Editorial: Beyond Slogans

Anne Dickinson, Michael McCabe, John Kleinsman
Issue 15, April 2005

Slogans and bumper stickers are a popular feature of modern life. They offer us messages which are memorable for their precision and conciseness. That is why we love them.

We live in a world of ever-increasing complexity which may explain, in part, why there is a tendency to think we can grasp bioethical principles and ethical solutions in simple one-liners such as the right to choose and the right to life. For all their power and attractiveness and kernel of truth slogans can trap us into thinking that we can come to an adequate understanding of an issue via one perspective alone.

When a slogan type approach is applied by the public to a difficult ethical situation, the result is often polarization and conflict. This is a distressing situation, as the person at the centre of the issue is usually in great need of unity and a common approach from those around them.

The slogan or one line approach is a symptom of problems which have developed in response to difficult ethical situations, including, at times, the response from some Catholics.

Responses to Ethical Situations

Most ethical dilemmas require the use of several moral principles in determining a way forward. A key problem in addressing issues is the focus on a single moral or ethical principle to the exclusion of others. In a battle between competing single-principle perspectives, a key moral principle, such as veracity - the requirement to tell the truth, can easily be ignored, or even offended against. The opposing groups in the case of Terri Schiavo had different ideas about what constituted the truth about her medical condition and prognosis. That truth was a fundamental factor in any ethical and moral analysis of her situation. When opposing groups focus on a single moral or ethical principle as the solution, the first casualty can be the truth as information is selected or ignored to support the different positions being taken.

Another problem lying beneath the slogan approach, and exacerbated by it, is the narrowing, or even distortion, of a moral norm. The Catholic moral tradition has always had at its heart the moral norm of the sacredness of life. 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 (Catholic Catechism #2258). The sacredness of life recognises God's part in both our conception and our dying, and all the stages in between. It embodies more than the right to life because it recognises that God is our sole end, and that there will come a time when we will die and attain eternal life. The sacredness of life includes the right to life, but not its extreme position of life at all costs, by whatever technological means. When the right to life is removed from the context of the sacredness of life it can become open to distortion.

Compared to the right to life approach, the sacredness of life is a much deeper principle with many nuances. It embraces dying and death as part of life. The danger in overworking a phrase such as the right to life is that it may create the impression that death is the enemy and life is an end in itself. Nothing could be further from the truth in the Catholic tradition.

Pastoral Applications

Moral norms such as the sacredness of life and the dignity of the human person are by their very nature broad in scope. They must be interpreted and worked through in the pastoral application, because there are very few pastoral situations which are black and white exemplars of a particular moral principle.

Over centuries the Church has developed moral principles which can be used as tools to work through a pastoral situation. Principles, such as double effect and the consistent ethic of life, are part of a moral toolkit which allows the many dimensions of a situation to be taken into account.

The administration of appropriate pain relief to a terminally ill person, even if it might have the effect of shortening the patient's life, is an example of the use of the principle of double effect. Adequate pain relief may well be what is needed to allow a person to attend to the work of dying the healing of relationships, reconciliation with God and with others, and the spiritual growth which is unique to this phase of life. This application of the principle of double effect both illuminates and attends to the moral nuances of the situation.

In Catholic theology the use of such principles requires that certain conditions are satisfied. For example, the principle of double effect ordinarily requires that the following four conditions be satisfied when it is applied: The action must not be morally wrong on other grounds; one must intend the good effect, not the bad; the good effect must not result from the bad; there must be a proportionately serious reason for permitting the bad effect.

Such conditions mean that the moral principles used by the Church in ethical situations are not an easy way out. On the contrary their application requires wisdom, knowledge, experience and skill, a process which is radically different to the slogan-like application of a single moral norm or principle.

Harm Limitation

While human life is sacred from its inception, we grow in sanctity or holiness. In considering any ethical situation the stage of a person's moral development has relevance in deciding on how a particular moral norm is to be applied. When the moral ideal cannot be achieved immediately, there is an obligation to consider how harm can be minimized.

Harm limitation is in reality another application of principles such as double effect and the greater good. It is used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its 2002 Document The Participation of Catholics in Political Life to outline the position a Catholic politician may take when unable to achieve the moral ideal in relation to abortion:

As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, 'an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality'.

Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels recently made a statement about sexual relations outside marriage which illustrated the application of Catholic moral principles in relation to harm limitation.

When someone is HIV infected and his partner says, 'I want to have sexual relations with you,' I would say, do not do it, Danneels said. But if he does it all the same, he should use a condom. Otherwise he adds a sin against the fifth commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill,' to a sin against the sixth, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery'. Cardinal Danneels also said: It is a matter of prevention to protect oneself against a disease or against death. You cannot judge that morally to be on the same level as using a condom as a method of birth-control.

The Church's position on preventing the transmission of HIV has always been that abstinence from intercourse before marriage and fidelity within marriage are the only sure ways to halt the epidemic. Contrary to what some of his critics believe, Cardinal Danneels does not disagree with the Church's position. He uses the principle of the greater good to show that preserving life is what matters, and so the use of a condom is not only justified but necessary to prevent a potentially fatal offence against another commandment.

While Cardinal Danneels was speaking about the situation outside marriage, many theologians would argue that within a marriage where one partner has HIV, there is an obligation to protect the life of the other partner either by abstinence, or if that is not possible, by the use of a condom. The intention is the preservation of life. Contraception is an untended side effect.


The good intentions of groups and individuals who focus on a single principle or norm in their response to an ethical situation cannot be denied. This approach can seriously obscure the complexities of the situation, and lead to moral fundamentalism. Over centuries the Catholic moral tradition has accumulated the wisdom and the moral framework to address complex situations in a way which is both theologically sound and pastorally sensitive to the person at the centre of the situation.

In the Gospels Jesus was decidedly counter-cultural in his dealings with vulnerable people. His response was surprising to those who thought they understood the rules but who had lost sight of the multiple dimensions of the person, made in the image of God, to whom they applied the rules. The moral principles and processes which are part of our Catholic inheritance have the same surprising and counter-cultural ethos when they are used by the wise in pastoral situations. They liberate and enlighten as Jesus does in the Gospels.

The Catholic moral tradition provides a unique framework for dealing with the difficult moral and ethical dimensions of the technological complexity which is part of our lives from conception to death. We tend to think that our age is unique in the growth of technology and science, but there has been growth in these areas in every age. The Church's moral framework for dealing with new ethical situations has grown alongside the new developments in each century.

The greatest danger now is that this amazing framework of norms and principles, together with the pastoral wisdom essential to their application, is pushed aside by the sound-bite and the slogan. The tragedy is that this may be done by Catholics themselves when taking up various causes, because understanding of the particular issue is narrowed to the application of a single principle.

Anne Dickinson
Michael McCabe
John Kleinsman