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Chapter One: The Insufficiency of Today's Morality

Today, Christian morality is challenged in various ways, but especially by the twin forces of permissiveness and the anti-life mentality. The permissive attitude summarily sets aside fundamental norms and values which in the past have been almost universally accepted, including the inviolable value of human life itself. This mentality has been growing for decades and has its roots much further back, but things have come to something of a head with permissive trends being enshrined in legislative systems, supported by State benefits, furthered by the mass media and, in general, becoming part of the ethos of our western society.

The moral debate about human life issues covers a host of matters—both old ones known to our ancestors, such as contraception, sterilization, abortion and euthanasia, and wholly new ones resulting from the scientific progress of recent decades, such as in vitro fertilization, embryo research, genetic therapy and engineering, and the related field of eugenics. All are agreed that moral guidelines are necessary—that we should not necessarily do all that technology permits, nor should science alone dictate the norms in matters so intimately concerned with human life. However, the fragmentary and conflictive nature of the ethical response underlines the present state of morals and does not augur well for the interests of man himself.

The consequence is that the family unit, and hence the social and moral fabric of society, as well as weak and innocent life, whether of the unborn, the handicapped or the aged, are under grave threat. It is, indeed, a paradox that a society which has developed a reputation for defending fundamental human rights should in a subtle way overthrow the rights of some of its weakest members. Behind this lies a utilitarian philosophy which calculates that some lives will be useful and others won't, some will be capable of reaching a minimum level of happiness and others not, etc. And where permissivism is concerned, it is prepared to use the human body as an instrument of pleasure rather than as a means of self-giving and commitment to a spouse and family. The permissive preoccupation with pleasure and the satisfaction of desires has led, among other things, to alcohol and drug abuse and addiction which afflict an increasing number of the West's population, especially young people.

There are a number of factors at work here. A dominant one is the wave of permissive legislation that has spread through western countries in recent decades. Spearheading this, in Britain, was the legalization of abortion in 1967 and the introduction of no-fault divorce two years later, making the termination of marriage a much easier and quicker process. In the period since then, legal backing has been given for the distribution of contraceptives to girls under 16 years old without their parents' consent and (in 1990) for research and experimentation on human embryos. It is argued that personal morality is not primarily a matter for the law and that, where possible, the two should be kept apart. It was further contended, at the time, that such legislation was simply permitting, in an ordered fashion, what was already happening and was thereby protecting the lives of mothers who attempted back-street abortions or assisting marriages that had already broken down. But, in fact, the numbers of abortions and divorces have multiplied many times over since the laws were enacted; promiscuity has increased enormously among the young, leading to the now widespread phenomenon of living together; and homosexuality has actually been promoted in some places.

The argument that the State has no business enforcing personal morality fails to take account of the fact that the law has a pedagogical value, especially for the man in the street who is guided in his morality by it. Furthermore, man is weak and needs the support of his peers and society to live up to his moral ideals. Besides, the State is responsible for the 'common good' of society and must, therefore, provide the sum total of means available to help people to fulfil their all-round well-being, which includes their moral good. This means upholding by law all basic human values and rights. While there is a distinction between law and morality, there is also a connection, in that law must be guided by morality.

Behind the exaggerated separation of these two realities there is a deeper reason, namely, the lack of a common or shared morality. A society is only as good as its members. The conventional wisdom tells us that each member of society must be allowed to pursue the behaviour and activity he thinks best, without restriction on his freedom from civil law and provided his activity does not inhibit the freedom and rights of others. There is, however, here no notion of a moral truth to which all human behaviour is subject; hence, ethics becomes totally relative. The result is that it is very difficult in the atmosphere of the times to say that anything is absolutely good or bad. Goodness simply becomes relative to your choices and impossible to define.

G.E. Moore called it 'a non-natural indefinable quality'.' It has to be assessed and re-assessed according to changing circumstances. The true good of the human person is thus obscured.


The rationale of permissivism and anti-life practices has only become possible as a result of a moral tradition that is antithetical to Christian ethics. This is why it is necessary to understand some of the background and assumptions of that thinking. The secular liberal tradition does not admit that there is a universal morality for all mankind, or a common end; instead, there is a variety of overlapping moral values based on choice. That is to say, according to this view no system is capable of giving objective moral truth. While some liberals say that such a thing is not possible, others maintain that one system complements another and together they contribute to the building up of moral truth.

