Is the Catholic Church simply black and white? I’m not speaking about race here, but rather about matters of the Church’s teaching, especially moral teaching. As a priest, I’ve heard this question from people on both ends of a spectrum. On one end, I’ve heard people complain that what the Church teaches is too black and white – that it is out of touch with the complexities or “gray area” of life in the real world. On the other end, I’ve heard people say that they appreciate the clarity of the Church in her teaching – and that there should be no room for “gray.” Or, the latter would sometimes complain that priests, bishops, and the Pope come off being too gray when it comes to teaching on some issues.
Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, in his 2012 article entitled “Black and White, or Gray?” stated, “Many human actions, when freely chosen, will always be unacceptable. These actions, referred to as ‘intrinsic evils,’ are immoral regardless of circumstance. Adultery would be an example of an intrinsic evil… Many people who recognize that an action may be black may still be tempted to think that because their intentions are white, the ‘gray’ action may be done. But good intentions cannot bleach the blackness of a deed… Indeed, morality itself… is not fundamentally ‘gray’ at all, but is, by its very nature, a code of black and white. In the final analysis, the cult of moral grayness is too easily a revolt against fixed and essential moral values.”
In August of 2016, Pope Francis addressed a group of Polish Jesuit priests and stated that “Future priests need to be formed not with general and abstract ideas, which are (overly) clear and distinct, but … fine discernment of spirits, so that they can help people in their concrete lives… In life not everything is black and white, white and black. No! In life shades of gray predominate. We must then teach how to discern within this gray.”
Do Fr. Tad Pacholczyk and Pope Francis contradict each other? No, understood in their proper contexts, I believe there is continuity in what these two men of the Church are saying. Is the Church to be black and white, or not? I don’t believe this question can be answered simply, since it depends largely on what we’re talking about. Pope Francis is acknowledging the fact that, in today’s world, life is complicated, and simplistic black and white answers to the dilemmas we face do not suffice. We must pay attention to the details and circumstances to discern well the best course of action in keeping with the truth and good. Fr. Pacholczyk also states that, “although fixed moral values must always guide our decisions, correctly applying a general moral principle to a particular situation will often require specific knowledge of the circumstances and details of that situation… The question of my moral duty… is not a ‘gray area’ at all, nor a matter of relative morals, but rather a question of careful discernment, weighing variables, seeking to do the good, and so on.”
In my experience as a priest, I know how complicated life can be in today’s world if one is striving to live according to the Gospel. I have talked to many people who experience difficulty accepting what the Church teaches on a variety of topics. Many such persons have argued that what the Church teaches is too black and white. But what I have found is that often such persons struggle with one or both of the following problems: (1) It isn’t so much that the Church’s teaching is black and white and overly simplistic, but rather a person’s understanding of the Church’s teaching can be overly simplistic. As stated above, good discernment and the weighing of variables are necessary. Sometimes we need to seek the counsel of another faithful person. (2) Sometimes a person may understand the teaching of the Church/Gospel intellectually, but their heart has not yet experienced the love of Christ sufficiently to be converted, and to desire his will and trust in his goodness.
I think Catholic writer Isabella R. Moyer put it best when she said, “Our faith is neither solely about black-and-white pronouncements, nor is it simply about warm, fuzzy feelings. It is about knowing what we believe, loving what we believe, and putting that belief into concrete action in the messiness of everyday life.”