Principles of Catholic Morality

by Fr. Leslie Lett

Presentation at Assembly 1998, Diocese of Kingstown

With the dramatic developments taking place in technology and in the growing secularism that surrounds us, we often find ourselves as Catholics, very hard pressed to explain to others (and sometimes even to ourselves) our Church’s position on such moral issues such as capital punishment, abortion, the use of contraceptives, in vitro insemination/fertilisation, etc.

Of course, we must see our having to explain our position not as an inconvenience but as an opportunity to evangelise, to “give a reason for the hope that is in you” as St. Peter urged the early Christians (1 Peter 3:15).

In this presentation, I shall discuss four basic principles or elements of Catholic moral teaching in the hope that it will help us all to better understand and more fully accept this teaching and to more confidently proclaim it to others.

The Absolute Sanctity of Human Life

This first principle follows from our belief that every single person is made in the image of God. Being made in God’s image means that every person endowed with intellect and free-will has the responsibility of self-determination, and is capable of being creative, loving, and of having a relationship with God.

The absolute sanctity of every human being, from conception to natural death, means that what we call human rights are given to man by God, i.e. inherent rights, and not rights conferred on him by the State. Society, then, is made for man, not man for society, and the common good within the State, which is to secure and defend, consists in safeguarding and promoting the human rights and duties of man.

It would be quite correct to say that the main characteristics of Catholic moral theology is its heavy emphasis on anthropology as the starting point of Christian ethics, and the Holy Father has called for a “Christian anthropology,” because ethics must be based on the “truth about man”.

The truth about man is that he is the image of God and that he is a unity of body and soul:

“In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.” (Veritatis Splendor, 49).

So that, even though “the spiritual and immoral soul is the principle of unity of the human being,” John Paul asserts that any doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition (Veritatis Splendor, 48 and 49).

This is why the Church has always held that the only social order which is capable of working to the benefit of the human person is one founded on truth (the truth about man and about human solidarity), based on justice (i.e. a justice that conforms to the truth about man) and animated by love, which Gaudium et Spes describes as the “fundamental law of human perfection, and consequently of the transformation of the world,” that is a love “exercised above all in the ordinary circumstances of daily life” (Gaudium et Spes, 38).

The divine law founded in the nature of God as revealed in the Scriptures

In the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (Dignitatis Humanae – 1965) of Vatican II, the Divine law is described as:

“Eternal, objective and universal, by which God orders, directs and governs the whole world and the ways of human community to a plan conceived in his wisdom and love.” (Dignitatis Humanae, 3)

and also, as the “highest norm of human life.”

The divine law is about moral laws which are eternal, in other words, never changing, always right (or wrong), objective i.e. not made up by men and not the product of culture, and universal, i.e. right (or wrong) everywhere and in every culture.

For example, abortion is always wrong, in every age, place and culture; so too homosexual acts. The ten commandments are eternally and universally valid.

The Holy Father asserts that:

“It is right and just, always for everyone to serve God, to render him worship which is his due and to honour one’s parents as they deserve. Positive precepts such as these, which order us to perform certain actions and to cultivate certain dispositions, are universally binding; they are unchanging. They unite in the same common good all people of every period of history, created for the same divine calling and destiny” (Veritatis Splendor, 2).

The divine law is clearly superior to human (civil) law, whose basic purpose is to maintain social order and harmony, and as a result very often reflects the popular will of citizens. In Acts 5:29 after Peter is told by the officials not to preach the disturbing and politically divisive gospel of Jesus he responded that it is “better for us to obey God rather than man.”

What is legal in any country may not necessarily be morally right. Catholics must be clear that the legality of abortion, for example, in no way permits Catholics to practice it, and further more Catholics must be clear that when they ask the State to reject abortion, capital punishment, etc. they do so because:

“In the end, only morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social co-existence, both on the national and international levels.” (Veritatis Splendor, 97)

The Holy Father warns in Veritatis Splendor that the alliance between democracy and ethical relativism leads inevitably to totalitarianism:

“The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth; the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. Totalitarianism arises out of the denial of truth in the objective sense.” (Veritatis Splendor, 99).

Natural Law

In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul states that when those “who do not have law, practice naturally what the law commands, they are giving themselves a law, showing that the commandments of the law are engraved in their minds (hearts).” (Rm 2; 14-15) (see Deut. 6;4-7) In this passage, St. Paul speaks of what it means to be human, and it refers to those principles held to be derived from nature, it “expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon bodily and spiritual nature of the human person…” (Veritatis Splendor, 50)

In fact, natural law is divine law, implanted in human beings who are endowed with reason by which they are able to discern good from evil, especially if this reason is enlightened by Divine Revelation and faith. So, the Holy Father can say that the “universal and permanent laws correspond to things known by practical reason and are applied to particular acts through the judgement of conscience.” (Veritatis Splendor, 52)

This brings us to a consideration of the fourth principle or element of Catholic morality, viz the conscience.


In the document “Dignitatis Humanae” we read:

“It is through his conscience that man sees and recognises the demands of the divine law. He is bound to follow his conscience faithfully in all his activities so that he may come to God, who is his last end. Therefore, he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience.” (3)

John Paul II puts it like this

“Whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to particular case, … conscience thus formulates moral obligation in light of the natural law.” (Veritatis Splendor, 59)

This means that conscience does not independently determine what is good or evil. This is the point of God’s order to Adam in Genesis 2: 15-17. What the conscience does is apply the objective law of God to each particular case.

We may say, first of all, that although conscience is to be obeyed it is not exempt from the possibility of error and, secondly, that conscience is by definition subjective.

The fact that conscience may be mistaken does not mean that it forfeits its dignity. An honestly erroneous conscience must still be obeyed. However, because of the subjective nature of the conscience it means that it is always in need of guidance and education:

“The proximate and subjective ethical norm is man’s conscience (personal and social) guided by the sacred and certain teachings of the Church’s interpretation of subjective moral law.” (Dignitatis Humanae, 64)

And in Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II tells us:

“Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her magisterium.” (V.S. 64)

This is why Lumen Gentium could call for obedience to the Church’s teaching:

“Loyal submission of will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even if he does not speak ex-cathedra.” (L.G. 25)

Because human freedom is rooted in the truth about man, it cannot be in opposition to God’s law, on the contrary, it depends on obedience to that law, as St. Paul points out in his epistle to the Galatians (5:13). To illustrate the link between law and freedom, think of the airplane and the marvellous freedom it gives us: but it could not be invented in the first place if man did not first recognise and fully understand and accept the law of gravity. Airplanes do not defy the law of gravity, and when they do, they crash.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1733) points out that “the more one does what is good, the freer one becomes; there is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.”

This fourth element of Catholic Morality is a call for us to form our conscience, “to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good.” (V.S. 64) This is why St. Paul insists that we should not be conformed to the thinking of this world, but be transformed by renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2)

These four principles or elements of Catholic Morality are absolutely essential to our evangelical task to overcome the ‘culture of death’ with the ‘culture of life’ and more fundamentally to overcome the great modern divorce between Faith and Morality, and between Freedom and Truth.