Free Delivery within Ireland

The Call to be Human

Making Sense of Morality

Author(s): Vincent MacNamara

ISBN13: 9781847302137

ISBN10: 1847302130

Publisher: Veritas Publications (1 Mar. 2010)

Extent: 240 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 13.7 x 2 x 21.1 cm

Bookmark and Share
  • Concerned with the notions of morality that Christians have inherited, Vincent MacNamara revisits a topic he wrote about in his widely used and much loved The Truth in Love. Going to the heart of the matter of morality and situating it in the call to be human, MacNamara here displays a sympathetic understanding of the human condition and the demands of modern life.

  • Vincent MacNamara

    Vincent MacNamara is a well-known theologian and lecturer. He has taught Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth; Trinity College Dublin, the Gregorian University, Rome; and the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy.

  • Be the first to review this product

    When initially invited to review this work on ethics by a renowned moral theologian from Maynooth, I feared that it might be very technical and full of jargon. In the event I found it to be an accessible yet profound reflection on the context in which we make moral decisions in our modern world. It has the general reader very much in mind. In The Call to be Human, Vincent MacNamara is concerned with the notions of morality that Christians have inherited and so revisits some of the issues examined in his previous very popular work The Truth in Love. He states that despite many demands to reprint this book he felt that a new response was required.


    As the title suggests, MacNamara begins with a reflection on what it is to be human. He acknowledges that all people have to make ethical decisions including those whom he terms "religiously unmusical." This, for MacNamara, is not a pejorative term. Indeed he acknowledges that some of the most important movements of moral progress have been initiated and inspired by those who were not religious, or were even anti-religious. McNamara claims that all of us are on a moral journey by virtue of our humanity but that we should be aware of the different "scaffoldings of value", which have influenced the way life is lived now and in the past.


    From this starting point McNamara then moves on to examine what role religious belief in general, and the Christian faith in particular, may have in forming a moral consciousness. He states that moral claims should never be short-circuited by attaching them to religion, saying that where religion is narrowed to a moral code it is emptied of much that is valuable. He is critical of certain developments in moral theology within the Roman Catholic tradition and in particular the overemphasis on the confession box. He asks, "How did we get from the spring flower of the New Testament to the sick worry of the confessional?" Christian morality is not just about personal salvation or reward for good behaviour; it is much bigger than that. In stating this he also poses a challenge to some within the Protestant traditions who have at times got into a similar cul de sac. However MacNamara is all too aware of the tiresome practice of taking easy pot shots at failures, so he doesnt overplay his hand on this.


    In chapters 6 and 7, the analysis moves on to the role of scripture as a frame of reference for our moral thinking and practice. An open and imaginative approach to the Bible is advocated here rather than a narrow appeal to biblical directives. For MacNamara, quoting scripture, important though it may be, should never be at the expense of the hard slog of moral argument. He holds before us a broad vision of Christian ethics that sees morality as much wider than official church statements or practice.


    He is also critical of those who would bypass scripture and the traditional teachings of the Church to replace it with a vague concept of love as the only acceptable yardstick in ethics. While love is absolutely central, he recommends caution with this slippery concept. When situation ethicists urge that "all you need is love", he asks do they mean to act in love, with love, for love or with a feeling of love? He notes that people are not constructed to be happy in a world of complete self-centredness. For Christians engaged in moral decision-making, MacNamara suggests that it is Jesus Christ who points to both their possibilities and their responsibilities.


    The authors analysis of the predicament facing contemporary society is particularly pertinent. He notes that sometimes a chasm appears between what is legal and therefore legitimate and what is moral. At a time when many of the traditional pillars of society are under scrutiny, he states that people are rightly critical of institutions where there is a gap between their claims and practice. MacNamara is optimistic about the future, saying that he has heard more mention of the common good in recent months than for a long time.


    The Call to be Human is an encouraging book. The author holds before us a broad vision of ethics and points to anthropology, cosmology, psychology and other spiritual traditions as well as the arts as providing fertile ground to help us in our moral quest. He maintains that they can give us fresh insights into the doctrine of creation and how we understand ourselves in relation to Gods all encompassing love as revealed in Jesus Christ. He holds before us a vision of a more patient church which is sensitive to difference, tentative in judgement, wary of absolutes and more ready to honour individuality. He wants to move away from a "fortress church" of threats and edicts, and finds a particular resonance in the writer John McGaherns image of a church of spires and brilliant windows that go towards love and light.


