This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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4.5. Morality

General remarks

The social doctrine of the Church presupposes its moral foundations. For this reason, although it is possible to discuss social doctrine without making mention of the moral philosophy which acts as its substructure, it is good practice not to pass over it in silence. This is, first of all, because there are aspects of the moral teachings of the Church which are foreign even to many Catholics; and, second, because even those to whom the teachings are familiar will find a review helpful in light of the present study.

Natural Law–Which law? What nature?

Whenever someone mentions “natural law” there is an immediate confusion that usually arises due to the contemporary understanding of the word “nature.” In modern usage we associate the terms “nature” and “natural” with the “natural world,” which is to say, the universal laws of physics and biology and all of the mechanisms that take place on this level. We don’t attribute to the word “nature” anything specifically human. It is taken as a context for all life rather than as a distinctive characteristic of a given being.

But when the Church speaks of “nature,” and especially when it speaks of natural law, it is speaking very differently. This is because natural law teaches that every being has its own “nature,” and that this imbedded nature also corresponds to an imbedded “natural law” which tends the being toward the perfection of its specific nature. It follows then that the “nature” in question will always be different depending on whether we are talking about a vegetable, an animal, or the human person. What is according to the “natural law” for one category of beings may not apply to another, because they have different natures. This is why the tendency to imagine “nature” as mere biological necessity applying to all material beings in the same way is a drastic oversimplification. Rather, when we are concerned with human behavior, we are concerned with man’s specific nature and, more importantly, his last end toward which this nature tends to move.

For example, we might say that sexual desire is “natural.” If we make the mistake of taking “natural law” to mean “biological necessity,” then we might end up drawing the conclusion that promiscuous sex is according to the natural law, since we see it all the time in animals and in fact this behavior is necessary to many of them. But we cannot transpose this principle onto a different nature—for example, onto human nature. Sexual desire is still in accordance with natural law for human nature, but only insofar as it reinforces the being’s development toward its ultimate perfection. While for certain animal natures this entails promiscuous sex, for man it does not. Sexual desire is therefore “natural” to man in a very different way than it is “natural” to animals, because man has different faculties and a different perfection which he must realize. He has a different nature and so the natural law does not direct him in the same way as it would direct a vegetable; likewise, the vegetable is directed very differently than a fish or a bird.

In order to gain a proper perspective on this subject, we must return to a more comprehensive notion of law capable of taking into account a hierarchy of orders and contexts, and which can deal with the diversity of life we find in the world. In traditional terminology, we must return to the three orders of law: eternal, natural, human.

Eternal law

Whenever we come upon a community of beings ruled by a sovereign who directs them toward their good, we come upon a law. If there are different kinds of these communities, they will be directed by a different kind of law. Now, the first and foremost of communities is the universe. The universe and every being within it are sustained in their very existence by the will of God and act in accordance with his rule. From this single rule, which is called eternal law, all other varieties of law are derived.[1]

[1] ST I-II, q. 91, a. 1; ST I-II, q. 93, aa. 1-6.

Natural law

In every created thing there is an inclination, impressed upon the very substance of the creature, drawing it toward certain ends. These ends are the mark of what the eternal law demands of that specific nature. It follows logically that this law will be different for each nature, depending on the end toward which the eternal law directs it. Man, for example, has divine beatitude for his end, whereas animals and vegetable life do not. And so, the inclinations of each will vary. When we obey this law which is “written on our natures,”[1] we obey the law of our nature—our natural law. Because this natural law is really just the eternal as it pertains to us as men, then it is true that when we obey it we are participating in the eternal law. This is why it is said that the natural law is derived from and never contradicts the eternal law.[2]

[1] ST I-II, q. 94, a. 6.

[2] ST I-II, q. 91, a. 2.

