What Is An Intrinsic Evil?
And What Is Its Significance For The Catholic Voter?
A lot of people talk about what is and what isn’t an intrinsic evil. Do we really know how the Catholic Church views the idea of an intrinsic evil? I used to think of an intrinsic evil as “an act that’s really bad.” This is of course true, an intrinsic evil is an act that is “really bad” but this definition doesn’t go far enough and it doesn’t give us the kind of view of an intrinsic evil that the Church has, at least in its fullness.
“Intrinsic” means that it is inherent or built-in or essential to the act. In the case of an “intrinsic” evil it means that evil in that given act is built-in or essential or inherent or “intrinsic” to that act. I once heard a Catholic writer and speaker give a talk and he was referring to acts that are “intrinsically evil” and stopped to define an intrinsic evil. Now this speaker knew well the maxim “repetition is the mother of learning.” I am going to try to quote him because it really stuck with me and I think it will stick with you too (it will merely be a poor paraphrase as this man is much more eloquent in his speech than I).
He defined an intrinsic evil as an act that is always bad, always sinful, always always always. Never good, never appropriate, never useful, never, never, never. It is an act that is ALWAYS SINFUL in every time, every epoch, every era, every age, every place, every situation, every every every. There is NO GREY AREA! No doubt, no question that these acts (acts that are intrinsically evil) are always and everywhere and for everybody and for every situation, SINFUL and NEVER ACCEPTABLE.
Wow! I actually got the idea in my head and was able to remember it to this day.
But WHY is the definition of intrinsic evil important for us as we approach Election Day? The Catholic Church teaches that a lot of things are intrinsically evil such as Rape (see CCC 2356), self-abuse (see CCC 2352), lying (see 1753), and contraception (see 2370) to name a few. But none of the above named acts are campaign issues in this election. Nobody is saying, “I’m going to appoint nothing but Supreme Court justices who will legalize rape!” These intrinsic evils are not current campaign issues.
Well how about “Capital Punishment” and “War”? Surely these are intrinsic evils right? Wrong! More on these issues later.
Well are there any intrinsic evils that are being peddled in this election that some people are trying to impose or foist upon our society? Yes there are.
Perhaps you’ve seen Catholic Answers “Voters Guide For Serious Catholics.” They talk about 5 issues that ARE current campaign issues. All five of these issues are intrinsic evils! Catholic Answers refers to these issues as “The Non-Negotiable Issues.” Because these issues all involve carrying out intrinsically evil acts, they are considered by the Church as being non-negotiable issues.
Well what ARE these 5 intrinsically evil current campaign issues? They are as follows:
1. Murdering unborn innocent babies (also known by the euphemism of “Choice” or its older euphemism “Abortion”).
2. Murdering the sick and disabled who will be unable or no longer is able to contribute significant tax revenues or profits (known also as the euphemisms of “Euthanasia” and “Death With Dignity”).
3. Allowing innocent babies to be conceived for the purpose of murdering them to “salvage the parts” and “study” (also called by the euphemism of “Fetal Stem Cell Research”).
4. Redefining Marriage by government-supported illicit and intrinsically disordered sexual licentiousness, which also violates nature (also called by the euphemism of “Gay Marriage”).
5. Approval of Scientists in laboratories who are illicitly concocting and manipulating Human cells to produce a person genetically desired and mirrored to another human being (also known by the euphemism of “Cloning People”).
Oh but can’t we at least have “academic dialogue” and all of that. A little tolerance goes a long way and won’t hurt anything will it? And after-all, we don’t want to be single-issue voters do we?
Sometimes it’s tough to see that NO (!) we cannot have “academic” dialogue on these issues. It can be tough to see for some people because in many circles in society these issues are considered politically expedient and politically correct. With all the peer-pressure that goes along with these issues it compounds the problem. I think this affects us all. For example lets look at some other issues that are ALSO intrinsically evil but NOT politically correct in our society.
What if a political candidate said “We should legalize gassing Jews to death in concentration camps.” Would you reply (?) . . . . . . . “Well we certainly don’t want to be single-issue voters. I don’t agree with this point but why don’t you tell some of your views on other issues and I’ll weigh the whole package and consider voting for you.” You wouldn’t say that! Why? Because someone who is in favor of gassing Jews wouldn’t merely be disturbed on one issue. Why not? Because this guy’s whole outlook is deranged and distorted. It would have to be. The only reason we can’t readily see this with abortion is because it is currently a politically correct intrinsically evil. I guarantee you our grandparents would have seen it quite readily.
