Exceptionless negative norms: getting it right (or wrong) about right to life and care for poor

A couple days ago I posted about a response made by a writer at The American Catholic to an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, Most. Rev. Robert McElroy, who – mirabile visu – asserted that Catholics should feel equally compelled to defend the sanctity of unborn human life and to demand that their government fund social justice programs in these USA and abroad.

It was important for the writer and others to respond to the bishop’s inaccurate notion because – aside from the fact that it will pit bishops against each other, publicly – this sort of argumentation weakens the Church’s Magisterium.

Here is an example of where he went wrong.  From His Excellency’s piece that stirred this up:

Many different types of choices are compatible within a full commitment to Catholic teachings on economic justice.

But choices by citizens or public officials that systematically, and therefore unjustly, decrease governmental financial support for the poor clearly reject core Catholic teachings on poverty and economic justice. Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.

This is what the bishop infers is on an equal footing with defense of the unborn.

To be fair, this is subtle.  But we cannot give him a pass.

If we are told by Church authorities that it is the Church’s teaching that we are obliged morally to support specific government programs, and yet we know that these same programs are wasteful and ineffective, we will eventually conclude for ourselves that the Magisterium is just plain dumb and that we don’t have to listen to what the Church teaches.   We have seen this movie before.

In my own comments I wrote:

We know that the killing of the unborn is wrong. We are not to do it. That is, we avoid doing it because it is evil. It is a negative command, – THOU SHALT NOT – which makes it narrow and easy for us to see clearly.

On the other hand, to alleviate the plight of the poor, we take positive actions. That leads to choices about how best actively to help the poor. Helping the poor in the best way for the poor brings us to make choices between strategies, moral contingent choices, about which we can disagree. We have a panoply of options. You and I can, for example, disagree that burning basket loads of money in inefficient government programs is the best way to help the poor. We can strive to help the poor through other means. Choose some, but choose some!

I sense that some people might be a little puzzled by this.

Here is the best distillation of the principle I used that I have found so far.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Aquinas’ Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy

3.4.4 Exceptionless negative norms: more urgent though not all or always more important

Negative norms such as the three sets of norms just discussed are more urgent and direct as implications of love of self and neighbor, but are not necessarily more important in other dimensions of importance. That is to say, they are applicable and to be followed semper et ad semper, always and in all circumstances, whereas the applicability of affirmative norms (requiring one to act in a specified kind of way) is semper sed non ad semper: always applicable subject to there being (as is not always the case) suitable circumstances. Kinds of conduct that are contrary to a negative moral norm of this type are “intrinsically wrongful” (intrinsece mala).

Only negative norms can be exceptionless (and not all negative moral norms are). If affirmative norms could be exceptionless, there would be inescapable conflicts of obligation, but since morality is simply (the set of standards of) full reasonableness, there can be no conflict of duties each truly and inescapably obligatory in one and the same situation: one cannot truly be perplexus simpliciter – that is, in a dilemma such that, through no fault of one’s own, any choice one makes will be immoral. (It is, however, possible that my prior wrongful choices or my culpable negligence in forming my conscience put me into a situation such that I have applicable and irreconcilable duties and will be in breach of one or more of them whatever I choose or do or omit: I am then perplexus secundum quid, that is, in a dilemma but of a qualified, derivative kind, only in a weak sense unavoidable.)


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22 Responses to Exceptionless negative norms: getting it right (or wrong) about right to life and care for poor

  1. Ella says:

    Although I did not find your comment to be confusing I think your follow up is very beneficial. Do not murder people, do not commit adultery, do not steal, etc.. is pretty clear cut. Help the poor is not. Help them how? Volunteer at a soup kitchen? Work at a free medical clinic? Help them get a job so they can support their families and feel proud that they are self-supporting and contributing members of society?

  2. vandalia says:

    There is a level of distinction that is missing.

    The prohibition on murder (abortion) is an absolute, exceptionless norm. However, that is not a situation that most of this readership will likely face.

    On the other hand, the concrete situation of most of the readership of this blog involves strategic and tactical choices to influence the choices of others. For example, protesting outside of an abortion clinic is the absolute best thing that can ever happen to an abortion “provider” – it is a ton of free advertising for them. Prayer should take place in its proper environment – that is a Church. There are also strategic and tactical choices about the best candidate to support in a specific situation – ask Rick Santorum about his support of Arlen Specter in the PA primary.

    So, yes, there are absolute norms – one positive and one negative. One may never procure an abortion, and one must help the poor. However, the specific choices one may make to achieve these objectives (that is for one physically unable to obtain an abortion by not being pregnant) are both subject to prudential judgment.

    One may certainly disagree about the best option to help the poor. One may also disagree about the best strategic option to eliminate abortion (other than, of course, don’t have one!).

