizing that good intentions can never make a bad act good (that is simply what objective means). Interestingly, however, a surprising number of contemporary atheists, including Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, seem at least open to the possibility of moral realism (e.g. to the idea that there is an a priori, quasi-Platonic, dimension to morality). In any case, St. John Paul II made an invaluable contribution to the Church’s magisterium in this area by complementing the Church’s firmly objectivist Thomism with personalism. Cardinal Avery Dulles outlines how the Pope approached Thomism:
In his early years as a professor of ethics at the University of Lublin in Poland, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, like other members of the philosophical faculty, identified himself as a Thomist. While enthusiastically affirming the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on most points, he took note of one weakness. St. Thomas paid too little attention to the human person as experienced from within. In a paper on “Thomistic Personalism” delivered in 1961 he declared:
[w]hen it comes to analyzing consciousness and self-consciousness—there seems to be no place for it in St. Thomas’ objectivistic view of reality. In any case, that in which the person’s subjectivity is most apparent is presented by St. Thomas in an exclusively—or almost exclusively—objective way. He shows us the particular faculties, both spiritual and sensory, thanks to which the whole of human consciousness and self-consciousness—the human personality in the psychological and moral sense—takes shape, but that is also where he stops. Thus St. Thomas gives us an excellent view of the objective existence and activity of the person, but it would be difficult to speak in his view of the lived experiences of the person.
Wojtyla was satisfied that St. Thomas correctly situated the human person in terms of the general categories of being, as an individual subsisting in an intellectual nature. But he wished to enrich Thomas’s doctrine of the person by reference to our experience of ourselves as unique ineffable subjects. Each person is an “I,” an original source of free and responsible activity.
The Oxford professor Oliver O’Donovan objects that the pope seems overindebted to the idealist tradition, which “understands the rationality of the moral law as something grounded in the human mind.” But in his work as a professor, Karol Wojtyla anticipated this objection and sought to answer it. In an essay on “The Human Person and Natural Law,” he firmly rejected the view of Kant and the idealists, who would allow reason to impose its own categories on reality. For Wojtyla reason discerns and affirms an objective order of reality and value that is prior to reason itself. The freedom of the human person is not to be understood indeterministically, as though it meant emancipation from all constraints. Although the mind must conform to the real order, law as a moral obligation is not something merely mechanical or biological. It presupposes a subject with personal consciousness.
Speaking on Fides et Ratio, Cardinal Dulles adds:
Even if John Paul II had done nothing more than to sort out what is and is not acceptable in the earlier positions, his encyclical would be sufficient to establish a new state of the question. But he also takes a positive step forward. In Fides et Ratio and in several of his unofficial writings before and after he became Pope, he expresses his view that personalist anthropology must stand at the center of Christian philosophy today. The philosophy of consciousness, developed according to phenomenological method, can throw new light on the subjectivity of the person, which stands at the basis of culture, civilization, and politics. Biblical revelation has taught Christian philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel and Jewish philosophers such as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Lévinas that the whole of human existence is a coexistence in dialogue, and that the primary dialogue partner is the God of our faith.
Personalist phenomenology, practiced according to the principles of the Lublin school of Thomism, can contribute to a much needed renewal of metaphysics (83).
This, incidentally, is a prime example of authentic development in the Church. Still, St. John Paul II was not all that radical. The new emphasis on personalism dovetails quite nicely with virtue ethics, the ethical approach long favored by Classical Christianity. While normally associated with Aristotle, N.T. Wright has pointed out (After You Believe) that there is rich Biblical support this virtue ethics as well. Some of the superb contemporary Christian “moralists”-Alasdair MacIntyre, Samuel Wells and Stanley Hauerwas to name but 3-are all virtue ethicists. Hauerwas compares the development of virtue to apprenticeship, which is to say that character and goodness are cultivated through a set of practices, by induction into way of life. Sound familiar?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the nature of virtue:
1804 Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. the virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.
