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Fr Aidan Nichols

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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 12: The Good Life
Part 2

Controverted Areas

The Church's ethical vision and teaching enable her to lay down ground rules in a variety of controverted areas of ethical debate, ranging from bioethics (the ethical investigation of human interventions vis-à-vis the beginning of life and its ending), to matters of social politics. The love she owes human beings moves her to help them to recognize their rights and duties. As she contemplates the mystery of the incarnate Word, she comes to understand as well the human mystery, and by proclaiming her gospel of salvation discloses to human beings their dignity, inviting them to discover more fully the truth of their being.

Social Ethics

For some thinkers such as Hobbes, society, as distinct from brute animal-type relationships of domination and submission, is constituted by the state. More moderately for Hegel, society only enjoys a fully rational and thus proper moral existence via the state. On the opposite end of the spectrum, anarchism holds that the state is a parasitic by­product of society which should be dismantled as soon as possible. Less radically, for Marxism the state is a necessary by-product of society, in all phases of social development save the last, socialist, one where it will wither away. Between these two poles (thus briefly sketched) there stands the Church. For her tradition, the authority that underlies the state is divine authority, though it can be and often is grossly abused by those responsible for carrying out the state's functions. Those functions are intended both to serve and to enhance the common good of society. Society can attain via the state a level of value and virtue which, in some respects, it could not achieve without the state. Yet society exists in its own right prior to the state and has values and institutions (such as the family) that the state must respect, not revise. This distinctness yet interrelatedness of society and the state is one major reason why Catholic social doctrine cannot ally itself with many currents in either left-wing or right-wing theory.

In the eyes of the Church, then, the state is a good: social life is not possible without the recognition of authority as nurse of a common good. Moreover, as Aquinas remarks, those who excel in knowledge and justice do so uselessly unless they can dedicate their gifts by some instrument for the benefit of others. But since morality is ultimately the movement of rational creatures towards God, civic society must conform to the human being's final end the possession of God.

"No man belongs wholly to the State, to the political community. Man belongs wholly only to God, to whom he is wholly oriented, with all that he is, can do, and has." [16]

Not that this licenses the Church in taking over temporal power: for Thomas, the Church has a role in temporalia only insofar as they are related to spiritualia, the natural to the supernatural. Still, the Church sees herself as called to play a vital part in the life of the polis, and that in two respects. First, the Church's divinely authorized access to the truth about the human being enables her to speak with authority about the principles that underlie moral coexistence in the human city. Catholicism is sometimes attacked for its concern with authority; yet such concern is evangelical. Christianity's basic postulate is the kingdom of God, and a kingdom implies authority. It was controversy about authority that brought Jesus to his death. Second, the Church also regards herself as an animator of culture, the many­sided human exchange that sustains or subverts the life of the polis and its common good. The most truly common features of a community should be its religious feasts and civic celebrations, its moral, intellectual, and artistic culture. All of these are highly pertinent to the fullness of social peace found by way of more mundane matters, such as the achievements of a system of justice, of public health, communication, transport. Even these earthly empirical issues are not alien to penetra­tion by moral thinking, because in moral thinking we are not trying to show people how to achieve the vision of God but why a certain pattern of living is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for that vision.

In such matters, the Church's authority underpins the natural, yet divinely ordained, authority of the civil order. Such natural authority is a good in itself, because it unifies the creative but non-self-regulating functional differentiations found among agents engaged in common action. It is wrong to think, as individualists do, that the restraint that comes from authority is wholly alien to the good of individual persons: the common good is meant to be fruitful in the life of each person in the community, for their perfecting. Because of the social nature of human beings, every person should find an inclination in themselves to the love of what benefits all. When authority is appropriately wielded, it frees people for a more concentrated pursuit of those matters that most interest them. It is communal prudence. In the absence of total unanimity (hardly to be expected) there can be no common action without it.

The Catholic Church accepts a variety of ways of arranging the apparatus of the state. So long as state authority truly aims at the common good, objectively conceived, and retains the consent of the population for its exercise, it may be monarchic, oligarchic, or democratic in form (or some combination thereof). But Catholicism's insistence on the reality of civil society "prior" (i.e., logically, not necessarily chronologically) to the state means that it does not envisage state authority as confronting naked individuals, but presupposes that other levels of corporate entity (such as, in different historic periods or geographical regions, fraternities, trade guilds, village assemblies, municipal communes, trade unions) will provide an intermediate space for responsible action. At the same time, the mutual interdependence of all human beings (the principle of solidarity) encourages us to look beyond our more immediate sphere of responsibility (the principle of subsidiarity) in the prosecution of the common good. It is not the function of a country's government to create a completely integrated system, including economic machinery, for the people to accept and to which they must conform. The task of government is, rather, actively to create and sustain the conditions which will provide an opportunity, a lead, and an encouragement for the civil society in question itself to develop that organizational pattern which accords with its ideals and tradition, and can secure the welfare of its members. In the Thomistically influenced social thought of the Welsh Cafholic convert Saunders Lewis:

"A nation's civilisation is rich and complex simply because it is a community of communities, and for that reason also the freedom of the individual is a feasible proposition. . . . His liberty depends on his being a member not of one association but of many." [17]

The removal of an obstinately entrenched governing power opposed to the common good is a difficult matter which in recent decades especially has led moralists to apply to civil revolution the principles of just war theory, building thereby on the earlier discussion of the possibility, in extreme circumstances, of regicide. In traditional Christendom, many societies recognized in the pope a useful instrument for confirming or deposing rulers, on the basis of their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the general principles of an ethical politics. The moral force of such a pontifical intervention could hold out the possibility, at least, of a more irenic transition. This was an extra-evangelical prerogative which the Petrine office had acquired in the course of (as Catholic Christians saw it) a providentially guided Church history. Even today, this role survives in the form of the pope's moral interventions either to state general principles of social morality or (speaking, evidently, with less authority) to interpret the "signs of the times" in secular history, or comment on particular historical developments. By virtue of the universal kingship of Christ, the Church has an indirect authority over the entire temporal domain.

The object of freedom is truth and goodness. So the state cannot be indifferent to the dissemination of falsehood in religious and moral matters. This conviction separates the Catholic view of civil authority from that of modem liberalism. Though there may be no coercion of conscience (i.e., no one may be pressured into accepting the gospel), religious liberty is not unlimited. It does not extend, for example, to the dissemination of gross error directly productive of moral evil. Natural law provides the general principle of a limited religious liberty for all persons, but God himself has left to the changeable discretion of his Church, under her power of binding and loosing, the judgment of what those limits should be in different times and circumstances. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms (art. 2105) that she will strive to "penetrate the mentality, customs, laws and structures of society with a Christian spirit," thus "manifesting the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies." The redemption of social life cannot be undertaken independently of the inner spiritual renewal of society's members.

At the same time, however, it would be a mistake to conceive of redemption individualistically as a purely inner spiritual transformation with no tangible societal manifestation. The virtue of justice contradicts such a thought. Justice in its most general sense whatever is required by the common good of a community is sometimes called "social justice," precisely because it is the justice of society as a whole (and not simply, therefore, its political and economic aspects). A society deemed just will be so at all levels in the life of the family, the locality, the city, the nation, and its participation in the international order as well.

Subordinate to this, yet vital, are distributive and commutative justice. Distributive justice is both public and personal. Government must see to it that the cost of public provision is equitably borne and that all have equal access to those services provided at public expense. At the same time, the principle of subsidiarity which is also a principle of justice! forbids government from taxing people to provide services they could perfectly well furnish for themselves. At the interpersonal level, distributive justice allows people to make reasonable provision for the enjoyment of their own property, since they are by rights the first beneficiaries of what is theirs; it also insists that they should treat the rest of their property as held in trusteeship for the benefit of the wider community.

Commutative justice concerns exchange (e.g., between buyer and seller, debtor and indebted). Price justice requires that neither buyer nor seller dominate the other, and that there be some parity in the value of a commodity or a service and the price paid. Wage justice is more complex, for it adds a consideration of social justice, namely, a sufficiency of payment to support workers and their dependents, while also sustaining the viability of business. It is now widely recognized that where families need help part of this burden should be born by the community at large.

A just society is one where all acknowledge their duties to others; for its full expression, and for any real chance of its success, it requires charity. Only so can it provide a reflection, however distant, of that transfiguration of Old Testament "righteousness" by New Testament agape which is the hallmark of the kingdom.

Justice also applies in the international order: in matters of rich and poor nations, it concerns the equity of international trading relations. Here, justice demands that countries that produce consumer goods, especially farm products, in excess of their needs should help other countries where people are suffering from hunger. Because it is, moreover, integral to the moral nature of civilization that it honors the unity of the human race, it is inappropriate for developed nations to use such aid to gain political control over others. Not surprisingly, the Catholic social ethos leads to special concern for the poor, for the poor have always had a special place in the heart of the Church.