  3. tcreek says:

    When the USCCB issues statements, they almost always seem to address social issues that have arisen since the 1960s while ignoring traditional moral teachings. With bishops taking the lead, the government has subsidized welfare programs with trillions of dollars since the beginning of the Great Society and guess what? As government subsides increase, more and more people sign up for welfare.

    Studies show that conservatives and church goers give far more time and money to charity than do liberals. “Caring” liberals, like most bishops, want the (impersonal) government to do it. Hardly a Christian outlook.

    This is from Judge Robert H. Bork at First Things magazine several years back.
    “My difficulty has to do with the bishops adopting positions that may be taken to be binding on public affairs when they have no special, or sometimes even an adequate, understanding of the subject. … If bishops express opinions on such matters, that is certainly their right, but they should be owed no particular deference, either by Catholics or others. … The Church does not have any monopoly on truth about our obligations to the poor, the rights of undocumented workers (a.k.a. illegal aliens), the real meaning of pluralism, or our international responsibilities. These are matters of prudential judgment and the Church should not attempt to foreclose discussion as if correct answers are known only to the clergy.”

  4. Quanah says:

    @ vandalia,

    What? You obviously have no idea how many abortion facilities have closed (44 as of Sept. 20 this year alone). Many of these closures happen in the wake of “a ton of free advertising” given by the the prayerful and peaceful protesters of the 40 Days for Life. Seems like prayer works just fine outside of churches too.

    Concerning His Excellency’s remarks, it is a very sad fact that a great many Catholics including priests and bishops are formed by leftist ideological thinking, not Catholic social teaching.

  5. vandalia says:

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc (fallacy)

  6. msc says:

    His Excellency is still being political: “Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.” Some countries are in such bad shape politically that development aid does not get to those who need it but ends up in the hands of a governing kleptocracy. Without certain infrastructure it also does no good. Sometimes in these cases private charity is the best route, or increasing trade, etc. Some of the countries also have suffered from self-destructive economic policies, and giving money to them is like giving money to a compulsive gambler in the hope that some will trickle down to his children. As for inequality, it is not, in itself, a bad thing. Inequality is great in the U.S., but its poor are still better off than the poor in Albania, where there is less inequality. Some people like his Excellency would oppose any economic measure that concretely helped the poor while increasing inequality. A healthy, free market will inevitably lead to some people becoming immensely rich, but it will also help the poor. If a government instituted a policy that would double everyone’s net wealth, the gap between rich and poor would increase, but it would undeniably help the poor.

  7. Scott W. says:

    The idea that anyone protesting an abortion clinic is somehow doing something wrong is daffy.

  8. Gratias says:

    Bishops should not be Community Social Workers.

    Render to God what is from God.

    Marxism is incompatible with Catholicism. Vatican Council II had not a word to say about Communism. I an suspicious this is a VC2 bishop.

    Forgive my logic.

  9. FrMJPB says:

    “But choices by citizens or public officials that systematically, and therefore unjustly, decrease governmental financial support for the poor clearly reject core Catholic teachings on poverty and economic justice. Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.”

    His Excellency seems to be teaching that we are OBLIGED to carry out corporal works of mercy through the government, it’s departments, and it’s policies–to do otherwise is to “clearly reject core Catholic teachings…”. (RHETORICAL QUESTION FOLLOWS….) So, I must ask, based on His Excellency’s proclamation, does one become a heretic for refusing to cooperate and support (to the extent possible) a government that PROMOTES the killing of the unborn children of the poor and marginalized?

  10. Sonshine135 says:

    After and estimated $11 Trillion Dollars in social programs since the creation of the Great Society in 1964, there has been little change in the poverty level. What continues to happen is that this money that could otherwise be used to support individual charities is otherwise confiscated and given to these ineffective programs.

  11. Minnesotan from Florida says:


    Besides “Do not have an abortion,” there is also the prohibition, “Do not DO an abortion.” For male persons like me who also like me are not “in the healthcare field” there are only prudential questions of how best to prevent/reduce (the number)/eliminate abortions. Various posts here suggest that there is no certainty about the value or “cost” of sidewalk picketing, prayer vigils, protest rallies, etc.

  12. UncleBlobb says:

    “Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.”

    Voting to take someone else’s money by the force of law, i.e. a gun to their head, and give it to someone else, is not Charity. And can someone please refer me to the requirement for “equality” in the Catechism?

  13. The Cobbler says:

    @vandalia: it would be a post hoc fallacy to say that the mere fact that those prayers were said and then those abortion centers closed demonstrates that the former caused the latter. However, you made the claim that the prayer/protest combination was “free advertising” in order to point out that it may not be the best way to reduce/eliminate abortion, from which I take it (and I think most folks here will be reasonable in taking it) you meant to imply that the prayer/protest could or would actually increase abortions instead, if only by improving the overall business of the centers in question. To that, it is not fallacious to point out if just the opposite has happened and these businesses have had to shut down rather than expand, not as a proof by itself of cause and effect but as a disproof against the opposite effect being caused either.

