Moral Thinking: A Basic Primer on Catholic Moral Theology
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The wonderful, old “penny catechism” that Catholic children used to memorize in Catholic schools includes this all-important question and response:
Why did God make us?
God made us to know, love, and serve Him, and to be happy with Him forever in
This is the very essence of moral theology.1 The object of moral theology is God Himself, and how we can know, love, and serve Him so that we can be with Him and with all the faithful departed in eternity, for ever and for ever. The goal of the Christian is the Beatific Vision — that is, to see God face to Face! — and to “become God” — not in terms of taking on His Divine Essence, but in terms of partaking of His Divine Nature.
I Corinthians 13:12
We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to Face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.
II Peter 1:3-4
As all things of his divine power which appertain to life and godliness, are given us, through the knowledge of Him Who hath called us by His own proper glory and virtue. By Whom He hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature…
Nothing else will truly and deeply satisfy us. No amount of wealth, fame, wordly power, sex, or other physical pleasures can “fill us up” and make us whole.2
Consider the “existential nausea” Sartre wrote about, the “angst” felt by those who are unmoored not just from Truth, but from even the very idea that objective Truth exists at all, adrift in a universe they see as ultimately meaningless, estranged from God and from others.
Consider how Nietzsche sadly proclaimed that God is dead, and how the philosopher died in a madhouse, his brain, some say, rotted with syphilis.
Consider the post-1960s-era, which has culminated in a generation raised to think they are nothing but, in essence, “glorified monkey meat,” populating one of a billion planets that aimlessly swirls about in space, all the result of mere chance, of “slime X time,” as I like to put it. Living without a sense of deep meaning and a dedication to even, at least, the search for Truth has made them confused and angry, a people whose rage is manifest in a desire to destroy and foment revolution, all fueled by political soundbytes born of corporate media lies, and whose understanding of things political has the depth of a thimble made for a doll house.
All of these things are a symptom of people cutting themselves off from — and being intentionally deprived of, thanks to the doings of our bought-off politicians, education systems, and media — the only source of true and lasting peace, order, and joy, which is communion with God.
The means by which we can know God and learn how to serve Him so we can have communion with Him are reason and faith — i.e., by accepting and then studying Divine Revelation (Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the infallible decisions of the Magisterium) and making reasoned deductions from it (or taking guidance from holy men and women who have). By behaving morally, we please God and, by His grace alone, will be able to partake of the divine nature.
This page will serve as a very basic, little primer on basic Catholic Moral Theology, offered with the hope that it will help Catholics learn exactly what the Church teaches with regard to doing the right thing, developing good habits (virtues), avoiding bad habits (vices), avoiding sin, etc. It’ll be divided into the following sections:
Good Habits: The Virtues
Complements of the Virtues: Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Ghost, and the Beatitudes
Bad Habits: The Vices, and Sin
There are all sorts of things that a man does that are not under the control of his will. Reflexes, how often his heart beats, epileptic seizures, absentmindedly playing with one’s hair — all of these are examples of things that aren’t matters of volition. Moral theologians call these “acts of man” because while it is a man doing them, they do not engage his properly human powers of intellect and will.
But every time a man deliberately chooses to do something, he exercises his will. Moral theologians call these sorts of acts “human acts” because they engage the will that is proper to a human being. It is human acts that have a moral dimension, and in order to serve God well, we must avoid immoral acts (sins), and engage only in acts that are morally good or morally neutral. Included in this is not refraining from doing what we are commanded to do. Failures to do what we should are called “sins of omission.”
A human act is morally good when it serves the purpose of helping man attain his last end — communion with God — and when it glorifies God. Such acts might include giving alms, helping one’s neighbor, attending Mass, etc.
A human act is morally neutral, objectively, in itself, when it neither furthers nor disrupts man’s goal of attaining communion with and glorifying God. Such acts might include riding a bike, watching TV, playing a game of Monopoly, etc. Any time the will is used, though, it is either used in accordance with right reason or it isn’t. So, subjectively, even these objectively morally neutral acts have moral value. For example, it is good to kick back, chill, and engage in recreation in an ordinate manner, and playing that game of Monopoly is fine in itself; but playing a game of Monopoly when one should be studying or working makes the act of playing the game, even though neutral in itself, morally bad. Watching TV is, in itself, morally neutral, but watching programs that cause you to lust is morally bad. And finally, you could be riding your bike to go visit Grandma, which is morally good, or you could be riding your bike to escape the scene of a crime you just committed, which would be morally bad.
A human act is morally bad when it is out of harmony with the purpose of a man’s glorifying and attaining communion with God, thus preventing the supernatural happiness He wants for us. Such acts might include willful murder, blasphemy, rape, etc. Included in this is the failure to perform a moral act when one is commanded to (sin of omission).
In order to choose to engage in a human act, a man must: be free from compulsion (the act must be voluntary and not a response to threats, fear, etc.), free from the effects of disease that can affect his will and ability to understand (e.g., dementia, psychosis, mental retardation, etc.), free from things that affect his ability to give attention to the act (e.g., he must be awake, not half-asleep, etc.), have attained the age of reason (the age of seven), and know the substance and quality of the act he is choosing.
Note the emphasis on the word “know” just above. Not knowing what one should know is called “ignorance.” Now, note that, in moral theology, the baker who doesn’t know how to perform open heart surgery isn’t considered “ignorant” about that type of surgery. Why? Because he isn’t supposed to have such knowledge. “Ignorance” refers to not knowing what one should know, and it comes in different forms:
Ignorance With Regard to the Act
Ignorance of the substance of an act: An example of ignorance of the substance of an act would be a man operating a dump truck so that its contents fall onto and kill a person he didn’t know was there, even after he used due diligence to ensure that it was safe to proceed.
Ignorance of the quality of an act: An example of ignorance as to the quality of an act would be a 2-year old who takes a cookie from a cookie bin at the store and eats it without paying, not knowing that he is stealing.
Ignorance With Regard to the Will
There are three types of ignorance that pertain to the will:
Concomitant ignorance: Concomitant ignorance — or ignorance that is simultaneous with an act of the will — is when one wills to do X, and one does Y which only incidentally causes X. An example of concomitant ignorance would be having the will to kill your neighbor, firing your gun at his car not realizing he is in it, and killing that neighbor. You didn’t will the death of your neighbor during that specific act, but you intended his death otherwise and would have killed him anyway.
Consequent ignorance: Ignorance is consequent — or follows an act of the will — when one deliberately remains in ignorance as an excuse to sin, or when one doesn’t use due diligence to acquire necessary knowledge before acting. An example of consequent ignorance would be if a man intentionally doesn’t research which days are Holy Days of Obligation so he thinks he is “off the hook” for attending Mass on those days. Another example would be a man who hears a noise in the woods and recklessly shoots toward its source, assuming it is an animal to eat, without using due diligence to be sure it is actually an animal and not a human being making the noise.
Antecedent ignorance: Ignorance is antecedent — or precedes an act of the will — if it causes an act that the person would not have made if he had known better. An example of antecedent ignorance is if a man does use due diligence to affirm that what’s making that noise in the woods is, in fact an animal, but he, through no fault of his own, ascertained incorrectly and kills a human being.
Culpability (Guilt) and Ignorance
Whenever he acts, a man is supposed to know what he is doing and to reasonably consider the consequences of his action. His not knowing what he is doing — his ignorance about what he’s doing — is one of two kinds, and it can affect the guilt (or merit) he incurs by the act. The two types of ignorance are invincible ignorance and vincible ignorance.
Invincible ignorance: Invincible ignorance is ignorance that can’t be eradicated even after all due, prudent, and reasonable care has been taken to remove it. If someone has truly done his best to learn of his duties, the morality of various acts, etc., but commits a sin without willing to sin, he may be acting out of invincible ignorance. Given what was stated earlier about the requirements for a “human act,” an action done with invincible ignorance carries neither guilt nor merit.
