The Beauty of the Moral Life

Moira McQueen spoke at the April 19 session of Nothing More Beautiful at St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Moira McQueen spoke at the April 19 session of Nothing More Beautiful at St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton.

May 7, 2012
Following is the witness talk given by moral theologian Moira McQueen at the April 19 session of Nothing More Beautiful.

I am honoured to be here tonight with you in this beautiful cathedral. The whole endeavour of Nothing More Beautiful is a wonderful model of prayerful evangelization, and, having watched several previous sessions, I find it truly inspirational.

To be invited to be in the company of Archbishop Smith, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as Archbishop Lacroix, the primate of Canada, together with you all, is a great honour.

I was asked to give the witness talk, and I find this challenging and humbling, since I don't usually think of myself as a witness. I should, because as disciples of Christ that's exactly what we're called to be, but I don't think that way.

My work in moral theology and bioethics usually involves analysis, reflection and teaching, and therefore I usually dwell on specific topics, not on my personal engagement in what I do, at least in an articulated way. And so this presented an opportunity for me, not just to reflect on the moral life, which I frequently do as part of teaching and writing, but also to reflect on why I find the moral life to be beautiful.

For that, I have to tell you a little about the steps in my own journey towards that viewpoint.

The priest who baptized me thought that "Moira" was a pagan name, and therefore baptized me "Moira Mary." Moira is Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic for Mary, and so I rejoice in the name "Mary Mary," which was pretty smart of the priest, since I've been known to be quite contrary ever since.

It could also mean that I'm supposed to pay special attention to our Blessed Mother, since I'm named for her twice – perhaps to make sure that I get the message.

I come from an ordinary Catholic family, but I was listening to what Archbishop Lacroix was saying about the ordinary family being witness, being the Catholic way, and maybe this is more of what once was considered "ordinary": Confession on Saturday morning, Mass on Sundays and holydays of obligation, Grace before meals at my Irish grandfather's house every Sunday, the rosary every so often (my mother had a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima) . . . the faith was part of everyday life.

I was lucky enough to attend Notre Dame High School, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whose motto on our school hats and on our school blazers, was "Rejoice Always!" I liked that – it's so positive– and for a while thought seriously about joining their order.

My mother was open to the idea but not very encouraging: "I'm not sure, Moira: you talk too much!" It turned out she was right about the vocation, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. I've been talking for my living, one way or the other, ever since. The same mother also remarked when she heard I had kissed the Blarney Stone that that was surely an unnecessary move.

FOCUS ON JUSTICE

I decided to be a lawyer, because I had a sense that justice was of prime importance, and so attended the University of Glasgow, where I earned my degree and also met an energetic medical student, Matthew McQueen. We were in different clubs in our debating society, but had the same underlying values. The sparring involved in debates has been useful ever since in what I call our "skirmishes," since we are both pretty opinionated.

We married in the Jesuit church in Glasgow, and our first son, Kevin, was born while I was articling. I finished that part of my training just in time to deliver a second son, Paul. Out of the blue, my husband was offered a job at Dalhousie University and, four months after our third son, Martin, was born, we set off for Halifax.

We planned to stay for possibly two years, but, as it turned out, we never went back to Scotland. The church we attended in Halifax was friendly and lively, and we made some good friends. Our first daughter, Margaret-Mary, was born there, but Matt was offered a job at McMaster University in Hamilton, and so we packed up the family and moved to Burlington, Ont., where, seven months later, our fourth son and fifth child, Iain, was born.

We were now also doing our bit for the population of Canada.

Again we were extremely fortunate in our choice of church, and the pastor there became a good friend of the family. Matt and I formed a marriage preparation team, we taught natural family planning even as we embraced our second daughter and sixth child, Alison. I led children's liturgy and family life groups, we were eucharistic ministers, and altogether we were blessed and busy.

Moira McQueen says we need to move away from notions of morality based strictly on law.

Moira McQueen says we need to move away from notions of morality based strictly on law.

I had been involved as a leader in our regional pro-life group for some time, and was starting to think about going back to law, once our youngest started kindergarten.