    Now, the bigger problem is that any statistic about how many abortion centers close doesn’t by itself demonstrate that business as a whole is reducing or failing. We would need some idea of how often abortion centers close in general, and some idea whether the centers that close are being replaced elsewhere (especially relocating to get away from the protests but remaining just as active in the new location). But this lack of data has nothing to do with post hoc; and in fact that data is probably out there for the finding even though it wasn’t brought into this discussion.

    The biggest concern I would have in any case about combining prayer and protest, a concern in which the effectiveness is irrelevant, is that it diminishes prayer qua prayer — not quite in the same way as praying to be seen and thought well of, but nonetheless in some way since an intended purpose is to influence other people by our show of prayer, i.e. using the prayer to make a point to people. (This is also, lest anyone read into my comments, entirely different from there being external signs/actions/trappings in prayer or there being what the Church calls public prayer — look that one up for some fun. The former, far from the prayer being used to make a point, uses other things to point to the prayer; and the latter is, well, just the Church’s prayer itself.) I would, therefore, say keep the protests, keep them obviously peaceful, but be careful about making prayer into a protest.

  14. The Cobbler says:

    And now, to comment on the article itself…
    “Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.”
    If taxes were taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich, you’d think with all the people upset with the taxes someone would have pointed to actual evidence that this is happening. Since in all the controversy I have seen I have never seen anyone point to such evidence, I think can reasonably presume that the taxes themselves are not increasing inequalities in terms of wealth, which is the only thing they can directly affect. What, then, can this statement be objecting to, other than a hypothetical? Is it, perhaps, suggesting that some proposed decrease of taxes, because it reduces the extent to which wealth is taken away from the rich (and/or given to the poor), increases inequality? But not doing more to decrease inequality is not the same thing as increasing inequality — there may be other reasons to refrain from an action that would supposedly decrease inequality, say, if the actions in question are not as effective at decreasing inequality as other possible actions, or if there is some other problem with them, all without necessarily going the other way and increasing inequality. And while if decreasing inequality were a moral imperative* it would not be moral to simply remain in inaction on the matter, there would still remain the point that taxes are only one possible way and may not be the best or may not even be effective at all.

    Why don’t they teach them logic at these schools?

    *In reality, the Church’s teachings on charity and on almsgiving as an act of charity do not have the elimination of difference in personal circumstances, i.e. equality in the modern sense of the term, as their goal. St. Paul did mention equality once, but in context (and considering things he says elsewhere about related subjects) it’s clear he was talking about something much bigger than getting everyone to have the same amount of money. Now, one thing the Church wants is that we should not so neglect our fellow man that some are so poor as to lack basic human necessities (N.B. while this doesn’t mean being “comfortable”, which is really a luxury in the overwhelming majority of human experience, niether does it just mean enough to survive: there is little point in giving a man enough food to prevent death while he toils in hunger every day either); but this is because of the injustice of standing by while a man needlessly suffers, not because everyone should have the same amount of wealth (or the same anything for that matter). For that matter, she even wants us to be generous enough that we would give others over and above that minimum, but this is not only not about creating an outcome of equality but is not even about a specific moral line that must be drawn, but rather about love, which might almost be said to be gratuitous by definition — in that sense it is even more important than the moral imperatives, but at the same time does not bind to specific courses of action the way they do, nor can it possibly negate them since they too flow from it.

    What do they teach them at these schools?

  15. janeway529 says:

    I find it interesting that this concept can so easily apply to the poor, but not to the Second Vatican Council or to the liturgy, according to some hardline Trads.

  16. Imrahil says:

    Dear @The Cobbler,

    thank you for your last comment, and almost entire agreements.

    (Though I’d figure that today a co-national of us who is willing to do a decent amount of work if presented the opportunity should also have what, if he is modest, he calls a quite comfortable existence.)

  17. John of Chicago says:

    Two brief observations:
    –If Christ in the Gospel sees the job of the poor as waiting patiently for others to demonstrate their charity then social justice and government action are irrelevant. If, on the other hand, Christ is saying that the poor must be fed, clothed sheltered etc., etc., not as a means of my sanctification but for the poor’s own God-blessed sake, then charity is good and great when it is sufficient but so are government programs, taxes–whatever it takes. The really important point is their well-being not my righteousness.
    –Regarding Bishop McElroy, maybe there is no real dichotomy here. Less impoverished, desperate women and families and more accessible health care and good schools, housing, jobs, child care etc. and maybe there would be far, far fewer people turning to abortion–whether legal or not. Perfect solution? Of course not, but why not not give the Bishop’s approach a try at least.

