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.
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