My hero, Thomas Aquinas, tells a story early in Part 2 of his short book On Kingship: A Letter to the King of Cyprus. A man is unable to get work; he and his family are starving so he steals some food for them. The man, says my hero, is guilty of neither sin (stealing) nor crime (theft). Rather, the community has sinned in not seeing the family's need and providing for it, and finding employment for the man so that he might provide for them in the future, and be a full and productive member of the community.
Stealing is not sin; theft is not a crime; failing to see need and provide for that need is a communal sin. See? "Rules are rules" isn't quite a foolproof as we like to think. Put the "general norm" into context, and it gets messy. Philosophizing about absolute certainty and such isn't a waste of time - when, and only when, it leads us to the "messy," to the "down and dirty" of real life.
A somewhat more obvious example is killing in self defense. Both civil law and the commandments say "Do not kill." After all, life is the highest value in our world. But in the presence of imminent danger of being killed, we are allowed to kill our attacker. ("Allow" suggests that we have the means to do so.) Aquinas goes further, saying we are required to preserve our own lives whenever possible, even if that means killing another person. Our life is as high a value as that of our attacker, not greater - but not less valuable. Even our legal system takes context seriously. Murder is a killing "with malice" for the other person, self defense is without malice. Killing another person in sudden, overwhelming anger or fear - a crime of passion - is treated differently from a deliberate, coldly planned murder. Context counts.
And sin certainly can be personal, but it can be more than personal - a society, a community, can sin as well. Racism on the part of a neighborhood, for instance, isn't just a crime (illegal, against the law - the "rules"), it's both a personal and communal sin. Institutionalize sexism on the part of a church, rules which exclude a person on the basis of gender, is not only a crime, it's a communal sin.
So, in terms of conscience, "obeying the rules" isn't sufficient. We need to inform our conscience with all the context possible - the rules/law, teachings of our faith community (all of this in terms of the intellective component of reason), our imagination, intuition - even, when possible and appropriate, the input of professionals int he area of our dilemma. I wouldn't try to offer a prognosis on my relative's illness - I'd go to an expert if possible. In a medical issue, say, death and dying questions, I'm not capable of projecting elements like timeline, quality of life and pain for the dying person. As part of informing my conscience, of dealing honestly with my context (situation), I need the input of medical doctors, and perhaps psychologists.
As a Christian people, we probably need to revisit an address given by Pius XII to a group of Italian doctors back in 1948. These physicians in post-World War II Italy - a fundamentally and overwhelmingly Catholic country, faced life and death decisions almost daily. The indicator of death at the time was simply that the patient stops breathing. But how long, and by what means, they wanted to know, must we work to keep the patient breathing? Pius XII - no liberal relativist certainly! - told the doctors that all ordinary means of treatment must be used always; extraordinary means, however, were at the discretion of the patient and family. Extraordinary means are those which carry great physical, emotional (hmmm, did the ground shake?) or (this rocked the docs!) financial hardship for the patient or (this would rock the world) the patient's family! Now, at that time, extraordinary means were in short supply. One could try artificial respiration, some heart-stimulating drugs were available in 1948, today there are defibrillators in many high schools and colleges. Today the technology, medical knowledge, drugs and machinery are available to keep patients "alive" - hooked up to machines that breathe for them, feed them, medicate them - indefinitely in many cases. If this causes extreme hardship, however, for the patient - and/or for the family, it becomes extraordinary treatment; the family can release the patient with a clear conscience.
Now, our younger daughter and her infant son arrive tomorrow for a week's stay, so no blog until September 29th or 30th. So why not do some "musing" of your own - and leave comments on that musing here, please! - on issues involving the value of human life and conscience. One example might be this: A human fetus certainly is human life, and that life has a high value - not absolute, but high. However, the value of the fetal life is equal to the value of those persons already born, not greater or less. A woman is living in poverty, with 3 children she can't feed because her husband takes his pay check and gets drunk on it. Can she justify an abortion in order to care better for the children she already has? (And yes - this is an actual case. The man and woman were both Roman Catholic, so he forbade using birth control, but demanded - to the point of physical violence - that she be ready and available for him whenever he wanted sex.)
If you don't feel brave enough for that one, you can certainly come up with others. :)
Have fun, and see you in 2 weeks.