Rev. Dr. Tomi Karttunen: Moral Discernment in the Churches – Some reflections

Firstly, the document discusses a topic, which is a real threat to the visible unity of the churches between the churches and in the churches. As an example is mentioned the tensions within the Anglican Communion regarding the understanding of homosexual relationships. Approximately the same could be said about the Lutheran World Federation and probably about the Methodists and to some extent about the Reformed too. 

It seems that especially the Protestant mainline churches are divided in this issue, not only between the churches in the North and the churches in the South, but also within the Nordic churches. Even in Denmark this question is an issue for a small minority, I think. 


It is useful to carefully to describe the status of this document for the readers, as is done in “Note to Readers”. In a sensitive issue like this, it is especially important to explain what a Faith and Order “study document” means.


In the churches the discernment process doesn’t usually start with a meta-level analysing the process of moral discernment, although it would be helpful. This can usually be said about the ecumenical dialogues too. Therefore it is good and necessary that patient work is done in the reflective meta-level in order to increase mutual understanding and self-critical self-reflection and self-understanding. Preliminary tasks have to be finalized before the work toward convergence on moral issues can begin – or possibly continue in a more formal and analytical way. 

Honesty is Best Policy – Ethical, Theological & Doctrinal Problematic

The starting point is honest and truthful. In the everyday language many moral problems are also in the churches described as purely “ethical”, not as theological and doctrinal problems. However, this has been experienced and analysed as simplification of things which can increase misunderstandings and tensions. It is true that “Moral questions reflect deeply-held theological beliefs about sin and human nature” and that “Moral questions are often encountered within the context of personal experience and are therefore deeply emotionally charged.” Likewise it is true that “Certainty about the rightness and wrongness of one’s own or another’s position on a moral issue … can make dialogue across lines of difference extremely difficult” and that “Churches engage in the process of moral discernment in culturally and ecclesiologically distinct ways that are often not known or understood by one another.”

The Difficulty of Being at the Same Time Objective and Non-Relativistic

It is also important to pay attention to, but more difficult to perform convincingly enough, in the text that “different churches hold different positions on moral issues, and [the document] in no way intends to suggest that all positions are morally equal (cf. §§ 85, 102). There is a general recognition of the existence of universal truths (cf. § 30).” In the liberal Protestant tradition such a position is not self-evident in the discourse. Therefore it is not easy to convince the traditional churches and Christians in general about the sincerity of the analysis of moral discernment process. They can fear or tendencies (in brackets) to “enlighten” or “develop” the understanding of the other so that a joint - or all the positions tolerating understanding - could finally be reached. When differing perspectives are compared and brought into a patient discussion with each other, the perspective should more or less be equal. In practise, it’s not easy to be loyal to this basic approach, which excepts universal truths, if the conflicting perspectives are represented in a balanced and as objectively as possible. Nevertheless it is likewise true that if a person as a person and his or her view is not respected and there is not mutual listening as a human to another human being, then there is no possibility for a constructive discussion and seeking for the truth together in the light of the Christian faith and tradition. 

Moral and Ethical Questions and the Link to Ecclesiology

To many people it perhaps seems that moral and ethical questions regarding especially tensions about the question of homosexuality have emerged during the last ten years or so and that we should discuss rather “doctrinal” or “theological”, not “ethical” questions. Thus it is helpful to remind that “Moral and ethical questions are closely linked with ecclesiology and are thus a matter of faith and order” and that they “have been on the agenda of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches since the early 1990’s” (par. 1). There is no use denying that, although we don’t want to forget that the key dogmas are Trinitarian and Christological and that especially the Reformation churches have pointed out the doctrine of justification as the key criteria of good theology. 


Consequently, we can hopefully see the concrete relevance of the document The Church: Towards a Common Vision (2013) when seeing it is as tool for discerning also the framework of the divisive moral theological questions. A difficult and challenging task is to formulate clearly and wisely enough what is legitimate and what is illegitimate diversity regarding the Christian faith and the life and communion of the churches. 

