Saturday, November 21, 2015

Should Catholics help non Christian refugees come to our country?

Should Catholics help non Christian refugees come to our country?

This article is largely in response to one written by Dr Taylor Marshall, Islamic Refugee Crisis: Good Samaritan or Maccabean Response or Both?  I linked this article to that one because, frankly, Dr. Marshall is way better informed than I am on the subject, and he is a Catholic teacher, writer, and podcaster for whom I have immense respect.  Because of that respect, it bothers me to say that I think he is wrong on this point, and so are many others who take his position. In short, Dr. Marshall argues that we are not obligated to bring in refugees, and I believe very strongly that we should.

First off, people might get hung up on term 'obligated'.  Marshall argues that we are not obligated or required by Christ to bring non Christian refugees into our country.  Ok, but technically I'm not obligated to have a daily prayer life or go to confession more than twice a year or receive the Eucharist... and I'm not obligated by my marriage vows to spend quality time with my kids-  but if I want to seek holiness or be anything more than just moderately good, I will do more than the minimum which I am obligated to do.

Let us for the moment assume that Marshall is not just saying that we are not obligated, but that we ought not take in Muslim refugees, since, if you read the whole article, that's clearly what he is saying.

Dr.  Marshall argues that Thomas Aquinas would say no to taking in Muslim refugees, and I am going to assume that he knows-  since he wrote a book on Thomas Aquinas' theology. However, if that is the case, I will disagree with Thomas Aquinas too, just as I disagree with him about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (which he denied) and his position that heretics are worthy of the death penalty.  I have to assume again that Dr. Marshall agrees with me on that, although it looks almost from his article as if he is suggesting that heretics, like Muslims, should be subject to the death penalty.  I'm guessing that's not what Dr. Marshall meant to say.

Aquinas aside, I think Dr. Marshall actually made some extremely weak arguments.  For example, he said

If you live in a democracy, a 51% political Islamic majority will allow “we the people” to promulgate Sharia law. They are following their conscience and religious beliefs in this matter. They will do this just as they have done in any other community where they captured the majority (Mecca, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, etc.)
Obviously real life democracies are a little more complicated than that, but let's not dispute that point.   The population of the United States is 319 Million. The percentage of those who are Muslim is 1%.  In other words, in order for the 51% of America to be Muslim (as a consequence of the refugee crisis) they'd have to take in 319 million Muslim refugees! Right now Obama wants to take in 10,000, and politicians on the right want to bring in even less. There's only 60 million refugees of any kind in the world. Can we therefore dismiss the idea that Sharia law is a threat?

(Someone pointed out that you only need 10% to make a big difference-  ok, only 32 million- or that distribution in jurisdictions is an issue- so it's not a slam dunk, but still, fear of Sharia is a pretty weak argument in my books!)

Marshall then makes the analogy of the Family Home, suggesting that bringing refugees into our country and helping them to get onto their feet is comparable to bringing a homeless man into my home and letting him sleep with my wife while I'm away. You can decide for yourself whether that is a good analogy. (Make sure you read the way he wrote it, and not just my simplification.  You can guess my opinion.)

Then he uses my least favorite argument of all from the anti refugee people;

There is also the further problem that 5%-20% of global Muslims are considered to be “radicalized,” which means that they are consciously willing to use terrorist tactics to advance their Muslim worldview against the West. If you knew that 10% of your child’s Halloween candy was poisoned, would you allow your child to consume any of it?
Mike Huckabee made the same point, using poisonous nuts in his analogy. This argument is actually stupid, and I'm disappointed in Dr Marshall and others who don't see why. No, I wouldn't let my kid eat their Halloween candy...  but there is an incredible difference between the value of human life and a candy.  Would I let my kid risk their life to save someone else's?  Yes. I would even teach them to do so.

Here's my analogy.  Suppose a ship carrying hundreds of passengers was attacked by a terrorist on the ship. Now it is sinking, and the passengers are floundering in the water. You are in a boat nearby, and can reasonably take in 25 passengers- not nearly all of them. The trouble is that you know that a few of the drowning people may be terrorists, and they may attack your boat. Would you take the risk to save 25?

