Category Archives: Natural Law

The Truth on Lying


One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat.  As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying.  Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing.  As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real.  Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth.  As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”   It is time to tell the truth about lying.

Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area.  That is because we lack a really good definition.  Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition.  In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth(CCC 2483)When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow.  This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful.  He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind.  In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.

Loving the Truth

Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong.  Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts.  When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power.  Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter.  Lying is always wrong.

Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies.  Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  There are no such thing as white lies.  A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated.  That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things.  It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.

In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying.  Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking.  This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying.  If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying.  He communicated the truth as he understood it.  Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth.  Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp.  Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying

Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying.  But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult.  For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition.  It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

Living the Truth

It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying.  All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying.  There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil.  Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth.  In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret.  Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion.   But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.

Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation.  A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning.  There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean.  This would be a form of lying.  A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?”  The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.”  Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking.  A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.

What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly?  Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that.  Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.”  One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator.  However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth.  When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible.  There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.

In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat.  Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation?  I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…

What’s for Dinner?

In keeping with tradition, President Trump pardoned Drumstick, the thirty-six pound presidential turkey, yesterday and sent her to Gobblers Rest on the Virginia Tech campus.  Millions of other turkeys will not be so fortunate however adorning the tables of Americans tomorrow gathering for the Thanksgiving Day feast.  For a small, but increasing, number of those families, they will forgo the fowl because they are avowed vegans and vegetarians.  Included within this group are a number of Catholic intellectuals who have rejected their omnivorous ways by making a moral argument for vegetarianism, seeing it as an antidote to the culture of death.   Before the Lion of PETA lies down with Lamb of the National Right to Life, it is instructive to offer a Christian perspective on vegetarianism.

Animals and Their Use

In examining the order of nature, it is patently obvious that there is a hierarchy in which the perfect proceeds from the imperfect.  This hierarchy also resides in the use of things so that the imperfect exists for the use of the perfect.  The plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, animals make use of plants and man makes use of plants and animals.  Man is said then to have dominion over all of visible creation because, having reason and will, he is able to make use of all of it.

Revelation supports human reason in this regard as Genesis tells of God’s granting of dominion to mankind because he is created in God’s image (c.f. Gn 1:26-27).  But this is really a two-edged sword.  Dominion means not just that we have the capacity for using things, but also that there is a right and wrong way to use them.  With free will comes the capacity for the misuse of creatures.   So that the question is not really whether man has dominion over the animals but whether this dominion includes the right to eat them.

Thus when we reflect on the proper use of animals, we usually use the term “humane.”  Although it is an oft-used term, it is not oft-understood.  When we speak of the “humane” treatment of animals it does not mean that we treat them as if they were human.  Instead it refers to the truly human (i.e. moral) way of treating animals as living, sentient beings over which we have been given not just dominion but stewardship.  Humane treatment refers to the truly human way of using the animals.  This would mean that all traces of cruelty or causing unnecessary pain carry moral weight.  Put another way, we should avoid any all forms of abuse, which, of course,  always assumes there is a proper use.

The question also needs to be properly framed.  It is not really whether or not this use includes the death of the animal.  Just as the use of plants by animals may lead to the death of the plants, so too do higher animals prey on the lower.  There is no inherent reason then why the use of the animal by man cannot results in death.  Some make the argument for the moral necessity of vegetarianism based on the fact that we should not kill a living thing.  A moment’s reflection however allows us to see that virtually all of our food, including many things like wheat and fruits and vegetables, results from the death of something that was living (see Augustine’s City of God, Book 1, Ch.20 for further discussion on this).  No one truly objects because the plant matter, lacking sentience, does not have the capacity for pain.  To advance further we must look more closely at animal pain.


Every generation has its pet virtue and for our generation it is kindness.  Provided we “would never hurt a fly” we are deemed good people.  The great enemy of kindness is cruelty and its daughter pain.  Pain is the greatest evil.  But this is not entirely true.  Pain becomes an evil when it becomes an end in itself.  This is true in both humans and animals.  It can however serve as a means, provided it is minimized in carry out its purpose.  That purpose can be either corrective (like getting too close to a fire) or for growth.  Cruelty would not be to cause pain, but to cause it unnecessarily.  The power of sentience is not simply for feeling pleasure, but also allows for the feeling of pain.  This power is good and necessary for the creature to thrive.

The difference in humans and animals is the capacity, not to feel pain, but to suffer.  There must be an I to experience suffering or else it is merely a succession of pains without any real connection.  As CS Lewis says in The Problem of Pain it is most accurate to say “pain is taking place in this animal” rather than “this animal is suffering.”  We should avoid saying things like “how would you like to be in a slaughterhouse?”  The experience of animals in that environment is very different from the suffering that would have gone on in a place like Auschwitz.  They may be in pain in the slaughterhouse, but there is no suffering.  Any appeal to emotions based on an anthropomorphic comparison ultimately muddies the waters.

The causing of pain in other humans, always as a means, is licit provided the patient receives some benefit from it.  At first glance it would seem that animals would derive no benefit from the pain caused by humans.  When we view pain as means of moving a person towards perfection then we can see the parallel in animals.  The perfection of any creature consists in it achieving the end for which it was made.  Man was made for happiness (in the classical sense of becoming morally good) and animals were made for man.  If the pain that a man causes an animal is necessary for his own happiness and acts as a means to helping the animal reach the end for which it was made, namely the service of mankind, then there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

The Moral Case For Vegetarianism

All that has been said so far helps to clear up some of the ambiguities surrounding the issue, but has yet to address whether a moral argument could be made for vegetarianism.  In the state of original innocence man was a vegetarian (c.f. Gn 1:29).  Man had dominion over the animals but did not use them for clothes or food (ST I, q.103, art. 1).  The animals obeyed man, that is, all animals were domesticated.  For his own disobedience man was punished by the disobedience of those creatures which should have been subjected to him and they became difficult to domesticate and often posed threats to his life.  Shortly thereafter the animals were used for clothing (Gn 3:20) and food (Gn 9:3).  In short, because of the frailty introduced to the human body as a result of the Fall, it became necessary to make use of the animals for warmth and nutrition.