    As MacNamara draws this thought-provoking book to a close, he longs for a genuinely open and moral society where all contributions can be heard. "Lectures or talks or books wont do it: indeed they may only distract us in mistaking information for transformation. It is easy to talk the talk. There is a difference between learning about virtue and practising it." We are fortunate to have books such as this that can make a real contribution to this end.


     - Adrian Wilkinson, Search, Volume Thirty Four, Number One, Spring 2011


    MacNamara has taught moral theology at St Patricks College, Maynooth, Trinity College Dublin, the Gregorian University in Rome and the Milltown Institute in Dublin. His previous book, The Truth in Love, published in 2004, also dealt with the issue of Christians and morality. He examines the moral absolutes of right and wrong laid down by the church, what it actually says in the Bible. MacNamara discusses these issues from the perspective of the practising Christian, asking if it is possible to be a moral agent and what moral laws can one respect. His conclusion is that morality, in the sense of showing concern for others and doing the right thing, is part of being human and that Christian morality is equivalent to the innate human condition. MacNamara writes in a simple style intended to appeal to the layman.

    - Books Ireland, Summer 2010

    What is morality? What does it mean to act morally? These vital questions are considered and seriously addressed in this thought- provoking book.

    Vincent MacNamara is a well known theologian and lecturer in Moral Theology. The Call to be Human is an apt title for this book because the author situates morality at the core of humanity. It is an essential part of what it means to be a human being.

    Its worth quoting him at length: I remember how struck I was when I first heard Herbert McCabe say that being moral is doing what you most want to do. That goes against nearly everything we ever learned. If it sounds strange, it is because we do not know ourselves and our deep desires. If we care about being human beings we have to give time to mulling over questions like: what is in my heart of hearts; what would count as success; what is it that gives me most joy and sense of wholesomeness; when am I at peace with myself? It is a matter of wisdom, of coming to know what our real interests are. We will find that we are not just about having or winning, about something added to us externally, so to speak, like fame, or wealth or popularity. That is not ultimately satisfactory. If we follow the truth, what we gain is something internal to us-fulfilment, goodness, happiness, if happiness involves for us some idea of an enriched humanness and a meaningful existence.

    True morality

    I have always believed that there is morality and the transcendental or there is, in fact, no true morality at all. The very existence of objective moral values presupposes a transcendent dimension.

    For example, I could never quite understand why the atheist writers Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus opposed such evils as Nazism and racialism with such passion since neither of them believed in objective moral values. For the atheist life has no ultimate meaning. Without objective moral values, the Nazi and the racialist could defend themselves on purely subjective grounds.

    Indeed, the atheist also denies the essential freedom of the will, without which morality is totally meaningless. Atheism suggests that we are nothing more than determined robots acting under the illusion of freedom.

    In his excellent book, The Unconscious God, the Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl writes: If I am the servant of my conscience, then I may ask whether this conscience has not to be something other than I myself; might it not be something higher than he who merely perceives its voice? In other words, I cannot be the servant of my conscience unless I understand conscience as a phenomenon transcendent of man.

    The self cannot be its own lawgiver from whom an inescapable sense of ought comes. So, morality cannot be just a matter of personal taste. It isnt some kind of quasi-aesthetic judgment, like the statement, Oranges are nicer than apples.

    Vincent MacNamara writes: No, we believe that there is what we might call an objectivity about such statements. You would not blame someone for not liking cucumber or tomato, but you would blame them for espousing cruelty or torture or the abuse of children, or being callous about people dying of hunger.

    We believe that there is a truth to be discovered here, a truth for living that is as rigorous as truth in any other area, and that judgments we are making are somehow founded in the natures and relations of things. We would expect to be able to give reasons of some kind for our positions, to justify them. Or, at least, we feel that they are justifiable, that someone who was good at understanding the human situation and was articulate could demonstrate the reasonableness of them.

