On Being a Good Umpire

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Mark 7:21

As the days get a bit longer and a bit warmer, many are looking forward to baseball season (I know I am). Among those on the field that are integral to the game, but not a player on either team, is the umpire. The umpire uses his or her judgment to call balls and strikes, fouls, safe or out. Umpires have rules to make their calls, but they still need to observe and use their own judgment.

As we move through Lent together, most will go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once before Easter. It is a great gift and encounter with Jesus’ Divine Mercy! One thing that recently occurred to me is that every penitent who goes to confession must, in a sense, serve as one’s own umpire. By this, I mean that each person who confesses must make a judgment on one’s own life and choices, determining if whether any of those choices were sins. As with an umpire in baseball, there are objective criteria that help one to make those judgments.

In the Scriptures and in the Church’s living tradition, three things typically go into determining if an act is moral or not, i.e., a sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to these as the Sources of Morality: “Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil. The morality of human acts depends on the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action” (CCC, nos. 1749-1750). This might sound a bit technical at first, but once one understands these three constitutive elements of the morality of human actions, it helps greatly, not only in judging one’s actions after-the-fact, but also before one acts. With that in mind, a brief unpacking of each of these might help us to be better umpires in our own life.

First, the object chosen; this refers to whatever it is that is being considered as a choice, the “matter” of the action. If the thing chosen is intrinsically disordered in a moral sense, it can never be good. Examples are deliberately taking an innocent human life; acts that violate married love such as fornication and adultery, as well other sins against the sixth commandment; acts that attack human dignity such as racism. Other direct and serious violations of the 10 Commandments would also serve as examples. These are actions that are contrary to God and his moral law. We could also identify, using the Gospel and Church Teaching as a guide, sins of omission that could be quite serious, such as denying material or spiritual help to the most vulnerable.

The second element that helps to determine whether an act is good or evil is intention; the end in view when the action is taken. This part of human choice is more subjective. It takes the goal of the activity into account. Our intentions should be good and not bad. To show how our intentions can affect the morality of an act for either good or bad, two examples might be helpful.

First, let us consider an example that Jesus used in the Gospel. He pointed out that the Pharisees and religious leaders of the time performed ritual actions such as prayer and fasting (a good “object”) but they did it out of vainglory, so that they would be well thought of (a bad intention). This is an example of how even an action that is in and of itself good, can be corrupted by a bad intention and become sinful. We can see that one and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, so that in one case the act is truly good, and in another it is not—it depends on the intention.

It is also important to realize that a good intention cannot make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and slander, good or just. For our second example regarding intention, let us say that one wants a job promotion, and to bolster one’s chances, spreads lies about others being considered to destroy their reputations. The intention is a good one (a promotion), but the way to achieve it is not. In other words, the end does not justify the means.

Finally, the third part; the circumstances surrounding the moral act are to be considered, but as secondary elements. As the Catechism notes: “[Circumstances] contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.” (CCC, no. 1754).

To use the examples suggested by the Catechism, stealing a single grape from the grocery is different than stealing someone’s life savings—the gravity of the sin is diminished or increased depending on the amount of the theft. Likewise, acting out of extreme duress or fear could mitigate one’s moral responsibility too.

Circumstances also account for a person’s lack of knowledge and freedom. If a person does not know something is evil, or, if a person lacks or has impaired freedom, that could diminish moral responsibility.

That is why it is best to not be an umpire (a judge) of someone else; we can only make a judgment on the object (the first element), but not know the other two elements (the intention and the circumstances). These can only be known by the person and God.

In summary, when considering one’s actions (either evaluating them after-the-fact or prior to making an act), a morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the intention, and of the circumstances together. All three elements should line up in the “good” column.

All this wisdom is also related to the formation of one’s conscience, so that one can be a good umpire, making good judgments, and so live a Christian moral life.


March 18, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph