The Importance of the Golden Rule

Wednesday, June 02, 2004



From the Sacred Scriptures:
Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. (Matt 7:12)
Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Lk 6:31)
"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Matt 22:36-40)
"One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mk 12:28-31)
From the most recent Ecumenical Council of the Church:
According to the almost unanimous opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown. (Gaudium et Spes no. 12)
In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (Gaudium et Spes no. 16)
From the Holy Father in an Apostolic Constitution upon promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law:
Granted this, it is sufficiently clear that the purpose of the Code is not in any way to replace faith, grace, charisms and above all charity in the life of the Church or of Christ's faithful. On the contrary, the Code rather looks towards the achievement of order in the ecclesial society, such that while attributing a primacy to love, grace and the charisms, it facilitates at the same time an orderly development in the life both of the ecclesial society and of the individual persons who belong to it. (Sacrae Disciplinae Leges)
From The Catechism of the Catholic Church on "To Choose in Accord with Conscience":
1789 Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."[56]
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ."[57] Therefore "it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble."[58]
56 Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 6:31; Tob 4:15.
57 1 Cor 8:12.
58 Rom 14:21.
We see all these official documents that the constant teaching of the Church proclaimed at the highest levels of authority in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition is that the entire moral law of the Church can be summarized in the golden rule and the two greatest commandments.

It is fitting that a religion that proclaims the incarnation of God in human flesh would be a humanistic religion. Pope John Paul II states that the incarnation reveals "the incomparable dignity of the human person." (EV no. 3).

When a rich man approaches Jesus in Mark's Gospel, and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Mark's Jesus responds as follows:
You know the commandments: 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.'" (Mk 10:19)
What is interesting in Jesus' response is that the first three commandments regarding idolatry, using the Lord's name in vain, and the Sabbath commandment are omitted. It seems that in the moral theology of Jesus, our love for God is expressed by our love for our neighbor:
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. (Jn 15:12)
Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. (1 Jn 2:9-10)
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 Jn 4:18-21)
In dealing with the question whether it is more meritorious to love God or to love our neighbor, Saint Thomas Aquinas argues that we must love God above our neighbor. However, he makes some interesting clarification and nuance in his conclusions:
the comparison may be understood to be between the love of God alone on the one side, and the love of one's neighbor for God's sake, on the other. On this way love of our neighbor includes love of God, while love of God does not include love of our neighbor. Hence the comparison will be between perfect love of God, extending also to our neighbor, and inadequate and imperfect love of God, for "this commandment we have from God, that he, who loveth God, love also his brother" (1 Jn. 4:21)....A man's love for his friends is sometimes less meritorious in so far as he loves them for their sake, so as to fall short of the true reason for the friendship of charity, which is God. Hence that God be loved for His own sake does not diminish the merit, but is the entire reason for merit.
In other words, Aquinas is stating that love of God without love of neighbor is an imperfect love of God, and love of neighbor without love of God is even less perfect. Yet, all love has some merit, and if one must chose, then love of God will naturally lead to love of neighbor and forms the basis for loving one's neighbor.

It would seem from all that is said above that ALL moral teaching of the Church must be demonstrably based on the golden rule.

In making a moral judgment about any act whatsoever, in order to deem an act immoral, one must be able to show that it causes harm to a human being.

This seems to be clear in most of the Church's moral teaching by example, as well as the explicit statements above. It would seem obvious that the moral teaching against murder follows the golden rule. None of us want others to threaten our lives, and therefore, we consider it wrong to threaten the life of others. The same could be said for theft. Nobody likes it when something is stolen from them, and therefore, we must respect the property rights of others. We do not want our spouses cheating on us. Therefore, we accept that adultery is morally wrong. The list goes on and on.

Even non-believers can make sense of the golden rule. Confucius, Socrates, Plato and Seneca all advocated a form of the golden rule. Most of the world's religious and ethical systems teach a form of the golden rule.