Vincible ignorance: Vincible ignorance is the opposite of invincible ignorance. It is ignorance that can be eradicated by due diligence and reasonable care. Vincible ignorance could result from some slight lack of care (simple vincible ignorance), from grave fault (crass or supine vincible ignorance), or from a willful desire not to know in order to feign ignorance, such as when a man purposefully doesn’t learn about the morality of an action because he wants to keep engaging in it (studied or affected vincible ignorance). An immoral action done in studied or consequent ignorance make the action even more culpable.
Contrary to human law, ignorance can completely mitigate guilt — if the ignorance is invincible, is not voluntary in itself. Why is there still some guilt when ignorance is vincible? Because we have the duty to inform our consciences (see below about the conscience), to understand Catholic teaching to the best of our abilities and as our circumstances allow. Failure to do so is, in itself, a culpable act, a sin of omission. And as to the various forms of ignorance with regard to the will listed above, only antecedent ignorance renders an act totally involuntary and, therefore, imputes no guilt to the one committing the act.
Vincible ignorance can lessen the degree of guilt, however — for ex., when one does take due diligence, but some ignorance remains. Note that it is the level of knowledge that is key here. If someone has an I.Q. of, say, 79 and, after doing his best to learn what the Church teaches, simply does not understand Catholic marriage laws but wills to live up to them, and then fails to live up to them due to ignorance, his guilt for his failure is mitigated, perhaps totally eradicated, because of his intellectual challenges. In the parable of the faithful and wicked stewards, Jesus touches on how ignorance can mitigate guilt. From the Gospel according to St. Luke 12:46-48, my emphasis:
The lord of that servant will come in the day that he hopeth not, and at the hour that he knoweth not, and shall separate him, and shall appoint him his portion with unbelievers. And that servant who knew the will of his lord, and prepared not himself, and did not according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.
But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required: and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more.
He knows our hearts. He knows our minds. He knows what we know and what we don’t know. And He will judge us perfectly, taking into consideration all of that information. And note that when we deal with another, we don’t know their hearts and their minds, which is why attempts to judge souls rather than actions is not only forbidden, but irrational.
In addition to ignorance are such things as simple error, forgetting what one has learned, inattention, etc., all of which can also mitigate culpability.
The Object, Circumstances, and Motives of an Act
In order for an act to be a moral one, it must have the right end (purpose), be done under the right circumstances, and be done with the right motives. If any one of these three things — end, circumstances, or motive — is evil, the act becomes evil to some degree. If any are deficient in goodness, it can make a moral act less morally good. For example, to help the needy is a right end. To do so when one is poor oneself goes to circumstances that flavor the morality of the act, making it more meritorious, just as giving a mere pittance when one could afford to give much more would make it less meritorious. And to give for the purpose of charity goes to motive (moral) — as would giving for the purpose of showing off one’s wealth (evil). Think of how Lord Christ spoke to the Pharisees of His time, castigating them for the ulterior motives that lay behind their tithing. From the Gospel according to St. Matthew 23:23-28:
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint, and anise, and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone.
Blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but within you are full of rapine and uncleanness.
Thou blind Pharisee, first make clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside may become clean. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’ s bones, and of all filthiness. So you also outwardly indeed appear to men just; but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
Motive counts for a lot; our good intentions are even meritorious for us with regard to things we can’t accomplish because of our circumstances, but would if we could. For example, a poor man who would give a thousand dollars to an orphanage if he had it has the same level of moral credit for that as the man who actually is able to give that money and does so for the right motive. Consider the beautiful story of the widow’s mite, as recounted in the Gospel according to St. Mark 12:41-44, and how it illustrates this point:
And Jesus sitting over against the treasury, beheld how the people cast money into the treasury, and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing.
And calling His disciples together, He saith to them: Amen I say to you, this poor widow hath cast in more than all they who have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all she had, even her whole living.
Know, though, that in spite of what so many seem to believe, good intentions never make a morally bad act good. A bad intention can make a good act morally wrong, but a good intention can’t make a bad act morally right.
To sum up: in order to do well, do “the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason.”
The Ends Do Not Justify the Means
Given that, for an act to be moral, it has to have the right end, circumstances, and means, and that if any of those is evil, then the act is evil, it’s clear that it would be immoral to commit an evil act even if our purpose — our end — is to bring about some good, For example, we can’t rob a bank with the intention of giving the stolen money to the poor, we can’t bomb abortion clinics in order to bring about the end of infanticide, etc.
You may have encountered “The Trolley Problem.” Here it is, as described in The New Republic, written about by a man who most definitely doesn’t think like a Catholic:3
In the central case of the trolley problem, we are asked to compare two choices:
• The footbridge dilemma: A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Standing next to you is a 300-pound man. The only way to save the five people is to push him off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body will stop the trolley. (You are only half his size and would not stop the trolley if you yourself jumped in front of it.)
• The switch dilemma: A runaway trolley is headed for five workmen who will be killed if nothing is done. You can save these five people by hitting a switch that will turn the trolley onto a sidetrack. Unfortunately there is a single workman on the sidetrack who will be killed if you hit the switch.
It turns out that most people the world over think that it would be wrong to push the fat man off the footbridge, but that it would be morally permissible to hit the switch — even though the outcomes of the two acts would be the same, one person killed and five saved. Other examples have been invented to refine the search for the determining characteristics that trigger a judgment of wrongness or permissibility, and various principles have been formulated to capture the results, but we need not go into those details here. The basic point…is that we have strong moral reactions against certain actions that cause harm but serve the greater good on balance, but not to other actions that produce the same balance of good and harm.
There are two noteworthy differences between the two dilemmas. First, in “switch” there is nothing mysterious about the result; everyone gets the point of choosing the outcome with fewer deaths. As Greene observes, “No one’s ever said, ‘Try to save more lives? Why, that never occurred to me!'” But in “footbridge” the choice, however convincing, is mysterious; it seems to call for, but also to defy, explanation. What is it about pushing the fat man in front of the trolley that overrides the value of the five lives that would be saved? To say that it would violate his right to life, or that it would be murder, seems to repeat rather than to explain the judgment.
The writer seems shocked that people are disinclined to commit an evil (commit murder by throwing the fat man onto the tracks) even though good — the saving of others’ lives — might come of it, and he’s baffled that people don’t have a problem flipping a switch, which isn’t inherently evil, even though, in both cases, the same number of lives could be saved, and the same number of people die. A Catholic who knows his Faith understands this perfectly and would have no problem knowing what to do — and not do — if confronted with “the Trolley Problem” in real life: i.e., leave the fat man alone, and flip that switch, assuming your intention is not to kill the single workman, which brings us to the principle of double effect…
The Principle of Double Effect
Actions rarely have only one effect, and sometimes one effect of an action is good, and another effect is evil. If we cannot do evil, that good may come of it, what happens when there are both a good an evil effect from a single act?
For example, during a just war, a pilot is sent on a mission to bomb the last bridge over a river to prevent the revolutionary army from crossing and eventually taking over his homeland, subjecting his country’s women to abuse, destroying his people’s way of life, etc. By bombing the bridge, he’ll help to save his country, people, and culture, an obviously good effect. Yet, nightmarishly, as he approaches, he sees that there are three young children playing on the bridge. But enemy tanks are rolling up quickly, giving him no time at all to wait; he must act or not act now. By not acting, he’ll fail to protect his homeland; by acting, the children will certainly die — a great evil he in no way wants to happen. What must he do?
Another common example is an ectopic, or tubal pregnancy. In such a case, a baby has implanted itself in the Fallopian tube of his mother. As the baby grows, both mother and baby would be killed. Can a doctor operate? Is this not abortion and prohibited? Must the mother accept death and also allow her child to die as well?
