Lecture 8: Application of Moral Theory to Particulars

Praised be Jesus Christ. This is the last in a series of an Introduction to Catholic Moral Theology. It has been only an introduction. We covered things rather cursorily, but we hope that it has whetted your appetite so that you might come back for other programming in greater depth. We have been discussing the principles of human action. We've looked at what a moral object is, the role of intention, the importance of circumstances. We've looked at those conditions which might increase or diminish culpability for certain actions, at morality in the context of our life in Christ, at fundamental moral theology. We looked at the principles and the analyses of human actions and in this last segment I would like to apply some of those to the study of moral theology that deals with specific problems. We will look first at social justice, then at sex and marriage, then at medical ethics, then at the necessity of the use of coercion within the social framework. These will merely be to give you some idea of the way in which these principles are applied in these various areas of human life, and we would hope here also to incite your appetite to bring you back to study these things in greater depth.

We have looked at the moral life in terms of it being teleological, as being ordered toward ends. The first area that I would like to look at briefly is that of social justice. We know that justice is defined as rendering to each his due. That is a very classical definition of justice, it's hardly exclusive to the Catholic Church, but we see right away that it directs us toward other people. Our Holy Father issued his first encyclical under the title of "Christ the Redeemer of Man." Our Holy Father said that he wanted to build his Pontificate around the dignity of man. Our Holy Father had lived in a frightfully immoral, disordered social setting in Poland under the regime of the Nazis and the Communists. Neither of these ideologies respected the inherent dignity and worth of the human person. He has been deeply concerned about social justice issues because he has seen such violence done to the human person in our own day.

Individuals have the right to be treated with regard to the worth and dignity which is inherently theirs by virtue of their having been created in the image and likeness of God. Because we have been created by God, we can make a rightful claim to what is ours. We render to one another what is our due because we see that social life is ultimately ordered toward the common good. The purpose and goal of social justice is the common good. This is absolutely essential to Catholic social doctrine. The concept of the common good says that a juridical framework must be provided, and an economic and social order has to be provided so that individuals will have sufficient opportunity to act in accord with their own nature as free, rational human beings so they can seek and pursue their own fulfillment.

The common good describes that condition in which human beings are living together in peace and harmony so that they might seek their own flourishing, and as they flourish they can seek the common good of everyone else as well. Essential for attaining the common good is a recognition of the fact that there is an objective moral order. One of the great difficulties with modern societies working toward a common good is that people no longer believe that a human being has a nature which has been granted him by God which has built into it certain dispositions, teleologies, which must be respected. There are people today who think we can just construct society at a whim, that it is not necessary to follow any kind of objective moral order. That is the great evil that was brought into the world by Communism and by Fascism. To have the common good there must be a recognition that we are creatures of God, which means a recognition that there is a God. According to Catholic social doctrine, there can be no humane, just, social order unless there is an acknowledgment of a transcendent source of being God Himself who rewards good and punishes evil.

Any society needs laws to enable it to flourish and to direct the activities of the citizens, but laws themselves are not simply arbitrary constructs of those who happen to be in control. Rather laws and orders to be effective must reflect the natural moral law. The law has its binding powers because it reflects the moral order. Any law which would violate the natural law is in the final analysis no law, and we are not bound to follow that law. The members of a society have a grave obligation to lead virtuous lives so that they can recognize what is good and together can work for it. Whether the laws regard taxes or schools or military service they must reflect this moral order. As they do, then they will bring about the flourishing of society which is truly possible only under God.

There are three basic species of justice which work within any society: commutative justice, distributive justice, and legal justice. Commutative justice is what we call contractual justice, a quid pro quo justice. This is an arrangement entered into among equals. If one person says, "I will deliver these services to you if you provide me with this much compensation." Then if those services aren't provided that kind of compensation must be given back. This is a kind of justice that is absolutely essential for any flourishing of society. People enter into this contract and respect it because they recognize the dignity of one another. This is why it is so essential that human dignity stand at the very center of any just social order. There is an exact equality between the individuals who entered into the contract.

