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Christian Ethics and the Human Person

Truth and Relativism
in Contemporary Moral Theology


Fr Peter Bristow

This book is now published by Gracewing

Father Peter Bristow has done a great service in his book Christian Ethics and the Human Person. Its overall purpose is to fill the need for a presentation of Catholic moral thought as renewed in the second half of the twentieth century by Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul's encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, and the personalistic theology and philosophy that form the basis of those great encyclicals. Bristow offers readers an accurate and comprehensive account of John Paul's moral thought. His is a most helpful volume. This work lucidly and attractively draws together the main elements in the renewal of Catholic ethics which has been taking place during the past thirty years. It provides an excellent guide to the field as well as a persuasive account and defence of a distinctive Catholic approach to morality.

978 085244 814 4 - 388 pages - £15.99

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Preface.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . ... 5
Foreword. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . ... 8
I Fundamental Principles of Ethics
1. Ethics after Vatican II:
Personalism and Renewal in an Age of Secularism ..19
2. The Fundamental Elements and the distinctiveness
of Rational Christian Ethics . . . .. . . . . .  .44
3. The Anthropological basis
of Ethics & Bio-Ethics . . . . . . . . . . . . . .74
4. Contemporary Personalism:The Subjectivity
and Self-determination of the Person . .. . . .. 102
5. Natural Law protects the Goods and
Rights of the Person . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129
6. Freedom, Autonomy and Truth . . . .  . . ... .156
II Controversy and Renewal
7. Moral Revisionism:
Proportionalism and the Fundamental Option. . . .182
8. Human Action and the Sources of Morality . . .208
III Biblical Ethics
9. The Biblical Foundations:
Law and Evangelical Grace . . . . . . . . . . . .224
10. The Pursuit of Virtue and the Sermon
on the Mount . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..248

IV Special Questions:
Gender, Contraception and the Renewal of Marriage
11. The Theology of the Body Discourses
on the Human Person in Genesis .. . . . . . .. . 272
12. Sexuality, Gender and Feminism . . . . . . . 294
13. Marriage and the Renewal of the Family . ... 313
14. Humanae Vitae:
A Test-Case for Christian Ethics . . . . . .  . .336
Conclusion: Morality and Evangelization .. . . . 362
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 373
Index .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 380

Fr Peter Bristow is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature and teaches Christian Ethics at the Maryvale Institute. He has a Doctorate in Theology from the University of Navarre. He is the author of The Moral Dignity of Man and of numerous articles on current topics in philosophy and morality.


The present work proposes to fulfil the contemporary need for an explanation of Catholic ethics as it has been renewed in the second half of the twentieth century by Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae and the theology which gave rise to it. It explains how this process consists in a return to the sources of Tradition and Scripture, as well as to the Thomistic-Aristotelian roots of natural law, freedom and reason, virtue ethics, happiness and the goods and final good of the person. At the same time renewal consists in taking account of the contemporary post-Enlightenment mentality with its concern for the human person, subjectivity, human rights, gender questions and freedom. This updating of moral theology has been essential to enable it to confront successfully today’s questions concerning moral autonomy, sexual ethics and bio-technology, etc.

In addition to those already mentioned it deals with basic ethical principles and concepts such as the nature of personhood, the question of moral absolutes, the principle of double effect, the link between act and experience, conscience, the relation of faith and reason, and that between freedom and truth, which are of perennial interest, but are also at the heart of contemporary ethical debate. It applies these principles particularly to issues of sexual ethics, such as cohabitation, contraception and gender matters, as well as to bio-ethical issues of human fertilization and genetic research. The purpose is to explain the reasons behind the moral positions the Catholic Church holds in the light of today’s developments.

A further purpose is to examine the vast ethical heritage left by Pope John Paul II whose aim was to present and explain ethics according to the needs of our time, and so it draws extensively on his personalism and considers his use of the phenomenological method. We have principally studied his contribution to the renewal of marriage and family life as it is found in Familiaris Consortio, the Theology of the Body discourses and the Letter to Families. These bring out clearly the sanctity of human life and, indeed, of the body as an integral part of the person which has crucial consequences for understanding Christian ethics. It was also necessary to consider his writings prior to being Pope. He trained as a moral philosopher and theologian. While there is published work on this part of his life, little has so far been done to show the link between this and the renewal of moral teaching during his pontificate. It is a vast subject, but the present work intends to make an initial contribution.