Any argument that man “was originally a vegetarian” ultimately falls flat because we cannot return to our Edenic state.  With the Fall came irreparable damage to both body and soul of which animal flesh provides a partial remedy.  Furthermore, within Church tradition, fasting from meat has long been practiced as a means of mortification.  We are called to abstain from good things so that eating meat is a good thing and thus worthy of being sacrificed.  In short, any attempt to make a moral argument that eating meat is wrong ultimately falls flat.

Likewise making a connection to the culture of death is problematic.  It is not clear how using animals for food is directly connected or acts like a gateway drug for the culture of death unless you equivocate on the word death.  The culture of death is one that causes spiritual death.  How the killing of animals, when done in a humane way and not out of greed, leads to a culture of spiritual death is not immediately obvious.

All that being said, there is a manner in which vegetarianism can represent a morally praiseworthy act, that is by way of counsel and not obligation.  Because meat is a concession made by God because of man’s fallen condition, abstaining from meat can act as a participation in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive act.  This is why the Church has long obligated abstaining from meat specifically (as opposed to some other kind of food) during certain liturgical periods.  Permanently abstaining from meat, when done with this intention, becomes a powerful spiritual practice.  It also becomes an act of witness to both the world and to those in the Church who often neglect this practice.

For the omnivores among us—enjoy your meat this Thanksgiving Day with a clear conscience.  But make an offering of thanksgiving Friday by holding the leftovers until Saturday.  Herbivores, allow your vegetarianism to be a constant sign of the redemption won at so great a cost.  Truly, something to be thankful for.

Changing the Cultural Smell

Long before it was fashionable to write books whose titles include profanity, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an extended essay On Bullsh*t.  Written in 1986, it is as current as ever, explaining why male cow excrement is a fitting metaphor for how Political Correctness spreads like manure, fertilizing our social landscape while carrying with it a noxious stench.  Thanks to its ubiquitous nature, we grow wearing of pinching our noses and eventually let go allowing it to saturate our minds.  Case in point—the recent scandal of sexual impropriety has shown not only that we have been holding our noses to it, but that we may in fact have forgotten how to breathe properly.  It is in that spirit, that I hope to end the bullsh*t by offering an introduction and application of Frankfurt’s work.

When I was in college, we used to play a card game called BS.  It was like Uno, except, rather than picking up cards when you did not have anything to put down, you would attempt to bluff your way out of it.  If another player thought you were bluffing then he would call BS and whoever was right became the owner of the pile.  The really good players were skilled at bluffing that they were bluffing, calling out the wrong number (which was really the right number), thus making it really hard to know what the player actually believed.

BS and Indifference

Nostalgic as I am for that game, it is relevant because it is illustrative of what real BS is like.  It is not really lying, but a form of bluffing.  It is merely an attempt to represent yourself as a certain kind of person.  Whether you are really that way is secondary at best, really inconsequential—it is only the appearance that matters.  As Frankfurt says, BS is really short of lying because it doesn’t really care what the truth is only how what you say makes you appear to be.  Its indifference to the truth makes it, in a certain sense, worse than lying because at least a lie pays a certain deference to the truth, even if it is still trying to deny it.

BS is not so much that someone gets things wrong, but that they are not really even trying to get things right.  The feigned conviction is not grounded in either a belief that what you are saying is true nor, as with a lie, in the belief that it is not true.  This indifference to the truth is really the essence of BS.  In fact we even have a special word for it—Political Correctness.  BS is at the heart of Political Correctness.  Whether or not I actually believe X is wrong or not is inconsequential—only that I say the things that make me appear to think it is wrong.  If tomorrow the court of public opinion changes then I will spout my BS to the contrary.

Frankfurt uses the example of the man leading a July 4th celebration standing up and giving a patriotic speech.  Whether the man is a patriot or not does not matter, his only goal is to appear patriotic because the setting demands it.  The man may be, and probably is, indifferent.  As the BS spreads so does the indifference.  All of the mouth breathing leads to brains that have been deprived of oxygen and no longer know what or why they believe certain things.  They simply become parrots repeating what someone else has said and keeping up appearances.

The BS Meter

The BS meter is maxed out with the latest sexual impropriety scandal.  For years Hollywood and Washington, as hubs of US power, were also seedbeds of exploitation.  Once a few women had the courage to speak up, the BS starting flowing.  Now to be clear, I am not saying they aren’t telling the truth.  I am sure the overwhelming majority of them are and that there are any number of victims who won’t speak up.  What I am saying is the “outraged” response.  One day Actor X is hitting Twitter saying all the PC things.  He doesn’t believe a word of it because the next day we find out he is just as guilty.  Next day Senator Y is condemning Actor X and it turns out there are pictures of him exploiting another woman.  Just as sure as tomorrow will bring another outing, there will be the accompanying BS.  BS kills conviction and once the next scandal hits, the problem creeps back into the shadows.

How do I know this?  Because it isn’t just Actor X and Senator Y that are guilty of it.  We are all complicit.  We may talk about how horrible sexual exploitation is, but it is all BS.  Take a look at your favorite news web site today and glance at the stories.  You will see a story about Al Franken, Roy Moore, and will also find one about some young female teacher arrested for sexual encounters with a teen boy.  Franken and Moore will pass but each day brings another story of a woman (usually a teacher) being arrested for a rendezvous with a male (underage) student.  The numbers are increasing (latest available data, collected in 2014, showed that a third of nearly 800 student-teacher sex prosecutions involved women) and we pretend it is not a problem.  But rather than outrage at this blatant abuse we click on each story to see the mug shot of the latest Mrs. Robinson with the accompanying Facebook or Instagram “sexy” photo.  Barstool Sports (BS), who just got their own SiriusXM radio station, even came out with a Sex Scandal Starting Lineup of the hottest teachers in 2016.  BS needs to keep the cycle of BS going by appealing to “guys.”  After all, what guy didn’t fantasize being with some hot teacher at some point?  Somehow without any basis in truth, these same guys who have bought BS’s BS are supposed to turn around and not sexually exploit women.  BS is dizzying if nothing else.