Enlightenment philosophers such as Emmanuel Kant argued that the basis of all ethics is to act in such a way that you treat people as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end, and your actions could be translated into a universal principle or law. This amounts to a rational equivalent of the golden rule.

Some Christians are fearful of demonstrating that a core teaching of Jesus can be rationally understood by everyone, including non-believers. However, the Roman Catholic Church has always taught that there is no conflict between natural reason and faith. The first Vatican Council states:
Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.
Saint Peter admonishes us that we should always be able to offer a reasonable explanation of the hope that lies within us, and offer such rationale with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15-16). Saint Paul points out that the laws of God are inscribed even on pagan hearts that have no explicit knowledge of revealed truth (Rom 2:14-15), and he praises the pagans who have come to a limited knowledge of God and righteousness through their natural powers of reason (Acts 17:22-23).

Roman Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit protects the Church from error. The Holy Father and the college of Bishops are "infallible" when defining matters of faith and morals under certain conditions. Likewise, there is an infallibility that extends to the whole Church called the "sensus fidei" as described in Lumen Gentium no. 12.

Authority can be persuasive in certain circumstances. A parent persuades a child to act rightly by asking the child how she or he would feel if someone did to the child what the child is doing to another. Because of the position of the parent to the child, the child is forced to think through a response. Yet, the answer lies within the child. Right moral conduct is not necessarily revealed from without. It lies within us in the depths of conscience.

When the conditions of infallibility were not invoked, the Church has erred in the past. Teachings on slavery are usually the best example, and the inquisitions and the crusades can also be used. These errors could have been easily avoided if all theologians, deacons, priests, bishops and popes would simply apply the golden rule in a rational way to their own teachings before promulgating them.

Saint Thomas Aquinas argues in the First Part, 1.8 of The Summa Theologiae that argument from authority is the weakest form of argument. He advises that heretics can be brought back to truth by leading them "from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another." He points out that frequently, we can find common ground with one another, and from this common ground, we can lead each other to truth by reasoning from these common principles.

Many Roman Catholics try to by-pass the reasoning process by quoting an authoritative document that seems to demonstrate whatever point they wish to make. Then the other person is labeled a "heretic" or a "dissident" if she or he does not simply quietly acquiesce. One reader recently quoted Saint Ignatius of Loyola to suggest that if the Vatican said black were white, she would accept it.

Furthermore, "ad hominem" attack - name calling - is neither a logical argument, nor an effective means of persuasion. Calling someone a "heretic" or "dissident" doesn't really mean much except as an expression that you disagree with the person. If the names are nasty enough, it violates the golden rule to use them.

Blind obedience to a human being holding authority does not strike me as a virtue that God demands. Indeed, if blind obedience to a human being holding authority were salvific, the Nazis running the death camps were the holiest people on earth. The Scriptures say that the state has authority from God. Some German Catholic bishops preached anti-semiticism, and believed the Jewish religion endangered souls for all eternity. Pope Pius XII was silent on the issue. Therefore, being an S.S. officer in the concentration camps was virtuous.
Hopefully, all readers understand that this is absurd!

Based on revelation and reason, it follows that any matter of moral theology defined infallibly by the proper authorities in the Church will need to be consistent with the golden rule according to her own teaching, and this teaching will readily gain assent by the faithful. The golden rule forms the common ground that I believe all Catholics accept, whether liberal, progressive, conservative, traditionalist, or "orthodox". Even if someone in one of these camps is treading in heretical waters, we should be able to bring the person back by appealing to our common assent to the golden rule.

There are some issues of Church teaching today that do not seem to me to meet the test of the golden rule. Rather than simply appealing to authoritative statements from the Vatican, I would like to readers who support the Vatican's position to explain to me how the golden rule applies to these scenarios:

1) Church governance: In any hierarchical secular organization, such as a business corporation, we each appreciate if those of higher position ask for our input on decisions that will effect us. Does the current style of Church leadership follow the golden rule in the way authority is exercised in the Church? In light of the sex abuse scandals, how long can this question be ignored? Bishops were elected in the early Church. Does the golden rule demand a retrieval of tradition?

