The Doctrinal Crisis on Intrinsic Evil

In Roman Catholic moral theology, no teaching of Jesus Christ through His Church is more under attack than the teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong. It is a difficult teaching to accept. The condemnation of intrinsically evil acts as immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances, means that we faithful Catholic Christians must refuse to commit those acts, even if we must suffer in some way. It would be much easier if the Church permitted everyone to use their own judgment, based on their own moral intuition. It would be much easier if the Church claimed that nothing is always wrong, and everything is merely based on a judgment of intentions and circumstances. Yes, that would be easier, but it would not be the truth. And it would not be consonant with the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, nor with the eternal moral law.

The reason that some acts are always immoral is that God is unchanging goodness. God is not good only in a certain context, or only from a certain point of view. The acts of God are good not only because of His good intention or a good set of circumstances. God is eternal unchanging goodness by His very Nature. The acts of God are not merely circumstantially good, but inherently good, because God is inherently good.

The modernist proposal, that intrinsically evil acts are not always wrong, or that intrinsically evil acts are transformed by a good intention or a difficult circumstance into another type of act, one that is good or morally justifiable, is implicitly a rejection of the eternal unchanging goodness of God. For if no acts are intrinsically evil, then no acts are intrinsically good, not even the acts of God.

The reason that any act is intrinsically evil, is that the knowingly chosen act is ordered toward an evil end (its moral object). This intrinsic ordering of the act toward evil makes the act immoral by its very nature. But when an act is ordered toward only good in the moral object, then the act is intrinsically good — not merely good due to circumstances or intentions. Deny that acts are intrinsically evil, and you implicitly deny that acts are intrinsically good. And that is an implicit rejection of the intrinsic goodness of God.

The argument is made that it would be moral to lie to save innocents from murderers. Saints Augustine and Aquinas reject that argument. And the Magisterium has clearly taught, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in Veritatis Splendor, that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. So we cannot justify lying by some formula which claims that the deliberate assertion of a falsehood is either a lie that is justified, or not really a lie. We cannot redefine each intrinsically evil act that we would like to commit, with a good intention in a dire circumstance, so as to make that act into a new type of act that is justifiable. Such a scheme was utterly rejected by the Magisterium in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor by Pope Saint John Paul II.

If you tell a lie, in some difficult circumstance, with a good intention, it may only be a venial sin. But if you publicly promote the idea that lying and other intrinsically evil acts are justifiable, you are guilty of grave sin. You are complicit in all the intrinsically evil acts that you have encouraged and approved. You are complicit in all the intrinsically evil acts committed by persons using your words as their justification. You are guilty of publicly promoting a point of view that is directly contrary to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

In the Church today, it has become popular to openly reject the teaching that some acts are always immoral. Various schemes are proposed to explain why this radical reinterpretation of the Church’s moral teaching is supposedly correct. But these arguments are always at heart a rejection of the clear teachings of Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These arguments are always, at least implicitly, a rejection of the intrinsic goodness of the acts of God.

What troubles me is that when Catholic theologians and authors speak against the definitive teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts, they are praised. They find ready acceptance for this heresy from many Catholics, especially online. The Pope and the Bishops do not correct them. And the few theologians who speak against them do so weakly. They water down their correction, as if it were a mere difference of opinion, when it is a case of dogma versus heresy.

The rejection of the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium that some acts are always wrong is one of the most harmful heresies of the current time period. What can be done to correct this problem? Already a Pope-Saint has explained, at great length, the correct teaching in Veritatis Splendor. This document is usually ignored in these discussions, or else it is radically reinterpreted. If another Pope were to speak out against this error, I don’t see that the response would be any different. Pope John Paul II is a great Saint and probably a doctor of the Church. Moreover, Saints Augustine and Aquinas have already also taught this same doctrine. But the faithless, arrogant, heretical teachers of the present age have no real respect for Saints or for the Magisterium. Their own thoughts always seem to them to be the brightest lights in the world. They have no fear of God at all. They speak as if they were gods, deciding what is good and what is evil.

And now we have a new hypocrisy on this very subject. The objection to permitting divorced and remarried persons to receive Communion is based on the teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. The five dubia of the four Cardinals makes the point very clear. The critics of Pope Francis have loudly proclaimed that the condemnation of the intrinsically evil act of adultery is at the heart of this controversy. And yet these same critics fail to speak out when Catholic theologians claim that intrinsically evil acts are not always wrong.

You can’t have it both ways. There are not two types of intrinsically evil acts, the ones that are always wrong and the ones that are justifiable by intention or circumstances or by a clever redefinition of the act itself. If any intrinsically evil act is justifiable, on whatever basis, then all intrinsically evil acts are similarly justifiable. You can’t justify lying or abortifacient contraception or sexual sins without also implying that all other intrinsically evil acts can also be justified in the same way.

What can be done to solve this doctrinal crisis? The only resolution would be if an Ecumenical Council were to correct this heresy, and if the Church were to formally excommunicate (ferendae sententiae) all those false teachers who claim that intrinsically evil acts are not always immoral. Yet such a resolution is perhaps decades away.

Meanwhile, the promoters of this heresy on intrinsically evil acts continue to teach at Catholic institutions and continue to be treated as if they were faithful shepherds, though they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Teachers of heresy are celebrated and embraced by Catholic dioceses, Catholic universities, and many of the Catholic laity. And yet their teachings are a grave offense against God, who is unchanging goodness.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to The Doctrinal Crisis on Intrinsic Evil

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    Pope John Paul II is a great Saint and probably a doctor of the Church

    What decides if someone is or is not a Doctor of the Church?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Pope declares a Saint to be also a Doctor of the Church. A Doctor of the Church is a particularly distinguished teacher of the Faith, who is also a Saint.

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