This wonderful City, whose foundations God himself has laid, has its laws and its security officers, by whom it is governed. But, since Jesus Christ, its Founder, came into the world to invert the order which pride established, its policy is directly opposite to that of this world something I note particularly in three points. First, in the world the rich have all the advantages and hold the first rank, whereas in the kingdom of Jesus Christ, pre-eminence belongs to the poor, who are the first-born of the Church and its true children. Secondly, in the world the poor are subject to the rich, and appear to be born only to serve them: on the contrary, in holy Church, the rich are only admitted on the condition that they serve the poor. Thirdly, in the world, favours and privileges are for the powerful and rich, the poor sharing in them only by their support: in the Church of Jesus Christ, by contrast, favours and blessings are for the poor, and the rich have no privileges except through their mediation. [18]

For Aquinas (and his viewpoint is reflected in the contemporary social teaching of the Church), on the one hand the appropriation of property should be individual because this is dictated by the needs of the human personality, who works on and elaborates matter, subjecting it to the forms of reason. On the other hand, the primordial destination of material goods is the benefit of the human species, and the need that all human beings have for such goods as a means to direct themselves toward their final end. Thus the use of the goods that are individually possessed should serve the common good of all. The problem is thus not how to suppress private interest but how to purify and ennoble it; to hold it in a social structure directed to the common good, and also (and this is the capital point) to transform it inwardly by a sense of communion and fraternal amity.

Modern papal statements have characteristically shifted, however, from basing rights statements directly on the law of God to founding them indirectly on that law passing by way of the idea of the dignity and task of the human person. Human beings are the proper ends of social institutions. Society exists to serve the interest of its members and to create the conditions in which they can live and develop as God intends. Catholic Christians are not social humanists: they believe that we have here no lasting city, but seek one that is to come, being kept safe for us as it is in the heavens (that is, in the crucified and glorified humanity of the Son of God). Their concern for society is a concern for the world which God loved so much that he both forgave it and ordained for it a new condition, wholly supernatural and divine: his kingdom, in which human life is not only repaired but raised up to enjoy the friendship of the Trinity, the social God, in ways that surpass its own potentialities. This is why the Church rejects both doom and despair about society and a millenarian utopianism. As Leszek Kolakowski has remarked, the Church holds that

"the philosopher's stone, the elixir of immortality, these are superstitions of alchemists, nor is there a recipe for a society without evil, without sin or conflict: such ideals are the aberrations of a mind convinced of its own omnipotence, they are the fruits of pride." [19]

Criminality, both of the person and of the state, to which this citation draws our attention, takes its clearest form in murderousness. The Church does not deny that the state may at times legitimately declare a criminal's life forfeit. The point here is that penalty must bear a relation to truth. The outcome of a person's actions must reflect the nature of those actions. By the decision to commit murder, a murderer loses the kind of claim to inviolability of life made by or for an innocent. Yet many prudential motives would stay the executioner's hand, and a Christian state may well commute such sentences by way of prolongation of the divine mercy. But of course the state itself may also behave murderously by internal tyranny or, externally, through its attitude to war and peace. No state may go to war against another unless, first, some injustice is clearly established and proved to be very grave; second, every other means has failed; and third, the destructive consequences of armed conflict will be less than those of the injustice that occasioned it.

This macro-social level is not, however, the only one on which the social good can be found. At the micro-social level (and there are others in between local community; workplace; cultural and philanthropic societies; the family) we have the smallest social group possible: the circle (and, at the smallest, the duo) of friends.

"All men are to be loved equally, but since you cannot do good for all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you . . . as by a sort of lottery." [20]

Within this providential "lottery," our friends and family hold a special place.

The good life cannot be evoked for the Church without reference to the idea of friendship, which is both a constitutive part of the moral vision of her greatest theologians, and lived out in her exemplary ethical heroes, the saints. Its spirit is well expressed in Hrabanus Maurus poem to the "very sweet brother and most reverend abbot Grimold" (abbot of St. Gall, in Switzerland):

Then, live, my strength, anchor of weary ships,
Safe shore and land at last, thou, for my wreck,
My honour, thou, and my abiding rest,
My city safe for a bewildered heart.
What though the plains and mountains and the sea
Between us are, that which no earth can hold
Still follows thee, and love's own singing follows,
Longing that all things may be well with thee
Christ who first gave thee for a friend to me,
Christ keep thee well, where'er thou art, for me.
Earth's self shall go and the swift wheel of heaven
Perish and pass, before our love shall cease.
Do but remember me, as I do thee,
And God, who brought us on this earth together,
Bring us together to his house of heaven.

