12 May 2017

My teaching career began in 1969. In those early years as a high school religion teacher, in Battle Creek, Michigan, and a philosophy instructor at the local community college, I put a big stress on “values clarification.” In many ways I guess I still do. I have to thank my own high school and university teachers, who encouraged me to ask “why?” about my beliefs, principles, and behavior.

“Values clarification” is something we greatly need today: for individuals, for groups, and for institutions and their institutional leaders. 

Some fundamental questions arise in values clarification exercises: What are a person’s basic beliefs, principles, and attitudes? What are they are based on? Are they good and healthy values? How does one know? If these are one’s values, is one’s behavior consistent with them? If institutions or institutional leaders do not have good values, is values education and transformation possible? Is it enough to inform the emperor that he has no clothes? Or maybe one needs a new emperor who has better sense?  

Today in church, business, and politics we could use some deeply probing values clarification exercises: holding up mirrors and helping people take a good look at their values, helping them evaluate the quality of their values; and for institutional leaders – whether ceos, bishops, or politicians – helping them examine whether or not their behavior is consistent with the institution’s stated principles and values. A citizen values clarification review board? 

Quite often, of course, the people who must courageously hold up the mirrors are the people who buy the products, the church members who gather for week end services, or the citizens who cast their votes. Quite often they see very clearly what is going on.  

It is difficult, for instance, to reconcile continued public lying, promoting racist stereotypes, mocking people with disabilities, and denigrating women and bragging about grabbing their genitalia with any sense of healthy Christian virtue. When 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians express their support for a man who does these kinds of things, one has to question the authenticity of their “Christian” belief; but it takes courage to say these kinds of things.  

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, by way of example, many Catholics supported the candidate who was elected, because of his firmly-stated anti-abortion position. They agreed with Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, who endorsed the candidate and encouraged his faithful followers to do the same. This week in Boston, former president Obama was given the Profile in Courage Award, but the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts strongly criticized Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley for attending the award ceremony. Cardinal O’Malley is the former chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, said that O’Malley’s presence demonstrated an “appalling betrayal of the pro-life movement,” because Obama is “the most pro-abortion president” in U.S. history. Really? Well I think this is a good case study for some serious values clarification discussion about abortion and pro-life policies. Is the current occupant of the White House such a strong pro-life advocate? I simply ask the question. 

For the sake of values clarification while reflecting on the “pro-life” policies and actions of both U.S. presidents, I think the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” deserves serious consideration. Therein we read:  
To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion and euthanasia is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care….We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas….the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. 

While sharing my thoughts about values clarification with a good friend, he asked what I meant by “public morality.” A good question. Public morality is based on commonly agreed upon values that keep us from killing each other and maintain the common good of all citizens by protecting and guaranteeing, as we read in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal and have absolute rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

In any values clarification exercise about public morality in the United Sates, one has to begin with fundamental values stated in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the United States has endorsed since 1948. In these public morality foundational documents, one finds ample material for a very serious values clarification exercise about current U.S. domestic policy and foreign actions. (Is it surprising that libertarian billionaires, and friends of the current D.C. administration, Charles and David Koch are no now calling for and say they will fund a constitutional convention to re-write the U.S. Constitution?) 

In all programs for promoting healthy moral behavior, values clarification is a first step in a three-stage course of action.The first step is to make clear and objective observations about what is being said and done. Stage two calls for serious reflection about an appropriate course of action about what is being said and done…. In stage three, people strategize and then go into action to achieve the necessary goals.  

Values clarification is our challenge and our responsibility. In our country right now, the clock is ticking….. 

5 thoughts on “Values Clarification

  1. Your theme is of vital importance “in our country right now.” Thoughtful and well said. Thank you.

  2. Once again, Jack, you have nailed it! The conflict between organizational “rules/regulations” and personal integrity seems to be part of all of our society’s institutions. I often wonder if those who take a stand with the establishment on (what seem obvious to me!) wrong positions, be they within a church or political arena, really believe what they are told or simply have undeveloped personal value systems. (If one blindly follows what one is told by an authority, there is no chance of being wrong!) Slavish acceptance of a doctrine without a personal evaluation of that doctrine is scary and dangerous when applied to public policy. You are a prime example of one who works for change by remaining within the organization and calls out those who promote obvious errors in the name of correct orthodoxy. Your power and those like you is that you remain within and question blind compliance with erroneous doctrine which forces the “rule makers” to know what they are talking about.

    I remember the shock when, as a young seminarian, I learned that Vatican II acknowledged that if one’s conscience or personal value system was compromised by a personal decision, it would not be a sin to follow your own inner compass. It was a bit unnerving to realize that I might be able to follow my own morality, not as a way to justify my own errant ways, but that I might be able to make my own decisions! What a responsibility! But, as you have said, I needed to know just what I believed. The older I get (70 this July!) the more I realize that I don’t need a cleric or a president to tell me right from wrong!!

    Thanks again, Jack, for your wonderful thoughts.

  3. Jack, What a wonderful essay for self-examination. As a “liberal”, I denounce the perception that I am pro-abortion. I also denounce the perception that being anti-abortion means that one is pro-life. I believe that our Church has used our sexuality against us as a means of control and by so doing have left women as the seductress, the one who is “more” at fault, making pregnancy a punishment and form of shame. Think about how humanity might feel about pregnancy if our Church embraced our sexuality, with the understanding that being able to share our love, without the fear of pregnancy (contraception), might change our opinion making pregnancy the gift that it is, and reducing abortions except in matters of health, rape, etc. Controlling the laity, through our God-given sexuality is the real sin. Getting real could end a lot of division within the Church and our nation’s politics. Thank you , Jack, for another great, thought-provoking read.

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