(In no particular order….)
3. War of Aggression
As with every election since at least 2004, the notion of “intrinsically evil acts” arises as a means by which to discern how to vote. Archbishop Lori is one of the most recent to make this point.
The question to ask is this: Are any of the candidates of either party, or independents, standing for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances? If that’s the case, a Catholic, regardless of his party affiliation, shouldn’t be voting for such a person.
I think I get where Archbishop Lori is coming from: we ought to be aware of intrinsically evil acts and Christians should adamantly witness against those actions, and one of the ways we witness against those acts is in our voting.
5. Physical torture
Intrinsically evil acts, for those readers who are unfamiliar with the terminology, are those things humans do that are considered by Catholics to be always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstance. What makes these acts intrinsically evil is that the person’s goal (in technical terms: object) in doing an action is wrong. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor notes:
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”
The reason why these actions are considered to be always wrong is in part because the purpose of these actions is never one that draws us closer to God. (In Catholic moral theology, our aim is always Christian discipleship with a view toward our ultimate goal which is union with God.) Further, these acts are considered always to be wrong because they do not enable the common good, precisely because they disrespect the dignity of humans. To put this in terms of the gospel: intrinsically evil acts do not enable us to love God or neighbor in the way that Jesus calls us to do.
7. Human cloning
8. Gay Sex Acts
While I think that it is important to know about intrinsically evil acts, I think it is highly problematic to use intrinsically evil acts as an absolute guideline for how to vote in elections, if that means not really examining any of the candidates beyond whether they have the right answer.
For example, David Cloutier and M Cathleen Kaveny (among others) have already discussed one of the problems with the category namely that intrinsically evil acts do not necessarily relate to the gravity of an act, nor its relative harm to the perpetrator. Kaveny notes:
So it is wrong to lie to the F.B.I.; it is also wrong to tell your Aunt Edna that you think her purple sunflower hat is fabulous if you think it is hideous. While such a lie would be intrinsically evil, it would not be a serious evil. To recognize that an act is intrinsically evil does not necessarily mean that it is a grave evil, either objectively or subjectively.
Indeed, even when it comes to the intrinsically evil act of masturbation, the Catechism shows some flexibility in moral responsibility:
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability (2352).
While masturbation is an intrinsic evil in church teaching, that does not mean there is no room to think through circumstances and other aspects of that act.
11. Bodily mutilation
Kaveny further offers an account of a grave moral sin, though not an intrinsically evil one:
Consider first a man who burns down his own building one night for the insurance money, foreseeing but not intending that a single mother at work there will die in the blaze. He does not want her to die; her death forms no part of his purpose or plan. He simply does not care whether she dies or not. Now this is a heinous act, revealing great depravity on the part of the perpetrator and causing great harm to the victim. It is not, however, intrinsically evil.
This is one of the worries when it comes to voting on the basis of intrinsically evil acts: even if I vote for someone who publicly states that he or she is anti-abortion, I may well be inviting a whole host of other, potentially more grave evils, and that requires some very careful prayer and discernment.
(This raises another point: yet another difficulty on my view is that we Catholics rather naively embrace politicians who are willing to say publicly that they are pro-life even in the absence of any actual actions. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is not a very compelling reason to vote for a person.)
I worry that focusing too much on intrinsic evil enables us to avoid thinking about about the many and varied ways that evil infuses our lives. As my dad used to say: are we trying to close the barn door to keep the animals from escaping, while all the while, the barn is burning???
13. Sex with animals
14. Using artificial contraception
But even more problematic is the shorthand way that some Catholics have wanted to use intrinsically evil acts as a shorthand list for voting. I have been perplexed in some of the conversations in the blogosphere and Facebook lately, because the comboxes (and private emails to me) seem to suggest that there are only five intrinsically evil acts (or non-negotiables). These five appear to date back to the 2004 election, when Catholic Answers devised a voting guide. The five are: abortion, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, gay marriage, and euthanasia, a rather telling list for its single-hearted focus on the Republican platform.