Christianity learned from the ancient writers notably Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero a high regard for friendship. This was in any case immortalized in her own Scriptures, in, for example, the friendship of David with Jonathan, or that of the Savior himself with Lazarus or the "beloved disciple." Friendship is extolled by many of the Fathers and medieval authors, including Aquinas and the English Cistercian abbot Aelred. Friendship can flourish between members of the same or of opposite sexes. In a society where the language of love has been corrupted it will often be misunderstood. It requires self-control and sacrifice. Christian tradition shows that the road to happiness for some lies through friendship without marriage, and that such people, whether publicly consecrated to celibacy or not, have an honored place in the Church.

According to Aelred, God has willed to create human beings in the image of his own triune happiness: they promote their own happiness by doing good to one another. In his De amicitia, Aelred teaches that God willed that friendship should exist between his creatures, so that they might be true images of himself. Love is friendship's principle, but friendship is love's perfection, since love tends to union and unity. Spiritual friendship is not for that reason easy: it is demanding, for it requires the formation of a "single will." It provides a medium for the activity of Christ who remedies the disharmonies of human wills with each other in the good and in God; it constitutes therefore an element in sanctification. If the friendship between two Christian friends is true, then Christ himself becomes more and more their common center of attraction and union. In the osculum spiritua, the "spiritual kiss," Christ breathes the sacred affection of Father and Son into such friends. Yet the coiling-back of the soul on itself, gradually untied by Christ, is not fully undone till the life of heaven, when charity will become all-embracing friendship.

If friendship saves us from placing ourselves at the center of things, and thus helps us to want the good, the highest good, for ourselves and our friends, it does not restrict our love; while we can only be friends with a few, we can do good to many. The most basic unity of that "many" in Catholic ethics is the family. The Holy See's Charter of Family Rights (1983) spells out the ethos of the family in twelve articles on

the right to free choice to marry or to remain single; to free and full consent to marriage; to found a family and to decide on the spacing of births; to the protection of life from the moment of conception; the original primary and inalienable right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their religious and moral convictions; the right of families to exist and progress as a family unit; to profess publicly and to propagate their religious faith; to form associations to protect and foster family rights; to be able to rely on public policy without discrimination; to a social and economic order which permits the family to remain together; to decent housing; and for migrant families to have the right to the same protection as other families. [22]

The family is the hearth in which the most basic values of human and Christian living are focused, and from which they must radiate. Husband and wife are called to share their common love in a fruitful giving of self which has its first, but not its only object, in children. Their mutual support should sustain them in a call to shape a cell of civilized living "civilized" not in its modern sense, which has connotations of fashion and snobbism, but in the sense of all that which, through culture and grace, makes a person most human. The lifelong dedication of spouses to each other, and the sturdy acceptance of responsibility for how their children grow up, is the foundation on which all else can be built, creating the confidence which is a necessary condition for the successful transmission of values.

Familial Ethics

The basis of Catholic sexual ethics lies in the affirmation that certain values are part and parcel of human nature and should, accordingly, be fostered and developed. "Values" tell us what is more important than what, what takes precedence over what, and therefore, inevitably, what is to be sacrificed for the sake of what. All of this is to be found by exploring human nature what it is to be human. In accord with our nature, we have certain basic deep desires. We may hide them from ourselves, but if they are frustrated or contradicted, we will inevitably live in self-contradiction and be unhappy. Many things that look as if they will make us happy in the long run will not do so because they involve the frustration of deep natural desires. Our deepest sexual desires are only fulfilled in marriage, or as the Roman Declaration on Sexual Ethics of 1975 put it,

"sexuality meets the demands of its own finality in marriage."

Sexual activity is only humanly natural when it involves mutual self-giving, procreation, and the proper context of true love a socially directed compact of life-long reciprocal commitment by two people. Sexuality is not a merely animal function, and the sexual act is not a kind of compulsive discharge of no intrinsic moral significance. Sexual desire is a longing to be united with another person and tenderness (and so mutual consent) is the essence of its bond. Modesty and shame are essential to it, and the attempt to abolish its mystery by replacing these ideas with sexual hygiene also abolishes true desire. Moreover, human life is so great a good that the sexual act, which results in the coming to be of life, can never be treated cavalierly.

It is because homosexual activity lacks the full complementarity of the man-woman relationship, and also procreative openness to new life, that the Catholic Church cannot recognize it as a legitimate expression of the human sexual inclination. As the 1988 letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith observes, while the Church must be open to enlightenment from the human sciences, she must also remain confident that her own more "global vision," transcending that of the particular sciences, "does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person."

