While I was doing graduate studies in Belgium, I lived at the American College in Leuven. On the staff there at the time, in the housekeeping and maintenance department, was a wonderfully colourful woman whose energy brought oxygen into a room but whose history of marriage somewhat paralleled that of the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel. None of us knew for sure how often she’d been married, and the man she was living with at the time was not her husband.

One day an archbishop was visiting the college and there was a formal reception line of which she was part. The archbishop would shake each person’s hand and engage him or her in a brief exchange. When he came to her, she gave him her name and told him what she did at the college. He shook her hand and, by way of greeting and conversation, asked her: “Are you married?” She wasn’t quite prepared for that question. She stammered a bit and replied: “Yes, no … well, kind of.” Then, breaking into a grin, she said: “Actually, Your Grace, I’m living in sin!” To his credit, the archbishop grinned as well. He got what she was saying, not just her words but also the nuance that her grin conveyed.

Living in sin. Acts that are inherently disordered. What is Catholic moral theology trying to say with this kind of concept when so many people today, including many Catholics, find such concepts unintelligible and offensive?

To the credit of classical Catholic moral teaching, these concepts have an intelligibility and a palatability inside a certain moral framework within which their proper meaning and nuance is predicated on the overall system. In a simpler language, they make sense within that system. In today’s language, classical Catholic moral theology might be compared to a highly specialised software: one that has been honed, nuanced and upgraded through centuries so that, as a system, it has smooth internal coherence.

The problem, though, is that today so much of our culture and so many of our churches no longer use – or understand how to use – that software. As a consequence, its formatting and language are misunderstood and can appear offensive. Not everyone, like the archbishop just described, has a sense of humour about this.

So what’s to be done? How do we move forward? Do we simply abandon a lot of classical moral teachings because so many people today are taking offence at its concepts and language?

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