Or what if you complained that your mother was getting on your nerves and some guy suggested hitting her over the head a couple of times with a rolling pin to give her an “attitude adjustment.” You’d be shocked and horrified and reject this “advice” decisively. Then what if he came back at you and said something like “Well I think it’s reasonable to have a little academic dialogue on this issue, I mean dialogue isn’t going to hurt anything.” “Let’s have a little tolerance and all of that.” You’d reject that “suggestion.” Why? Because you don’t “dialogue” or “consider” an act that is intrinsically evil! If you “dialogue” on such issues you have already made concessions that are sinful and inappropriate. You don’t even consider intrinsic evils!
How about the “politician” at the front door looking for your vote who favors black slavery. Would you say “Well I personally disagree with you on this issue but I don’t want to force my religious views on another American. So why don’t you tell me your views on the minimum wage issue and I’ll see if I’ll vote for you.” No! You wouldn’t say that. You’d say something like “Please leave this premises right now!” Why? Because this candidate has a view on humanity that says it is “OK to take one whole segment of humanity, redefine them as less than persons and enslave them” (or in the case of abortion – murder them). This is NOT ONE ISSUE! It is a whole deformed outlook on humanity by this politician.
“Well this abortion stuff (etc.) is a religious issue!”
BEWARE! That statement is a partial truth. We will use the example of abortion. Abortion IS a religious issue. But abortion is NOT MERELY a religious issue. What is that supposed to mean? Let me explain. Abortion is ALSO a human rights issue in addition to being a religious issue. Nobody is trying to legislate in our government a law that says “Everybody in America must abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.” Nobody is legislating “You must attend Sunday Mass.” These would be religious laws and imposing your religion on the people. Nobody’s trying to do that. But there are religious issues that cross into human rights issues that we can and should utilize for the betterment of the common good – even in a secular society. Like laws against black-slavery for example. Laws against stealing and murdering your neighbor are other salient examples. There are many others that our secular society recognizes and insists upon – rightly so. These intrinsic evils mentioned here should also be extended to society as human rights issues meant not only for the good of the individual, but for the common-good (the betterment of society) as well. These are issues that are in conformity with the natural law and thus are not merely religious issues.
Well what about war and capital punishment? Surely the Church teaches these are intrinsic evils too don’t they? No. Why? On the principle of self-defense they can be justifiable. Yes but they are not always justifiable. That is true but they are not always UNjustifiable also – that’s why they are NOT considered intrinsic evils.
Well the common good requires peace. The Catechism says so.
CCC 1909 Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense.
The common good DOES require peace but that doesn’t mean you cannot protect yourself, your family, or your country against an aggressor. CCC 1910 says to “defend” the common good is one of the purposes of a political community. Armed resistance to oppression IS reasonable IS appropriate and IS even a duty, but only under certain conditions. What are those conditions? CCC 2242 tells us (see also CCC 2307-2317):
CCC 2243 Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.
Well let’s discuss certain wars here to see which ones are legitimate and not legitimate.
No. The purpose here isn’t to debate, which conditions have or have not been met for a given war or wars. The purpose of this discussion is to show that armed resistance to oppression (war) is not considered by the Church to be an intrinsic evil! That is the purpose of this discussion here today. Not only is it NOT an intrinsic evil, but also sometimes it may be a “grave duty”!
CCC 2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies (emphasis mine) is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor . . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”65
CCC 2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow: (emphasis mine) If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.66
CCC 2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility (all emphasis mine).
Well what about capital punishment? All human life is sacred. We want life to be a seamless garment and all of that. Capital punishment is just as wrong as abortion right? Wrong. Why? First of all we should affirm that ALL human life IS sacred.
CCC 2258 “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”56 But when an abortion is carried out it is always the pre-meditated murder of an innocent infant. When capital punishment is legitimately carried out, it is the self-defense of society against a guilty aggressor. This verdict is carried out by the government for the common good in self-defense (yes it is an individual in many cases [i.e. a judge] but always acting in an official governmental capacity. If the judge has personal ties to the case [such as if the murderer murdered the judges wife], the judge is to withdraw him/herself from the case so the alleged murderer gets a fair trial, verdict, and sentence). Abortion involves the slaying of an innocent person at the behest or will of an individual.
CCC 2261 Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.”61 The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere (emphasis mine). Well we looked at abortion but not capital punishment yet. Aren’t we going to even look at capital punishment? Yes. Under the section of “Legitimate Defense” the issue of capital punishment is discussed in the Catechism.