The Aim of the Study – Identifying Principles and Practices of Moral Discernment

The aim of the study is clearly formulated in par. 8: “Through this study we hope to identify principles and practices of moral discernment we hold in common as churches and to discover where we diverge”. The objective of the study is understandable, and it can be a useful tool, although all details would not reach a shared understanding and approval.


As an example of problems and challenges of churches to “continue to stay in dialogue with one another in the midst of their disagreement” (par. 11) from our Church can be mentioned the theological dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. It was interrupted in the autumn 2014 because of diverging understandings regarding theological anthropology and Christian understanding of marriage - between and in the churches. The cultural tensions between the “East” or “Orthodox culture” and the “West” played also a role and made it difficult to understand each other’s motives. This dialogue can also be seen as an example of different cultures regarding the understanding of authority, hierarchy, dialogue and inner pluralism. 

Clarification of Terminology

I think it is, and would be, useful for our church to reflect on the concept “moral discernment” as a specific church-intern process of moral decision-making. Therefore it is useful that a specific term for this is here unfolded clearly enough. It is good that we are reminded also of the distinction between “normative” and “descriptive” ethics.  

The Challenge of Moral Discernment in and between Churches – the Understanding of Context

It is very true and it reminds me of our church’s and other contexts when in par. 16 it is concluded: “Moral discernment in the Church is complicated by the fact that the church does not operate in a vacuum: it is part of wider society. Sometimes developments in the wider society challenge the Church to reflect anew some of the moral stances it holds; sometimes the Church calls moral developments in society into question. Sometimes the Church is a persecuted minority, and develops its moral teachings accordingly; sometimes it is closely tied to the political majority and wields power and influence in ways that can hinder good moral discernment.” 

I Methodology and Method

The methodological assumptions:


1. The importance of theological anthropological reflection is clear and clearly raised up

An addition to the principles formulated in the previous study Christian Perspectives on Theological Anthropology (2005) is formulated in the document: “Thus, though united by a common desire to realize meaning through goodness, individuals and communities, limited and historical as they are, may find different ways to navigate toward what they variously believe embodies the goodness. Sometimes, these different goals and ways will by complementary; at others, these different goals and ways may lead to conflict.” par. 24. 


The perception is good, analytical and realistic. It is necessary to describe the differencies respectfully in order to make dialogue and better mutual understanding possible. However, this can also bring the impression of relativism to the document when seen from the point of view of traditional Orthodox or Lutheran theology for example. Here is the difficulty, which has been raised up by Orthodox and Catholic commentators regarding the study.


2. Descriptive and prescriptive or normative ethics par. 25

3.“Humility that seeks to understand why and how people and churches engage in moral discernment. Real insight into this why and how is necessary if one is to avoid the pitfalls of moralism, i.e., the destructive division of people into them and us, the bad and the good, the demonic and the truly human, the damned and the chosen, and so on. From this insight, it is hoped will flow instead a readiness to love even those who differ from one’s own moral point of view, especially where no conclusive argument exists for one position or another.” par. 26

This understanding of “humility” as a key point is very wise and carefully formulated in order to avoid both moralism and relativism. 

II Sources for Moral Discernment

It is realistically acknowledged, in par. 30, that although the churches generally agree on the main sources of moral discernment, they nevertheless “might differ in the authority attached to them, and, depending on the moral dilemma being confronted, on the way in which they should be used. … there are different positions in different churches about how … [universal] truths are revealed and known. Furthermore, Christians may also disagree about what role universal truths play in the process of moral discernment… when churches engage in moral discernment they do rank these sources.” 


Although the interpretation may vary, there is quite a broad consensus on the faith resources for moral discernment as indicated in par. 31. Yet human reason and other “sapiental sources” for moral discernment are more problematic. This is especially the case in the subtitles from d to h, from Natural, Social, and Human Sciences to Culture and Cultural Artefacts. Human knowledge, even scientific knowledge varies and is dependent on the context, in many cases also in the natural sciences. 

