Thinking Morally

The Christian life is not primarily the following of a moral code. It is, most fundamentally, living as adopted sons and daughters of God. This new life is made possible by Christ’s redemption gained for us in the cross. In essence, Christianity is about a person and what he did for us.

Still, to live by faith as adopted sons necessarily implies and requires that we obey the commandments of God under the cover of his grace; obedience is inextricably connected to faith. Therefore, the Christian life involves a specific morality, a way of life. Precise ways of living are appropriate to live as adopted children of God and other ways are simply incompatible with our adoption. This is revealed in the covenants which God made with the people of Israel and, preeminently in the New Covenant. Jesus tells us that we must keep the commandments if we are to be saved (Matthew 19: 17-19). Those who follow Jesus must freely cooperate with God’s grace and demonstrate repentance for their sins (Acts 2:38). We must not just have faith but walk by faith.

The Church has always taught the moral vision of Christianity with confidence, knowing it is good and true. This morality serves love, reveres the person, intelligently attempts to bring clarity to resolve difficult problems, and is faithful to the Gospel. Let’s discuss the most basic principles of Catholic morality.


I. Basic Principles of Catholic Morality

Free Choice. The word freedom has many meanings. Two are important for us. First, the “liberty of the children of God.” This meaning speaks of God’s gift of grace, which make us able to escape from the dominion of sin and selfishness. Within the boundaries of God’s grace and commands we are to freely express in action the love he places in our hearts. Second, free choice. It would be useless to talk about morality if we are merely driven by irrational forces out of our control. If we are not free we cannot be moral beings. To talk about morality is worthless without freedom.

A person makes a free choice when he or she selects one from a set of options. The choice is free when a person can choose “this or that”and yet he determines to choose “this”. God works through human freedom as he does through all the capacities of human nature. He utilizes our intelligence, our senses, our emotions, our physical bodies, our freedom. And yet, his perfect will is still accomplished. The Church recognizes that not all human actions are free (especially sexual conduct, affected so much by drives, passions and pressures). However, the view that all or most of human behavior (including sexual behavior) is determined by absolutely binding antecedent factors other than our choice has no basis in experience or faith. Even in this world of many pressures, God made humans capable of free choice.

The Law of Love. Love is the foundation of all morality. Jesus told us that every commandment flows from the two greatest ones: to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22: 34-40). He who is love himself, wishes to share this love with us, his creatures, by making us his children. This love cannot be realized unless human beings live in such a way as to be open to this wonderful fellowship. Love is an act of the will, initiated by reason and actualized by acts in conformity with reason. Our emotions are certainly always a component of the process as we are not disincarnated beings but flesh and blood. Our emotions, however, are not to be placed in control.

Our freedom has boundaries. As limited physical beings we cannot actualize every desire or imagining as we exist in the realm of space and time; nor can we call freedom every act of the will. Absolute freedom from constraint is first impossible due to the inherent boundaries of our physicality and additionally it may become contrary to true freedom when by choosing against the very meaning of our beings, it attempts harm against our perfectibility. Basic norms of Christian morality help us guide our choices to maintain them within the boundaries of true freedom. They, thus, are in no way arbitrary. They do not restrict our freedom but are addressed to it. They are there to assist us to live as intelligent beings would choose to live. To make clear the relationship between specific moral norms and love we shall reflect on the human goods or basic perfections of human nature which God desires us to promote and respect.


II. The Human Good

God wants us to always be good for authentic love always wishes what is best for the one loved. God demands that we show an intelligent concern for what is truly good for us and in us. Again, reason is to lead such exercise not passion. Today, skepticism and relativism tell us that nothing is really good or bad, or that we cannot know what is really good. It tells us that we are motivated basically by appetites, by drives built on a desire-satisfaction instinct. Even the good we do for others at grewat personal cost is built in such desire-satisfaction engine. Christian faith, however, confidently teaches that human beings can know what is true and do what is good even at times without his direct revelation.

The Nature of Goodness. Difficult moral questions cannot be resolved without an understanding of what is “good” or “bad.” Good does not refer to whatever an individual prefers or recommends or likes. Good is not simply whatever our appetite desires. God, who wants us to participate in his goodness, has created an order in which some realities can be recognized as truly worthwhile: Life, truth, beauty, , peace, friendship, harmony and so on are good; what goes against and attacks these goods is bad.