The most influential moral philosophies within secular liberalism which characterize our age are 'autonomous morality' and utilitarianism. The former is a typical product of the Enlightenment which was originally intended to be an ethic that depended on reason alone and not on authority or Revelation. In Kant—one of its main exponents—it also meant a reason considered independently of empirical experience and thus universally applicable to all mankind. But it came to mean reason independent of an external moral law; and so, instead of reflecting this law, reason becomes the creator of it. Morals, rather than being what the law dictates to each one, become what each one dictates to himself. The result is that ethics become subjective and relative and unable to furnish man with any absolute and universal norms. Perhaps here we can see the origin of the fact that today duties and rights are frequently decided autonomously by the individual and yield such gratuitous statements and claims as 'a woman has a right to choose'; 'my body is my own to do with as I wish', 'homosexual rights' and so on.

Utilitarianism is the doctrine which identifies good and bad actions by the degree of benefit or harm accruing from them, whether for individuals. groups or society in general. Since it is also hedonist, by 'benefit' it understands happiness or pleasure and even material pleasure, although this latter point is disputed in the different versions of it. Nevertheless, it can be said that the name derives from the usefulness of actions to produce pleasure and avoid pain, and thus maximize the happiness of human beings, following the famous dictum of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. There are many difficulties with the theory of utilitarianism, even for its adherents, which I shall refer to later on, but its influence on private and public morality m this century is indisputable.

The manner in which situation ethics and utilitarianism form the background to our time is well brought out by the Warnock Report's characterization of morality: 'Moral questions, such as those with which we have been concerned here are, by definition, questions not only that involve a calculation of consequences, but also strong sentiments with regard to the nature of the proposed activities themselves.' By 'calculation of consequences' is meant a calculation of benefits over harm which is a development of the utilitarian principle. 'Strong sentiments' on the other hand, refers to emotive arguments and subjective feelings about moral questions. On these premises there can be no absolute moral laws, such as, for instance, 'It is always wrong to take innocent human life' or 'It is always wrong to commit adultery,' such as Christianity has always defended.

This view has also supplanted one of the longest held and most sacrosanct traditions within the medical field, namely, the Hippocratic Oath. The 1948 Declaration of Geneva demanded of doctors the following commitment: 'I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception'; in October 1983 the Assembly of the World Medical Association changed the Declaration to read: 'I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of commencement' (my italics). It has been argued that 'precisely when and where life begins is an open question, because embryos are not only being aborted, they are also being grown in vitro...' This revision is a clear indication of a fundamental shifting of the moral ground.

In specific statistical terms, permissive morality and anti-life policies have given us the following situation. In England, illegitimate births now account for a quarter of all children born, and 18% of all conceptions are terminated by abortion. While 10% of all marriages end in divorce, today there are 43% as many divorces as there are marriages contracted in any one year. One consequence of this is that a quarter of all children live with one parent only at some time before they are sixteen. In the United States this figure has reached 50%. Some children are conceived in vitro in a laboratory, and there is legal backing in England for experimentation on human embryos up to 14 days followed by mandatory destruction if they are not inserted into the womb.

It goes without saying that all of this is contrary to the Christian and natural law concepts of the sanctity and dignity of each human life, the fundamental equality of each individual, the sanctity of family life and the inviolability of the matrimonial bond. While it is true that society cannot change unless the individual changes, it is not just a matter of individual morality but of social morality as well, and a matter for serious reflection on the part of the community of mankind.

And yet, from another angle, nobody who seriously considers these matters really wants to do away altogether with absolute moral principles, because it is certainly not in the interests of man to do so. Who doesn't want to say that the extermination of the Jews and the handicapped in the Nazi concentration camps was absolutely evil? Who doesn't want to say the same about child abuse? And yet for those who subscribe to a relativist morality or situation ethics this cannot be said on their premises—which points to a contradiction at the very heart of their position.

Furthermore, both permissive ethics and the anti-life mentality rest on a false notion of man and his true purpose and happiness. So, for example, permissivism is based on a partial, and therefore incorrect, concept of human freedom. It tends to regard freedom as the unrestricted exercise of one's self-interest and the satisfaction of one's desires limited only by the proviso that it doesn't infringe the same freedom in others. This derives from old-fashioned liberalism with its 'live and let live' mentality, and the ever-present utilitarianism which sees man's good in terms of what is most pleasurable. It is thus a recipe for licence rather than true liberty and tends to lead to further enslavement as is shown, for example, by the unrestricted use of drugs or alcohol or sexuality.