    I dont think you would settle for saying well, it was fine if they felt that cruelty or torture or abuse was OK? I dont think so - you would have to deal with Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot and many of the great crimes of history if you followed that line. There is something here that has a validity, that is undeniable, whatever people think.

    Vincent MacNamara considers various aspects of morality and what precisely is meant by morality. This book will focus the mind and make you think.

    - Anthony Redmon, The Irish Catholic 27th May 2010


    I think we can dive right into the subject. Morality is not a foreign country. We all know a lot about it. It constantly surfaces in our conversations. People argue about inequalities in our health or educational system, about same-sex marriage, about war, about the treatment of immigrants, about the bonuses of bankers, about the waste of public money, about abortion, about the welfare of children, about the failure of bishops. They write letters to the papers. They demonstrate, they sign petitions. They dont always use the traditional moral language of right and wrong. They say that certain pieces of conduct or ways of behaving or institutions are outrageous or unacceptable or inhuman or indefensible. Or, on the other hand, they claim that they have a moral right to certain kinds of treatment or an entitlement to certain benefits.

    We are right to talk and argue about such things. It is because we have a sense of the moral dimension of the call to be human life that we do so. It is to such that we are appealing. After all, why should anyone listen to you or engage with you or take you seriously when you talk or write about rights or obligations or injustice or unfairness? We certainly expect them to listen; we think we are justified. There is some kind of unspoken common ground on which we depend, to which we can appeal. It is an acknowledgment of the moral point of view. It seems to be true that we cannot describe how life presents itself to us, we cannot have a society, without recourse to some of the language of right wrong, good, bad, duty, obligation, ought, praise, blame, as well as much moral language of a softer kind , unacceptable, not the decent thing.

    So it seems to be part of our humanness, of our intelligence, to take this for granted. We may have trouble nailing it down. We may be only able to assert it, to say that we know that there are things that are right and wrong but not go much further in the way of explaining it, or accounting for it, or spelling out its implications. But we do seem to regard it as entirely natural to accept it. So we know a great deal and that is the best place to begin any discussion of morality , with ourselves and our spontaneous ideas and judgments, with what we do and expect. I think you would agree that, when we make moral statements, we do not think that we are merely expressing our tastes: they are not in the same category as statements such as I like science fiction, or Indian cinema, or spaghetti bolognese, or the Connemara landscape, and dont like cucumber or modern architecture. It is perfectly alright for you to like one thing and for me to like another. Such things do not greatly matter; there is no right and wrong or true and false about them. But there are areas of life in which it matters a great deal what we value and do , issues of a persons right to life, of justice, of respect, of cruelty, of hunger, of political corruption, of banking scandals, of child abuse, i.e. moral issues. We are not prepared to say that in making statements about such matters we are merely expressing a subjective point of view and that it is perfectly fine for someone else to hold and act on the opposite point of view.


    No, we believe that there is what we might call an objectivity about such statements. You would not blame someone for not liking cucumber or tomato but you would blame them for espousing cruelty or torture or the abuse of children, or being callous about people dying of hunger. We believe that there is a truth to be discovered here, a truth for living that is as rigorous as truth in any other area, and that the judgments we are making are somehow founded in the natures and relations of things. We would expect to be able to give reasons of some kind for our positions, to justify them. Or, at least, we feel that they are justifiable, that someone who was good at understanding the human situation and was articulate could demonstrate the reasonableness of them. I dont think you would settle for saying well, it was fine if they felt that cruelty or torture or abuse was OK? I dont think so , you would have to deal with Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot and many of the great crimes of history if you followed that line. There is something here that has a validity, that is undeniable, whatever people think.

    Can we develop this a bit more? We use the words wrong or right, but if you were challenged to say what you mean by them, what would you say? What does it mean to you to say that something is wrong? Why do we feel justified in appealing to it or expecting others to take it seriously? Or if someone says to you, you cannot do that, it is wrong, where does the cannot come from? I dont mean now what kinds of acts are wrong, but what do you mean by saying that anything is wrong? Does it mean for you, for example, that it is forbidden by God or forbidden by the ten commandments , you know how often you have heard people condemn a crime by saying that it is a crime against the sacred and inviolable law of God. That may have its place. There was a time when most people would give that answer, but less and less people would give that answer today. (And theyd be right, but more about that in chapter five.)