The answers to such questions are shaped by the “principle of double effect” which states that we can perform an action that might have an unintended but foreseen evil effect if and only if all of the following are true:
- the action itself is morally good or neutral;
- a good effect follows the act;
- the good effect that follows the action isn’t caused by the evil effect;
- the evil effect isn’t intended;
- we only intend the good effect; and
- the reason for committing the act is sufficiently serious
So the pilot would not only be justified but, given his duty, would be obliged to drop the bomb, since the destruction of the bridge is good, is the immediate effect of the bomb, isn’t caused by the deaths of the children, is his only intention, and while the death of those innocent children is a great evil, his duty and the evils of invasion are sufficiently serious matters that compel that he act.
Similarly, the mother must have the operation because it serves the good goal of saving the mother’s life, the immediate effect of the operation is the removal of the damaged Fallopian tube, the death of the baby isn’t the cause of the saving of the mother’s life, the only goal is to prevent the mother’s death, the horribly sad death of the baby isn’t the intention of the surgeon or the mother, and saving the mother’s life is sufficiently serious and important.
The passions, or the emotions, are our feelings, and they arise not toward the Good as our intellect perceives it, but the Good as our senses perceive it.
There are two types of passions:
Concupiscible passions – The object of the six concupiscible passions is the desire for a good or the avoidance of an evil in circumstances with no obstacles, with nothing standing in the way of attaining the good or avoiding the evil. The six concupiscible passions are: joy/pleasure vs. pain/sorrow; desire vs. avoidance/abhorrence; and love vs. hate.
Irascible passions – The object of the five irascible passions is the good that is difficult to attain, or evil that is difficult to avoid. The five irascible passions are: hope vs. despair; courage vs. fear; and anger (anger has no opposite).
Unlike the Stoics who saw our emotions as bad, and unlike Buddhists who see desire as something to be snuffed out in order to erase suffering from the world, the Church sees the passions as good in themselves, as indicators of an intensity of will. That the Master of Love Himself exhibited sadness, anger, and other emotions is clear proof that the emotions are not bad. Yes, the passions are good, and are morally neutral in themselves — but how we use or fail to use our will to guide and act on them is where morality comes in. They become voluntary, and therefore morally relevant, if they’re willed or if we fail to use our will as we should to moderate them to the best of our abilities so that they motivate us only do the good, and to avoid evil.
Morally, how we use our emotions is good if we use our will to direct them to a moral good, using reason to direct them toward a good purpose and in moderation in accordance to the circumstances we find ourselves in. And, of course, the converse is true: we use our passions immorally if we employ them in ways contrary to the above. Take anger, for example. Anger, in itself, is neutral. But there is a radical difference between, on the one hand, someone’s being angry for an unjust cause, nurturing that anger, and working himself into a rage to commit an evil to seek revenge, and, on the other hand, the anger experienced by someone who sees an atheist mock Christ or His Blessed Mother (a righteous anger) and has angry words with the blasphemer (a moral act if done prudently).
Note that it isn’t the pleasantness or unpleasantness of an emotion that makes them good or bad. Shame, for example, is unpleasant, but good if it is caused by the commission of a sin. If we sin, we should feel shame, and feeling shame motivates us to go to Confession and to try to sin no more. On the contrary, having pleasant emotions can be bad, such as in the case of someone who feels pleasure at seeing someone fail simply because he is envious of that person.
The passions can make an act more or less moral or evil as well. The language the Church uses to describe this are the words “antecedent” and “consequent” relative to the use of reason. If a passion causes an act antecedent to — before — the the use of reason — i.e., if the passion-caused act comes before a man stops to think and use his reason to inform his will — it can diminish the good or the evil of the act he engages in; if it is consequent to — if it follows — the use of reason, it can increase the good or the evil of the act.
For example, even civil law recognizes “crimes of passion” — say when a man comes home early from work and catches his wife cheating on him with another man. If, without having time to think, he acts in a rage and kills them, it is less evil than if he’d caught them without their seeing him, sneaked away, and plotted their murder, “lying in wait” for them at a later time.
It is important to recognize your passions, or emotions, and to master them. A failure to do allows them to master you — and allows others to become your master by manipulating your feelings. Take a look around at the modern West and see how our emotions are manipulated so that we vote for whomever the powers that be want us to vote for, buy what they want us to buy, say what they want us to say, etc. Think of how fear and lustful desire are used to blackmail and control those in power. Think of the radical ineffectiveness of those who are addicted to pornography — so controlled by their passions that they are unable to develop real relationships with real, living others, are unable to remain faithful, and spend their time masturbating in darkened rooms rather than building and defending what is Good.
To become masters of our passions, we must recognize them, name them, and develop good habits, or virtues.
Most of us are aware of how the word “habit” is typically used, and while that standard definition is included in Catholic moral theology, the Church’s way of understanding habits is much more expansive.
Definition and sources and types of habits
A habit is a quality that affects, for good or ill, how we behave in terms of patterns of activity, a quality that affects our propensity to perform an act and the ease with which we perform it. Habits are either supernaturally infused by God (such as the sanctifying grace we’re given at Baptism), or they’re acquired, either being obtained from nature or through repeated acts and discipline (or the lack thereof). There are two different types of habits:
Entitative habit – an entitative habit is a habit that affects the entire person (or “entity”) in himself. Health, beauty, fatness, and sanctifying grace are examples of entitative habits.
Operative habit – an operative habit is a hard-to-change quality that doesn’t affect the entire person and eases, for good or ill, a propensity to engage in a behavior. Such things as brushing one’s teeth three times a day, abstentminded abuse of tobacco, always placing your shoes next to the front door, or acquiring the skills to play the cello are types of operative habits.
Good habits are called “virtues”; bad habits are called “vices.”
Good Habits: The Virtues
There are three types of virtue: the intellectual, the moral, and the theological.
The Intellectual Virtues
The intellectual virtues are good habits that perfect the intellect with regard to Truth, the intellect’s proper end. They derive from Nature and through practice. There are two types:
Speculative intellectual virtues
- Understanding, which is the habit of seeing as true those things that are self-evident, such as first principles and axiomatic truths (i.e., assertions that are self-evident, for ex., “A=A,” “The whole is greater than the part,” etc.).
- Knowledge (or science), which is the habit of seeing truths that are determined from rational arguments and are derived from first principles.
- Wisdom, which is the habit of using reason to see things in light of ultimate Truths. Wisdom is the supreme intellectual virtue.
Practical intellectual virtues
- Prudence, which is the habit of using the intellect in order to ascertain what should be done — or not done — in specific circumstances. Prudence is also a moral virtue, as we’ll soon see.
- Art, which is the habit of using the intellect in order to make things that are useful or beautiful.
The Moral Virtues
Moral virtues are habits that perfect the sensuous appetite and the will. They, like the intellectual virtues, are derived from Nature and through practice. They are grouped together under four main virtues — Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance — virtues known as “the cardinal virtues” because all of the other moral virtues are rooted in them. The Cardinal virtues, listed in order of their importance, and the other virtues annexed to them are:
Prudence: The Cardinal Virtue of Regulating The Intellect
Prudence is the virtue of using reason to figure out the right thing to do in a given circumstance, taking into consideration things like the person or people one is dealing with, timing, place, the potential effects of a given action, etc. Note that prudence is also listed as an intellectual virtue above.
Justice: The Cardinal Virtue of Regulating The Will
Justice relates to man’s dealings with others, including God. The virtues annexed to Justice are:
- Religion – the virtue of giving God His due.
- Piety – giving one’s parents, children, family, countrymen, country, etc. their due. Piety stands in stark opposition to modern liberal thinking that mocks patriotism and steers us toward globalism. Our loyalties start with God through the virtue of religion, and then, through piety, go to family, then town, then province, then country, and continue outward in concentric circles, with “the world” coming last. Modern liberalism encourages “leapfrogging loyalties” that lead so many “progressives” to be more concerned about some group living in a land they’ve never visited than they are about their own families and country. Even worse, consider one of PETA’s slogans (PETA is a radical “animal rights” activist group): “A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy.” That sound byte is evidence of a group so lacking in piety that they put loyalty to animals even before loyalty to the human race, nevermind loyalty to their own children. The character of Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” is a good representation of a person lacking in piety.4
- Gratitude – the virtue of giving due to one who acts as a benefactor.
- Liberality – the virtue of giving from one’s wealth what is due to others.
- Affability – the virtue of giving others their due in terms of behaving appropriately toward them.
Fortitude: The Cardinal Virtue of Regulating The Irascible Passions
Fortitude relates to getting rid of obstacles that stand in the way of doing the right things and of Justice. It can be thought of as courage, bravery, valor, determination, etc. The virtues annexed to Fortitude are:
- Patience – the virtue of dealing serenely with evil.
- Munificence – the virtue of giving with great generosity, going above and beyond “mere” liberality (see Justice above).
- Magnanimity – the virtue of willing to do great works deserving of honor. Note that this doesn’t contradict the virtue of humility, which is simply recognizing the Truth about oneself. A man’s knowing that he has, in fact, done great things worthy of honor doesn’t mean he isn’t humble because what he has done is real, it is true.
- Perseverance – the virtue of hanging on and continuing forward, in spite of obstacles and hardships, in order to do what is right.
Temperance: The Cardinal Virtue of Regulating The Concupiscible Passions
Temperance relates to man’s dealing with his own concupiscible passions. The virtues annexed to Temperance are:
- Continence – the virtue that keeps in check one’s desire to engage in inordinate violence or inordinate indulgence of the sensitive appetites (e.g., inordinate indulgence in food, drink, sex, etc.)
- Humility – the virtue that keeps in check one’s desire to inflate one’s own importance or greatness, including to oneself. Imagine a person who presents himself as humble and good, but who inwardly sees himself as more than he is and who flaunts power: that person is not, in fact, humble, in spite of how he presents himself to the world. Humility is, in essence, simply recognizing the Truth about oneself, both the bad and the good.
- Meekness – the virtue that keeps in check one’s impulse to give in to inordinate anger.
- Modesty – the virtue that keeps in check one’s impulse to flaunt oneself externally. This virtue pertains to much more than just how one dresses oneself and includes not giving in to inordinate desire for attention, glory, fame, etc.
These virtues work together. Lack one, lack all. Consider a man who has what look like the qualities of Fortitude in that he’s willing to work hard or risk his life to attain a goal — but who, lacking Justice, has a goal that is unholy. In reality, he has no Fortitude at all, because moral behavior necessarily involves the right ends, or objectives. Or think of the Muslim suicide bombers who are sometimes described as being “courageous” in being willing to blow themselves up to attain their evil ends: in reality, they don’t possess the virtue of Fortitude at all, nor are they expressing the virtue of religion because they are not giving God His due by such actions, nor are they exhibiting other virtues pertaining to Justice in giving their neighbors their due. Hence, they are not truly courageous at all; they are foolhardy (to say the very least).
As a mnemonic device (and a good way to teach the cardinal virtues to your children), Prudence can be seen as ruling the head; Fortitude, the heart; Temperance, the belly; and Justice, one’s hands (one’s dealings with the outer world).
The intellectual and moral virtues (not the theological virtues which we’ll get to next) consist in what’s called “the golden mean,” that is, in aiming for the that which lies between excess and deficit. For example, on one side of patience is apathy; on the other side of patience is aggression. Foolhardiness is to one far side of courage, and at the other extreme is cowardice. Knowing what that golden mean is in a given situation, at a given time, is what Prudence, the “emperor” of the Cardinal Virtues, is for.
The Theological Virtues
All of the virtues are geared toward our happiness, but no matter how virtuous we are, we can’t work our way into Heaven; it is God’s grace — neither faith alone (which Protestants believe), nor works (which many uneducated Protestants falsely accuse Catholics of believing) — that saves us. So we know that there must be other virtues that lead us toward the end we’re called to — to be with God in Heaven for ever, and to partake of His Divine Nature.
The virtues that allow for this are called the “theological virtues” because they derive from God Himself and from no other source. Unlike the intellectual and moral virtues which even heathens can acquire insofar as they conform to Natural Law (even if imperfectly because they’re not directed toward man’s last end), we must rely on God alone for the theological virtues, the virtues which unite us with God Himself. There are three such theological virtues:
- Faith – Faith is a supernaturally infused virtue that illuminates the intellect, giving man knowledge of supernatural truths, the acceptance of divine revelation.
- Hope – Hope is a supernaturally infused virtue that informs the will, helping man to trust in God and in His promises of everlasting life.
- Charity – Charity is a supernatually infused virtue that informs the will, allowing us to love God and love our neighbor for the sake of God. Faith sees God in light of Truth; Hope sees Him in light of His Goodness as it pertains to us and our salvation; Charity sees God in terms of His intrinsic Goodness and allows us to love God because He is Love itself, and to love our neighbors because we love Him. Charity is the greatest of all virtues! And it will never die, unlike Faith and Hope which we won’t need in Heaven because we will see Him face to Face and know all things. Heaven is the fulfillment of our Faith and Hope.
I Corinthians 13:1-8: “If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed.”
To receive the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Charity, ask God for them! Make Acts of Faith, Hope, and Charity. He will not refuse you! Apocalypse of St. John 3:20 tells us that He says: “Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear My voice, and open to Me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.” Say yes to the Divine Physician and be healed!
The Complements of the Virtues
The Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost
The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are complements of the virtues, like the theological virtues — habits of the soul infused in us by God, helping us to please Him. They’re lesser than the theological virtues because they don’t unite us with God, but “merely” help prepare us to receive His guidance. The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are:
- Understanding – an intellectual gift that helps us to understand what we are to believe
- Wisdom – an intellectual gift that helps us to adhere to the Faith
- Knowledge – an intellectual gift that helps us understand created things
- Counsel – an intellectual gift that helps us understand human actions
- Fortitude – a gift that guides our irascible passions and make us trust in victory
- Piety – a gift that guides our irascible passions so that we love God and others
- Fear of the Lord – a gift that guides the concupiscible passions and helps us to not offend God
The Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost
The twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost, enumerated by St. Paul in his epistle to the Galatians 5:22-25, are actions that grow out of virtue and from the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. The fruits are:
The Eight Beatitudes
- The Beatitudes derive from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and can be found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew 5:3-10. They are:
Poorness of spirit
Meekness (Note that “meek” in Christ’s Beatitudes is the perhaps unfortunate English translation of the Greek word “praótes,” meaning “temperate,” “displaying the right blend of force and reserve or gentleness,” “avoiding unnecessary harshness, yet without compromising or being too slow to use necessary force.” It doesn’t refer to being a weak pushover.)
- Hungering after Justice
- Cleanness of heart
- Suffering of persecution for the sake of Justice
Bad Habits: The Vices, and Sin
A vice is a habit that tends toward evil and sin. A sin is a thought, word, deed, or failure to act when one should (an omission) that goes against God’s law and which results from vice or reinforces vice.
Sin can be categorized in many different ways:
the sort of delight taken in it:
and carnal sin
Spiritual sins include such things as spiritual envy (see, for example, the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard), vainglory (seeking praise from men), etc. Carnal sins are sins such as lust, gluttony, etc.
