The latest trend in Catholic ethical thinking is what might be called ‘ethics without sacrifice’. In this approach to morality, any moral analysis is said to be incorrect if it implies that one must suffer in order to avoid sin. A moral analysis is said to be absurd or callous or merciless, and obviously wrong, if that moral analysis requires someone to suffer or to sacrifice in order to avoid doing evil. The very definition of what is sinful or evil is changed so that no one must suffer greatly in order to avoid sin.
Is a particular abortion direct? If so, then two lives will be lost instead of one. Therefore, they claim that the abortion must be indirect. Is contraception immoral outside of marriage? If so, then couples committing fornication would have to risk an unintended pregnancy, and children would suffer from being born out of wedlock. Therefore, they claim that it cannot be immoral. Is it immoral for a married woman to use abortifacient contraception to treat a medical disorder AND continue to have sexual relations? If so, then she must either suffer from her medical disorder, or suffers the loss of sexual relations. Therefore, they claim that it cannot be immoral. Are unnatural sexual acts immoral in marriage? If so, then the couple might have less sexual pleasure (what a great suffering this seems to be from the point of view of the secular mind!), or they might, it is claimed, have difficulty achieving natural marital relations without unnatural foreplay. Therefore, they claim that these acts must be moral. Is it always a sin to lie? If so, then some persons will have to suffer, rather than tell a lie. Therefore, they claim that lying cannot be always immoral.
Various excuses and clever arguments are used to support their conclusions. But the real basis for the whole argument is the premise that it cannot possibly be the will of God for someone to suffer, especially any great suffering, in order to avoid sin. Many Catholics online commentators, and more than a few theologians, take this point of view. Some express it with greater subtlety and some with less. But the basic concept is the same: an act that is necessary to avert great suffering cannot be a sin.
This concept is used even to justify acts such as directly crushing the skull of a prenatal, during birth — a partial birth abortion of the most horrific kind — in order to save the life of the mother. We are informed by these misguided ethicists that it cannot possibly be moral to let two persons die so as to avoid sin. Nor can it possibly be immoral, they claim to directly kill an innocent prenatal if it means that another innocent life is saved. Interestingly, they never justify the equally immoral act of directly killing the mother to save the prenatal, or of directly killing any adult in order to save any number of innocent adult lives. Why is that? Perhaps it is because killing innocent prenatals is often legal and killing innocent adults is not. Their ethics is founded on the secular point of view, not the Christian point of view.
A few Catholics have stood up to denounce this perverse ethical system, some recently and some in the distant past. These denouncers are the holy martyrs of the Church, who bear witness to the supreme good of obeying the eternal moral law and thereby obeying God, even at the cost of great personal sacrifice, even at the cost of torture and death.
“The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 91).
The teaching of Pope John Paul II stands as a witness, too, against the false teaching of ‘the ethics of exceptions for difficult cases’. His teaching on this point in Veritatis Splendor is the teaching of the Magisterium and the teaching of Christ.
“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited – to everyone and in every case – to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 52).
But the first and foremost example of suffering in order to do what is right, regardless of the cost, is found in the example of Jesus Christ, dying on the Cross for our salvation.
“We understand the eternal moral law, and all the truths of the Faith, better by knowing Christ, His teachings, and His self-sacrifice on the Cross. The entire moral law is implicit in the single act of Jesus Christ dying for our salvation on the Cross. All that is immoral is contrary to Christ’s salvific death. All that is moral is in harmony with Christ’s salvific death. Each and every teaching of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium, on faith and morals and salvation, is implicit in the single act of the Son of God dying for our salvation on the Cross: ‘though one blood drop, which thence did fall, accepted, would have served, He yet shed all….’ ” (Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 166; inner quote from John Donne, ‘Upon The Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day’)
The example of Christ teaches us that sometimes we must suffer greatly and sometimes we must allow grave consequences to occur, in order to do good and to avoid doing evil.
Saint Catherine of Siena was taught by God that we should not sin, even if the benefit was to save the whole world from Hell.
” ‘The light of discretion (which proceeds from love, as I have told thee) gives to the neighbor a conditioned love, one that, being ordered aright, does not cause the injury of sin to self in order to be useful to others, for, if one single sin were committed to save the whole world from Hell, or to obtain one great virtue, the motive would not be a rightly ordered or discreet love, but rather indiscreet, for it is not lawful to perform even one act of great virtue and profit to others, by means of the guilt of sin.’ ” (The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, n. 42. In this quote, God is speaking to St. Catherine by means of a private revelation.)
Simone Weil wrote that she would obey the will of God even if it meant that she would be sent to Hell forever (Weil, Waiting for God, p. 31).
The smallest sin is not justified, not even to obtain the greatest benefit. For the end does not justify the means. But the new approach to ethics is to claim that the means is not a sin if the end is the good of avoiding great suffering. The result is that many teachings on morality found in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium are made null and void. The idea that ‘a good end makes the means good’ is essentially the same as ‘the end justifies the means’. Also, if a good result and/or a good intention is sufficient to make an act entirely moral, then the teaching of the Magisterium on intrinsic evil is entirely null and void also.
So these are my questions to you, the reader:
Would you be willing to suffer torture and death, rather than commit an intrinsically evil act? Or do you think that nothing can possibly be intrinsically evil if that moral analysis would require you to suffer greatly?
Would you be willing to suffer the loss of your reputation and your friends, rather than commit a sin? Or do you think that nothing could possibly be a sin if it would cause you harm?
Would you choose to sin and admit that you are sinning? Or would you join those clever false teachers who claim that no act can ever be a sin if the act is necessary to avoid suffering?
But this is Christ’s question to you, the reader:
“For how does it benefit a man, if he gains the whole world, yet truly suffers damage to his soul?” (Mt 16:26).
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator