David Dale observes that something strange has overtaken the world of Moral Theology

Something odd has happened in the field of moral theology. Certain issues are now deemed to be moral issues, but it is hard to see what sort of thing a moral issue is, or indeed if it is an issue with which the Church ought to be concerned, and if so in what way.

What, one might ask, is one meant to do about moral issues ? They are believed to be more important than moral questions, such as “is it wrong for me to steal?” – at least so the bishops of the Church of England seem to think. The moral issues which concern the bishops – and I list them in the importance given to them by the bishops – are:

1st= Unemployment and Environment, 3rd Third World, 4th Government and Politics, 5th Racial Disharmony, 6th Euthanasia, 7th Disarmament, 8th Abortion 9th Extra-Marital Affairs.

Homosexuality does not concern them except, of course, to urge the rightness of homosexual genital relationships for all, excluding priests.

What is at once clear is that we have here two different classes of concern. Unemployment, Environment, Third World, Government/ Politics, Racial Disharmony and Disarmament are clearly different from the rest. They are moral issues – which we will attempt to define in a moment. They lack the characteristics of a moral question which we can define relatively easily.

A moral question is addressed by, or to an individual moral agent in a particular situation (for example: Should I give to the poor? Is it right to kill this grievously sick person?) Now it is an aphorism of moral theology that “ought implies can.” A moral question, therefore, is a question which comes from a particular situation in which a moral agent who can act wishes to find out how he or she ought or ought not to act. Reference may be made in answering the question to certain moral laws, of which the Ten Commandments of the Judaeo-Christian tradition are the most authoritative. It has always been acknowledged that certain situations may mitigate the absolute nature of the authoritative moral law (for example: it has always been considered that a person is not wrong to steal in order to feed someone who is starving). There may be situations (such as when a person is questioned about a friend by an hostile and unjust military enemy) when it is usually deemed right to bear false witness to save a life. The essential characteristic of a moral question is that it is asked by or of a free, able moral agent who is faced with a choice in which he asks: what should I do?

A moral issue is different. It lacks the immediacy of the situation and the urgency of the question. A moral issue is an economic, social, physical or other phenomenon which has, or may have, the effect of causing human suffering or death, suffering defined in the broadest terms – “in body, mind or estate.”

Such a phenomenon which causes suffering is a matter of concern to all good men and women and to the Church corporately. The problem is: what is the moral question and who asks it?

Let us take unemployment which, with the Environment, is first equal in importance on the bishops’ list. Unemployment causes suffering to many people; but who is the moral agent to whom we must address our rebuke?

The headmaster who sacked me because he said that he was frightened and intimidated by me, made a moral decision having asked a moral question i.e. “Should I sack David Dale?” He is, I think, a rarity. Not many such questions are asked about decisions to make a person unemployed. It happens but not, I think, in the majority of cases.

What generally happens is that a company making widgets finds that people do not want widgets as much as they did. The share holders of the company, who depend upon dividends for their income, cannot afford to subsidise the cost and production of widgets, and so men are laid off work. Of course there are greedy shareholders and incompetent managers and lazy workers and each deserve some measure of moral censure. But for the most part there is no moral agent or group of moral agents which is able to make a moral choice to continue employment and would be wrong not to do so.

There may be people who have decided that they no longer need widgets or who have decided to save or spend their money on something else. Their individual decisions made from a thousand different motives are not really much open to question. It hardly seems sensible to suggest that people have a moral duty to buy things they do not want or need in order to prevent unemployment.

It may be the case that a government deliberately causes unemployment for some purpose of its own; but, much as I distrust the motives of politicians, I do not honestly think that there are many who would do so. To suggest that it happens frequently sounds paranoid. I am at a loss to see, then, how unemployment can be a moral question. That politicians should (that is to say, have a moral duty) to conduct the affairs of a country so as to minimise unemployment seems to me to be obvious. But I suspect they mostly do or suppose that they are doing so.

If a Chancellor of the Exchequer asks whether he should seek to reduce unemployment we will naturally urge him to do it. But it may be the case that, in order to gain a longer term good, it is necessary to allow a measure of unemployment to persist. For the most part, however, I suspect that unemployment ebbs and flows in response to freely made decisions which have little or no moral significance (for example, the simple fact that I am as bored as you are, with widgets and want a sprocket.)