III Causative Factors in the Disagreements between and within Churches

The analysis and conclusion regarding the factors of disagreement in par. 49 seems to be plausible: 1) Social and ecclesial factors that shape and affect communication and


2) Factors stemming from different approaches to moral discernment and that these factors overlap.


As an example case can be used our dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church to the formulation in par. 64: “Many different cultures and political communities have different protocols regarding how a decision should be reached, which affects how they engage in moral debates.”


Another similar example could be raised up from par. 66: “…sometimes it is the case that the way that one communion allows for diversity among its churches is in conflict with the way other communions understand the limits of diversity. This discrepancy may reveal ecclesiological differences that relate to authority and church structure.”


Very important observation is in par. 69: “It is important to distinguish between power and authority.” If we didn’t distinguish this we couldn’t in the end even see Christ as authority of the Church, if we would question all use of authority as power politics.


Example 11 on the page 50 could be seen as an example of a case where intended neutrality can be interpreted as relativism, because the large majority of churches rejects euthanasia.


I find the suggestions for reflection in general useful, essential and thought-provoking. 

IV Conclusion

A. Articulating Common Ground for Moral Discernment


A necessary and constructive starting point is that (par. 87) “… the churches share many common sources and common commitments. … An awareness of these shared factors and attitudes is important for the study of moral discernment in the churches and can help the churches claim common ground that can serve as the foundation for Christian witness and service.”


It is also true that the churches use Scripture and Tradition, but especially human knowledge differently in moral discernment. They weigh the non-ecclesial sources differently in any given situation, par. 90.


Par. 94 it is important to realize, as already concluded, that “the past 30 years has seen increasing attention to the moral dimensions of ecclesiology.” par. 94. There is a significant threat to church unity posed by responses to divisive moral issues. From this perspective, the booklet Moral Discernment is a good tool. I, and probably also we, can share the conclusion in par. 96: “Affirmation of the value of engaging in structured dialogues about the process of moral discernment is the greatest recommendation developed over the six years of the Moral Discernment in the Churches study.”


The suggestions relating to improving processes of moral discernment and dialogue are helpful in paras 98 to 110:

  • Developing an increased attention to how one’s own historical and cultural context and experience affects one’s position on controversial issues
  • Engaging in dialogue that seeks to reflect on the same issues from the other’s perspective and searching for the common language
  • Recognizing and identifying the ways in which moral issues may affect people at a personal level, whether in terms of personal identity or soteriological understandings
  • Recognizing the cultural norms that improve cross-cultural communication
  • Recognizing how the ecclesiology of a communion or church influences the decision making process can sometimes help illuminate the potential source of disagreement
  • Analyzing where power is located, how power is used and who is benefiting from the power in particular moral situation can help participants think more carefully about some of the social aspects of moral questions
  • Developing the increased consciousness of the pervasiveness and perniciousness of stereotypes and how they function in moral debates can help to prevent stereotypes from interfering in moral discourse
  • Affirming difference and otherness can enhance church community and human flourishing
  • Identifying what sources are being appealed to in different moral arguments and seeking to understand the moral argument that is being made can both be helpful strategies for engaging in dialogue
  • In examining the sources that Christians and churches use in moral discernment, it is important to examine how Scripture is being used and interpreted as a source of authority.
  • Seeking to identify and discuss the core principles informing each stakeholder in the debate can offer common ground that increases understanding on the one hand, and provides a shared witness to the world, to the other.
  • One way of searching for common ground within Christian tradition and values is to identify shared values and principles. This can be a first step toward building trust and improving the quality of the dialogue
  • Developing knowledge about different approaches to ethical approaches to ethical reasoning can allow for deeper understanding across lines of difference.


Rev. Dr. Tomi Karttunen in Nordic Faith and Order Network, 9-10 February 2017, Copenhagen

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