Human law

Why then, if there is a natural law written in the hearts of men, do we not find the same laws and customs in every society? Why, if all men possess the same nature and therefore the same natural law, does every society have different laws? The explanation for this lies in the third kind of law, which is called human law. The difference between natural law and human law is that natural law provides general precepts which are everywhere the same, while human law represents particular applications of these precepts. Because every nation and historical period differs and therefore has different needs, its applications of the precepts will be incredibly diverse, even though the precepts themselves will remain the same. This is a valid diversity so long as they accord with natural law and, through this, eternal law. It is only by ultimately deriving from the eternal law that any lower form of law has its validity:

“Human law is law only by virtue of its accordance with right reason; and thus it is manifest that it flows from the eternal law. And in so far as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such case it is no law at all, but rather a species of violence.”[1]

[1] ST I-II, q. 93, a. 3.

The precepts of the natural law

In order to understand why human law is diverse while natural law is said to be everywhere the same, we must remember that, much like how the Church offers principles rather than technical solutions, the natural law offers precepts rather than applications. And the first precept of the natural law is simply this: good is to be sought and evil avoided.[1]

Further precepts are dictated by man’s nature: he is a being, he is a living being, and he is a rational being. Corresponding to these three facts about man’s nature are three natural precepts: first, man must conserve his being, which we call the duty of “self-preservation”; further, he must reproduce himself, raise his children, etc.; and last, which is specific to man as a rational being, he is to actively seek what is good. It is only due to this last feature that man can be considered “responsible” for his decisions. Animals, being irrational and therefore unable to rationally seek conformity with the natural law, follow it automatically and without their conscious assent. Only man can consciously participate in, or revolt against, the natural law.

From these observations we can begin to see why human law is diverse. Although the precepts are everywhere the same, we should expect that, depending on time and place, people will find various means of fulfilling these precepts. Also, because some of these men will make better use of their rational faculties, the various human laws will be more or less in conformity to the natural law. All will not be equal, although all can be said to be striving after the same justice.

[1] ST I-II, q. 94, a. 2.

Not everything in nature is natural

One further confusion needs to be set aright, if only because it is so common. Consider the following statement: “Whatever exists, is found in nature, and is therefore natural.” This way of thinking—called “naturalism”—leads to the rejection of any morality whatsoever, because it rejects the possibility of anything being unnatural. But we must recall that the Church does not speak of “nature” simply in terms of “everything that exists.” Certainly the Church acknowledges the totality of creation as “nature,” but it considers it as a grand diversity and within the context of natural law, which takes into account the particular end toward which a being tends. Considered in this way, if an action or behavior conforms with its proper end (or its “perfection”),[1] then and only then is it natural. Thus, we can easily imagine acts which are in no way ordained to the proper end of the nature in question. For example, the sexual function and the pleasure associated with it are natural insofar as they conform to their obvious natural ends; they are unnatural when they do not. The deviant who seeks pleasure with himself alone short-circuits both the purpose of the sexual function and the pleasure associated with it. An analogous consideration can be found in the intellectual sphere: although human reasoning is performed by the “rational faculty,” no one would be naïve enough to claim that every decision produced by this faculty is therefore rational. Whether or not a decision is rational depends not on whether or not it is produced through the rational faculty, but whether or not it was produced in conformity with the laws proper to that sphere. It is entirely possible for the rational faculty to produce irrational conclusions. Returning now to the sphere of natural law, we must not lose our ability to distinguish the normal (“natural”) from the pathological (“unnatural”), simply because they both appear “in nature.”

[1] ST I-II, q. 94, a. 2.


CST has been described as the intersection between the Christian conscience and the real world.[1] This is an interesting way of speaking: it points out the truth that conscience is not determined wholly by worldly conditions, but at the same time that it ought to be connected to these conditions in some fashion. This connection, which forms the conscience with respect to real life conditions, is represented by CST. We are therefore justified in pausing to elaborate on the proper notion of the conscience, although this may appear at first to be an unnecessary digression.

[1] CSDC, 73.

What is a ‘good conscience’?

It has been a constant teaching of the Catholic Church that individuals are bound to obey the judgment of their conscience, and that to disobey this guide is to condemn oneself. Such a stance, however, is easily misconstrued, for it must be understood within the context of the entire Catholic truth about the conscience, its formation, and its exercise.