Humans cannot create the real goodness of these values but we can certainly recognize such goodness and, by choosing rightly, create worthy lives in which we can flourish and accomplish a certain kind of fulfillment. By our choices we make out of ourselves the kinds of persons we are to become but we cannot, by willing it, make any kind of action to be good. Our choices are limited by the very nature of the acts being chosen.

Moral norms are the standards for choosing well. They are the guidelines God gives to help us flourish. Being moral is not, in the final analysis, a question of rules and regulations but of the demands of our own self-perfection; demands that must be made real, or actualized, through our choices.

Evil deeds. Evil does not have the substantial reality of goodness; evil lacks essence.   As we know, essence speaks of the properties of a thing that make it be what it really is. But evil lacks such constitutive properties. The evil in any reality refers to a lack of perfection, the absence of the goodness that should be present in an act. That is why I say that the nature of the acts being chosen limits the effect of our act of choice as certain acts, as they lack essence, cannot fulfill in us what we may expect or desire. In a way, evil does not exist in itself and cannot sustain itself as it does not possess a truly fundamental nature. There is evil in the world because things can fail to have the fullness of reality they were meant to have. But what in nature is of necessity exists only in the act according to nature not in the act as it fails to express its perfection. Evil, however, is as real without essence as darkness is real without essence. Ironically, evil always depends or points toward the realization of the good, it provides a distortion of the thing that is real and cannot exist without the good; as darkness cannot be comprehended without the reality of light or cold without heat.

Evil that comes from people’s actions does not flow from God’s creative will but from our refusal to let our free acts conform with the truth about ourselves. As evil is connected to and in a way dependent on truth (as it is truth’s imperfectability) it mirrors truth and becomes deceptive. Sin easily tricks us. It would be absolutely wrong to believe that any sexual sin, for example, is evil because sex itself, or pleasure, or passion, is evil. Sexual sin is the failure on our part to fully love through such act.

The Goods of Human Nature. The human good is that which perfects and completes human nature. Council Vatican II mentions some: human dignity, brotherly communion, life, holiness, grace, justice, love, peace, and freedom (Gaudium et spes, no. 39). By doing things that realize these values we are perfected and completed as human beings. Knowing the truth is also a human good. We pursue truth not necessarily to acquire other things but for its own sake, simply because it is good to know. Finally, human life is a good of human nature. Without life the human person does not exist. To be alive is good in itself.

The Goodness of Pleasure. We all seek pleasure in one form or another. But common experience reveals the darker side of pleasure. For the empty or destructive pursuit of pleasure can be enslaving and deadly. Thus, pleasure has a double character: it is a good thing but can lead us astray. The tendency in our culture is toward an uncritical overestimation of the goodness of pleasure (hedonism). The goodness of things cannot be explained simply in terms of their capacity to cause pleasure. Many good activities cause pleasure but they are not good simply because they cause pleasure. They are good if they perfect some dimension of our being. Evil but pleasurable acts do have some good in them as they do fulfill some human potentiality but in a disordered way. To the extent the actions have some good they are pleasurable but to the extent they are evil, the little pleasure they produce fails to deeply satisfy and perfect us.

In determining the goodness of an action, therefore, the moral specification of an act must be on the character of the act itself and not on the presence or quality of the accompanying experiences of pleasure and pain. For example, the pleasure of an immoral sexual act is not itself bad, pleasure accompanies the act but does not determine its morality. What is bad is the act itself and the human willingness to yield to a disordered gratification through a disordered act. The bad taste of a good medicine is not a measure of its goodness or lack of goodness but the effect of the medicine in healing is what determines its objective quality. If I take a medicine that tastes so good but does not help me in my healing it is not the good taste what makes the medicine bad but the fact that it lacks the healing effect I expected.


III. From Human Goods to Moral Norms

The good person acts out of love, pursuing what is good out of love of God and neighbor. Since it is possible to pursue good things in evil ways, the task of moral thinking is to discover how to love good things the right way and to pursue them properly.

Here is where moral absolutes come. In the decades before Vatican II, the moral teachings of the Church were sometimes presented as legalistic restraints imposing merely extrinsic limitations on persons, telling them only the minimum to escape from committing sin. The beauty and truth of the Church’s moral teaching was shaded under the dust of legalisms and minimalisms. The shortcomings of moral theology prior to Vatican II were not problems with the teachings themselves but with their presentation and explanation. The solution to legalisms is recognizing the moral norms as the requirements of intelligent love, of what is really good and not just as rules to stop us from sinning. Once we do that, the objection that traditional morality is authoritarian imposition loses force.


