Decision-making requires sound analysis

Bishop Fred Henry


May 18, 2015

A farmer hired a man to work for him. He told him his first task would be to paint the barn and said it should take about three days to complete. But the hired man was finished in one day.

The farmer set him to cutting wood, telling him it would require about four days. The hired man finished in a day and a half, to the farmer's amazement.

The next task was to sort a large pile of potatoes. He was to arrange them into three piles: seed potatoes, food for the hogs and potatoes that were good enough to sell. The farmer said it was a small job and shouldn't take long. At the end of the day the farmer returned and found the hired man had barely started.

"What's the matter here?" the farmer asked.

"I can work hard, but I can't make decisions," replied the hired man.

All of us are called to make decisions. One existentialist philosopher even said "We are condemned to choose." Some people hope and pray that if they delay or stall long enough either the problem will be resolved on its own or will disappear.

This rarely works. Most of us need to discern, and it's hard to improve upon the discernment process of See, Judge and Act, and to do so in prayer and quiet reflection.

See: Identify the problem and name it clearly. What are my gut reactions, biases and loyalties?

Judge: Consider the alternatives, examine the values, evaluate the alternatives, list the principles involved and consider potential consequences.

Act: Articulate the decision and implement the plan.

Catholic tradition respects the role of both faith and reason in ethical discernment. The teachings of the faith are not contrary to reason, nor does the use of reason deny the need of faith for deeper spiritual insight.


The magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church, provides the authoritative interpretation of the moral law, based on Sacred Scripture, natural law and tradition. In this way, the individual's conscience, with its limitations, avails itself of the accumulated wisdom of the Church.

The Catholic Health Alliance of Canada in the 2012 Health Ethics Guide summarized important principles that aid in interpreting moral situations.

  1. Burden and benefit: This principle says we are not obliged to begin or continue treatments that offer no reasonable hope of benefit, or that may constitute a grave burden, excessive pain, suffering, expense or other serious inconvenience to the person or to those who are responsible for their care.
  2. Double effect reasoning: Some human actions have both a beneficial and a harmful result. For example, some pain treatment for a terminally ill person might carry a possibility of shortening life, even though it is given to relieve pain and not intended to kill the person.
  3. What is permitted?
  4. Five conditions are needed for deciding if such actions are morally permissible:
    1. The action of the person must be morally good or at least neutral in itself.
    2. There are two anticipated outcomes for the action of the person, one intended and good, the other an unintended but foreseen evil.
    3. The evil effect is not the means to the good effect.
    4. There must be a proportionate reason to accept the evil effect.
    5. There must be no less-negative alternative.
  5. Totality and integrity: A part of the body may be sacrificed to save the whole. For example, an organ may be sacrificed if it is the only way to prevent a person's death.


  1. The principle of totality points to a safe exception to the principle that one may not cause harm. Because the good of the whole is greater than the good of the part, it is justifiable to sacrifice the part for the whole.
  2. The Catholic tradition has limited the application of this principle to cases where the only function of the part is to serve the whole. For example, the eye has no function apart from being part of a living body.
  3. The tradition does not allow the principle of totality to be applied indiscriminately when the part has a proper function apart from the whole. For example, persons, who besides serving the state of which they are a part, also have value as individuals.


  1. Subsidiarity: Decisions and functions ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. As applied to health care needs, the principle suggests that the first responsibility for meeting these needs resides with the free and competent individual.

Individuals, however, are not completely self-sufficient. Usually, they can achieve health and obtain health care only with the help of family members, caregivers and the community.


The responsibility of fulfilling needs the individual cannot achieve alone must be assumed by larger or more complex groups, for example, community organizations and different levels of government, without resorting to "micro-managing," which is contrary to the principle of subsidiarity.

Many years ago, while being interviewed by Bishop Sherlock as part of his search for a seminary rector, he asked me, "Can you think of any quality that you have that these other priests might not have?" I said, "No, they are all smarter than I am."

But then, I added: "All I know is that I can make tough decisions and sleep well at night, but I don't want the job." I got it anyway.