The degree to which the teaching has in fact been misconstrued is evident by the common phrase: “in good conscience.” When a person says this, they usually mean to imply that they acted in accordance with their conscience when they made the decision. Unfortunately, putting things this way is really to skip a step. Just because a person may act according to his or her conscience does not mean that the conscience was “good.” It simply means that they obeyed it. It is possible to have a “bad” conscience and to obey that.

What this means is that we have two things to consider when it comes to the conscience. First we must ensure that our conscience is healthy. That is to say we must take great care to have formed a “good conscience.” This will not just happen automatically. Second, and only after we have accomplished the first task, we must follow the judgement of the conscience. This is a very important point to emphasize, because it is conceivable that a situation could arise in which it is unwise to trust too easily one’s own conscience. A man given to drug addiction or habituated to pornography may very well engage in these activities “in good conscience,” meaning that his conscience is not disturbed by participating in them. Such is a case of a de-formed conscience, and such a man would do better to trust an upright neighbor. Too often, and no doubt under the influence of a certain humanistic naivety which assumes that the conscience is always good, we neglect the first step—the duty to “train” one’s conscience—and think only of the second. We end by obeying an ill-formed conscience, and in such cases where the deformation is due to our own laxity or negligence, we will rightly be held responsible for the error.

Conscience is not infallible

The error mentioned above, which causes us to follow the dictates of our conscience without also taking steps to ensure that our conscience is properly formed, is a recipe for disaster. It treats as infallible the inner light which, although naturally disposed toward the good, is not invincibly oriented toward it, and which can become atrophied, darkened, or distorted through personal neglect.

The problem with ‘primacy of conscience’

With the phrase “primacy of conscience,” we encounter the same problem we did when discussing prudence, and we have thought it wise to dwell on it for the same reason: because it is an error so common that it has become almost a popular slogan. We must consider an imaginary case. Let’s say a man’s conscience nudges him in a certain direction on the issue of abortion, which happens to be the opposite of what the Church teaches. If this is honestly the case, is it valid for him to go against the Church’s constant teaching on the matter, claiming ‘primacy of conscience?’ It depends: is his conscience well-formed? Has he taken the trouble to educate himself and to hear the arguments which underlie the Church’s position? If he has not, then it is possible he is not exercising his conscience at all, but is merely exercising his preference. Or, to say the same thing another way: one’s conscience is never formed in a vacuum, and because of this, and due to individual negligence, it may well be “misinformed,” or formed in the image of our own arbitrary desires.

The point is not to invalidate the concept of ‘primacy of conscience,’ which is one of the most noble teachings of the Catholic Tradition. But we must always keep in mind that the claim to “primacy of conscience” presupposes a constant effort to form one’s conscience, in the same way that the claim to “prudential judgment” presupposes the constant development of prudence. In both cases, laying claim to the right requires a great deal of practice and discipline. Without this discipline, both “primacy of conscience” or “prudential judgement” are simply not possible, and to claim them amounts to nothing more than escapism.

Act, intention, and the problem of subjective morality

The problems of conscience we have mentioned above, and the moral incoherence that results from a misunderstanding of its nature, tend toward what can be called “subjective morality.” Earlier we mentioned the danger of considering the physical world as secondary or “less real,” and imagining the “inner life” as what “really matters,” particularly when it comes to the determination of right and wrong. This tendency toward subjectivity finds little to check it in the modern mentality of abstraction, and it inevitably leads to the dangerous notion that, because a person intended good to come from his actions, then these actions are automatically rendered moral, or, at worst, pre-moral. Even if these actions have been judged by the Church as “intrinsically evil,” some would claim that, so long as there was a “good intention,” then the individual cannot be considered morally culpable. Such a way of thinking seems reasonable at first glance, but it amounts to the denial of any objective rule by which actions can be judged. It becomes entirely subjective, and this subjective morality ends by severing the connection between body and soul, conscience and concrete reality. To remedy this problem, the Church continuously insists that the “morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will,[1] meaning that it is the object (the concrete act) and not the subject (the person acting) by which the rightness of the act is to be judged. The object is the not the far-removed end that the person had in mind—their “motivation”—but is the concrete act itself. In other words, the end cannot justify the means. Thus, the goodness of an act is objectively determinable without reference to one’s intention.