This updating, together with the contribution of major ethical writers such as Pinckaers, Grisez, MacIntyre and others, equips Catholic ethics for the debate brought about by the bio-scientific and sexual revolutions. It also enables it to respond at a philosophical and theological level to the moral revisionism and proportionalism which have drifted away from Christian moral tradition as it is authoritatively taught in Veritatis Splendor.

Catholics need to know at the present time how to draw on the riches of their own Tradition to be able to confront the new issues of the twenty-first century, and explain that Tradition in the language of today. The Church has been going through a period of renewal of moral theology since Vatican II, but the multiplicity of, sometimes, discordant voices has left aspects of its teaching obscure, thereby necessitating that the Magisterium attend to ‘sound doctrine’ (2 Tim 4:3) so that the renewal may proceed according to a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’.1

The explanation of Catholic moral principles and the reasoning behind them also requires an investigation into the origins of contemporary secularism and relativism in order to be able to put over a more adequate Christian response. The Christian theologian, like the scribe of the Kingdom, must bring new things and old out of his storehouse (cf. Mt 13:52). Theology consists in the affirming of basic principles, but also in an ever deepening growth in the understanding of God’s Word, using the tools of reason and philosophical analysis, in order to be able to throw new light on developing problems.

The Faith of the Church has often received systematic treatment in handy and reader-friendly volumes. They bring out the coherence and consistency of Catholic teaching and thought by giving us an understanding of a particular doctrine and enabling us to grasp it more deeply by seeing its relationship to the whole spectrum of the Faith. Something similar is timely for Christian ethics so that the faithful and those who seek to understand Christian morality can see its unity and the force of its rationale in the face of constant criticism from secularism.

We also need to be able to appreciate not only the relation and harmony of faith and reason, but also the indispensable connection between faith and ethics bearing in mind that ethics is lived doctrine. That is to say, faith requires a determinate behaviour of its adherents and the assurance that a moral stance and growth in a Christian way of life is indispensable to a strong faith especially at a time when relativism eats away at the tenets of Christian customs. This is particularly pertinent when many Catholics cease to practise their faith, often, at least initially, due to problems of a moral nature, whether intellectual or practical.

We wish to show that the moral teaching of Christianity has a compelling attractiveness which enables the human person to live and grow according to human dignity, become more of a person and contribute meaningfully to the common good and the well-being of his, or her, neighbour and society in general. However, to paraphrase what Chesterton said about Christianity as a whole, very often it has not been tried and found wanting, but in our own time it has not been learnt properly in the first place. We wish to counteract this void by contributing to a wider and deeper understanding of Christian ethics.

I have many debts to pay; in the first place to my parents and my many teachers in philosophy and theology who guided my steps and laid the foundations for my grasp of ethics. I wish to express my thanks to Fr Richard Stork, Colin Harte, Tom D’Andrea and Russell D’Arcy who read all or part of the manuscript and made comments. Also to Petroc Willey and the staff at Maryvale Institute who have always been supportive and encouraging in this work.


1. See Benedict XVI, Discourse to the Roman Curia, 22-XII-2005.


The history of Christian ethics during the first half-century following Vatican II has been characterized by development and renewal as well as by an unrelenting struggle with secularism and relativism. During this time the Church has endeavoured to engage more effectively with the world and communicate its message of salvation by shaping its presentation of Christian ethics to the needs of the times. This has involved retrieving sources from its own tradition that have been left in abeyance, as, for example, those which show the Evangelical Law and, especially, the virtues and the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount to be the fulfilment of the Old Law. It has also sought to put over moral theology in a more everyday and existential form, replacing the codified and manualistic practice of the earlier part of the last century with straightforward narrative writing, with a view to explaining its content rather than just proclaiming it, as law does. Greater attention has been given to the biblical basis of ethics, therefore, as well as to the philosophical underpinning of it and to a presentation more suited to contemporary language and experience.