Empirical investigation of the causes of the homosexual condition has produced no generally accepted results. This is not surprising since, in fallen humanity, human sexual instinct is highly pliable; early erotic feeling is diffused and therefore potentially polymorphous. The idea of exclusive homosexuality is a modern one. In the ancient, medieval, or even early modern periods, same-sex liaisons were not thought of as something engaged in by a sexually distinct class of persons. Exclusive homosexuality, it would seem, was a social creation ("construct") of modern times. For ancient Israel by contrast with surrounding cultures all genital activity between persons of the same sex was considered a moral offense. As revealed by God to Israel, humankind's sexual nature is meant to have physical expression only within certain definite limits. This has to do with, first, the spousal or nuptial significance of the human body and, second, the complementarity of the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality in the divine plan. And, as Paul points out in the Letter to the Romans, when by idolatry human beings put the creation in place of the Creator it can be expected that they will also pervert the created order itself. Homo­sexual practices constitute in the "household code" laid down by the Apostle in First Corinthians one of the things that Christians are not to do, on pain of exclusion from the coming kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10). Paul maintains that the union of body and spirit is such that in intercourse the whole personality is committed, and the "one flesh" which two personalities thus become can only be that man/woman relation of the original creation of humankind where the two Adam and Eve became one flesh, one reality.

"To choose someone of the same sex for one's sexual activity is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goal, of the Creator's sexual design." [23]

Such an option is neither complementary nor life giving. While it recognizes that the abandonment of habitual homosexual activity may require a demanding collaboration of the person with God's liberating grace, the congregation also insists that to regard homosexual behavior as compulsive is unfounded and demeaning. Theologically, the ultimate origin of this condition is the Fall, which produced an inner dislocation among our human powers so that these different faculties tend to their proper objects only in an uncertain, unstable way. The capacity for companionable love, the love of friendship, which should be aimed indifferently at those of one's own and the opposite sex, can become mixed up with the desire for erotic love, whose rationale is the complementarity of male and female.

Contraceptive activity can also be seen in its true light as intrinsically unfitting to the human being, for the Creator so arranged the sexual act that it is simultaneously per se generative and per se expressive of intimate oblative love. He has so ordered things that procreation would take place from an act intimately expressive of conjugal love, and this act of conjugal love tend towards procreation. Unfortunately, a perverse and dehumanizing ideology of irresponsible sexual pleasure stands in the way of the reception of this ethics in Western or Western­influenced cultures today. The mastery of sensibility in the moment of adolescence, a mastery whose goal is a true love, alone gives young persons the chance within marriage to be able to regulate their fecundity and space the births of their children as they wish without falling victim to a contraceptive practice that substitutes technical control for the self-control which alone befits the virtue of parental responsibility.

The heart of the Church's objection to artificial contraception lies, then, in her insistence that the unitive (relational) and procreative aspects of marital intercourse should not be sundered. Contraceptive intercourse does not express an act of total self-giving, for it withholds from one's spouse one's fertility, with all that that entails. The yielding of this point in matters of family planning turns out to unravel the entire logic of the Christian sexual ethic. If sexual intercourse can be turned into something other than the reproductive type of act (for clearly, not every act of intercourse is reproductive, any more than every acorn becomes an oak), if sexual union can be deliberately and totally separated from fertility, then it becomes quite unclear why sexual union must be married union at all. The Church inherited from the Old Testament people of God a fundamental objection to what Augustine called "base ways of copulating for the avoidance of conception" for contraception excludes God from an arena designed by him as the special locus of his creative action. The earliest situation in which she explicitly reaffirmed the moral ethos of Israel appears to have been third-century Rome, where free-born Christian women, who had married slaves so as to have Christian husbands, used contraceptive methods so as to avoid bearing children who, in Roman law, would themselves be slaves. When, in the early twentieth century, Western society became increasingly contraceptive, but also gained a much fuller physiological understanding than the ancient or medieval worlds had enjoyed, Catholic married people came under great pressure "rationally to limit" their families. At first only cautiously, but later with more confidence, Catholic authorities recommended the identification and use of the "safe period"-where no question arises of a moral intention to prevent the coming to be of a new human life. Couples need not desire children in every act of intercourse, yet that does not license their abrogation of the natural ordination of the marriage act. This remains the basis of the "natural family planning" advocated in Catholicism and it is in process of rediscovery, from differing perspectives, by ecologism and "moderate" feminism alike.