The Catholic Church, however, points out that freedom is subject to the full truth about man and an important part of that is that 'man fulfils himself by a sincere gift of himself' (Gaudium et spes, 24). Consequently, when he conceives his life in terms of service to others and realises the altruistic nature of his vocation, he is closer to true freedom. It may be noted here that the massively influential Freudian theory of the libido, which insists on sexual gratification if repression is to be avoided, assumes an understanding of man that is more or less the opposite of the Christian one. The restrictions of the moral law facilitate rather than limit his freedom, liberating him from his own selfishness. Hence, true liberty is in many ways opposed to the satisfaction of one's own desires and to the pursuit of self-interest.


During most of this century, a quiet revolution has been taking place centered on the question of human life and man's control over it. The inherited philosophies of autonomous morality and utilitarianism have been translated into the practical politics and pressure groups of the twentieth century and have given society a concern for what is called the quality of life at the expense of the sanctity of life. The original motivation of the family planning campaign was to liberate the lower classes of society from oppression and squalor, but this had changed by the sixties to a concern for a worthwhile and useful life for all. There are different reasons behind the contraceptive and anti-life arguments. Some want to increase the so-called quality of life' by raising the standard of living and eliminating handicap and inherited disease as far as possible; others dwell on population fears; while still others want to promote women's right to choose. In all of them we can detect a tendency to treat man for his 'usefulness' rather than according to his intrinsic value.

The predominance of quality-of-life arguments and their hold over the population has not come about altogether by accident. They .have been skilfully advanced in Britain by bodies such as the Eugenics Society (founded 1913), the Family Planning Association (previously the Birth Control Association, founded 1920), and the Abortion Law Reform Association (founded 1935). Their overwhelming success, however, has come mainly since the sixties with the legislation that has put many of their objectives on the statute book. The above-mentioned bodies have achieved their aims, by skilful use of the media and moulding public opinion, by feeding on the philosophical vacuum inherited from the last century, by an incoherent anthropology and, above all, perhaps by the 'medicalization' of their campaign.

The eugenic preoccupation with the health and well-being, not only of the individual, but also of the race and society, is a feature of this century. Eugenics played a predominant part in the early birth control campaign, only to be discredited in the popular mind by the Nazi experiments in pursuit of the super-race. Nevertheless, the Eugenics Society in Great Britain never ceased to exist, and the emphasis was switched from positive to negative eugenics, that is to say, to the elimination of genetic handicap, abnormality and disease. Social considerations have entered into the notion of health, as is demonstrated by the World Health Organization's definition of it as 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being'. The proponents of the abortion law in Britain insisted, successfully, that it be allowed not simply for therapeutic but also for social reasons. The majority of abortions have always been done on these latter grounds, giving us, in practice, a de facto situation of abortion on demand. Such is the reverence which the conventional wisdom reserves for the quality of life, and the scant regard in which it holds its sanctity and inviolability, that foetal screening is routinely used for the detection of abnormality, and selective abortion is recommended should abnormality be found, as it is also sometimes at the initiation of in vitro fertilization. Apart from ideological reasons, this is often due to the gynaecologist's fear of legal action against him should a pregnancy not reach normal term and the cost-benefit justification of technological intervention. It is also reported that abortions are carried out for such minor conditions as cleft palate, which can be treated by performing a fairly routine operation on the child while it is still in the womb.

The advance of medicine and people's belief in its effectiveness to alleviate suffering and improve the quality of our life has given rise to what has been called the 'medicalization' of life. Margaret Sanger, the first birth control campaigner in America, had already realized that winning over doctors to her side would give respectability and plausibility to what was a controversial matter. An important element in the achievement of the family planning campaign goals, therefore, has been the medicalization of their case. Hence, its proponents succeeded in arguing that contraception was a health need, and as early as 1966 the Ministry of Health in Britain was saying that family planning education was 'a most important part of health education'. The campaigners gradually brought round to their viewpoint the representative bodies, such as the British Medical Association, the General Medical Council and the Royal Colleges, which were anti-birth control until well into the century. By 1969, the Family Planning Association had trained 90% of general practitioners in contraceptive techniques, which they were soon to be paid to put into practice.