The present work is not a study of personalism as such, but rather of Christian ethics in general with particular reference to the progress and problems of the last half-century. Hence the term ‘personalism’ is being used here to refer partly to the movement of that name but mainly to cover the truth and nature of the human person as it is communicated to us in Christian tradition as well as in Vatican II, especially Gaudium et Spes, and the pontificate of John Paul II. The recent Magisterium’s abundant teaching on the subject reflects the modern age’s concentration on anthropology and the Church’s desire to carry out a new evangelization by dialoguing with the men and women of our times. Without an accurate anthropology, Christian teaching would not be able to deal adequately with the issues of sexual ethics, gender, marriage, homosexuality as well as the bio-ethical matters which have taken on so much importance in our time. In a word, Christian anthropology, which has always been an essential part of ethics, has become increasingly indispensable and has itself had to keep pace with new ethical questions, hence John Paul II’s discourses on the theology of the body.

Our purpose is to treat of the main topics of Christian ethics and also ask why it often finds such infertile ground for its teaching in the West. Much of the general answer revolves around the issue of freedom, which for many stands alone as the value constituting their end and purpose and is conceived as a moral autonomy, giving them the right to define ‘the meaning and mysteries of life’ in a pragmatic way. The Church, however, counters that genuine freedom and moral conscience are guided by an objective truth and reason which rescue it from pure subjectivism. Hence, conscience needs to be formed, and informed, and to seek knowledge and counsel in order not to become detached from truth and reality. In the absence of such conditions, freedom tends to shape its own truth and the consequent many voices of subjective truth result in relativism.

The resolution of the confusion and disagreement over basic moral values depends on a right understanding of the goods of the person and also that freedom and behaviour should not become separated from the search for truth. This, in turn, raises the question of who, and what, man is, and of how he thinks of himself, that is, it requires a true anthropology which successfully identifies the unique dignity of each individual. The latter is expressed by the Christian tradition and also by the modern personalistic understanding of the human being which maintains that man must be treated as an end in himself and never as a mere means to an end, which the widely held utilitarian concept of the person allows. Not to treat a person for his or her own sake goes against the nature of personhood. A person is a rational thinking being able to formulate his own projects and aims and possessing the freedom to put them into practice. Human dignity places a person above abstract human nature and, in a certain sense, above the state and society which have a duty to uphold his fundamental rights which are sovereign. This is not to say that the individual does not also reciprocally have obligations to society in turn. Indeed, the very nature of society demands that the individual’s objectives be good and in accordance with his dignity and that they do not threaten the rule of law and the peace and stability of the collective whole. In pursuing the roots of this dignity, whose consequences are so crucial, we will delve back into Christian tradition, as well as ponder the modern personalistic approach, which considers man’s consciousness and experience of himself and of his freedom, and the goods and values that fulfil him or her.

John Paul II was aware that the patristic and medieval tradition concerning the person comes to us by way of the terminology of ‘substance’ and ‘suppositum’ which are words that have either changed their meaning in contemporary language or gone out of use. He, therefore, proposes a new definition of a person, as “an incarnate spirit, that is a soul that expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit.1 And he goes on to illuminate the truth expressed by the metaphysical concept of ‘substance’ in a complementary way from our own experience and consciousness. Because a person is self-governing and selfdetermining, he must be affirmed for his own sake and therefore the person is unique and inviolable, and so are his basic goods which must not be transgressed. Here, then, is the basis for the natural law and those fundamental goods which cannot be overturned.

The response of the Magisterium, especially that of John Paul II, to the confusion and fall-out over Humanae Vitae, and its explanation of marriage and sexuality more generally, is not really comprehensible without an understanding of the subjectivity and internal life of the person. When people speak of the encyclical and indeed Gaudium et Spes as taking a more ‘personalistic’ approach to marriage and conjugal life, this is what they mean. Matters such as love, self-giving, emotion, desire, etc., can only be fully grasped by looking at the human subject and his own awareness of his internal life. Thus, it is necessary to consider the human being subjectively as well as objectively, since the whole truth about man includes both dimensions. The full explanation of the ethics of marriage and sexuality in these two documents is to be found in the discourses on the Theology of the Body which take the teaching of anthropology and subjectivity much further. We have therefore found it necessary to look at this anthropology both here and in the earlier writings of Karol Wojtyla in some detail and depth, to appreciate its bearing on the understanding of Christian sexual ethics in particular, but also more widely on the Church’s moral teaching as a whole.