Pre-marital intercourse is not necessarily a caricature of the procreative dimension of sexuality (as is homosexual intercourse) or its denial (as with contraception), for it may of course lead to parenthood. Instead, it gravely damages the oblative dimension. Though such intercourse may express a love the partners sincerely feel for each other at that particular time, they do not as yet share a community of life, to be sustained by the subordination of their individual desires. Hence the sexual exchange tends to become a mutual receiving and giving of pleasure, separated from the sacrificial context necessary to give authenticity to sexual love. Pre-marital intercourse in a subtle way generates selfishness, and so destabilizes in advance the marital union. Moreover, the couple loses the opportunity of limerence: the cementing of their union by the marriage act at a moment when it has most power to facilitate their mutual adjustment in married life.

Similarly, auto-eroticism reinforces an attitude of seeking immediate satisfaction rather than of self-giving. The practice of abstention, not from an irrational fear (of medical or psychological consequences that are no doubt largely non-existent) but as a freely willed preparation for marriage or for permanent celibacy, should promote a greater capacity for love. Characteristically accompanied by fantasy, sometimes of a bizarre kind, its origins are several (desire for sexual release, or boredom, but also, and worthy of greater concern, loneliness and self-hatred). It must be treated with compassion. Yet Christ was very clear in his condemnation of lustful desire which this certainly is.

Such practices belong with a culture where sex has been severed from spirituality and even from humanity. Pornography authorizes lust by freeing it from moral scruple. It delivers excitement from the obstructions of tenderness and enables interest in another body to be pursued without deflection by awareness of another soul. It is the perfect preparation for a sexual ambition which aims to disconnect soul and body, possessing the second without paying the price exacted by the first.

The feminist myth that the institution of the family, the division of sexual roles, and the ideals of modesty and chastity are all male inventions, designed to confine and thwart women, exacerbates this situation. These "confines" are in fact the bonds from which men have always sought to free themselves. Feminist ideology, as Professor Roger Scruton has pointed out, enables men's relations with women to be regulated by the laws of supply and demand, so that claims of power can replace those of allegiance.


The Church holds that every person has the potential for a knowledge of God so complete as to involve sharing the divine nature. Because of this, every life must be treated as precious. A given life may have little chance to obtain the things the world cares about, but it always has this far more profound potential. The conviction that governs the Church's ethical teaching in this area was well expressed in Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium vitae ("On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life").

Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognise in the natural law written in the heart the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm that right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded. [24]

Catholicism's teaching on a range of questions raised by this topic is conveniently summarized in Donum vitae, a document promulgated on the Pope's behalf by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1987, and confirmed in Evangelium vitae.

What respect is due to the embryo, given its nature and identity?

Donum vitae took its cue here from Gaudium et spes, where the fathers of the Second Vatican Council used the strongest language on this subject:

"All offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and wilful suicide . . . are criminal. They poison civilisation, and they debase the perpetrators even more than the victims. . . . Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes." [25]

The life sciences can support the notion that in the zygote the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted, but leaving that aside, it is at the very least a counsel of prudence to hold that the adventure of human life begins from fertilization. Since the embryo must be treated as a person (indeed, for divine revelation there was once a Redeemer in the womb), it must also be defended and cared for to the extent possible, in the same way as any other human being, so far as medical assistance is concerned. No objective, however noble, such as a foreseeable advantage for science or society, can ever justify experimentation on living human embryos, whether viable or not, inside or outside the mother's body. For the Catholic Church such practices of advanced medical technology form part of a "culture of death," where researchers choose arbitrarily whom they will permit to live, transgressing the foundational moral axiom according to which no human being may be reduced to the status of a mere instrument for the benefit of others.

Another concern is those techniques artificial procreation and fertilization aimed at obtaining a human conception in some other way than by the sexual union of man and woman. Though every human being is always to be accepted as a gift from God, the tradition of the Church and a sound anthropology alike find in stable marital union the only setting worthy of procreation. Every child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, and brought up, within marriage. Through a recognized relation with its own parents it discovers its proper identity, while for their part the parents find in their child the completion of their reciprocal self-giving. The deepest reason for this is that the procreation of a new person, whereby man and woman collaborate with God's creativity, must be the fruit and sign of their mutual love. As Donum vitae puts it, the child is the

"living image of their love, the permanent sign of their conjugal union, the living and indissoluble concrete expression of their fatherhood and motherhood."

In the light of these principles not only heterologous artificial procreation and surrogate motherhood (in both of which third parties are involved) but also homologous artificial fertilization appear as evidently misplaced. Though the desire to have a child of one's own and to obviate a sterility which cannot be overcome in any other way are in themselves thoroughly understandable and even praiseworthy aspirations, to introduce a rupture between genetic parenthood, gestational parenthood, and responsibility for upbringing can only threaten the unity and stability of family life at large.