A friend said no, not if my kids were on board the boat.  Others said they would prioritize, women and children first. Clearly many would say "Christians first".  For me?  I'd pull them into my boat, and if my children were there I'd teach them to do likewise.

My analogy is flawed too, but you gotta admit, it's better than the poisonous nuts' analogy.

The other problem with this argument is that it somehow assumes that the refugees will be representative of the global average-  never mind that they are being screened once by the UN and again by Canada or the USA or whoever is taking them in. Clearly this will reduce the percentage of refugees actually coming in who are radicalized.

But let's extend this logic to other stats.  Could your kid eat their candy if only 3% of it were poisoned? 'Cause 3% of Americans are presently under some form of correctional control for criminal activity.  Guess we'd better not let any Americans into Canada, since 3% of them are criminals. (It get's a lot worse once you start breaking it down by race or gender).  Anyway, pursuing that logic can get ugly quick.

I'm disappointed that someone as rational as Marshall would employ such a deeply flawed analogy.

The last argument I want to address is the "Samaritan uses the hotel" argument, that the Samaritan was commended for his humanitarian aid, and implicitly therefore that's the most that any Christian should expect to do.

Look, Mother Teresa did way more than the Good Samaritan.  Regardless of their faith, she helped Muslims and Hindus out of love.  Christ did way more.   Are we called to Sainthood in imitation of Christ, or are we called to moderate humanitarianism?

Scripture is full of passages like "I was a stranger and you invited me in" (Matt 25:35) and about welcoming the foreigner (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19, etc).  


Pope Francis encouraged the Church's of Europe to bring in one refugee family each. It saddens me that so many Catholic/Christian voices are arguing against the Pope's desire to help the refugees.  I'm certain there are more well reasoned arguments out there that what has been presented here.  But since the goal of every Christians life should be to 'love your neighbor as yourself', you will need to convince me that helping refugees to rebuild their life in Syria is more loving and feasible than helping them to get on with life here. 

If it were me, trying to save my family, I'd want the quick solution.  I'd want to be in Canada, surrounded by a welcoming community, with the opportunity of independence and freedom. I would not want to stay in a refugee camp waiting for everyone in Syria to decide they love each other after all.   Jesus' command was 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'

So my question to Marshall and all the other objectors is this-  what would you have them do unto you? 



Saturday, June 27, 2015

What do I think about gay marriage?

It is with some trepidation that I write this article, because frankly I'm afraid of offending people, afraid of being bullied, afraid of alienating friends, afraid of being inacurrate... but despite these fears I am going to step into the fray!

Last week the US Supreme court declared it unconstitutional to ban same sex marriage at a state level.  Since then, a large number of my friends have changed their facebook profile to have a rainbow wash to celebrate their support for this legislation.  Others of my friends have posted messages reflecting the Catholic Churches teachings on same sex relationships.  And I've participated in a few online discussions.  The difficulty is that I find that I fall in between the two poles of the debate.  I suspect that there are a number of people out there like me who are struggling to articulate their thoughts, but are afraid of appearing bigotted on one hand or heretical on the other. I guess I am throwing caution to the wind by writing this-  but I won't advertise the post on facebook.  Too many trolls out there.

I think I am reluctantly in favor of legalizing same sex marriage.  This will surprise a number of people, since I always deliberately agree with the Catholic Church on everything, and it appears that the majority of Bishops oppose same sex marriage. However, I'm the kind of person who changes his mind when the facts change-  so I may change my mind on this, and I invite people to try to help me change it!

The thing is, I do think gay sex is sinful.  I believe that sex is created by God to be both unitive and procreative- an act of love that's by it's nature open to having babies.  I believe sacramental marriage must be free, total, faithful and fruitful.  In other words, I'm opposed to pornography, adultery, polygamy, forced marriages, divorce and contraception... among other things.  But I do not think that each of those things should necessarily be illegal!  (Forced marriages clearly should be, but for different reasons other than it invalidates the marriage.  I'd also like to see tighter restrictions on porn, but that's a rabbit trail.)

So I oppose gay sex for the same reason as I oppose those other things.  My opposition is rooted in my faith, and is the same reason that I hold human life as inherently valuable.  Clearly I do not think the Catholic Church should be forced to perform same sex marriages-  and actually I think that is theologically impossible.

