Moral Theology

Absolute Moral Norms and Weaponized Sarin

Many contemporary ethicists, including some Catholic theologians beginning in the 1970's, began to doubt the existence of absolute moral norms. The real world, they argue is free from any moral imperative at all, and within the contingent realm of human ethics, nothing can be for ever. 

In Catholic moral theology, even though our human intentions inform in part the moral goodness of our actions, there are nevertheless some actions which in and of themselves are intrinsic moral evils - no circumstances or human intentions can make them morally virtuous or even neutral. 

For one important moment, the human community has arrived at a moral consensus approximating a moral absolute: spraying innocent women and children with a powerful insecticide to kill them is wrong. Period. No reasons mitigate its wrongfulness. 

Pay attention to those who divert the moral discussion away from the human-pesticide-sprayer and criticize the president who challenges the school yard bully. It's never easy to end bullying and there isn't usually only one answer, but I think we ought be suspicious about those who become furious over the actions taken in response to the use of Sarin, but ignore the crime of using Sarin in the first place.

There has already been outrage, some real and some feigned, over any physical collateral damage from the US air strike, and over any innocent human lives that are lost. The Catholic principles of double effect are helpful in reasoning through those reports. 

Last Friday we prayed the Stations of the Cross written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. His prayers invoked courage to confront unmerited human suffering and those threatened by human evil. 

No more Sarin, ever.

Fortnight for Freedom

As a way of participating in the national Fornight For Freedom organized by the United States Bishops, Holy Cross will offer parishioners the opportunity to sign petitions alerting our elected representatives that we object to the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate imposed administratively by Washington. 

After all the weekend masses, we will also pray the novena prayer to protect religious liberty in America 


Wow, US Catholic Bishops Fact Check Vice-President Biden

The USCCB today issued a statement correcting the Vice-President's erroneous assertion that Catholic organizations and institutions will not be forced to provide coverage for morally unacceptable drugs and procedures in its healhcare coverage policies.

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued the following statement, October 12. Full text follows:

Last night, the following statement was made during the Vice Presidential debate regarding the decision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to force virtually all employers to include sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion, in the health insurance coverage they provide their employees:

"With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institution—Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital—none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact."

This is not a fact. The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain "religious employers." That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to "Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital," or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served.

HHS has proposed an additional "accommodation" for religious organizations like these, which HHS itself describes as "non-exempt." That proposal does not even potentially relieve these organizations from the obligation "to pay for contraception" and "to be a vehicle to get contraception." They will have to serve as a vehicle, because they will still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients. They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries.

USCCB continues to urge HHS, in the strongest possible terms, actually to eliminate the various infringements on religious freedom imposed by the mandate.


Catholics are free to believe the Vice President's debate statement that all is well for Catholic institutions under the mandate from the Obama administration's HHS directive. Nevertheless, the bishops have spoken quickly and forcefully to correct his statement. Smiling, pointing and repeating something to be a fact over and over doesn't necessarily make it true.

Physician Assisted Suicide: The Time Should Never Come

Physician Assisted Suicide : The Time Should Never Come

DPhysician Assisted Suicideemocratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli has introduced the “New Jersey Death with Dignity Act” which if approved would place the following on the NJ ballot:


Do you approve allowing an adult who is able to make health care decisions and has a terminal disease that will cause death within six months to use a prescribed drug to end his life in a humane and dignified way?

The bill authorizes safeguards to ensure that the decision by the individual requesting the life-ending overdose is freely made and the drug is self-administered. While I am sure there are many specifics in the bill to be critiqued by attorneys, the issue of physician-assisted suicide merits discussion on its own moral footing.


The Catholic Church has consistently spoken out against physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and its cousin, euthanasia. The arguments against legalizing PAS range from the secular to the sacred:

1) Physician assisted suicide is a contradiction in terms. Physicians are obliged to cure and ameliorate disease when possible and in the context of hospice care, to always ease suffering. There is an intrinsic code of medical ethics against ending life which cannot be violated, or permitted even with the patient’s request. In our day of individual empowerment, this assertion is not warmly received. Our culture rejects any absolute moral norms. Patient autonomy, one of the cornerstones of medical ethics in this country, can be wrongly taken to mean blindly conforming to the patient’s wishes as long as consent is informed and freely given.

2) Legalized physician assisted suicide is bad public policy. Economic factors weigh heavily on all modern medical decisions and the pressure on the terminally ill to end their lives is not alleviated by simply declaring that physician assisted death is entirely voluntary. Our lives should not be expendable once a physician determines it might only last six more months. The evidence from Washington state that highly educated, white citizens are primarily the ones choosing physician assisted suicide only strengthens the argument that the most vulnerable in society distrust the potential abuse to which it might be put.

3) Having complete control over one’s life is a modern illusion which death itself destroys. The Catholic Church teaches that our lives come from God and we are stewards, but not ultimate masters of our human existence. When physician-assisted suicide was first approved in Oregon, fear of unremitting pain and of being kept alive involuntarily by extraordinary means motivated some to approve its legalization. Hospice care, advance directives and health care proxy have alleviated some of that anxiety. Patient’s requesting physician assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington cite “having control” over their deaths as the primary reason for making the request.


