Saturday, May 17, 2014

Doing Evil That Good May Come?

Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.

Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.

Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.

Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.

Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good," it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 14

Reflection – So here it is: the actual magisterial ruling, binding upon all the Catholic faithful, regarding what actions must not be taken to regulate fertility. The Pope, in the fullness of his authority as Vicar of Christ, entrusted with the safeguarding and handing on of Catholic doctrine, affirms here what has been the teaching of the Church for 2000 years.

Abortion, the in utero killing of a human being, is wrong, permanent sterilization which is the physical mutilation of a human being is wrong, temporary sterilization as in the birth control pill is wrong, and any other methods of acting to prevent or block the procreative nature of sexual intercourse are wrong. 

The reasons behind this and the larger spiritual and theological context of those reasons are found in Humanae Vitae pp 1-13, every word of which I have presented on this blog these past few weeks. I won’t go over them all here; if you have just stumbled across this post and haven’t read the rest of the series, the label at the bottom of this post will bring you up to speed on the whole picture.

Pope Paul VI makes a good distinction, more necessary today than ever, between tolerating a lesser evil for the sake of a greater good and doing evil for the sake of a greater good. The first is unavoidable in a world of finite beings with finite powers; we almost always have to put up with things that are simply wrong because the course of action needed to fix them would be worse. Almost always there is some level in which our own actions are cooperating in the evil choices of others, and the Church has developed a very nuanced and delicate moral theology of cooperation that is a most useful diagnostic tool for how to navigate those murky waters.

But we must never, ever do an evil act to achieve some good purpose. To perform an abortion because a woman or young girl is in terrible trouble is to sacrifice one innocent life for the apparent good of another. To torture a terrorist so as to extract information about a possible attack is to deny the very sanctity of life and the person that we are supposed to be concerned for. To tell a deliberate lie so as to achieve some good end or other is wrong, even if in extreme circumstances (the classic ‘hiding Jews from Nazis’ scenario, which of course we all do every day) the wrong is so minuscule and the good so profound that the guilt of the lie is almost nil.

Consequentialism, the moral theory that a good intention sanitizes the evil of an action, or that there is no such thing as actions that are in themselves evil, only good or bad intentions, is the prevailing ethos of our day. It is not limited to the political left or right, as the examples I give show. It is common to all, and it is simply wrong.

It is, factually, an utterly incoherent theory. The example of torture shows this. We are against terrorism, of course, because it is wrong to brutally assail human life for a political end. And we express our opposition to terrorism by… brutally assailing human life for a political end! Or we are motivated to help a woman in a crisis pregnancy because people matter, dammit, and human life and happiness is a precious good. And we help her by… killing a human life and snuffing out any chance that the human being she carries in her womb will have for happiness. So I guess human life doesn’t really matter, then, does it. It is incoherent madness.

The only way to pursue the good of human life is by doing good actions and avoiding evil actions, even though in the short term this may entail suffering, sacrifice, painful struggle and hard choices. When we depart from that path to the easy quick way of life, we ultimately do no good to ourselves and damage our neighbor and the whole fabric of the world. There is, obviously, much more to say about all this, but that is quite enough for one day.


  1. "In my views, dissent from the authoritative noninfallible hierarchical teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is an effort to support and not destroy the credibility of the teaching office. The theological community can play the critical role of the loyal opposition, thus in the long run enhancing the church's teaching role. To carry out this properly, the magisterium must be in dialogue with the whole church. The primary teacher in the church remains the Holy Spirit. Wide consultation and dialogue are a necessary part of the function of the hierarchical teaching office". Charles Curran, 1987

    Thanks for your interest in HV. It is brave of you to write. But, really you have added nothing new to age old conflicts.

    You have not persuaded me that this conflict is not about physicalism or biologicalism. Perhaps, that was not your intent. Perhaps you were just trying to represent your point of view.

    This way of teaching and talking...while it might make you feel better... I do not think will help very much.

    It is true that we have to set limits in dissent. Or as Curran might say: pluralism exists in a broader area of unity, assent and agreement.

    In specific issues in complex cases there must be room for diversity and disagreement. Not everything central to the faith and everything else morally wrong...intrinsically evil...

    There are more gray areas now than ever before Father. We need teachers who teach us to see Jesus in the gray.

    We can disagree...can be church together...and no one has to be fundamentally is crucial that we get this.