But obviously our culture has a different definition than I do of marriage-  still noble, still a celebration of love-  but very diluted from the sacramental definition.  I think that an argument can be made to preserve the meaning of the word by it's Catholic definition, but frankly I think that battle is long since lost.  If gays want to celebrate their love in the more diluted sense in which most people consider marriage, then so be it. As suggested above, I think polygamy is the logical next step, especially considering that there are cultures all over that accept it, and it's consenting adults. So the definition will be diluted yet further.  Maybe we should allow consenting incestuous adults too... though I admit I feel squeamish about that, but maybe my squeamishness is only rooted in my deep seated psychological bigotry.  (No doubt someone is going to be offended by my equating gay sex with incest, but if consenting adults who declare love for each other is the only standard, I'm not sure what arguments can be made against it.)   I don't seriously think pedophiles or animals are on the list, and I hope robots aren't... but you know the slippery slope argument does seem to have some validity.  I suspect that in the end the definition of marriage will be so diluted that governments will ask themselves why they are in the business of celebrating marriages at all.  After all, we want to get government out of our bedrooms.... strange that we keep inviting them in!

So what should Catholics do?  I think it's time to recognize that what everyone else means by marriage is not what we mean.  Maybe we should call ours Matrimony, and just abandon the term altogether. Marriage is what is sanctioned by the state, Matrimony is what is sanctioned by the Church.

I do think however that we are in uncharted waters.  I have never before witnessed so much animosity to the Church, or to Christians.  I've never before been so scared to speak up publicly for what the Church teaches.  Any opinion which runs counter to the zeit geist is labelled homophobia, so pretty much hate speech.  How long will our culture tolerate things like Catholic Schools?  Catholic social justice groups? Christian universities? Are my concerns naive?  I think a very little research will show that they are not.

Anyway, I say, let the gays get married, just as we let people use contraception and get divorces and get married outside the Church.  Maybe if gays are treated equally within our secular, nothing is sacred culture, we will see a toning down of the venomous attacks against anyone who holds a different view.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Vatican condemns April Fools Pranks.

A spokesperson for the Vatican has spoken out against practices common in Europe and North America such as the celebrations of Halloween, April Fools Day, and the 'pagan' elements of Mardi Gras.

This is particularly concerning this year as April Fools Day falls during Holy Week. 

Cardinal Duhamel of the Congregation for the Deffense of Condemnation, said  about pranks "Not only are such practices contrary to human dignity and rooted in anti Christian history, but they are directly contrary to scripture."  The scripture he refers to is Proverbs 26:18-19 which reads 

"Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor

and says, “I was only joking!”


"Even Jesus Himself taught that anyone who says you fool is in danger of Hell Fire" (Matt 5:22) says Duhamel.

"That's bad!" says Jeannette Manser of the Western Canadian Association of Catholic Youth Ministers.

These issues may be addressed at the upcoming synod on Groundhogs Day and other Occult practices.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Catholic Youth Ministry Coordinator from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, said "The danger here is that these conversations only reinforce stereotypes already held against Catholics as being humourless and incapable of irony.  Suppose someone only reads the first few paragraphs of this article, and ignores its publication date?"









Monday, March 16, 2015

3 motives which drive the Saints


Q:  Hey Peter, I was wondering if you could make a book recommendation.  I was wondering if you knew a book about Saints or other people (any religion, non-religious, etc.) and their lives, beliefs and motivations.  I think they must be some of the most interesting people I have heard of.

A: I love the saints, and I am fascinated by them as well.  I suspect that my interest in them is similar to the interest that an aspiring athlete has to a great professional athlete who has excelled in their sport.  I take seriously the statement that “We are all called to be saints”, and hope to be one myself (though this has been my hope for 18 years now, and I certainly have not come close to that goal so far. I just have to trust in God’s mercy and grace and continue to hope!)

That said, most of the books I know about saints are biographies that share their inspiring stories, or maybe some theological treatises which outline their beliefs…  but I don’t know of very many books that delve into their inner workings and motivations!  The one book that comes to mind is “The fulfillment of all desire” by Ralph Martin, which is a book that I would highly recommend to any Catholic who wants to enter into the depths of prayer, but it is hardly a beginners book for someone who is not Catholic!