In terms of malice, spiritual sins are worse, in themselves, than carnal sins, as can be seen in how Jesus dealt roughly with the Pharisees who condemned the adulterous woman in John 8, a woman He treated with gentleness.
whom is most directly offended:
God, others, or self
Sins against God are more grave than sins against His creatures. Sins against people are worse than sins against their possessions. Sins against those who have a greater claim on you in terms of the duties you owe to them are worse than sins against those with a lesser claim — e.g., it is more sinful to murder one’s own child than a stranger’s child. And when it comes to possessions, it’s more sinful to commit offenses against things that are necessary or precious to someone than something that isn’t — e.g., it’s more sinful to take a poor man’s money than a rich man’s, and it’s more sinful to steal a watch that is a precious heirloom than it is to steal another watch.
the evil done by acting or not acting:
|sin of commission|
and sin of omission
Sometimes a failure to act morally (sin of omission) is just as sinful as acting immorally (sin of commission). For example, walking by and ignoring a bleeding man pleading for help is sinful, as would be beating him and leaving him by the side of the road.
|sin of the heart,|
sin of the mouth, sin of work
Sin can progress from the heart (mind) to its actually being carried out. One can, for example, be envious of someone (sin of the heart), go about slandering him (sin of the mouth), and then do something to bring about his ruin (sin of work).
how it deviates from the golden mean:
|sin of excess|
and sin of defect
One sins by deviating from the golden mean, whether by excess (e.g., foolhardiness) or defect (cowardice).
|According to how|
guilt is contracted:
and actual sin
Original sin is the sin of Adam that was passed on to the entire human race through no individual fault of our own. Actual sin is sin that we commit ourselves and are individually responsible for.
ignorance, or malice
Sins of weakness are those that stem from antecedent concupiscence and other passions. They’re considered sins against the Father because God the Father is described by the attribute of power.
Sins of ignorance are those that stem from antecedent and vincible ignorance. They’re considered sins against the Son because God the Son is described by the attribute of wisdom.
Sins of malice are those that stem from the will to cause suffering or harm, the will to hurt someone, without passion or ignorance. They are considered sins against the Holy Ghost because the God the Holy Ghost is described by the attribute of love. Generally speaking, sins of malice are the most grave and much more serious than sins of weakness or ignorance.
and formal sin
If a sinful act isn’t willed, it is only a material sin and involves no guilt. It is a formal sin if it is willed. For example, a person who forgets that it is a Holy Day of Obligation only materially sins when missing Mass, and isn’t culpable (guilty); however, if a person knows it is a Holy Day of Obligation and misses Mass intentionally when he could have attended, he formally sins and is culpable.
and venial sin
A mortal or “deadly” sin is a grave sin that results in eternal punishment, turning us away from God and the last end we are called to. A sin is venial when it involves a lighter matter and doesn’t result in eternal punishment.
In order to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met: 1) the sin we commit must be grave or we must think it is grave; 2) we must fully consent to it by our will; and 3) we must know or suspect or think it is a grave sin and fully advert to it with our minds (“advertence” is giving our attention to something. To fully advert to an act, we must be awake, in possession of our faculties, be of the age of reason, not be intellectually handicapped, etc.). Mortal sins must be confessed as soon as possible.
Venial sins can become mortal in some circumstances. For ex., stealing a little bit of money might not be a grave sin in certain circumstances, but doing so in order to get someone else blamed for it — an act of malice — can change the nature of the sin, raising it from venial to mortal. Joking to someone about the way he looks might not be a mortal sin in itself, but doing so while knowing that that person is extremely sensitive about his looks and that your joking about his appearance might cause him to go on a drinking binge could make that “little joke” a mortal sin.
The Seven Deadly Sins
Sins can also be seen as grouped according to the vice from which they originate. There are seven main vices, known as the “Seven Capital Sins” (also the “Seven Deadly Sins” or, very informally, the “Seven Deadlies”). St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, describes such a sin like this: “a capital vice is that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source.” First formally enumerated by Pope St. Gregory the Great in “Moralia in Job,” they are pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. In more detail:
- Pride – Also known as “vainglory” or “vanity,” pride can be summarized as the state of having an inordinate, exalted sense of one’s own worth. Pride is considered to be the “queen of all vices,” the root of the other vices, and the sin of which Satan was guilty when he refused to subject himself to God with his “non serviam” (“I will not serve!”) attitude. The opposite of pride is simply recognizing the Truth about oneself. Because of this, it isn’t a matter of pride to acknowledge that one has certain gifts. But it would be prideful if one fails to attribute those gifts to God, fails to have gratitude for them, or abuses them. For example, a great painter’s recognizing that he has the ability to paint is simply a matter of his recognizing a fact. But if he attributes his abilities solely to himself, shows no gratitude to God for them, and, instead of painting pictures that serve the True, Good, and Beautiful, makes decadent, pornographic works, he is prideful. The contrary virtue to pride is humility, an aspect of temperance. It’s the willingness to recognize one’s own faults and to subject oneself to God. To help develop humility, St. Benedict, in his Rule, advises, “Let a man consider that God always seeth him from Heaven, that the eye of God beholdeth his works everywhere, and that the angels report them to Him every hour.”
- Greed – Also known as “Avarice,” greed is the inordinate love of wealth, the failure to treat worldly goods as a means to a good end rather than as an end in themselves. The adage “he who dies with the most toys wins” sums up this vice well. The contrary virtue to greed is liberality, an aspect of justice. It’s the willingness to part with one’s money or possessions in order to serve the good. Liberality doesn’t concern itself with the amount one gives, but with the heart of the giver, as in the story of the Widow’s Mite, recounted above.
- Lust – Lust is the inordinate desire for the carnal pleasures experienced in the genitals. By “inordinate,” it’s meant, generally, that the desire is for sexual pleasure outside the confines of marriage and the laws that govern marital sex. It has many different forms when acted upon, including fornication, adultery, incest, sodomy, homosexual sex, etc., but the willed desire for such pleasures that one has no right to is sinful itself. Those all too common fleeting sexual thoughts that come unbidden are not sinful, but to advert to such thoughts (to willingly give them attention) is to “miss the mark” (to sin). The contrary virtue to lust is chastity, an aspect of temperance. We are all to be chaste, but living chastely demands different things of different people called to different social sacraments (holy matrimony or holy orders) or at different stages of life. The unmarried are called to sexual continence (to not have sexual relations at all), with priests and religious having the additional duty to remain celibate (to not marry). The married live chastely by engaging, or not, in marital relations. Marital sex must be open to life, meaning that no means of artificial birth control is licit. Natural Family Planning (NFP), a method of birth control which takes into consideration a woman’s natural periods of infertility, is licit under grave circumstances. As to sexual acts inside marriage, Fr. Prummer’s “Handbook of Moral Theology” tells us: “Not only the conjugal act itself but also touches and looks and all other acts are lawful between the married, provided that there is no proximate danger of pollution and the sole intention is not mere sexual pleasure. Therefore in ordinary circumstances the confessor should not interrogate married persons about these accompanying acts.” (“Pollution” here refers to a man’s ejaculating outside of his wife’s vagina. Father’s reference to “sole intention” doesn’t mean that every time a married couple engage in “the marital embrace” they must have the conscious desire to have a child; it simply means that the act must be open to life, that no artificial birth control method is used.).
- Anger – Anger or Wrath in the sinful sense is the desire for vengeance in opposition to justice and charity. Feelings of anger and the desire for vengeance are not sinful when in accordance with reason. For example, to feel anger when seeing an injustice, and to want the injustice to be remedied is fine — in fact, it’s a sin to not be angry at times (see Summa Theologiae II-II.158.8). But it is sinful when it’s directed toward inflicting vengeance upon someone who’s done nothing wrong, or if it’s inordinate to the wrong done, or if it doesn’t have a good motive. The contrary virtue to anger is meekness, an aspect of temperance. An associated virtue is clemency, another aspect of temperance. Where meekness mitigates anger, clemency is concerned with any punishment one gives to a wrong-doer. To clarify, if someone does you harm, you may feel anger. Meekness is the virtue of ensuring that any anger felt is in accordance with reason, that it makes sense. Clemency comes in when deciding on how to deal with the wrong-doer. Another way of putting it is that meekness is about the internal, the passions, what one feels, while clemency is about the external, what one does about one’s passions in terms of dealing with another.
- Gluttony – Gluttony is the inordinate indulgence in food or drink. Generally, it is not a mortal sin, but a venial one (and this writer breathes a sigh of relief), but it can become mortal for someone if he knows that a level of inordinate indulgence will harm his health and he indulges anyway, if it causes him to be unable to perform his duties, etc. The contrary virtue to gluttony is temperance. Don’t go for that third piece of pie (you can have another piece tomorrow!).