Making Good Moral Choices: Two Approaches.

How are we to decide that a certain choice is morally good or bad? The need is to know how our love of neighbor can be translated into practical norms. This difficulty is real because Catholic moral theologians hold strongly to two opposing views on this matter. Although both camps do attempt to provide a system which avoids legalism and focuses on love of persons and human goods one is not completely faithful to the larger tradition of Catholic morality. Let’s examine them.

I. Proportionalism. This is a method of moral teaching that requires an assessment of all the good and evil involved in alternative possibilities for action. Proportionalism states that a person ought to choose that alternative of action which promises the greater proportion of good over evil after a careful assessment of the act to be chosen. The purpose of assessing, before choosing, is to determine which alternative brings the greater good and which does not. This method is used in a restricted way by Catholic theologians who may not be proportionalists. The principle is commonly known as “greater good” or “lesser evil.”

In a positive note, proportionalists generally acknowledge the objective goodness of the basic goods of human nature we mentioned before and do not believe that the final decisive element in choosing is pleasure. They also admit the existence of certain limitations to the application of their method. They do not necessarily support the view that the end justifies the means.

But proportionalists distinctively believe that the most common moral absolutes traditionally taught by the Church, and even now continually taught, are not valid. Commonly, these theologians oppose the teaching that every act of contraception is immoral, that not every act of homosexuality or fornication is objectively wrong and that not every direct and intentional taking of innocent life is absolutely prohibited. They typically hold that no kinds of acts, when defined in purely descriptive language (language with no morally evaluative language) are always wrong or intrinsically evil. For example, if we define murder as the unjust slaying of an innocent person” they would agree that it is always wrong. But, if we define it as “the intentional or direct slaying of an innocent person” then it is not always wrong, it may become a lesser evil depending on the circumstances. The last definition does not have the morally evaluative term “unjust.”

Proportionalists also affirm that there are some actions (like forcing a retarded child to sexual relations) that are likely to cause greater harm in almost all circumstances. They call these actions “practical absolutes.” But, as the phrase suggest, the norm here is not absolute in principle. In other words, there may be some circumstances we cannot now think about where the action can be evaluated as a lesser evil, and then becomes the right thing to do.

Most proportionalists assert that certain actions traditionally considered as always bad can be justified under certain circumstances if the performance of such actions brings forth a purported greater good. They distinguish between moral and premoral evils (also called ontic or physical). Premoral evils refer to the deprivation of some good due to a person. They are really bad but not immoral. For example, sickness and death are premoral evils. The question for them is whether choices that cause sickness or death are always wrong. Proportionalists say that there are circumstances in which premoral evils are not wrong if choosing those actions brings forth a lesser evil. In such distinction, proportionalists have a basic logic for rejecting much of the Church’s teachings on sexual matters for much of the teachings infallibly. In rejecting such teachings as traditionally stated they also assert that: 1.) It is evidently true that we are required to look for greater good or lesser evil on a given situation. It is absurd to look for the greater evil or lesser good. Proportionalists see the moral absolutes the Church proposes, not just the mode of their presentation, as burdensome legalism; 2.) The Church uses the principle at times, according to proportionalists. If the Church uses such principles they are then justified and within the larger Catholic tradition of moral teaching in making them the basic foundational principles of Christian morality.


1.) Proportionalism assumes that we can “commensurate” prior to choice and in unambiguous fashion goods and evils in our actions. It assumes it is possible to rank, measure, or compare the goods and evils at stake in a given situation before we engage in action. We can, they assume, determine how much harm to one good is offset by attempting to accomplish other goods in alternative courses of action. The determination on what alternative course in morally good hangs inestricably from our assessment, prior to choice, of the balance of nonmoral goods or evils in alternative courses of action. As moral theologians such as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, William May and Joseph Boyle assert to attempt such measure in unambious terms is impossible. These goods are simply priceless elements in the process of our flourishing as human persons that any objective comparison or measurement of such goods is not possible. Although only God is the Summum Bonnum, these goods are priceless and it is impossible to accomplish the task of unambiguous comparison. This measurement cannot be accomplished rationally because human goods are “incommensurable” (powerful philosophical and theological arguments had been developed to prove that we cannot commensurate human goods; see Germain Grisez in Christian Moral Principles, ch. 6. F). If I am about to decide to kill an innocent person, say the baby in the womb of my wife, how can I sit down in advance and pretend that I can objectively decide that the life of my child is less valuable in my tabulation than the financial peace of mind I hope to accomplish by such action? In fact, defenders of proportionalism reveal their failure to present a coherent system when, as Richard McCormick asserts, in such measurements we must adopt a hierarchy (See McCormick, “A Commentary on the Commentaries,” in Doing Evil to Achieve Good, p. 227). It is precisely because there is no rational way to measure one good against the other that we need to choose.

