A Discerning Church Listens – Session 1, Church Teaching, Professor Pat Hannon

Posted on Posted in Adult Faith Development
Fr Gerry Clarke SJ (Parish Priest at Gardiner Street), Prof. Pat Hannon, Moral theologian, Maynooth (Speaker), Bishop Eamonn Walsh DD (Chair)
What is the Church’s teaching on abortion, the informed conscience and the law?

After hearing from Fr Pat, the audience was invited to write their comments and questions for his response. Last week we placed the comments on the display panels into four categories:-
– how to vote
– personal morality
– hard cases
– various

Fr Pat has kindly agreed to provide answers / comments to all of the points raised as follows:


I was asked to outline some relevant Catholic teaching, and my opening contribution was in three parts. The first recalled the Magisterium’s teaching about the morality of abortion, and its context and basis; and in the process we met a couple of ideas and terms that needed elaboration, and this was the second part.  Since what’s involved in the Referendum is a decision about how to reflect moral beliefs in the law of the land, the final part offered some remarks on aspects of the relationship between morality and law. In summarising my contribution I’ve tried to take account of participants’ questions and observations which there wasn’t time to discuss.


Sacredness of human life in the 5th Commandment

A convenient way into our subject was to look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say, and this is in Part Three, entitled ‘Life in Christ’, in the section on the Commandments. Here the Catechism specifies some of the concrete requirements of the core precept of the teaching of Jesus, that we should love God with heart and soul and mind, and our neighbour as ourself. Our focus now is on the Fifth Commandment in particular, and there’s time to indicate only some salient points.

The sacredness of human life is the theme of the Fifth Commandment, and the controlling idea is that ‘Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being’  (2258). 

A Matter of Faith and Reason

Notice here the language of faith/revelation, but it’s important to notice too that the Catechism goes on to ground its teaching on considerations that are not specifically religious or theological: ‘The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule,. … the law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere’ (2261). And whilst ‘sacred’ is etymologically a religious term, its usage is now wider, and modern synonyms include ‘revered’, ‘cherished’, ‘inviolable’.  What all of this conveys is that Catholic teaching on abortion is proposed as a matter of reason as well as of faith.

Thou shalt not kill

‘Thou shalt not kill’ is the usual English translation of the Fifth Commandment, and the Catechism deals briefly with various kinds of homicide, observing that unintentional homicide is not ‘morally imputable’, though of course killing through negligence or recklessness is obviously wrong. In its treatment of killing in self-defence it alludes to a concept which is critical also in its approach to abortion: that an act may have both intended and unintended consequences, a fact which has given rise to what’s known in ethical theory as the doctrine of Double Effect, of which more anon.

Abortion is gravely contrary to the moral law

The Catechism’s treatment of the morality of abortion, put summarily, is:

(i)  Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception (2270)

(ii) Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law (2271)

(iii) The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation (2273)

(iv) Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being (2274)


Compassion,support and factors that diminish moral fault

These are the essential norms of Catholic teaching on abortion, but of course they’re not all that is to be said from a Catholic moral standpoint. For one thing, in words of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, ‘[w]e have an obligation to be at our most compassionate, our most merciful, if and when the expectant mother and father and their unborn child require support during a crisis pregnancy’. And this support must be more than words, they say, and public resources – to which may be added, every church resource – should be applied in a practical and in a creative way.  Moreover, only God can judge the heart, and whilst holding firmly that ‘abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law’, Catholic teaching recognises also that there are factors which may diminish or eliminate personal moral fault in this as in other areas of the moral life.

Subjective and Objective Morality and factors that diminish responsibility

A word of explanation may be helpful, and again we can invoke the Catechism’s account of what is standard Catholic teaching, and again I’m excerpting verbatim sentences that are here directly on point:

 (i)  Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility (1731).

(ii)  This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach (1732)

(iii)  Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary (1734).

(iv) Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors (1735).

The idea is that there are principles or norms or ‘commandments’ which tell what we ought or ought notdo if we want to act rightly, or how we are to be if we want to be morally good; and this is what in the terminology of moral theology is called ‘objective’ morality.  But our capacity to live up to these principles presupposes ‘the power, rooted in reason and will’, of which n. 1731 speaks; and there are factors – listed in n.1735 – which affect that power and the degree to which we can be praised or blamed for our choices; and this is the domain of ‘subjective’ morality

To speak of factors which may diminish or eliminate moral fault may strike some people as weakening moral principle, opening the way to what is often criticised as a subjectivist and relativist notion of morality: what’s right is what’s right for me, in my circumstances, now.  And of course what the Catechism says may be misunderstood or misused, and modern Western culture seems in some kind of thrall to an exaggerated individualism, and to notions of personal autonomy that fly in the face of ordinary human experience, and that even the most secular of philosophies question. But the fact that an idea may be misused doesn’t invalidate it, and the remedy for misunderstanding is clarification.

What the church does not teach! Clarifications from ‘Two Lives, One Love’

Which brings us to a clarification much needed in current discussion of the Eighth Amendment, best rendered here in an extract from the statement of the Bishops’ Conference Two Lives, One Love: pastoral message for 2018 on the right to life.

