Questions Answered

For February 2018

Question: There seems to be an ongoing question about the explanation of marriage which appears in Amoris Laetitia concerning the reliability of moral laws. Even some orthodox Catholics are questioning whether a moral law can be considered binding always, and in every circumstance. Is that true?

Answer: This question has continued to vex Catholic moral theologians since the 1960s. For many, the moral law has become a matter of recommendation, and is generally true, but cannot be applied in every circumstance. Much of the discussion over Amoris Laetitiae has focused on the issue of its conformity with Familiaris Consortio concerning the issue of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. The deeper question is actually how much it conforms to Veritatis Splendor, which was the papal encyclical, written by John Paul II, to refute moral relativism in Catholic moral theology. The whole eighth chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation is taken up with analysis of the manner in which moral laws bind. One sample text is: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation, they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.” (Amoris Laetitia, 304) This has led many people to question whether there are, in fact, moral absolutes about anything.

This teaching makes a distinction between the moral laws, and their application, as regards to marriage, which is non-sacramental for couples engaging in sex, and suggests that they can do this without moral responsibility. Though it is true the question of responsibility is one determined by the will, this exception envisioned in the Apostolic Exhortation does not just touch on imputability, but also on the very question of whether such acts are objectively sinful, a judgement determined by the intellect.

In another section of the Exhortation, St. Thomas is cited as approving the fact that one can engage in acts normally considered to be objective evils because no one can come up to absolute perfection in the virtues. Even saints may not have the full use of all the virtues in their acts.

Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well; in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: “Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues.” (AL, 301)

St. Thomas teaches this, though reflecting on the fact that for someone who has been converted, let us say St. Augustine, he may have all the virtues in habit, but not be able to freely practice them all because of the development of a contrary habit. These virtues would be incompatible with objectively evil acts. When one loses grace, one loses the infused virtues which depend on that grace. One does not lose whatever acquired habit of the particular virtue one has developed by cooperation in grace. These are precisely what are affected by prior habits of sin, and further commission of sin. Since one has lost grace, they cannot go to heaven without forgiveness of sins in confession.

The distinction between the moral law, and discernment in practice, is a distinction unknown to the Catholic tradition, and is directly denied in Veritatis Splendor. The source of this distinction is Karl Rahner, which was a complete innovation in Catholic teaching. Karl Rahner introduced a distinction into the moral evaluation of the goodness or evil of actions. This is the distinction between “formal existential ethics” and “material essentialist ethics.” According to Rahner, “formal existential ethics” must take account not only of universal norms (laws), but also of the individual historical situation, before any true moral analysis of either the good or evil of an action can be considered. This is because each moral act must be something truly personal and unique, and this individuality cannot be expressed in a universal norm. Not only that, but the formal existential ethics must result from a direct discernment of the Holy Spirit which can contradict the moral laws.

The concrete moral act is more than just the realization of a universal idea, happening here and now, in the form of a case. The act is a reality which has a positive and substantial property which is basically and absolutely unique. (Karl Rahner, On a Formal Existential Ethics, 225)

The Catechism and Veritatis Splendor are clear that there are not two systems of ethics, and the concrete act is a realization of a general act which, when it comes to evil, is the same always and everywhere.

The object chosen can, by itself, vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some acts—such as fornication—that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1755)

Rahner introduced a distinction into the moral evaluation of the goodness or evil of actions. Rahner would distinguish between “formal existential ethics” and “material essentialist ethics.” According to him, “formal existential ethics” must take into account not only of universal norms (laws), but also of the individual historical situation before any true moral analysis of either the good or evil of an action can be considered. This is because each moral act must be something truly personal and unique, and this individuality cannot be expressed in a universal norm.

The concrete moral act is more than just the realization of a universal idea, happening here and now, in the form of a case. The act is a reality which has a positive and substantial property which is basically and absolutely unique. (Karl Rahner, On a Formal Existential Ethics, 225)

In addition, both the Catechism and Veritatis Splendor are clear that the concrete rule is a direct conclusion of the universal rule. If an action is truly evil, nothing can make it good.

It is, therefore, an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires, or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (Catechism, 1756)

On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimatize so-called “pastoral,” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutic according to which moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, to a particular negative precept. (Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 56)

It is, therefore, not the case that there is a “double status of moral truth.” (Ibid.) No matter how much pastoral and spiritual discernment go into something, one cannot discern contrary to the moral law.

