Christian Moral Teaching
Christianity is not primarily about morality. Most moral duties, obligations, and prohibitions do not flow from the Bible or from God’s special revelation but rather from the natural law and from common humanity. The Bible often reveals, and the Church often teaches, the content of the natural law in a particularly clear manner. However, when the Church asserts a duty flowing from human nature, she is not usually attempting to impose a specifically religious obligation. The Church’s moral teaching merely explains what is in accordance with the specifically human goals of life and with the common requirements for humane existence. The Church’s moral teaching, therefore, rests upon reason, first, but reason as most clearly understood in the light of Scripture and tradition. Or as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “Grace does not destroy but rather perfects nature.”
Good deeds do not earn us salvation. Rather good deeds are a natural response to God’s free and unelicited gift of grace to man in Christ. God gives grace freely in the first instance. Thereafter God calls his people to cooperate with his grace by “a godly, righteous, and sober life” (BCP, p. 6). The Church’s moral teaching is meant to help people respond to God’s initiative for their salvation. Morality is a secondary, though vital, consequence of the Christian Faith.
All human beings with the use of reason, except for some kinds of insane persons, have a general moral sense, which one may call conscience. In addition all persons make practical judgements, again often called acts of conscience, concerning the rightness or wrongness of their actions. Humans are always obliged to do what they believe to be right, since to do otherwise would be to do what they believe is wrong. It is, therefore, never safe to disobey one’s own conscience. However, conscience, although it must always be followed, is not objectively infallible. A right conscience is one that is properly informed and that is attentive to the appropriate laws or rules governing a particular act.
Following one’s conscience does not excuse from sin if the agent has failed or refused to do his best to see to it that his conscience is rightly informed. The Christian’s duty is to consider the morality of his actions carefully and to attempt to inform himself concerning the circumstances and laws that properly should govern those actions. However, if one has attempted to inform oneself and to follow the proper laws as best one understands them, then he has acted conscientiously and without moral fault or subjective sin, even if his act is actually and objectively wrong.
Life and Death
God is the “Lord and Giver of life” (Nicene Creed). The right to life is the most fundamental human right, since without it no other right can be enjoyed or exercised in this world. God alone, therefore, has the right to take innocent human life. For this reason the Church ‘has universally upheld the sanctity of human life, and…this Church continues to condemn the wilful, intentional, and direct taking of innocent human life’ (Canons of the ACC: Title XV, Canon 2). This is the most basic rule governing all life and death issues: it is always wrong to will directly the death of an innocent human being.
Thus murder, which is by definition the wrongful taking of an innocent life, is obviously condemned. Suicide is similarly seen as a violation of this rule. The fact that the life being taken is one’s own does not change the evil of directly willing to take innocent human life. If one is guilty of some crime, and does not consider himself innocent and deserving of life, then he must let the civil magistrate or God consider his case and impose punishment, if appropriate. It is not just for a man to be judge in his own case, even if he is inclined to condemn himself.
The Anglican Catholic Church teaches, as the Church has always taught in conformity with Scripture, that genital sexual acts are only licit and moral within the context of monogamous heterosexual marriage. For Christians the physical act of sexual intercourse has a kind of sacramental character. That is, it is an outward and visible sign, which expresses and deepens the inward and spiritual character of the sacrament of matrimony. Matrimony itself properly presupposes a lifelong, exclusive commitment for the ends of mutual comfort and support and for the procreation and nurture of children if that may be. Insofar as sexual acts fall outside this normative setting and commitment, they are disordered and wrong: they are outward signs of an underlying reality that is not present.
Sexual sins are by no means the worst sins. However, neither are they trivial, for sexuality is an important part of a person’s humanity and personality. While some society can probably be found somewhere that permits any given sexual practice, nevertheless, every known society has sexual rules, taboos, and norms. The idea that sexual acts are merely private is wrongheaded, for sexual acts and attitudes have profound social consequences. The Church and state both quite properly have an interest in seeing that individuals are taught and encouraged to direct their sexual energies in positive, constructive channels.
The Christian in Society
The Church’s moral teaching includes principles that are both ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, and as a whole the Church’s teaching is outside the current political spectrum. For instance, the natural law as understood by the Church includes the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that in general things that can be done privately, rather than publicly, should be left private, while things that must be done publicly should be done by the lowest level of public authority that is practical and efficient. This principle might well seem to be ‘conservative’ in the modern political scheme. The Church’s moral teaching also holds that the right to private property is qualified by the higher demands of the public good. This principle might well seem to be ‘liberal’.
In general, however, the Church’s concern is for the salvation of souls and the promotion of “true religion and virtue.” Modern regimes are not generally organized around any particular vision of true religion or virtue, but rather around instrumental, secondary goods (such as economic prosperity or liberty). It is not clear that such a truncated political vision is desirable or can long endure. While the Church does not endorse contending political candidates or parties, the Church’s moral teaching at times might well have political and even partisan implications. Some of these teachings are discussed in brief under the links located at the right. In modern democracies, it is up to the individual believer to determine which party or candidates best conform to the teachings of the Church.