Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Q. I happened to read that a theologian at a Catholic University recently argued that it is sometimes all right to vote pro-abortion, because, she reportedly said, “intrinsic evil” is not necessarily serious evil, and that there are other moral criteria to examine besides the concept of “intrinsic evil.” Could this be true?

A. Concerning the evil of direct abortion, at least three self-styled Catholic academicians have recently attempted to structure an argument allowing Catholics to vote pro-abortion. One of the arguments proposed can be reduced to the question of whether or not the concept of intrinsic evil necessarily means serious evil. The argument concluded, in effect, that intrinsic evil need not mean grave evil; hence, to vote pro-abortion is sometimes morally justifiable.

The argument, raised by a person who teaches at a large university which was launched in a Catholic Tradition, is one which hardly occurred to me; the reason being that such a theory is so absurd. But, we are living in the Age of Absurdity, as we are often reminded by reading insightful writers like Franz Kafka and Eugene Ionesco, and by the proliferation of Enneagrams and labyrinths portrayed as essential religious symbols.

To respond directly to the argument, intrinsic evil means grave evil; period.

It is what it is. To attempt to alter traditional Magisterial vocabulary is beyond the competency of any theologian, or, for that matter, an army of theologians.

Pope John Paul II addressed this subject thoroughly in his monumental encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. Citing Pope Paul VI, he wrote:

“The Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstance, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.’ …The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: ‘Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, not as free, responsible persons; all these and the like are a disgrace, and … a negation of the honor due to the Creator.’”

Pope John Paul added that the Church, in teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, “accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture.” Here he referenced 1 Cor. 6:9-10: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God

No intention or specific circumstance can ever justify an intrinsically evil act. Such an act remains classified as “irremediably” evil; per se it is not capable of being ordered Godward. (Cf.VS, No. 81)

Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Veritatis Splendor after he had received the first text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (The initial document, in French, was presented to the public on 8 Dec. 1992, whereas the English version appeared in 1994. The operative one now is the 1997 revised edition.) This celebrated Catechism is, of course, authentic Catholic teaching; as such, it upholds the ancient Tradition that any action viewed as “intrinsically evil” by the Church bespeaks behavior that is utterly incompatible with Catholic living. Numbers 2271-2381 cite a series of such acts. Abortion is one of them (No. 2271). Also, euthanasia (2277), rape (2356), and all the others referred to above.

Hence, for an academic theologian to suggest that “intrinsically evil” does not necessarily mean seriously evil, makes no sense in a Catholic context.

Having determined that a human act is intrinsically evil, how can one justify any form of cooperation in or support of such an act? One need not be a theologian – or even a Christian – to answer this question. Recall the admonition of India’s peacemaker, Mohandas Gandhi:

“The business of every God-fearing man is to dissociate himself from evil in total disregard of the consequences. He must have faith in a good deed producing only a good result … He follows the truth though the following of it may end his life. He knows that it is better to die in the way of God than to live in the way of Satan.” (My Non-violence) (Emphasis added.)

Thomas Merton, citing these words in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1985), argued that this is “precisely the attitude that we have lost in the West, because we have lost our fundamentally religious view of reality, of being and of truth … We are concerned only with ‘practicality’ – ‘efficiency,’ that is, with means, not with ends … In this way we so completely lose all perspective and sense of values that we are no longer able to estimate correctly what even the most immediate consequences of our actions may turn out to be…”

Nobel Laureate Alexandr Solz-henitsyn put it this way in what amounted to a stunning interview on the BBC in 1976:

“Between good and evil there is an irreconcilable contradiction, that it is not one and the same thing – good or evil – that one cannot build one’s life without regard to this distinction.”