2) Contraception: Natural family planning is permitted because the intent to express unitive love without intending procreation is not, itself, sinful. How does it violate the golden rule for a married couple to mutually decide to use non-abortificient means of artificial contraception to temporarily prevent pregnancy within the context of their marriage relationship?

3) Women's Ordination: Optatam Totius nos. 3 and 19 call ministerial priesthood a "state of life". Gaudium et Spes no. 29 acknowledges that people have different gifts, but states that it is contrary to God's intent to deny a woman a state of life bases solely on gender. Through baptism, we are all conformed in an ontological way with Christ. It would seem contrary to the golden rule to deny a qualified woman desiring ordination the right to the state of life she experiences as her vocation. How is the exclusion of women from ordained ministerial priesthood not a violation of the golden rule?

4) Priestly Celibacy: If a CEO running a multi-national corporation were demand that all employees must forsake marriage so as to give themselves totally to the corporation, the Church would likely condemn this CEO. Workers would likely strike, and the employer would likely be sued. Most of us would rebel against forced celibacy. Such a rule would seem obviously contrary to the golden rule. Indeed, while Saint Paul freely embraced healthy and holy celibacy, he warns that those who demand celibacy of others are being deceived by demons (1 Tim 4:3). Jesus selected married men for apostolic ministry who took their wives with them (1 Cor 9:1). How is mandatory celibacy for ministerial priests consistent with the golden rule? The faithful also have a right to the sacraments. How is holding the Eucharist hostage in exchange for more male celibates consistent with the golden rule?

5) Gay unions: We saw in the prior question that Saint Paul states that those who force celibacy on others may be deceived by demons (1 Tim 4:3). If someone demanded celibacy of most of us, we would rebel against it. In official Church teaching, free and mutual loving consent has always been considered a part of the sacrament of matrimony. The proverbial "shot-gun wedding" can easily be annulled because of free consent was not given. The Church also recognizes limits to physiological freedom in granting annulments. This is good and right. What does the golden rule demand of us in the case of people who have same sex attractions as a permanent homosexual condition through no fault of their own, and who desire to live out the married vocation? It would seem that the golden rule forbids forcing such people into heterosexual marriage, and forcing a celibate commitment that is not desired. Furthermore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how adults freely and mutually consenting to a permanent homosexual unions are hurting each other or anyone else? They would seem to be following the golden rule, while those who would stop them seem to be violating it. Even if sacramental marriage cannot include homosexuals for sound theological reasons, can a blessing rite equivalent to religious vows be developed that supports gay unions? What does the golden rule demand?

6) Divorced Catholics: Is there anyone among us who wants a mistake - even a sinful mistake - to be held over our heads for the rest of our lives? Let the one among us without sin cast the first stones. Why can't the Church make reconciliation for divorced Catholics who have remarried somewhat more real and meaningful? Isn't the Eastern Orthodox solution just as effective at preventing divorce (if not more so), even as it provides a way for remarried people to come back to communion eventually?

7) Missionary Activity: No Catholic would deny that the state of the person in eternity is more important than a person's physical condition here on earth. Nonetheless, don't we have a moral obligation under the golden rule to listen to others before we preach? And shouldn't we be concerned about the elimination of poverty and oppression along-side of our evangelical efforts? Indeed, would our evangelical activity not be more effective if we stood with and for the poor and oppressed of the world? And doesn't standing with and for another mean that you first have to listen to the other and learn from the other and come to see the world from their point of view? Rather than coming to others with the patronizing message that we have all the answers and a lock on all truth, shouldn't we go out to the world in the spirit of mutual dialogue and respect?

In formulating a response to any one or all of these questions, please try to demonstrate how your answer is rationally consistent with the golden rule without using appeals to authority alone or ad hominem name calling.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:05 PM

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