The examples grow exponentially.  What about the BS of equality?  Or the BS of freedom?  Or the BS of tolerance?  Even the Church is not immune with the BS masquerading as ecumenism.  BS has a funny way of infecting an entire culture.

In our collegiate game of BS there was only one way to win.  Once you got down to one card the other players would always call BS to keep you from winning.  The only way you could win is if you told the truth—that is you actually had the next card in the sequence.  It is only the truth that can set us free from cloud of BS and in the midst of a cultural crisis we as Catholics have a unique gift to offer the world.  We must preach the Good News of who we are as men and women, equal and not, and who we are in light of Christ.  Christ came so we would not have to deal with BS any longer.

Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve

In his 1950 Encyclical, Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII cautioned about a number of ideological trends that undermined the Faith of the Church.  Among these was a certain idea connected with the Theory of Evolution called polygenism.  For the evolutionary idea to be accepted it would require not just two first human parents, but the transition from animal to man would require a multitude of men and women.  In other words, it is a rejection of the belief that Adam and Eve were two real people from which the entire human race descended.  The Pope strongly condemned acceptance of this idea saying, “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis, 37).

On the surface, it appears to make little difference as to whether there was an actual Adam and Eve or whether mankind traces its roots to a multitude of first humans.  Diving beneath the surface, we see that acceptance of polygenism threatens to undermine the foundations of the Christian faith.  If polygenism is true, then the Christian faith is necessarily false.

Evolutionary theory applied to man does not only mean that man was made by blind forces but is ultimately an attempt for men to remake themselves.  The creature becomes his own creator.  No Adam and Eve means no Original Sin.  No Original Sin, no need for Christ.  If we were never “in Adam” then there would be no need to be “in Christ.”  With a multitude of races at our beginning, there would be fallen and unfallen men living together and only those who are direct descendants of Adam need redemption.  Evolution eventually weeds this out through natural selection, removing any distinction and Christ becomes entirely unnecessary.  Even if this is a case of unintended consequences on the part of Darwin and his ideological descendants, we can be sure there is at least one highly intelligent person who revels in this idea.

In the mind of many Christians, this sets up a Catch-22.  If we accept a literal Adam and Eve, then where did their grandchildren come from?  To accept a belief in only first two parents means to accept that their children were incestuous in populating the earth.  With no outsiders to marry, Cain, Abel, Seth and their unnamed sisters would have married each other.  Rejecting a literal Adam and Eve seems to be better than accepting this morally repugnant option.  Or is it?

Why Incest is Wrong

When asked why incest is wrong, most of us would say because the genes of those closely related by blood are so similar that it can result in offspring with serious genetic defects.  Looked at properly however, this is a consequence of the wrong and not necessarily the reason why it is wrong.  Whether we posit that because Eve was taken from the rib of Adam they were nearly genetically identical (making their act of intercourse genetically the same as fraternal twins) or that Eve was fashioned with a different genetic code than Adam, the important point to remember is that their genetic code would have had no mutations in it.  After the Fall, their offspring may have had mutations in their DNA, but, if we accept the modern scientific explanation of these mutations as appearing at random, we should not expect identical mutations to occur in Adam and Eve’s offspring.  Without the necessary doubling of mutations in the parents, we would not see the same effects that we see with inbreeding today.  Once the gene pool has a sufficient number of these mutations present in it and the likelihood of some deleterious effect occurring on the rise, God issues a positive command that a man may not marry someone of close relation like his sister, aunt, or niece (Lev 18-20).

In short, the consequence of serious birth defects is a sign that incest is wrong, but is not what makes it wrong.  In City of God (Book XV, Ch. 16) Augustine visits this question as to why Cain, for example, committed no wrong when he married his sister.  We can borrow from his explanation to help us see past this intellectual obstacle.

The Augustinian Solution

First, he looks at the purpose of marriage and procreation and says something that most of us would not think of as a purpose today.  Augustine see this as one of the goods of marriage—marriage multiplies relationships.  In the past, especially in ruling families, marriage was viewed as a means to bring the families together, making them one.  It brings strangers together and makes them a family.  A woman’s brother becomes the man’s brother-in-law, her father, his father-in-law.  Without the marriage of the man and woman, these men would not have entered into a familial relationship.

When closely related persons married, this good is lost.  When siblings marry, their mother is both mother and mother-in-law.  This was obviously unavoidable in the case of Cain and his sister, but, according to Augustine, is a reason to avoid close marriage.

Obviously, this would not be a precept of the natural law, but Augustine and St. Thomas both say that marriage between a parent and a child was always contrary to the natural law because of the relationship of parent and child could never be placed on the equal footing required for marriage.  A child always owes their parents piety while spouses have no such obligation.  This is why Noah curse Ham when he “saw his nakedness” (Gn 9:20-25), which is a Hebraic euphemism for sleeping with his mother.

While not a precept of the natural law, marriage between siblings and close blood relatives is still wrong because of our fallen human nature.  For men and women to live closely together (like siblings do today or close blood relations such as cousins did in the past) with the potential for the relationship to become sexualized is a great temptation to lust and use.  This is why it would be just as wrong for Greg and Marsha Brady to get married as it would be for two blood siblings.  To make such a union illicit can serve to remove this temptation and makes it taboo.  The fact that we initially recoil at the thought of Cain and his sister means that this taboo has had its intended consequence.

Removing incest as an obstacle to belief in two first parents goes a long way in helping us to see why polygenism must be false and why we should reject any form of it.  Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve, first parents and first grandparents.

