Morality is at the heart of all religion but, “Is religious faith necessary to live a moral life?” This question has been debated in many circles especially among those involved in the field of moral education. Can a person who does not practice any form of religious faith still be moral in his/her way of life? Therefore, is religious faith a prerequisite for moral living? In Christian morality, God is acknowledged as the centre of all moral life. It is from Him that we draw our values and also our motivation for living a moral life. According to Richard Gula, a moral theologian, the belief in God as the centre of value gives Christians a reason for being moral… The Christian is moral because God is good, and because the goodness of God, always and everywhere present to us, enables and requires us to be responsible for the goodness of the world … Morality for the religious believer is not authorised merely by social conventions, or merely by the desire of self-fulfilment, or merely by the requirements of general rules of conduct which reason demands … From a theological point of view, God authorises and requires morality.
From a religious point of view, it is easy to locate the reason and motivation for being moral. On the other hand, it is also possible that one does not need to be religious in order to be moral. Religious faith is not a pre-requisite for being moral because a person can be moral even if he/she does not have a religious faith. Built within the structure of society there is a certain amount of expectation that all persons be moral. The basis of this expectation is not in religion but more fundamentally, it is in humanity. Nevertheless, this does not exclude religion from also being the basis for this fundamental expectation. Vincent McNamara, in his book Love, Law and Christian Life: Basic Attitudes of Christian Morality says clearly that one does not need to know God before becoming aware of moral distinctions or moral demands: morality does not immediately need religion. It is true that a religious tradition, like any other group, may have arrived at certain conclusions about how one is to be moral, may give support to the whole enterprise of morality, may have its own understanding of the ultimate significance of it. But even if religion is abandoned, a person is still left with the morality question unless being human is also to be abandoned.
The purpose of bringing this to our attention is neither to develop nor promote a theory of autonomous morality but because we need to acknowledge that moral education can also be discussed outside the context of a religious faith as much as within a religious faith. Human experience demonstrates to us that there have been many people who may not profess a particular religion but live a morally upright and just life. For them, being virtuous has its own reward, that is, the knowledge that they are living in a way in which they believe that persons should live.
Marciano Vidal, a Spanish moral theologian, even though acknowledging that there is no absolute connection between morality and religion, sees the existence of a mutual relation between a morality that is faith based and that which is non-faith based. According to him, it is when one understands the other that they both can co-exist. These two options – faith based and non-faith based – converge in a far greater unity. This unity is based neither in religious beliefs nor in unbelief; rather it is based on humanity. As we mentioned earlier, for morality to maintain its universal and objective character, it has to be based on humanity. However, Josef Fuchs asserts that Christian morality and human morality are one and the same: [Human morality] participates in some way in Christian morality, and in this sense is not simply non-Christian … Ideally, a non-Christian moral doctrine is of natural moral law – i.e., it is, according to Thomas Aquinas, recta ratio in the area of morality … non-Christian morality becomes the question of human morality, or of the natural moral law.
Morality is a phenomenon that is independent of religion. It is my own experience that human persons can arrive at moral positions and make credible moral choices even while not professing any religious faith. Whatever the motivations maybe for a person to act in a morally upright way, we cannot deny the fact that human persons, whether religiously inclined or not, as far as they are endowed with the gift of reason, they will try to live in harmony with others. We can conclude that religious faith is not a prerequirement for being moral. Since morality belongs to the realm of humanity, all persons, with religious faith or without, are asked to be moral if they are to be truly human. For a Christian, morality can be a place where one meets God and responds to his immense and gratuitous love: “The Christian then might see God as the ultimate context, significance and end of moral living without compromising the notion of morality as an autonomous human experience.
So, why Be Moral? When dealing with morality and moral education, an important question that frequently arises with regard to motivation is, “Why should I be moral?” In the book Morality: Its Nature and Justification, Bernard Gert clarifies that “when people ask, why should I be moral, they may be asking why they should act morally on a particular occasion but usually they are asking why they should obey the moral rules in general.” In practical terms, people want to know why they should act in a particular way and not in another. For example, why should I be just? Why should I be honest? Why should I not harm others in society? Answers to these questions are sometimes difficult to come by and they often do not satisfy an inquiring mind.
There have been many ways in which scholars, philosophers, and also common people have tried to explain the necessity of being moral. For example, it is in one’s self interest to be moral and that people who are moral are generally happier than those who are not. One could also point out that the recognition of the human person’s vulnerability and fallibility makes acting morally the best option. The one who has a religious faith could say that God wanted his people to be moral (“God commands it”) and will reward those who live morally good lives. Others have pointed out that since all human persons want others to behave morally, especially towards one, it would be hypocritical if one does not do the same. Avoiding guilt, shame, and remorse could be another reason for being moral. Parents often encourage their children to be moral because of their concern and care for their children. The above are only some of the ways in which people have tried to reason out the necessity for being moral.
