Saturday, May 19, 2012

Moral Wisdom and a Case Study

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was approached last week and asked to teach two sections of Junior Morality. Since the seniors had had their last day of school - meaning I had picked up two free periods -  it seemed only natural that I would trade my thirty seniors and my two free periods for sixty-one juniors.

When I was in high school, I hated my course in morality. Not, to be sure, because I was particularly immoral or wanted to lead a debauched life. Rather, the course seemed totally bloodless: it seemed to reduce the Christian life to a bunch of proscriptions, a litany of Do Not....Or Else.... statements. Granted, I was an adolescent and my memories of the course are etched by how my 16-year old self received the information. It seemed then, and still seems, that most courses in Catholic morality obsess over what goes on in the area of the human body covered by an apron. Too often, we fixate so much on sex and things related to sex that we neglect many other important issues.

Since I haven't much time with them, I am focusing what classes I have with the Juniors on fundamental topics: love, sin, conscience, suffering, etc.. Their modus operandi tends to be to ask a lot of particular questions such as, "Abba, is it a sin if..." and I find this frustrating. I simply don't think it is my job to tell a bunch of juniors whether something is or is not sinful, as if I were a lonely expert at the Antiques Roadshow examining people's trinkets. Instead, I want to help in forming them so that they have moral eyes and the ability to discern well what is, and is not, sinful.

To this end, I wrote my own Case Study for my students. Before the case, I attached a Didactic explaining the rationale behind the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and how it might contribute to moral discernment. Rather than a topic addressing abortion, or euthanasia, or pornography I wrote a little narrative about Corey and his (possible) struggle with academic integrity. If readers are interested in reading the case, or learning one approach to moral reasoning, I would encourage them to click the 'read more' below to read the case study. I have removed the instructions I gave the students, as I do not suspect many readers would care much about my style guide!

Moral Theology Case Study
Didactic: Theologians realize that every issue we confront – substance abuse, abortion, euthanasia, health care, education, technology, dishonesty, etc. – is tremendously complex. It is seldom that we find an issue where a cut-and-dry solution is available and easily applied.
Often attributed to John Wesley, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is a handy tool frequently used by moral theologians to touch upon some of the major sources for theological reflection. As you can see below, the breakdown is rather simple: when we analyze a given topic, we can look at and take account of four general moral sources. This is one way of looking at the structure (Parenthetical remarks are taken from then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI):

1.     Scripture (God’s Will) – the Old and New Testaments. What is said in Scripture that applies to this issue? Why does it apply? How does the Scripture speak of God’s Will in this particular moment?
2.     Tradition (Community) – How the Church has responded to similar questions in the past? Have there been other issues like this? What did faithful Christians do to respond in other instances? How does your possible response affect the life of the body of believers?
3.     Experience (Conscience) – Looking back upon your own life and experiences, where does this fit with how you have come to know the world? How do you see God acting in this situation?
4.     Reason (Reality) – using logic and investigation, how does this issue work? What is at stake in the issue and how might we come to see it more clearly? Can you ask people with technical expertise in the field for their input (doctors, lawyers, scientists, philosophers)?

When we engage in theological reflection, we generally draw on each one of these four sources. Surely, we do not draw equally on each: it is impossible to be a master of all disciplines and fields. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves as best as possible in order to discern wisely.


Corey is a second-semester senior enrolled in AP Chemistry. He has worked very hard over the past seven semesters and is in the running to be the valedictorian of his graduating class. Grades haven’t always come easily to him and, on a few occasions, he just barely scratched out an A in some of his other courses. Just last semester, it looked like he would earn his first B+. Had it not been for a lucky break on the semester final in AP English – he happened to have loved the book the teacher asked the students to write about – he almost certainly would have bombed the test. Had he gotten the B+, he would have been out of the running for valedictorian. As it turned out, he earned an A+ on the final and the teacher, impressed with his performance, awarded him an A for the semester. Now, just a week before graduation, his GPA is 0.02 points ahead of his nearest competitor. It’s a tight race. Corey knows that he needs to hold on to his A in AP Chemistry in order to take top honors at graduation.

These last few weeks have been really stressful. Prom, planning for graduation, and the “senior slide” have made getting his labs done nearly impossible. In fact, his teacher is really putting pressure on him to submit three of the labs by the end of the week. If he doesn’t get the labs finished, he knows that his grade will drop. He also knows the reputation of the teacher and that the final exam is so difficult that it would be almost impossible to offset a bad grade on the labs. He hasn’t even begun his labs and he’s not sure what to do. He doesn’t want to disappoint his parents and grandparents, who are so proud of him, but he can’t imagine how he will get three labs done in two days.

As he laments this, a Facebook friend from another school messages him. She is complaining about doing lab write-ups for AP Chemistry. As Corey chats with her, he realizes that they are doing the same labs! He strikes a deal with her: she will send him her data and observations and he will do the analysis and write the reports. “Data are data,” he says to himself. “Whether she collected or I collected it, it doesn’t matter.” The young woman sends her data and Corey pulls an all-nighter to finish the assignment. He sends her his write-ups, for which she takes credit, and he the write-ups based on her data. His teacher doesn’t seem to realize that this is not his data and is glad to accept the assignments with no penalty.

Five days later, Corey walks past Ben, the student he beat by 0.02 points, and gives the valedictory address. Everyone is so proud of Corey’s accomplishment, so proud that he fended off Ben’s challenge and stayed on top throughout all four years of high school.


naturgesetz said...

Good case.

Does your method equivalate Magisterial teaching and Scripture with personal experience? IOW, at some point does the course tell the students that #3, conscience, must be formed in submission to #2 and #1? IOW, as presented, is this a method suitable for Protestants looking to their own traditions, or is it somehow distinctively Catholic?

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

As it comes out of a Protestant tradition, it certainly must be adapted for Catholics. As explained to the students, these are not "equal" wells. They are, so to speak, nodal points or sources for reflection. A robust Catholic position will, I suspect, engage all four of them with the understanding that there'd be a special emphasis on Scripture/Tradition and a recognition that Conscience/Experience have been formed in dialogue with them. While they are distinct in schema, they'd not be four isolated sources.

As I say in the Didactic, this is meant only as 'one' approach. It's meant more to give the students a sense of the complexities of moral reasoning and an experience of teasing out various voices/strands in a given issue.