2.) We have no way to really assess the consequences of an action prior to choice (how many consequences, what kind, how important, how to balance the consequences against each other, etc.). This truth has led many non-Catholic moralists to abandon the proportionalist method altogether (see Alan Donogan, The Theory of Morality, pp. 199-209). It is ironic that what worldly humanists are discarding is been picked up by Catholic thinkers!!!

Let’s say a lady is considering (or tempted) to have an abortion. How can she, prior to choice, truly assess in an unambiguous and objective way what are going to be the physical, psychological, moral, emotional, economic and spiritual consequences of such choice prior to committing it which will allow her to commit an act that has traditionally been considered evil (and that even proportionalists will consider premorally evil)? Any such attempt will necessarily be whimsical.

3.) Those who discard proportionalism are not saying that we are to choose the greater evil. They say proportionalism is an incoherent way to distinguish between greater and lesser evil. What a proportionalist might think is greater evil might not be such. A similar example again:

If a woman is considering to have a direct abortion, she would have to, if following proportionalism, list the central good and bad effects of deciding to have it. Among the bad possible effects could be choosing to kill directly and deliberately her own child. Among expected good effects she might list that she preserves her own mental and physical health, or save the peace, unity, or financial integrity of her family. But how could she objectively add and subtract among goods and evils so diverse? How could she determine that? Her feelings might lean one way or the other, but the need is for a rational way to choose. She simply cannot compare the possible consequences in a rational fashion, it is impossible.

What ends up happening is that the person decides for himself what is good in a totally arbitrary way instead of discovering what is truly good. People rationalize their choices. A person may adopt a criteria that would often end up accepting as right the choice he/she wants to be the right one. Or simply miss from consideration certain elements that her mental state or capabilities did not allow to obtain prior to choice. Or err in assigning weight to one element over the other.

What the Church teaches is that the morally right course of action is always good, even when it has very sad consequences. The right course of action is the lesser evil and never what violates a moral absolute can be considered the greater good.

4.) Proportionalism encourages the rejection of moral norms that seem to be infallibly taught by the Church even if they are not infallibly proposed. It simply cannot be considered a legitimate development of Catholic moral teaching. Proportionalism developed in the 1960’s as a rationale to justify the use of contraceptives. It’s denial of moral absolutes continually taught by the Church involves a denial of a basic biblical moral teaching to never do evil to accomplish good:

And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. [Romans 3:8, RSV, Catholic Edition, 1965]

5.) The fact that Christian tradition used some considerations about proportionalism in some sense does not constitute an implicit approval of proportionalism for it is not clear that proportionalism was understood as a weighing of values or used to overturn moral absolutes but only to settle issues in which it was clear that no moral absolutes were at stake.

6.) When the faithful are told that acts like those of adultery or fornication are not absolutely and always wrong the faithful are deprived of supports to strengthen them at the time of temptation. If there is some way to justify an action, people tend to rationalize their behavior. For example, at first it was urged that only some abortions be permitted “for very good reasons.” Now we have an epidemic. If I am really tempted to commit adultery and I am told that adultery under certain circumstances may be considered the greater good you bet that I will fit such circumstances.

II. The Morality of Principles. This approach tries to meet the challenges of Vatican II and renew moral theology WHILE maintaining continuity with traditional teaching. It tries to give a full understanding of Catholic theology and avoid the legalisms of old. Looking deeper into the Catholic tradition, the morality of principles searches into the foundations of the faith to discover the truth and the beauty of faith to present it anew.

It insists on the truth and centrality of moral absolutes. Such norms as “never directly kill the innocent” or “never commit adultery” are held to be always true and nontrivial. There can never be any objectively good reasons for violating specific basic principles of morality prohibiting certain actions. The negative precepts of the moral law are absolute and binding under every circumstance. I, of course, do not mean that no moral norms have exceptions. Most norms do have exceptions. For example: “obey all just civil laws” or “keep your promises.”

Faith confirms that there are moral absolutes but also insists that moral absolutes are the requirements of love. The implications of love are not simply rules but guidelines for authentic Christian life. Hence, it is always wrong to do such deeds as faith has prohibited absolutely because acts such as these are incompatible with the goods of persons which God calls us to love and respect.

