The Whys and Wherefores of Catholic Sexual Ethics (2)

2. Norms for Making True Moral Judgments and Good Moral Choices

Human choices and actions, whether morally good or morally bad, are intelligible and purposeful. Sinful choices, although unreasonable and opposed to the order of reason, are not irrational, meaningless, absurd. All human choice and action is directed to some end or purpose, and the ends or purposes to which human choices and actions are ordered are considered as "goods" to be pursued. The "good" has the meaning of what is perfective of a being, constitutive of its flourishing or well-being. Thus the proposition good is to be done and pursued and its opposite, evil, is to be avoided is a practical proposition to which every human person, as intelligent, will assent once its meaning is understood.[1] This is a principle or "starting point" for intelligent, purposeful human choice and action. It is indeed the first principle of natural law.

Moreover, this is not a vacuous or empty principle. It is given content and specified by identifying the real goods perfective of human persons, aspects of their flourishing or well-being toward which they are dynamically ordered by their nature as human persons. St. Thomas Aquinas identified a triple-tiered set of such human goods which, when grasped by our reason as ordered to action, serve as first principles or starting points for practical deliberation-"what am I to do?" Aquinas' first set includes being itself, a good that human persons share with other entities, and since the being of living things is life itself, the basic human good at this level is that of life itself, including bodily life, health, and bodily integrity. His second set includes the sexual union of man and woman and the handing on and educating of human life, a set of goods human persons share with other sexually reproducing species but, of course, in a distinctively human way. His third set includes goods unique to human persons, such as knowledge of the truth, especially truth about God, fellowship and friendship with other persons in a human community (friendship and justice, peace), and the good of being reasonable in making choices or what can be called the good of practical reasonableness. The practical principles directing us to these goods are first principles of natural law rooted in the fundamental principle that good is to be done and pursued and its opposite avoided.[2]

"..we can love our neighbor only and respect his inviolable dignity only by cherishing the real goods perfective of him and by refusing intentionally to damage, destroy, impede, ignore, neglect these goods or in any other way close our hearts to them and to the persons in whom they are meant to flourish."

The practical principles based on these goods, principles such as life is a good to be preserved, knowledge of the truth is a good to be pursued, etc. direct us to the goods perfective of our being as persons. But they do not, of themselves, help us to discriminate between possibilities of choice and action that are morally good and morally bad. Indeed, even sinners appeal to these goods and the principles directing that they be pursued in order to "justify" or, better, to "rationalize" their immoral choices. Thus a research scientist who unethically experiments on human persons, lying to them about the nature of the experiments because he realizes that they would never consent undergo them if they knew the truth about them, rationalizes his immoral behavior by appealing to the good of the knowledge to be gained through these experiments and its potential benefits for the life and health of other persons.

If these principles of practical reason do not help us determine, before choice, which alternatives of choice are morally good from those that are morally bad, then what principles enable us to do this? Let us see what St. Thomas teaches here. In showing that all of the moral precepts of the Old Law can be reduced to the ten precepts of the Decalogue (which he considered to be the proximate conclusions of the natural law from its first and common principles), St. Thomas taught that the commandments that we are to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves, while not listed among the precepts of the Decalogue, nonetheless pertain to it as the "first and common precepts of natural law." Consequently, all the precepts of the Decalogue must, he concluded, be referred to these two love commandments as to their "common principles."[3] Thus for St. Thomas the very first moral principle or normative truth of the natural law enabling us to discriminate between morally good and morally bad possibilities of choice can be articulated in terms of the twofold command of love of God and love of neighbor. This is hardly surprising, for St. Thomas was a good Christian and knew that Jesus himself, when asked, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?," replied: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Matt 22:32-40; cf. Mk 12:28-31; Lk 10:25-28; Rom 13:10).