Another kind of justice is known as distributive justice in which members of society share one another's burdens and benefits. This is the kind of justice which is proportional. We share burdens which are proportionate to our ability to bear them, and we also provide benefits to those who need them. There is a sharing among members of society because they recognize one another's dignity and worth. One segment of society will recognize the contributions made by others. For example, it's quite common that married couples will receive certain tax breaks or exemptions for the number of children that they have. The reason society does this is because they recognize that this married couple is assuming additional burdens in bearing and rearing children for the common good. To help them bear those burdens for the sake of the larger community fewer taxes are required of them. It's a way in which society says, "We appreciate what you are doing for us, we want to help you because it is ultimately going to serve us as well." We can see within our own United States how some of these notions of Catholic distributive justice are played out within our tax structure.

Legal justice is the kind of obedience the individual citizen owes to society for the goods that are provided to them by the larger body. Within society we obey the laws so that all of society can flourish. If we think that there is a given law which is not just, we have to be ready to accept the responsibilities of not following that law. Even when it comes to a matter so essential to social justice as that of the ownership of property we have to see that property itself has no inherent worth or dignity. Our Holy Father has written a number of social encyclicals that deal with social justice questions in the matter of the use of private property. The Church has always taught that we have a right to private property but not in such a way that it would violate the dignity of another person. Always we have to see that the good of the human person stands at the center of Catholic social doctrine and to recognize the worth of our individuals. For example, when an employer is providing a wage for his workers, the worker can't be viewed simply as a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand. He can't be a commodity the way wheat is or iron ore. He has dignity, and his employer must provide him with a salary that will help him lead a decent and humane life.

By the same token even though we say that we have a right to private property, (and in fact we insist that under the natural law we do because otherwise we cannot provide for our future or our loved ones), we don't have an absolute right to it. We individually have that right, but we have to see that we have the right so that we can serve others. There is always that communal dimension even to our own rights. In society we see that the rights we have are there to serve others not just ourselves. We have this very narrow understanding of rights these days which means, "I want it, I want it, I'm going to claim the means to get it." Classically understood, a right is simply a means to attain those things which are necessary for me to fulfill an obligation. Rights and obligations are correlative terms.

Those are just some of the themes that will be covered in a course on social justice. It gives you some idea of the elements regarding principles of human morality and the analyses of moral acts and how these might be applied to social justice in living out the moral life within the body of the community. The Catholic approach to the moral life is not one of legalism or of restraint imposed by arbitrary laws placed upon us by someone else. It is an interior law that guides us from within.

In this segment I would like to look very briefly at the area of sex and marriage. All of us are sexual beings. None of us can avoid the radical implications of being either male or female because this is the way in which God has created us. Most people can have some appreciation for the Church's teaching on social justice that we ought to treat workers with inherent dignity and acknowledge their inherent dignity in work, but the Church's teaching in the area of sexual morality seems to many to be something arbitrarily imposed. But this isn't true. The Church again is looking to the human person and his or her dignity as the source and the guide for reflection on how we ought to live our lives as sexual beings.

The Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, speaks of marriage in the following way: The intimate partnership of life and the love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by Him with its own proper laws. That's Section 48. In other words, the laws that guide a married life have been granted by the Creator Himself, and it has its own proper laws so that people should be able to look within and understand what has to be guiding their moral life. In Section 51 of Gaudium et Spes we read that in harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life it is not enough to take only the good intention and the evaluation of motives into account. The objective criteria must be used: criteria drawn from the nature of the human person and human action, criteria which respects the total meaning of mutual self giving and human procreation in the context of true love. All of the Church's teachings in the area of sexual morality are based on the love and the respect for the human person as God has created him male and female. Anybody can see and acknowledge that the human race is divided into male and female, but we have to ask, "Why?" We know from revelation that we have been created in God's image and likeness and that this constitutes our dignity and our worth.

Scripture tells us that when God said "let us create man in our own image" that He created them male and female. Part of the reflection of God's image in this world can be seen in us as male and female, but we know that God is not just the communion of two persons but a community of three. The nature of God is reflected in our lives when man and woman, husband and wife, come together and in their love for one another give birth to a third person, to a child. Our Holy Father speaks of the communion of husband and wife blossoming forth into the community of husband and wife and child. This insight can also be gained simply from looking at the natural order. Even people who don't believe in the Trinity and don't believe that we have been created in God's image and likeness can still see that the human race is constituted by having males and females, that they are absolutely necessary for the propagation of the species, that they must come together and commit themselves to one another for life for the sake of the children who will be engendered. As they educate those children they will be making their contribution to the larger social order.

