Sunday, January 17, 2010

How Do You Distinguish Right from Wrong?

San Diego Sunrise - Photoshop Crop

Most people have a general sense of right and wrong. For example, people who drive automobiles know that it is right to stop for a red traffic light, and know that it is wrong to drive through (run) a red traffic light. Most people realize that it is wrong to steal from another person, and that it is right to help other people who are in need. But where does this sense of right and wrong come from? Are all human beings born with it, or is it learned?

In order to be able to determine whether a given action is right or wrong, a person has to have some sort of rule or guideline by which to judge the action. What rules or guidelines exist in the world that people can use to distinguish right from wrong? One guideline that immediately comes to mind is civil law. For example, a person can decide that stealing is wrong because it is against the civil law. Another guideline that some people follow is religious law. Many people believe that murder is wrong because their religion tells them it is wrong. Some people distinguish right from wrong by what society considers right and wrong. Some people believe that cheating is wrong because most people they know think it's wrong.

Unfortunately, the different rules and regulations in existance in the world don't always agree with each other on all issues. Take the issue of abortion, for example. As it currently stands on January 17, 2010, federal law in the United States says that it is legal for a woman to have an abortion. Some religious organizations, like the United Church of Christ, agree with U.S. federal law and teach members of their church that abortion is right. [1] Other religious organizations, like the Roman Catholic Church, disagree with U.S. federal law and teach that abortion is wrong. [2] There are other religious organizations that leave it up to their believers to decide if abortion is right or wrong.

How do you know which law to follow regarding the abortion issue? Hopefully, you want to follow the law that is right. Unless you believe in moral relativism, they can't all be right. In other words, you can't say that abortion is right if you belong to the United Church of Christ, but it's wrong if you belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Abortion is either right, or it is wrong, regardless of who teaches what. Either the United Church of Christ and the U.S. federal government is right in their support of abortion, or they are wrong. Either the Roman Catholic Church is right in its opposition to abortion, or it is wrong.

This brings us to the key question: How do you know which law is right regarding abortion? It is a difficult question indeed. I am not going to tell you how you should determine whether abortion is right or wrong, but I will share with you how I determine whether it is right or wrong. It is totally up to you to decide if what I'm saying is true or not. I'm not trying to force you to believe anything.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, I believe that I must follow God's laws above or before any other law. If God's law says that abortion is wrong, I believe it is wrong, even though the civil law says abortion is right. Since there are other religions that interpret God's law to mean that abortion is right, how do I know the Catholic Church is interpreting God's law correctly? I believe that Catholic Church is right about abortion and other moral issues because Jesus Christ, when he founded the church, promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the church to the truth regarding moral issues. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, meaning that the church will always exist, and will never lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Since the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is wrong, as a member of the church, I am bound to believe that it is wrong. Catholics that believe they can go against church teaching and support abortion are wrong. They mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church is a "Burger King® Church", where they can pick and choose what teachings they are going to follow, and which ones they aren't. If a Catholic disagrees with the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion, they should either seek deeper understanding of the teaching, or find another religion to belong to. That may sound harsh, but I must believe that way or fall headlong into the abyss of moral relativism.

How do you distinguish right from wrong?



NOTE: A reader by the name of ProChoiceGal made some serious accusations against the Catholic Church in a comment she left below, and my response was longer than the comment text box would allow to be entered. Since I believe it is important for the readers of this post to see my response in its entirety, I'm going to include it here in the body of the post. I can do that, because I own this here blog.  :)  Anyway, here is my response to her comment:

ProChoiceGal - Thank you for your response. The first link you provided was to an article by a group called "Catholics for Choice" (CFC). According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholics for Choice "is not a Catholic organization, does not speak for the Catholic Church, and in fact promotes positions contrary to the teaching of the Church as articulated by the Holy See and the NCCB." Their first president was a Jesuit priest that was eventually kicked out of the priesthood. I wouldn't give a lot of validity to what they say regarding Catholic history and teaching.

There are a couple things you need to understand about infallibility:

1. An act does not need to be declared wrong or evil via infallible pronouncement to be considered wrong or evil. According to, an infallible pronouncement—whether made by the pope alone or by an ecumenical council—usually is made only when some doctrine has been called into question. Most doctrines have never been doubted by the large majority of Catholics.

2. The pope is not the only one in the Catholic Church that can make infallible pronouncements. The bishops can make infallible pronouncements also. According to the Vatican II council, "Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith" (Lumen Gentium 25).

The Catholic Church's teaching regarding abortion can be considered infallible because Pope John Paul II, while he was writing the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, took a survey of all bishops around the world as to whether they thought abortion was wrong, and that all agreed that abortion is wrong. Since all of the bishops believe, in union with the pope, that abortion is wrong, the belief can be considered infallible.

For a clearer understanding of the Catholic Church's teaching on infallibility, see For more information regarding the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion and the value of human life in general, refer to the Catholic Catechism ( and the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae (

The second link you provided was to the web site. The accuracy of the information provided by this site regarding the Catholic faith (and other faiths) is questionable at best. Your quote from this web site would have given a more accurate view of the Catholic Church regarding the subject of abortion had you included the statement from John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, which followed immediately after the text you quoted. Here it is:

"Pope Paul Vl declared that the teaching of the Church about the morality of abortion 'has not changed and is unchangeable.' Although some people point out that Saint Thomas Aquinas thought the soul did not come to the fetus ('ensoulment') until sometime after conception, the fact is that he considered abortion gravely sinful even before this time. He taught that it was a 'grave sin against the natural law' to kill the fetus at any stage, and a graver sin of homicide to do so after ensoulment."

The Catholic Church has always believed that the killing of human being, born or unborn, is evil and morally wrong. What has changed over the centuries is the Catholic Church's understanding of the point at which the fetus becomes a human being (is "ensouled") and has the right to be protected. As science and technology has advanced, the Catholic Church's understanding of when the fetus becomes a human being has become clearer. The Catholic Church now firmly believes that the fetus becomes a human being worthy of protection at the moment of conception, which occurs at fertilization (not implantation).

God bless you.


  1. Genevieve - Thanks for the comment. The video makes excellent points. While I agree that people don't have to be "religious" to have moral values, I believe that the morality that many non-religious people have is the result of religious influence. For example, if a person who doesn't practice a religion lives in a town where most people are religious, he or she might adopt the morality that the religious townspeople expose them to. As I mentioned in my post, some people distinguish right from wrong by what society considers right and wrong. In other words, people can be influenced by the morality exhibited by those around them. While I won't go as far as to say that all moral values come from religion, I believe that most moral values that society has comes from religion, either directly or indirectly.

  2. "I believe that most moral values that society has comes from religion, either directly or indirectly."
    -- Try telling that to an atheist :) They'll probably say that morality was derived from a combination of evolution and some kind of sociology, and religion grew out of those values which aided survival.

    I think the existence of morality in general (or more precisely, a "Natural Law") points to the existence of God, but atheist folks don't buy that.

  3. What about when the Catholic church changes its position on an issue? Since both positions can't be right, was it wrong before, or is it wrong now?

  4. Amanda - Thanks for the question. The Catholic Church can change it's position on issues, just the same as individuals can. The church might take a particular stance on an issue, and then change it's mind based on new information that becomes available. This does not apply, however, to teachings regarding matters of faith and morals that have been declared infallible. The Catholic Church cannot change it's position regarding moral teachings regarding such things as abortion, pre-marital sex, adultery. The Catholic Church can change it's mind regarding teachings that are not considered infallible, such as priests not being able to get married.

    For more information regarding infallibility, please see


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