Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, discusses actions which are always evil:
80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131 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 labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.132
With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “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 (cf. Rom 3:8) — 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”.133
81. In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “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” (1 Cor 6:9-10).
If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134
Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.
82. Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.
The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order”135 and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.
The basic idea is that we can speak of certain actions, like murder, and say that they are always wrong. However, we need to carefully understand what it means to be an action of a certain kind such as murder. Several paragraphs earlier, the Pope states:
78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas.126 In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.127 And Saint Thomas observes that “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. ‘There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just’ (Rom 3:8)”.128
The moral object of an act is not “a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world.” Instead, it is what a person is choosing to do, and this must be understood in relationship with reason and will.
We can say that killing an innocent person is always wrong, then, if we mean by “killing an innocent person,” making the choice to kill an innocent person. But we cannot say that it is always wrong, if we mean by killing an innocent person, any action which happens to have the effect of an innocent person’s death, when the person performing the action may be choosing to do something other than killing someone.
As a kind of example, we can look at St. Thomas’s explanation of self-defense:
I answer that, Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.
In St. Thomas’s case, the attacker is presumably not innocent, but the situation would be the same if the attacker were insane or mistakenly believed that the person was engaged in a violent attack. In any case “one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s,” and consequently defense would be legitimate, even if the attacker is strictly speaking an innocent person.
Someone might object to St. Thomas’s account here. It seems that the man who defends himself is not merely seeking to defend himself and incidentally permitting the death of the attacker. Rather, he seems to be choosing to kill the attacker in order to preserve his own life. Thus, if the attacker were merely insane or mistaken, he would be choosing to kill an innocent in order to preserve his own life.
The problem here is resolved exactly by pointing to the distinction between the moral act and the physical act. The defender may be choosing to strike the attacker, but it is wrong to say that he is choosing to kill the attacker, since “killing the attacker” is not the act as perceived by his reason and will here. Rather, the fact that he is more bound to preserve his own life implies that the correct description of his action is something like, “striking an attacker in order to preserve my life.”
There is therefore something potentially misleading about Pope John Paul II’s affirmation that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” This would be true as long as the moral object remains the same. But as St. Thomas stated,
A circumstance is sometimes taken as the essential difference of the object, as compared to reason; and then it can specify a moral act. And it must needs be so whenever a circumstance transforms an action from good to evil; for a circumstance would not make an action evil, except through being repugnant to reason.
And in a similar way, a circumstance may transform an action from evil to good, when it changes the action from one kind of action to another kind of action. Thus striking the man with a lethal blow would be “killing an innocent,” when the man is simply standing there. But when the circumstances change, and the man is charging with a knife, a similar lethal blow constitutes a legitimate act of self-defense. This can happen due to the fact that the change in the circumstances, in this case, implies a change in the moral object as well; and this can happen without any change in the external physical act. The lethal blow may be physically the same.
The Pope’s statement can be understood to be consistent with this, since it can mean that an action always remains evil as long as the moral object is evil. Still, the repeated emphasis on the division between moral object and circumstances, in phrases such as “quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances,” and “independently of circumstances,” might suggest to someone that the moral object is complete in itself, due to the physical action or something similar, such that a change in circumstances cannot change the moral object. This seems even more strongly suggested by the claim in paragraph 77, “The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” In other words, it sounds like he is saying that perhaps some circumstances can change a moral action from one kind to another, but that foreseeable consequences, at least, can never do this. Now it may be that the Pope is simply saying that given that an action is evil, changing the circumstances will never stop it from being evil without changing the moral object. And this would be true.
But if he is understood to be saying that an action that looked at locally would be a kind of action which is morally evil, cannot become a kind of action which is morally good, once certain foreseeable consequences are taken into account, this would be a mistake. Breaking into a person’s house and taking something, which looked at locally would be an example of theft, might cease to be a case of theft given certain foreseeable consequences of doing it and of failing to do it. The reader may doubtless find many other examples.
It is on account of these facts that I said earlier that the truth about ethics is more flexible than people suppose. This is not because people do not understand examples like the one about theft, or about self-defense, but because people generally fail to see the general principles involved, despite being able to see the truth about such particular cases when they are raised. There may even be an example of this failure to see the general principle in the text of St. Thomas, in objection 4 and its reply:
Objection 4. Further, murder is a more grievous sin than fornication or adultery. Now nobody may lawfully commit simple fornication or adultery or any other mortal sin in order to save his own life; since the spiritual life is to be preferred to the life of the body. Therefore no man may lawfully take another’s life in self-defense in order to save his own life.
Reply to Objection 4. The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one’s own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man’s life.
It is not entirely clear what St. Thomas means by “necessarily directed.” If we are speaking of the physical actions involved, it could be true that “unless I do this, I will die,” just as much in the one case as in the other, even though such situations would be much rarer than cases in which self-defense is necessary in order to preserve one’s life. Such cases come up from time to time in hostage situations.
Because of the difficulty of seeing the kind of moral action involved in such cases, someone might be tempted to assert that the persons involved are morally obliged to become martyrs: they should refuse, even if this results in their deaths. But this is probably a mistake. Even fornication and adultery cannot be defined by the mere physical actions involved, and the relationships with reason and will that would typically identify such activities are not present in such cases.
It should also be considered that if one says that there is such an obligation, it would apply equally to the case of a woman attacked by a rapist. If she were to cooperate physically in the slightest degree, in order to avoid death, she would be doing evil. This seems unlikely. One should not say, “Well, she is objectively doing evil, but she is not fully responsible, due to force and fear.” Rather, she is not doing evil at all, but behaving prudently, even if it is possible for someone laudably to behave otherwise.
There are other, possibly even stronger, examples of the same point, but I will leave this issue as it stands, at least for the present.
Some Catholic traditionalists such as John Vennari say that Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church on morality. He says,
What is a key problem with the document?
Amidst great drifts of verbiage – some not bad, some remarkably tedious – Francis effectively canonizes situation ethics. He furtively opens the door for Communion to the divorced and remarried on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, which destroys key elements of Catholic Moral Theology. In particular, his approach undermines recognition of intrinsically disordered acts, and once this is undermined in one area, it is undermined in all areas. Progressivists immediately celebrated Amoris Laetitia as a “radical shift.”
Among other texts, Vennari cites paragraph 304 of Amoris Laetitia as an example. We can look at the text of Pope Francis:
304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail”. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.
It is true that one could interpret this to contradict Pope John Paul II’s claims about intrinsically evil actions. But this would mainly happen if one were to understand Pope John Paul II’s statements to be asserting something false, namely that a morally evil action is self-contained in such a way that the addition of circumstances cannot change it into a different kind of action by changing its moral object. I have no doubt that this is in fact exactly how John Vennari would understand Pope John Paul II.
Leaving aside Veritatis Splendor, Pope Francis’s claim here is true, understood in the sense that one cannot determine the moral truth about all particular cases by means of general rules which refer to physical activities and circumstances. Whenever we say that something is always wrong, we already include some reference which labels the action in a moral way. Thus for example, both “murder is always wrong,” and “adultery is always wrong,” refer to the idea of injustice, namely something which is undue, because murder is unjustified killing, and adultery is sexual intercourse which is unjust towards the spouse of the person. One cannot describe these in merely physical ways and get things which are always wrong. Neither “a physical action which results in the death of a person,” nor “a physical action which results in sexual union with the spouse of another person” are names of something intrinsically evil.
In this sense, it is possible to reconcile the opinions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Nonetheless, it may well be the case that Pope Francis does not understand the relationship of his teaching with the previous moral teaching of the Church.