The questions of sex and marriage are tied up with some understanding of social justice because the family constitutes the basic unit of society. Sexuality of its nature, even on the natural order, is ordered for men and women coming together in union, engendering children, establishing families, building societies, perpetuating the species, building for the future. We have to see that through the use of natural reason that there are certain kinds of acts which ought to be excluded. There is nothing arbitrary here about the Church's teaching on sexual morality. We know that when men and women come together and copulate, children are usually the result. This is one of the reasons why the Church has always insisted that copulation, intercourse, must be restricted to marriage -- because children result from it. Children are a great good. If we are going to care for these children, to nourish and nurture them, we have to provide a safe context in which they can grow. We can see even in the natural order that if we are going to engage in that act which of its nature is ordered for the generation of children, then first, man and woman must commit to a common task of establishing a family and of raising children for their own good and for the good of society.

Consequently any use of our sexuality outside the context of marriage comes to be a violation of our very nature. It is beneath our dignity as human beings to be having sexual relations outside marriage because that means that we are acting against our best insights as to what sexuality is all about. We begin acting beneath our dignity as human beings. The Church has always insisted that fornication is one of those acts which may never be done. It is always an immoral act. Adultery is precluded. Why? Because it does violence to the good of my spouse. An act of adultery is a profound act of injustice against one's spouse. It is an act of injustice against the one with whom we have committed adultery. It is an act of injustice against the children. It can bring disorder into that basic social unit which is to be there for the good of the children, for the good of the spouses, and for the good of the society at large. Adultery itself is unreasonable. Contraception always involves some action other than the marital act, and this (whether using a condom, a diaphragm, or foam) is an act which is ordered against the realization of the good of the child which is inherent within marital intercourse. It denies the very meaning of the marital act by acting against it, whereas natural family planning merely avoids positing any kind of act against the good of the child which is inherent within it.

We see also in this analysis the homosexual act which is beneath the dignity of the human person. Whether we are homosexuals or not, we are men or women who can see that our sexuality is ordered toward members of the opposite sex for the purpose of engendering children and establishing family. Homosexuals might want to have a family, but though they come together, they can't engender children. They require a reproductive cell from a man and a reproductive cell from the woman. These have to be brought together in order for a child to be engendered. As a child is engendered from the expression of love between a husband and a wife the child comes into the world and binds them even more closely together as husband and wife, as the deepest and best of friends.

Homosexual relationships tend to be highly fragmented. They are very unstable. One of the reasons for this is because it doesn't bind them together and allow their love to blossom forth into new life. When the Church says that homosexual acts are wrong, sodomy is wrong, this is not something that is arbitrarily imposed on people as though the Church doesn't want them to have happiness. No, the Church says you do violence to your very nature. The Holy Father says, our bodies have a nuptial meaning. Our bodies are ordered toward members of the opposite sex and by that toward the generation of new children. Whether we marry or not there is a marital meaning within our bodies themselves and to violate that is to do violence to ourselves and to act beneath our dignity.

The Church is not opposed to technological interventions to help people overcome infertility, but the Church is opposed to anything which would do violence to the dignity of the human person. There are some types of technological intervention which are used to overcome infertility that do violence to the good of the human person as it comes into being. Children are to result from the act of love between a man and a woman. They are not products. With some types of interventions to overcome infertility new life is engendered by the manipulations of technicians in the laboratory rather than an expression of love between a husband and a wife. The teachings of the Church in the area of sexual morality properly understood shouldn't be seen as the imposition of laws. This is not a legalistic approach to the moral life, but rather we look to Saint Thomas' insistence that God is offended by us only when we act against our own good. We can see that every sexual act that the Church condemns or forbids in some way would do violence to the good of the human person.