In short, for St. Thomas-and the entire Judeo-Christian tradition-the very first moral principle or normative truth to guide choices is that we are to love God above everything and our neighbor as ourselves. Moreover, and this is exceedingly important, there is an inseparable bond uniting this first moral principle to the first practical principles noted above that direct us to the goods perfective of us as human persons. For these goods are gifts from a loving God that we are to welcome and cherish; and it is obvious that we can love our neighbor as ourselves only if we are willing to respect fully the goods perfective of them, the goods that enable them to become more fully themselves. We can love our neighbor only by willing that these goods flourish in them, and by being unwilling intentionally to damage, destroy or impede these goods, to ignore them or slight them or put them aside because their continued flourishing keeps us from doing what we please to do here and now.

Pope John Paul II has well expressed the indissoluble bond between love for the goods of human existence-the goods to which we are directed by the first principles of practical reasoning-and love for our neighbor. Commenting on the precepts of the Decalogue concerned with our neighbor, he reminds us (as Aquinas did) that these precepts are rooted in the commandment that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, a commandment expressing "the singular dignity of the human person, 'the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake.'"[4]

After saying this, the Holy Father continues, in a passage of singular importance, by emphasizing that we can love our neighbor only and respect his inviolable dignity only by cherishing the real goods perfective of him and by refusing intentionally to damage, destroy, impede, ignore, neglect these goods or in any other way close our hearts to them and to the persons in whom they are meant to flourish. Appealing to the words of Jesus, he highlights the truth that "the different commandments of the Decalogue are really only so many reflections on the one commandment about the good of the person, at the level of the many different goods which characterize his identity as a spiritual and bodily being in relationship with God, with his neighbor, and with the material world….The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods….[The negative precepts of the Decalogue]-'You shall not kill; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness' express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of persons in marriage," and so on.[5]

In saying this Pope John Paul II is simply articulating once again the Catholic moral tradition, which centuries ago was summarized by St. Thomas Aquinas when he said that "God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good."[6]

This fundamental normative truth is further clarified, in my opinion, in the formula proposed by Germain Grisez, namely, that "in voluntarily acting for human goods and avoiding what is opposed to them, one ought to choose and otherwise will those and only those possibilities whose willing is compatible with integral human fulfillment," i.e., with a heart open to every real good meant to flourish in human persons.[7]

If we are to choose in accordance with this basic normative truth, other normative truths help specify its requirements. First of all, to choose in accord with it we must take into account the real goods of human persons at stake in specific choices and actions-to ignore them or disregard them is to manifest a will, a heart, not seriously concerned with them. Likewise, we are to pursue real goods of human persons, the intelligible goods grasped by practical reason, and not substitute for them merely sensible goods such as pleasure. Moreover, each of these goods requires us that, when we can do so as easily as not, we avoid acting in ways that inhibit its realization and prefer ways of acting which contribute to its realization. In addition, each of these goods requires us to make an effort on its behalf when its realization in some other person is in peril and we are in a position to be of help in protecting it. Other requirements necessary if we are to shape our choices and actions in accord with this basic norm can be spelled out, for instance, fairness (the "Golden Rule"). One crucial requirement is that we ought not choose, with direct intent, to set these goods aside, to destroy, damage, or impede them either in ourselves or in others. We can be tempted to do this either out of hostility toward certain goods or persons or because we arbitrarily prefer some goods to others and the continued flourishing of some of the real goods of human existence inhibits our participation, here and now, in some other good that we prefer.[8] In short, we are not to do evil so that good may come about (Rom 3:8).

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William E. May is an adviser for Catholics for the Common Good and the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2006. Posted with permission from Dr. William E. May

  1. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 2; see also Germain Grisez, "The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, 1-2, Question 94, Article 2," Natural Law Forum 10 (1965) 168-201; see also Grisez, Christian Moral Principles (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1983), pp. 178-182.
  2. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 2. See a. 3 of the same question for the good of practical reasonableness.
  3. Ibid., 1-2, q. 100, 3 and ad 1.
  4. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, no. 13; the internal citation is from Vatican Council II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, no. 22.
  5. Ibid., no. 13.
  6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, 3.122.
  7. Grisez, Christian Moral Principles (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1983), p. 184.
  8. For a fuller discussion of these moral truths see Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, pp. 205-225; John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), chapter 3; Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1984), pp. 74-78; William E. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology (Second ed.: Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), pp. 94-105.

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