But the abortion debate and other life issues in society were troubling me, as were some of the attitudes shown and reasons expressed by some of the people on my own "side." I didn't like some of the rhetoric that is heard in these political matters, and I realized that I needed and wanted to find more detailed explanations of these life issues from the perspective of Catholic teaching.

THEOLOGY STUDIES

So I decided to take some theology courses. I had attended some informal, parish-based Scripture sessions a few years beforehand, and had been pleasantly surprised at the critical approach demonstrated by Father Fred Scinto, an approach about which I knew virtually nothing.

That was eye-opening for me, and helped pave the way for my decision. (Incidentally, when the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute presents our parish-based programs, people sometimes say they wish they had had that information earlier in their lives, or that they wish they knew more about Church teaching. I encourage them to enroll in some courses. It worked that way for me.)

I enrolled at St. Michael's faculty of theology and enjoyed the courses in the MDiv program, but really struck oil when I started courses in Christian ethics.

I remember thinking, "This is theology?" It just made so much sense to me – my legal training in analysis, etc., kicked in, but God was in this, too. Natural law, yes, that made sense to me.

Gradually I began to see why I had felt this pull towards studying theology: It helped me make sense of my faith. It helped me grow in my relationship with Christ.

St. Thomas Aquinas talks about grace building on nature, and I have never ceased to feel grateful for the grace I was given to act on my decision to study Catholic teaching, which ended up in my switching careers and, in fact, in changing me and the course of my life, I have to say, toward a more complete commitment, both in my personal and professional life, all my life in fact, to Christ.

In practical terms, it wasn't easy studying with the six at school and all of them heavily involved in all sorts of activities, and it led at times to some funny incidents.

One of them involved Martin, our third son, who has always been one of those: "Mrs. McQueen, could I just have a little word with you about Martin" at school interviews etc.

When he was about age 15, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who taught in the high school Martin was attending, and she told me, "Moira, a couple of days ago Martin didn't have his homework done, and so the teacher said to him, 'Well, what's the problem? You know you were supposed to do this.' And he said, 'I'm terribly sorry but my mother's in the detox.'"

So within 15 minutes, as you can imagine, in the school staffroom, "Have you heard about poor Moira McQueen? She's in the detox." This particular teacher happened to know that as part of my MDiv program, I was doing a field placement, and yes, it was in the detox.

As Martin said to me later, "I did not tell a lie. You were in the detox." Multiply that by so many incidents – I'm sure most of you can relate to this. He's still a master of the straight face.

I won't go on, but you probably do know that at family gatherings these tales come back and forward all the time. It's been a wonderful experience, in fact.

Apart from that, working in St. Michael's Detox in Toronto certainly changed how I reacted to those with addictions, since I have more knowledge about causes and so on. Similarly, one summer volunteering for four months full time at Martha House, a shelter for abused women in Hamilton run by the Brothers of the Good Shepherd, changed how I look at the issue of violence against women and violence in general.

THEOLOGY FACULTY

I usually teach courses in the theology faculty on fundamental Christian ethics, on sexuality and marriage, on bioethics, but every other year, I teach a course on individual and social justice, and gradually have included components on homelessness, trafficking, addictions, abuse, etc., from the point of view of Catholic social teaching.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The three years studying for the MDiv at St. Mike's faculty of theology passed quickly, and when one of my professors suggested I continue studying for a doctorate in moral theology, it just felt like the right thing to do.

My husband and kids were extremely supportive. They had to be, because literally the day before my first doctoral class I discovered I was pregnant with child number seven, 10 years after number six.

I wondered if I could handle an intense study program, pregnancy (at a somewhat advanced age) and the existing family, given the size it was. Everybody else seemed to think I could do it, so I did. Thanks be to God and my supportive husband, it worked.

Patrick was perhaps not "planned," in the sense that so many people talk about their families these days, but he had the grace to be born the following May, and the semester had finished in April and my papers were all done and handed in.

In the second year of my doctorate, when it got to April, partly because I now had Patrick, my papers were not all done, and my husband said, "Moira, we should have had another child and you would have finished those papers!" He has a wonderful logic – this is where Martin gets it from.

Our local pro-life group in Halton region had just opened a crisis pregnancy centre in Burlington, and I was the chair for many years. I could certainly relate to older women who were pregnant, assuring them that it is not quite "the end of the world" as one woman tearfully told me, but the start of something beautiful.