- Envy – Envy is sorrow or regret over another’s success, gifts, looks, wealth, or general well-being, a violation of charity. It isn’t sinful if one knows that there is injustice involved. For example, if someone in your office gets a raise and a promotion, and you know that the only reason she got that raise and promotion is because she had sex with your boss, it isn’t sinful to be annoyed. Or say she got the raise and promotion honestly, but you know that if she becomes your superior, she will fire you because she disagrees with your religious or political thinking: regretting her success in such an instance isn’t sinful. If, though, you regret her promotion simply because you wanted it for yourself, you are showing envy. (Note that, though the words are commonly misused, there is a difference between envy and jealousy: envy is the unjust regretting of another’s success, inordinately wanting for oneself what others have; jealousy is regretting the injustice of someone taking something from you that is actually yours. God Himself, for ex., refers to Himself as “a jealous God” Whose first commandment is that we serve no other gods but Him. Because He is our Creator, our focus should rightly be on Him, and His jealousy makes sense. In the same way, a man’s jealousy with regard to his own wife, or a woman’s jealousy over her own husband, makes sense, if ordinate and not pathological or abusive). The worst of all envy is spiritual envy, the regret over another’s spiritual good. Think of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the young French girl who was blessed to actually see the Holy Virgin in Lourdes, France: when she entered the convent, her novice-mistress was consumed with jealousy of the Saint and made her life very difficult. Or consider the words of one woman I spoke to who angrily told me that it isn’t fair that someone can repent on his deathbed and enter into Heaven, while she, a very serious practicing Catholic who’s tried very hard to follow Church teaching, has spent a lifetime trying to please God in order to achieve the same end (see again the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, and consider the attitude of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son). Such envy is a sin against the Holy Ghost Himself, an awful thing. The contrary virtue to envy is brotherly love. Even if you feel envious of someone, you must use your will to do only good to them.
- Sloth – Sloth or Acedia is the disinclination to labor and exertion, especially in terms of the works demanded by moral and Church precepts, such as fulfilling one’s duties to God, to others, and one’s self. In the latter sense, it is against charity. The contrary virtue to sloth is diligence. (Isn’t it funny how short this bit on sloth is?)
Temptation to sin must be resisted. Not to resist temptation when the matter is grave can be a mortal sin in itself if the lack of resistance is considerable. To this end, we must avoid what the Church calls “occasions of sin,” that is, situations that make it likely we will stumble.
What is an occasion of sin for one person might not be such for another, and a good way of learning the situations that are occasions of sin for you is to perform a nightly examination of conscience, making note of what was happening, what you were doing, whom you were with, etc., when you sinned, and determining the things, situations, places, or people you should avoid lest you fall again.
Note that it is licit to put oneself in an occasion of sin if one must, has good motives, and does all he can to resist stumbling. For example, an attorney might have to expose himself to pornography in order to prosecute a case. When he does, and assuming pornography is an occasion of sin for him as it is for most people, he should purify his motives, pray, receive the Sacraments, etc., in order to resist falling.
We must remember, too, that, ultimately, we are engaged in a spiritual battle, that demons fight against us and tempt us, doing all they can to cause us to stumble. Spiritual warfare is very real, and the page just linked to was written to teach about it and how to deal with the demonic causes of sin.
A law is a command or prohibition made for the good, by one who has authority, and which has force. Because a law must serve the common good, a proclaimed law that doesn’t serve the good is no law at all: “Mala lex, nulla lex” (“a bad law is no law”).
Law has two sources:
God: God’s laws, or “the divine law,” is law that is enacted by God Himself, known to us through revelation and reason. It includes:
the eternal law, which derives from the Divine Mind and, being eternal, has existed before creation. It directs all things — the angels, man, the beasts, the world — toward their proper end.
the natural law, which is the law that governs the ordering of the material universe. The natural law is unchanging and universal, applying to everyone, at all times, anywhere. It’s described as being “written into the heart of man,” and can be determined, by reason, from man’s very nature.
the positive divine law, such as the Old Testament Mosaic laws which have been fulfilled by the law of the Gospel.
Man: Human laws are considered moral laws when they affirm Eternal or Divine Law or pertain to the common good. Human laws include:
- ecclesiastical (Church) law, such as the six precepts of the Church, and Canon Law. With few exceptions, ecclesiastical laws are considered to be moral laws. Church laws have as their purpose helping people to more easily follow divine law, and to promote the Church’s welfare. Every baptized person who has use of reason is bound to Church law.
- civil law, the regular, everyday, man-made laws we deal with in daily life, such as your State’s criminal and civil codes, federal laws, etc.
The listing of the sources of law above reflects, in descending order, which type of law has precedence. Note, though, that while ecclesiastical law has precedence over civil law, the civil sphere is a separate entity, with its own concerns which the Church lays no claim to govern. You can see this understanding of the separation of Church and State in St. Augustine’s phrases “the City of God” and “the City of Man.” From Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical, “Immortale Dei,” given in A.D. 1885:
13. The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each, so that there is, we may say, an orbit traced out within which the action of each is brought into play by its own native right. But, inasmuch as each of these two powers has authority over the same subjects, and as it might come to pass that one and the same thing-related differently, but still remaining one and the same thing-might belong to the jurisdiction and determination of both, therefore God, who foresees all things, and who is the author of these two powers, has marked out the course of each in right correlation to the other. “For the powers that are, are ordained of God.” Were this not so, deplorable contentions and conflicts would often arise, and, not infrequently, men, like travellers at the meeting of two roads, would hesitate in anxiety and doubt, not knowing what course to follow. Two powers would be commanding contrary things, and it would be a dereliction of duty to disobey either of the two.
14. But it would be most repugnant to them to think thus of the wisdom and goodness of God. Even in physical things, albeit of a lower order, the Almighty has so combined the forces and springs of nature with tempered action and wondrous harmony that no one of them clashes with any other, and all of them most fitly and aptly work together for the great purpose of the universe. There must, accordingly, exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man. The nature and scope of that connection can be determined only, as We have laid down, by having regard to the nature of each power, and by taking account of the relative excellence and nobleness of their purpose. One of the two has for its proximate and chief object the well-being of this mortal life; the other, the everlasting joys of heaven. Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church. Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority. Jesus Christ has Himself given command that what is Caesar’s is to be rendered to Caesar, and that what belongs to God is to be rendered to God.
The Church offers basic moral and social principles, and it is up to civil authorities to pay heed — or not, sadly — to those teachings. The Church doesn’t claim the authority to micro-manage, for example, how a given country should deal with immigration5 or the right of its citizens to arm themselves, etc. She simply teaches charity along with prudence, the natural right to self-defense, and other moral principles, leaving nations to honor — or not — those principles, and to work out the details of how to order their societies. Of course, the more a nation bases its laws on the Church’s social teachings, the more ordered and just it will be. The modern notion of a radical separation of Church and State — conceiving of them such that the two aren’t merely separate, but don’t even touch each other, demanding that States disallow the Church’s teaching from informing its laws — leads to social mayhem.
A human law is unjust and it is licit to disobey it if 1) it is not given by the proper and competent authority, 2) it doesn’t have the common good as its purpose, 3) it doesn’t equally distribute the burdens of following it, 4) it violates the rights of God (for example, commands to worship idols), and 5) disobeying wouldn’t bring about a greater evil.
As to point 3, this is where the matter of “fairness” comes in. While “justice” and “fairness” are often used interchangeably, they’re not quite the same. “Justice” pertains to giving all their due; “fairness” pertains to being even-handed in dispensing justice without reference to one’s own personal interests. Too often, disparate treatment or outcomes bring on cries of “unfairness,” and Nature herself is said to be “unfair” because talents, intelligence, beauty, etc., are distributed unequally. But a mother who spends extra time with a child who has special needs isn’t being unfair or unjust (at least not necessarily) to her other children. Or consider a perfectly able child who thinks it “unfair” that his brother with a broken leg gets to have a “cool” pair of crutches while he doesn’t. Recall how we so often hear things such as how Silicon Valley is “unfair” to women because there are relatively few female software engineers — with the fact that most women aren’t interested in software engineering going unsaid. Think about how often we’ve heard how being against gay “marriage” is “unfair,” an impossibility because it goes against God’s law and natural law — and with the facts that a homosexual could always legally marry someone of the opposite sex just as a heterosexual could, and that a heterosexual person also couldn’t marry someone of his own sex — all perfectly equal — being totally ignored.