Voting and Conscience

As the primary season comes to a close and clear candidates begin to emerge, we should expect to hear more and more about how to vote as Catholics.  The discussion will center on “voting according to conscience.”  If we are not careful however, we will fall prey to the vague notion of conscience that has plagued the Church in the last 50 years.  Instead we should strive to vote according to an informed conscience.  In an age in which fact is often equated with truth it is necessary to speak of what we mean when we say that a conscience is informed.  We don’t mean that it is full of information or data, but instead it is alive in the way that a soul informs or brings life to the body.  An informed conscience is a conscience which is fully alive.

An informed conscience is able to recognize that not all goods and evils are equal.  An informed conscience has no room for a seamless garment approach to morality.  Instead it recognizes that there are certain acts that are intrinsically evil and cannot be ordered to the good no matter what the intention of the person.

To aid us in discerning how these evils present themselves in political life, the Church for her part has listed the so-called five non-negotiables.  The first four are related to the protection of life at its most vulnerable stages including abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning and the fifth is support for so called “same-sex marriage.”  These are non-negotiable not because we are stubborn but because they are aligned so closely to the intrinsic goods of man that form the basis of the natural law.

It is grave matter to vote for candidates that support policies that promote these.  When we vote for these candidates, even when it is not our intention to support those particular policies, we still cooperate in the evil.  Certainly our level of cooperation may be remote, it is still true that without our votes these evils could not be promoted by civil law.

It would seem based on this then that the Catholic position is that we should be single issue voters.  The response to this is rather nuanced so that an example should make the distinction clear.

Suppose I take you in my time machine parked outside to Berlin in 1932 and ask you to cast a vote for or against Hitler.  How would you vote and why?

Despite all the robust economic policies that brought Germany out of the ashes of World War I and the restoration of German military might, you would hopefully vote no.  Why?  The reason is simple—no matter how much good he may do in those other realms you would not vote for him because his platform advocated mass murder of innocent people.  This means a single issue would cause you to withhold your vote.

It is the same with us today.  We should not vote for a particular candidate based on their stance on a single issue, but their stance could be a reason to disqualify a candidate from consideration.  Even if a candidate is pro-life for example, this does not mean that we should vote for them.  That just means they can be in the running.  We must then also look at his other policies and see how they promote and protect the common good.  In this way we are not single issue voters.

Flag and Crucifix

This principle is summarized well in a document that then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that deals with when Catholics may receive Communion:

“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia”

What about voting for candidates that may be in favor of one of these non-negotiables but whose office has no effect on policies related to these non-negotiables?  Even though these issues may seem tangential, they are still important indicators.  The first virtue we should look for in a candidate for any office is prudence.  A person who cannot identify something that is intrinsically evil shows a lack of prudence.  Secondly, these offices are often stepping-stones into higher and more influential offices.  It is better to stop their ambitions before they get any steam going.

An informed conscience is an uncompromising conscience.  All too often someone will say something like “since there is no hope of overturning Roe v Wade we should not even worry about whether someone is pro-choice or pro-life but instead focus on the candidate whose social programs will also reduce the number of abortions.”  This position however amounts to a compromise with evil and in fact is untenable upon closer inspection.

Pope John Paul II spoke of what he termed the “art of the possible” in Evangelium Vitae.  He said that in some societies it may not be possible to completely overturn laws that support intrinsic evils such as abortion in one fell swoop.  Instead we might need to enact legislation in pieces that seek to limit the number of abortions while moving the social consciousness towards laws that abolish it altogether.  This sounds similar to the position of “social programs to reduce abortions” with an important exception.  The legislation that the Holy Father speaks of must have the intention of reducing the number of abortions and not just as a mere side effect.  Social programs that may reduce poverty may also have the side effect of reducing the number of abortions, but that is only accidental, especially when the overall policy is to promote and even provide them.

An uncompromising conscience is one in which the Catholic will call an evil for what it is and not simply attempt to make the evil “safe and legal.”  Still an uncompromising conscience may have recourse to the “art of the possible” and fight intrinsic evils piecemeal if necessary.

During the Vice Presidential debate in 2012, Congressman Ryan gave us an example of how an uncompromising conscience uses “the art of the possible.”  He was even criticized for it—but he has been very clear from the outset that abortion is always gravely evil.  Still he was part of a ticket which would not make the so-called abortion “hard cases”—rape and incest—illegal.  This is not because he was capitulating but because he recognizes that making abortion illegal in 99.9% of the cases will not only significantly reduce the number of abortions but lead to a greater awareness that abortion is always wrong even in the cases where the mother was a victim of a violent crime.

There are many who will argue that the best approach when confronted with two candidates, both of whom support an intrinsic evil, is to refrain from voting at all.  This ignores the fact however that one of those candidates will in fact win the election.  One should vote then consistent with their judgment as to which candidate will do the least amount of moral harm.

Imagine if you can, an America in which the nearly 70 million Catholics voted as a single block.  Imagine how far candidates would be willing to go to cater to 22% of the voters.  This is why we must understand these principles and be able to clearly articulate them and present them to our friends.  It starts now, not in October and November when everyone has made up their minds.  St. Thomas More, pray for us!

Legislating Morality

“You cannot legislate morality.”  We have all heard it said at one time or another and hopefully have never said it ourselves.  But in a democratic culture that is plagued by relativism, many people accept this as a given.  For them morality is just a regurgitation of some outdated religious dogma and the role of government is to give the people what they want.  We no longer want puritanical religious dogma in our courthouses and so we need to do away with it.   Our country after all is founded on the principle of a government that is “for the people, by the people.”  So common is this position, that it is instructive for us to look deeper into it so that it can finally be put to rest.

When we speak of “law” what do we mean?  St. Thomas Aquinas defines a law as ““an ordinance of reason made for the common good by the one who has care of the community and is promulgated (made known).”  Based on this definition, we see that law is connected to the (common) good and therefore there is an intrinsic link between law and morality.  The very purpose of law is to prescribe what ought to be done (i.e. morality).  Despite objections to the contrary, we cannot help but to legislate morality.

