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The Moral Dignity of Man




1 The Insufficiency of Today's Morality 15
2 The Dignity and Purpose of the Human Person 28
3 The Natural Law and Human Rights 40
4 The Light and Truth of Conscience 57
5 The Roots of Permissiveness: Some Previous Views of Ethics 71


6 The Sacramentality of Marriage, the Family and Society 85
7 Humanae vitae and the Contraceptive Mentality 101
8 Uses and Abuses of Human Sexuality and Marriage 113


9 Abortion 131

10 Duties to Bodily Life, and Genetic Engineering 144
11 Euthanasia, the Treatment of Pain and Drug Abuse 156
12 Human Life and the New Reproductive Technology 167
13 The Drama of Moral Decisions: Cooperation in Evil 179


14 Man and the Environment: The Moral Basis of Ecology 193

Preface to the Second Edition

Since this book was first published, two encyclicals, Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae, which cover similar ground, have come out. The first, dealing with the general principles of morals based on the dignity of man, runs parallel to my early chapters; the second has to do with specific matters relating to the rights and duties of life and other questions of medical ethics. Without changing the basic text or structure of the book in any way, I have incorporated relevant references and quotations from these documents and indeed also from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Veritatis splendor is concerned with the separation between freedom and truth, that is, the truth about the dignity of man, his freedom and rights, natural law, conscience etc. Evangelium vitae continues that theme, dealing at some length with the way in which freedom, as understood in western consumer societies, tramples upon fundamental human rights and specifically the right to life of the weakest and most vulnerable, such as the unborn, the handicapped, the terminally ill and the elderly. A State which fails to guarantee equality of rights to all groups cannot be called democratic even if laws, such as those on abortion and embryo research, are passed and favoured by- a majority of the citizens. In this sense, we are witnessing nothing less than the struggle of a 'culture of death' against a 'culture of life', and the Pope emphasizes that Christians are obliged to be 'people of life and for life'.

Not only have actions against life ceased to be a crime, but now they are being claimed as 'rights' to be supported by laws of the State. But no majority vote can justify a law which contradicts the eternal laws and the basic rights of some of its members. The fact, furthermore, that some citizens may request euthanasia, for example, lends no justification to it. They are stewards of a life that belongs in its fullness to God, who alone, therefore, has ultimate authority over it. Were the State to give euthanasia legal recognition, it would be lending its authority to a situation of suicide-murder.

The underlying reason for all these developments is the ethical relativism which permeates western culture. Where absolute principles and values are lacking, the rights and laws of society become bargaining points between different parties based largely on self-interest. In such a situation, it is obvious that the interests of the strong and powerful will prevail against those of the weak and innocent. It is to this state of affairs that the Church wishes to draw attention and feels obliged to make her voice heard.

The reasons all this has come about are to be found in the materialism and hedonism of modern consumer society, past false ideologies about man and freedom etc. and present-day pressure groups which strive to implement them. This book, as well as addressing similar topics to the encyclicals, also deals with the background and influences which have led to the present situation.


The Second Vatican Council described its purpose very appropriately when it said 'beneath all that changes there is much that is unchanging, much that has its ultimate foundation in Christ . . . that is why the Council proposes to speak to all men in order to unfold the mystery that is man and cooperate in tackling the main problems facing the world today' (Gaudium et spes, I). I, likewise, have sought here to apply the immutable principles of Catholic morality to our evolving times and particularly to the family and sexual matters, on the one hand, and to questions of medical practice on the other. But it was not possible to deal adequately with these issues without first establishing the general principles of moral theology and ethics, which are, in any ease, at the eye of the contemporary storm. Hence, consideration has been given initially to the meaning of the human person and his or her rights on which morals turn, to the natural law and conscience, and to a brief historical account of the 'permissive' background to our own times.