None of the above are unjust or unfair. To remember the difference between justice and fairness, imagine a scenario in which two patients show up at a hospital emergency room: one is having a stroke, the other has a broken finger. Doctors giving the stroke patient precedence over the patient with the broken finger is perfectly just. But if two patients with broken fingers show up, it’d be unfair to treat one but not the other because one has blue eyes and the other has brown ones, and the doctor has a totally irrelevant preference for one or the other eye color, or to treat one patient because he is rich and can do the doctor favors later, while ignoring the other patient because he is poor and can’t personally benefit the doctor. The importance of fairness is why depictions of Justice are typically of a woman holding scales while blindfolded so that her personal feelings and whims and any potential personal gain don’t play a role in her decisions.
Generally speaking, when enforcing or following human laws (but not the divine law), the principle of epikeia may be used, but only with great care, only when necessary, and never when simply self-serving. Epiekeia is the honoring the spirit of the law rather than its letter when honoring the letter of the law violates justice or doesn’t serve the common good.
Conscience is an act of judgment, the use of reason in order to determine the rightness or wrongness of a given act. The conscience is either true or false in terms of the law itself, good or bad in terms of how we use our will, and certain or uncertain in terms of how we use our intellect:
With regard to the law, one’s conscience is true if a judgment it makes is, in fact, in accordance with God’s law or just human law, and it is false if it isn’t. We must use our reason to ensure that our conscience is true, that our judgments are made in accordance with the law. The function of our conscience isn’t to make up laws of its own, but to make a judgment as to how to apply the law in a given situation.
With regard to the will, one’s conscience is good if it is used with right motives in terms of one’s end or duties, and is bad if it isn’t. We must try to make sure our conscience is good by having the will to always be mindful of our last end, what we owe to God, what we owe to others, and what we owe to ourselves.
If one is invincibly ignorant as to the morality of an act and, without guilt, wrongly believes that that which is immoral is, in fact, moral, he is bound to obey, even though objectively wrong. For example, if a parent wrongly tells a child that it is right to steal from a certain store because the store-owners are enemies, and the child believes it, that child is bound to obey his parent even though stealing is, in fact, wrong.
If one is simply vincibly wrong, one is still bound to obey his conscience if there is no danger of sin in following it. For example, if a Catholic wrongly believes that it’s immoral to eat shellfish, but eats it anyway, he sins even though there is no prohibition against eating shellfish.
With regard to the intellect, one’s conscience is certain if it assents to the judgment being made without doubt or fear of being wrong, and it is uncertain if it doesn’t. We must use our intellect to ensure that our conscience is certain whenever possible, to not make judgments out of emotion, our desires, our wishes, or mere sentiment.
If we commit an act based on an uncertain conscience and there is a danger of sin by committing that act, we sin, even if the act itself isn’t a sin in itself. For example, if a Catholic wrongly believes that it is certain that he must attend Mass on a day he isn’t obligated to attend Mass, and he doesn’t attend Mass that day, he sins even though he wasn’t actually obligated to attend.
If there is no danger of sin, we can commit the act. For example, if a Catholic wrongly believes that it is certain that he must eat fish on Friday rather than merely abstain from meat, and he does eat fish on Friday, he doesn’t sin by eating fish because eating fish isn’t sinful.
We’re bound to obey our conscience if it is a reliable guide due to its being true, good, and certain. A conscience that lacks one of those things is called “erroneous,” and must not be obeyed if there is danger of sin or if any ignorance concerning its judgments are vincible. How very different is this traditional understanding of the conscience than what we so often hear nowadays! Consider this, from an article called “The primacy of conscience: The only way forward for the Catholic Church,”6 which begins with this paragraph —
The Catholic Church has needed a change in direction for a long time now. When Church leaders convened for the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to discuss how to reinvent the Church’s image in a modern world, it was an official acknowledgement of this very fact. Yet to this day, the Vatican has remained out of whack with the moral and cultural leanings of modern, Western society.
— and includes this nonsense:
[The Church’s] hardline teachings on contraception, and naive emphasis on promoting “sexual responsibility”, stifled efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere for years; its reluctance to accept homosexuality and transgender people has seriously dented its image as a champion of love, acceptance and compassion; and its denial of the sexual abuse perpetrated by its own members threw into question the Church’s very right to claim it was an authority on sexual morality at all…
…Nowadays people think for themselves. They are skeptical. They value their freedom and their individuality. Authority is earned, not given. But the Church hasn’t discovered a way to reconcile this new social trend with its traditional claims to power. It is therefore losing its grip on that power.
Pope Francis is a pragmatic man and he aims to change all this. He may still personally believe in the conservative teachings of the Church, but he is challenging the role of the Church in the modern world. He is trying to reform the bad elements of the way the Vatican is run, and in doing so is admitting some of its past errors of judgement.
But hang on, isn’t this rejecting the theological basis of the Church’s moral power? Well, Pope Francis is looking at promoting another theological position, one that has previously been rejected by past Popes. That is, the idea of the primacy of conscience…
…The primacy of conscience is the idea that God’s voice lies in your soul, and it is a sin not to listen to it. It is reconcilable with the notion that the Church is a moral authority, though only if it can be fallible and challenged by human conscience, as Pope Francis himself is showing. This is a position that may help the Church stay in touch with this brave new world, where offering the democratic values of individualism and personal freedom are now prerequisite conditions for gaining our ideological allegiances.
Wow. Where to begin? In our libertine times, “the conscience” — the word liberals use for one’s personal desires — is treated by some as being above eternal and natural law rather than their servant. The function of the conscience is to use knowledge, reason, and prudence, in good will, to apply objective moral principles to a particular circumstance, but so-called “progressives” think of it as a license to act on their whims. This is wrong. And the article is wrong as well about the primacy of conscience being “rejected by past Popes”; that is a lie or, at least, an untruth (as is the writer’s contention that the Church doesn’t “accept homosexuality and transgender people,” and as is the contention that Church teaching “stifled efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa,”7 etc.).
A conscience worth obeying doesn’t conclude, “Gee, I really don’t think stealing is wrong,” or “I simply can’t see anything evil about gay ‘marriage'”; stealing is, in fact, wrong, and gay “marriage” is, in fact, oxymoronic; we have divine law, natural law, and Church teaching to tell us so. There is nothing to decide in that regard (if you are of good will but don’t understand a teaching, I promise you that the problem lies with your intellect or a lack of information, not with the teaching itself. You must study!). Where the conscience comes in is in determining how the fact that, for ex., stealing is wrong applies in a given situation, such as, “would it be wrong to for me to, right now, take this food that doesn’t belong to me in order to feed my starving family tonight?”
It is our duty to inform our conscience to the best of our abilities, and for parents to help their children develop theirs. Studying what the Church teaches, striving for good habits (virtue), avoiding bad habits (vice), staying in a state of grace (receiving the Sacraments), prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, and serving others are all ways to help develop a good conscience.
In our work, though, we must be careful to avoid two extremes: a lax conscience or a scrupulous one. The lax conscience is one that sees wrong as right or morally neutral, judges grave sins as merely venial, and so forth, while the scrupulous conscience sees right or the morally neutral as wrong, judges venial sins as mortal ones, etc. Laxity or scrupulosity taken to extremes can turn into presumption (a reliance on a false hope of being forgiven of sins one doesn’t repent of and being saved without deserving to be saved) or despair (the abandonment of the hope of being forgiven of one’s sins and being saved), respectively. A help for a lax conscience is meditating on God’s Justice; a help for the scrupulous conscience is meditating on His Mercy.
