I'm trying to rotate my articles through the seven canonical areas that Priests are supposed to learn about in seminary. This month the area is ethics.
Christian ethics needs to have its foundation in Jesus' commandments to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Unfortunately, that's not very specific. We can find some more concrete guidance in the rest of his life and teaching. Jesus' rescue of the woman caught in adultery, for example, teaches us not to judge others and/or that death is an unjust punishment for adultery. But we will not find a fully developed ethical system in the New Testament.
Theologians have developed more complete ethical systems congruent with Christian faith by borrowing from philosophy. Aristotle developed Plato's virtue ethics extensively for use in the church. Under virtue ethics, a right action is the action a truly virtuous person would take under the circumstances. Aristotle added faith, hope and love to the traditional list of cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. The traditional virtues enjoyed some popular attention not so long ago with the publication of William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues.
Natural law ethics, which also had it's foundation in Greek philosophy, was further developed and brought into the church by Thomas Aquinas among others. The core idea is that God has built into human nature everything we need to know about ethics. The job of the ethicist is to tease out those natural laws and describe them. While the laws are found in human nature and the natural world, that does not mean we automatically know them and follow them. We need wisdom and understanding to act ethically.
Natural law leads to the idea of inalienable rights so central to our Declaration of Independence. These are rights that each person has because of their human nature. They come from God by way of the natural laws.
Ethics classes tend to focus on the difficult and complex questions at the margins. I maintain, though, that in most of the situations we encounter daily it's not that difficult to distinguish between a loving action and one that is selfish or harmful. The challenge, given our aforementioned human nature, is to get ourselves to act on what we perceive.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Harries