  18. Imrahil says:

    A note: the Magisterium deals with all that in the second part of Deus caritas est. The second part seems to be forgotten in favor of the first, but is systematically even more important than it, because it is the to my knowledge first time the Magisterium lays a theoretical foundation for organized and unorganized charity (in the popular understanding of the word) in its modern spectrum.

    Does contain some thanksgiving for government programs as indeed taking part in Christian charity.

  19. Supertradmum says:

    Remember the sins which cry out to God for vengeance.

    1.) Willful Murder
    2.) The sin of Sodom
    3.) Oppressing the poor
    4.) Defrauding a laborer of his just wages

    Sometimes people forget three and four.

  20. mightyduk says:

    Less impoverished, desperate women and families and more accessible health care and good schools, housing, jobs, child care etc. and maybe there would be far, far fewer people turning to abortion–whether legal or not. Perfect solution? Of course not, but why not not give the Bishop’s approach a try at least.

    1. There’s no correlation between abortion and the absence of those things. Women have abortions for a variety of reasons, and most of them are more related to the impact to there lifestyle.

    2. Someone cited how many trillions the US has spent on government programs to fight poverty which has not declined, so, yes, we’ve tried it.

  21. mightyduk says:


    not sure your point here. Reducing wasteful government welfare programs is not the same as oppressing, and government taxes on the middle class to fund wasteful government “anti-poverty” programs are clearly examples of defrauding the laborer of his just wages.

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    ” Less impoverished, desperate women and families and more accessible health care and good schools, housing, jobs, child care etc. and maybe there would be far, far fewer people turning to abortion–whether legal or not. Perfect solution? Of course not, but why not not give the Bishop’s approach a try at least.”

    Hey, that’s exactly what Obama claims. Things are more subtle than that.

    This website ( a feminist site, I think):



    “The only thing that hasn’t changed is that women seeking abortion tend to be unmarried; around 85 percent of those seeking abortion aren’t married. While the discourse around abortion still focuses on scared white teenagers, the reality is that the typical abortion patient these days is a twenty-something single mother of color.”

    Clearly, it is not a matter of poverty. It is a matter of marriage. The sad fact is that few African American males are getting married, but African American women demand to have sex, in any case. They get abortions not because they are poor, but because they have neither a concept of sexual restraint which would have been common among unmarried women before 1960 nor do they have the prospects of exercising legitimate sex within marriage.

    The whole abortion issue is not related to money, but morals, plain and simple. There are plenty of poor married people who do not have abortions. There are few unmarried poor people who do not. The bishop simply has it wrong and so do the sites that proclaim poverty as the reason for abortions. Simply put, it is the breakdown in the understanding of the nature and importance of the family that has led to abortions and contraception.

    Poverty is poverty. It comes and goes with the caprice of fate, but abortion is forever. Sure, we should help the poor, but what does it mean to help the aborted? Abortion is an intrinsic evil; being poor is not. The alleviation of poverty is subject to prudential judgment; the obtaining of an abortion is not. Poverty diminishes life; abortion ends it. It is hard to say that the two are equatable. What the bishop just doesn’t seem to get is that withholding the laborer’s wages (a sin crying to heaven) is not the same thing as paying the laborer, but only a pittance. The real problem is the accumulation of wealth in the upper class and the destruction of the middle class. It is precisely the government that is allowing this to happen. If anything, he should be railing against the greed of the upper class and the collusion between the business class and the government regulators who permit it. He is attaching the wrong end of the tree.

    Let him work to re-establish the middle class and the poor will, in large part, get better help. Of course, to do that, he would have to attack the evil will of power with the poverty of truth. Poverty, in itself, is not always bad, as it has been recognized as a means of spiritual growth since the beginning. There are two terms in Scripture for poverty: ptochos and penes. Penes (from which we get the word, penny) is the type of poverty that lives from paycheck-to-paycheck, but survives. Ptochos means destitution, where one has no means of providing even for food. There are very few in that situation in the United States, at least compared to the rest of the world. I mean, the government assistance for women with children belies the idea that women in the United States have to have an abortion because they cannot support their children. Clearly, abortion is not a matter of poverty, even though the poor are having abortions. It is the fallacy of the converse accident to claim that because poor people are having abortions that poverty is the main cause of abortion. In fact, it, clearly, is not. Keep the black males out of prison and abortion rates will drop like a stone.

    Another sad fact the bishop does not address is that more Catholics are having abortions than Protestants. Yeah, how’s that ecumenism thing working out for you (okay, that was uncalled for, but you get the idea)?

    The Chicken