The Christian Moral Life: Roman Catholic and Lutheran Perspectives

Copyright © LET’S TALK. Used with permission. From Let’s Talk, Volume 6, Issue 2

[1] Comparing our two moral traditions is probably a dangerous undertaking for a Roman Catholic (or for a Lutheran, for that matter). I shall therefore begin with words from a mentor, James Gustafson. In his important work, Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Roman Rapprochement, he suggests that both traditions share a common question, “namely, how can the Christian community and its members make moral decisions and moral judgments which are both responsive and responsible” (p. 33). In light of this shared question, he continues, “Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians are learning from each other.” In the past thirty-five years since the Roman Catholic church’s Second Vatican Council the mutual learning has been amazing, culminating in 1999 with the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

[2] Yet it still seems that Lutherans and Roman Catholics have diverse understandings both about how and why one lives one’s life as a Christian and about what the church ought to say regarding moral issues. Many Lutherans might think that Roman Catholics are too dependent upon precise rules binding their behavior in areas such as divorce, contraception, abortion, or in vitro fertilization. They see Catholics asking some authority, whether that is pastor, bishop, or pope, either for permission to do something or for a “dispensation” not to do something. On the other hand, some Catholics might think that in the Lutheran church everyone makes up their own rules as they go along. Lutheran appeals to faith and biblical authority do not seem comforting at all. In view of both apparent rapprochement and yet deeply felt differences, one may very well ask: Do Lutherans and Roman Catholics look upon ethics at all in similar ways? And if there are differences, what accounts for them?

[3] The easy answer is that there is probably more that unites Lutheran and Roman Catholic understandings of the moral life than what divides them. This should not be a surprise since both communions depend upon a common scripture and, at least prior to the sixteenth century, shared a common history. Yet the last four hundred years have also had an effect on the way Lutherans and Catholics concretely live their moral lives. Given the complexity within and between the churches, it might be helpful to begin not by explaining where Lutherans and Roman Catholics stand on the concrete issues facing the churches but rather by asking about the reasons both churches give for being moral.

Roman Catholic Moral Theology

[4] Roman Catholics understand moral theology as the study of the implications of faith for the way people live – both for the sorts of persons we become (virtue) and for the actions we ought (or ought not) to perform. Furthermore, Catholics see such actions as affecting their union with God, either by placing them in a state of sin, thereby turning one’s heart away from God, or by enhancing the state of grace by virtuous living, thereby uniting them even more closely to Christ in active love. Thus Roman Catholics consider their moral actions as having religious significance, affecting their relationship with God. Catholics do not see this as “justification by works.” Rather, as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification states, “according to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ deepened” (par 38).

[5] The Roman Catholic church often appeals to natural law as the basis of its teaching. Such teaching is not based on laws of nature as a contemporary biologist or physicist would understand them. Rather, natural law is concerned with the nature and destiny of the human person and what sorts of actions are consistent (or inconstant) with human nature. Especially in the past 400 years, Roman Catholic moral theology has grounded its moral arguments in this natural law tradition rather than in the authority of Scripture. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to claim that there is no scriptural basis for Roman Catholic moral theology (see, for example, Porter, 124-146). Furthermore, inspired by the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moralists have attempted to return to a more self-consciously biblical articulation of the moral life.

[6] The leaders of the Roman Catholic church, that is the pope and bishops, understand that part of their duty as teachers is to offer official moral guidance to the members of the church. The Roman Catholic church describes this duty as part of the church’s “magisterium” or authentic teaching office. Members of the church are to accept all such teaching with deep respect. Certain moral issues are considered so central to the church’s identity and mission that the pope and bishops have stated that Catholics may not adopt a contrary position.

[7] The Roman Catholic church has a particular, centuries-old way of communicating official teaching called the “encyclical.” Such documents are written by the pope and are among the most authoritative in Catholicism. They often (though not always) deal with social justice or other ethical issues. Other writings of the pope, while not as authoritative are still important for Catholics in forming their consciences.