If people reading this blog have any recommendations, I would be happy to pass them on to the questioner!

Maybe someone should write a book.  Whenever I think that, I think “Maybe I should write a book”, but then that book idea has to fall into the cue of ideas behind the books I want to write on simplicity and on the rosary and stations and the novels I want to write.

But were I to write a book, I would likely tackle it something like this;

Outline the major motives and themes of the Saints, then throw some fascinating stories into the book that illustrate these points.  I think the major motives for the saints are union with God, love and humility.  Maybe also self improvement, but I actually think that is just a cynical observation of what saints are doing, and probably not the motive of real saints. Actually the book may need a whole section debunking the false motives that cynical people ascribe to the saints!

There seems to be a set of assumptions regarding motivations, which maybe go back to Freud’s idea that every action is motivated either by a desire for sex or for power.  The assumption that a lot of people have is that there must be a selfish motive for everything we do.  So why do people have children?  For a sense of fulfillment or joy or whatever- for some selfish reason.  The idea that there is any altruistic motive for doing anything is for many people a foreign concept. 

This question came to me on Facebook just as I was sitting down to watch “The Drop Box”, a movie about a pastor in South Korea who put a box in the wall of his church where girls and women who felt they had to abandon their babies could abandon them anonymously but the baby would still be cared for.   The pastor has taken in hundreds of babies, and passed them on to various organizations, but he and his wife are now raising 15 children themselves, many with serious handicaps.

Why would he do that?  Again cynical people seem to think the only answer has to be a selfish one- that he must be seeking attention or glory or be trying to ease his hurting conscience or something.   But I suspect that he’s doing it for love.

I have on occasion done things purely out of love. At those moments, I have sensed what it must be like to be a saint.  There is a sense of fulfillment and purpose and freedom in doing these things. However, no one would do it for that sense- at least not to the degree that the saints do it!

One day a man watching Mother Teresa as she cared for the sick and the poor said “You couldn’t pay me enough to do what you do.”  Mother Teresa looked at him and said “Me neither.”

What motivates Mother Teresa or Pastor Lee of Korea or Fr Damien who lived with the lepers in Hawaii?

None of the selfish explanations suffice for these people.  So there must be something else.

The Christian idea is that we were made originally to love.  (People even try to pin selfish motives on God, and ask “Why did God make us?” as if there must have been some sort of selfish motive. But he made us simply to love us!).  We were designed for love with each other and with our creator.  But we chose selfishness, sin, and chaos. And so now most of our desires are tainted by those things.  But Jesus’ death on the cross, the ultimate selfless act, was so that we could be restored to our original condition.   God does not just declare us holy, but rather he makes us holy, sanctifies us, which is a process which takes time and effort and cooperation with God’s grace.

Maximilian Kolbe said that sainthood is when your will is in perfect alignment with God’s will. You want precisely the thing that God wants.  You are motivated entirely by love, and not by selfishness. And the third point is of course that you do not want attention or glory, because you want humility, which underpins everything you do.  That’s why I say that even self improvement cannot be the real motive, since this turns into a form of narcissism.

I also think this illustrates an error that we make in Christianity when we evangelize-  we try to promote our religion by the joy and satisfaction and meaning we find in it, or by a longing for Heaven, or some people will even employ a fear of Hell. But we promote a philosophy that is fundamentally selfless by appealing to selfishness!  Jesus on the other hand invited people to take up his cross, to suffer, to serve, to give, to love, to die.  I suspect that even if someone does not agree with the Christian propositions, we all feel a certain resonance in the call to holiness.  This is precisely why Christianity is ‘good news’ and offers hope. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why the biggest questions people ask to challenge Catholics don't make sense unless you already believe that Catholicism is true.

Wisdom-  Let us be attentive!

That's what they chant in Ukrainian Catholic Churches before a reading.  I'm always tempted to chant that at the beginning of one of my talks, but I've never done it yet.  Probably I will some day.