    I suspect that people today would explain what they mean by appealing to such rock-bottom notions as harm, or fairness, or impartiality, or justice, or respect for self and others, or by talk about rights, or by concern for a just society. Or talk about what kind of life is fitting or appropriate for human beings. These are related ideas. What they all imply is that you are going beyond mere assertion. You are not saying arrogantly, Well, it is wrong and that is the end of it, or it is wrong because my church says so, or it is wrong because that is what I feel about it, or it is wrong because it is wrong. You are getting into a deeper question, the why question , why do I say this is wrong? You are reaching back beyond mere assertion to something more fundamental in human life. You are trying to give reasons that have to do with your sense , and you hope everyone elses sense , of what it means to be a human being. So you would be pushing things back a bit and saying that it is wrong because , because it is harmful, or discriminatory, or lacking in respect, or cruel, or is bad for society, or denies anothers rights, or makes no human sense, or whatever. And you would expect people to understand that and acknowledge it , at least to understand what you are getting at. This is our moral experience.

    So we seem to have a vision, a sense of what being human in the world involves. And more precisely what being human in the world with others involves. We are naturally social animals and the actions that we judge to be naturally right and just are not right and just in some abstract universe but in human society, in the interface with others. So morality begins with what is , with our sense of what it means to be a human being with others in society, and not an orangutan or a cow. It is founded on that. There is some notion here of what is a characteristically human life, a worthwhile life, or a fulfilled life, or, in a deep and considered sense of that word, a happy life. There is involved a sensitivity to the reality of being a human being, to its basic desires or dynamic, some sense of potential, of human evolvution.


    Well, thats where our morality begins. But let us pursue it a bit further. When we look at our spontaneous moral statements or concerns , justice for all, honesty in government, an end to discrimination etc. , we can see that they are about what human beings need for their well-being. What that involves is arrived at by our experience of living, our common experience of human needs and interests. Morality is not a matter of arcane laws. It is an understanding of what is good or fulfilling or growth-making for people , and that is the only justification any society or institution or church can have for promoting it. We all have ideas about that, and so we should. Your mother might tell you that vegetables are good for you, or fresh air, or exercise , and that too much drink is bad for you and that drugs will ruin your life. It is that kind of thing. The terms right and good are often used loosely , and often interchangeably , for the moral life. Strictly, however, good is factual: it refers to what will bring about our flourishing or wholeness , understanding, for example, the importance to us of security, friendship, freedom, self-esteem, privacy, sex, leisure, and so on. Right more strictly refers to what to do; it rests on our human sense that what is truly good for us is to be followed, that it is the only thing that makes sense.

    If you were to ask people around you what humans need for a fulfilled life, you would probably get a fair amount of agreement. Off the top of their heads they might mention all sorts of trivial things , because we are not always wise. But if you could sit them down and have them reflect, or meet them in decisive moments, it might be different. If only I could get rid of the pain, if only we had a place to live, if only my husband would give up the drink, if only my child would give up drugs, if only I had peace of mind, if only I had a friend, someone to talk to, if only I didnt feel so depressed about myself, if only we had peace and freedom in our country , you might hear that kind of thing. Such situations drive us back to what is vital for us. If, then, we have an awareness of the needs of our human nature, we can know the direction of moral life, we can have some idea of how we ought to live together. It will be in the direction of what will enable our needs to be met , or what kind of society will enable it. A society that is fair, that protects the young and the vulnerable, that cares for the less fortunate, that nourishes us educationally and culturally, that makes it possible for us to make a living, to live in peace and security, to participate politically, to be free to pursue our convictions, and so on. These are things we consider worthwhile: they are worth pursuing and hoping for.

    They are values for us. It is relatively easy to have this general sense of the direction of satisfactory living. It is much more difficult to settle on the more precise demands and that is where much of the argument occurs. (As in most matters, some are better at this than others: they have a better sense of the needs and possibilities of the human person. They have grown in wisdom. And some are simply good at being human.) But well come to that in chapters four, ten and eleven.