[8] National and regional conferences of bishops also issue pastoral statements for Catholics living in their jurisdictions. In the United States, for example, the bishops’ letters, The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All, have been read widely, even by those who are not Catholics. While consultation with others, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic church, occasionally occurs (as in both pastoral letters mentioned above), such consultation is not necessary.

[9] Roman Catholics hold the tradition of a teaching office of the church on moral matters in tension with an equally strong tradition regarding the dignity and inviolability of a person’s conscience. Catholics understand conscience as relating to the moral judgments one must make here and now. The Second Vatican Council described this conscience as a person’s “most secret core and sanctuary” where one “is alone with God whose voice echoes in the person’s depths” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 16). Conscience attends to the values we are committed to and by means of them judges what we must do. Although Catholics acknowledge that there can be tensions between the activity of the individual conscience and the church’s ministry of authentic teaching and moral guidance, they do not see these as contradictory. According to the Catholic church, no external authority can replace the functioning of conscience, but no conscience can be properly formed without the help of the church’s teaching authority.

Lutheran Ethics

[11] Lutherans also believe that ethics is the study of the implications of faith for the way Christians live, but this is not understood in quite the same way as within the Catholic church. If a Catholic, for example, were to ask a Lutheran, “what does ethics mean to you?” the Lutheran might respond using a vocabulary of serving God within one’s station in life or through one’s “vocation.” This answer exhibits a different religious context of ethics. Faith in Christ frees people from their own striving for salvation, and in doing so not only relates them to Christ, whose grace is the source of salvation, but also enables them to discern the deeper meaning of the structures involved in daily living. These life structures – family, ministry, and secular government – are stations ordained by God. Lutheran ethics emphasizes that it is in these concrete stations that God wants people to live responsible lives. It is therefore not moral actions understood as good works that are religiously significant, but rather justification by grace through faith in Christ that rectifies the relation between the person and God. The moral life is the result of this relationship rather than its source. Luther believed that this conviction was central to biblical theology. Consequently, Scripture and not natural law ought to be seen as the primary authority for moral judgments. In fact, Gustafson suggests that the major difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant ethics historically “has been the place of Scripture in ethical thought” (p. 29).

[12] As there is a tension inherent in the Roman Catholic understanding of the moral life, there is also a tension in Lutheran ethics, but it has a different cause. Lutherans believe that the Christian lives in two realities at the same time, secular life, governed by God by means of the law, and Christian life, governed by God by means of the gospel. Each reality is under the governance of God but in sharply different ways. God’s aim in both realities is the same-overcoming evil and recalling creation to God. This tension is present both within the individual believer and in the church community. The Holy Spirit is alive and active within all Christians and calls them to transform their worldly callings into Christian vocation. The church, too, lives in this tension. It must proclaim the gospel in addressing society but must also see itself as part of sinful creation in need of healing.

[13] As the social statement The Church and Society: A Lutheran Perspective, states: “The gospel does not take the church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and to enter more deeply into the world . . .” But, “the gospel does not allow the church to accommodate to the ways of the world.” Nevertheless, the church “shares fully the brokenness of the world. . . . Repentance, forgiveness, and renewal characterize the church that lives under the cross with the hope of the coming in fullness of God’s reign.” The document concludes, “the church must participate in social structures critically. Not only God but also sin is at work in the world. Social structures and processes combine life-giving and life-destroying dynamics in complex mixtures and in varying degrees.” The church must “discern when to support and when to confront society’s cultural patterns, values, powers.”

