Model Essay The Church and Morality
August 14, 2018
‘The Church should decide what is morally good’. Discuss. (36/40 A*)
Christians have differing opinions on the source of morality. While the Catholic Church has in the past claimed to be central to ethics in the Christian community, this has been challenged both by Catholics like Hans Kung and Protestants such as John Calvin who believe morality cannot be perfectly derived by the Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has also sought to show how granting moral power to the Church can lead to immoral outcomes. Personally, I believe that while the Church is important to society in deciding what is morally good allowing it to be the only moral authority in society grants it too much authority and could even lead to the Church and society becoming debased and corrupt.
Very good introduction that addresses the question directly. Scholars and divergent views are signposted, giving a confident start and the candidate signposts their own view signally the start of what should hopefully be a well-developed line of reasoning.
Few Christians believe that the Church is the only genuine moral authority, as true morality is generally believed to be revealed through revelation. However the view that morality is best worked out by the Church is much more common. The heteronomous view that reason, the Bible, and the Church all work in conjunction to reveal what is morally good is held by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. They argue in the Catechism that clergymen’s theological education and centuries of Church precedent allow it to be the ‘pillar and bulwark of truth’ and by extension the Church is best placed to decide what is morally good. While this seems coherent, it does not take into account how the Church’s past decisions have in cases been immoral. The sale of indulgences was agreed to be simoniacal by Church councils in the 16th century and against canon law, and yet they were sold for centuries prior, with the Church doing nothing to stop it. Clearly a focus on Church-derived morality will not always result in the most moral outcome.
A confident paragraph showing strength in knowledge and understanding of the heteronomous approach to morality. This is well-defined. This is challenged effectively by the use of the example of the sale of indulgences. However, the evaluative comment that the ‘pillar and bulwark of truth’ seems ‘coherent’ is an assertion rather than analysis. The candidate would need to explain HOW this seems coherent e.g. what is meant by the ‘pillar and bulwark of truth’ – on what grounds? E.g. could refer to Jesus conferring responsibility to Peter – “what you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
Such ethical heteronomy has been challenged by the liberal Catholic Hans Kung, who rejected papal infallibility. Kung argued instead that Christian decisions should be derived from reason through autonomous Christian ethics. Rather than the Church, the principle of agape should be derived from Jesus’ statements, as seen in John: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’. However, Kung’s ethics are problematic in that individual reason can lead to different outcomes depending on who is making them. Take, for example, euthanasia – applying agape can either result in people performing euthanasia to ease the suffering of loved ones, or rejecting it because of a desire to spend more time with their family before they die. Individual circumstances and differences of opinion mean that Kung’s ideas seem to run the risk of being too antinomian in that it seems to discard the need for moral rules other than to ‘love’ – and this is a vague way of approaching moral decision-making as working out the most loving thing to do is difficult, changing form situation to situation – a weakness of situation ethics. Furthermore, such thinking may isolate the Church, leaving the individual to act independently, discarding many years of tradition and the teachings of wise scholars who have debated moral issues at length. It seems absurd that the individual would be able to make a more informed choice than the Church scholars. Rather than autonomy, the risk is that the individual is idolised – having more moral authority than the Church or Bible, running a risk of falling into “moral chaos” (Robinson). Arguably, the Church would instead provide structure and order in moral decisions that can make them easier and perhaps fairer to those struggling to make them. A collective decision based on Bible, Church, tradition and reason would be fairer, extending to all and maintaining standards.
An excellent demonstration of knowledge and understanding with a strong focus on the question. Accurate use of technical terms and scholars used to support insightful and critical analysis. Effective linking of Hans Kung to some of the challenges of a situationist approach to moral decision-making.
In contrast, John Calvin challenges Church authority over morality as having been corrupted by human interpretation – he believed that Christian ethics should be derived theonomously through the Bible. Working from the idea that ‘all scripture is divinely inspired’ (Timothy), Calvin argued that close reading of the scripture allows people to take its commandments at face value rather than trying to twist them to their own ends, as the Catholic Church did initially to attempt to justify the sale of indulgences. However, Calvin’s theonomous ethics run the risk of becoming too literalist and focusing on the wording of the Bible rather than its message – Karl Barth referred to this as ‘Bibliolatry’. Such a legalistic interpretation of Christian teaching also prevents flexibility on new moral issues. Abortion is never mentioned in the Bible but heteronomous ethics allows the Church to debate on its morality whereas theonomous ethics struggle to find relevant Bible passages. Therefore, the Church does have a place in deciding what is morally right through more coherent readings of the Bible and debate on the meaning of passages, as well as through by helping decide how to deal with new moral issues.
Clear argument and further demonstration of extensive scholar and wisdom and authority’ use. Technical – bibliolatry, theonomous etc. Good use of examples, again, to demonstrate argument that the Church does have a role to play in moral decision-making. Though it is not clear yet whether the candidate thinks it should have the only say.
Perhaps the most effective challenge to absolute Church authority comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer however. Living in Nazi Germany he saw first-hand how the Lutheran Church in the country was taken over by the Nazi party and transformed into the ‘Deutsche Evangelische Kirche’, a viciously anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi organisation. Bonhoeffer questioned how we could possibly support a state Church that seemed so against Christian teaching and instead argued that ‘the man of duty will in the end be forced to give his due’: even the Church will be forced through duty to commit evil in the name of the state. Even the Catholic Church was not immune from supporting a regime so self-evident in their evil, as evidenced by the popular pro-Nazi radio broadcasts by Father Charles Coughlin in the United States. The Church is vulnerable to political concerns because it is made up of human beings and is thus fallible. Therefore, I would argue that it would be unwise to rely solely on the Church to determine what is morally right; but neither should it be completely ignored. It would seem sensible to use it as a guide but appreciate that it, too, is fallible.
Superb technicality and effective use of Bonhoeffer to support the candidate’s concluding comments. Accurate details build strength to the argument.
While the Church is indeed useful in determining what is ethical as a middle ground between legalistic Calvin and antinomian Kung, I do not believe it can be seen as the sole decider of what is morally good. Its political ties to the world and its capability to become wrong and stuck in its ways means that to best decide what is the most moral course of action, both scripture and reason should be used to provide the best course of action in a given situation – Christian ethics should be derived heteronomously.
Overall: 36/40 = 90% A*
AO1: L6 
Excellent demonstration of knowledge with thorough, precise use of technical terms and vocabulary in context. Extensive range of academic approaches. Nuanced approach to material with own examples used to illustrate points.
AO2: L6 
Excellent, clear and successful argument with precise focus on question throughout. A sustained and well-developed line of reasoning that is supported by scripture and various scholars and candidate’s own interpretations and examples.