An introduction to Catholic Moral Teaching

What follows is not intended to provide a comprehensive introduction to all aspects of Catholic moral teaching. Instead, the intention is to introduce a few relevant terms, offer some thoughts on why a well-formed moral life is vital for those who wish to live the Catholic faith and to point the reader in the direction of some information if she or he would like to explore further.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that the living of an authentic moral life is something that all human beings come to gradually, as they develop and mature. Everyone struggles to live fully in accord with what they believe to be true. We all have our aspirations and our ideals, the code that we live by, and there are days when we all fail.

If to fail is human, so is the ability to pick ourselves up and try again. For this reason, it is the Catholic view that each of us is called to learn from our mistakes and to seek to integrate certain life principles that are to inform how we relate to ourselves, other people, and the world in which we live. If Catholic spirituality is primarily focused on our relationship with God, Catholic moral teaching is primarily focused on our relationship with others.

So, Catholic moral teaching encompasses the principles we call on: to inform the way we treat others, the principles we use to decide how best to respond with integrity to the issues that arise in the complex world in which we find ourselves, and the principles we live by in our care for the world that God has gifted to all humanity.

Yet, there is an obvious question: why behave morally at all? In a culture where the prevailing view is increasingly one of ‘as long as I can get away with it and nobody else is really harmed,’ the thought that each of us is called to live by certain principles that hold no matter what the situation can seem strange and obsolete. Articulating these principles and promoting them as integral for the authentic human life of all people, whether Catholic or not, can seem even more strange. So what is this about?

The first thing to note is that Catholic moral teaching is not merely an expression of Catholic belief. It has as its foundation a philosophical grounding that pre-dates the advent of the Catholic Church. As the great theologians of the Catholic faith tradition sought to make sense of the human situation, and to reflect on the wide variety of cultures and societies with which it was increasingly coming into contact, they called on the wisdom of the great classical thinkers that had contributed to human understanding down through the centuries. The impact of the early Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and so on, on writers and teachers like Augustine, Aquinas, Rahner and many others cannot be underestimated. Catholic moral teaching is not the product of a closed cycle. When at its best, it calls on the tried and true philosophy of the greats, while also remaining in dialogue with contemporary thinkers. This is one of the reasons why Catholic moral teaching is of relevance to more than the adherents of the Catholic faith.

Secondly, we must understand that Catholic moral teaching is primarily concerned with what it means to live life to the full, not hampered by selfishness, dysfunction and compulsion. While the stereotypical view is that Catholic moral teaching is about rules (you can do this, you can’t do that,) in reality it is concerned with authenticity and freedom. A genuinely Catholic life is one in which individuals can freely be the people God has created them to be, without engaging in behaviours that ultimately hurt themselves and others. It is God’s desire that we live life to the full, in peace and freedom (John 10:10). Of course, this is not always easy. As the runner training for a marathon knows: achieving a goal takes dedication and discipline. This is the case with anything worthwhile.

Central to this is an awareness of, and a commitment to, the essential dignity of every human being. No matter who a person is, what they believe, or how they behave, every person is of value and deserves to be treated with respect. This can be surprising to those who criticise Catholic teaching in particular areas. They argue that a lack of willingness on the part of the Catholic Church to embrace certain choices and behaviours indicates that the Catholic faith is judgemental and rejecting of these people. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the heart of our teaching is that every person is to be loved and valued in themselves. Any failure to do so is, in fact, not Catholic.

However, part of this teaching on the essential dignity of all people is that all of us must avoid treating other people as objects to be used, and not as individuals to be loved. Here is the core of much social and individual sin. When another human being, or a group of human beings, is being exploited for what a person or group can ‘get out of them’, their essential dignity is not being honoured. This is true, even if the individual or group concerned appears to agree to the exploitation.

To live a moral life, the Catholic looks to both faith and reason. That is to say, the decisions we make as to how we choose to live, are informed by a living relationship with God, the teachings of the Church and by the application of our intelligence and what we have learned through our experience. All this comes into play as we consider the moral decisions that each of us faces daily. The Catholic is not an unthinking implementer of rules. Instead, he or she is a person who prays deeply, reflects on Scripture and Church teaching intently, and seeks to live an ethical and moral life courageously. The Catholic life is most authentically a partnership between God and the individual, where God provides the strength and wisdom we need to live as God has asked of us, and the individual learns to be the face of God for those encountered on life’s journey. We are called to act morally because, as disciples of Jesus, we are to behave as he would behave.

There is much more that could be said by way of introduction to Catholic moral teaching. We have not touched on Catholic Social teaching, the complex world of bioethics, the development of conscience, or the significance of Natural Law, for example. However, Social teaching is introduced as a separate topic on this website, and links are provided to some introductory material on Natural Law, bioethics, abortion, and euthanasia below.

Original text by Shane Dwyer
Crossroads photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019

30 October 2019

Back to top