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Principles of Catholic Moral Theology


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Title: Principles of Catholic Moral Theology

Conscience is
Ones best judgment as to what in the
circumstances is the morally right thing to do.
  • As such, it is not
  • a feeling. Feelings are not judgments and can
    be very misleading.
  • Nor is it a decision. A decision involves
    deliberation and is an act of the will.

Conscience is in the intellect, as the word
indicates (con science from the Latin scire,
to know). It is a judgment, but also ones
best judgment, not about what is expedient, or
what will create the conditions that will
maximize my comfort level. Rather, it is ones
best judgment on what is the morally right thing
to do.
Moral from the Latin mores character. Moral
Identity the kind of person one is or has made
oneself to be. Morality is not about choices
that promise to bring about an external state of
affairs most conducive to the quality of life one
desires for oneself or others. 
Rather, it is about the making of character. 
We determine our character, our moral
identity, by the free choices that we make, and
our very destiny is determined by the kind of
persons weve made ourselves to be.   Your
character is more intimately yours than anything
else you may have.
Character vs. Personality
Character is not the same as personality. You
can have a great personality, but depraved
character, like serial killer Ted Bundy on the
left. You can also have a grumpy, or bland
personality, but saintly character.   Much of
our personality is determined, either inherited
or environmental. But character is entirely
Choice(the relationship between what I choose
and what I am)doing being
I choose to lie I become a liar (even a
nice liar) I choose to steal I become a
thief (even a nice thief) I choose to
kill I become a killer (even a nice
killer) I choose to gossip I become a
gossip (yes, even a nice gossip)
Man is an artist who sculpts his own moral
identity, the kind of person he is or is
becoming. By my own choice, I become either a
good person, orientated towards God, who is the
Supreme Good, or an evil person, disorientated
with respect to the Supreme Good.
  • Conscience Another word for prudence (the mother
    of the virtues).
  • the virtue which rightly directs particular
    human acts toward a good end.

It is the application of general or universal
principles to particular situations. Because
that is the case, one must know the most general
principles of the natural moral law.
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law
which he has not laid upon himself but which he
must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love
and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells
him inwardly at the right moment do this, shun
that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by
God. His dignity lies in observing this law and
by it he will be judged. His conscience is man's
most secret core, and his sanctuary .... Through
loyalty to conscience, Christians are joined to
other men in the search for truth and for the
right solution to so many moral problems which
arise both in the life of individuals and from
social relationships.  Gaudium et Spes 16
Civil law
There are different kinds of law
Natural law
Canon law
Divine law
Civil law
Civil law is founded upon natural law
Natural law
Natural law is a participation in divine law, but
is naturally known
Church law is rooted in an understanding of
divine law and the historical situation of the
Canon law
Divine law
Divine Law
Divine Law is that which is enacted by God and
made known to man through revelation. We
distinguish between the Old Law, contained in the
Pentateuch, and the New Law, which was revealed
by Jesus Christ and is contained in the New
Canon Law
Canon law (Church law) is the body of laws and
regulations made by or adopted by ecclesiastical
authority, for the government of the Christian
organization and its members.
It comes from Christ, who said to Peter
Receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven what
you bind on earth is bound in heaven, what you
loose on earth is loosed in heaven (Mt 16, 18)
Civil Law
Civil law man made law. Can be just or unjust,
depending upon how it squares with natural law.
I.e., one must be 18 in order to vote, 19 in
order to drink, one must drive on the right side
of the road, etc.
Natural Law
Cicero writes of the natural law Natural law is
right reason in agreement with is of
universal application, unchanging and
everlasting.... we need not look outside
ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it.
And there will not be different laws at Rome and
at Athens, or different laws now and in the
future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will
be valid for all nations and for all times, and
there will be one master and one rule, that is,
God, over us all, for He is the author of this
law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge.
Civil and Natural Law
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from
the Birmingham Jail Now what is the difference
between the two? How does one determine when a
law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made
code that squares with the moral law or the law
of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of
harmony with the moral law. To put it in the
terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a
human law that is not rooted in eternal and
natural law. Any law that uplifts human
personality is just. Any law that degrades human
personality is unjust. All segregation statutes
are unjust because segregation distorts the soul
and damages the personality. It gives the
segregator a false sense of superiority, and the
segregated a false sense of inferiority.
Prudence (conscience) is the application of
general or universal principles to particular
situations. Because that is the case, one must
know the most general principles of the natural
moral law.
General Conscience
A natural understanding of the basic and most
general precepts of Natural Law.
Good is to be done, evil is to be avoided.
We have a natural understanding because we have a
natural knowledge of the good and a rational
ability to draw out their basic implications.
Human GoodsNatural Inclinations
Human Life a natural inclination to preserve it
and/or beget it. We see it as good.
We desire to know, to contemplate. Man has a
natural sense of wonder. Human beings ask
questions, seek answers, wonder about the causes
of things. Man is a knower.
Contemplation of the Beautiful
Beautiful Music
Beautiful Works of Art
Man is inclined to behold the beautiful. Beauty
captivates us, whether it is beautiful music, a
beautiful sunset, a beautiful painting, a
beautiful face, or a beautiful life.
Man is a maker. He loves to produce or make
things. He likes to build, to play
(games/sports), to create, to recreate, simply
for its own sake. Making and play are
intrinsically good.
  • Friendship