Note the bolded language-there is a reciprocal relationship between specific actions and virtues. The objective goodness of the moral law and the subjective goodness of the person come together in the practice and growth of virtue. It should be clear by now that in Catholicism goodness is not justified by its usefulness, or by how many people it benefits, or by any other approach to utility. Instead it rests on the foundation that there is an objective reality to the question of the good (morality and ontology are “one science”), and only through lived experience, through the formation of persons, can that goodness be incarnated here in the real world.
Here, I think, a brief word is in order regarding the use of the word “morality.” Some contemporary Orthodox writers-among them Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and Father Stephen Freeman-have suggested that the word moral is very flawed, as it associated with a legalistic approach to reality and adherence to a rigid moral code. Their point, of course, is well taken. Still, rather than repudiate the use of the word “moral” I would prefer to recapture it, its broad, full-throated, ontological meaning. That approach, as I’ve sketched above, is in fact what the Catholic Church teaches (it is the whole point of virtue ethics). Again, Kreeft:
One of the main reasons we fail to practice our morality well is that we fail to understand it well. We fail to understand that it is not just a way of behaving but a way of being; not simply “living a good life” but becoming “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), becoming “a little Christ”.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy actually dovetail quite nicely. Consider David Bentley Hart’s thoughts on JPII’s Theology of the Body:
Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil. Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.
In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction. There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.
John Paul’s anthropology is what a certain sort of Orthodox theologian might call a “theandric” humanism. “Life in the Spirit,” the most impressive of the texts collected in the Theology of the Body, is to a large extent an attempt to descry the true form of man by looking to the end towards which he is called, so that the glory of his eschatological horizon, so to speak, might cast its radiance back upon the life he lives in via here below. Thus, for John Paul, the earthly body in all its frailty and indigence and limitation is always already on the way to the glorious body of resurrection of which Paul speaks; the mortal body is already the seed of the divinized and immortal body of the Kingdom; the weakness of the flesh is already, potentially, the strength of “the body full of power”; the earthly Adam is already joined to the glory of the last Adam, the risen and living Christ. For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us — even “defectives” and “morons” and “genetic inferiors,” if you will — waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendor that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.
For the Christian to whom John Paul speaks, however, one can truly aspire to the divine only through the charitable cultivation of glory in the flesh, the practice of holiness, the love of God and neighbor; and, in so doing, one seeks not to take leave of one’s humanity, but to fathom it in its ultimate depth, to be joined to the Godman who would remake us in himself, and so to become simul divinus et creatura. This is a pure antithesis. For those who, on the one hand, believe that life is merely an accidental economy of matter that should be weighed by a utilitarian calculus of means and ends and those who, on the other, believe that life is a supernatural gift oriented towards eternal glory, every moment of existence has a different significance and holds a different promise. To the one, a Down syndrome child (for instance) is a genetic scandal, one who should probably be destroyed in the womb as a kind of oblation offered up to the social good and, of course, to some immeasurably remote future; to the other, that same child is potentially (and thus far already) a being so resplendent in his majesty, so mighty, so beautiful that we could scarcely hope to look upon him with the sinful eyes of this life and not be consumed.
Note that personalism, and its overdue focus on the subjectivity of persons and their intentionality, is not the same thing as a dualism that defines human beings by their consciousness. On this, Father Freeman adds a bit more:
But note that we are not “actual humans” unless we have consciousness, self-awareness and an interest in the future. By such criteria, my dog is probably a human being. And, of course, the professor is deeply naive in thinking that the Roman Catholic Church shares his definition of humanity. The Classical Christian world (Orthodox and Catholic) has a far more profound understanding of the human person.
I have stated previously that the modern project defines the human as: autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization. As such, we are psychological events. It is an understanding that works, perhaps, in a science fiction movie (Star Trek comes to mind). In such a setting, we can take Spock’s consciousness and place it in an orb, and later put it somewhere else. His body is only important because we have to put his consciousness back into it before the end of the show. But this is nowhere close to a serious philosophical account of human existence.
