Spring 1988, Vol.40 No. 1, pp. 68-75.

David O'Rourke:
      Current Trends:

Fr. David O'Rourke, O.P., is professor of theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. Well known as a counselor, writer and lecturer, his recent book, A Process Called Conversion, was published by Doubleday in 1985.

DISCUSSING in-vitro fertilization in a recent issue of the Revue Thomiste, Jean-Louis Bruguès excoriates the "new and barbarous term" "bio-ethics." Father Bruguès, who is one of two Dominicans and the only Frenchman on the Vatican's International Theological Commission, would prefer to see a science of ethics rich enough to cope with major ethical dilemmas without resort to linguistic tricks. This desire for intellectual sharpness is as praiseworthy as the proliferation of pretentious neologisms is sad. Ecclesiastics, of course, have long since learned that tacking a latinate label on a troubled topic can give the appearance of thinking. It is in this spirit that I want to talk about "sacro-ethics."

Behind this latest and hopefully short-lived addition to the world of new and barbarous terms lies an area that is both important and troubled. It is the ethics of the liturgical life. More directly, it is the values at work when the sacraments are celebrated, symbolized, taught, and denied. The growing body of commentary by lay Catholic writers on the difficulties they run across in having children baptized and married bears witness to new barriers to the sacraments. Considering the centrality of the sacraments to the life of the Church, the forces that control access to that center are significant.

I have had some experience with the new controls. My familiarity is first with the sacramental policies I have helped write, namely diocesan marriage preparation policies; secondly, with the ones I have been asked to critique -- marriage, baptismal and confirmation policies on both diocesan and parish levels; and thirdly, as a liturgical celebrant amid local customs and practices.

Railing against silliness or arrogance in the sanctuary is of little help because it only perpetuates one of the principal problems the proliferation of personal opinion in an area that merits intelligent and public norms. Originators of disciplines, even those whose time, we hope, will never come, must adopt a reasoned approach. Thus I propose that a more useful alternative is to use the method of ethics and bring the eye of human intelligence to bear on the purposes and priorities of worship.

I do not wish to enter into a discussion on the nature of liturgy. My interest here is principally in the human context of the sacraments. Yet I know that it is not really possible to discuss worship in any normative way without mentioning some of the norms that touch on the sacraments. For the sake of clarity I will begin by mentioning a few which, though seemingly honored in the breach too frequently, are still not controverted on the level of theory.

The sacraments are to be seen within the larger context of church life and theology. The normative context of the sacraments is the Church's, not the minister's. The Church has an understanding of its sacramental life, and has established norms for this life. Whatever ministers might think about these should not get in the way of their public functions.

Key in the Church's understanding is the belief that the sacraments are means whereby imperfect individuals are initiated into the life of the Church and maintained in that life. In the ontological order, the Christ encountered in the sacraments exists prior to the individual and, in the sacraments, brings about the individual's membership in the Church. The view that sees the Church as an aid to the saved and converted overlooks the fundamental priority of the sacraments.

The sacraments are for all the people of the Church, regardless of their proximity to cultic matters. Most people, to speak symbolically, live far from the sanctuary. Their life is very much in the world. Some small numbers, by contrast, live closer to the sanctuary and are more involved with cult and the life of the institutional Church and its organizations and movements. The Church traditionally recognizes the salvific quality of each sphere. The market and the home are not in need of validation through contact with the things of the sanctuary. Christian principles and graced individuals bring a supernatural dimension to each sphere. In the earlier years of this century these ideas were developed and put to work by Action Catholique and the other lay movements that were so important in laying the groundwork for the second Vatican Council.

Understood in a broad sense, the ministers of the sacraments are servants, not proprietors. Those of us who minister the sacraments, or who control the channels by which people have access to the sacraments, are not border guards. Our function is not to prevent access but to facilitate it.