In the area of medical ethics the Church's teaching is consistent, it's humane, it's natural, and it isn't anything which people should have difficulty accepting. There is nothing arbitrary about it. Medical ethics is an area of tremendous controversy today. There are developments within the area of medical ethics the Church must reflect on very carefully because some of these developments are very complex. The Church doesn't rush to judgment on morality or immorality of certain procedures. Usually the Church maintains a silence for a while as she studies developments in the area of medical technology or medical ethics before she passes judgment. Once the Magisterium has spoken on these questions, then for Catholics they should be settled, but they shouldn't be at odds with the insights that can be gained from the use of natural reason itself.

Medicine has always been guided by its own set of moral principles expressed as "Do no harm." What is the end of medicine anyway? It is to preserve people's health and to heal them when they have become sick. Everything that is done in the realm of medicine, if it's to make sense, if it's to be well ordered, should be directed toward the goal of health. Now, the Catholic is perfectly comfortable with accepting this as the end of medical science and the principle of "First of all do no harm," as a kind of directive for the decisions that have to be made in the area of medical ethics. We see the centrality of the human person created in the image and likeness of God having a dignity surpassing anything else within the natural order. Medicine has always respected this dignity of the human person and has always wanted to avoid doing anything which would violate that dignity. That was at the core of the Hippocratic Oath which doctors used to have to say before they entered into medical practice. It stated that the physician would never provide a woman with an abortion because this was to do violence to a human person. Though it came from a pagan source, Catholic doctors have always been able to recite it because it was compatible with Catholic teaching because it respected the dignity of the human person.

Very strangely today, and very sadly, there are certain procedures which are called medical which do great violence to the good of the human person. Therefore, in a sense are not truly medical procedures at all because they are not directed toward health or healing. The one which comes immediately to mind is abortion. How can we call this a medical procedure when a physician is directly assaulting the life of an innocent human being, when a child is being ripped from its mother's womb? This isn't healing. So consequently this is not true medicine. It violates their own principle of "First of all do no harm." Regrettably, in our society, is the growing cry for physician assisted suicide. It is not an act of healing. Anyone could help another person commit suicide. Why does it have to be physician assisted suicide? The only reason is because a physician has certain skills that will help him know the effects of certain drugs and how much has to be ingested in order for them to have their deadly effects. But this couldn't be seen as a medical procedure at all because it is really helping to bring about death, not healing or curing of illness. It is the dignity of the human person that stands at the center of medical practice. All of the advances in medical technology ought to be ordered toward the healing and restoration of human health.

The dignity of the citizen stands at the center of social justice, and society exists for the sake of the individual citizen even in medicine. Medicine exists for the sake of the patient. The doctor is really there as a practitioner of an art which serves the good of the patient who is ill. The autonomy, the dignity, the rationality, and the freedom of the patient must be respected in all medical procedures. That's why medicine has always insisted that if a physician wants to do something to a person he has to have that person's informed consent. The person needs to be given all of the facts about the procedure, about the technique, about the operation, whatever it is, so that the patient can make his or her own decision and assume his or her own responsibility for what is about to occur. Then they give the physician permission to go ahead or not to go ahead. This is why we also insist on proxy consent, for example, for children. They are not able to make choices on their own behalf. Traditionally we go to the parents of the child who is ill, and if the child can't make his own decision, the parents are asked to make it on behalf of the child for those procedures which will lead to the health and healing of that child.

This is also the case when people become, at the end of their lives, incompetent. Maybe they slip into some kind of coma in which they are unable to exercise their human qualities of reason and freedom. So a physician goes to those who are closest to the person who is ill, to a spouse, to the children of this person and say, "You know this person best. What kinds of decisions do you think this person would be making in this situation?" They provide proxy consent on behalf of the person who is now incompetent with regards to the procedures in the medical practice that might be used.

Now unfortunately we are losing sight of the importance of the dignity of the human person and why these procedures were always required in the past for the good of the human person. There is now a practice in Holland in which parents make decisions on behalf of newborns who are born with some kind of medical problems. A newborn might be defective in some way physically. The defect might be able to be overcome relatively easily and so physicians are going to the parents and say should we do this simple procedure which would correct this defect in the child? The parents are now refusing to give consent and indeed allowing the child to die. The consent was always supposed to be there to bring about healing and to bring about human flourishing, never to help people die. For people in end of life situations the question is: has medical science used all of its measures to keep a dying person alive?