The teaching of Classical Christianity grounds its understanding of human beings (and of all things) in their ontology, their very being and the nature of their being. God, the “only truly existing God,” brought us into being and with that gives us our humanity. Our personhood is an expression of our being and not its cause.
A human life in the womb is possessed with dignity and worth and its humanity, because it is, and not because of its consciousness, self-awareness and interest in the future. The modern “discount” humanity renders the body to be a mere vehicle, a locus of potentiality, able to be discarded when the “actuality” has been exhausted (or not yet realized).
To know ourselves as we are created is to enter into human life as gift, not as potential, nor future interest. The deepest and most disturbing part of the modern project and its tendency to redefine and discount our humanity, is that it does so in the name of something other than our humanity. Economic need, pain, psychological distress trump our existence. And in the end, the answer is death. It is the modern project’s alliance with death that is most revealing of its true nature and origin.
May God have mercy and deliver our children from the hands of modern philosophers!
Elsewhere he notes simply:
There is a long history of moral reasoning that is called “Utilitarianism.” It simply means, “What is useful.” It is a way of asking questions about certain actions. It’s reasoning is best expressed as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It sounds eminently practical and is often employed in political and social thought. However, it is also fatally flawed. First, it fails to define the meaning of “good.” The greatest “good” cannot be described in practical terms. Often Utilitarian arguments are used to justify whatever some power group wishes to do. Whoever gets to define the “good” gets to make the rules.
Thus, those who find justifiable reasons for abortion always turn towards some form of utility. Abortion is certainly “useful” for the person who is burdened by the presence of this new life. But it is already an existing life and cannot be destroyed without sin. No amount of “useful” side-effects, such as providing fetal tissue for medical research and the like, can make the reality of the death go away, nor can they make killing into a good thing.
This reasoning is also a proper way to think about other things in our daily lives. The Christian life is not static and unchanging. It is dynamic, a movement towards a goal. That movement is described by the Fathers as one from simple being, towards well-being, and finally eternal-being. Sin is a moving in a contrary direction. Repentance is a change of direction, a return to the proper trajectory of our life.
I think you get the picture. Turning now to a more personal reflection, while abortion and euthanasia tend to be the most significant issues at play here, there are other areas where I sometimes find myself lapsing into utilitarian thinking without intending too. One is when it comes to people with developmental disabilities. While on retreat last weekend I spent some time reading Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human, which I found deeply moving. What Vanier discovered is that humans are not meant to be utilitarian calculators, our true humanity goes much deeper:
Having occupied important posts in the Navy and in a number of universities, he then set out to live in a modest house in Trosly with two or three people with intellectual disabilities. As external witnesses, we should’nt think that this radical change of life was guarantieed to be fruitful. In the face of people with disabilities, we instinctively turn aside from a way of being and of communicating that seems foreign to us. We count our blessings that we received genes that have made us so-called “normal” people. The feeling precedes reflection on it; it’s a reflex that can drive us either to indifference toward their lot, or to a misplaced over-protectiveness (that results in isolation or segregation and a denial of their human needs) or, in the worst case, to a rejection that manifests itself in contempt, mockery, violence, or exclusion. To live with them is to learn “a mysterious wisdom” —such has been Jean Vanier’s experience over the years—for “[people with intellectual disabilities] grow in maturity.” To learn, to listen, to accept that they become teachers who speak to our hearts and push us to see our own deficiencies and to expose our most human feelings; it’s a painful journey …
In daily life with his new companions, Jean Vanier, highly educated and well-read, discovered a kind of humanity that went beyond reason and rationality. They inspired him to write Becoming Human, which is as much about his own “becoming human” as about that of the people with whom he now shared a life, as he recounts in Our Life Together: “[It is] an encounter that liberates new energies, that allow us to break the chains of egotism and open ourselves in love to others.” He makes the point in a variety of ways in all his writings: Intelligence or reason is not the only way that people —who are still categorized as “deficient” in some countries— may express themselves. Deficient: The dictionary defines it as a moral or physical inadequacy. Curiously, in French, the opposite of the word deficient has a pejorative sense. The word is suffisant, and it carries the connotation of being self-satisfied and smug; it describes someone who is arrogant and feels completely self-sufficient. Such a sense is actually the sign of an inadequacy far deeper than that of someone who is disabled, because it robs the person, who is in love with the idea of his or her own self-sufficiency, of the human experience of relationships with others.