Each of these principles is well founded in church tradition and practice. Most recently in his encyclical letter Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the intrinsic goodness of these secular spheres and the right of the laity to the sacraments. Nonetheless, the American church is subjecting the access of the laity to the sacraments and to the sacramental life of the church to conditions. I am sympathetic to those who prefer that the faithful approach the sacraments knowing what these sacred signs signify and at least minimally prepared to live in accord with the beliefs inherent in what is signified. But I also believe that the context in which questions about belief, practice, and understanding are posed and answered can affect, even prejudice, the answer.

Too often the questions are presented in a context that is much narrower than the questioner recognizes. Broadening the context to match the human realities of people in the Church could well serve to reduce the conflicts that are becoming apparent at times of baptism, marriage, first communion, and the other events that bridge family life and church practice. I would like to outline a way in which the situation could be better understood.

As the first and last proponent of sacro-ethics, I propose to look at this context from four points of view, each of which draws on a body of knowledge already subjected to scholarly examination: developmentally, or the view of developmental psychology; within the human life cycle; in light of the demographics of the Western United States; and considering the diversities in personal and group spirituality.


Some diocesan marriage preparation policies, and some mandated, commercial, marriage preparation resources, speak of the period prior to marriage as a "teachable moment." They urge that the learning potential of this period be fully exploited since a similar opportunity may not come again. Implicit in this idea of a teachable moment is the belief that some times in our life may be more teachable than others. This is a good hypothesis, one that merits more exploration and probably some testing. Again implicitly, it adopts a developmental point of view, or the belief that there are different stages in our life, each, perhaps, with its own learning potential.

This is a promising educational starting point, for it replaces a static view of sacramental initiation with a seemingly more accurate, pedagogically dynamic view. But the fact is that we do not know whether the period before marriage is or is not a "teachable moment." We do not even know if there is such a thing as a teachable moment. Nor have we articulated what part and how much of preparation for marriage is educational. Can you measure future potential? Can you measure adults' capacity to relate?

To my knowledge, the idea of a teachable moment has never been articulated for testing, and the idea's validity has never been put to the test. We talk about it as though we were talking about a reality, whereas in fact we are using an untested, even an unarticulated hunch.

We do more than talk about it. We legislate on it. We require that couples submit themselves to an educational process prior to marriage, and in some places refuse access to the sacraments to those who refuse. And we do this acting on an assumption that, at this stage at least, is no more than a hunch. Considering some of the known effects of stress on learning, it may not even be a good hunch.

The new and transient field of sacro-ethics would require that, as good intellectuals, we subordinate hunches to knowledge and to human rights. Until such time as we have put these ideas to the test we are failing in our pastoral and ethical duties if we restrict rights without well-reasoned justification.

We have learned much from developmental psychology. Some of the most important contributions to moral theology are being made in the field of moral development. The area of marriage preparation combines symbolic learning, namely that which come from sacramental participation, and the learning that comes from group participation and discussion, and the learning that comes from direct instruction. This is a complex amalgam of forces. But does it affect the person, or couples, going through it, and if so how? We don't know.

What we know of developmental psychology seems to indicate that it should affect them in a powerful way. We could probably reason to equally good hypotheses about the parents of newborn children being presented for baptism, and the families of the elderly preparing for death. But in all these cases we are, at least at this point, dealing only with possibilities and guesses. Nonetheless, those guesses have been translated into policies on baptism and marriage. The logic they employ could as easily require that families be properly "thanatized" before presenting their elderly for death and burial.


Developmental psychology looks at the dynamics of the individual. The idea of a life cycle is more social, placing the individual in the context of his or her human and social environment. Within this context, issues change with age and with the shifts in the life agenda brought about by time and change. The religious issues of the young man and woman preparing for marriage and the issues of the married couple preparing for a life of intimacy after the departure of their children are seemingly different.

The religious needs of individuals will change as they change. The needs and spirituality of the nascent family, whose energies are directed toward new life, will differ from the family whose members are preparing proximately for eternal life. Their sense of membership in the Church could well reflect the different ways the young and the old feel about their membership in society. Sacro-ethics would call on us to recognize that church membership, religious needs, and the role of religion in personal identity are not static. They will change with the changes in the life cycle. Each of these stages will entail valid claims on the sacraments and on the Church's vitality and spiritual legacy, and these claims may well be quite different.