NO CHILD A BURDEN

Our Patrick was treated as a gift by our family and friends, and no-one could imagine life without him now. Children are not burdens, although some in society persist in finding them so.

So now you know a bit about me. We didn't plan to come to Canada – it happened to us, and we said "yes." We didn't plan to have a big family, but we decided we would be open to that, to trust in God, to trust in Christ and just be open to it, and I particularly like our Church's teaching on that openness.

We have never regretted it (well, hardly ever!). I didn't plan to be a theologian, but lots of moral decisions in my life led me to pursue that path. I don't think of it as a career, the way law was – it's a way of life, a vocation, and I am fortunate to be teaching in a theology faculty while also being engaged outside the university in parish and civic life through my work in bioethics for CCBI (Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute).

You know, sometimes when the terms "moral theology" and "bioethics" come up, people become a little wary. Oh, they think, we're in for some heavy preaching here, someone haranguing us about what's right and what's wrong.

But that is not what it's about. If we are Catholic, our morals and our values are based on the teaching and example of Christ and his followers. We follow Gospel values, while most other ethics are based on secular philosophies.

In my work I stress that I am a theologian, and then people know in advance that what I say should be grounded in The Word, in Revelation, in Christ, first and foremost, even if sometimes what is said does not reflect that in an articulated way.

For me, the foundational beauty of moral theology, of the moral life, is that it stands on the firm belief that every single one of us is made in God's image, not in the image of some transient government, court of law or philosophy.

That belief clearly has many consequences, all founded on one major principle: the inherent dignity of every human being from conception until natural death. There is not another denomination in the world that holds without exclusion to this foundational belief in the worth of every human being.

From this principle we conclude that actions such as embryonic destruction in the name of research, abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and so on are wrong, or as the Church says, intrinsically evil. They can never be justified.

The implications for our moral stances – those of us who are following Christ – are clear, and we are inevitably drawn into legal and political matters because of these differing views. I find that my beginnings in law have been more helpful than I ever could have imagined.

Yet the beauty of the moral life is not primarily about laws, rules or codes. These exist to help human flourishing, and must be insisted upon, but they are secondary. This is the crux of what I believe and teach about the moral life in Christ, and the message that I hope anyone I'm involved with will come to see.

TRUE BEAUTY

The true beauty of the moral life for me as a Christian rests on my relationship with God, and with Christ, and with the Spirit. The Great Commandment is absolutely foundational: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. It is important to note that all three must be loved.

This commandment needs to be worked out in practice, of course, but its wisdom speaks to my heart, and I know it must be obeyed. Further, because I see the intrinsic goodness and beauty in this call, I want to obey. That commitment of my freedom leads me to choose to follow the Way, to follow Christ's way.

For all of us on the Way, our moral decisions will continue to take shape as we journey, following the example of Jesus who always pointed to the Father, and who gave himself over to the Father's will.

This afternoon outside the seminary I saw that beautiful white statue of Jesus looking as if he is welcoming people, but as Archbishop Smith says, is also pointing toward the Father.

Father Jack Gallagher, one of my moral theology teachers at St. Mike's, wrote a brilliant book several years ago called The Basis for Christian Ethics, and in it he talks about the Christian moral life, based on St. Thomas Aquinas' theological discourses on philosophical principles and the importance of reason, but more essentially being "life in the Spirit."

This approach, based on St. Paul's theological insights into the dynamic rule of love as opposed to the rule of law, takes us far from a legalistic approach to ethics and into the transcendent dimension of following the Way, following Christ.

My own alma mater, Glasgow University, founded in 1451, has as its motto: Via, Veritas, Vita: The Way, the Truth and the Life, and this is what Paul points us towards. Our ethics, our moral life, means that we are disciples of Jesus, guided by the Spirit on the Way to the Father, although of course we have to have some laws, or rules and regulations, for living in community and society.

'Be with me Lord, when I am in trouble, be with me, Lord, I pray.'

'Be with me Lord, when I am in trouble, be with me, Lord, I pray.'

