Reflection on how to make sound moral decisions and how to shape one’s conscience has perennial validity, and so I looked forward to reviewing this book, as these were the questions to be addressed by the author. Fr. Ruland names his intended audience as literate, intelligent college-educated readers (p. xiii), and describes himself as a Catholic priest (p. xi), so as someone who teaches courses on Catholic social teaching and practice, my interest deepened. After reading the text, though, I am deeply concerned as a Catholic and as an adjunct professor that this book is ending up in college classrooms. Ruland’s approach, including the use of several perplexing case studies, as well as his conclusions would, in my estimation, leave his intended readers confused and muddled–not at all better able to make sound moral decisions or to follow a well-formed conscience–whether the reader is Christian or not.
Reading this text would also leave readers with the strong impression that Christ brings nothing unique to moral questions. On the contrary, it teaches that Christian social teaching is only common sense, found in nature; and that the Gospel provides no unique moral norms (pp. 126-127). Catholic teaching would disagree on this point: “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1785). Since Ruland mentions on the first page of the foreword that he is a Catholic priest, it is all the more surprising and sad that he seems to bend over backwards in his explanations and selection of material to downplay the Christian faith, if not to denigrate it in some ways. Over and over, he describes a variety of religious ‘Ways’ (e.g., pp. 20-21, 45) in a manner that equates them, melting them together so that in the end all that matters is taking care of the earth and respecting each other’s rights. I find no sense at all of the Person of Jesus Christ having any reality in this text, or anything meaningful to show or teach about how we are to live, including together in communities and societies. Instead Ruland describes and even affirms a fairly low-level hodgepodge of social ethics, centered around the issues of ecology and human rights (p. 167). Christian or not, religious or not, the approach taken by the author does not give the reader a solid framework to engage in conscience formation.
A lower order point on the writing: Ruland’s vocabulary, grammar and presumption of prior knowledge would not fly in most college classrooms today, at least in my experience.
My advice is to not read this text, except perhaps if you need a reminder of what too many college students today are being exposed to.