Jean Vanier tells us that, when we allow ourselves to be open to vulnerable people, we discover just how deficient we are—how much we lack the qualities of the heart they have, their sensitivity, their joie de vivre when they feel they are understood. We have to become pupils in their school, “learning to unlearn,” as a friend who is seriously physically disabled put it. An apprenticeship that cannot be accomplished without a painful but essential review of our own shortcomings and deficiencies …
I have mentioned in the past that I have a younger brother who is autistic. One would think that this would have made me far more aware, smart and sensitive, when it comes to people with disabilities, but the truth is even here I find my mind sometimes wanders down the utilitarian road. A friend of mine has openly admitted to wrestling with this issue, pointing out the inevitable economic issues that accompany the inclusion of people with disabilities. He has complained, for instances, of the costs of ADA compliance, and of employing those with disabilities when the work really isn’t it necessary. This is a prime example of utilitarian thinking.
My friend is not a bad person, and I can’t blame him too harshly for this, because the same thoughts sometimes occur to me. We have been ‘programmed’ to think in terms of economic and societal usefulness, to define humanity by their ability to “contribute” and their “usefulness”-and of course, by their ability to consciously choose. Modernity as a whole, it seems to me, is hopelessly confused on this issue. We talk today of “ableism” and critique the “objectification” of people with disabilities (I think, incidentally, it is indeed objectification to automatically call someone in a wheelchair an “inspiration”). As N.T. Wright has said:
Recent years have witnesses extravagant examples of human actions that have outraged our sense of justice. People sometimes talk as if the last fifty years have seen a decline in morality. But actually these have been some of the most morally sensitive, indeed moralistic, times in recorded history. People care, and care passionately, about the places where the world needs putting to rights.
In short, the moral “spark” is still in us. The problem is that utilitarianism smothers the spark, for true humanity is greater than the strictures utilitarianism imposes. Usefulness is not an appropriate category, but the most severely disabled humans are for something-they have a teleology, a destiny in God. There is much we can learn from them, as Vanier reminds us. There are burdens, it is true. I have seen firsthand how overwhelming parenting can be in these contexts-as the saying goes, one will soon lose sight of the days for the years. I also still contend some measure of “expectation management” is necessary-denial and unrealistic hopes help no one. The answer, it seems to me, is release from the bondage of the utilitarian vision of the human person. We must see that the value of a person is not, and never can be measured by utility. We must learn to widen our vision again.
The teaching of the Church gives us a clue as to how this should happen, and the primary responsibility rests with the family. As the Catechism puts it:
2208 The family should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor. There are many families who are at times incapable of providing this help. It devolves then on other persons, other families, and, in a subsidiary way, society to provide for their needs: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”12
2218 The fourth commandment reminds grown children of their responsibilities toward their parents. As much as they can, they must give them material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress. Jesus recalls this duty of gratitude.23
For the Lord honored the father above the children, and he confirmed the right of the mother over her sons. Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure. Whoever honors his father will be gladdened by his own children, and when he prays he will be heard. Whoever glorifies his father will have long life, and whoever obeys the Lord will refresh his mother.24
O son, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance; in all your strength do not despise him. . . . Whoever forsakes his father is like a blasphemer, and whoever angers his mother is cursed by the Lord.25
2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.
This leads to my other personal reflection. My secretary mentioned to me yesterday that she has been living the struggle of caring for her mother, who is in assisted living and suffering from dementia. We talked for a bit about my own grandmother, who also suffered from a (much more moderate) dementia in her last few years, and how she had come to live with us, and how my mother had “risen to the occasion.” These conversations are heartbreaking, given that we live in a society where the elderly are essentially written off. The manner in which so many children shirk their responsibilities to their parents is a mark of great shame on our culture. A friend (the same friend above) attempted to blame this on economics (“No one has the money to take care of their parents,” but I could tell he didn’t believe a word of it.