But what about Martin Luther King’s famous quote that “morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless”?  While on the one hand it is true that morality has to do not just with actions, but inner dispositions, Dr. King ignores a key aspect of law.  Law, because it is viewed as an ordinance of reason has a formative character.  When confronted with a moral question, very often one will look to what is legal with the assumption that legality equates to moral goodness.  The immediate result of the change in the segregation laws that King fought to put in place may have been restraint, but one can see in hindsight that it also changed hearts as well.  In other words, as the Pro-life movement is finding out, it is very hard to change minds and hearts without also changing laws.

One might be tempted to say then, that yes you can legislate morality, but only based on majority rule.  How else could we possibly agree on whose morality we would use?  This eventually leads to the type of soft-despotism that Tocqueville thought a very real possibility in the democracy of the United States because it misunderstands what “self-government” means.  Since the right to self-government proceeds from the Natural Law, the exercise of that right must be in accord with Natural Law.  If Natural Law is sufficiently valid to give this basic right to the people then it must be valid to impose its precepts on this same right.  Whatever rights the people want to exercise must be in accord with Natural Law.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot run away from the natural law by invoking the right to self-government.

Ten Commandments Courthouse

Despite a resistance in recent Supreme Court rulings to refer to anything above the Constitution, it is the natural law that must ultimately be the determination of whether a given action is right or wrong (for a fuller treatment of the natural law and what belongs to it, click here).  In the mind of the Founders, all legislation should proceed and be judged not solely by the Constitution, but by the “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” (Declaration of Independence).  This is a key argument that Martin Luther King Jr. makes in his manifesto against segregation, A Letter from a Birmingham Jail—“An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”

But there is a limit on the role that civil law ought to play in legislating morality.  The civil law can only go so far in monitoring actions while morality goes to the inner person.  St. Thomas Aquinas thought that not all vice ought to be outlawed.  Instead he thought only “the more grievous vices from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others…”( ST, I-II, q.96, a.2) should be outlawed.  In essence the Angelic Doctor is saying that when a law prescribes acts that are far beyond the virtue of the average person in society then there ought to be no laws against it.  One of the reasons for this is that the law may become a pathway to further vice.  For example, suppose you outlaw contraception and not everyone has the level of virtue to follow the law.  Now you can create a situation where a black market arises and further, more serious crime occurs.

This does not mean that contraception (or some other vice) is a necessary evil and that nothing can be done.  Classically understood, a good government is one that helps make the people morally good.  This is especially true of a democracy which depends on a “moral and religious people” to survive as John Adams said.  While laws may not seek to outlaw all vices, they certainly should not promote them.  Therefore, governmental policies such as Title X that actually supply and pay for contraception should not be in place.  One can tolerate certain vices, but toleration should never lead to promotion because this leads to an implied judgment that the action is good.

In his book We Hold These Truths, Fr. John Courtney Murray makes an astute observation about Americans.  Because of the country’s Puritanical roots, our thinking has often been muddled in our thinking about the relationship between law and morality.  This leads to a fundamental error in our thinking, namely that by beginning with the assumption that whatever is moral ought to be legislated, it is inevitable that one will think that whatever is legislated is moral.  This works well when the country remains tied to its foundation in Natural Law, but once that is severed by moral relativism it leads to mob rule.  Only in returning to our roots in the Natural Law will we become a morally good people.

Shattering the Delusion

One of the hardest things for people on the Autism Spectrum Disorder is coping with the speed at which the world comes at them.  Hyper-sensitive to stimuli most of us can ignore, they will try to control the world around them by inventing their own explanations of reality.  Our youngest son does this often.  Usually he starts off on the right track, but at a certain point he will go off the rails.  We might indulge him a little, but once he hits a certain point, we have an expression to help bring him back—“you are now orbiting Mars.”  Some may think us cruel for not sharing his delusions, but it is love that refuses to leave him in an alternate reality.  By steadily refusing to join him in his delusions he is better able to cope with the world and his Autism.

There is a similar point to be made regarding people who identify themselves as transgender that unfortunately has been lost amidst the long drawn out debate over which bathrooms they should use.  The Family Policy Institute of Washington state released a video  that quickly went viral.  In this video, they interview a number of University of Washington students about their stance on Transgenderism.  They then try to make a reductio ad absurdum argument when the 5’9 male interviewer asks them whether they would agree that he is a 6’5 Chinese woman.  One gets a sense from the video of the inner struggle of the young men and women because they felt trapped by their own logic to the point that they are willing to agree to the absurd.

Certainly it is entertaining to watch, but what is most disturbing is their reasoning for agreeing with the interviewer—“No, that wouldn’t bother me,” “Um sure, I don’t have a problem with that.”  Put more pointedly, “it doesn’t affect me, so why should I care?”  Herein lies the underlying problem to the whole debate—mass indifference.  If a man wants to say he is a woman, then who am I to judge?  When I detect no harm to myself or those I actually do care about, then why should I object?

Miriam Webster defines a delusion as “a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.”  Now read the Human Rights Campaign definition of Transgender: “one whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.” In every other aspect of life, we would label someone delusional who says that their inner belief as “identifying” themselves as one sex when all of the objective biological evidence suggests otherwise.

When confronted with a person who is delusional, you can do one of two things.  You can either shatter the delusion in an effort to bring them back to reality or you can share the delusion with them.  As is the case with my son with Autism, it is much easier to share the delusion with the person than to actually step into their mess and help them sort it out, especially when I see their delusion as presenting no harm to me.

Bathroom Sign

But, can we even begin to imagine the inner turmoil of someone who looks like a boy, but feels like a girl?  Or is it simply easier to help their gender feelings visible?    There is a lot of data (see here and here for two studies) suggesting that something like gender reassignment surgery doesn’t actually make them feel any less conflicted.  The American College of Pediatricians has recently said that Gender Ideology does great harm to children.  In fact individuals who undergo gender reassignment surgery are 20 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.  When a person realizes that the surgery that everyone said would help doesn’t, they can only conclude one thing—that they are beyond help.