[1] VS, 78.

Doing evil that good may come of it

The great danger of this sort of thinking was condemned long ago by St. Paul (Romans 3:8), and was long after summarized by Pope Paul IV:

“Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.”[1]

The principle is simple: it is never permissible to do evil so that good may come of it. “The greater good”—a common justification for acts such as abortion, torture, etc., is never a valid excuse for the choice of intrinsically evil acts, because the act in each case—the “object” rationally chosen by the will—is in itself evil. As noble and free as the human will might be, it cannot change an evil act into a righteous one simply by having good intentions, any more than a good intention can turn vinegar into wine. Each act must conform to the good.

[1] HV, 14.

The exercise of prudence

Just as the phrase “primacy of conscience” is easily politicized into a meaningless slogan, so also the concept of “prudential judgement” is often thrown about in such a way that becomes nothing more than an excuse used to justify any type of action or ideology that an individual prefers. But prudence, like conscience, requires progressive formation, and the individual who neglects this preliminary step is not justified in defending his decisions by saying he is acting according to prudence. To understand what is meant by “preliminary formation,” we can refer once more to St. Thomas, who considered the virtue of prudence to have eight parts: memory, understanding, docility, diligence, reason, foresight, circumspection, and caution.[1] However, after the fashion of the Compendium and for the sake of clarity, we will describe the five most prominent parts here. The interested reader can refer to the relevant articles of the Summa for an elaboration of all eight.[2]

[1] ST II-II, q. 48.

[2] ST II-II, qq. 48-49.


Memory is the first of three “cognitive dispositions” which permit the development of the necessary conditions for the actual exercise of prudence, and without which the exercise of prudential judgment is only an illusion. The healthy disposition of memory is bound to assist in the effective exercise of prudence because it gives he who develops it the capacity to recall and reflect upon past experiences in an objective fashion, and without falsification.[1]

[1] ST II-II, q. 49, a. 1.


Second of the cognitive dispositions is docility, which allows one to learn from others and to profit from their experience on the basis of an authentic love for truth.[1] It is therefore closely linked with humility, and is a mode of its expression. Christ told his apostles that “He who hears you, hears me.”[2] Without a carefully developed sense of docility, we run the risk of remaining deaf to the apostles’ exhortations, preferring instead our own opinions and prejudices.[3]

[1] ST II-II, q. 49, a. 3.

[2] Lk 10:16.

[3] CCC, 87.


Diligence is the third of the cognitive dispositions. Diligence concerns the ability to face the unexpected with objectivity in order to turn every situation to the service of good, overcoming the temptation of intemperance, injustice, and cowardice.[1]

[1] ST II-II, q. 49, a. 4.


The three dispositions just mentioned prepare the way for prudence to be exercised effectively in the concrete moment of decision. Within the moment of decision itself—which has been called prudence as commanding­—there are two additional items we must consider, which concern the future and the past in relation to the present. Foresight is the first of these, and is the capacity to weigh the efficacy of a given conduct for the attainment of a moral end.[1]

[1] ST II-II, q. 49, a. 6.


Second, concerning the past, we come to circumspection, which is the capacity to weigh the circumstances that contributed to the creation of the situation in which a given action will be carried out.[1]

[1] ST II-II, q. 49, a. 7.

Participation and obedience

Having examined some of the parts of prudence, we must now consider prudence in the social context. Here the exercise of prudence appears in two forms—active prudence and passive prudence. The first is an expression of our responsibility to participate in the ordering of society toward the good, and the second involves the obedience and submission each of us owes to the social authority, so long as this submission does not compromise human dignity.[1] It should not come as a surprise to us that in individualistic and rationalistic ages the second form—obedience—is often ignored or rejected outright, but both kinds of prudence are necessary in order to achieve a complete picture of our subject. The man who knows how to act but not how to listen, learn, and obey, is at best half prudent.

[1] ST II-II, q. 50, aa. 1-2.