As you study and go through life, trust in God. Trust that He is Good and merciful, that He is Love itself. Trust that He is not out to “get you,” that He loves you so very, very much. He is your Father. Trust Him, trust Him, trust Him!
1 Moral theology differs from ethics in that ethics is the study of the goodness or rectitude of man’s free acts in a manner that doesn’t involve revelation. Moral theology is rooted, in part, on revelation, along with reason.
2 The first season of the wonderful original “Twilight Zone” series has an episode called “A Nice Place to Visit” that makes this point very well. A thug dies and wakes up in a place he thinks is Heaven. His every wordly desire is catered to — women, money, food, drink, anything he wants. Nothing he considers bad ever happens to him. He gambles, he wins. He wants a girl, he gets her. But he quickly becomes bored and finds it all pointless, and only then realizes that he’s not in Heaven at all, but is in Hell. Of course, Hell isn’t a place where such at atmosphere prevails, but it is a place in which we are separated from God and experience that separation in an excruciating way.
3 URL: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115279/joshua-greenes-moral-tribes-reviewed-thomas-nagel
4 Please see this offsite review of Dr. Thomas Fleming’s “The Morality of Everday Life” for more about this. It begins with these two paragraphs:
I remember sitting in the garden of the Hotel Euro in Mostar, a place which was reserved, at the time, for the Masters of the Universe – you knew this because of the armored cars parked out front — listening to some American state department official expounding on his role as a “peacekeeper” to the people sitting at his table and anyone in the immediate vicinity who was unfortunate enough not to be able to ignore him. The conversation began with a discussion of which political groups the Americans were going to promote in the New Multi-Culti Bosnia, which at the time looked pretty shabby because of the recent civil war. I remember one high-rise apartment building not far from the Neredva River, one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, which seemed to be leaking sofa stuffing as the result of taking one too many artillery hits. Our Master of the Universe was not going to promote Group X because they had a bust of Ante Pavelic, former head of the Ustashe, in their headquarters. I never got around to hearing just who he was going to promote, probably because he didn’t know himself, but also because the topic of conversation suddenly changed.
Suddenly the Master of the Universe was talking about his grown daughter and his rocky relationship with her — which, it seemed, was going from bad to worse. And why? Well, because she never got over the fact that the Master of the Universe who was going to bring peace to Bosnia and resolve centuries of ethnic conflict in the region had divorced her mother, which is to say, his wife. The daughter was portrayed as having some sort of psychological hang-up in this regard, as if an attachment to her mother’s interests and the fact that her father had violated them were something like a bad case of bulimia, which she had acquired while away at college. The same man, in other words, who, we assume, could not control his passions, the same man who could not keep his family together, the same man who could not honor his marriage vows and who could not reason with his daughter, was going to bring peace to the Balkans. Aristotle would have had a good laugh over that one.
Consider, too, the words of utilitarian philosopher, ethicist, and Princeton professor, Peter Singer, who, in his “All Animals Are Equal” (which includes man in the definition of “animals”), says:
An imbecile, Benn concedes, may have no characteristics superior to those of a dog; nevertheless this does not make the imbecile a member of “a different species” as the dog is. Therefore it would be “unfair” to use the imbecile for medical research as we use the dog. But why? That the imbecile is not rational is just the way things have worked out, and the same is true of the dog — neither is any more responsible for their mental level. If it is unfair to take advantage of an isolated defect, why is it fair to take advantage of a more general limitation? I find it hard to see anything in this argument except a defense of preferring the interests of members of our own species because they are members of our own species.
Then there’s this, from the Summa Theologica, II-II-101-1:
Man becomes a debtor to other men in various ways, according to their various excellence and the various benefits received from them. on both counts God holds first place, for He is supremely excellent, and is for us the first principle of being and government. On the second place, the principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.
The worship due to our parents includes the worship given to all our kindred, since our kinsfolk are those who descend from the same parents, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 12). The worship given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country. Therefore piety extends chiefly to these.
5 Contra Pope Francis’s thoughts on immigration — thoughts that lack prudence and seem to give no consideration to the common good of the nations in question or to problems of the assimilation of people of disparate cultures, thoughts uttered with no hint of his exercising the charism of infallibility — here is what the Church actually teaches about the matter, per the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “Migration”:
The legal control of migration began when it ceased to be collective and began to be individual. Laws have been passed preventing people from leaving their native land, and also, by the country of destination, forbidding or regulating entrance thereto. Extensive regulation has been found necessary applying to transportation companies and their agents, the means of transportation, treatment en route and at terminal points. The justification of public interference is to be found in the right of a nation to control the variations of its own population. The highest necessity is that arising from war: on this ground nations almost universally regulate very closely the movements of population, forbidding emigration, that they may not lose their soldiers, and guarding immigration as a military precaution. Restrictive measures are also justified on grounds of health and morals, and on the general ground that a national family has a right to say who shall join it….
…The many varied problems of immigration are best illustrated by its history in the United States. Perhaps no more composite nation has existed since the Roman Empire engulfed the various nationalities of Western Europe. At a very early period in the history of the American Colonies, the Negro was introduced — a race so remote anthropologically, from the first colonists as to be impossible of assimilation. The American Indians, isolated from the first, have ever since been tending to extinction, and hence need not be considered as a possibility in the problem of national and social composition. As time passed, other races came to still further complicate the problem. Besides these distinct racial elements must be reckoned an infinite number and variety of nationalities marked by lesser differences and capable of assimilation.
Mind you, racism — seeing one race of man as being more beloved by God, as ontologically superior or inferior to another, as more or less deserving of charity than another, or attributing to individuals, in spite of contrary evidence, the general characteristics of their race — is absolutely against Catholic teaching. This is different, though, from seeing general racial differences (e.g., recognizing that, in general, Africans are faster runners than Caucasians, or that Caucasians, in general, are better at Calculus than Africans, etc.) — a stance often called “race realism” (of course, in our time, even recognizing general differences is considered to be “racism”). True racism, though, goes beyond using science and the evidence of one’s senses that reveal general differences, to assuming that an individual of a given racial group must possess the general characteristics of that group, and then limiting his options because of that false assumption. Not recognizing an African math genius or the skills of a Caucasian runner, and preventing either from using his gifts, is not only malicious, but evidence of a lack of dedication to Truth. Dr. Martin Luther King summed things up with his “I have a dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” — to which can be added “the talents they have, the skills they possess, their intelligence, etc.” When it comes to mass immigration, though, a nation isn’t dealing with individuals, but with masses of people, and their general differences, cultures, differing abilities and willingness to assimilate, etc., must be taken into account along with the state of the host nation — its economy, the availability of jobs, the state of its education and healthcare systems, etc.
6 URL: https://matteogagliardi.com/2014/04/02/the-primacy-of-conscience-the-only-way-forward-for-the
-catholic-church/ I knew I’d easily find such an article. I typed the words “Catholic,” “homosexuality,” and “conscience” into a search engine, and bam! — there it was, right on the first page of returns.
7 See “The pope was right about condoms, says Harvard HIV expert.” URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/ni/2009/03/aids_expert_who_defended_the_p.html Excerpt:
I am part of a group of researchers that have been looking for the behavioural antecedents to HIV prevalence decline in Africa. We now see HIV going down in about 8 or 9 countries in Africa and in every case we see a decrease in the proportion of men and women who report having more than one sex partner in the past year. So when the Pope said that the answer really lies in monogamy and martial faithfulness, that’s exactly what we found empirically…
…[W]e have for a number of years now found the wrong kind of association between condom-availability and levels of condom use.. You see the wrong kind of relationship with HIV prevalence. Instead of seeing this associated with lower HIV infection rates, it’s actually associated with higher HIV infection rates. Part of that is because the people using condoms are the people who are having risky sex.