Question: There seems to be continuing discussion on the clarification of the exact place of the civil order in family, economics, and health care. Can you clarify the position of the Catholic Church on the morality of this relationship?

Answer: The issue of the contribution of the State to things which directly concern the lower community is an especially important one, and needs to be continually examined and clarified. The concepts from Catholic social teaching which affect a correct moral evaluation of this relationship are that of the common good, organic growth, and subsidiarity. Let us take each in succession.

The Common Good is both the end, and the order, necessary to attain the end of a given community. This common good, and the order necessary to attain it, must be truly good, which means it must accord with the natural law. Because this good leads to a further perfection of man, which he could not attain on his own, the community has the right to demand, and is due everything necessary, to implement this good by directing the action of its members.

The common good encourages each member to fulfill a good of human nature by his deeds, and so it must correspond to the natural law. In addition, each community has only that competence to demand of its members what truly fits into the common good of that particular society. The State cannot determine the nature of authority in the Church, for example, nor can the bridge club demand what profession its members should choose.

Also, as already noted, human communities can only judge external actions. The common good can demand only those actions which enter into attaining the end for which the community exists by the appropriate and moral means. The latter is the order of the community. In implementing the order, the community must be clear about the limitations of what good it is trying to attain and, therefore, not attempt to usurp the prerogatives of other communities.

In Catholicism, small is beautiful. Organic growth underlines the fact that communities develop from smaller and more basic ones—like the family—to larger ones—like the State. In this regard, the moral universe imitates the natural world. If a more basic form of life, like a single cell, is unhealthy this can lead to the death of the organism. The same is true of the moral universe. Marriage is the most important community, even though it is the smallest and most basic form of community. From it, develops the family, the shop, the tribe, the State, and the Church. The health and reform of the larger community depends on that more basic, small community.

It would be a social error, as well as a moral error, to try to govern men completely from the top down. Instead, the role of the larger community is not to supplant the common good of the lower community, which is different than that of the larger community. It is to encourage the reform of the smaller community. The present attempt of the “nanny state” to make rules for every cell in the society—for example, hours of homework for hours of class, or medical provisions for a huge nation which are enforced by an army of bureaucrats—can never produce needed stability in education or medicine. The personal dimension is completely compromised. Instead, the greater community must encourage the smallest community—at its own level—to realize the common good which is characteristic of that smaller community.

This leads us to subsidiarity, which is the key to the moral nature of this relationship. It is not good for the higher community to try to replace the lower community in the pursuit of the good which is characteristic of the lower community. Each lower community has a right to pursue its own good with the order appropriate to that community.

If the State takes over and claims for itself all the enterprises of private industry, it forgets that those enterprises are regulated by a multiplicity of rules and standards which are peculiar and private to themselves and contribute to the due achievement of their purposes. (Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, 1939, 24)

The purpose of the higher community is to encourage the lower community to do what it should do on its own. The purpose of the lower community is to act in solidarity with the higher community and accomplish, in a timely manner, the good for which it exists. Thus, subsidiarity must be completed with organic growth for the common good.

Nevertheless, it is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals, and commit to the community, what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79).

Thus, it would be completely immoral and impractical for the central government to try to be father, doctor, priest, organizer, and employer for all the members. Nor should the government effectively supplant the initiative of the individual members. Micromanaging is wrong in every community. Every good authority encourages the members to develop prudence and initiative within their own frame of reference. This may, at times, include the higher community taking over the responsibility for the lower community. But this is only in an emergency situation where the lower community cannot fulfill the good. Once the emergency passes, then the higher community must return the particular good to the lower community.

The family and society have complementary functions in defending and fostering the good of each and every human being. But society—more specifically the State—must recognize that “the family is a society in its own individual right” (Dignitatis Humanae, 5) and so society is under a grave obligation in its relations with the family to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity. (Pope St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 45)

Morally, then, economics and health care have always been perceived as an extension in supporting the good of the family. The State may provide some regulations and state aid to help these other communities carry out their mission more easily. But other than an exception being made in the case of an emergency, it would be immoral for the State to seek to supplant them by State ownership.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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