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Tied Up in Moral Knots

10-18-2020Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

G.K Chesterton once famously advised against removing what may look like a needless fence until you know why it was put there in the first place. Case in point is the argument over conscience rights or conscientious objection. This long held moral principle states that a person has a right to refuse, based on their sincerely held beliefs to perform or participate in certain actions that they deem morally repugnant, harmful or a violation of their conscience. The classic example is fighting in a war.

More recently the issue of conscience rights has surfaced in regards to medical providers who refuse to participate in certain non-therapeutic medical procedures that they deem immoral or harmful actions such as abortion or sex reassignment surgery. On the other side the argument is that there is no individual right to refuse to provide a procedure when requested by a patient. Seems like they are willing to remove a fence without considering the implications.

The issue has come more into focus recently when some pharmacists refused to fill prescriptions for certain types of contraception that can also cause abortions (abortifacients) and hence cause the taking of an innocent human life. Again, the argument came, (along with lots of lawsuits) that pharmacists cannot assert their rights of conscience and refuse to perform certain services based on their moral objections.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 some pharmacists are refusing to fill prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine asserting the same right of conscience. Ironically, many of the same people who disagreed with the pharmacists who refused to fill prescriptions for abortifacients are now siding with the pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine. They want to put the fence back up.

A principle is a principle even when it doesn't provide the outcome you prefer. Without objective moral principles everything becomes a matter of subjective will or political preference or convenience and as you can see from the above example you tend you tie yourself in contradictions. Objective moral principles and their consistent application are what help a society to be just.

And as we have been reminded these past few months racism is another issue that is not subjective but always wrong or intrinsically evil. The failure to apply that principle in our society continues to cause injustice, harm and discrimination. And there are other intrinsically evil actions, for example: the intentional taking of innocent human life, euthanasia, unjust discrimination, genocide, torture, human trafficking, slavery to name a few others.

The challenge we face, in light of all of these is which ones have priority? First, it should be remembered that they are all intrinsically evil, that is by their nature morally wrong and are to be avoided and the eradication of each is essential for a people and a society to be just. But as a priority any actions that are taken to destroy innocent human life take priority. Having the freedom to live without discrimination is a moot point if my life is taken from me.

This does not mean that we dismiss or ignore other threats to human life and dignity. In fact, trying to eradicate all serious threats to human life and dignity is the way in which we participate in public life and contribute to the common good. But it does help, practically speaking to have a hierarchy of issues when faced with multiple injustices and threats to human dignity that we need to confront.

For Catholics, our participation in the democratic process should be influenced by our faith, the consistent moral framework of the Church as well as the virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and courage. This means that we put our faith filters on first and then our political filters second. It’s our faith that should influence our politics and not the other way around. After all, the kingdoms of this world are passing away but the Kingdom of God will endure forever.

Love,

Fr. John B.

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