The Giving and Taking of Life: Essays Ethical

_ by James Turnstead Burchtaell _ University of Notre Dame Press, 324 pages, $29.95

A powerful truth, pressed too far, may finally mislead. That, or something like it, seems to me the right way to describe this book. The essays gathered in this volume are insightful and passionate, and Burtchaell writes with an eloquence that is all too rare. But the systematic underlying thesis” which must be distinguished from the many individual insights” finally does not persuade.

The reader will find here essays discussing the way in which moral issues ought to be decided within the Church (and lengthy discussions of several examples from Roman Catholic history), early Christian views on abortion, Christian attitudes toward marriage and children, and the role of believers in public life. Along with such classical topics, the reader will also find essays dealing with a variety of recent concerns: terrorism, liberation theology, the use of tissue from aborted fetuses for research purposes. On any of these questions one can learn a great deal from Burchtaell, and on some of them” e.g., marriage, the ethos of the early church”his insights are clearly the fruit of years of reflection.

I will, however, focus attention not on the varied insights hut on the central argument that runs throughout. This argument makes a claim with respect to both the method and the norm of moral argument. Normatively, Burtchaell contends that an act is good or bad because of what it does to us, how it affects and shapes our character. Methodologically, he contends that the normative judgments reached by the church are “discernments” made by the entire believing community rather than “decisions” imposed by those in positions of special authority. The believing community has a long enough memory to understand what actions do to us over time.

Obviously, the claim about method is directed most immediately to Burtchaell’s fellow pilgrims within the body of Roman Catholicism, and I would not presume to instruct them about what that body does or does not need. He argues that there is a variety of special roles within the believing community: the cleric (who convenes and presides over the community, guiding it toward discernment); the scholar (who undertakes constructive reflection on behalf of the community); and the prophet (who challenges and extends the church’s vision). Each of these roles is essential for moral discernment within the community, but none has trump and none can pull rank. Finally, it is always the community itself that is in the process of learning to discern moral truth: “the title to ownership of the tradition is communal, never private.” Burtchaell illustrates this process of discernment, and the snags it may encounter, through lengthy discussion of three examples: the gradual development of the concept of a “saint”; the slow process by which the Knights of Labor came to be accepted by the Roman Church, despite the Knights’ commitment to secrecy and ritual; and the controversy in recent decades surrounding birth control.

In each of these examples Burchtaell seems to favor the insights of the laity as well as “pastoral” rather than “authoritarian” approaches from the church hierarchy. How far down that road he wishes to go”what he would make, for example, of opinion polls that suggest that many members of the believing community hold more permissive views than he does on abortion”I do not know. But the problem with arguments based on communal discernment is that each age adds its own chapter to the community’s memory hank and thereby changes the whole. For example, Burtchaell clearly believes that the community (if not its hierarchy) has rightly begun to see that sex without babies”contraception”is sometimes a g thing. Bui he may be less pleased if its corollary turns out to be what we are now beginning to witness: babies without sex, and the desire for a perfect baby.

The kind of story of communal discernment that Burtchaell wishes to tell is inherently open-ended; yet there are issues he does not want lo leave open. Moreover, if this gradual process of discernment is not actively shaped by authoritative teaching and teachers, it will be subject to more spirits than the one termed “Holy” by Christians. It will be shaped in large measure by the surrounding cultural context.

The memory tank of the believing community has countless options within it, and it is hard to say how or why any one of them should be privileged. Perhaps the Pope who did not take the advice of his own commissioners on the subject of contraception had a clearer grasp than they did of the central thread in the community’s memory. I am not certain how one decides or whether Burtchaell’s method helps us decide. What I am certain of, however, is that a serious dose of the “believing community” in some of its Protestant versions might make Burtchaell less sanguine. In part, of course, this is simply an old story: Catholics think a church without a heavy-handed magisterium looks alluring; Protestants think a church with some semblance of order and authority would be positively refreshing. But the more serious point is this: If there is a process of discernment that is important in the life of the church, may there not also be a time for authoritative decision? A time for participation but also a time for obedience?

In all of C. .S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia my favorite character is the dwarf Trumpkin. In Prince Caspian, when he and the children are trying to decide on a course of action, Trumpkin’s view is overruled by the High King Peter. And Trumpkin then, in turn, agrees to undertake a mission in which he does not believe and against which he has advised. He does so simply because the High King commands. “You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s the time for orders.” If Burtchaell’s vision of the slow process of discernment within the community has its appeal, so does Trumpkin’s willingness to bend the knee, even to human authority. He is far from docile”but he is obedient.

Still more interesting is Burtchaell’s normative claim: the good is that which causes us to flourish: the bad that which causes us to wither. He illustrates the substance of this argument by suggesting how the earliest church accepted and then expanded upon a fourfold moral commitment that it found in Judaism. In Judaism there was the commitment to care for the widow . . . extended by the church to prohibit a husband from divorcing his wife. In Judaism there was a commitment to care for the pauper . . . extended by the church to care for the slave and, eventually, to erode the moral basis of slavery. In Judaism there was a commitment to care for the stranger . . . extended by the church in its requirement of love for the enemy. In Judaism there was a commitment to care for the orphan . . . extended by the church to include the infant, whether newborn or unborn.

Burtchaell carries the argument still further, suggesting that out of these commitments have grown four movements integrally related to each other: (1) for equality of men and women; (2) for relief from bondage”whether of poverty or racial subjection; (3) for world peace; and (4) for the rescue of children from abortion, infanticide, and abuse. This is, in effect, Burtchaell’s own version of a consistent ethic of life, since he contends that these must he held together. “Christians, possibly more than others, should immediately recognize that these various struggles are in alliance with each other. None can be pitted against another.” In part, this is his attempt to demonstrate how integral to the Christian moral vision is opposition to abortion”that such opposition is “no primitive and narrow dogma that a more sophisticated church has now outgrown.”