I think that when people think of wisdom, they think of someone like Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda saying "Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift- that is why it is called the present."  They want a succinct poetic and slightly mystical sounding sentence- a proverb I suppose- about some profound subject. But I always suspect that true wisdom is applied knowledge through the lense of experience with a natural ability to recognize truth.  Here's the problem with that.  I suspect that if someone is truly wise, than the wise things they say will not be understood by people who are not wise unless they have a minimum of the same knowledge.  So when a fool (ie: someone lacking wisdom) asks a hard question about Catholicism and the answer is a wise answer, the fool fails to understand the answer and they assume that their failure to understand the answer implies that the answer is either incorrect or incomprehensible, when actually the logical thing to assume is that your own ability to grasp the truth is limited, and that's why you don't get it.

For example-  I don't get quantum mechanics.  Or the theory of relativity.  Or string theory. I've tried to understand these things, but truth be told my understanding of basic physics is so limited that I can't really begin to grasp these applied physics.  And there are elements in these theories that defy logic in my mind-  but I am prepared to admit that the limitation is in my mind, rather than in the logic.  So rather than assume that these theories are false because I don't get them, I assume that my understanding is limited.

But I think that people should approach theology with at least the same level of humility.  Like the student in my office today who stated that Jesus work could have been just magic or the work of aliens, based on a really superficial understanding of the gospel story.  Or the Jehovah's witness who dismissed the trinity because if he went door to door he would get any number of contradictory explanations of the trinity and it is hard to grasp. Or people who reject the faith because they can't figure out how God could allow suffering or evil to exist, or why stories in the Old Testament make God look like an evil being, or why Catholics don't allow condoms in Africa or bless homosexual marriages.  People will dismiss Catholicism on any one of these grounds, and will ask a question as a challenge, and take the fact that Catholics are named able to answer the question in a succinct one liner that they will understand and be persuaded by as evidence that the Catholic Church does not have a good answer.

But-  the Church does have good answers to each of these objections.  I happen to know the answer to each of them- or at least I know a part of them. Each questions has an answer that you cannot plumb the depths of... but again, this is precisely what wisdom is.

St Augustine said "Theology is faith seeking understanding".  What this means is that before you can understand the Churches teachings on something deep and theological, you first have to have faith.  Many people would rather have it the other way.  They would rather already know have the answer to the questions before they will even acknowledge that there is such a thing as a God, or that Jesus was God, or so on. And the fact that they have not heard a satisfying answer to their pet objection will to them suggest that the whole framework is false. But the truth is that the answer depends on a sufficient understanding of the framework.

This realization came to me clearly when I gave a talk the other day about redemptive suffering.  "Why does God allow bad things to happen?"  is one of those questions that I think takes wisdom to answer-  a foundation of Catholic teaching accompanied by the experience both of grace and of suffering, and the ability to recognize truth.  I suspect that the answer to that question is so profound that no one can properly summarize it, but you have to be immersed in it.

But I do think, despite my own lack of wisdom, that I have some insights based on Church teachings and a solid grasp of scripture.  My intention is to write a series of blog entries which explore these deep questions based on that foundation, and outlines the foundation in a way that anyone can understand.  This may take time.

Meanwhile, let me conclude by saying that when you ask a question and the answer to the question is unsatisfying, do no assume that the framework of Catholicism must therefore be faulty. Rather consider the evidence for Catholicism, and use it as the foundation to begin exploring the truly deep questions.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How do you do effective youth ministry?

I tend to think of youth ministry in largely marketing terms.  I think an error that we make in catholic formation is that we go straight to catechesis without first evangelizing.  This just makes the faith seem that much more boring and irrelevant.  Then we spend our time doing apologetics-  defending the church against objections that most people don't actually have.  I suspect that this only makes the Church look defensive, which in turn makes youth (and everyone) less likely to trust the church.

I see evangelization as being like Aladdin on his magic carpet and saying to Jasmine "Do you trust me?"  At some point the youth have to decide whether or not they trust God/the Church/youth minister enough to let go of what is safe and to jump onto the carpet.  So rather than arguing or coercing people into it, we need to entice them onto it.  We need to understand how people make decisions, and make them want to choose the faith.  Here is my strategy;

#1- Fun!  I get kids involved in the ministry through extremely fun games, with titles like Nerf Revolution, Communism, KGB, Alien Invasion, Zombie Apocalypse, Secret Service, etc.  These are large scale games then when kids hear about them, they want to come play them! 