The problem with ‘prudential judgment’

Now we may refer again to what was said at the beginning of this section. It should be clear now that there is more to the exercise of prudence than the simple claim that “I have considered the matter and I am doing what I think is best.” Quite often we hear sincere believers adopting this stance in order to disregard or oppose the teachings of a pope, taking refuge in this supposed “prudential judgment,” believing that by doing so they escape any sort of guilt for their departure from the Magisterium. But if such a person has not been carefully cultivating and forming the virtue of prudence, then it should be clear that prudential judgment is a simple impossibility. Far from being a “privilege” that one is born with and which one may invoke at any time, prudential judgment is rather a weighty undertaking that we find before us. Few ever become adequate to the task.

Now, as was the case with “primacy of conscience,” we do not mean to disregard the possibility of prudential judgment as a valid concept: it is certainly possible that a particular papal suggestion or idea is not binding, or that a principle of CST is up for various forms of application depending on the situation. Applications do indeed call for prudential judgment. But, in actual experience, we find that the invocation of the phrase in question is rarely used within this legitimate context, and is more often a cop-out used to keep the Church from interfering with our political agendas.


Intimately connected to the question of prudence, its cultivation, and its exercise, as well as to the earlier questions of conscience and freedom, is the problem of ignorance, for ignorance is destructive of all three. If we are called to freedom, then we are first and foremost called to know the truth: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”[1] We are given no reason to believe that freedom can exist apart from this truth. Therefore, to the degree that we lack the truth—which is to say, to the degree that we live in ignorance—we are not really free. Because of this, we can say that it is our responsibility to minimize and dispel ignorance whenever we can. We can also infer that we will be held responsible when our ignorance is of the sort that could have easily been dispelled but which, for whatever reason, we allowed to persist.[2]

[1] Jn 8:32.

[2] VS, 62.

Two kinds of ignorance

Although ignorance is undesirable, it is also unavoidable, as our mental capacities are finite. However, since it is obvious from what has been said above that, to some extent, we are responsible for our ignorance, then we arrive at a twofold division of ignorance: the first is known as invincible ignorance, and this is the kind of ignorance for which we are not morally responsible. The second is called vincible ignorance because it refers to a condition of ignorance which could have been removed if only the individual had taken the proper steps to remove it. Further comment on each of these is necessary in order to flesh out the distinction.

Invincible ignorance

We are all of us born ignorant of just about everything, and even if we live diligently we will still have a lot to learn by the time we die. The natural consequence of this inevitable state of ignorance is that we will constantly make mistakes due to our lack of knowledge of the truth. In fact, it might be legitimate to say that man in general, insofar as he is fallen, is more often separated from God due to ignorance than to evil plain and simple, and that the sins a man commits are more often the result of wrong-headedness than hard-heartedness. According to Pope Leo XIII:

“It is rather ignorance than ill-will which keeps multitudes away from Jesus Christ. There are many who study humanity and the natural world; few who study the Son of God. The first step, then, is to substitute knowledge for ignorance, so that He may no longer be despised or rejected because He is unknown.”[1]

Observing this, and considering the fact that a man cannot be held responsible for a sin in which his will gave no real assent, we can say that this inevitable, invincible sort of ignorance is not a sin. However, there is an underlying assumption that goes along with this notion of invincible ignorance, which is that we have at the same time done our best to overcome it and minimize its impact on our lives.

[1] TFP, 13.

Vincible ignorance

Now we must look at the other side of the picture. When a person “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is almost blinded through the habit of committing sin,”[1] then we can hardly say that his ignorance (and whatever actions stem from it) are “inevitable.” In these cases we must admit that due to his own choices (mental sloth or habitual sin) his ignorance is vincible and that he is to some degree responsible for it. In short, he could have had the light, but chose the darkness instead. This means that if we are too lazy to educate our conscience and participate in its formation, it will naturally become deformed, and this state of things will be our own fault. Likewise, if we allow ourselves to live in constant sin, our consciences will be desensitized and our judgment thrown askew. In such circumstances, we are clearly responsible for our negligence.[2]

[1] GS, 16.

