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Chapter 5: Seeking Moral Truth: Moral Judgment and Problem Solving

Question D: How Can Problems about Norms and Their Application Be Solved?

Sometimes a person’s own contrary inclination or someone else’s suggestion leads the individual to question a moral norm he or she has in mind even though there is no reason to doubt its applicability or adequacy. In such cases, the person is being tempted to look for a way of evading a moral truth which is plain enough, and so he or she should choose according to the norm. On other occasions, though, no relevant norm is on hand, or an individual is unsure whether the seemingly relevant norm is applicable in this situation or is sufficiently specified in view of unusual circumstances. Then it is necessary to proceed step by step along the following lines.

1. In the Absence of a Norm, a Theological Consensus Should Be Followed

Relevant and definite norms proposed by the Church should be accepted; but when the Church’s teaching leaves something open and a person is looking for a norm consonant with faith to guide some choice, the consensus of theologians should be followed if there is one.21 Consensus here is used to mean general though not necessarily universal agreement. Of course, most people will need the help of someone with access to the literature of moral theology in order to discover whether such a consensus exists.

For example, Charles is considering donating a kidney to his brother, and there is no medical reason against his doing so. However, his wife, anxious about the risks involved, argues that for Charles to give up a kidney would be wrong—a bad means to a good end. The couple ask the hospital chaplain what the Church has taught on the matter. His reply: Nothing specific, but theologians who treat the question, including the more conservative ones, agree that kidney donation is not morally excluded in itself (see 8.G.1.e). Charles, however, also must consider whether it is fair for him, as a husband and father, to take the risks involved, particularly in view of his wife’s reluctance.

The reason for basing a judgment on theological consensus is not that theologians have any independent teaching authority in the Church.22 While one should believe popes and bishops, whether with an assent of faith or with religious assent, theologians should be looked to for information and enlightenment rather than believed.23 When the magisterium proposes no teaching on a moral question, however, and all or most of the faithful theologians who have examined it come to agreement about a norm, it is likely that they have discovered the truth as it appears in the light of faith.

2. One May Follow a Consensus in Applying and Specifying Norms

Sometimes, though in possession of a seemingly relevant norm, a person has reason to doubt its applicability or sufficient specificity (see CMP, 10.C). In such cases, too, a consensus can be helpful.

a) A consensus about a norm’s applicability may be followed. Sometimes it is clear that a moral norm is true but not that it applies to the case at hand. Knowing that it always is wrong to kill the innocent, for instance, someone might wonder whether that absolute norm excludes a certain operation on a pregnant woman which will lead to the death of the unborn. If there is a consensus of theologians about the norm’s application to the kind of case in question, that consensus may be followed. For example, there is a consensus that, when cancer of the uterus is life-threatening and less drastic treatment would be inappropriate, the removal of a pregnant woman’s cancerous uterus is a permissible, indirect abortion.24 So, whenever someone is in doubt about an operation which is clearly of that type, that consensus provides a solution.

b) A generally accepted, more specific norm may be followed. Sometimes the question is whether a norm is sufficiently specific. For instance, having made a promise, someone wonders whether it should be kept. Would it be right to make an exception here and now to the defeasible norm requiring promise keeping? In such cases, it may be possible to find a more specific norm, perhaps one often taken for granted but seldom stated or else stated in various ways. For example, one may find that promise keeping in certain kinds of commercial matters admits of exception, provided those who break their promises fairly indemnify those to whom the promises were made. Again, one may find that promise keeping among friends admits of exception whenever the party who breaks a promise is morally certain the other party will consider the reason for breaking it sufficient.

3. Finding No Consensus, One Should Go Back to Moral Principles

Sometimes a person may have a problem about applying a norm but find no consensus; or one may suspect that a norm requires further specification but find no generally accepted, more specific norm to follow; or someone may have a moral problem and simply know of no relevant norm. For example, when the possibility of in vitro fertilization was first described, there was no norm to guide choices in regard to it. In all of these cases, it is necessary to refer to moral principles, for there is no other way to settle questions about the application of norms, to further specify norms, and to formulate entirely new ones (see CMP, 10.B).

a) The first step: clarify the action whose morality is in doubt. In referring to principles in order to determine the application of a moral norm or formulate a norm which is more specific or entirely new, it first is necessary to clarify the possible course of action about which there is doubt. This requires answering two questions.

First, what impact will the action have on various instances of basic human goods, either promoting or harming them in oneself and/or others? Often, it is easy to see an action’s probable impact on instrumental goods, such as property, liberty, and natural resources. But it is necessary to look beyond these, to see what is at stake for those goods which are aspects of the being and flourishing of persons: life, truth, friendship, religion, and so on (see CMP, 5.D; 9.A.1.j, below).

