The Catholic Church and Public Morality
(Some brief Reflections)

“The usages of society are to be the usages of freedom in their full range. These require that the freedom of the human person be respected as far as possible and curtailed only when and insofar as necessary.” (Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Freedom, paragraph 7.)

“The morality proper to the life and action of society and the state is not univocally the morality of personal life, or even of familial life. Therefore the effort to bring the organized action of politics and the practical art of statecraft directly under the control of the Christian values that govern personal and familial life is inherently fallacious. It makes wreckage not only of public policy but also of morality itself. (John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths, page 286)


The continuing “debate” between the USCCB and the Obama administration raises once again some old questions. When should the state interfere with religious freedom or any personal freedom? The immediate answer has always been: When the public order calls for it. But what then is the public order?

According to the Catholic understanding expressed in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, the public order involves a three-fold reality of justice, public peace, and public morality (not just private morality). So, for example, while in the United States we greatly respect religious freedom we also restrict religious freedom by prohibiting human sacrifice in religious observances (justice). We also prohibit churches from ringing loud bells for a long time early in the morning (public peace). And of course (as Mr. Romney would apparently also agree) we prohibit Mormons from practicing polygamy (public morality).

The Catholic (Vatican II) understanding therefore can easily justify the legalization of gay and lesbian unions even if one accepts the official hierarchical teaching on homosexual relations. One begins with the freedom of homosexuals to live together. Today in fact most people in our society agree that permanent gay and lesbian unions are much better for society than promiscuous relationships. The state can support such permanent unions by granting rights such as health insurance and Social Security benefits. As a matter of fact, the legalization of permanent gay unions does not necessarily go against the importance of the family as a basic unit of society.

The Catholic Church therefore, for example, cannot call for laws to stop the sale of artificial contraceptives or to close sperm banks.

Yes….Catholic bishops have the right to hold the position that same-sex genital behavior, artificial contraception, and masturbation are all “intrinsically evil.”

Catholic teaching would insist, however, that when it comes to public morality in the United States (or anywhere) there is no moral obligation to prohibit an act simply because Catholic hierarchical authority considers it immoral.

Rather, there is a moral obligation to prohibit an act only if:

1) The act poses a real and serious threat to society, or
2) Prohibition of the act doesn’t result in greater harm to society

Now I must get into a proper Ash Wednesday frame of mind……..Another good Catholic practice!


2 thoughts on “The Catholic Church and Public Morality (Some brief Reflections)

  1. The RCC hierarchy in the USA is only confirming their irrelevance in public debates over morality.
    Even as 10 year olds in Catholic schools back in pre-Vatican II days, we kids knew that Catholics could not pass a law making the eating of meat on Fridays illegal in this country. Just because it was a sin in Catholic eyes was no reason to make it a crime!
    Hooray for the Separation of church & state–it brings about REAL religious freedom for all.

  2. I do not think it a good idea to use theology, which is subjective, as a basis for conducting civil matters in the public arena. There are a number of different theologies, many of them claiming to be uniquely true, thereby labeling all others false. I believe respectful and honest dialogue is important to reach a meaningful “working relationship” with each other. Rather than try to legislate civil matters, I believe it would be better for each of us to live our own theology as best we can. I’m not sure I understand the hierarchy’s, and some hierarchs, need for power. I think the US military, with all its faults, does a much better job with authority than does the church. I really miss so many good folks who used to be in church.

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