During the last two thousand years, the Catholic Church has harvested, if you will, from Divine Revelation, moral principles that allow us to make morally sound judgments. Below are eight of the most basic.
A moral evil can never be committed or allowed so that good may come of it:
A moral evil or an immoral action not only undermines the good others but it harms the one who commits it and it offends the Lord. For this reason, an intrinsically evil act cannot be committed for some perceived or anticipated good.
By creating human beings in his own image, God, at the same time, created a moral universe. In such a universe, our thoughts, words, and actions have consequences in time and eternity. Many times, those consequences- especially ones that are destructive -are not always possible to anticipate. For that reason, obedience to God’s moral law is imperative. Thankfully, his plan for us is perfectly adapted to our human needs and to our long-term happiness. Part of that plan is comprised of moral commands for us to follow. With this, destructive consequences are minimized and our greater good is secured.
Example: Very few people in 1960’s, when the use of contraception went through the roof, could have anticipated that Japan and Europe would be facing a demographic crisis of seismic proportions. The economic decline of Japan in recent years can, in large part, be attributed to their rapidly aging population. More seniors and less workers equals less productivity. And more important than economic interests is a nation's survival.. For the first time in history whole nations are deliberately reducing their birthrate but unknowingly ensuring their own downfall.
Lesser of two evils:
The moral principle of the lesser of two evils only applies to when the act or the means is not intrinsically wrong. The lesser of two evils primarily refers to consequences of such acts and means. Quite often it happens that we are given two undesirable options that require a response. As such, we are duty-bound to minimize the evil (i.e. negative consequences) that will result from such a response.
Remember, if any given response is intrinsically wrong, then I am morally obligated to refrain all together from responding. When the early Christians were giving the choice to renounce Christ before a Roman procurator and live- or -remain faithful to Christ and die, they chose death. As difficult as that was, they did the right thing.
But, again, there are times when the response or choice we are called make is, in itself, neither wrong or right. It’s just that the consequences of the choices we are given will be unfavorable or evil.
Example: The act of voting or casting a ballot is a morally neutral act. But if a voter has only two candidates running for public office from which to choose from and both candidates happen to support abortion rights, then I can vote for the lesser of two evils. If candidate X favors euthanasia, for instance, and candidate Y is opposed to it, then, with all things considered, voting for candidate Y is not only permissible but imperative.
Reminder: Abortion is intrinsically wrong all of the time. War and even capital punishment, according to Catholic moral tradition, can be justified under certain circumstances. There is no shortage of Catholic voters who will put a higher premium on the latter over the former. Although this mistake is understandable to an extent, it is a grave error. Popes and Saints have supported certain wars but never the practice of abortion.
Principle of double-effect:
Like the principle of the lesser of two evils, the principle of double-effect only applies to actions or means taken that do not constitute a moral evil. In this case, the action that is being considered is done so with the intention that X (intended consequence) will follow. However, it is possible or even likely that Y (unwanted consequence) will follow as well.
Example: A person is diagnosed with an advanced form of brain cancer. The prognosis is that he will die in six months without a major surgery. However, the surgery that will most likely lead to a cure (the first effect: intended consequence) involves a 50/50 chance or higher that the patient will die during surgery (the second effect: unwanted consequence). With this mind it is morally permissible to opt for the surgery.
Another example that is surrounded with more controversy and debate is the following. Let us take the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. If an armed security guard were to see Adam Lanza shooting his victims from a distance and the only way to stop Adam’s onslaught (the first effect: intended consequence) was to shoot him with the likelihood of killing him (the second effect: unwanted consequence), then such a defensive measure is not only permissible but obligatory.
Adam Lanza, in the act of shooting innocent human beings, automatically forfeited his own right to live. This principle applies to the theory of just war as well. A nation that is attacked has the God-given right to defend itself, even if it involves the taking of life. The Commandment, “Thou shall not kill” is better translated: “Thou shall not murder.” In extreme cases, therefore, killing an aggressor is morally permissible from both a biblical and theological perspective.
Material and formal cooperation:
Material cooperation is to provide or subsidize the material used for an immoral or sinful activity. For instance, people who donate to Planned Parenthood materially cooperate in the sinful act of abortion. Or using another example: an administrative assistant at an abortion clinic would be guilty of material cooperation with the abortions performed. The practice of abortion, in both of these cases, can be carried out without such assistance but the material assistance, nevertheless, facilitates the murder of innocent lives.