Second, in making a choice, a proposal is adopted to do something for the sake of some benefit (see CMP, 9.C). Morally speaking, what is chosen is the means to the benefit, which is the end in view. To have an end in view in making a choice is to intend the benefit for whose sake the choice is made (see CMP, 9.D). Thus, in making any choice, one chooses precisely the content of the proposal adopted and intends precisely the anticipated benefit. But one also foresees effects other than the very carrying out of the choice and the benefits from doing so. These effects, foreseen but neither chosen nor intended, are side effects.

The difference between choosing a means, intending an end, and accepting side effects often is morally significant (see CMP, 9.F). Thus, the second question is: Which elements of the action’s impact are included precisely in what I will choose if I choose to do the action or in the benefits I will anticipate, and which are neither included in the means or the end, but rather are part of what I will accept as side effects?

b) Next: apply moral principles to the act. Once the instances of basic goods on which an action bears and the voluntariness with which it bears on them are clearly understood, the action has been grasped precisely insofar as it is a moral act. Knowing clearly what is to be evaluated, one now must evaluate it by applying moral principles: the modes of responsibility and Christian modes of response.

The modes of responsibility articulate various conditions under which it is inconsistent with upright will to choose and/or accept side effects (see CMP, 7.G and 8). The Christian modes of response make it clear how human fulfillment can be served within the limits of the modes of responsibility and in accord with faith, that is, in the fallen and redeemed world in which one lives (see CMP, 25.F and 26). Thus, if the kind of act under evaluation is not excluded by any mode of responsibility and can implement one or more of the Christian modes of response, the act is morally appropriate for a Christian.

4. Examples Clarify This Procedure and Its Steps

It will help to consider in detail examples in which recourse to principles is required to solve problems of each kind: application of a norm, further specification of a norm, and development of an entirely new norm.

a) An example of applying a norm. Someone who is uncertain whether a particular act would be an act of killing an innocent person must analyze the choice to see whether or not the death is intended as an end or chosen as a means. Assuming the death is not intended as an end—for example, sought out of hatred—if the choice is to do something other than kill, then the norm prohibiting killing the innocent does not apply. The operation to remove a fallopian tube which might rupture as the embryo lodged in it grows was analyzed in this way, and it was concluded that the death of the unborn need not be intended as an end or chosen as a means.25

Of course, it also must be asked whether it is fair to accept the death as a side effect. In the case at hand, that presents no problem, assuming the unborn surely will die if not removed (see 8.D.3.d). But in cases of ectopic abdominal pregnancy, both mother and child sometimes can survive, so that the question of fairness requires independent consideration.

b) An example of further specifying a norm. In examining a classic example of promise breaking, St. Thomas formulates a norm more specific than that one should keep one’s promise to return goods left in one’s keeping. What if the party asking for the return of the goods wants to use them in an unjust revolution? Under that condition, the promise should not be kept and the goods should not be returned.26

Thomas does not fully articulate the analysis underlying this norm, but it can be supplied easily. Property is subordinate to basic human goods, including just peace. Breaking promises usually is wrong because it is unjust: it has bad side effects for interpersonal harmony (and often for other goods), and a person usually cannot accept these side effects without being unfair. But the proposal not to return the goods would be chosen in order to impede the revolution and so to protect just peace—a good shared by all members of the society. Without unfairness, the bad side effects of breaking the promise can be accepted. And, impeding an unjust revolution can implement Christian modes of response such as faithfulness and conciliatoriness. From these considerations, the more specific norm follows.

c) An example of developing a new norm. As it is actually practiced, in vitro fertilization seems morally objectionable because semen is obtained by masturbation and unwanted embryonic individuals are disposed of. But even leaving aside these acts, which are incidental to in vitro fertilization, an accurate analysis of the act and application to it of moral principles lead to a norm which excludes it as always wrong.

What exactly is the act of in vitro fertilization? It is not an act of sexual intercourse open to new life but a technological act resulting, when successful, in the production of a new human individual. It precisely aims at supplying someone with a baby by bringing a possible baby into being, and the choice of in vitro fertilization precisely is to (try to) produce a baby by this procedure. So, to choose to bring about conception in this fashion inevitably is to will the baby’s initial status as a product.

