A Primer on Catholic Morals

If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:31-32

Today there is much talk about moral values, but what determines these values? In a moral decision, we must consider the consequences of our action, our motives for doing the act and the circumstances surrounding the act. A truly human act requires that a person think about it and choose it freely. The question of sin only applies to freely chosen acts or omissions.

We usually act with a purpose. Acts without a purpose are reflex or accidental. For a given purpose, our will is usually attracted to more than one option. These options give us choice, but we should choose one option that best achieves our purpose. Now God created us for an ultimate purpose: to glorify Him by sharing forever in His life and love. We give God glory by knowing, loving and serving Him on earth. (Matt. 7:21; Col. 1:9-10; 1 Thes. 4:3-8; Eccl. 12:13-14) Every act should also be directed by this final purpose, for this is true freedom - liberation from selfishness to friendship (Gal. 5:1,13ff)

God implanted His law within each person. St. Paul says: "They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness..." [Rom. 2:15; RSV] This law guides our conscience. When we go against this law, we may experience feelings of guilt. Even the ancient pagans recognized it. Antigone, in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy, followed this law by burying her dead brother, even though this was against the king’s command. This law is called the Natural law because it is common to every person. It is a law which helps us fulfill our final purpose. As an analogy, a pen is designed for the purpose of writing. It is natural to use a pen for writing; whereas, it would be unnatural or an abuse to use a pen for cooking. In similar fashion, our actions are natural, if they promote God’s will and design for creation. Every act that promotes God’s will is good because His will is always directed to what is objectively best; whereas, every act that opposes His will is bad.

According to traditional Catholic teaching, the moral value of a human act depends on its object, end and circumstances. The object is the direction of the act; it is what you chose to do. The end is the motive or intention of the act; it is why you did the act. The circumstances are surrounding conditions which affect the act in some external way, e.g. when, where or how you acted. According to Fr. John Laux in his book, Catholic Morality, (1934; TAN Books, 1990) "A human act is morally good if its object, its circumstances, and its end are good; if any of these is bad, the act is morally evil." [p. 25] This is because goodness has the character of perfection or wholeness; whereas, evil has the character of a defect or a lack. Like a chain, if one link is bad, then the whole chain is bad. The circumstances alone cannot make a bad action good. The ends also cannot justify an evil act. According to Fr. Laux, "A good motive or intention cannot make a bad action good. - Evil must never be done that good may come of it. This is the teaching of Holy Scripture and of the Catholic Church. ‘Let us not do evil,’ says St. Paul, ‘that there may come good’ (Rom. 3:8)." [Ibid. p. 26]

Consider two students who intend to improve their grades in school. One chooses to study more; whereas, the other chooses to cheat. Both have the same good motive to improve their grades, but cheating is an evil object. Good motive cannot justify cheating. As another example, almsgiving is something good in itself. It is a good object. My motive in helping the poor is also good. But if I give with pomp and vainglory, this circumstance alone makes my act evil (Matt. 6:2-3). As a third example, consider the killing (abortion) of an unborn baby because the mother has had problems in the pregnancy. The motive to improve the mother’s health is directed towards a good consequence. But the objective of freely choosing to kill an innocent life to achieve this good consequence still produces an evil action. We cannot do evil in order to bring about good.

Now consider the use of contraceptives (e.g. condoms or the Pill) vs. Natural Family Planning (NFP) based on periodic continence (sexual abstinence). In either case, if a couple has a motive against the good of having children, then their act will always be morally evil, no matter the circumstances. A motive against having children, in acts ordered by God toward children, is always evil. The marriage act (sex) must always be open to procreation, since this is part of God’s design. Openness to the possibility of new life is an essential end of the marriage act. According to the Catechism (CCC): "Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful...each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" [CCC 2366; cf. 2363, 2398].

Does this mean that a couple must have as many children as physically possible? No, the Church teaches that there are legitimate circumstances for spacing children and the regulation of births. Raising children is a serious responsibility. God wants "godly offspring" [Mal. 2:15]. The role of parents is more than physical procreation; it "must extend to their (the children’s) moral education and their spiritual formation." [CCC 2221] We are limited to some extent in our personal resources. Monetary, emotional, sociological and physical conditions must be taken in consideration when having children. The Church does encourage parents to be generous and to have large families (CCC 2373). She also teaches that the spacing of children and the regulation of birth are morally neutral (CCC 2368, 2370, 2399). The motive to regulate births is neither good nor evil, as long as there is an openness to new life. Even though not directly intending new life, the couple must be open to the possibility of new life. In similar fashion, certain saints did not intend martrydom but were open to it for love of God.

Now let us consider the objects. Contraceptives and NFP can both be used with the morally neutral motive of regulating births. There may also be reasonable circumstances for this intention, but there is still an objective difference between NFP and contraception. NFP respects the body and its natural effects as good. A couple using NFP does not reject God’s design but cooperates with it. On the other hand, contraceptives do not respect the body but act against its natural effects. Contraceptives work against God’s design. If a couple uses contraceptives, their act is morally evil, no matter the circumstances or motives. Contraception acts against the good of fertility in the marriage act, and is thus physically closed to new life. It attempts to separate the procreative nature from the marriage act. It is an evil object. "The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception)." [CCC 2399]

NFP requires periodic continence from the couple. Abstinence is a morally neutral object. It does not abuse the marriage act or work against its essential values since the marriage act is not performed. Observing bodily signs to determine a woman’s fertility does not physically prevent pregnancy or work against her body. These techniques only give information to help a couple choose between abstinence or the marriage act. NFP helps the couple to be always aware of their fertility and the procreative nature of each marriage act. Under NFP, "the married couple make legitimate use of a natural disposition;" whereas in contraception, "they impede the development of natural processes." [Humanae vitae 16]

Sex is a gift from God and should be accepted as God planned and designed it. The conception of a new child is not an accident but rather a natural, foreseeable consequence of the marriage act. To separate our actions from their consequences rejects God’s wisdom. Having the power to separate them does not give us the right to separate them. The long history of salvation has shown that sin includes a rejection of God’s plan in our lives.

Two popular moral theories today are "Utilitarianism" and "Deontology." Utilitarianism assumes that intention or consequences can justify any act. If it works best for the majority, then do it (John 18:14; 11:48-50). Unfortunately a consequence can be positive for some people but negative for others. Hence this theory can be subjective. Also good intentions alone cannot be used to justify evil actions. Deontology, on the other hand, assumes that the morality of an act is defined by man’s political laws. As an example, some people justify abortion because it is politically legal. Deontology is also subjective and arbitrary, since the lobby with the most political power defines the laws. Now the Natural Law theory is not popular today because it assumes that we have an ultimate purpose (objective) and an eternal destiny (CCC 2371). Since we have a purpose, we are not evolutionary accidents but creatures. By definition, accidents do not have a purpose. The Natural law points to God as our Creator and to an objective moral value system that comes from His design.

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