#2 Funny! Then I make the formative aspects fun (funny) and interactive.  People respond much better to a talk if it is funny-  and being funny can be as easy as looking up some good pastor jokes, or adding puns into your presentation.  Someone who is laughing is making themselves malleable to the message.  This makes the message feel relevant.

#3 Relational.  Kids will come at first because they think it sounds fun, but they will continue to come if they feel like someone cares whether they do or not. 

#4 Inculturation. I invite kids to enough youth events, with enough different groups, that they begin to realize that Christianity is a whole subculture, and that they like it.  In doing this my hope is that youth will start self identifying as Christian.

#5 Experience of God.  The hope is that we will eventually bring the kids to a place where they can have an encounter with God. Usually this will take the form of a profound, and sometimes inexplicable emotional encounter.  When I say it like that, it sounds like we are emotionally manipulating people into accepting some precepts.  But the truth is almost every decision we make is based in emotion, and while we justify our decisions rationally often rationality takes a back seat to emotion. I heard a freakonomics podcast recently which likened the way we make decisions to the american political system.  We like to think that our reason is the Oval office, making decisions.  But really the decisions are made by our emotions.  Our Reason is just the department that makes the press release. So to motivate people we need to impact them emotionally.  

I think people critical of Christianity will jump on this,and say that I admit that I am trying to impact their decision by impacting their emotions. To that I say yes-  and I think everyone does it when they try to sell their ideology.  When i asked Catherine to marry me, I set up an elaborate day of quality time, beauty and romance. Was I manipulating her emotionally?  I suppose I could have just made a cold, calculated, reasoned argument for why she should commit her whole life to me. But I also suppose that that wouldn't have worked. God is asking people for a committed life long relationship.  Why not set the atmosphere? 

This is difficult to do at a one night youth group event-  instead we need to get kids to a retreat or camp where they can spend more time opening up.

#6 Discipleship. Finally, the end game is to turn the kids into disciples, who are committed to living out their faith long term, and living by it's precepts.  Key to this is regular prayer life, and service. Youth need to become evangelists themselves, so go on OLVC team, or NET, or become leaders within our home grown ministries. Then they will own the faith, and will no longer be mere consumer Christians. The key to Christianity is that it transforms us from being selfish, self consumed people, to people of love who live for others. At some point all Christians need top stop being Christian for selfish reasons and start being a force for transformation, or Christianity will die.

This sums up my strategies-  but obviously it doesn't apply only to youth ministry.  I think that any Christian that thinks that they are at stage 6, discipleship, should also be evangelizing, and I think most of these principals are true no matter who you are evangelizing to. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is there such a thing as objective sin, or does it always depend on the situation?

Q:  I've been reading through your blog entries and I've noticed that a few times you draw on the point that people often want an overly legalistic definition of what sin is and isn't. That this is a flawed way of looking at it, because "[sins] are things that are not loving and so take you or others away from God", and that "people living by the rules miss the point entirely".

That makes perfect sense to me, but how then can one make a blanket statement that something is always a sin? Like if someone breaks into a families house in the middle of the night and the dad yells a choice selection of four letter words to scare the intruder away, he is doing it out of love for his family. 

That might be a bad example given your response to "Why is swearing a sin?", but the point I'm trying to make is that I don't see how there can be certain things that are always wrong, regardless of context. Given the right circumstances, is there not always a case in which something is not actually sinful?

Intuitively, that doesn't sound right to me. To say, "It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you're not opposing love by doing it" seems to me to be on the path towards moral relativism. By extension then, it doesn't matter what Church you belong to, as long as you're a good person, but I've heard this notion mocked more than once. And rightly so, Jesus was pretty clear about the necessity to all be one in Christ. 

I may have strayed from the point a bit here, but what I'm trying to get at is that I don't understand how love can be the only consideration in determining what is and isn't sinful. That sounds great and makes logical sense to me, but it seems very counter intuitive to what I've grown up thinking.

