Reflectons on Veritatis Spleandor by Alfred McBride, O.Praem.

the FBI reported that in 1992 six hundred sixty-two children younger than the age of five were murdered. Their parents killed most of them. Two tragic illustrations of this were widely reported in the news. In South Carolina, the nation was shocked when it learned that Susan Smith had murdered her two little boys. A few hours later, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Pauline Zile and her husband were charged with the murder of their seven-year old daughter.

The police issued affidavits that John Zile had beaten his daughter on the face while the mother watched. Then Pauline joined in the beating. When little Christina started screaming, her father stuffed a towel in her mouth. The child choked and went into seizures. The father tried to revive her with CPR, but it was too late. They kept her corpse in a closet for four days before burying her in a five-foot-deep grave behind a local Kmart.

Infanticide is unnatural, immoral, and horrifying. It is both a crime and a sin. Some say its cause may be traced to poverty, child and spousal abuse, and mental instability. Others find that it appears both among the rich and the poor; among blacks, whites, and Hispanics; and in families with no history of violence and those that have it. And if evidence were ever needed for the effects of original sin, infanticide is a dramatic exhibit.

At the same time, we should recognize the compassionate efforts of priests, nuns, the police, social workers, and psychologists who perceptively intervene in troubled family situations to save children from prospective violence. The success rate should be higher, and perhaps the Smith and Zile cases will enable this to happen.

Equally useful for the advancement of moral living would be a renewed understanding of the elements of a moral act and a commitment to live accordingly. A moral act has three components: (1) the objective act; (2) the subjective motive; and (3) the situation, or circumstances.

"What is it that ensures the ordering of human acts to God? Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances - and in particular the consequences - of his action, or the object itself of his act?" (No. 74).

The Ten Commandments are a major help in determining the morality of the objective act - murder, stealing, lying, lust, greed. The subjective motive is the intention of the doer: "I wanted my wife to be happy so I embezzled some money to buy her a fur coat." But to have a good moral act, the objective deed must always be good and the intention must always be good. The objective act and the subjective motive are moral absolutes.

Some people claim that it does not matter what you do as long as your motive is good. That is subjectivism. A wrong act is wrong no matter how sincere you are. David Koresh was sincerely wrong in thinking he was doing God’s work with the Branch Davidians. Hitler may have thought he was improving the world, but in fact he was both wrong and insane. Hate, lust, and malice are always wrong reasons. Infanticide, cheating, and rape are always wrong deeds.

Also, there are the circumstances of the act. These are relative and not absolute. Our challenge is to figure out the best way to apply the moral law to the situation. The circumstances must be good. To have sex with a spouse out of love is a good act and a good motive. But if the spouse is sick and the act would be medically dangerous, then the act is wrong. The circumstance makes a difference. For a moral act to be good, all elements must be good: the act, the intention, and the situation. God’s moral laws anchor these three elements.

"The faithful are obliged to acknowledge and respect the specific moral precepts declared and taught by the Church in the name of God, the Creator and Lord. When the Apostle Paul sums up the fulfillment of the law in the precept of love of neighbor as oneself (see Rom 13:8-10), he is not weakening the commandments but reinforcing them, since he is revealing their requirements and gravity" (No. 76).

Popular morality ignores the Church’s full and balanced teaching. Unthinking legalists stress only the rules and the objective act. Subjectivists look only at the motives: "If I’m sincere, I must be right." Situationists say the circumstances determine everything.

The Church’s healthy, total view is the best road to a sane and wholesome practice of the moral life.

Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated. 1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by subcription. This article appeared in the December 1998 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046). Member of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.

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