[2] CCC, 1790-1791.

Specific issues and applications

The following sections are intended to provide the reader with more specific examples of how the Church deals with moral issues. The list is obviously not exhaustive, nor can it be said to include even the most important moral questions that are today under discussion. The items included have been chosen simply due to their familiarity to the contemporary audience, and because they illustrate well the application of the principles outlined above.


According to St. Augustine: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.”[1] Such an act is the most direct offense against truth, because it destroys another man’s relation to it, as well as destroying the relation between the liar and the one being lied to,[2] undermining the purpose of communication itself. The example of the lie, because it is identified as intrinsically evil,[3] offers an excellent case point with regard to the error of consequentialism mentioned above, which would have us believe that there is such a thing as a “white lie”—a lie that is permissible because it does little or no harm. Even worse, the consequentialist would suggest that it is in fact necessary to lie in great matters, provided that some good result is to come from the dishonesty. Here the adherents of consequentialist thinking will automatically formulate the most extreme examples to prove their point: “What if I were hiding Jews during the Holocaust and Nazi soldiers came to my door? Are you really saying that I should give up the innocent in order to avoid lying?” It is a tragic situation, to be sure, but if the protection of the bodily safety of the innocent were a reasonable cause to abandon the truth, then all the deaths of the martyrs in Christian history are worthy more of ridicule than of respect. All of the martyrs chose a violent end rather than deny the truth in which they believed, and are senseless from the point of view of consequentialism. To further clarify a situation such as that mentioned above, we must remember that a person may withhold information from those who do not have a right to know,[4] but it is never permissible to tell a falsehood. Discretion is appropriate, especially in the use of language, but never a lie, for as always “we may not do evil that good may come of it.”[5]

[1] St. Augustine, De mendacio 4, 5.

[2] CCC, 2483.

[3] CCC, 2485.

[4] CCC, 2488-9.

[5] CCC, 1756; VS, 79-83.


Abortion is another intrinsically evil act[1] that is, nonetheless, frequently defended on the grounds that to commit it in certain situations in necessary and therefore permissible. But the Church has always insisted that human life retains its dignity, regardless of whether or not it is too young or too old to defend this dignity for itself. This is why abortion and euthanasia are often condemned in the same sentence, because both acts prey upon life in its extremes: “the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.”[2] Here again, as a reminder and in order to refute those who choose to absolutize the rights of man, it needs to be said that “[j]ust as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source.”[3] One does not “own” his or her own body, much less is permissible to deal violently with a human life nourished within it. And so John XXIII remind us: “Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact. From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God.”[4]

[1] VS, 80.

[2] HV, 14.

[3] HV, 13.

[4] MM, 194.


If we wish to illustrate the connection between Catholic morality and natural law, then sexual deviation is an appropriate subject for analysis. We said earlier that the mere fact that a behavior is found in nature does not make it natural. Likewise, pleasures which are contrary to nature so far as a species is concerned can seem “natural” to individuals—but this does not mean the pleasure is natural. It may be pathological. An individual with an inverted sexual attraction will be attracted to members of his own sex; it is natural, in this sense, for an invert to conduct himself as such, but this does not make inversion normal. While a man may seek pleasure with other men, it is opposed to nature that he engage in such a sterile union. The pleasures associated with homosexuality are in nature, but are at the same time opposed to nature. Now it should be said that, even if an individual’s idiosyncrasies relegate him to the margin of his species in such a way, he is not necessarily condemned thereby, as we shall see when we discuss the question of ‘culpability’ below. As Etienne Gilson so ably put it: “Moral science alone is not enough either to condemn men or absolve them, but it does suffice to distinguish good from evil, and it sees to it that vice is not exalted into virtue.”[1]

[1] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame, 1994), p. 281.


