At the core of the now-famous dubia submitted to Pope Francis by four cardinals is the question of moral absolutes. By “moral absolutes,” Catholicism doesn’t mean vague generalizations such as “don’t offend others” or even more specific claims like “don’t steal unnecessarily.” Instead the Church has something very particular in mind: that there are intrinsically evil acts which admit of no exception whatsoever.
Back in 1984, Saint John Paul II affirmed, “The whole tradition of the Church has lived and lives on the conviction” that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” An example of such an exceptionless norm is the direct killing of an innocent person. Even if an act of directly killing an innocent person might save an entire city from destruction, such an act remains intrinsically wrong. It can therefore never be freely chosen—period.
As the late pope’s words indicate, this understanding of moral absolutes has always been Catholicism’s position. It’s also earned the Church considerable criticism over the centuries, including from some Catholic theologians in more recent decades. Some consider this teaching to be impractical or idealistic. Others believe it is acceptable to, for example, directly kill innocent lives in some circumstances in order to attain apparently higher goals. But Catholicism’s insistence that certain acts may never be done has also been affirmed by other Christians, Jews, and even pagans. Socrates famously claimed, “It is better to suffer wrong than to do it.” Perhaps he understood something which some Catholics don’t.
So, putting aside the specific context surrounding the four cardinals’ dubia, why are moral absolutes so important? Why is Catholicism so insistent on this point?
Abandoning moral absolutes facilitates evil and irrationality
Christianity has never denied what might be called certain relativities in morality. One such relativity is that many moral principles apply variously. Take, for example, the commandment to honor our parents. The requirements of living out this positive commandment rightly vary with persons and circumstances. Some of the ways in which an eleven year-old child honors his living parents can’t help but be different to how an adult honors his aging or deceased parents. Note, however, that acknowledging this variability involves no denial or undermining of the objectivity, universality and absoluteness stressed by Catholic ethics.
By contrast, if we try to relativize those negative norms which forbid absolutely, the door opens quickly to barbarism. Suddenly it becomes conceivable that the choice to carpet-bomb cities full of noncombatants might be ok if it’s deemed likely to undermine the enemy’s will to fight. Maybe it’s occasionally fine to terminate a life of a person who you view as enduring unbearable suffering. Perhaps a government, in order to forestall an invasion by Nazi Germany and prevent a subsequently brutal occupation, might choose to hand over its Jewish minority to the SS and certain extermination.
Put another way, in the absence of negative moral absolutes, you are at least in principle open to doing evil in order to realize good. That means you are willing to freely choose to do evil.
The deeply irrational nature of all this is illustrated by the truth that the only alternative to a morality that stresses exceptionless norms is some form of consequentialism. According to this way of thinking, as no less than John Rawls once wrote, “the good is defined independently of the right, and then the right is defined as that which maximizes the good.” The difficulty is that this involves trying to determine good and evil by seeking to measure something which can’t be quantitatively measured: i.e., moral good and moral evil. Consequentialism can thus only lead to moral irrationality.
Without moral absolutes, conscience loses its foundations
A second problem with rejecting the negative moral absolutes is that it undercuts the integrity and coherence of something which Catholicism has especially emphasized: the idea of conscience.
Catholicism holds that there are two levels of conscience. The first is called synderesis. This encapsulates the notion that knowledge of unchanging truths about good and evil is written into our nature as rational beings. As Saint Paul says, all humans have a basic prior knowledge of the essential elements of moral truth (Rm 2:14-15). To obey conscience-as-synderesis is to adhere to moral truths knowable through natural reason, including the truth that certain acts are intrinsically evil.
The second level of conscience is what Aquinas called conscientia. This is Aquinas’s way of describing the act of applying the basic knowledge of synderesis to concrete situations. Conscientia thus involves individuals making practical judgments about what to do in light of synderesis. That’s why an erring conscientia doesn’t necessarily absolve me of guilt. The guilt may involve my suffocation over time of the voice of synderesis: of consistently deciding, for instance, that there may be circumstances when it’s acceptable to commit perjury.
Applying conscientia isn’t a simple exercise. Prudence is involved as we deduce on the basis of positive and negative principles how to act in different conditions. But the truly prudent person will always exclude from the range of possible choices any act which involves directly violating the negative moral absolutes. For, not to exclude such choices would be to (1) act unreasonably and (2) deny the moral truth found in our synderesis. It would also risk turning the discernment, to which Pope Francis often refers, into a process of rationalizing evil acts. In short, there is no prudent act which involves violating any of the negative moral absolutes. Noone can prudently discern that it’s permissible in some circumstances to engage in idolatry.