The Theology of the Body discourses offer an analysis of many fundamental questions stretching beyond contraception to the notion of sexuality and gender, marriage and spousal love, understood from a biblical and theological viewpoint. This is the first systematic attempt at a teaching of the theological meaning and purpose of the body which confirms it to be an integral part of the person and therefore also of the ‘image of God’. It provides a foundation for a renewed understanding of the sanctity of human life and also of the human body. Naturally, it has many implications for the way the body is treated in sexual and bioethics, and specifically in the latter case, by requiring that it never be manipulated and used as a means to an end, even for supposed medical benefits, if it means harming and destroying embryonic human life. Given the topicality and importance of stem-cell research for the future progress of medicine it provides guidelines to distinguish between ethical and non-ethical practice in this area.

These discourses, therefore, express very pointedly the ways in which John Paul II brought a new dimension to ethics in conveying his teaching on subjectivity and thus the experience and consciousness of the person. For him action should never be separated from our consciousness and awareness of it. In this way he stresses that we are intimately involved in ethical decisions and behaviour and, therefore, morality should not be treated merely as a theoretical and formal subject, but as a practical and existential one, as Aristotle had already seen. He gives us an ethics of the first person and not just an abstract presentation of it from the third person point of view. He points out how the account of creation in the second chapter of Genesis is written from the point of view of Adam’s subjectivity. In this respect, it goes further than a document like Humanae Vitae which is predominantly based on the deduction of conclusions from principles without the same emphasis on the existential and experiential aspect of morality, or the way we live and experience it, even though it made a start in this direction. Wojtyla’s treatment of human love and married life in Love and Responsibility already fitted more into the latter category.

History testifies that difficulties and challenges for faith and morals are often the occasion for development in the understanding of them. In this regard, we cannot but notice how Pope John Paul’s efforts to deal with the Humanae Vitae crisis and the threat to family life posed by widespread divorce and cohabitation have led to the deeper understanding of the aforesaid theology of the body, sexuality and marriage, and also insights beyond this into ecclesiology. Not only is the body, the Pope teaches, a sign of the person and an integral part of the personal dignity, but the ‘one flesh’ union of male and female also sheds light on the Great Mystery of Christ’s, the Bridegroom’s, love for us the Church, His Bride. He shows how we are not just talking about a linguistic metaphor, but of a life-giving force of grace which spouses and all of us share in, a point which must be borne in mind when people talk about the ‘impossibility’ of Christian morality in today’s world. It goes without saying, of course, that the analogy also works the other way and that the union of Christ and the Church also sheds abundant light on the nature of marriage.

The encyclical Humanae Vitae provided a focal point for defining Christian ethics on marriage and sexuality, but also is often seen as a watershed, because of the dissent it produced within the Church and the consequent system of moral revisionism which opposed Catholic tradition on natural law. It should be remembered that while the discovery of the oral contraceptive was a prime cause of the so-called sexual revolution, it is not, of course, the only one and the phenomenon was due to a number of causes. Some ten years earlier, two events occurred in England; namely the Wolfenden Report on the de-penalization of homosexuality between consenting adults in private and the judicial declaration that the D.H. Lawrence novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was not obscene, ushered in a more permissive era regarding sexual customs. The ambiguous slogan, “a free society is a civilized society”, was often used both to characterize and give impetus to the process. The late sixties were also the time when a resurgent and more radical feminism, known as ‘Women’s Lib’ came to the fore, bringing gender into education and social life and generating new ethical questions which bore witness to a more militant secular ethics confronting many Christian principles. These developments, together with the bio-technological revolution, have defined the current ethical questions and have, in turn, influenced the choice of the principles and issues treated in the present work.