Homologous artificial fertilization, since it involves no third party (save by way of medical help) is a distinct category. Yet it too brings the procreation of a child outside the act whereby the marriage covenant of its parents is renewed. As the means of seeking an offspring which is not the fruit of a specific act of conjugal union, it brings about a separation between the meanings of marriage analogous to that wrought by artificial contraception. Procreation is deprived, ethically, of its proper perfection when it is not desired as the result of that act, sexual intercourse, which is specific to the union of the spouses. A fertilization achieved outside that meeting in the flesh which is simultaneously the meeting of two souls is bereft of the meanings and values that the nuptial language of the body articulates. Such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo to the power of doctors and biologists, and, once again, establishes the dominion of technology over the origin and destiny of human beings.

The intrinsic evil of the abortion of the unborn is manifest from this discussion of the context of conception. It is for Catholicism a mystery of iniquity that

choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable. . . . Broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorisation by the State, so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health-care systems. . . . In this way the very nature of the medical profession is distorted and contradicted, and the dignity of those who practise it is degraded. [26]

No pope could speak otherwise than in these accents were he really to act in the name of the Savior who himself at the annunciation took flesh as a human embryo in the womb of Mary and, at the visitation, was heralded while still an embryo by his fetal cousin. His birth was attended by a slaughter of the innocents; there are now millions of such little ones to whom life has been denied because others felt threatened on their throne of self-love, as Herod did on his throne in Judaea.

Although few countries have introduced legislation permitting the deliberate termination of inconvenient life at its other end, in old age and advanced chronic sickness, the mindset analyzed by the Pope leads ineluctably in this direction also.

Euthanasia is the alleviation of suffering through the purposeful destruction of the life of the sufferer. Reflection on the nature of the human person generates the axiom that no one has the right to make another person's death the goal of his or her action; therefore, the institution of therapies designed to promote death earlier than would be otherwise expected cannot be countenanced. Like suicide (and "assisted suicide" is its most frequent form), it

"represents a rejection of God's absolute sovereignty over life and death, as proclaimed in the prayer of the ancient sage of Israel, 'You have power over life and death; you lead men down to the gates of Hades and back again.(Wisdom 16,13)." [27]

To be carefully distinguished from such so-called positive euthanasia there is also, however, what has been termed negative euthanasia: the shortening of a fatal disease through the planned withdrawal of life-prolonging treatment. This, for the Church, is not morally objectionable so long as it is simply a response to a new situation caused by the unusual progress of medicine. There is no obligation to keep a person alive indefinitely by means which the "reasonable man" would regard as more than ordinary, more than expected. But this does not extend to such absolutely minimum treatment as basic hydration, nutrition, and ventilation (except for the person actually dying where, commonly, keeping the mouth moist is the sole traditional nursing care deemed appropriate). Jura et bona, a 1980 declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on these issues, reiterates the point that persons in a "vegetative" state cannot be dead: their brain-stem is functioning. If the supplying of nutrition, hydration, and ventilation to such patients benefits them and causes neither undue burden of pain or suffering, nor an "excessive" expenditure of resources, then it is a duty.

Bioethics are not the whole of Catholic medical ethics. The two most important principles governing Catholic medical ethics at large are the principle of totality and the principle of integrity. A whole person is a multi-dimensional person and each dimension must be respected simultaneously. As a result there is both an imperative. to improve the integrated workings of a system where one part may be deficient or another part hypertrophied, and a recognition that the parts of an organism exist in, by, and for the existence of the whole and are therefore properly expendable for the good of that whole.

Relevant to the questions raised by medical practice vis-à-vis the use of drugs, surgery, sterilization, organ transplantation and sex­change, psychiatry, and medical experimentation, these principles reflect both the real existence of unifies and differentia in a creation based account of the cosmos, and the incarnational personalism of the gospel. However much it seeks a hearing and so common ground in the public, philosophical realm, Catholic ethics never loses touch with the wider revelatory (and so theological) vision that issues from Scripture and Tradition.

The Ethics of Labor

All the human activities which Catholic ethics evaluates require labor, whether intellectual or manual. The Genesis author who portrays God as a worker in his creative labor evidently intended to signal work's dignity and the possibility of treating working as an imitation of the Creator. The Church's Tradition treats humankind as called to sub­creation, continuing God's creative work. Though human art is the fabrication of formless material into formed, whereas divine art creates the material from which all objects and the acts which beget them take their origin, nonetheless divine artisanship can be the paradigm of human because it is concerned with the infusion of meaning into matter. For Basil, in the fourth century, the mark of the Creator can be discerned in the durability of the creative arts architecture and wood-working, metal-work and weaving-whereas the products of the practical and theoretical arts pass away more quickly. The world as a whole is a work of art through which the wisdom and power of the crafting Creator may be contemplated.