[14] The ELCA describes itself as a church of moral deliberation in which “Christians fulfill their vocation diversely and are rich in the variety of the gifts of the Spirit. Therefore, they often disagree passionately on the kind of responses they make to social questions.” (Church and Society) The ELCA statement “welcomes and celebrates this diversity” understanding the church as a community struggling together on social questions in order to know better how to live faithfully and responsibly in their various callings or stations. Therefore, processes of deliberation attempt to inform and guide the community’s corporate witness in society. Lutherans have not developed teaching structures similar to the Catholic church because they fear subordinating the Holy Spirit and the gospel to human structures. Their structures of teaching occur by means of a process in which local and national assemblies make a determination of the matter. However, individual believers, guided by the Holy Spirit, are the final judges regarding whether a particular teaching is morally binding on their consciences.

Social Teaching

[15] Social teaching on behalf of both churches is centuries old. Both medieval Catholicism and early Lutheranism had specific teachings regarding the social order. In the brief descriptions that follow, one can see the similarities and differences in social teaching of both communions in broad strokes. As one looks at these social teachings, however, one needs to remember the different judgments that these churches themselves make on the authoritative nature of the teachings.

[16] Responsibility to the Poor. In 1999, the ELCA published the social statement, Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All. It called for members of the church to resist the allure of consumerism and dedicated the church again to work with and on behalf of the poor. Similarly, in his 1987 encyclical, On Social Concern, Pope John Paul II has spoken of “social sin” and the “structures of sin” which give rise to social conditions and institutions that are contrary to God’s goodness. The Pope added that the only antidote to such social sin is the virtue of solidarity with the poor.

[17] War and Peace. In 1983, during the Cold War, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, described the government’s action regarding the stockpiling and potential use of nuclear weapons as one of the most pressing moral questions of the age and called for accelerated work for arms control, reduction, and disarmament. Their desire was to confront all people involved-military personnel, public officials, scientists, educators, ministers, citizens-with the moral responsibilities that their public positions demand. The ELCA’s 1995 social statement, For Peace in God’s World, reflects a similar attitude as the Catholic bishops but is addressed to a post-Cold War situation. It calls especially for a culture of peace, reflecting the challenges of the 1990’s: the strengthening of international cooperation, encouraging the work of non-governmental organizations, and advocating on behalf of refugees.

[18] Environment. Both Lutheran and Roman Catholic ethics’ root concern for the environment in the biblical vision of the goodness of creation. In its statement, Caring for Creation, the ELCA draws upon this vision of creation by suggesting that human sin disrupts both creation and human relationships. The church then uses the rubric of “justice” to discuss ecology, justice understood as acting interdependently and in solidarity with creation. Justice is achieved through participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability. Recent Catholic writings on the environment, especially those of Pope John Paul II, maintain the Catholic tradition’s attention to justice and the global common good but also have added a second emphasis, that of contemplation. The pope had developed this understanding by means of the rubric “co-creation,” which the pope sees as having two axes, subduing the earth and self-mastery.

[19] Capital Punishment. On the issue of capital punishment, both communions have had to reflect upon and revise their own historical traditions that had accepted capital punishment. In one of its earliest social statements, the ELCA went on record opposing the death penalty, suggesting that it undermines morality because of the violence inherent in this form of punishment and the questionable justice involved in its administration. It did acknowledge, however, that its own members might differ from the church position. Similarly, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical The Gospel of Life, stated the strong reservations of the Catholic church. He expressed a deepening concern for the use of the death penalty in modern times, suggesting that the state has at its disposal other means of punishment and protection that better correspond to the common good and to the dignity of the person.

[20] Medical Issues at the End of Life. The fantastic growth of medicine and medical technology continues to challenge Roman Catholics and Lutherans with new questions and new urgency. Both churches acknowledge that patients have the right to refuse treatment when it is burdensome without being beneficial to the patient, and both churches teach that patients need to be kept as free of pain as possible and that the use of pain medication for dying patients is important, even if such therapy may indirectly shorten a person’s life.

[21] Assisted Suicide. Although both churches acknowledge the option of a patient to forgo futile or burdensome medical treatment and the right to be kept as pain-free as possible, both also deny the right to assisted suicide. In its Message on End-of-Life Decisions, however, the ELCA does recognize that there might be ambiguous borderline situations, such as extreme unmanageable pain, that may call this affirmation into question.

