Catholic Moral Philosophy Part 2

Continued from part 1…

On the other side of things is how we know what is right and wrong. This too is often misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics. According to the Catholic Church, this is a sketch of how we know natural law (again, not an in-depth defense and much more could be said):


Natural law is based on our natures. Our natures determine what is good and what is bad. Since we have the capacity to reason, we have the capacity to learn our natures and understand the concepts of good and bad. Using our intellects, we can know right from wrong simply by learning about humanity and its parts. From there we can comprehend what makes something good and because we have a natural inclination to the good, we can reason that we must pursue the good and this is essentially natural law. Many relevant factors to natural law we can know through reason as well. For instance, the existence of God, our immortal soul, and our last end being God Himself are all facts that are significant from a natural law standpoint that many people assume to be only theological points which we know by faith alone.


There is one problem however. Our reason has the potential to err for many reasons including our emotions, our desires, our misconceptions, the incorrect words of others, our focus, and much more. From a Catholic standpoint (although not necessarily a natural law standpoint), our intellect is clouded due to original sin. It should be no surprise that so many different moral theories have developed over time. We should not abandon pure reason as futile however. Many false moralities are not based on a failure in our ability as humans but on our willful ignorance and unwillingness to actually seek the truth. For those truly and honestly seeking the truth, morality becomes a lot clearer. Even then however, our intellects are fallible. Catholics believe that God in His goodness has provided us with revelation about Himself and about how we are to reach our end. This includes revelation about what is right and wrong which reinforces natural law. This is God’s reveled moral law and it is not different from natural law but rather restates and re-enforces it again. A well-known example of this would be the 10 Commandments. St. Paul reminds us in Scripture that the law of God written on stone tablets has been written on the hearts of all men. This is because the 10 commandments are part of natural law which we can know through reason alone. God decided to reveal them explicitly in order to dispel errors from the Jews at the time, and everyone living beyond that time including everyone living today who goes back to these simple 10 for answers. God’s revealed moral law is found in the Bible and in the Tradition which has been passed on from Christ through the Apostles.


The fact that there are many different Protestant denominations attests to the fact that even given revelation, many people still cannot decide on the true interpretation and come to agreement on what is right and wrong. God’s revelation many years ago does not answer every single question and cannot be applied in every instance. Since reason and revelation therefore are not enough in determining right from wrong, it is necessary to have an authority which can teach infallibly on morals. Catholics believe that the Church’s Magisterium has the capacity to teach with infallible certainty on the morality of acts. Therefore, after the Church speaks, the matter is settled.


From this overview of Catholic moral epistemology, certain errors can be rejected with ease. First, Catholics are sometimes accused of not having enough Biblical basis for their beliefs including their moral beliefs. Sometimes Protestants like to tell Catholics that “nowhere in the Bible does it say that x is a sin.” Well for Catholics, the Bible is not the whole story. Revelation is important but so is reason and reason is the ultimate grounds for moral epistemology, revelation is simply the bonus that God has used to reinforce what we should already know, what is already “written on our hearts.” This is important too because sometimes people think that it is not fair to assume that non-Christians must live upright lives as well as Christians, however, non-Christians have the same access to natural law that we have.


Sometimes liberal Catholics like to “use their conscience” to toss out Church teaching. Most of the time it is not as though these people have pursued the truth, but even if they were of good will and had actually attempted to understand something with an open mind, the objection fails. The Church does not trump reason or overthrow it, however, since Christ founded the Church to teach on right and wrong, we can have certainty that the Church teaches the truth even though human beings can err. Since we believe in the Church for independent and reliable reasons, (and not to mention because the rich intellectual depth of the 2000 year old Church) and because we know our moral reasoning is clouded by so many factors, it makes the most sense to set aside our misunderstandings and form our consciences around the teachings of the Church.


A third objection comes in the form of an accusation from many liberal Catholics and non-Catholics.
“How can you trust an old Book?” “How do you know your interpretation of the Bible is right?” The reason these objections fail is that they falsely assume that the Church bases morality solely on the Bible. This would be of course a problem because the Bible needs an interpreter and because many people have a problem applying certain statements from an entirely different culture to our own. “The times have changed since the goat herders of ancient Israel wrote about their god” the secularist triumphantly exclaims! Yet, the Church responds without hesitation: “Human nature has not changed and since morality is based on our nature, morality has not either.”
Fourth, some fundamentalist Christians might accuse Catholics of sidestepping the Bible and only appealing to reason. But many Catholics would be happy to use Scripture in defense of morality. The complete picture as just described includes the Bible but goes beyond the Bible. Sometimes those who oppose the Church accuse Catholics of blindly following Church teaching without looking at the reasons for something being right and wrong. It is as if the Church stands alone and Catholics must just silently obey. However, this too is a false view because while the Church does have the final say and is infallible, the teachings are not based off of nothing. We have full access to all of Church teachings and are free to learn them and understand them. This is not redundant however because learning and understanding morality at its roots helps us better defend the Church against attacks and it helps us remain faithful and moral in times of difficulty.


This here is a sketch of the Church’s understanding of morality. In these times when people from all different angles attack the Church’s teachings on all sorts of issues, this review should be helpful. Also, it is significant how despite the many objections to Church teaching, almost all are based off of misconceptions over the simple ethical system which the Church adheres too. If we all take time to develop a deeper understanding of Catholic morality, we can better understand and defend the Church against the attacks of the day.


St. Alphonsus is the Doctor of Moral Theology. Let us pray to him that we may not fall into errors regarding Catholic moral philosophy or theology


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