There is a clear link between the campaign for family planning and permissive morality. The trend in the 1960s moved away from linking contraception with the downtrodden and hard-worked wife to winning over young couples in order to 'protect future generations'. Sex education in schools was seen as vital, and family planning and the quality of life were at the heart of it. By 1973 the subjects of population, sex education and environmental studies were increasingly being included in the syllabus of schools and adult education centres. Hence, today's children are taught about parenthood as human biology and reproductive science in a wholly amoral way without taking account of the full spiritual reality of man, the natural law, or the fidelity and commitment of married life. When sexuality is disconnected from the responsibility of personal love within a life-long commitment of marriage, the door is open to widespread permissiveness, because it empties sexuality both of its finality and its sacred character. What is more, by putting sex education in the hands of schools and the State, it takes it away from the parents and family to whom it properly belongs.

It is by such means that the autonomous morality and utilitarianism of a past age have turned into the permissiveness and anti-life mentality of our own time. What could be more indicative of autonomous morality than the notion of an 'unwanted pregnancy'! And one of the founders of utilitarianism, J. S. Mill, in his essay On Liberty in 1859, wrote that 'to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing, unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being.' The Church's tradition of natural law morality mixes with these relativist ethical traditions like oil and water. The all-pervasiveness of the latter also makes the comprehension of the former even more difficult to grasp.

Those who have carried out the quality-of-life revolution believe that it has widened personal freedom and individual choice. Their critics point out that it eliminates the freedom of the unborn, the handicapped and, increasingly, the aged, to the most fundamental of all rights, that of life. It is true that the standard of living and the quality of life of the majority of men and women have increased immeasurably in comparison with previous centuries, but what is an advance for some is a sentence of death for others; and this is unacceptable. It has rightly been called 'social Darwinism'—a type of civil survival of the fittest.

The Church is in no way against increasing the quality of our life or scientific progress, as long as these are in conformity with moral norms and man's dignity. But it defies logic to turn quality of life and technological advance into moral principles, branding those who oppose them reactionary and unenlightened. The Church does not put forward absolute, immutable moral values simply because they are traditional but because they correspond to the unchangeable truth about man and his true interests. When screening and selective abortion become so widespread, and with such things as sex-determination of infants and cloning the embryo to produce twins not far away, if there are no moral restrictions and guidelines, it is only a short step to babies made to order. When babies are seen as artefacts, they will inevitably be routinely eliminated if they don't measure up to expectations.

Such a situation was conceivable in the early part of the century only in the intellectual imagination of the devotees of a 'Brave New World'. Even the early birth control campaigners were against sterilization and abortion. And yet we can see in the birth control movement and the contraceptive mentality the parent principle of most, if not all, of the anti-life practices we now experience. In response the Church maintains that the right to life, the procreative finality of sexuality, and the inviolability of the marriage bond are unchangeable values. In doing so, she upholds the dignity of man and his true quality of life.


The question then arises as to what chance there is of a return to an agreed morality, at least as regards fundamental values and basic principles and rights. There are two ways of working towards this; one is by the right use of reason and reflection, and the other, which is complementary to it, is by a renewed faith and acceptance of Christianity. With regard to the first, the source of morality is the human person, his or her dignity and acts. When we reflect on man and his needs, a series of basic values which must be always and everywhere affirmed becomes self-evident to all of us. These values include life, truth, friendship, rationality etc., and from them can be deduced the various precepts of the moral law. The working out of this natural law will be discussed in chapter three.

With regard to the second, Catholic morality is taught by Revelation and the Magisterium of the Church. This is necessary, not because it is inaccessible to reason, but because of the fallibility and scepticism of the human mind. In the present state of fallen nature, man can grasp the essentials of morality but not the whole of it. Consequently, Christian Revelation and Church guidance ensure that morals are grasped in their entirety and with certainty. Equally, they can only be fully practised by means of grace. Revelation is not opposed to reason; it simply goes beyond it and complements it. As Newman says, 'the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biassed by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.'

The Enlightenment concept of an 'autonomous morality' goes a long way to explaining the modern conventional and secularized ethics. The writers of that period endeavoured to base morals on reason alone, that is, on reason emancipated from the shackles (as they saw it) of Revelation, theology and indeed previous tradition in general. Nevertheless, such an enterprise is doomed to failure, both theoretically and practically, because it takes insufficient account of reason's innate tendency to fallibility and scepticism; thus, in endeavouring to exalt reason, it in fact diminishes it. Far from destroying it, Revelation confirms and protects reason. Consequently, the 'emancipated reason' not only fails to grasp the norms of the natural law, but it also misunderstands the flawed nature of man himself, which is the underlying cause of all moral deviations.