    1. God bless you. Well, my intent in writing is to present the teachings of the Catholic Church which, in my life time, have rarely been presented in public forums, and virtually never in parish settings.
      To call the debate over contraception 'age old' is a funny choice of phrase. Until the 1930s there was no debate, and in Catholicism it only emerged in the 60s. 50 years of debate is not 'age old', in light of the previous 2000 years of consistent and generally accepted teaching.
      I really don't get how anyone can read HV and conclude that it is about physicalism or biologicalism. I'm sorry, but I really don't. The Pope over and over again stresses how these matters (which by definition, of course, have a physical expression!) are rooted in the divine nature of human marital love, its meaning reflecting the nature and dignity of this divine meaning, how it engages the whole human person and the couple in every aspect of their humanity. You may disagree with the argument, but to call it physicalism suggests to me that you have read the encylical very carelessly or selectively.
      'It is true that we have to set limits in dissent'. Yes, and I would hold that something as central to the human project as our sexuality and the creation of human life is well within those limits. But I defer here (as I do in all things) to the tradition as it is passed on by the magisterium.
      I think anyone who has read my blog and my other writings at any length would know that I am well and fully aware of the complexities and greyness of human life.
      But thank you for your honesty and your clarity, your courtesy and willingness to dialogue. I am happy to do so, as long as we can all respect one another's persons.

  2. Anonymous, I don't think you get this. you need to read some new material. If you are stuffing your mind with Charlie Curran then I don't think we are part of the same church as you say.. The other anon.

    1. Father Denis and what is the plural of anon?

      Well, my understanding is that HV was a response to the oral contraceptive tablet which was developed in 1960. I may be wrong here, but my understanding is that other Christian religions were issuing statements about this and the Catbolic church needed to weigh in. There was some sort of synod or committee formed to study this issue and it was widely speculated that the church would change its view on contraceptives.

      I think prior to the advent of the pill, contraceptive use was not safe of not effective. There were methods being used which were not safe for women. Someone of the early contraceptives in the US included a disinfectant solution- which actually caused chemical burns if not used in the proper concentration- and since it was available OTC- it was often not mixed properly..and further even in accurate concentrations it often failed to abort a pregnancy. So, in my medical mind the first contraceptive ban- 1930s? - in the Catholic Church was a kind of protection for women and children.

      Ages old conflict? I guess in the history of the church it is not ages old. This conflict, does, however, span my age old.

      Also, Father Denis - yes. This is a core issue. Sexually is central in our development as human persons. Your point, is well taken....but can you also understand for the very same crucial reconciliation with one's own conscience is? I have often found that when there is conflict between church teaching and my personal conscience...the conflict is often about something else- and my conscience was in accordance with church teaching all along.

      finally, anon two. really? The best you can offer is : read Father Curran and you are not in my church? Now, is that helpful to dialogue, mutual understanding? can you try to open yourself just a little bit to another human being? It is painful to really hear another, but we have to try.

    2. Anon 1 and 2 - well, first, it's really hard for me to have a prolonged conversation with anonymous people. I blog under my own name and everything, so it's a bit uneven to talk with people when I don't know who they are. Especially if I happen to know you off blog (and I have a wee hunch I might...) it is unfair to hide behind anonymity here, when my identity, etc., is completely public and known.
      That aside... I very much respect your position - I really do, even though I do disagree with it. I would have to say that the Church's teaching on contraception extends far earlier than the 1930s - that was simply a reiteration of the (truly) age-old doctrine of the Church. After all, contraception is nothing new - the Egyptians had condoms!
      The issue was never the protection of women and children (barrier methods, while unreliable at best, are not especially harmful), but more or less the upholding of the nature and menaing of sexuality and marriage - what HV is saying. That's what you see when the subject is treated, which it really isn't that much, until the modern age.
      The whole question of conscience is a delicate and painful one, of course, extending deeply into the freedom and dignity of the human person. As a Catholic my understanding of it is that, when the Church ahs consistently taught something, and has reiterated that teaching in strong langauge in the face of modern questions, the proper response is not to insist that the Church prove its position beyond any possible objection or shadow of a doubt (which is setting an almost impossible standard - there is always going to be some possible line of counter-argument, right?), but to have a fundamental assumption of trust that the Church's doctrine comes from a place of wisdom and truth, and to be very slow indeed to think oneself to know better about it. That is how I understand things, as a Catholic.
      I agree that anon2 does not need to be excommunicating people for the crime of reading Charles Curran! God bless you, and thank you for being willing to dialogue.


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