Catholic Moral Philosophy Part 1

Moral philosophy is the study of ethics. Catholics promote this study because it supports and provides a foundation for moral theology, or the study of morality using revelation and reason together from a Catholic standpoint. Ethics however is the foundation for any moral theology and therefore is crucial from a Catholic standpoint. There are many different ethical systems and each differs in the overall theory of morality which provides a blueprint for determining the moral status of individual acts. There are two key components of a moral theory that concern us today: Ontology, or the foundations for morality, and epistemology, or how we know morality. Catholics embrace from a philosophical and a theological perspective a definitive answer on each of these points however the teachings of the Church are often derided from a point of view which does not even comprehend the Catholic moral theory. Today we will clear up some common misconceptions. (For the remainder of this piece we will be focusing on natural law morality not positive divine law or human law of any kind).


The foundations for morality are basically the overarching principles which ground the moral system. From these principles we can determine what is right and wrong. The principles cannot be arbitrary but must be grounded in something objective. Different people operate with different moral systems. It is important to uncover these systems and discuss them rationally otherwise we will never get to the heart of any contemporary moral dilemma. Often times this underlying moral philosophy is unclear and not discussed, often however it is impossible to ignore. Even when it is not openly discussed, even when people are unaware of it, this philosophy shapes the culture. Many Catholics and non-Catholics alike criticize the Church over teachings on morality especially sexual morality. What they do not understand is at the heart of the debate is what determines right and wrong.


The foundation for Catholic morality is a deep and profound subject because it is based on an entire philosophical system. More could be said than what I write in this paragraph, however I am going to give a super brief sketch (not a defense) of the Church’s thought. The Church’s moral system is primarily a natural law based ethical system based on human nature. This means that right and wrong flows from our very nature as human beings. We have to be careful that we do not fall in to the “nature trap” as I call it. This is the trap where we assume that the word nature always has something to do with animals or ecosystems or the environment. Nature in the relevant sense here means our essence, or what makes us human beings. Human beings as a whole have a nature and parts of human beings have natures to. A nature, or what something is, is structured so that it is ordered towards an end. This means that the thing in question is the way it is in order to reach some goal. We have to be careful however because this itself does not presuppose design nor does it directly prove it. An example to illustrate would be helpful: the heart has a particular “heart-like” nature or what it is. This structure determines its function.  The function is directed at some definitive effect, namely, pumping blood throughout the body. It is that simple. As should be clear, this may be admitted whether or not there is a designer behind the nature of the heart.


The definition of our natures should be clear now. Next, how do we get from our natures to what is right? In other words, how do we get from the “is” to the “ought?” This is where things can become a little more complex, but I will try to be succinct. According to the natural law system, there is no “fact-value” problem because conforming to a nature (fact) is by definition good (value). This is not an arbitrary assertion that “you should conform to your nature” but rather it is an objective definition of goodness. More could be said in defense of this position but now at least take this example to see how this definition should be in no way foreign: If I draw a circle, it is a particular instance of circularity. Everyone would admit the circle I draw is good insofar as it conforms to this circularity. If I draw a circle that is more “squiggly” or more oval shaped, it is less good because it conforms less to being a circle. However if I draw a “perfect” circle, this means that I have drawn a circle which perfectly instantiates the nature of a circle, in other words, goodness is conforming to a nature.


Now each part of a human being is ordered to the whole. The use of these parts is “good” insofar as they conform to their natures. However, what about the entire human being? The human being is a hierarchy of parts ordered not to the last end of man which is God. Be careful however not to confuse for theological purposes the natural end of man which is God and the supernatural end of man which is experiencing God through the beatific vision. Since the parts of a human serve the whole and the whole is ordered to God, any disorder ultimately makes man swerve from union with God. Union with God, as our purpose, is by definition good. However it is also what makes us flourish. God wants us happy, and He knows that in this life and in the next (even leaving aside raising humans to the supernatural order), what we need is union with Him. For this reason, God commands the good. This is not an arbitrary command because it is based ultimately on God’s very nature, that is, His eternal love. Our natures too are based in God’s. Catholic morality therefore is based proximately on our natures and ultimately on God. Again, this brief sketch is not an air-tight way of explaining the moral system, but just a basic idea of what the ethical system is.


There are a few misconceptions in this area or moral ontology. First of all, many people are under the impression that what the Church teaches is immoral is actually a Church ban on something. For example, we might hear of the Church “forbidding” artificial birth control or same sex marriage. However this is not the case. As can be seen from the foregoing paragraphs, the Church is in no position to change human nature; that is clearly absurd. Since morality is based on our natures, the Church does not make the laws in this area. The Church is a messenger, nothing more (in the area of natural law morality that is).


Second, many people think that Catholics basically follow a system of Divine Command Theory, in other words, God commands something out of the blue, and we are to blindly follow. However, as should be clear by now as well, God does command but these commands are in no way arbitrary. To be sure, it is God’s commands which give morality the force of law that it has. However, God’s commands are not arbitrary commands and they alone do not form a complete picture of what is right and wrong. This is for two reasons. First, God’s commands are most suited to our natures. Our natures explain morality in the immediate sense and make it such that God cannot simply command anything, say torture, because there are some things not suited to our nature. Second, God’s commands, and our natures themselves flow from God’s intellect and will. God’s intellect and will of course are one with His nature which is the definition of goodness. Therefore, it is impossible that God command something that is harmful to us.


To be Continued

Leave a Reply