A:  This is a fascinating question, but one that I struggled to sum up in a single sentence for the title, so I doubt many people will read it!

I theology professor of mine once explained that every heresy is the overemphasis of one truth over another, while the truth always falls somewhere in the middle.  So, for example, some heresies emphasized Jesus' humanity, and ignored or denied his divinity, and others emphasized his divinity.  But the truth is he is both human and divine.

You use the example of 'four letter words', but I actually think that swearing is the perfect example of one end of the spectrum.  I don't use the 'f-word' our of respect, but I don't think it is inherently sinful, and think that when french people describe seals there's nothing wrong with using the 'ph-word'.  

So on one end of the spectrum you have people who want to declare that "Swearing is a sin" and then they want to define what precisely is a swear, and struggle to differentiate between ass as a swear referring to a gluteus maximus, and the innocent bible friendly term referring to a donkey.  So the most flexible man in the Bible is lot, who tied his ass to a tree and walked a mile.  I don't even think that within this context, I have sinned by using the term!  

Anyway, that is the legalistic end, and I think it is the end to which most of us err.  We want strict definitions on how far is too far and which words are swears and conditions for cohabitation and for wars.  And if it is not clearly defined we are frustrated.  But truth is, it is not clearly defined! Because moral life is a skill, not a list of rules.  Like in any other skill, say Basketball, there are rules, guidelines, and advice, all of which we have to function within.  But even if you do everything technically within the defined guidelines, you need to hone your skill before you can score!

At the other end of the spectrum are the 'relativists'.  These are the people who want to say that whatever they feel is right, is right.  This philosophy is very popular, because it is very tolerant and accepting. There seems to be a general movement in our culture to thinking that this is totally right, and that legalism, and so all rules, is very wrong.  You notice the irony even in saying that.  But the last thing people want to do is to be 'condemning', or to try to declare anything to be a sin.  Interestingly, people who adopt that philosophy tend to pretty readily condemn anyone they perceive as being judgmental. At the extreme ends of that spectrum are people who want to explain away things like the holocaust and say that it wasn't really wrong, and we can't judge what they did, etc.  Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, competing philosophies, but I would argue that it is important and even our responsibility to acknowledge that the holocaust was wrong.  I think most people intuitively agree with me.

So simply, are somethings wrong in every circumstance?  Sure. Torturing the innocent.  Sexually molesting a child.  I cannot imagine a circumstance where these things would not be wrong.

But I will go further.

Abortion is always wrong.  In every circumstance.  Now I don't judge the individual who has an abortion-  they may have had faulty information, a poorly formed conscience, extenuating circumstances. It is because of this that the responsibility of the Church is to provide good information, help form consciences properly, and provide for solutions to the extenuating circumstances.  When we say that something is wrong that does not give us licence to judge and condemn people.  It means that what they did was inherently, spiritually destructive.

Think of you spiritual health as being comparable to physical health.  Some things are ok in moderation, but harmful in excess.  Other things are always harmful.  And other things kill you.   The Catholic Church are the doctors who help identify the threats, and then treat the damage done by them.  Some things which are harmful in some situations- like lopping off a limb- are the necessary medicine in other situations.  But this requires judgement and expertise.

This is why it does matter which religion you believe in.  The Church has been given the Holy Spirit to help it identify the various threats.  So the Church isn't just guessing-  the Church has guidance and the guarantee of getting it right.  

If all you have to go on is instinct to from your conscience, I doubt that you would ever come to the conclusion that contraception is contrary to the dignity of human life and thus of sex, and so is wrong.  (Though some people do figure it out on their own).  The Church then has 2000 years of accumulated wisdom coupled with the guarantee and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  

What we need to do as individuals is first of all give our 'assent of faith' to the Church.  This means that if our own judgement does not align with that of the Church, we assume that the Church got it right instead of ourselves.  Under this we allow our consciences to be formed.  This means we hone our skills, learn how to apply the principals of morality to our daily lives. After that we "Love, but do what we will" as St Augustine put it.  

There isn't some rule book which you can just look up your particular moral dilemma in and get a hard and fast answer.  That's because God doesn't want people who are just skilled at following rules.  God wants people who are skilled at loving.