Moral decision making involves the application of certain principles to the choices we face. Sometimes those moral principles mark a bright line between what is morally permissible and what is not. Sometimes they don't.
There are some moral positions to which there are no legitimate exceptions. When the state refuses to protect certain members of the human species from the private application of lethal violence, as in the case of abortion, the state commits a grave injustice. When the state declares itself arbiter over an institution above and beyond its proper authority, as New York did recently with marriage, it commits a grave injustice.
The acceptable Catholic position on such issues is not “up for debate” because there are no circumstances under which such actions (or omissions in the case of failing to protect the unborn) are compatible with the intrinsic values that undergird the most basic moral principles. Such issues represent a choice between a good and an intrinsic evil. And it is never permissible to choose what is evil; not even with the intention of bringing about a good end. No exceptions. Ever.
Other moral principles, while also universally valid, leave much room for prudence in their application. For example, public authorities must always act in a way that promotes the common good. Any state that denies its responsibility to the common good commits a grave injustice. No exceptions. Ever. But just how the promotion of the common good is best accomplished…
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Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center where he has been the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society since 2005.