A Christian's moral life is not lived in isolation but in the midst of society, so there will always be significant areas where he or she must confront the predominant secular fashions, or conventional morality, in order to spread light and to be a leaven. It is quite insufficient to accept the social moral ethos wholly uncritically. Morals is, above all, about the personal responsibility and accountability for actions which come from a person's grasp of the basic notions of good and evil and the consequences they entail. But, given the sketchiness of this knowledge, this responsibility cannot be properly discharged without adequate and constant formation in which the role of the Church is paramount.

The Church is the guardian and authentic interpreter of the Faith and of a natural morality which is based upon a full understanding of the human person and finds its confirmation in Holy Scripture. Vatican II reiterates the Church's responsibility in the following terms: 'It is her duty to proclaim and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time, to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order which spring from human nature itself' (Dignitatis humanae, 14). The unique dignity of the human being takes its origin from the fact that he, or she, is the 'image of God' and is called to the happiness of eternal life. As a being, furthermore, equipped with rationality and freedom, the human person is a subject of rights and duties from which flow the norms and values of the moral order. The latter mark out the path to the fulfilment and perfection of the human vocation. But, equally, all violations of the dignity of the human person are an offence, not only against the individual, but against the Creator himself. This is particularly true of all violations of the fundamental right of man, that is, the right to life itself, and, with it, the right to bodily integrity.

Again the Council speaks as follows: 'Special care should be given to the perfecting of moral theology. Its scientific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of Holy Scripture and should throw light upon the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world' (Optatum totius, 16). The Bible speaks to us eloquently, not only about the vocation of the individual, but also about what we may call his or her family vocation, underlining how the sacrament of marriage and family life are central to the vocation of the majority of men and women. Right from the beginning, male and female were destined to live not alone, but in a communion of persons, and the family which thus resulted was, by divine design, to form the first and most basic cell of society. This reality was raised by Christ to the sacramental level and was given the august ideal of mirroring the love and union of Christ with his Church and the communion of Persons which is the Trinity itself.

The renewal of man's moral dignity, therefore, is closely related to the renewal of family life and to a greater awareness of its human and divine origins, in the face of considerable pressure to the contrary. The family is the 'domestic church' and parents are the first educators of the moral life of their children, so it is there that the seeds of virtue are first sown and nourished. As the Pope has written (Familiaris consortio, 3), the Church is aware that 'the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family'. It is for this reason that a right understanding of human sexuality, marriage and family life (so crucial to mankind at the present moment) is the principal focus of this book, together with questions concerning human life and bodily integrity.

Secular and liberal humanism, which pays little or no attention to man's transcendent vocation to eternal life and tends to make moral norms and values relative, has been confronting the Church, in one shape or form, since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Not until this century did it begin to spread to the masses of the people, as a result of wider access to education etc., and thus present a real threat to Christian values. This problem was solved by some after Vatican II by bringing secular morality into the Church herself, uncritically, rather than by endeavouring to lead the world to genuinely Christian principles.

One of the consequences of this attitude of easy compromise is that the fullness of Catholic moral teaching has frequently not been imparted; ignorance is rife among younger generations and confusion widespread among their elders. The Christian moral ethos has been seriously undermined, and very often its principles have become, at best, a matter of debate. Pope John Paul II's response to this predicament is to explain Christian teaching with greater depth and vigour so that it can be appreciated anew and become an important part of his policy of re-christianization. Christianity is centered on the Resurrection, and the Church herself rises from each crisis newly enriched. Her members have always understood the need to be well equipped to defend the truth entrusted to her against hostile currents, but it must be admitted that, in the past, apologetics has been associated primarily with defending the Faith and only secondarily with morals. Today, the rational defence of the latter, though always dependent on faith, is of the utmost importance.

The challenge facing the Church and society should not be underestimated. During this century, certain ideologies of social engineering and conditioning—originally promoted by a few writers and propagandists— have gradually come to be accepted by a majority of the population. A particular attitude to human sexuality has, and is, being used as a means of social control, through abortion and contraceptive practice, as well as in vitro fertilization and embryo research. Some results of this are the destabilizing of the nuclear family, extensive permissive behaviour and the threat of genetic manipulation which already exists in the form of selective abortion.

