Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Horizon of Faith

Religion Provides a Point of Reference for Ethical Decision Making

By Paul Fitzgerald, S.J.


When making ethical decisions, no one stands outside a social and cultural world. Each of us judges human reality according to a set of adopted and adapted moral criteria based on such factors as nationality, education, social class, professional occupation, and, of course, religious affiliation.

I am a member of the Roman Catholic Church. To be Catholic (or Lutheran or Jewish) is to inhabit a universe of meaning, as well as a religious community extended in time and space. To be in a faith tradition is to participate actively in a whole world of thought and action, of motive and image, of attraction and intuition.

Catholicism is a multicultural society bound together by a professed faith (the creed); a common baptism (as well as other sacraments); and an allegiance to Jesus Christ, whom we acknowledge as Lord. This fundamental identity determines, to a great extent, my approach to ethics. Although this article reflects my Catholic bias, the structure of the analysis is applicable to other traditions. With a few adjustments, the reader can conduct a comparable inventory of his or her faith-based ethical presuppositions and judgments, whether they are within or without an organized religion.

The Art of Choosing Well

Ethics has to do with our choices and actions, which form our character even as they express it. Ethics depends on that human habit of reflection that takes into account our interests and values-as well as those of others-in the process of deciding and doing. Since it calls on perceptive thought, analytical and intuitive reasoning, and prudential judgment, ethics is perhaps more art than science-the art of choosing well and wisely for the good of self and others.

Fortunately, we do not need to re-create the ethical wheel in every new situation. We systematize our ethical insights and share them with others, for we are inherently conservative creatures. (Imagine the chaos if we determined to do everything differently every day of our lives. I don't have such energy.)

A careful weighing of the practical outcomes of people's choices leads to the elucidation of moral norms. These are established and enforced by members of a social order because of their perceived truth and applicability for the common good. The handing on (tradere in Latin, hence tradition) of such moral law can be compared to a family's history: Much is different in each succeeding generation; yet, too, there is much continuity—not only hair and eye color or a family name but, more subtly, certain character traits and moral habits that combine to shape the pattern of our lives. For the human family, what remains most true on the ethical plane is the desire for happiness, community, love, and a general integrity of thought, word, and deed. What changes—today more radically than ever before—is the social context within which we strive for happiness.

In a world marked by rapid innovation, ethical judgments allow us to sift the evidence, name our values, and choose our means of achieving the best possible results. Established law does not afford an efficient answer to every moral quandary, precisely because new situations oblige us to imagine and enact new moral laws-or at least to make new applications of existing moral certitudes about such issues as the dignity of human life, the value of honesty and fairness, and the protection of the weak.

In this never-ending process, circumstances force us to choose between competing claims on our will. How do we orient ourselves in order to judge cases well? What ought we retrieve from the past? And under what form? This is where faith comes in.


To orient oneself means, literally, to turn to the East, where the sun rises, to get one's bearings. Faith serves the same purpose as the sun, in a figurative sense, in the practice of ethical judgment. Faith allows individuals and groups to search out the present good against a (relatively) stable backdrop.

Such reflection is dialogical, for just as the person stands in relationship to the dawn, so too the individual stands in relationship to faith. The believer is in dialogue with a community of similarly committed, like-minded people.

In turn, the community is in dialogue with a tradition: a corpus of texts and sacraments, ideas and art. G.K. Chesterton called tradition "democracy for the dead," by which he meant tradition keeps alive and active the best insights of previous generations.

Finally, theological ethics takes place in the context of the individual's and the community's relationship with God.

In the Christian tradition, we name the context of these relationships church, the house of the Lord. Like all healthy households, the church is (among other things) a place of discussion and debate about important matters-a place of learning from the mutual interchange of ideas and experiences.

A church provides a platform on which identity can be built-the identity of an individual in relationship with others and the identity of a group that transcends and grounds the individuals who constitute it.

The general experience of Christians is that they are called by God to join—or to take up adult membership in—a church, where they share in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, among which are prudence and judgment.

In the Catholic Church, prudential judgments are made against the horizon of our history, the memory of God's promise and our response. Scripture and tradition preserve this memory. They comprise two sources from which flows a broad, roiling current of wisdom concerning the nature of God, the world, and the human family.

Traces of the Creator

Faith-based ethics considers the moral challenges of our times against the background of those fundamental norms and values that undergird our Christian lives. The natural law tradition from Scholastic theology provides a means (among others) of placing these values in dialogue with new problems and new challenges.