Nevertheless, like all such attempts at a consistent ethic of life, it overlooks important features of morality. It implies, for example, that opposition to abortion cannot be consistent apart from opposition to war (pacifism). But the very same love that moves one to try to protect a helpless fetus might lead one to defend an equally helpless fellow citizen. We need to recognize that love may sometimes have to take on an “alien” form in order to serve the needs of the weak and helpless.

If Burtchaell does not see that, it is because his moral vision does not, in fact, place the needs of the weak and helpless at its center. Pride of place goes to the agent’s moral flourishing. What our action does to others is specifically termed “secondary.” “Our primary moral concern must be: How do certain courses of behavior tend to make us thrive or induce us to wither . . . personally, spiritually, in our character, our self?”

p> There is considerable moral wisdom in Burtchaell’s claim. If we are unable to see his point, we may never be able to say “no” to any action that promises to serve human wellbeing. We will become nothing but utilitarian calculators of consequences, or, put more religiously, we will sell our souls in the name of serving others. But our souls belong to God”that is why we ought not sell them for good results. And the problem with Burtchaell’s formulation is that it too readily suggests that our souls be- long to ourselves”that what counts is simply our flourishing. But we flourish when we learn to he obedient to the will of God, and, we may recall, that is a theme Burtchaell does not like to sound.

Because he does not, Burtchaell’s claims sometime seem”to me at least”to lack persuasive force. He fails to see how hidden may be the rewards of virtue. Christian ethics will always suffer from the tension between two principles: loving service to those in need, and obedience to God (which may mean that some forms of “service” are forbidden even when they might relieve need). But Burtchaell bypasses each of these and places the flourishing of the self at the heart of his thinking. He often writes as if the statement “a good man cannot be harmed” were not a paradox, as if it were obvious for all to see. I am ready to affirm with him that we can flourish as moral beings only when we act virtuously . . . as long as he is willing to say much more clearly than he does that this flourishing may often be hidden entirely under the cross, visible only to faith and not to sight.

Lacking such an affirmation, Burtchaell’s assertions are bound to seem unconvincing at times. Consider, for example, the following:

How does the community evaluate any kind of act as good or evil? By seeing what that action does to us. The gospel, for instance, cues us about wealth: wealth carries a high risk. Taking the tip, the community takes a long look at the affluent and develops an even more trenchant and shareable conviction that few of us are strong enough to survive wealth. The same with marijuana, dictatorship, red-lining, slavery, embezzlement, and child abuse. If we share or if we dispute the received ethical assessments of such activities, it is primarily because of our own moral appraisal of what they do to people; most of all, to those who engage in them.

That such activities harm the character of their perpetrators I shall not dispute, and Burtchaell’s argument is therefore to be taken seriously. But I find myself unable to suppose that we learn best whether it is wrong to bake an infant in an oven by considering whether sue h action causes the flourishing or the withering of the one who does it. Whatever we may say of morality in general, we certainly miss what is central in Christian love if we place our own self-realization at the heart of the moral life, as Burtchaell does.

This feature of his ethic leads Burtchaell to suggest that women who abort their fetuses are themselves the true victims. And, again, his claim is not without an important element of truth. But it ceases to persuade when pressed in the way Burtchaell does. He gathers together in one paragraph as examples of victimizers who are actually victims drug dealers, rapists, pathological prison guards, and women who procure abortions. In the next sentence these women are described as “desperate or autistic.” There is a sense in which, from the perspective of eternity, his claim is accurate. It is the sense in which any sin, embraced with a whole heart, sets our foot on the path to the never-ending autism which Christians call hell. Along the way, however, to an eternal destination our loves are usually divided, and we seldom embrace either good or evil with a whole heart. Perhaps some women who seek abortions are moved simply by anger that another life should seem to limit their own. But others may be trying to affirm something good”their hopes and dreams for their life”while choosing a wrong means to that good end. They should not be compared to rapists or described as autistic. They should not even, in the first instance, he told that they will wither if they kill their fetus. Such language can only accentuate their attempts to make themselves secure. Rather, they should be told that, by God’s grace, they are eternally secure. Cared for, they are free to care for others. Thus, the problem with Burtchaell’s characterizations is not only that they are demeaning: it is that they direct attention to the already inset the self rather than to the God who loves that needy self, and to the neighbor whom we are called to love.

At this point, in a discussion of one of Burtchaell’s particular claims, his larger thematic concerns about norm and method in moral argument intersect. He believes, I think, that if we show how moral claims are connected to our own flourishing”if we do this rather than issuing obiter dicta (or, even, oracles from the Lord)”we will encourage discernment more acceptable to people than simple acceptance of authoritative decisions. I do not wish to underestimate what he is attempting; it is always good to try to make sense of the moral life, see its point and understand its connections. But the irony is that this method may prove far less persuasive than Burtchaell hopes. His claims about women who seek abortions do not, for example, persuade. At least they have not worked at all on the students before whom I have placed them. Perhaps a different norm, which placed the neighbor’s flourishing rather than my own at the center, and a different method, which made place for obedience to authority, might work as well or better.

But apart from such strategic issues, we have not fully understood the moral life”and certainly have not fully comprehended Christian moral vision ” until we put the cross at its center, until we realize that virtue may not always seem to lead to flourishing. Burtchaell may be right to suggest that flourishing also has its part and that something is wrong if we fail to see this. But such failure is as nothing compared with the failure of a morality that could make no place for the nobility of Trumpkin.


Gilbert Meilander is Professor of Religion at Oberlin College and the author of The Limits of Love.