The mistake of those who pursue autonomous morality is to put subjective certainty in the place of the natural moral law or, even in its extreme form, in the place of God himself. As a consequence, they demote reason and condemn it to error because it is being made the arbiter instead of an instrument of truth. In other words, in the effort to upgrade reason they actually debase it. In this scenario, the end of man becomes those ends which reason fabricates, such as freedom, pleasure, utility, duty etc. From here derives the fact that today, for many, there are no such things as permanent, absolute or objective values which go beyond personal opinions; such people want to reserve the right to move the goal-posts on each occasion and judge morality by attending only to the particular circumstances of each occurrence.

What happens when freedom loses its essential link with the truth and ignores the evidence for a universal and objective law is well brought out by Evangelium vitae, 20:

If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact tends to make his interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people's analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual. In this way any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everybody is lost, and social life ventures on the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining—even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

The Church, in contrast to secular thinking, teaches a morality based on the unity of mankind: 'All men are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God's image; they have the same nature and origin and being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling and destiny; there is here a basic equality between all men and it must be given greater recognition' (Gaudium et spes, 29). Or again: 'All men in fact, are destined to the very same end, namely God himself, since they have been created in the likeness of God...' (ibid., 24). Speaking in the context of the savagery of nuclear war and terrorism, Vatican II says: 'the Council wishes to remind men that the natural law of peoples and its universal principles still retain their binding force. The conscience of mankind firmly and ever more emphatically proclaims these principles' (ibid., 79).

The Commandments of the Judaeo-Christian tradition are held by Christians to be universally applicable to all men and as incorporating absolute norms and values. Hence, they are predicated upon the essential unity of all men and are not simply given to a determinate people at a particular time, but are for all time. Christ said that he came to fulfil the law and not abolish it. As Vatican II says, 'there is a growing awareness of the sublime dignity of the human person, who stands above all things and whose rights and duties are universal and inviolable' (Gaudium et spes, 26). It thus re-affirms such absolute values as truthfulness, the sanctity of life and fidelity in marriage, as against the claims of permissiveness and the anti-life mentality, declaring that lying, killing and adultery, for example, are always wrong.

The natural moral law is therefore accessible to reason, albeit not without some mistakes and gaps, and can thus be supported by rational argument. It is based on an understanding of the human good, which in turn depends on 'the full truth about man' (Humanae vitae, 7). Referring to the morality of the transmission of life Gaudium et spes, 51, says that 'objective criteria must be used, criteria drawn from the human person and human action'. Hence, man and his actions are the subject matter of morals. But morals is not just about man as he is; it is more about what he should become; and therefore the truth about man includes his destiny, or end. However, if reason is considered to be so weak that it cannot know the essential nature of man and his purpose, then it will be unable to discover the universal principles of morals. As Maclntyre says, morals is about man as he is striving to be what he ought to be according to his telos, or end. He has rightly shown that history teaches us that morals requires three things—an understanding of man as he is in his present state, an appreciation of him as he should be if he fulfils his end and destiny, and a set of moral precepts to show him how to get there. These latter are furnished by the natural law which, in its basic precepts, is self-evident to human reason.

The observance of the moral law, though primarily for the glory of God, is also in the interests of man. This is why it is proposed by the Church to all men and is an important way in which the Church serves the world: 'Hence the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfil it' (Gaudium et spes, 35). There need be no clash, then, between man's interests and laws and God's law, anymore than there is between faith and reason, because they both proceed from the same source.

If, on the other hand, man insists on stepping outside the natural law, even partially, to make of himself what he pleases, which is the de facto programme of autonomous morality, then, as C. S. Lewis has shown, this leads 'to the power of some men to make other men what they please'. And the same writer warned five decades ago that if advancing technology were not subject to an objective morality, especially in regard to contraception and eugenics etc., far from leading to man's dominion over nature, it would result in his subjection to it, because he, and the future of mankind, would be at the mercy of the irrational impulses of a few.

Thus today, fifty years later, the Pope, writing of the contemporary situation in Evangelium vitae, bears out the accuracy of this insight. He says:

the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people— even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the 'right' ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the 'common home' where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of its weakest and most defenceless members. from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part.

Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000

Version: 26th December 2004

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