CCC 2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67 (emphasis mine) But would this “proportionate” punishment EVER include capital punishment within the teachings of the Church? Yes. Let’s read on.
CCC 2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”68 (emphasis mine) ————————————–
But these days that situation is “very rare, if not practically non-existent!” I agree. But this would show that capital punishment is NOT an intrinsic evil. Why? If capital punishment were an intrinsic evil, the Catechism would say something like “ this act is never acceptable under any circumstances and at all times when this was regrettably carried out it was sinful.” But the Catechism doesn’t say anything like that. Well these days there is no situation that could possibly fulfill societal self-defense criteria for a serious criminal right? That is debatable. Let’s say in the depths of Nigeria with “bamboo jail bars” marauders can easily escape to do harm again. That society might find capital punishment their only protection. And in America even with life sentences we have seen many times probation committees and judges erroneously release dangerous criminals only to murder again. Even when kept in jail murderers have often murdered again in this country within the confines of imprisonment itself (prisoners murdering other prisoners or even prison employees for example). But the point here isn’t if we NEED capital punishment or not. The point here is that capital punishment, as taught by the Catholic Church DOES NOT REPRESENT AN INTRINSIC EVIL! That is the point. Any contrary claim is a misrepresentation of the Church’s teachings.
Well the Church itself teaches it is supposed to stay out of politics anyway right? Again only a partial truth. Look at CCC 2246 to see how much authority the Church assumes:
CCC 2246 It is a part of the Church’s mission “to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics (emphasis mine), whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it. The means, the only means, she may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of all men according to the diversity of the times and circumstances.”53 Well what about “proportional” reasons? Then can we vote for a pro-abort politician? Proportional to lives lost? 4000 babies a day in America alone are aborted. I don’t see how the case can be made to vote for a pro-abort politician. It is sad testimony to how far America has fallen when the most unsafe place to be in this country is within your own mother’s womb! The only way I could see the case being made is if ALL candidates were pro-aborts – then you would have to start looking at who is better on other intrinsic evils, but we usually don’t have that situation. Well WHY is abortion pre-eminent even among the intrinsic evils? Because if you aren’t allowed to even be born, nothing else matters at least on a natural level. A good minimum wage isn’t going to help a dead baby. Also because of their innocence taking their life is even worse. Also because as Catholics, we want them to have a chance for Baptism and eventually the other great gifts of the Church. These are but a few reasons. Well I guess I just will forget it and not vote at all. Then the Church won’t have anything to convict me of right? Wrong. If there were no candidates who were better on these intrinsic evil issues you could at least write-in someone who was. You are obliged, you must vote if you are able. The Church teaches it is “morally obligatory” to vote!
CCC 2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country . . . . (emphasis mine). You mustn’t purposefully vote for people who are working for the implementation of intrinsic evils. That would be considered formal cooperation with intrinsic evil and would be a grave sin for you (a mortal sin assuming you knew, and nobody forced you to vote that way). The Church gives us stern warnings against formally cooperating with intrinsic evil (see CCC 2284-2287). When there are no practical alternatives to choose from (if you cannot find a viable candidate that isn’t peddling an intrinsic evil) then you may (you don’t have to but you may) vote for one of these candidates always looking for the better of poor candidates. This would still be considered material cooperation and although not an optimal situation, is an acceptable alternative when no other avenues exist. The proportionate reasoning which we discussed above would then need to be brought into consideration. But this abortion issue, is it really that basic? That essential and fundamental? Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (Section 72) had this to say: . . . . “Every law made by man can be called a law insofar as it derives from the natural law. But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law”. Now the first and most immediate application of this teaching concerns a human law which disregards the fundamental right and source of all other rights which is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual”. . . . .(bold emphasis mine) Before every election it would be worthwhile to go back and re-read all of Evangelium Vitae. It is very readable. It is available for free on a multitude of places on the Internet. Intrinsic evil or Goodness? Which will you choose? As Moses once called the people of God, we hear the Church issue the same challenge again today. Deuteronomy 30:19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live . . . . The Culture of Life or the culture of death. Which will it be?
God bless you. George Jay
(firstname.lastname@example.org ) 10/31/04
This is what is happening also at the level of politics and government: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people–even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the “right” ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the “common home” where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. The appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations: “How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practised: some individuals are held to be deserving of defence and others are denied that dignity?” When this happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the State itself has already begun. To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34). “And from your face I shall be hidden” (Gen 4:14): the eclipse of the sense of God and of man – Pope John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae (Section 20)