At the same time, Catholic ethics has also been refining the presentation of its own tradition regarding the natural law, freedom and the sources of morality, helped along by revisionist objections and the deficiencies of secular ethical theories. Natural law needed to be freed both from ‘physicalistic’ and ‘biologistic’ interpretations of it and, at the same time, from allegations that these represented the Church’s teaching and tradition. The requirement, then, was for it to be accurately presented as based on reason in the light of a correct notion of the human person in his or her entirety, rather than simply on an abstract human nature. Freedom has suffered since the thirteenth century from a ‘voluntaristic’ current of interpretation which gives precedence to the will and separates it too much from reason and hence truth. This view departs from the classic definition of freedom by Peter Lombard as ‘the power of reason and the power of will2 which is followed by Aquinas and the Thomistic tradition. Voluntarism has a clear link with legalism and relativism and also revisionism within the Church.

Crucial to the debate over relativism and dissent is a correct analysis of the moral act. Consequentialism, in particular, and much of secular ethics in general, leave out the moral object and reduce morality to the intention of the person doing it and, in addition, by concentrating on the results of the action, tend to convert the human action into a depersonalised event. Hence the moral, or proximate object, of the act, needs to be fully understood and cannot be identified with the physical or natural object of an action. All of this work of restating fundamental ethical principles in the light of dissent and secularism was the work of Veritatis Splendor, where topics such as the natural law, freedom and the moral object were treated in an expanded and explanatory way to a far greater extent than hitherto by the Magisterium.

Given the impoverished and deficient level of moral analysis generated by proportionalist and consequentialist accounts, it is necessary to retrieve the full understanding of the moral act from Catholic tradition. This involves establishing the moral identity of the act and distinguishing it from the physical or natural identity, because the same physical action may have a different moral identity depending on other factors, as for example, the intention and circumstances surrounding taking, or donating, an organ for transplant. This paves the way for understanding the moral object. Though it may be a more pedestrian part of our narrative it is also decisive. Only thus are we able to apply natural law principles to the individual act and establish which actions are always wrong or intrinsically evil, because they transgress a moral absolute. Most secular ethical theories are unable to explain, or uphold, any actions to be wrong on all occasions. Indeed, we may go further and say that theories such as proportionalism and consequentialism are not strictly speaking moral theories at all since they describe a state of affairs rather than a relationship between the rational will and a good or evil object wherein morality resides. This relationship, in turn, affects the person for good or ill.

Renewal in Christian doctrine consists above all in faithfulness to apostolic teaching as well as the incorporation of new insights in continuity with the Tradition together with the effort to communicate it in a way which is comprehensible to the mentality of the times. In contrast to this, a so-called renewal which creates a break with the past and introduces novelties would not constitute genuine teaching and this type of dissent has been one of the trends in moral theology over the recent past. Frequently, dissent represents a compromise with the relativism and consensus morality of modern society and is based on inadequate philosophical premises, especially concerning the person, rationality and freedom, which is why an emphasis is needed on rational ethics. Side by side with this and partly in answer to it, genuine renewal and growth has been taking place in Christian ethics.

The renewal of ethical principles also contributes to the civilization of society as the Church’s teaching has always done. A witness to this is its teaching on the dignity of the human person, the equal value of every human life, the right of freedom and other basic human rights, the value of marriage and the family both for the stability of society and for the protection of the fundamental rights of children to be born and brought up in the love of their parents and the warmth of the family home. It also furnishes us with an ethical response to the developments of bio-science and bio-technology by insisting on the inviolability of human life and the human person for there to be genuine developments in embryology, stem-cell and genetic research. This means in practice that such procedures are only moral if they benefit the individual human being, not simply mankind, because this could lead to individuals being used as a means an end. Similarly, Pope John Paul II was able to articulate Christian principles for matters of the present time such as gender issues, peace, justice and terrorism. With the end of the pontificate it is now possible to make a first appraisal of his ethical teaching which is such an integral part of the new evangelization.