Moral absolutes protect and promote the good
But does God insist that we may never do certain things because he wants order for the sake of order? The answer is “No.” God also asks us never to do certain acts because He loves us and wants us to flourish.
In a time of emphasizing God’s mercy, we risk forgetting that God is also a Lawgiver. This was most clearly manifested in the Decalogue given to the people of Israel by Yahweh. The same Decalogue was explicitly and rather bluntly reaffirmed by Christ in his encounter with the rich young man (Mt. 19:16-19), especially the second tablet’s prohibitions (Mt 19:19), the observance of which Christ identified as a condition for eternal life. Paul states that the law which is fulfilled by Christian love is summarized in the Commandments, most particularly the negative commandments contained in the second tablet (Rm. 13:8-10). These negative commandments are, as Aquinas writes in his Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, always binding and in every situation (semper et ad semper).
But what’s noticeable about these negative commandments is how each of them protect certain fundamental goods in which we can choose to participate and thereby flourish precisely as human beings. The prohibition against directly killing the innocent, for instance, underscores the requirement to protect the good of human life. Likewise, the prohibition against bearing false witness highlights the good of truth-knowing and truth-telling.
To observe the negative commandments in each and every action is thus indispensable if we want to participate in such goods. The moral absolutes consequently function as signposts on what Christ describes as “a hard road that leads to life” (Mt. 7:14). In this sense, adhering to these absolutes is the first step towards true freedom, at least as that word is understood by Christians. Freedom, for the Christian, isn’t just or even foremost a question of negative liberty. Rather, it’s the living-out of the Christian life: the flourishing which we realize through living the virtues and achieving mastery over ourselves as children of God.
To reject or obscure the negative moral absolutes in the name of being pastoral, prudent, discerning, accompanying others etc., is thus to downplay or even deny the truth that everyone—rich, poor, man, woman, Jew, Gentile—is called to greatness by God. As one saint once wrote, “When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal” (VS 96).
Moral absolutes help disclose man’s ultimate horizon
There’s little question that adhering to the moral absolutes is demanding. For some, it’s even resulted in martyrdom. The last years of Thomas More’s life not only exemplify this, but also highlight further reasons why the moral absolutes are so significant for Christians.
It’s well-known that More tried to avoid publicly confronting Henry VIII’s policies after resigning the Lord Chancellorship in 1532. Yet, when asked to affirm the Oath to the Act of Succession on 12 April 1534, More declined to do so. He refused to specify the reason for his choice, beyond stating that swearing the Oath would violate his conscience. Nonetheless it’s clear that central to More’s refusal was his certain knowledge that he was being asked to affirm on oath something to be true which he believed to be false—an act that More, like all other Christians, understood as something which may never be done.
One reason we know this is that More emphasized this theme in writings composed while imprisoned in the Tower of London. In one note, More wrote: “Every act of perjury is (as it seems to me) a mortal sin without any exception whatsoever.” More’s act of conscientia thus involved being faithful to part of the synderesis written into reason itself and confirmed by Revelation: the moral absolute that it’s never permissible to lie on oath.
More’s refusal to violate this exceptionless norm and thus sin mortally only makes sense if he believed that such a choice would in fact separate him from God and endanger his salvation. To that extent, More’s refusal to lie on oath reflected his confidence that God’s offer of eternal life which he makes to all people includes respecting the moral absolutes proposed to us as part of God’s providential plan. More’s adherence to the moral absolutes in the face of pressures which most of us would find unbearable consequently testified to the trust which God asks us to have in him and his promise of oneness with him if we freely choose, as More wrote in his Tower cell, “to walk the narrow way that leadeth to life.”
Of course, every single one of us has departed from that way many times. All of us have violated one or more of the moral absolutes throughout our lives. The good news is that through a simple act of acknowledging our sins and resolving to go and sin no more, we can get up and continue walking on the path towards true freedom and true life.
Without the negative moral absolutes, however, we can have no sure knowledge of evil, when we have chosen it, and how it imperils our salvation. Considered in these terms, the moral absolutes are far from being a burden. Instead they are a tangible sign of God’s love for us. To forget that in the name of being merciful would be folly itself.