Intrinsic Evils, Final Realities, and the Synod | Dr. Samuel Gregg | CWR
As St. Pope John Paul II's "Veritatis Splendor" reminds us, the idea that there are intrinsically evil acts has always been central to Catholic ethics. Without it, Catholic morality would cease to be Catholic.
It was inevitable. Any discussion about marriage and the family during a synod of Catholic bishops was always going to involve questions of morality. Just as the furor around Humanae Vitae was always about much more than contraception, so too do various proposals presented to the 2015 Synod unavoidably touch on the Catholic understanding of the moral life.
One phrase that has received much attention before and around the deliberations of the Synod fathers is that of “intrinsically evil acts.” To be clear, there are no intrinsically evil persons. There are sinful acts and sinners: i.e., all of us. But no human being is by nature intrinsically evil. The Church, however, has always taught that there are certain actions which by their very nature—or, more precisely, by reason of their object—are incapable of being ordered to the good and whose illicitness admits of no exceptions. The most recent authoritative declaration of this truth may be found in Saint John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. This mentioned intrinsically evil acts no less than sixteen times. Nor is there any question that the truth about such acts plays directly into several important subjects being addressed by the Synod.
As Veritatis Splendor and the many sources which it references—ranging from the solemn pronouncements of popes to church councils (including Vatican II), numerous Church Fathers, the witness of the saints and martyrs, and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—remind us, the idea that there are intrinsically evil acts has always been central to Catholic ethics. Without it, Catholic morality would cease to be Catholic.
In the years leading up to and after Humanae Vitae, however, some Catholic moral theologians—most notably, the German Jesuit who taught moral theology for decades at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Father Josef Fuchs—tried to develop theories clearly aimed at marginalizing, if not effectively denying the truth of intrinsically evil acts. Among the most prominent was the claim that an act could only be determined as good or evil in light of what they called “a total state of affairs.”
The totality to be considered included not just all the intentions underlying and circumstances surrounding an act, but also what Father Fuchs called “all the goods and evils in an act.” On this basis, one would evaluate not only, to cite Father Fuchs, “whether the evil or the good for human beings is prevalent in the act,” but also “the hierarchy of values involved and the pressing character or urgency of certain values in the concrete.”
If such an evaluation sounds impossible, that’s because it impossible. No human being can possibly know all such things. Nor can anyone estimate in any coherent manner the different degrees of good and evil in an act along the lines suggested by Father Fuchs and others. By what standard do we calculate the amount of good and evil in an act without collapsing into some sort of utilitarianism? And utilitarianism means essentially arbitrary (i.e., unreasonable) judgments as one seeks to measure the immeasurable, as numerous secular philosophers such as Sir Bernard Williams have observed ever since Jeremy Bentham published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789.
Back to the Synod
Lest this seems like simply revisiting old—and settled—questions, the topic of intrinsically evil acts has direct relevance for several matters addressed by the Synod fathers.