The contribution of John Paul II is outstanding for its convincing response to modern relativism, based on his incisive account of human action and the resulting principle many times repeated that freedom cannot be separated from truth. This, in turn, depends on other perceptions, such as, that the full truth of the human act cannot be separated from experience by which the person is conscious of his own causality and responsibility. While the path of moral growth is known by reason, the practice of it belongs to the will and the right use of freedom, since the person empowers himself to act as the principal cause of his action and he is, therefore, responsible and accountable for it. Wojtyla in this way saw how behaviour and human action set up a relationship between freedom and truth. This was so, because a person’s actions could not contribute to his fulfilment unless they went hand in hand with the truth of his personhood and the observance of a set of objective moral values, since it is by moral values alone that overall personal growth occurs. Without behaviour being based on a truthful judgement, freedom itself is diminished and the person is in danger of enslavement of one kind or another. For Wojtyla the person has a moral duty to attend to his own growth and fulfilment as a person and the root of this duty is his liberty.

John Paul II was an historic figure who foresaw the changes in presentation that were necessary in the Church’s unchanging deposit of faith and morals to communicate it more successfully to the modern world. Personalism was only one plank of renewal. He was aware of the complexities and intricacies of dialoguing with contemporary thought while faithfully renewing Catholic tradition. He had to deal with a false and over hasty attempt at renewal, which we have called moral revisionism, and also known as ‘proportionalism’, which allied itself with a secular form of thought called consequentialism which was inadequate for expressing Catholic moral tradition. Consequently, at the same time as updating moral theology John Paul II had to pay attention to sound doctrine. Renewal had to go hand in hand with presenting a firmer basis for, and explanation of, the foundations of Catholic moral tradition. Any renewal had to be a hermeneutic of continuity with the past, that is to say, a reading of moral theology which was a homogenous and faithful development of tradition. Moral revisionism was a hermeneutic of discontinuity and represented a rupture with past doctrine. Newman, writing in the Apologia, said of the recently defined dogma of the Immaculate Conception that “it is a simple fact to say, that Catholics have not come to believe it because it is defined, but it was defined because they believed it”.3 In this he expresses the essence of Catholic development, that it is a deeper presentation of the original deposit.

In a passage of Faith and Reason, John Paul II summarizes the task of moral theology which serves as a very good outline of the following pages:

Throughout the Encyclical (Veritatis Splendor) I under-scored clearly the fundamental role of truth in the moral field. In the case of the more pressing ethical problems, this truth demands of moral theology a careful enquiry rooted unambiguously in the word of God. In order to fulfil its mission, moral theology must turn to a philosophical ethics which looks to the truth of the good, to an ethics which is neither subjectivist nor utilitarian. Such an ethics implies and presupposes philosophical anthropology and a metaphysics of the good. Drawing on this organic vision, linked necessarily to Christian holiness and to the practice of the human and supernatural virtues, moral theology will be able to tackle the various problems in its competence, such as peace, social justice, the family, the defence of life and the natural environment, in a more appropriate and effective way. 4


1. Familiaris Consortio, n. 11; and Veritatis Splendor, n. 50.

2. “Liberum vero arbitrium est facultas rationis et voluntatis, qua bonum eligitur gratia assistente, vel malum eadem desistente” (Lombard, Sent. II, dist. 24, c. 3).

3. Cardinal John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita sua, J.M. Dent & Son, Everyman’s
Library, 1955, p. 228.

4. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, n. 98.

Fr Bristow's Personal Motivation.

I believe John Paul II's 'rapprochment' with the modern world and modern thought, and his discourses on the theology of the body to be historically of great significance. I can identify also very closely with his desire to explain and expound Christian ethics more deeply to our times. There is novelty too here because hitherto very often ethics tended to be promulgated rather than explained. I would therefore like to contribute to this process.

During my pastoral work in the 70' and 80's I found many of the ordinary faithful expressing aspects of moral revisionism, initially relating to
Humanae Vitae but it gradually came to influence the whole field of Christian ethics. I therefore set out to discover the roots of revisionism and proportionalism and answer the case they make. This is found throughout the book but especially in chapter 7.

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This version: 8th November 2010

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