    This kind of concern for how we need to live together is an abiding fact in our history and literature. In all cultures and at all times, men and women have had their moral codes. They may differ about what is right and wrong. They may differ about how they arrive at their conclusions. They may have only analogous notions of morality. It may sometimes be difficult to disentangle it from other kinds of rules in their society, for example, religious or ritual rules, or conventions of etiquette. But they have had no doubt that some kinds of act, purpose and intention are right and the opposite wrong , some kinds of conduct to be accepted or praised, the opposite to be frowned upon and blamed, and perhaps not tolerated in society. The details of their positions on life, justice, fairness, community, sexuality, may differ from culture to culture and from age to age , we will see why later, and see problems to which this gives rise. But it is striking that there is enough broad agreement among different cultures and traditions to permit a document like the UN Declaration of Human Rights to lay out for all peoples what kind of conduct is acceptable, and how all human beings should be treated in matters of justice, life and so on. That document stands as a beacon against all forms of arbitrariness and abuse. It is saying that life cannot be arbitrarily lived, any old way we like, and that people cannot be arbitrarily treated. Why? Because of a deep conviction, which it trusts is shared by all peoples, that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It rests on this conviction of the inviolable quality of humans and their needs. It recognises that this is something deeper than and prior to agreements between governments. This acknow ledgment by our intelligence, or soul, or humanness, is the lynchpin of society.

    The Declaration is in the line of great classic statements down through the ages. We have it in philosophical and religious texts. But it is a constant also in the worlds great literature , the struggle of right and wrong, of goodness and badness in living. But we dont need to go back through the ages: we have recent examples. How come we can agree to have international courts of justice and rights? To what do they appeal. Strikingly, when they arraign those who are charged with war crimes, even when they were committed under the duress of state directives, the courts have recourse to the language of crimes against humanity. Their judgments are based on the authority of a moral order that the human spirit recognises as overriding all other authority. It points to the inner nature and source of morality. To its inescapable humanness. To the fact that it is difficult to be an intelligent human being and deny it.

    There are anomalies, of course. Moral awareness can be dimmed and can fade. If we are morally careless over time, then the demand of our moral being loses its sharpness. We can silence remorse for our wrongdoing. That happens. What is more disturbing is to find someone who never had any moral sense, for whom the moral dimension of life is a complete blank, someone who sees nothing wrong in any of the moral evils that revolt the generality. One, who not merely approves or enjoys or condones wrongdoing, but cannot grasp what conceivable objection anyone could have to, let us suppose, torturing people for fun. Such a one is, sadly, an emotional cripple who does not have the equipment for a full human life. Acceptance of some fundamental notion of morality enters into our conception of a normal human being.

    In doing morality, then, we are concerning ourselves with one of the great questions of life: what does it mean to be a human being, a person; how is one to live? It is a question that arises spontaneously for us and that has troubled humankind from the beginning. It is not something that we make but rather something that we find and to which our human nature tells us we must attend. Neither is it something that we can easily manipulate; the normal person feels the pinch of remorse if it is ignored; in this sense it is something greater than ourselves. Some speak about it as having a sacred character , so, for example, you hear talk about the sacred character of human life. I take that to mean that it is perceived and experienced as something of the deepest importance and dignity, something overriding other considerations, something which we must respect or pay the price of knowing that we have not been true to ourselves, that we have denied our soul, that we have failed in our deepest core. Morality is not the servant of our desires and interests, but their judge. We cannot commandeer it into our service.


    We might think of the moral codes of the world as the result of this engagement of the human race from the beginning. It is a continuing, delicate and fragile search. Any society can get it wrong. Every society will probably agree that past conclusions were mistaken or need to be modified. Many societies will not only fine-tune what they received from earlier generations. They will change the weight and importance they give to one piece of morality or immorality over another. Think of the wellworn examples of slavery or of the status of women , Plato, Aristotle and St Paul would probably have told you that it was part of the natural law that some are born slaves and some free or that women are inferior to men. Think, too, of how our own societies have developed , its relatively recent acknowledgment of our moral obligation to people with a disability, travellers, immigrants, those born out of wedlock, people in second relationships, those facing repossession of their homes. Think of issues like capital punishment, pre-marital sex, international trade, equal pay, the environment. At the very least there has been a change of emphasis. One could think of the whole of humanity slowly and painfully trying to work out over the ages what it means to live satisfactorily together. In a sense it is true to say that we make our morality. At least we discover it. But discovery here is not like finding something readymade. We have to work at it, to figure out what is best for humanity. And that calls for sensitivity.