The Catholic Church recognizing the dignity of the human person and our ultimate destiny in the life to come has said that medical science does not have to do everything that is necessary to keep a person alive. Pope Pius XII said if someone is dying you do not have to use heroic measures to extend this person's dying process. You may allow the person to die. There is nothing wrong with that from the viewpoint of Catholic morality because it recognizes the dignity of the dying person. Now however, that is being taken further and people are saying, but this person is dying without dignity. Or this person needs help in dying. Now there is the cry for physician assisted suicide, to actually terminate the patient's life. If we want to apply Catholic moral principles to end of life issues the one to keep in mind is that we never do anything which would directly assault the life of this person dying. We have made a distinction earlier between a will which directly intends something and another will that simply permits it to happen. When it comes to a matter of willing and acting, we can only will a good act even if we say it might have an evil side effect. For example, if the physician administers some morphine that over time will have an adverse effect by shortening the patient's life, we say that what we are directly willing is the relief of pain for this person. Even though we might foresee that one of the effects of this pain medication might be a shortening of that person's life we are not willing or intending it. We only permit that to happen, we tolerate it, we see that it can happen. These distinctions are no longer being used. People say, "Well if we could see that this is one of the side effects of the pain medication, then why can't we just go ahead and apply this medication that will result in this person's death?" The reason we can't is that it results in the person's death.

There can be very complex decisions at the end of life. If we are trying to analyze the act which we are contemplating to see whether or not it would be moral we have to see what effects it would have. If the direct effect of what we are doing would be the termination of that person's life then we can't perform the act because it would do violence to the dignity of the human person. In this area we see the centrality of the Church's concern that the dignity of the human person and the way in which the Church manifests her respect for the human person. There is nothing worse than to violate the great good that resides in every person who has been created in the image and likeness of God.

We have been trying to look at some of the ways in which the principles that we learned in fundamental Catholic morality can be applied in the area that we call special morals. I'm just touching on these ever so lightly just to get an idea of the direction in which one would go with the principles that we have learned and to point out some areas of contemporary Catholic teaching which people think are contradictory, or inconsistent, or arbitrary. We looked very briefly at social justice, sex and marriage, and medical ethics.

I would like to just ever so briefly in this segment look at how Catholic moral principles can be applied to the question of the use of coercive force in society because I find that this is also an area in which there is a lot of confusion. People think that because of the teachings of Jesus that we are to turn the other cheek when we have been struck by an enemy, or Jesus' teaching that we are to love our enemies. Yet there is no role whatsoever for the use of coercion in public life. This would not be consistent with Catholic teaching, and it is not inconsistent with what Jesus teaches us about loving our enemies. What Jesus is telling us is that we should never harbor any kind of hatred toward our enemies even when we may have to defend ourselves against some assault from our enemy. When we are struck we might act for justice, that is that justice be done, and indeed even object to being struck as our Lord did when he was struck before the High Priest before his trial and execution, but in doing so we don't have a resentment or hatred toward the other person. The only concern that we have is that justice be done and not that we hope to see any kind of harm come to the other. Because we are fallen and sinful there is the need of using some degree of coercion in our social life together to restrain evil doers and to protect the innocent and to punish those who have been guilty of a crime.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that punishment is quite appropriate. We read in section 2266, the primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. Finally, punishment has the additional value of contributing to the correction of the offender. It is the dignity of the human person which must be respected in all of the choices which we make. Even when it comes to something like punishment with the use of coercion in a society, the dignity of the human person has to be respected. We use coercion after all, to protect the innocent. It is because the innocent have dignity that we restrain evildoers from harming them. It is because evildoer has dignity that we punish him for what he has done. It's a way of saying to him, we recognize your free will, which constitutes your dignity as a human being. You have chosen to do this act which has hurt the social order and inflicted pain and suffering on innocent people, and this punishment is an acknowledgment of your freedom. You freely chose to do this act and you must now bear the consequences of having done it.