This argument from apathy spreads like wildfire.  We can mutually agree to your delusions provided they don’t cost me that much personally—“to each his own.”  First it was gay marriage.  Now it is transgenders in the bathroom they identify with.  What will be next and when will the insanity stop?  When people are actually willing to stand up and help others wrestle with their brokenness instead of agreeing to embrace it.  When your ideology conflicts with biology, it is your ideology that needs to change.  Anyone who tells you differently is really apathetic.

Christians are often met with contempt as “haters” by LGBT supporters.  Hate in many ways is better than indifference.  In fact, hate is not the opposite of love—indifference is.  To love or hate someone means that they matter in some way.  Even hate recognizes the other as a person.  Apathy says the person does not matter and that they are on the level of a mere thing.  We tolerate things only as long as they do not present a real obstacle to my well-being.  Certainly we should not hate them, but hate is much easier to convert to love and compassion than apathy is.

Often when I confront my son with reality, it is met with hostility and name-calling.  In pointing out an alternate view to his reality, I have become a threat.  I know this, and yet I am willing to help him to come to grips with reality as it is.  Is this easy?  Absolutely not, but it is necessary for his own well-being.  Similarly we need to let those people suffering from gender dysphoria know that we oppose these bathroom bills not just because it opens the door for sexual predators and not just because it can create a great deal of personal confusion and angst for our children when they have to use the bathroom or change in front of a stranger of the opposite sex (even if there is no malice on their part).  We need to let them know we oppose it because we want to help keep them rooted in reality.  The shame they feel in using the bathroom can be good—it can help them recognize their true identity, the one that God gave them and stamped into their very being.  On our part we have to be willing to take the hostility and name calling.  That is the only real way to fight apathy—through self-giving love, which is what they most desperately need anyway.  We are now orbiting Mars, who will bring us back to reality?

On Zika and the Lesser of Two Evils

For most Catholics, Pope Francis and plane-ride interview has become a time ripe for confusion.  His return home to the Vatican from his pastoral visit in Mexico was no different.  A reporter from Spain asked the Holy Father the following question:

Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

And Pope Francis replied that:

Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.

Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no?  It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.

On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

Unfortunately, these “off-the cuff” remarks were picked up by the media and led to headlines like “Pope suggests contraceptives could be used to slow spread of Zika” (CNN), “Zika Shows It’s Time For The Catholic Church To Rethink Its Stance On Birth Control” (Forbes), and “Pope Francis Condones Contraception With Zika Virus” (NPR).  An attempt by Fr. Lombardi, the Vatican Spokesman to clarify the Pope’s comments only served to further muddy the waters:

The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said…the possibility of taking recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special situations. He is not saying that this possibility is accepted without discernment, indeed, he said clearly that it can be considered in cases of special urgency.

These flying papal encounters often leave the faithful with an uncomfortable feeling that the question has not been adequately addressed or even incorrectly so.  Thanks be to God that because we have the great gift of Sacred Tradition we can often fill in the ellipsis that the Holy Father tends to insert in his responses.  While I will not be so bold as to speculate what the Holy Father meant, I can confidently offer what he could not mean.

Some preliminary background is necessary for understand a full response to the question.  The question itself really is “Is it permissible to use contraception to combat the effects of the Zika virus on children in the womb?”  In truth, to frame the question in terms of “the lesser of two evils” is to frame it incorrectly.  Nowhere within the Catholic moral tradition has it ever been believed that one may choose between the lesser of two evils.  In the case of two objectively evil actions, neither may be chosen for its own sake.  It may very well be that in choosing a good, we will have to tolerate an evil that is both a “side effect” of our decision and of less moral gravity than the good itself (see here for a discussion of the Principle of Double Effect which governs this idea).

There is also the danger when you speak in terms of evils of seeing the child that is conceived with a birth defect as an evil.  As any parent with a special needs child will emphatically tell you, the child is an inconceivable good, even if the condition that plagues them is an evil.


If we reframe the question of the goods involved a clear answer emerges that is both consistent with Tradition, Natural Law and even practical sense.  The good to be attained is the avoidance of the birth defects that are (or in truth only “maybe”) associated with the Zika virus.  One of the possible means of attaining this good would be to avoid pregnancy altogether.  Certainly to avoid becoming pregnant with a child who is likely to carry a serious birth defect is among the “grave reasons” for postponing (even indefinitely) pregnancy that Pope Paul VI spoke of in Humanae Vitae.  At this point it is not clear what the chances are of both contracting Zika and having a baby with microcephaly are, but let’s assume that they are significant enough to make it grave.

Pope Francis was clear in his condemnation of abortion as a solution to the issue.  A person is an objective good to which the only adequate response is love as St. John Paul II said.  This means that to do harm to the person so as to avoid their suffering with a birth defect is always a great evil and can never be a moral solution.  St. John Paul II affirmed this by invoking the Church’s charism of Infallibility through the Ordinary Magisterium in Evangelium Vitae saying “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (EV 62).

The Saintly Pontiff also conceded that there are “differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion” (EV 13) but this does not mean that contraception too does not constitute an objective evil that cannot be chosen as an ends or a means.  In fact we know that Fr. Lombardi’s interpretation what the Pope said is wrong.  Assuming that when he made the distinction between “contraceptives and condoms” he was considering chemical contraception, then this falls into the first category of direct abortion.

According to the PDR (and the package inserts on birth control pills), “[C]ombination oral contraceptives act by suppression of gonadotropins. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in the cervical mucus, which increase the difficulty of sperm entry into the uterus, and changes in the endometrium which reduce the likelihood of implantation.”  The third mechanism that prevents implantation of the fertilized egg (i.e the child) renders the Pill as an abortifacient.  In truth because all three mechanisms are at work, there is no way to know whether pregnancy has been avoided or an abortion has taken place.  Therefore because of their abortifacient nature, chemical contraceptives would not be an option.