Insofar as everything that human beings do can have skill applied to it, all human action can be called in a wider sense "art." In a maxim beloved of Eric Gill, every man is a special kind of artist. Our work flows from God's, and this dependency shows the limits of our dominion and the desirability of conforming that realm to the "laws of creation," work's ecological aspect. Our inheritance is not, however, directly from God alone; we also have a patrimony from the accumulated work of other people.

The second Adam, Jesus Christ, worked, and made reference to workers of many different kinds in his parables. His hidden life, on which I made some comment in chapter 4, speaks eloquently of the dignity of work, especially the manual work despised by classical culture.

It would be, however, unrealistic to deny a negative, destructive side to work. Work is toil, it can seem to destroy rather than recreate us, something well evoked in the language of Adam's "curse" after the Fall. There is a hard, mortificatory though possibly redemptive aspect to work.

We have a duty to work, but only those who need to do so in order to support themselves have a right to employment. Though involuntary unemployment is always bad, we cannot expect the state to guarantee employment in every case without simultaneously granting it the right to direct labor where it thinks fit, irrespective of talents or wishes something manifestly counter to social justice in its widest acceptation.

There is no normatively "correct" level of human technology or, indeed, science. Each culture can to a degree create for itself the view of the natural world it considers most suited to its needs. A society might, for instance, prefer a more custodial (rather than exploitative) attitude towards nature, and some science other than physics or biology as its preferred paradigm.

In Catholicism, the approach to technology will normally be human-, person-, or worker-centered. Emphasis will lie on the human purposes fulfilled or thwarted by particular technologies and their effects in human lives. Material life should sustain spiritual value: this is the message of the personalistic understanding of work at the heart of Pope John Paul II's encyclical on this subject, Laborem exercens. The subjective aspect of work, whereby we grow more fully into the image of God, is more fundamental than the objective, the economic gain to be enjoyed though the honesty, utility, and even beauty of good work well done has, irrespective of market valuation, a kind of objectivity that enriches subjects, both individually and socially.


In many contemporary societies, the Church has difficulty not only in commending her metaphysics and account of history (thanks to the secularization of pure reason) but also in encouraging the pursuit of the moral life in her terms (thanks to the secularization of practical reason). Once the notion of essential human purposes or functions disappears from morality, there seems to be no reason to treat moral judgments as factual statements; gradually, then, ethical argument becomes interminable because it is indeterminable. At the same time, the notion of moral judgments as reports on divine law also founders. And since mere imperatives as distinct from reports of what the law requires or commands cannot be judged true or false, the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack a clear answer. Furthermore, where virtues are seen as dependent for their justification on a proper authentication of certain rules and principles, when the latter are called into question so too are the former. It is the function of the canonized saints in Catholicism to draw our attention in the first place to the (as it were) canonical virtues, from which vantage point we can proceed to develop our understanding of the function and authority of rules. And there is, one supposes, normally no way to possess the virtues efficaciously except as part of a tradition in which we inherit both them and our understanding of them. The virtues belong to a city, a polis, and the virtues ordered by charity belong to the city of God. In the Church's tradition, the grasp of virtues found in the pagan city (the heroic literature of Greece, Plato, Aristotle) is married to the sensibility of Scripture (chiefly narrative in form) in order to create an understanding of the virtues as permitting us to live in, and respond to, history to live human life as a quest or a journey. Encouragement of the virtues does not of course exclude the identification of absolute norms of action. There are whole kinds of action that a virtuous person would do or refrain from doing. Finally, in the Christian perspective there is no evil that can exclude, ultimately, from the human good those who practice the virtues as defined by charity unless they willingly become evil's accomplice. The good entertained in biblical (and so ecclesial) eschatology shows us the virtues' final point.


16. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1-2.21.4.ad 3.

17. A. R. Jones and G. Thomas, Presenting Saunders Lewis (Cardiff, 1973) 34.

18. J: -B. Bossuet, "De 1'éminente dignité des pauvres dans 1'Eglise, " in Oeuvres choisies (Versailles, 1822) 6:15-16.

19. L. Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago and London, 1990) 30-31.

20. Augustine, On Christian Teaching 1.28.

21. Hrabanus Maurus, Dulcissimo fratri et reverendissimo abbati Grimoldo.

22. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 2211.

23. Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 7.

24. John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 2.

25. Gaudium et spes, 27.

26. John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 4.

27. Ibid., 66.

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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