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Editor’s Note: This lesson on medical-moral issues is taken from the book Catholicism & Ethics. Please feel free to use the series for high schoolers or adults. We will continue to welcome your questions for the column as well. Our postal address and our email address are given at the bottom of the column.

Special Course On Catholicism And Ethics (Pages 43-51)

In the depths of our conscience, there is a natural law, a law embedded in our human nature, which summons us to do good and avoid evil. We are not talking about the laws of nature, which are physical and biological, but rather the law which God puts in our hearts that tells us that certain actions are right and certain actions are wrong. One does not have to be familiar with the Ten Commandments to know that it is wrong to murder, to steal, or to lie. Reason and common sense tell us that no one would want to live in a society where there is no blame attached to killing the innocent, or stealing someone’s property, or lying to others to deceive them and lead them to make bad decisions.
Because natural law is based on human nature, it is universal and binds all human beings. It is unchangeable because human nature is the same at all times and in all places. Therefore, all acts that are contrary to human nature, such as abortion, murder, theft, rape, and adultery, will always remain immoral. Human authority can declare these actions to be legal, but they can never make them moral. Governments can never repeal the natural law.
The Ten Commandments are really a summary of the basic principles of the natural law, except for the Third Commandment, which tells us to “keep holy the Lord’s Day” and is a divine positive law. While men and women at first could tell right from wrong based on the natural law in their hearts, they soon drifted away from God, and He saw the need to put before them a stronger and more explicit set of laws. So, He gave to Moses the Ten Commandments, which listed some major violations of the natural law.
They do not list every possible violation of the moral law, but we can deduce specific violations from the general commandment. For example, “You shall not kill” encompasses anything that would harm the life, health, and dignity of the person, including murder, suicide, abortion, euthanasia, alcohol and drug abuse, unjust wars, mutilation of the body, hatred, anger, and scandal, that is, leading another person into sin and killing the life of God in the person’s soul. The Ten Commandments are a set of God’s directions on how we can avoid harm to ourselves and attain happiness both in this life and in the life to come.
In trying to determine whether an action is right or wrong, we enlist the help of our conscience, which is a practical judgment of our human reason as to whether a certain action is good or evil. Many factors can influence our conscience, including the opinions of family and friends and of those in the news media or on the Internet, as well as what the Bible and the Church tell us. While we are obliged to follow our conscience, we are also obliged to make sure that our conscience is properly formed, which means that it is in conformity with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which Jesus promised would always teach us the truth (cf. John 14:16-17).
Because our human intellect is capable of being wrong when it lacks the necessary knowledge or understanding or freedom to make the right choice, we must distinguish between a true conscience and a false conscience, between a certain conscience and a doubtful conscience. Contrary to what some people think, conscience cannot be based on opinions or feelings; it must be based, in the words of Vatican II, on “the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church. The Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth” (Declaration on Religious Freedom, n. 14). We must always follow a certain conscience that has been sincerely and properly formed, but we must never follow a doubtful conscience.
Conscience is the “umpire” which calls the play in the game of morality, and the decision of one’s conscience is final. But we must beware of kidding ourselves, especially in these days when all kinds of evils are being justified under the banner of following your conscience. We are bound to take all reasonable steps to inform ourselves adequately in matters of morality and sin, and to listen sincerely to competent authorities to make sure that we have properly formed our consciences. In their letter on the moral life (To Live in Christ Jesus), the U.S. Bishops said:
“We must have a rightly informed conscience and follow it. But our judgments are human and can be mistaken; we may be blinded by the power of sin in our lives or misled by the strength of our desires. . . . Clearly then, we must do everything in our power to see to it that our judgments of conscience are informed and in accord with the moral order of which God is creator. Common sense requires that conscientious people be open and humble, ready to learn from the experience and insight of others, willing to acknowledge prejudices and even change their judgment in light of better instruction.”

List Of Answers:

ACTIONS
CATHOLIC
COMMANDMENTS
CONSCIENCE
CREATOR
EVIL
FEELINGS
GOD’S
JESUS
LAW
OPINIONS
SIN
UMPIRE

Quiz

  1. Embedded in our human nature is a natural ___ which tells us to do good and avoid evil.
  2. Natural law says that certain _________, such as murder or stealing or lying, are wrong.
  3. The basic principles of natural law are summed up in the Ten ____________.
  4. These are ______ directions on how to attain happiness now and in Heaven.
  5. ______________________ helps us to determine right and wrong.
  6. A certain conscience is one based on the teachings of the _________ Church.
  7. __________ promised that the Church would always teach us the truth.
  8. Conscience cannot be based on ___________ and _________.
  9. Conscience is the “_________” which calls the plays in the game of morality.
  10. We must beware of those who justify _____ under the banner of conscience.
  11. Our judgments can be blinded by the power of _____________.
  12. Our moral decisions must be in accord with the moral order of the ________.
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Our Catholic Faith (Section B of print edition)

Catholic Replies

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