Memorial Day, Military Suicides and Pentecost

Yellow_and_red_candle_fThis weekend our nation remembers those who suffered most acutely from war; we salute those veterans who gave their lives in battle. The Memorial Day holiday has an interesting history. Just around the same time the Catholic Church was moving holydays and allowing Saturday evening vigil masses to satisfy the Sunday mass obligation, Congress moved four federal holidays to Mondays in order to give federal workers three day weekends – Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day. It didn’t take long for most states to follow the federal lead, except interestingly, for Veterans Day, which after a decade of Monday celebration, was moved back to its traditional date of November 11. (WWI hostilities ended 11/11/1918 at the 11th hour; orginally Armistice Day)

We are reminded this Memorial Day, that war takes the lives of our soldiers not only on the battlefield, but off it as well. Some who speak of the glory of war too often forget its gory cruelty. Veterans cannot forget and haunted by the memories, they sometimes take their own lives after their fighting is done.

The commanding general of Fort Bliss, Maj Gen Pittard1 was criticized for recently blogging a comment that suicide was a thoroughly “selfish” act, which brutalized family members, friends and colleagues. His blog comments were made after attending the funeral of a soldier who killed himself at home with his family on Christmas in front of his twin six year old daughters. It is important to read about Fort Bliss and the full text of the general’s now deleted blog comments before agreeing with some politicians that the general “completely misunderstands” military suicides, or that he is “totally insensitive” to the problem. The general retracted his statement, but reemphasized his concern about suicide not only in the Army, but in our nation.3

 Meantime, no one led the charge to correct a statement from one of the Kennedy’s outside the funeral of Mary Kennedy, who hanged herself: “Mary suffered from depression…I just think about the story of Michael the Archangel, who had to battle the forces of evil, had to battle Satan who was trying to enter paradise, and that's what Mary did her whole life. She was battling, battling those demons and keeping them out of the paradise that was Mary. She was an angel, she was an angel who was brought to us to live with us here on Earth. And I think that God just brought her back up to heaven and said: 'You don't have to fight for me anymore, you can be back where you're supposed to be.”4

Emotionally sympathetic, but theologically bizarre comments like these are precisely why the Catholic Church forbids eulogies (praising the deceased) at mass and exercises increasing vigilance over the Words of Remembrance given by family or friends whenever they are spoken in church.

I’m no angel, you’re no angel. Our battles are vastly different from angels, who do not experience hunger, thirst, fatigue or even physical pleasure. Angels don’t become addicted to drugs or alcohol, or suffer from any illness, even a cold. Angels cannot kill themselves.

Here apparently suicide has moved away from any opprobrium at all, to a hereditary illness, then to an honor in heaven, a kind of heavenly Purple Heart. As General Pittard reminds us however, “There is nothing noble about suicide.” Implying that there is, even to console the sorrowful, is dangerous.

If we can agree that suicide is not a moral flaw, I hope we can also agree that suicide causes terrible pain and suffering to others…suicide is surely not a moral virtue. Nor is suicide inevitable. (In fact a recent study determined that 20% of those dying by suicide are legally intoxicated; is getting drunk part of the suicide plan, or does drinking loosen inhibitions against self-harm? There is so much we do not yet understand.)

We reflect on the wounds of war this weekend: The wounds that kill on the battlefield and those that kill after the battle is done. God help us to understand the horror of war, and that some casualties of war can be prevented far away from enemy fire.

General Pittard comments that “suicide is a serious problem, not only in our Army, but throughout our entire nation.” As for the soldiers under his command, a buddy system has been instituted –  all soldiers have a teammate watching out for them; the general exhorts them: to “Please look after each other; please do not allow your buddy to make a rash decision that will have permanent life-ending consequences. Choose life.” That doesn’t sound like insensitivity or misunderstanding to me.

 As citizens we can make sure mental health treatment is freely and confidentially available. And we can fight the stigma that a history of mental health treatment carries in many professions and occupations.

As Catholics we can embrace the graces of Pentecost. Ask the Holy Spirit to make us ever faithful in Pentecost
prayer, to increase our respect for the Eucharist and strengthen our spiritual and communal bonds.

May we become

  • a community of compassion and consolation, of less strident criticism, but not of lesser moral values.
  • a community of courage to confront social evils and battle to right them.
  • a community of freedom to worship our God, help our neighbors and defend our most precious moral and religious values. 

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!


Pittard's original blog entry Jan 18 2012: I've edited out the phrases which were criticized so as not to propagate them, you can Google them everywhere. The whole post is a bit more difficult to discover: 

"We lost a Fort Bliss Soldier to an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. I heard the tragic news as I walked out of a memorial service for another one of our Soldiers who decided to kill himself at home on Christmas Day so that his family would find him. Christmas will never be the same for his two young daughters he left behind....edit...There is nothing noble about suicide. I care about each and every one of our Soldiers, family members and civilians at Fort Bliss. I know there are a lot of people hurting out there, especially with the future Army personnel cuts on the horizon. If you are hurting mentally or emotionally, then seek and get help; but don’t resort to taking your own life. ...edit...SEEK HELP! If you need help, please call 915-779-1800 or 800-273-TALK (8255). It is a confidential call. Please look after each other; please do not allow your buddy to make a rash decision that will have permanent life-ending consequences. Choose life.”