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Catholic Ethics and Morals: What is the Difference?

This is Part 1 of a series of blog posts on Ethics and Morals. Each blog post will feature a different aspect of ethics and morality taken from Scripture and Magisterial teaching. Part 1 gives an overview of what ethics and morals are and how they fit into a Catholic framework.

We will first need to establish a basic understanding of the types of law that give structure to the life and behavior of mankind. Each type of law deals with different aspects of ethics and morality and gives mankind guideposts for how to live in accordance with the will of God.


A Introduction to Law

There are four main types of law that provide the foundation for what we know to be right and wrong. They are given to us by God as a means of following His will. 

Natural Law (Lex Naturalis): is the rule of conduct given to us by God in the constitution of nature. He endowed every human being with the ability to observe, reason, and rationally discern right from wrong.

Eternal Law (Lex Aeterna): is God’s wisdom and divine direction. This Law was infused in man at creation to govern the nature of the eternal universe.

Divine Law (Lex Divina): is a derivative of Eternal Law as it is revealed to mankind via revelation. This Law is the precepts and mandates promulgated by God.  

Moral Law (Lex Moralis): is a reasonable regulation issued by the proper authority for the common good. It is expressed in 3 ways:

  1. Natural Law: the light of understanding placed in us by God
  2. Revealed Law: the Old Testament Law (10 Commandments, Leviticus, Deuteronomy) and the Law of the Gospel (2 greatest commandments)
  3. Civil and Church Law: these flow from Natural Laws 

Each of these types of law give us a framework for our objective understanding of right and wrong. God has given them to us to better form our conscience to follow the ethics and morals that govern our society and our participation in the life of the Body of Christ.

Now that we have a better understanding of what types of law exist, let’s take a closer look at what ethics and morals are and their differences. 



What is the Difference Between Ethics and Morals?

In the Gospel of John, after Christ has been arrested, He appears before Pontius Pilate and is asked: “Quid est veritas?” or “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38) The answer to this question is given by Christ a few chapters before when he states “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” (Jn 14:6) The purpose and goal of everyone is to know, love, and serve God and we do that by following the Truth, Incarnated in the Person of Christ. By understanding the difference between ethics and morality, we can follow Him more closely.

The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word “ethicas” or  “ethics,” meaning the customs or habits that are approved by a particular culture. Ethics provide a systematic account of an individual’s judgement about right conduct from the principles of morals (right and wrong).  Ethics in the Biblical or Scriptural tradition are concerned with the actions of individuals as well as the entire faith community. 

Morals are principals of knowledge and judgement for what is right and wrong. Morality is rooted in the unchangeable truths presented to us in the Natural, Eternal, and Divine Law.

The main difference between ethics and morals is that ethics are subjective to human culture and societal perceptions of right and wrong, while morals never change because an objective right and wrong exist and we learn them from God Himself. 

In the words of St. Paul, ethics and morality are the “ways which are in Christ,” “instructions as to how one ought to walk and please God,” and “that pattern of teaching.” (1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Thess. 4:1; Rom. 6:17)



Our Conscience Plays a Major Role 

Conscience is an individual’s inner sense of right and wrong regarding their motive or conduct. It has 3 main functions:

  1. Reminds us always to do good and avoid evil
  2. Makes a judgement about the good and evil of particular choices in a specific situation
  3. Bears witness after the fact to the good or evil we have done

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law”



Choosing According to Conscience

We have free will, allowing us to choose and act according to our conscience using the gifts of prudence and wise counsel through the help of the Holy Spirit. 

Some rules apply in every case:

  • One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
  • The Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
  • Charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ.” Therefore “it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble”

Visit The Station of the Cross for our next installment of this series on ethics and morality! Tune into Sermons for Everyday Living for daily spiritual guidance on how to live in conformity with the will of God and the Truth. 


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