Once we have acknowledged that evil may not be done for the sake of any greater good, many contemporary debates evaporate immediately. Arguments for abortion and dishonesty were two such instances—arguments in favor of torture are a third. Torture is constantly defended in the public sphere, usually on the basis of fantastic scenarios of cataclysmic proportions, in which a “ticking time bomb” is about to wreak havoc on a civilian population, and only the application of torture to a captive is likely to reveal its location. Now at this point we could summon the testimony of any number of experts in the field, as well as historical examples, all of which would confirm for us that torture is simply not effective, regardless of the good press some circles would give it. But we need not engage in such research here because even if torture were proven effective—which we must not grant—it would still be illicit and intrinsically evil[1] by the fact that it rejects the dignity due to the person, a dignity which cannot be surrendered by the person and which does not depend on any action on their part.[2] The use of methods such as torture to coerce the will treats the human being as a means rather than an end, which the Church unfailingly rejects as a permissible attitude.[3]

[1] VS, 80.

[2] VS, 90, 92.

[3] VS, 48.


To take someone’s life is the greatest of all thefts, for in stealing this one thing, everything else is stolen along with it. There are, in specific circumstances, justifiable killings, but these are carried out by a legitimate authority. The reason this is licit is due to the hierarchical nature of social authority. For a plant to be sacrificed to the animal, and the animal to the man, is not out of the normal hierarchy of life. However, two men who are hierarchically each other’s peers have no right to take such action. Thus, when it comes to the just extinction of a human life, we must turn to a superior authority, which in this case is the political authority. A properly constituted political authority is superior to the individual members of the social body from the standpoint of justice, and so the decision that one life must be removed from the whole can be justly made by that authority alone.[1]  Although the above reasoning legitimates the death penalty in theory, it must be remembered that even when a legitimate social authority exists, due to the intrinsic value of human life the death penalty should only be employed in cases of necessity, when society has no other means to protect itself from the menace of the criminal:

It is clear that, for the [purposes of punishment] to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and [the state] ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.[2]

[1] ST II-II, q. 64, aa. 2-3; ST II-II, q. 65, a. 1.

[2] EV, 56. This passage also cited in the Catechism.


Suicide is homicide against oneself, for one is bound to respect his own life in the same way as he is bound to respect the lives of others. And in fact, in the opinion of Aquinas, it is more grievous to kill oneself than another, because it is to oneself that one owes the greatest love.[1] Hence the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Here again we return to the misunderstandings caused by considering oneself as one’s own “private property.” If this were the case, then it would be easy to understand why killing another would be forbidden, since that would involve destruction of someone else’s “private property”; unfortunately it would make it impossible to explain why killing oneself is at the same time unacceptable, since one may dispose of one’s own property at will. To understand the evil of suicide we must abandon the idea of “self-ownership.” The evil of suicide is fundamentally linked with the evil of homicide, because it is violence against the dignity due to persons as persons. One’s own life is not his own property to discard or do away with as he sees fit, any more than the life of anyone else, and to kill oneself is forbidden for the same reasons as homicide.[2] Further, there is also a social aspect to the problem: every man, as a member of society, has duties to that society, and the society has a right to his services. By killing himself he deprives the other members of society the good he was called to contribute.[3]

[1] ST II-II, q. 26, a. 4: “…out of charity, a man ought to love himself more than his neighbor.”

[2] ST, II-II, q. 64, a. 5.

[3] In V Eth., 17.

The question of culpability

Now after what has been said so far regarding morality, we must close by recalling that the Church refuses to “put God in a box.” She allows Him the ability to grant mercy where He will, and at the same time acknowledges that, although there is an objective rule to right conduct, the question of culpability can and does vary depending on external circumstances and the inner state of the individual. What this means is that although the Church is unfaltering in defending the reality of intrinsically evil acts, it does not pretend to know with precision exactly what degree of consent was present in the heart of the acting subject. The Church allows for the possibility that a person under extreme emotional duress, for example, cannot be held fully accountable for some acts. The acts remain evil from an objective standpoint, but depending on the degree of consent of the will of the individual, their culpability varies—and the ultimate judge of that culpability is God. Adopting the words of St. Lucy, we affirm that “without consent of the mind there is no stain on the body.”[1] That is to say, he who does not consent with his will, does not sin, even if he engages in an intrinsically evil act.

[1] ST II-II, q. 65, a. 5.