We are inclined to establish relationships on the
basis of common qualities and common interests.
  • Marriage/family

Man is inclined to marry, to give himself
completely to another, to belong to another
exclusively and permanently in one flesh union
that is open to the begetting of new life. 
The Common Good of the Civil Community
Man is a social and political animal. He enters
into relationship not only with friends, but with
the civil community as a whole.
  • Integrity

Man is inclined to seek integration within
himself, an integration of the complex elements
of himself, to bring about a more intense unity
within himself, namely 1) an integration between
truth and his acts, 2) his actions and his
character, as well as 3) his will and his
  • Religion

Man aspires after what is higher than him because
he is aware of his thirst, among other things. 
He beholds his own finitude and the finitude of
creation.  He aspires to what is beyond the
temporal to the eternal.
Society (others)
The Most General Precepts of Natural Law
I have a natural knowledge of the good (life,
truth, play, beauty, friendships, the common
good, integrity, marriage, religion).
I see my life as a good
I see others as another me (I am a human kind of
So I naturally know that harming others is bad,
contrary to the good.
The Most General Precepts of Natural Law
I know that I am essentially the same kind of
being as other human persons (essentially equal)
I naturally know that what I would not like done
to me, the other would not like that same thing
being done to him/her. I.e., deceived,
alienated, slapped, etc.
I naturally know that I ought not to do to
another what I would not want done to me (golden
rule). Or, do unto others what you would have
them do unto you.
I also know that I learn, that I have been
I know that truth is something larger than me
That I am not the measure of what is true and good
Hence, I naturally know that I ought to seek the
truth, that is, seek to know what is truly good,
whether my judgments are in accord with the truth
or not.
I may choose to ignore this demand for the sake
of a more comfortable existence. If I do so, I
know I am responsible for it.
The Most General Precepts of Natural Law
Do not harm others one ought not to do anything
that harms the common good.
Do not do to others what you yourself would not
like done to you.
I ought to seek the truth of what is right and
wrong and not make myself the measure of what is
true and good.
  • God is to be loved above all things (See Rom 1,
  • One ought to honour ones parents
  • If marriage is good, one ought to revere the
    marriage bond
  • One ought not to do anything that harms the
    common good.
  • One ought not to take what rightfully belongs to
  • One ought not to lie
  • One ought not to envy the good of others
  • Things must be used, not loved. Persons must be
    loved, not used.

  • Although we know the most general precepts of
    natural law, we do not naturally know the more
    specific precepts of natural law and how they
    apply in concrete situations.
  • This involves effort, study, human reason,
    experience, foresight, and understanding of human
    nature, a more intense study of natural law, etc.
  • Conscience must be formed.

The search for truth ... must be carried out in a
manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the
human person and his social nature, namely, by
free inquiry with the help of teaching or
instruction, communication and dialogue. It is by
these means that men share with each other the
truth they have discovered, or think they have
discovered, in such a way that they help one
another in the search for truth ... It is through
his conscience that man sees and recognizes the
demands of the divine law. He is bound to follow
this conscience faithfully in all his activity so
that he may come to God, who is his last end.
Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary
to his conscience.  Dignitatis Humanae 3

Erroneous Conscience
Since conscience is ones best judgment about
what is the morally right thing to do, here and
now, one is obligated to follow it, even if it is
erroneous. Ones conscience may be erroneous
through no fault of ones own. I.e., I did not
know In Vitro was wrong. No one told me, and I
thought I had a duty to have children. I saw
that as the only option and thought it would be
sinful not to pursue it. Or It may be
erroneous through neglect, a free decision not to
pursue the truth, for fear of what one may
Formation of Conscience
  • A Catholic conscience is formed by
  • the study of Scripture (interpreted by the
  • Tradition (the teachings of the great doctors of
    the Church, the Fathers, the lives of the saints)
  • the teachings of the Magisterium (Church
    councils, encyclicals, etc).
  • the study of natural law

However, in forming their consciences the
faithful must pay careful attention to the sacred
and certain teaching of the Church. For the
Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the
teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim and
teach with authority the truth which is Christ
and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by
her authority the principles of the moral order
which spring from human nature itself. Dignitatis
Humanae 14