We see that it is sometimes very difficult to inflict punishment on somebody because it looks as though we are hurting them, but a just punishment properly applied doesn't hurt the person. It can help that person correct and reform his life. We really have to have the same kind of attitude that parents do when they punish a child. The child doesn't believe it when the parent says, "Son this spanking is going to hurt me more than it will you." There is a real truth to what the parent is saying. It is only because the parent loves the child that the parent is going to inflict the pain of the punishment. It really does hurt the parent to have to do that. In a just social order this would also be true of those in authority. They don't want to have to inflict a penalty on someone who has violated the law and the just social order, but sometimes this has to be done for the good of society, and for the benefit of the person himself.

When we are talking about the state imposing punishment on someone, and it is applied justly within the juridical order which is just, we can't talk about this as violence. We sometimes read theologians talking about the violence of the state when it is imposing a penalty. It is not violence. It is coercion, and it's punishment, due punishment. The catechism says even the death penalty itself can be imposed for the sake of the common good, even for the sake of the person who is being punished himself. The person has brought this penalty upon himself by the kind of acts that he has committed.

We read in Paul's letter to the Romans, that we are to respect civil authorities because they are God's agents for the punishment of wicked doers and for the reward of the good. Saint Paul says that the agents of God's vengeance are the rulers. The ruler wields the sword to punish evildoers and protect the good. This is possible only within a just social order that has just laws and generally virtuous people living out the social life. The bishops have called for the abolition of capital punishment in the United States today. The bishops aren't denying the fact that the state has this right. Scripture tells us that civil authority has that right. The bishops are saying that in our own day there is such disordered thinking about what constitutes justice that we cannot have confidence the state is going to be able to apply this penalty in any kind of just way. We live in a society today which allows the direct taking of innocent human life, of the unborn. If there could be such a crass violation of the norm of justice day in and day out that is sanctioned by the state, how can we have any certitude that the state will be able to recognize the norms of justice when it might be called upon to impose capital punishment on an evildoer?

So the bishops today acknowledge that the state has the right to impose capital punishment. The bishops say that the State should refrain from exercising that right out of concern that justice be done on all levels. If punishment is used and if coercive force is used in society, it is only out of regard for the dignity of the human person. Even if we look at the question of a just war we see here that the Church would allow a war to take place and would allow Catholics to participate if it was being waged to protect the innocent. The Church recognizes that war is a terrible thing. Catholics have never been pacifists in the sense of saying that it is always wrong in all times and all places to bear arms against another. The Church says that we may at times bear arms against others if we must do so to protect the innocent. So once again it is the dignity of the human person that guides the Church in its moral reflections on these matters.

So the Church will say, if a conflict is coming, certain conditions have to be met in order for it to be morally permitted. The cause has to be just; it has to be for the protection of the innocent; it has to be an act of self defense against an unjust aggressor. Civil authority bears the authority of God Himself and only civil authority can take us into war. All peaceful means in avoiding conflict must first of all be exhausted. Only just means can be used, which means that innocent people, noncombatants, can never be the object of an assault, and a condition that there has to be a good chance of winning because it would be pointless to go ahead and wage a war if there is never any hope of winning it. There would just be the useless loss of human life. There must be limited objectives. The war must be waged within the context of the moral order. We don't want to bring absolute destruction on our enemy or to leave our enemy prostrate. Even our enemy has dignity. We have limited objectives that we dispel the unjust aggressor, or that we protect the innocent. We have no desire of self aggrandizement or of advancing our own national interest at the expense of other people.

Even here, in the question of the use of coercion, we see the consistency of the Church's moral teaching. The Church never imposes arbitrary rules on people. The moral teaching of the Catholic Church arises from its love for every single individual who has been created in the image and the likeness of God. All of the principles that have been formulated by the Church over the centuries in the very areas of special morality give you some idea of how the Church responds. All of the reflections on these areas of special morality are engaged in so that the Church can work and struggle to promote human dignity, to protect the innocent, to bring men and women to lives of virtue that are consistent with their nature and consonant with the dignity that God has bestowed upon them in creating them in his image and likeness. This reflects the goal of Catholic moral teaching.


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