Last year Pope Francis lashed out on this issue:
The biblical commandment that requires us to honour our parents, understood broadly, reminds us of the honour we must show to all elderly people. God associates a double promise with this commandment: “that you may have a long life” (Ex 20:12) and, the other, “that you might prosper” (Dt 5:16). Faithfulness to the fourth commandment assures us not only of the gifts of the earth, but especially of the possibility of enjoying them. In fact, the wisdom that makes us recognize the value of the elderly person and that brings us to honour them, is the same wisdom that allows us to appreciate the numerous gifts that we receive every day from the providential hand of the Father, and to be happy. The precept reveals to us fundamental pedagogical relationship between parents and children, between the elderly and the young, with regard to the preservation and transmission of the teachings of religion and wisdom to future generations. To honour this teaching and those who pass it on is the source of life and blessing.
On the contrary, the Bible reserves a severe warning for those who neglect or mistreat their parents (cf. Ex 21:17; Lv 20:9). The same judgement applies today when parents, having become older and less useful, are marginalized to the point of abandonment. And there are so many examples!
The Word of God is always living, and we see well how the commandment proves topical for contemporary society, where the logic of utility takes precedence over that of solidarity and gratitude, even within families. Let us hear, then, with docile hearts, the word of God that comes to us from the commandments – which, let us always remember, are not bonds that imprison us, but are words of life.
It appears that the “progressive” Holy Father was not somehow rewriting Church teaching to make mistreatment of the elderly a “new” mortal sin, as some articles implied, but was actually taking a sharp whack at utilitarian reasoning. He was also, of course, channeling, the Catechism on caring for the elderly. To speak of a “throwaway culture” is indictment of utilitarianism by another name. Frederica Mathewes-Green has a beautiful reflection on the Dormition, one that literally moved me to tears. She says:
The Gospel of John tells us, the next line is, “From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.” So this adoption of him taking Mary as his mother was something that began on the day of the crucifixion and continued through the end of her life. As I was saying, if you picture what it’s like to care for an elderly person, this requirement that the Lord laid on John was more than just being hospitable. In taking on the duty of a son to the Virgin Mary, John assumed whatever burdens might come, as well as the blessings. Some cultures have even permitted adult children to abandon or even end the life of an elderly parent. But the tradition in the Hebrew scriptures and of course in the Christian Tradition as well is that the elderly must be treated with respect, they must be respected, they must be care for to the very end.
It takes a strong command to guarantee that kind of care, because eruptions of frustration and disgust and the obvious question, “What am I getting out of this?” are going to push natural inclinations the other way. A grown child, in fact, might get more out of a parent’s death than his continuing life, if the child calculates that lingering, ugly old age is the only thing standing in the way of an inheritance. So when John took Mary to his own home, along with the wonderful blessing of having the light of her life in his own home, he was also accepting anything that might come at the end, any dementia, any physical weaknesses. Whatever it took, he was going to care for her to the end of her life. It’s a solemn obligation.
A solemn obligation indeed. Though she doesn’t use the word, Frederica once again points to the specter of utilitarianism, which is embedded in the question “What am I getting out of this?” She also makes an ominous point about natural inclinations. Wright has stressed that virtue ethics is designed to make good character second nature for us (and of course the teaching of the Church is that we are fallen and out of sync with our true nature). The point is that becoming truly human is a process, of growth and discipline, that requires certain inclinations be kept firmly in line. Utilitarian reasoning, by contrast, pushes these inclinations the other way.
In summation, Catholics should realize that this is not simply an abstract question of philosophy; our moral frame of reference affects our entire life, and-quite literally-is a matter of life and death. We are all affected by utilitarian thinking, even as we are firmly called in the opposite direction. This is a tension we must live with, understand, and confront. Stand up and, proudly, declare yourself an anti-utilitarian.