Formal cooperation, on the other hand, is to be that needed accomplice to an immoral or sinful activity. If, in fact, an abortionist cannot perform an abortion without an assistant, then that assistant would be guilty of formal cooperation. Admittedly, the assistant does not perform the abortion. But the blameworthiness of such cooperation is considerable.
Vincible and Invincible Ignorance:
A person who is burdened with vincible ignorance, in a moral theological context, is one who is ignorant of the moral evil he or she is committing. However, such ignorance can easily be remedied if the want to know the rightness or wrongness of the act. In other words, some people simply do not care or do not want to know if some behavior is sinful.
Therefore, the sinner is culpable.
As for invincible ignorance, it implies that there is no remedy or no way of knowing if some act is right or wrong. Many people who have never benefited from the Light of Gospel do not know that fornication is explicitly condemned by divine law. Hence, they would be less guilty than, let’s say, a Christian who knew the truth about duty to be chaste and chose to engage in premarital sexual activity anyways. As St. James said, “So for one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, it is a sin.” (James 4:17)
Conscience and Church teachings:
This leads us to consider how people are judged who either do not know Christ or do not know that he is the Son of God. Even when people do not know God’s law as Catholics do, they do have a conscience through which God speaks. No doubt, the formation of one’s conscience varies from person to person. However, there are acts that are so evil, such as murder and acts of sexual perversity, that even a person who has never been introduced to monotheism or Christianity can intuitively discern it. The law of God traced out in the human heart upon its conception is at least partially sensitive to right and wrong.
As for those who are outside of God’s law and are totally unfamiliar with it, St. Paul wrote the following to the Romans:
“All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified. For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people's hidden works through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-16)
To sum up: Conscience is the most immediate means through which God’s law is communicated to the soul. It is always at hand but, nevertheless, capable of erring. The errors of conscience can be influenced by personal sin, biases, attachments, likes or dislikes. Any number of things can dim its light. This is why it needs to be formed by some outside objective source. That source is none other than Divine Revelation as it has been interpreted by the Catholic Church.
In contrast to conscience, the Church’s teachings are infallible but not always immediate or accessible. Sometimes we have to take the responsibility to find out God’s law by studying the teachings of his Church.
Mortal and Venial Sin:
St. Bonaventure once said that to commit a mortal or deadly sin is to make your soul God’s grave. In an attempt to be high-minded, some Christians say that a sin is a sin. In other words, all sin is the same in the eyes of God. But this is a partial truth. All sin offends God and therefore should be avoided but all sin is not equally offensive to him. There are sins that hurt our relationship with God and there are sins that kill it.
Take for instance St. John the Evangelist’s first epistle. He wrote, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” (I John 5:16-17) Here, no one can doubt, the Apostle makes a distinction between deadly (or mortal) and lesser sins.
St. Paul, however, goes a bit further. He actually identifies some mortal sins that can forfeit our salvation. He warned the Corinthians of the following: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Corinthians 6:9-10) Not to inherit the kingdom of God is certainly a spiritual fatality. He does not mince words here.
The distinction between mortal and venial sins corresponds with what we know to be true in the natural order. For instance, there are some offenses against the integrity of marriage that hurts it but does not kill it or seriously destabilize it. Yelling or name calling during an argument is one such example. However, there are “marital mortal sins” that do put the marriage in jeopardy. Adultery is one such fatal blow. When a husband or wife cheats, the marriage cannot go on as usual. Just as mortal sin is forgivable, so too can a marriage recover after such an act of infidelity; but there is a debt to be paid through contrition and penance.
The Principle of Totality:
Some Catholics presume that if they keep part of God's law or observe part of the Church's teachings, they are good to go. However, 90 percent may be a B+ or A- in the academic world, but to keep nine out of the Ten Commandments is an F in God's eyes. We cannot be selective in choosing which of God's laws or the Church's teachings we can observe. St. James warned as much. He said, “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” (James 2:10)
I'm afraid that the Church, especially on a parish and diocesan level, has been serious derelict when it comes to pastorally enforcing this principle of totality. Many souls who do not keep the Sabbath or practice chastity before marriage walk through the doors of our churches without the slightest insistence that they repent before receiving the Sacraments. Worse yet, many nominal Catholics go to their deathbeds without a serious invitation from clergy and lay people to repent from their serious sins; ones that offend the Lord.
Jesus Christ, in many of his parables and teachings, makes it clear that he wants a total commitment. No half measures will suffice.