How do moral principles apply to this act? Products as such are assigned their meaning and value by the human makers who produce them and the consumers who use them, and so the status of any product as such is subpersonal; therefore, the choice to produce a baby inevitably is a choice to enter into a relationship with the baby, affecting his or her very being, as with something subpersonal. This initial relationship, of those who choose to produce babies with the babies they produce, is inconsistent with, and so impedes, the communion which is appropriate in any relationship among persons touching on their basic goods.27

Of course, those who choose to produce a baby make that choice only insofar as it is a means to an ulterior end. They may well intend that the baby be received in an authentic child-parent relationship, in which he or she will live in the communion befitting those who share personal dignity. If realized, this intended end will be good for the baby as well as for the parents. But, even so, the choice to produce the baby is the choice of a bad means to a good end, because the baby’s initial status as a product is subpersonal. The significance of this status is most clear when the laboratory’s defective products are discarded and its surplus products used for lethal experiments.

5. People Can Solve Moral Problems by Referring to Principles

Can ordinary people solve moral problems by engaging in such analyses? Vatican II teaches:

It is a matter for lay persons’ well-formed consciences that the divine law be inscribed in the life of the earthly city. From priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Lay people should not, however, expect their pastors always to be such experts that to every problem which arises, however serious, they can readily provide a concrete solution or that this is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving attentive heed to the teaching authority of the Church [note omitted], let lay people take their own proper roles. (GS 43)28
Thus, the Council suggests that at least some people can carry through their own moral analyses, even in rather difficult matters. Many, of course, will need help.

21. “Consensus of theologians,” of course, refers to that general agreement among theologians which can reasonably be taken as an indication of moral truth. The opinions of those who dissent from norms which the Church teaches constantly and most firmly cannot reasonably be trusted. So such opinions neither can constitute nor count against a useful consensus of theologians. Hence, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, 39, AAS 82 (1990) 1568, OR, 2 July 1990, 4, warns against “making the excuse of a ‘consensus’ among theologians” in an attempt to justify opposition to the magisterium.

22. No doubt, all Catholics who are sufficiently mature can participate in the magisterium, for example, by catechizing others who are less mature. But their participation has authority only insofar as they think with “the Church”—that is, express an authentic sensus fidei, among whose essential elements is agreement with the Church’s pastoral leaders (see LG 12)—so that such participation never constitutes an independent magisterium. CIC, c. 812, requires that certain theologians have an official authorization to teach: “It is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.” Theologians having the mandate participate in the magisterium in a certain way, but their teaching authority plainly is delegated, and when their opinions are at odds with received Catholic teaching, they deserve no credence.

23. The norm against believing theologians is relevant with respect to their opinions at odds with the Church’s teaching: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Haec sacra congregatio, 2, AAS 68 (1976) 739, Flannery, 2:454–55, speaking of sterilization: “The congregation reaffirms this traditional Catholic teaching. It is aware that many theologians dissent from it, but it denies that this fact as such has any doctrinal significance, as though it were a theological source which the faithful might invoke, forsaking the authentic magisterium for the private opinions of theologians who dissent from it (LG 25).”

24. See John Connery, S.J., Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1977), 294–300.

25. While the classical moralists’ analysis of so-called direct killing and that used in the present work agree with regard to removal of a fallopian tube which might rupture, they diverge on other cases: see 8.B.1.d–f and 8.D.3.d.

26. See S.t., 1–2, q. 94, a. 4; cf. 2–2, q. 57, a. 2, ad 1; q. 120, a. 1. This solution sometimes is misunderstood as if Thomas had said that universal moral norms are subject to situational exceptions to be determined by some sort of intuition. However, his argument presupposes that the question is one of fairness (naturalis aequalitas) and proceeds by specifying a condition under which returning the goods on deposit would be “irrational.” Moreover, Thomas does not treat prudence as an intuitive faculty which operates independently of propositional principles but as a disposition which enables a person easily and accurately to draw appropriate conclusions from such principles: see S.t., 2–2, q. 47, a. 6.

27. Thus, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day, 2.5, AAS 80 (1988) 93, OR, 16 Mar. 1987, 6, states with respect to in vitro fertilization using an ovum and sperm of a wife and husband: “Such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children.”

28. This conciliar teaching often is misinterpreted to suggest that the formulation of new specific moral norms may proceed independently of the Church’s teaching authority and might reach conclusions at odds with it. This interpretation not only conflicts with GS 43 itself, but with the teaching of John Paul II, Address to Members of the Lay Apostolate (Liège), 10, Inseg. 8.1 (1985) 1546, OR, 15 July 1985, 9: “In fact, you are asked to form good Christian judgment, spiritual and pastoral discernment. As it applies itself to the complex realities of the world, this judgment presupposes respect for the laws specific to every discipline and true competence. But at the same time it presupposes that you are familiar with the Gospel, that you are guided by the spirit of the Church, subject to its Magisterium, that you have assimilated well the social doctrine of the Church, that you are moved by Christian charity, that you nourish your apostolic vigour with prayer and the sacraments (cf. AA 7).”