The social revolution has been accompanied by a technological one in matters to do with human life. The discovery of DNA in 1953 has opened up our knowledge of human genetics and led to the diagnosis of certain hereditary diseases and the development of genetic therapy to treat them. The technique of in vitro fertilization, first carried out in 1978, and the activities associated with it, such as the cloning of embryos, surrogate motherhood, and the sex determination of the child, are matters requiring moral judgement. Moreover, the Human Genome Project (a coordinated world-wide enterprise to trace all the genes of the human cell and study their bearing on human personality) has enormous moral implications.

However, the principal purpose of Christian moral teaching is not simply the apologetic one of defending it against secular currents. Morality is concerned with giving guidance and Presenting an ideal to imperfect human the behaviour of man in his present state, striving to be what he ought to beings. It may be described generically as the norms and values governing according to his true end in God. Consequently, it is intimately tied to a proper understanding of the human person and his unique dignity. John Paul II has written: 'To rediscover and make others rediscover the inviolable dignity of every human person is an essential task, in a certain sense, the central and unifying task, of the service which the Church, and the lay faithful in her, are called to render to the human family' (Christifideles laici, 37). It is concerned, above all today, with threats to the human person and human life itself, and the domination of human life by advancing technology. Christian teaching seeks to harness the latter in such a way that it be for the good of man and not for his doom. But the Church's teaching is also about man attaining his true end and happiness in the blessedness of Heaven. Morality Properly lived should lead to contentment and fulfilment in this life, but can only reach its full realization in the next one.

Our standpoint, then, is the Christian one that a normative science cannot be developed Without a teleological understanding of the human being and his or her actions. Take sexuality itself, which is based on the masculinity and femininity of the human being: these characteristics are not accidental but pertain to the nature of the human person and will endure after the resurrection of the body. Then, the earthly purpose of sexuality, that is, procreation will have ceased, but the male/female sexual difference will remain and Will be a feature of the human being's praise and glory of God. Consequently, a consideration of the purpose of human sexuality tells us that it is not something to be used at will. It should be employed according to its true finality in conformity with the dignity of the human person; and as with sexuality, so with human behaviour as a whole.

The temporal and eternal consequences of man's behaviour, Whether of human virtue or wickedness, are amply described both in the Old and New Testaments Shortly before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses spoke to them for the last time, reminding them of the Commandments and observances of the Law. He said: 'See, I set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord. . . , then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to take possession of it... ; therefore choose life' (Deut 30:15-16, 19). St Paul went on to echo the same idea when he wrote to the Romans: 'there will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek' (Rom 2:9-11).

This book arose as a response to the challenge issued by Pope John Paul II in his homily at Wembley, London, in 1982 when, after referring to the decline in fundamental moral values, he concluded: 'Underlying all this there is often a false concept of man and his unique dignity. . .'. These words can be taken together with others from Gaudium et spes, 41, which point out that 'the Church is entrusted with the task of opening up to man, the mystery of God who is the last end of man'. Getting morals right includes getting man himself right, and this is given a sure answer in Christ, who 'reveals man to himself' (Gaudium et spes, 22).

Much of the material had its origin in the author's talks and discussions with students in London, especially at Netherhall House, and also with the Catholic Doctors of Southwark on the prominent ethical issues of the 1980s. To all of them, a debt of gratitude is owed. Apart from medical ethics, there was the continuing task of explaining Humanae vitae in line with the Pope's appeal to theologians 'to illustrate ever more clearly the biblical foundations, the ethical grounds and the personalistic reasons behind this doctrines (Familiaris Consortio, 31).

Special thanks are due to the Revd Dr John Berry of the Linacre Centre, who read the whole manuscript and made many valuable suggestions. Gratitude also to the many who read parts of it and made their contributions The last chapter began as a paper at an environment conference and first appeared in print in Scepter Bulletin, London; I am grateful to the editor for permission to reprint it.

Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000

Version: 26th December 2004

HomePage Fr. Peter Bristow