The different approaches of the Morality of Principles emphasize on the dignity of persons as made in the image and likeness of God and called to a certain kind of life. To live contrary to such demands diminishes our dignity and distorts our human relationships. Genuine love requires a care and respect for persons which absolutely excludes certain kinds of actions, namely those that harm persons, manipulate them, or disregard their true dignity.

Unlike proportionalism, the Morality of Principles does not suppose the demands of morality can be encapsulated by a single principle like the principle of lesser evil. It also rejects the notion that we can calculate or measure human goods in non-arbitrary ways without acting irrationally. It is serious on not harming human goods and demanding that in our actions we honor the goods of human nature. We must always act in such a way as to be open to integral human fulfillment (see Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla, p. 41). Concern for goods of persons is not realized by trying to create an idyllic world in which the maximum possible amount of good is realized by any means but in making ourselves the persons we ought to be.

Christian faith affirms that there are in fact evil kinds of deeds, deeds that always involve assaults upon love of persons and must always be avoided. There are simply no “good reasons” to perform certain acts as they can never be truly reconciled with love of God and love of neighbor. Again, we must not do evil so that good may come, as St. Paul says. We must not do even a minutel evil because a great harm can be avoided by doing it or a supposed great good may come out of the exercise. According to this principle, every aspect of an act must be morally good.

Good Deeds and Good Consequences. Christian faith emphasizes that the most important aspect of morality is our actions and not the consequences of our actions. We are to perform excellent actions and live moral lives even if not always wonderful things happen to us. By choosing to do certain actions we determine ourselves to be one kind of person or another. For example, I must not betray the trust of a friend and steal some money from him because I am in a bind and he has more money than I and I assess that he can recover from the loss. The assumption, even if proven correct, that a negative consequence for me can be avoided by a lesser loss on his part does not justify the evil of stealing from him. The act of stealing morally defines me and the purpose of mortality is not to pretend that we can bring a better state of affairs at every turn, at least as perceived by one party. The purpose of morality is to complete my human nature, actualize my dignity and recreate me in God’s image. Thus, I take the loss but not harm my friend.

In Catholic theology there is a difference between what is directly willed or intended and what is indirectly willed or outside of the person’s intention. To deny this, as proportionalists do, is to deny a core aspect of Catholic morality. If we reject the distinction and hold that there is no difference, then, one would have to concede that it is permissible at times to do evil and that there are no moral absolutes because it is undeniable that even good people do, and cannot escape doing, acts from which bad effects flow.

For example, a parent who saves his or her child from a violent assault of an attacker may be able to do this only by a protective act that causes great harm or even the death of the assailant, however unintended the harm may be. But if every act that causes harm is morally indistinguishable from an act in which the harm is directly intended then the absolute moral prohibition of directly doing evil would be meaningless. To deny the difference is unreasonable. Similarly occurs when a doctor in an emergency and absolutely necessary operation removes the cancerous womb of a pregnant woman. He knows that as a result the child in the womb will die but the intention was only to save the mother and not to cause any harm , either as a means or as an end, to the developing embryo.

It is evident the difference between:

a.) The person who chooses only good and allows evil to happen as the unintended effect of the action—when there are very good reasons to do so (even God, in creating the universe, permitted the free evil deeds of his creatures. If there is no difference between permitting evil and setting one’s heart on evil, God must have set his heart on evil.)


b.) One person who fixes his heart upon doing evil as a means towards an end or as an end in itself.

Even if the most precious good could not be achieved except by doing a deed that directly does even a small evil, the good man should not do that deed. He must care to make the world good but the most important good he is to do in making the world good is to make his own heart good, by performing only good actions.

Good Actions and Good Character (Fundamental Option) Some protest saying that good character is more important than good actions. They say the basic aspect that makes us what we are is not our free choices but our fundamental freedom or option.

This theory is correct in emphasizing that our lives can and should be organized by a fundamental commitment towards God. It errs in saying that our free choices are not the ones that determine our fundamental option but instead some mysterious, profound act at a deeper level of our freedom. Choices are spiritual realities and not just physical events that just happen (see Karol Wojtywa in The Acting Person, pp. 105-186). The virtuous person is one who has made the right choices and has made them in such a way that his or her entire personality is integrated around good choices. Human action is trivialized if we fancy that a single choice moved by grace cannot be important enough to merit salvation or tragic enough to lose it.