[22] Abortion. The ELCA acknowledges that it is God who is the creator of life and that there is a strong Christian presumption to preserve and protect life. It understands abortion as a source for deep concern within the church and therefore in most circumstances it discourages abortion. However, exceptional circumstances are delineated when the choice to abort can be made responsibly. These would include cases of rape, incest, extreme fetal abnormality, and when the physical life of the mother is threatened. Since the Catholic church believes that fetal life is indeed vulnerable human life that demands protection, it considers all direct abortion to be the taking of innocent human life and therefore seriously morally wrong. The Catholic church acknowledges that “in certain cases, perhaps in quite a considerable number of cases, by denying abortion one endangers important values.” It nevertheless concludes that “none of these reasons can ever objectively confer the right to dispose of another’s life” (Declaration on Procured Abortion).

[23] Sexual Ethics. Both Lutheran and Catholic ethics acknowledge that human sexuality was created good for the purpose of expressing love and generating life. Both acknowledge that in the area of sexuality God’s law serves the person by providing guidance and exposing sinfulness. Both acknowledge that marriage appropriately provides a structure of security and stability within which persons may enjoy full sexual expression. The difference between the two communions revolves around the evaluation of the moral significance of the act of intercourse itself. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, On Human Life, explains that both the love-expressing and life-giving purposes of sexuality always be harmonized in each act of intercourse. This understanding of the inseparability of the two aspects of intercourse leads on the one hand to the Roman Catholic church’s opposition to artificial contraception, seeing the love-expressing aspect of intercourse emphasized to the detriment of its life-giving aspect, and on the other hand to its condemnation of most forms of technologically assisted reproduction, especially in-vitro fertilization, seeing in such technologies the emphasis of the life-giving aspect to the detriment of the love-expressing. On the other hand, the ELCA states that respect and sensitivity for one’s partner may necessitate the use of contraceptives. Furthermore, while respecting the procreative capability of sexual intercourse, it also appreciates the potential benefit of new reproductive technologies, while acknowledging that such technologies bring with them “complex ethical questions.”

[24] Homosexuality. The ELCA acknowledges that a great deal of disagreement exists within its own church body regarding homosexuality. Some theologians and pastors see homosexual activity as contradictory to the meaning that God has placed in sexuality in creating persons male and female. Others believe that homosexual actions need to be evaluated within the context of a loving and committed relationship. Nevertheless, the ELCA has stated that it values the gifts and commitments of gays and lesbians to the church. The Catholic teaching is clear in its position: Although the Catholic church maintains that homosexual orientation in itself is not sinful, it also teaches that homosexual acts are gravely immoral. Both churches, however, do condemn acts of violence and prejudice directed against homosexual persons.

[25] Genetics. The Roman Catholic church approves genetic testing and forms of genetic therapy, provided they safeguard the life and integrity of mother and embryo. The Catholic church, however, prohibits so-called germ line genetic therapies, that alter the genetic makeup of the zygote as well as any procedures which destroy the embryo, such as research or therapies using embryonic stem cells. The ELCA is currently developing a social statement on health care and genetics, but it has already spoken out on a variety of areas in genetics, offering support to its members contemplating genetic screening and therapy as long as such interventions preserve personal integrity and social dignity.


[26] Since Christian ethics is the concrete living out of our faith convictions, it is not surprising that the different emphases in Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism lead to different articulations of the moral life. What might be more surprising for both Lutherans and Catholics is how similar the churches’ concrete positions are on many moral issues. It is in the area of abortion and certain teachings on sexual ethics that the greatest divergence between the official church statements occurs. In many other areas of morality the public statements of both church bodies correspond significantly.

Church documents can be found on the appropriate web sites:

Althaus, Paul. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.
Bloomquist, Karen L., and Stumme, John R., eds. The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
Gustafson, James. Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
Porter, Jean. Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.