What is even more clear is that there is nothing that most people can do to reduce unemployment. There is no point in me asking what I should do about unemployment because I cannot, unless I have a job to offer someone, do anything. “Cannot” must imply that there is no moral duty that can be laid at my door.

This moral issue cannot run. A free economy tragically has the presence of unemployment as a necessary part of it. At least until some genius of a political economist devises a free, prosperous, social and economic order in which there is no unemployment. Unless the bishops believe that the disadvantages of a command economy are worth bearing in order to remove unemployment, and unless they can manage to persuade the country to vote for a party that will run a command economy with all its attendant social effects, then I cannot see a simple solution, beyond that of voting for the party that you believe will, by its economic management consistent with all the other good things we want in our society, bring unemployment to its lowest level. Are the bishops prepared to endorse the policies of a particular party at the next election?

I do not suppose that, even if we converted the whole country, we should find that members of the Church of England would come to a common mind on an issue such as this. I believe that all politicians would like to reduce the levels of unemployment in a way consistent with other desirable economic and social benefits. They just do not know how to do it.

If we converted the whole world to the Gospel might we solve the problems raised by a similar moral issue, Environment?

The effect on the environment of the internal combustion engine, it is true, might be mitigated if individuals restricted their use to essentials. A government might even penalise the use of cars. But such a policy has disadvantages as well as advantages: a) a government’s first concern is to stay in office, and b) measures which penalise the profligate might cause suffering to the essential user.

Suffering in the Third World presents a most direct moral duty to Christians who ought to give to relieve suffering. But, when it comes to reordering the world economy so that the starving no longer starve, we are, in a free society, faced with the necessity of selling the policy to the electorate. We are back with individual conversion again.

There are, of course, other issues like population growth. I doubt that the Hindu and Muslim citizens of Asia pay much attention to the Pope on this issue. The developed countries certainly do not do so.

The Church spends a good deal of time and money – the money of parishioners who have very little effective say in its use – on moral issues, employing men and women to manage them. But since we cannot, over many moral issues, raise moral questions which free, individual, moral agents can ask and then act consistently with the answers they give, the whole enterprise seems misconceived.

In the laughably incompetent system of reference which constitutes the process by which financial decisions are made at diocesan and national level – has a diocesan or national church budget ever been overturned by the representatives of the taxed, the parishes? – there are, however, several serious moral questions that need to be asked. For example: should the money of unemployed parishioners be spent employing a diocesan director of social responsibility who can achieve nothing?

The bishops are concerned with things called issues about which very little can be done except exhortation of the government. The government gave up listening a long time ago. Governments respond to the demands of electors. Electors act from a thousand different motives. They are, for the most part, fairly short-sighted, although the work of zealous pressure groups such as trade unions and Greenpeace does more than seems likely.

Meanwhile the Church of England has some serious moral questions of its own to face.

They concern its work in bringing people to salvation, with answering the moral questions that the bishops seem either uninterested in or to believe that they are inadequate to answer.

Of course they are inadequate. We are all inadequate. But it is the job of bishops to guide the people of God on moral and theological questions, so they had best get on with it.

If we all stop fussing about justice, peace and integrity in creation, about which we can do next to nothing (and concerning which, therefore, we have no moral duty) and get on with living lives of sacrificial love offered to the Lord in our prayers and at the Eucharist, which is our moral duty, then we may do some good.

Mother Theresa may have said and done some things we might want to question, but she has done more good than a bench full of bishops, a chatter of conferences and a concern of Directors of Social Responsibility all put together.

Concern with moral issues detaches us from the only person who can do anything, the free moral agent who asks a moral question. It launches us into a sea of vague, anxiety ridden and futile discourse. It is a sort of moral docetism. We detach individuals from painful personal moral questions and in doing so demoralise society, one demoralised individual after another.

Most interventions of the Church on moral issues (for example, the campaign for increased funding for single mothers) end up in exacerbating the problem by increasing the number of single mothers. This is a direct result of concern with detached moral issues.

The moral issue is a nice, painless idea which allows the generation of a good head of moralising steam but achieves nothing, resolves nothing and costs nothing. Let us concentrate on moral questions. They lead to real Progress. Moral issues do not.

To all the ad hominem arguments that will clatter about my head, in response to this piece, I answer the following; I have twice been sacked, I have spent seven months unemployed in my mid fifties, I applied for over 70 posts until receiving my present appointment and I have always voted for the Labour Party.

David Dale is Vicar of All Saints’ Ryde, IOW, in the diocese of Portsmouth