What about condoms as a solution?  I have written elsewhere about why any contraceptive measure is always a grave evil, but there is a practical reason why condom usage should not be considered as a solution.  Although it often gets lumped into other “calendar methods” in efficacy studies, Natural Family Planning is at least as effective as most chemical methods and more effective than condom usage (one such study supports this can be found here).  In any regard it is disappointing to say the least that neither the Pope nor his representative mentioned this as an option.  Imagine the power of a response similar to “Yes, there might be reason to avoid pregnancy in the regions afflicted with Zika.  We must get those people trained in NFP and we will have the good of strengthening marriages as well.”

A comment also needs to be made about the exception that the Holy Father mentioned regarding the nuns who were in danger of being raped.  This is a red herring of sorts because there is no moral equivalency here at all.  Birth control as the Church has always taught is related to the conjugal act. By definition this act assumes not only the physical act but also the consent of both parties. Rape may have the same physical act, but lacks the consent. These are fundamentally different things and therefore it is morally licit to do everything that you can to avoid pregnancy after the act (or even during the act). However once pregnancy (i.e fertilization) occurs it is a different thing.

The ability of the Holy Father to act as Universal Pastor of the Church is truly enhanced by the speed at which he is able to travel.  What would be good though is if the Flying Magisterium could be avoided.  While the Pope himself only alluded to “birth control” in his comments, there was no real indication that he was making any distinction between morally licit means and those that are not.  Fr. Lombardi may or may not have accurately conveyed the Pope’s meaning but the fact of the matter is that ambiguity has plagued the papacy of Francis.  While Pope Francis is certainly not the only Papal “victim” of the media in this regard, the questions themselves tend to repeat themselves and truly call for a well thought out and nuanced response.  Let us all pray that when condoms and the next health crisis come up, the Holy Father will act as a clear prophet.



Happiness and Morality

For many people in today’s world, the question as to whether they can live both a moral life and be happy is answered firmly in the negative.  However, if we turn to the beginning of the most famous sermon that Jesus gave, the Sermon on the Mount, and His beatitudes, He gives a different answer.  The Beatitudes are Christ’s definitive answer to the question of happiness.  All of the early Church Fathers and even up until the Middle Ages interpreted them that way.  It was not until around the Fourteenth Century that the question of happiness was set aside and the moral life became marked by obligation.  One of the tasks that John XXIII left for the Council Fathers of Vatican II to do was to make the faith more accessible to the world today.  Concretely, one of the ways to do that is to link the Church’s moral teaching back to the notion of happiness.  We see this expressed in the Catechism when it opens the section on the moral life with a discussion of the concept of happiness.  In doing this, the Church is implicitly making the connection between morality and happiness in an attempt to restore an “ethic of the good” or a “morality of happiness” (see CCC, nos.1716-1719).

In order to reconnect these concepts, we must first point out some obvious truths about humanity that may have been forgotten.  The first is that while each person is unique, we all have the same unchangeable human nature.  Times may change, circumstances may change, but there are certain things about mankind that do not.  For instance, the fact that man has a rational nature means that his actions are willed and proceed from calculation and deliberation.  In other words, man’s actions always have an intended purpose.

If then all human activity is end-oriented and we all have the same human nature then there must be a final or dominant end that governs and gives meaning to all other ends.  The Church, in agreement with many of the ancient philosophers says that this ultimate end is happiness.  St. Augustine said, “we all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated” in recognition of the universality of the desire for happiness.

When St. Augustine and his philosophical predecessors use the word happiness, they mean something different than we usually do.  To the modern mind, happiness is synonymous with contentment.  It is seen subjectively as a temporary feeling that is dependent upon chance.  That the word happy comes from the Old English word for “chance” is a perfect illustration of this.

Classically understood though, happiness is a translation of the Greek word eudaemonia.  Etymologically, it consists of the word “eu” meaning “morally good”, “daimōn” meaning “spirit” and “ia” meaning “state”.  Immediately it becomes obvious as to the connection between happiness and moral goodness.  As Peter Kreeft says, this definition of happiness is objective in that it does not rely merely on feeling, is a lasting state as a condition of the spirit or soul, and is dependent not on chance but on God’s grace and our own free choice.


This definition of happiness captures the intrinsic link between happiness and morality.  But it is not just the word happiness that has been abused.  It’s counterpart—morality—has been distorted as well.  Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a doctrine or system of moral conduct.”  Notice how this seems to refer to a set of rules that reside outside the person.  Instead morality is best understood as the relationship between a human act and the use of man’s nature in fulfilling his final end.  In other words, it intrinsically tied up with what makes us thrive as human beings or what makes us happy.

That morality and happiness are bound is also in the mind of St. Thomas as well.  He says something about sin that only make sense if we keep them together.  He says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.”   Many people view God as the Eternal Killjoy, demanding us to follow His rules.  But as the author of human nature He knows what is best for mankind.  Recalling Augustine’s quote about the innate attraction we all have to the Good, He has given us reason in order to discover those things that make us happy. As Father and not merely Watchmaker, He reminds us of those things that should be done and those that should be avoided through Revelation and the Church.

There is a further implication that can be drawn from the fact that man’s actions proceed from deliberation and that is that his actions are done freely.  As the Angelic Doctor taught us, a correct notion of freedom is important to understanding a morality of happiness.  This idea of freedom  or what is called “freedom for excellence”, is the means by which, exercising both his reason and will, man acts on the natural inclination for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is part of his nature.  Freedom properly understood then is not primarily the power to do whatever I want, but the power to act according to my nature and according to my true fulfillment.

Once we have a deeper understanding of our own nature, we can see how when we view the moral life through the lens of happiness we can easily move from a rule-centered morality to a virtue-based morality.  Viewed in this fashion the rules no longer seem as arbitrary impositions from the outside, but true prescriptions for human thriving.  This is precisely why the Catechism presents the virtues before it presents the Ten Commandments in its treatment of the moral life.  In maintaining this connection, Christ’s promise that in keeping His commands our joy will be complete is fulfilled. 