Within the Christian context, religious answers such as “You will suffer the flames of hell if you do not live a moral life” have been invoked, especially in the past, to command people to lead a moral life. In recent times, when belief in God and affiliation to a particular religious faith seems scarce, such an answer would not satisfy many. What is it that truly motivates a person to be moral? It will be almost impossible to arrive at an answer that satisfies every single person and which incorporates all motivations for being moral. But we can broadly categorise two reasons why a person chooses to be moral or to rephrase the question, what motivates a person to be moral?
The first possible reason why a person decides to be moral is because of self-interest. It is because there is something to be gained that a person chooses to live morally. For example, in a Christian context, a person chooses to be moral because of the hope of salvation. In a secular context, a person lives a moral life so as to stay out of trouble with the law. In both examples, there is something to be gained by the individual and that motivates the person to be moral.
The second possible reason is to avoid or decrease the likelihood of causing harm or injuries to other people in society. This reason seems to be a more altruistic one. A person chooses to avoid immoral actions because others may suffer in the process of carrying out the action. This reason is not based on self- interest; rather it is based on the very nature of morality itself. This reason would seem more universal because it transcends religious limitations and cultural barriers.
We cannot negate the fact that people often act in their own interest before thinking of others, self-interest cannot be the only motive for choosing to be moral. I believe that the reason for being moral has to incorporate both the categories. It cannot be one or the other but one with the other.
We need to acknowledge that religious answers also have elements of self- interest for the purpose of being moral. In a religious contest, the motivation for being moral can easily be outside of the person, for example, God commands it. This sort of motivation ceases to be an inner conviction but rather is seen as “pressure” from an external source which is often associated with fear – fear of judgment and punishment. It is also possible that an inner conviction be the source of being moral, for example, the love of God. A person who is appreciative of God’s love for him/her, can choose to reciprocate by living a moral life. Whether it is an internal conviction or pressure from an external source, I believe that the task of finding an answer for those who have a religious faith is much easier as compared to those who have no religious faith because the task is made even harder. To a person who has a religious faith, religious appeals can be made to motivate the person to be moral. On the other hand, for someone who has no religious faith, then the appeal has to be based on humanity – an appeal to what it means to be a human person and to live in a human community. This is also possible because morality certainly has a universal nature which is based on humanity.
The Distinctiveness of Christian Morality: If religious faith is not an absolute prerequisite for living a moral life, what then is the uniqueness or distinctiveness of Christian morality? What is so specific or distinct in Christian morality? Despite the fact that many authors trace the distinctiveness of Christian morality to the centrality of Jesus, Sacred Scripture and tradition, the teaching of the Magisterium, grace, humanity, commandment of love, human experience, etc.,”? (it is not that I am negating that’ these are indeed characteristics of Christian morality) but I find that Josef Fuchs provides us with a more comprehensive, accurate, and maybe even an original description of the distinctiveness of Christian morality: (1) The Christian Intentionality of Christian morality; (2) The humanum of Christian categorical morality; (3) The Christianum of Christian categorical morality.
The first characteristic deals with the aspect of intentionality. The believer makes a conscious decision and effort to live this moral life as a response to God’s abounding love. This decision to respond is both full and personal and it is also an enduring decision in each particular situation. It is in concrete situations that the believer encounters God.
The second characteristic lies in the fact that Christian morality is in its categorical orientation and materiality, basically and substantially a humanum, that is, a morality of genuinely being-human: “This means that truthfulness, uprightness and faithfulness are not specifically Christian, but generally human values.
The third and final characteristic is the Christianum of Christian categorical morality. For J. Fuchs, it is in the Christianum that the intentionality and humanum come together. The Christian reality is expressed and lived within this context. The coming together of all three characteristics is known as the humanum Christian: “The realities that constitute the Christianum of the humanum Christianum are those such as the person of Christ, the Spirit at work, the Christian community, the hierarchical Church, the sacraments, Christian anthropology.” It is in the motivating power to act in a Christian that we find the meaning of the Christianum. Otherwise, our acts may only remain in the realm of the humanum (e.g., almsgiving motivated by love of neighbour and not merely philanthropy).
Even though some theologians conclude that there is no such thing as a distinctive Christian morality since it is based on human morality, I disagree that there isn’t a distinctive character to Christian morality. The very fact that Jesus is the norm of Christian moral life makes clear that there is an element of distinctiveness that is not present in other definitions. This is foundational since Jesus characterises the Christian understanding of morality. Christian morality is human morality since the universal character of Christian morality is seen when we acknowledge that others who have never adhered to Jesus Christ or have not even heard speak of him, not only can arrive at the same moral decisions in particular areas but are even capable of having the same disposition and same attitudes, such as hope, freedom, and love for others even the sacrifice of self. But there is an interior dimension that makes morality distinctively Christian and this interior dimension in the moral subject comes from one’s relationship with the person of Jesus.
In short, the distinctiveness of Christian morality, in the words of the theologian Servais Pinckaers: it is a response to the aspirations of the human heart for truth and goodness. As such, it offers guidelines that, when followed, makes these aspirations grow and become strong under the warm light of the Gospel. Catholic morality is not by nature oppressive; nor is it in principle conservative. It seeks to educate toward growth. This is its true mission.