[Paul Fitzgerald, S.J.]
Paul Fitzgerald, S.J.
Photo by Charles Barry

The great Scholastic Thomas Aquinas sought to harmonize religious tradition with scientific knowledge so both would be available to the rational believer. This philosophic effort rests on a basic belief about created reality: It is "very good." The world having been made by God, "traces of the Creator," the vestigia Dei, exist in all reality and are available to us through scientific investigation and reasoned reflection. For Thomas, that which is good is reasonable and vice versa. This is especially true in the realm of ethics.

When we reflect, the easy choices are between obvious good and evil. For example, we know calumny—or slander—is an assault on truth and human decency, so we avoid this behavior when we are mindful of its nature and effects.

Far more difficult are the choices between two apparent goods (e.g., just punishment vs. mercy, the protection of the environment vs. the creation of meaningful employment, the comfort of one's family vs. the plight of the destitute).

If our ethical reflections on such issues do not lead to action, then they are not worthy of the word religious, which comes either from religare, to reconnect, or from relegere, to reread. The latter indicates our need to develop a habit of careful reflection. The former evinces our desire to join all the seemingly disparate elements of life into one unified whole.

Faith is, in its most elemental and universal form, a trust in some absolute standard, some transcendent reality. Theistic faith is trust in God and is usually expressed in religious categories, an essential element of which is ethical behavior, a communal expression of the consequences of faith.

Good and Evil

At the heart of Christian faith is a radical insight into the goodness of God and a corresponding appreciation of the goodness of oneself, of all humanity, and of the whole of creation. But this epiphany also highlights our experience of evil. We suffer for various reasons (our own bad choices, the bad choices of others, or the imperfection of nature). We will die. These existential problems are not bypassed by faith; rather, they become unavoidable, especially as we try to make moral choices.

The Christian answer to suffering and death is located primarily in the person of Jesus. The God of nature and of human history is revealed and comes near us in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. By word and deed, Christ shows us that suffering is real, choice is crucial, and salvation is possible. We are called to see, to judge, and to act in a way that connects our faith to every dimension of our lives.

To choose faith is to opt for an ongoing relationship with God, with others, and with one's own self according to the dynamics of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. It is the acceptance of the radical burden of graced human freedom. It is, in an ethical context, to do good and to oppose evil in all its forms.

The Christian faith tradition is a theological horizon against which we ask the hardest questions of our lives, those having to do with truth, justice, and goodness: Who cares for me? What must I do to allow this life to become eternal? Who is my neighbor?

One of the most vexing things we encounter in our questioning is that the answers are not in the form we want. Jesus had an annoying habit of answering direct questions with stories about wheat fields, mustard seeds, and fishermen. Or he would wash the feet of his friends and break bread with the most hated members of his community.

These "answers" are vexing to us if we expect simple, immutable laws that free us from the hard work of ethical judgment. Yet, we know from experience that difficult questions rarely have easy answers. The questions endure; the answers, in their specificity, must be constantly reviewed and adjusted as life progresses.

We cannot fool ourselves into thinking we have understood everything-that we have arrived at clear and perfect knowledge of ourselves, our world, and our God. The institutionalized exclusion of certain persons, the shameful fact of destitution, the enduring practice of war-these are brute reminders we still have much to learn and difficult choices to make.

The Journey Toward a Just Society

Specifically in the context of North America at the end of this millennium, ethics informed by faith poses some vital questions. Take, for example, the question of wealth. A Christian worldview roots wealth in ideas and images associated with creation, promise, and blessing: God planted a garden; the promised land flowed with milk and honey; Jesus called some to voluntary self-impoverishment, others to wise stewardship and social responsibility.

What becomes clear is that we are social beings and that wealth has a positive role in the construction of a humane society. How we translate this faith vision into an ethical revision of the tax code is the hard work of free and responsible agents. Christianity does not provide a clear and detailed road map to a just society, but it does invite and encourage us to undertake the journey.

The horizon recedes before us as we progress. Try as we might, we can never fully realize our ideals. The frustration we feel can immobilize us, prompt us to choose instead an easier direction: expediency, pleasure, self-advancement.

Yet ethics thrives exactly where people choose to live in the tension between that which is and that which ought to be. A faith tradition not only illuminates a moral horizon toward which we strive, but also gives reason for the hope that the horizon is aiding our advance, that the Other is beckoning.

Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., is an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University.

Further Reading

Spohn, William C. What Are They Saying About Scripture and Ethics. N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1995.