    Who is to say, people often ask. Who is to say what is right and wrong? Who is to decide whether a particular position or movement is an instance of greater moral insight, or the opposite , lets say IVF, or assisted suicide, or democracy, or liberal capitalism? Some find it difficult to accept that moral wisdom depends on our fallible minds. But that is how it is. It is no more likely that we will have certainty here than about anything else that is important , psychology, philosophy, medicine. Even the much lauded science is now seen as a matter of probabilities or hypotheses. And we are largely ignorant of important issues of faith: we know so little about God, or about life after death. If we do not know the answers to many of the problems in these areas, why should we expect to know all about morality? You could consult your tradition or your elders. You would be foolish to ignore that. But how do or did they know? Together, we have to do the best we can. There is nobody to go to, at least nobody except our fellow human beings. There is only the age-old search of humankind to listen to its deepest inspirations. Aristotle would have told you to go to the wise person, and that is helpful advice, if you could recognise one!

    We see divisions daily between those who are happy to see society in this state of continuing search and discovery , in the area of morals as in every other area , and those who see morality as settled and handed down, perhaps by God, and given to institutions like the church to defend. For the second group, questions about morality are non-questions: all has been determined. Their fear is that questioning will lead to carelessness, that a precious heritage will be lost, and that the structure of church and society will be weakened. Respect for ones heritage is commendable. But morality is more fundamental than that: there is room for and need for thoughtful questioning. The chasm between the two approaches makes dialogue difficult and is often the source of disagreement on particular issues.

    It is not surprising that we disagree about what is right and wrong, about who is the good human being. We are making value-judgments. We disagree about more tangible things. Not everyone will agree on what is a good table or lawnmower or poem. About such things as the length of a table or poem we cannot escape agreement , just get your measuring-tape or count the lines. Thats easy. But with a good table we are in a different category. That requires some understanding on what tables are for, what they are meant to do. Still less will they agree on what is to count as a good cook or cabinet-maker or gardener, although that might be possible , again, what are they for, what are they meant to do or produce? And as for agreement on a good poem or painting! About a good man or woman we have even greater problems. That has to do not with a persons skills , cooking, cabinet-making, gardening , which might be in some way measurable. It seems to mean good at being human and that is a bit intangible. What are human beings for? What are they meant to be , if one can give sense to that expression? Who is the ideal human being? That is difficult. The meaning of life is much more difficult to discern than the meaning of a table or lawnmower or gardener. We do, however, have some basic sense of it and we should trust it.

    We may rejoice in our gift of a moral sense and in its enduring presence in human society. It gives hope to us all. But that is only half the story. Many of us feel burdened by it: it is an uncomfortable friend; we can resent its insistence in our lives. It makes demands on us. Those of us who belong to a church sometimes see it as imposed on us from outside, as something that we have had no say in, and may feel that we have been saddled with a strict and damaging version of it. So that it might be important to see morality as something arising within ourselves, as our own doing, as the call of our deepest and best self. As something that we all have a right to discuss. We need to take ownership of it. This book is meant to be an encouragement to do so. If our experience of it has been confined and dispiriting, if our picture of it has been largely negative, we have a task to lift morality out of its narrowness and give it its true space. It is good to remember that it is the gift of our moral sense that drives us to fight against apartheid, to rage at the abuse of children, to run marathons for good causes, to build houses in the developing world, to work with Meals on Wheels, to provide shelter for Aids victims, to be concerned about human trafficking, to visit childrens hospitals, and so on. It invites us to build a better world. There is a need for all of us to be ever questioning and wondering about our lives together. We might see ourselves on a journey to discover what our humanness is saying to us, what vision it is holding out to us, what is important and what not.
Availability: 9 in stock