Many American-born Catholics come from elsewhere in the United States. And a very large minority of our Catholics come from Latin America and Asia. The observation has been made with some accuracy, however, that the sacramental life of the church is in the hands of white, native-born American Catholics. Their attitudes toward church membership and sacramental participation are white, frequently middle-class attitudes. The commercial programs and manuals produced from sacramental initiation and preparation come from Madison Avenue, Catholic market division.

Sacro-ethics would ask us whether our obligation to provide free access to the church's sacral life is being fulfilled. It would require that we ask not only whether we are helping Latin Americans, for example, fit into our church structures, but also whether our church structures have any more validity than theirs. Translating a baptismal preparation manual into Spanish is not the same as asking whether the manual approach is appropriate. Perhaps the gathering of the entire clan for a baptism, a common event, may be an even better preparation, to say nothing of a better symbolic statement about community.

Is the melting pot an appropriate model for the Church? If new Americans prefer their old Catholicism, what are the principles for evaluating that preference? Sacro-ethics would tell us, I believe, that the In-our-church-you-do-it-our-way approach, which seems to be the final criterion, falls short of true ethical principle.


The renewal of the liturgy decreed by Vatican Council II has introduced a great variety of liturgical styles. The question often asked by newcomers to a parish -- what kind of masses do you have here? -- can often be answered with a list describing varieties of celebrations. Furthermore, the variations and styles to be found in any parish seem to be founded as much on chance and personal preference as on liturgical norms. A pastor's preference for simplicity, an associate's familiarity with folk music, the fact that some active parishioners are good musicians become at least as important as the public norms. The degree of spontaneity woven into the liturgy often depends on the chance presence or absence of Charismatic Catholics in the parish. Sacro-ethics prefers principles to serendipity. The principles we first mentioned state that the liturgy should be an authentic reflection of the Church's beliefs and should both support current members and open the doors to newcomers and new Christians. The point to be made here, and it is as critical as it is often overlooked, is that the diversity to be found among these members, actual and potential, is not amorphous. We have working hypotheses about the way humans develop, and what their needs are at different stages of their development. We have tested theories about our needs at different stages in our life cycle.

We also have a wealth of solid demographic information in the U.S. census figures, which the Glenmary Home Missionaries have broken down diocese by diocese and parish by parish. Computer printouts on income, housing, marriage, divorce, age, and the configuration of households can be at every pastor's fingertips. There is no need to wonder about the needs and makeup of the people in the pews. We have solid information on them and their lives, and we have at least good working hypotheses on the needs of our different groups of people and how they relate.

Like Jean Louis Bruguès, I would prefer to see a science of ethics rich enough to set us at our liturgical tasks principled and informed. With that science of ethics we could meet the moral challenges in bridging public worship and private lives with assurance. Unfortunately, we appear not to have that ethical resource that allows us to apply liturgical norms intelligently. We resort to the whim, hunches, and subjective preferences of those calling the liturgical shots. Is it an accident that the public worship of the church and its sacramental life do not touch the private lives of so many of our people?

We consider ourselves lucky if half our people attend mass. A startling percentage of our younger Catholics, some say onethird, are married outside the Church. Many of our Catholic people, immigrants in particular, do not know how to make use of current sacramental policies. In our exclusionary sacramental practice we have ended up in the extraordinary position of using the sacraments designed for the growth of the Church -- baptism and marriage -- as a form of ecclesiastical birth control. And we are doing this more by inadvertence and half-understood good intentions than by design.

Like some spliced-gene misadventure, sacro-ethics will deservedly make its way to the dust bin. But the moral challenges presented by leadership in public worship will not go away. Access to the sacraments and exposure to the sacred are not advanced by hunch and fancy. Yet in this most central aspect of our Christian lives we lack a cogent, coherent set of working principles to guide our actions.