The Old Testament serves us well in stressing God's Covenant with his people, and the Ten Commandments give flesh to that arrangement. When Jesus addressed the crowds at the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew's Gospel tells us that he did not give us rules and laws, or another set of commandments. He gave us the Beatitudes.

POOR IN SPIRIT

He told us how we are to be, and some of those blessings do not always appeal to us at first sight: to be poor in spirit, to be meek and humble of heart, possibly to be persecuted, but also to thirst for justice, and so on. When we think of it, of course, Jesus himself modelled every one of those to the extreme.

The Beatitudes deserve more attention in our Catholic teaching, since they reflect the voice of Jesus pointing to the Father and to the reign of God. Note again that Jesus did not indicate specific requirements for us in our attempts to bring about God's reign, but, rather, he forever raised our awareness of how we are to act and react in the type of circumstances he described.

Yet the beauty of this approach is that we always remain fundamentally free as to how we will respond, or whether we will even respond at all.

This freedom shows itself clearly in the exercise of our conscience, and the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes tells us that it is here that we are closest to God. This is one of my favourite teachings when we're talking about conscience because of its depths of meaning and trust in each individual's freedom to choose which path he or she will follow. Section 16 says:

"In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that.

"For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths."

Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a woman. There she is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in her depths. This gift of conscience, this freedom that we're given, is immense.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

You can tell that I have been fortunate with my family, and we have had the usual ups-and-downs of family life, but perhaps my biggest challenge so far was facing breast cancer.

When I was diagnosed, I went through the same motions as most people – denial, anger, self-pity and fear. I tried to put a brave face on it, but admit that it was strange to see my own children look at me with such concern etched on their faces. I'd always been the one who looked after them; that's the way it works in families. I'd always felt so independent.

I remember being at Mass a few weeks after the diagnosis, and hearing the psalm: "Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble, be with me, Lord, I pray." I broke down, finally, and realized that I really was in trouble, and that death was a possibility if the treatments didn't work.

The surgery, the usual sessions of chemotherapy and radiation were difficult, as they are for everyone, and for that year and longer it was hard having no hair and much less energy than usual. Several of my friends took turns accompanying me to the chemo sessions, and I realized the beauty and the blessing they were to me: they and my family were God's way of being with me when I was in trouble.

I was fortunate that six years later I was deemed cancer-free, and it's been challenging, but helpful, ever since then when questions about cancer come up in parish and other sessions.

The Church's teaching on proportionate or disproportionate care (or ordinary or extraordinary as we sometimes still call it) is very meaningful to me and my own experience is helpful in explaining that teaching.

I understand when people do not want to endure chemo, for example, and am glad that our Church allows us to make up our own minds in our individual circumstances about our treatments.

Through these kinds of experiences, it has become clearer to me in reflecting on the beauty of the moral life and what that means to me that the Lord gives us all different gifts, for different purposes, but especially for the building up of individuals and the community.

TRUE HAPPINESS

St. Thomas Aquinas frequently said one of the main aims of the moral life is human flourishing, and this is a wonderful way of seeing that the moral life, aimed at goodness, also brings about true human development and true happiness. I have become more aware of my gifts over the years, as well as my failings, and am fortunate to be in an environment that uses the gifts, and helps clarify the failings.

As a laywoman and educator, I am also fortunate to be able to share whatever knowledge I have in the realm of bioethics and sexual ethics for the good of individuals and for the community. I am glad to be able to use my voice in the Church, and even more glad that I paid attention to that voice that prompted me to pursue theology, to develop my relationship with Christ.

DISPELLING DOUBTS

It's a vast field, and I am constantly learning, but nothing gives me more pleasure than helping other people to "see" things in matters which before were unclear to them, or to dispel some of the doubts that exist about the Church's teaching, doubts that are sometimes so completely unfounded.

I continue to learn from the example of others who live their Christianity aimed at the coming of the kingdom, while making matters better for us right here and right now.

To conclude, I thank you all again for having such a wonderful program, and I ask the Lord on behalf of all us to "Be with us, Lord, when we are in trouble," and, at the same time, I take to heart the Pauline teaching incorporated in my high school motto, really a mission statement, since it sums up the beauty of the moral life and the following of Christ: "Rejoice in the Lord always!"