Building on Common Ground

In today’s moral climate where issues such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia are legalized, any opposition to the legality of these issues is viewed as an inherently religious position.  The culture then concludes that since all religious views are to be seen as personal, they should be dismissed as having no place in the public square.  How then do we decide if something is morally right or not?  We could consult the civil law, but that is not always a reliable guide as Martin Luther King pointed out in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  We could consult the Church, but certainly not all her teachings are binding on everyone’s consciences (like observing Holy Days of Obligation for example).  However, if we take what is common to man, namely his nature and what is good for him, then we can form a foundation for all laws.  This is the basis for the natural law and this is precisely why the natural law must play a key role in Catholic morality.  Since the demands of the natural law can be known by reason and by all, the Church is able to use it as common ground in discussing the moral demands of the law with the rest of the culture.

Before discussing how natural law can be used as common ground for disseminating Catholic moral teaching, it is important that we lay out precisely what the natural law is.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that there are different expressions of the moral law, all of which are interrelated.  It mentions that there is the eternal law which has its source in God, the natural law, revealed law and finally civil and ecclesiastical law.  If the eternal law and the natural law then are interrelated, we must begin by defining what is meant by the eternal law.  Eternal law is the intelligence of God as it is manifested in everything which He has created.

How are the eternal law and natural law related?  The natural law, according to Aquinas, is “nothing other than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.”  In other words, the natural law is simply the eternal law applied to human moral actions.  Not only is it addressed to rational creatures but it must be viewed as being addressed to creatures who are also free.  In this way it is different from physical laws. In a certain sense, physical laws are mechanical in that they are always “obeyed” while one can choose to obey the natural law or not.

It was mentioned above that the natural law is an extrinsic principle in which man actively participates in the eternal law.  Despite being an intrinsic part of human nature that man can discover the natural law, it still remains the task of practical reason to do so.  The “something” that it discovers are the foundational precepts of the natural law.

As we begin to uncover these precepts, we find that they follow from a set of inclinations that flow directly from human nature.  With the precepts of the natural law then being grounded in these inclinations we can see how the natural law can be used to teach Catholic moral thought to non-Catholics.  It is not without coincidence that each of these precepts also is closely related to the commandments given in the Decalogue.  This is why you will (or at least would have at one point) find the Ten Commandments in many court buildings in the US.  This was not just because the US was a Christian country but because the Decalogue summarizes the just demands of the natural law as well.


The first of the fundamental inclinations is the natural inclination to the good.  Man by his very nature seeks the good.  This attraction of the good is universally expressed then in the first precept of the natural law: Good is to be done and evil avoided.  This primary precept of the natural law sums up the entire Ten Commandments and is succinctly summarized by Jesus when He says that we are to love God and neighbor.

The second inclination is to preserve one’s being.  What this means practically is that life, and all that promotes life (like food, clothing, shelter, etc.), is to be preserved.  This inclination is expressed in the fifth commandment which says “Thou shall not kill”.

Thirdly, there is the inclination to propagation and education of children.  Man has not only the power to transmit life through the exercise of their sexuality but an inclination as well.  This seems to be the inclination that our generation has the most trouble regulating.  But like all inclinations, it must be regulated if it is to develop properly.  So important is this precept that three of the Ten Commandments address it; the fourth which is ordered toward respect for one’s parents; the sixth which links sexuality with marriage; the ninth which forbids lust.

Because man is not only a material being, but a spiritual one as well, the inclination to know the truth also forms a the fourth foundation for the precepts of the natural law.  The Decalogue again protects this inclination so that it might flourish in the eighth commandment “Thou shall not bear false witness”.

Finally the fifth inclination is the inclination to life in society.  This inclination forms the foundation for the seemingly innate demands of justice.  Anyone who has spent time with young children recognizes immediately that this inclination is present because they often say that something is not fair.

Despite inevitable difference in opinions as to precisely what constitutes a good, nevertheless the natural law can be used to form a common foundation and basic criteria for moral action.  For this reason, Catholics must continue to address human actions in light of natural law in order to share common ground with non-Catholics.

Let’s look at a few so-called “Catholic teachings.” First there is contraception.  While it has been labeled as a “Catholic belief” it is really a teaching based on the Natural Law.  There is a more detailed argument about this in this article, but all one needs to do is look at the five inclinations that I mentioned above.  Because contraception harms the good of marriage and procreation it is contrary to the natural law.

In fact, once we establish the four human goods connected to the five inclinations (namely life, marriage and procreation, society and truth) we can evaluate every law as either good or bad in relation to whether it harms one or more of these goods or not.  A second example will help further clarify a little further.  What about something like euthanasia?  Again, we check the inclinations and we find that it harms both the good of life (voluntary) and society (involuntary).  Involuntary euthanasia harms society because the most vulnerable are wiped out, destroying the trust that is absolutely necessary for any society to remain intact.  This is why St. John Paul II addressed euthanasia very specifically in Evangelium Vitae as belonging to the natural law saying, “I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (EV, 65).

As a very important aside, I should mention this also addresses the question as to whether something like the Church’s teaching against contraception is an infallible teaching.  The argument goes something like this, “well the Pope has never declared ex-cathedra that contraception is wrong so I am free to follow my own conscience.”  Not only does this represent a misunderstanding about when the charism of infallibility is exercised, but no Pope will ever make an ex-Cathedra statement about something that can be known by human reason.  Ex-Cathedra doctrines are reserved for what is considered divinely revealed only.  This seems to be a great source of confusion for many Catholics and mostly ends up being a red herring for following the Church’s moral teachings.  When he was Prefect for the Congregation of Divine Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger addressed this—a commentary very much worth reading.

The point is that we need to stop labeling our positions against abortion, euthanasia and contraception as beliefs.  We should not be saying “I believe contraception is wrong” but instead “I know contraception is wrong.”  We can know certain moral precepts infallibly without the Church declaring it so (even if she does as a service to us in many instances).

There is also the evangelical aspects that come with this.  Because the Church alone has preserved the natural law tradition, she can provide a great service to mankind by proclaiming once again these teachings with confidence as binding upon all men as the only path to true freedom.