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True Morality is Based on Objective Principles


One aspect of Catholic moral teaching that distinguishes it from most other moral systems, whether liberal Protestant or secular humanist, is its emphasis on the objectivity of moral principles.


For the Catholic Church, the basic principles of morality are God-given, imbedded in human nature, recognizable by human reason and valid for all men of all times.

By her emphasis on the objectivity of moral principles the Church comes into direct conflict with most of the intellectual currents of the day. You have heard of "situation ethics", "existential ethics" and "the new morality". These tags refer to moral systems that are based on the relativity of values. What they say in the concrete in that any act, no matter what it is -- stealing, adultery, fornication, murder, terrorism -- can be just and good depending on the intention of the perpetrator and the circumstances of the act.

All such subjective moral positions deny that there is a fixed order in nature, given to it by God, that is binding always and everywhere. Current views of permissive sex are merely an amplification of situation ethics. According to situation ethics, all human acts are basically indifferent -- they are neither good nor evil in themselves. Their morality, they say, depends on the situation or circumstances. This is a very convenient system for the human ego, for what it means is that the individual at all times decides for himself what is good and what is bad. He recognizes, therefore, no "objective" moral principles.

The Catholic Church has consistently and continually rejected subjectivism and relativism in morality. In one of her recent official documents, the Church stated: "Now in fact the Church throughout her history has always considered a certain number of precepts of the natural law as having an absolute and immutable value, and in their transgression she has seen a contradiction of the teaching and spirit of the Gospel" (Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, 4, December 29, 1975). Similar official statements of the Magisterium have been a regular part of Catholic teaching for centuries.

The eternal law of God, as reflected in human nature, is called the "natural moral law". Certain aspects of it, such as the prohibitions against stealing, lying and murder, are easily recognizable by all who are of sound mind. The Greeks and Romans were highly developed in certain parts of the natural law. There is a remarkable reflection of it in the moral system elaborated by Confucius of China twenty-four hundred years ago -- a system still followed by millions of Chinese.

Their morality, they say, depends on the situation or circumstances. This is a very convenient system for the human ego, for what it means is that the individual at all times decides for himself what is good and what is bad. He recognizes, therefore, no "objective" moral principles.

However, most men and women do not have the mental acumen of an Aristotle, a Cicero or a Confucius. Frankly they need help. Now God in his goodness has seen fit to reveal to man, through the prophets of the Old Testament and especially through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the New Testament, the basic requirements of the natural law in addition to the special law of the Gospel. According to Vatican Council I, God did this so that "those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can easily be known to all men with solid certitude and without trace of error" (DS 3005).

Throughout both Jewish and Christian history the best compendium of God's law for man, of what God expects of man in his daily intercourse with others, has been thought to be the Ten Commandments, or the "ten words of Yahweh" as it is often expressed in the Jewish Bible. The first three commandments deal with man's proper relationship with his Creator and God; the other seven concern man's relationship with his fellow man.

Over the centuries Catholic theologians have developed lengthy and detailed treatises on morality based on the Ten Commandments. Up to the seventeenth century the moral teaching of the Church was treated as a part of general or doctrinal theology. In the 1600s there was a rapid development in the science of "moral theology". Accordingly, it gradually split off from dogmatic theology and tended to become a more or less independent science, with its roots, of course, in the doctrine of the Church.

After this short introduction to moral theology, I propose to take up each of the Ten Commandments. Some will be given more space than others. But in the context of the Ten Commandments we will try to present the solid and accepted moral teaching of the Church on most of the major areas of morality.

See the index of chapters from Fundamentals of Catholicism
which have been reprinted to CERC here.



Kenneth Baker, S.J. "True Morality is Based on Objective Principles." In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Part II, Chapter 6 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 135-138.

Reprinted with permission from Father Kenneth Baker, S.J.

The Author

Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., assumed editorship of Homiletic & Pastoral Review in April 1971 and remained in this position for almost forty years. In the spring of 2010, Fr. David Vincent Meconi, S.J. became editor of HPR, while Father Baker took on the position of editor emeritus. Father Baker entered the Society of Jesus in 1947. In 1970 he served as president of Seattle University. In 1973 he published his translation of the Philosophical Dictionary and adapted it to American usage. In 1975 he became president of Catholic Views Broadcasts, Inc., which produces a weekly 15-minute radio program that airs on 50 stations across the United States. He has built and run three community television stations. In 1983 he published a three-volume explation of the faith called Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1, Creed and Commandments; Vol. 2, God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary; and Vol. 3, Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology

Copyright © 1995 Father Kenneth Baker, S.J.
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