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Diagramming Dilemmas

The apologists here at Catholic Answers often hear from inquirers who want to figure out how to solve personal dilemmas about the Catholic faith, Catholic discipline, or Catholic customs, especially those dilemmas involving non-Catholics, but are having difficulty finding a way to do it without causing unnecessary upset or offense to other people. They are rightly concerned to find means to address difficult issues in ways that respect individual feelings while not compromising their own consciences.

In the sections that follow, I have sketched out a few examples of the kinds of dilemmas that I have been asked to assist with over the years. I have diagrammed the issues into the dilemma, the underlying principle, and one possible solution that I suggested to the inquirer. Keep in mind that my suggested solution is not the only possible solution to these dilemmas. Each suggestion was offered solely as something that could be done, not that must be done.

Enforcing modesty at a Catholic wedding

The dilemma: I’m going to be married in June of next year in a very traditional church. While I and my bridesmaids will be modestly attired, my concern is for my guests. I’d like to place something in the invitations about proper dress in a church, but family members have felt that this may be too rude. I have several family members who have worn extremely revealing clothing at other family weddings and this will be a summer wedding!

The principle: Wedding invitations often indicate the guest attire that is expected (e.g., notations such as “black tie,” “informal”). Reasonable people should not be surprised or upset to find information about expected attire for a wedding included in a wedding invitation.

A solution: I recommend inserting an enclosure with the invitations outlining the expected attire. If the church’s pastor is willing, you can state that this is the church’s expectation—which would allow you to be seen as a messenger bearing necessary information, instead of as someone setting policy with which others are expected to comply. Here’s a sample of how you could word your enclosure (the pastor should review it first if you are putting “the blame” on the church):

The ceremony location is a traditional Catholic church. The church's dress guidelines specify that male guests should wear a suit and dress shoes. Female guests should wear a hat or other head covering, dress shoes, and dresses that cover the chest, back, elbows, and knees. Shawls may be worn to cover arms while in the church. We appreciate your understanding and consideration, and we look forward to your presence with us on our special day.

The helpful friend bearing forbidden meat

The dilemma: Is it considered a sin to eat meat on Friday during Lent if you have an emergency situation and a friend cooks you a meal including meat? I had to help a friend out tonight at the hospital and another friend watched my children. When I returned, she had a steak dinner waiting for me. I felt it would be rude to say I couldn’t eat it, so I ate the steak. Do I need to confess this before receiving Communion?

The principle: Unless you had no other options for a meal that night, you probably should not have eaten the meat. However, the culpability necessary to make grave matter a mortal sin may be lessened because you weren’t aware of what you should do to avoid hurting the feelings of a kind and helpful friend. Next time you go to confession, you could mention the incident and its mitigating circumstances to the priest.

A solution: For the future, if you have to eat the meal with your friend present—as opposed to waiting until she goes home—you might say to such a friend, “Oh, thank you so much for fixing dinner for me! I really appreciate having a hot meal waiting. I’m not able to eat the steak because today is a Lenten Friday, but I’ll wrap it and have it tomorrow for lunch. But I am so grateful for your kindness and will enjoy the rest of this beautiful meal you’ve fixed. Thank you!” The technique here is to submerge your explanation of why you can’t eat the meat under a torrent of gratitude for your friend’s kindness.

The belligerent anti-Catholic boss

The dilemma: Every March my director takes everyone out for lunch. It always falls on a Friday during Lent. Knowing it is Lent, the director always starts by saying his Uncle Paddy gives everyone a dispensation to eat whatever they want. It is a limited menu: Ham, roast beef, turkey sandwich, or a turkey burger. Last year I ordered the turkey burger, but only ate French fries and drank wine. I brought the burger home with me to eat the next day. Both my director and my manager were upset with me. In fact, my manager, an atheist, was livid and said I had insulted the director. It was very uncomfortable. What can I do next year?

The principle: While it is generous to treat people to lunch, it is intrusive and rude for anyone to monitor what people actually eat. If Uncle Paddy gave everyone a dispensation “to eat whatever they want,” then there should have been no problem with you eating your French fries and taking the rest of your meal home to be consumed later.

A solution: If you think you can do so without risk to your job, you might continue to order what you wish, eat of it what you can, and if challenged again, say politely, “This is a matter of religious conviction for me.” If you believe your job is in jeopardy if you do not comply with the expectation that you eat meat at this business lunch, you could ask your pastor for a dispensation from the Lenten Friday abstinence requirement. I caution you that to do so might demonstrate to your superiors that bullying works and could, in turn, encourage them to make your workplace even more hostile to religious employees. Whichever decision you make, if you get any blowback from your employer for following for your religious convictions, I recommend that you contact the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

The witch who wanted Communion

The dilemma: A friend of mine was raised Catholic but eventually chose to become a witch. She is not interested in returning to Catholicism, but would like to receive Communion when she attends Mass occasionally for holidays and other family events. She is open to an explanation of why she cannot receive Communion, but I don’t know how to explain the matter in a way she will understand. I think it is a positive thing that she occasionally attends Mass—perhaps she’ll receive grace to eventually return to the Church—and so I don’t want to say anything that will discourage her from going.

The principle: When explaining concepts non-Catholics and non-Christians might find difficult to accept, it can help to build upon those beliefs and ethics they already hold and value. Or, as the old Thomistic principle goes, “Grace builds upon nature.”

A solution: One of the ethical principles many witches and other pagan practitioners generally accept is that one does not touch another witch’s magickal tools or altar without explicit permission. Your friend’s pagan community accepts the principle that it is necessary to obtain permission before touching what is sacred to a fellow witch. In a similar way, the Catholic Church ordinarily asks that those who receive what is sacred to Catholics either have the right to do so as practicing Catholics or, in the case of non-Catholics, that they first obtain permission from those with the authority to grant it (e.g., priest, bishop). That is why those who are not practicing Catholics and do not otherwise have permission to receive Communion are asked to refrain from receiving the Eucharist.

Diagramming your own dilemma

It is unlikely that you are experiencing a dilemma exactly like those considered here. You may not be planning to get married, Lent is still months away, and you don’t know any witches. But I hope these diagrammed dilemmas will illustrate for you how you can approach the difficulties you have with family, friends, and colleagues in your own life. Here are the steps:

  • Identify the problem.
  • Discern the underlying principle.
  • Find a workable solution.

Just as diagramming a sentence can make its structure more understandable, and can in turn improve your writing, so “diagramming” your moral dilemmas can often help you to find licit solutions. If not, you can always take your diagram to a confessor or spiritual director for further assistance. It may be that the diagram could help that person help you.

By Michelle Arnold


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