  • The Catholic Church has never taught that the life of a child in the womb should be preferredto that of a mother. By virtue of their common humanity a mother and her unborn baby have an equal right to life.
  • Where a seriously ill pregnant woman needs medical treatment which may, as a secondary effect, put the life of her baby at risk, such treatments are always ethically permissible provided every effort has been made to save the life of both the mother and her baby. Abortion, by contrast, is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances. It is not a medical treatment.
  • When, sadly, a baby dies naturally in the womb before birth, there is no question of the mother being obliged to proceed with the pregnancy. There is now only one “patient”, the mother. The mother becomes the sole focus of any medical care that is required. Along with the father, the mother is entitled to the best pastoral care that we can offer, as they grieve the loss of their child.

The doctrine of ‘Double Effect’

Underlying what the bishops say about the medical treatment of a seriously ill pregnant woman is the doctrine of the Act of Double Effect, alluded to above. Put roughly, the doctrine is that where a choice will have good and bad consequences, and provided that what’s intended is good enough to warrant allowing the bad, the act or omission chosen is morally permissible, unless an act/omission itself canbe said to be morally wrong. These ideas have been much discussed in moral philosophy as well as in theology, and various individual elements of the doctrine are debated. For present purposes it’s enough to say that nothing in the debate undermines the Catholic position regarding the treatment of a seriously ill pregnant woman.


Having a consistent life ethic

Before moving to the third part of this piece and having in mind something that Pope Francis is especially concerned about, I should draw attention to the fact that there is of course a great deal more to respect for human life than refraining from killing. Ethical issues concerning the beginning and the end of life are of fundamental importance, and we are now at a critical moment in our society’s history in their regard. But the vision of every morally serious member of Irish society calls our attention to other moral concerns too, and a Christian vision will not let us be satisfied unless we care for everyone, at every stage of life.  Catholic social teaching isn’t just about life’s beginning and end.  If we don’t have what the late Cardinal Bernardin memorably called a consistent life ethic, and unless we have a care for everyone who is especially vulnerable, we are not following the way of the Lord Jesus


Essential reasons for the Bishops’ Conference position on the 8th Amendment

The debate about the Eighth Amendment is multi-layered: the medical dimension is the subject of the second session, legal questions are the business of the third, and there are controverted issues in each domain which are among the things that make it difficult for some people to make up their minds. And there is the dimension that has been occupying us in this first session, some relevant Catholic teaching; and some may wonder what more there can be to say, given the several statements of the Bishops’ Conference. In their submission to the Citizens’ Assembly the Conference argued for the retention of the Amendment, and their most recent statement, Our Common Humanity, concludes with a summary of their position: 

Article 40.3.3 is a declaration of equality and respect for human life.  It represents, at the very foundations and substructure of our laws, a conviction that all human life is worth cherishing equally.  To repeal this Article would leave unborn children at the mercy of whatever permissive abortion laws might be introduced in Ireland in the future.

We invite people of faith to pray earnestly that Ireland will “choose life” and that the lives of all women and their unborn children will always be loved, valued, welcomed and respected in this country.

Short though it is, Our Common Humanitycontains the essential reasons for the Conference’s position, but a more elaborate account is available in their submission to the Citizens’ Assembly under the titleTwo Lives, One Love; and both may be read elsewhere on this website as well as on that of the Bishop’s Conference. It’s interesting to compare them, in stance and tone as well as content, with the statements which preceded the Referendum of 1983, to look indeed at the evolution of a characteristic approach to issues of morality and law from the early Seventies onwards. We have time only for the briefest of observations.

Three components in the Catholic Church’s interventions

Three components are discernible in the Conference’s interventions: first, adverting to a distinction between morality and law, they reiterate church teaching on the moral issue;second, they acknowledge the right and responsibility of lawmaker and citizen to decide what the law should be; and, third, they set out the Conference’s own view of whatever the measure proposed.

The balance of the components varied somewhat as between one statement and another, and one way of putting this is that the bishops’ opposition was at times expressed more forcefully than at others. The reason for the variation isn’t evident on the face of the statements themselves, and it doesn’t seem to have had to do with the gravity of the issue, for the first statement on abortion (1982) contains the clearest affirmation of a legitimate ‘autonomy’ of the political sphere, a second statement on contraception legislation (1978) the least clear.

What to make of this? Perhaps the first thing to say is that the Conference’s statements aren’t abstract accounts of the relationship between law and morality. Rather they are, in each case the concrete response of the bishops collectively to a concrete pastoral situation as this is perceived by the Conference at the time. Whether or to what extent a particular perception was valid was no doubt debatable – and debated, even among the bishops themselves. The point is that each was an exercise in the application of principle, from which we need never expect the neatness of a textbook solution.

So we needn’t be surprised if at one time there is a strong emphasis on the substantive moral teaching on (say) abortion; at another, more attention given the lawmaker’s right to decide on forms of legislation; at yet another time on what the bishops think will be the impact of a change in the law. The differing emphases reflect a Conference’s perception of the actual requirements of its pastoral function at any particular time.


And with that thought I leave you to ponder the teaching of Our Common Humanityand the argument of Two Lives, One Love and their part in the process of in-formation of conscience before we vote on May 25th,




One thought on “A Discerning Church Listens – Session 1, Church Teaching, Professor Pat Hannon

  1. Thank you Fr Gerry for putting this on the website as unfortunately I can’t make the Tuesday meetings. For those who are uncertain as to which way to vote I hope it will assist them in making up their minds.

Comments are closed.