In the Voting Guide, Catholic Answers noted that, indeed, there are more than five “non-negotiable” issues, but that these”
…are not in play politically. These may be evils that American politicians are not currently attacking, such as contraception, or evils that American politicians are not generally advocating, such as genocide. Unlike the five non-negotiables listed in the main part of this guide, Catholic voters generally do not have the ability to influence these issues through the lawmakers they elect because of the lack of debate among politicians.
But what we should see here is that Catholic Answers is taking upon itself the role of distinguishing (for other Catholics) what they think could be ignored and what absolutely shouldn’t.
These five have taken hold among some Catholics as a simple litmus test in voting. Some Catholics also use them to talk about what things the bishops can speak about, and what things they cannot speak about.
But notice the difficulty here! In 2012, surely we would add contraception, at the least to this list? And, given the degree of discussion about torture, perhaps we would want to add that intrinsic evil as well? (At the least, it should have been on the list of non-negotiables in 2008, but it was not….)
That this list of five appears not to change at all, even given the differing circumstances in all of the elections, suggests that coming up with a handy list isn’t very good – especially if it allows for us Catholics not to think hard about who we’re voting for, and what we’re doing.
And that said, I will acknowledge that it’s a bit dangerous and perhaps futile for me to try to come up with a list such as the one I devise here.
21. Sexual abuse
The Catholic Answers list is far shorter than the range of intrinsically evil acts mentioned in the bishops’ own Faithful Citizenship.
It is also far shorter than the Vatican’s discussion of voting, as issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In addition to naming abortion, euthanasia and the importance of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the document also notes the importance of protecting the stability of marriage “in the face of modern laws on divorce”, protection from “modern forms of slavery” like drug addiction and human sex trafficking. It notes the importance of having an economy that serves “the human person” and the common good. Perhaps the biggest eye-opening statement in the CDF document is this one:
Peace is always the work of justice and the effect of charity. It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant and vigilant commitment on the part of all political leaders. (emphasis mine)
And, moreover, following his definition of intrinsically evil acts in Veritatis Splendor (cited above), Pope John Paul II goes on to describe some intrinsically evil acts. (I say describe, rather than enumerate because he, too, seems to be aware of the difficulty and danger in trying to pin down ALL intrinsically evil acts that might matter at any given moment.)
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. (80) (JPII is here quoting from Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council document….)
Given all of the bishops’ descriptions and “lists” of intrinsically evil acts, it is very clear that no one political party can claim to represent, with purity, the church’s teachings about intrinsically evil acts, nor does listing intrinsically evil acts on a platform do away with the need to be careful reflectors about the presence of evil in myriad ways. I’m not sure that in this fallen (though redeemed) life, we can escape from evil touching us, but we can by God’s grace try to witness against it. But that includes all evil, whether intrinsically so or not.
22. Pornography use
23. Mental torture
24. Arbitrary imprisonment
The CDF document reminds us:
There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and culture.
There cannot be a wedge, driven by the category of “intrinsic evil” that enables us to vote with (and point to) the bishops on certain “non-negotiables” while simultaneously allowing us to ignore those same bishops when we think they’re dealing with so-called secular life (aka negotiables). There cannot be a wedge that enables us to vote according to an arbitrary list of things (generated by someone who, in actuality, has no kind of spiritual authority) to the great detriment of using our God-given minds. There cannot be a wedge that enables us to acquiesce to a list of five, while forgetting all the numerous other ways in which evil encroaches on our lives.
25. Pornography production
This fine post strengthens me, as an interested observer of the moral theology scene, in my suspicion that proportionalism was bullied out of fashion rather than effectively refuted–and that, for all its problems, it remains the only realistic basis for handling moral dilemmas. The thesis that ‘intrinsically evil acts’ are always to be avoided, whatever the circumstances, is unsustainable unless it is at least in practice impossible for a situation to arise in which the principle generates contradictory obligations.
I have never heard it said that voting for a politician who promotes (or refuses to criminalize) intrinsically evil acts is itself an intrinsically evil act. Indeed the “vote against intrinsic evils [*but only 4 of them]” crowd almost always appeal to proportionality when it is pointed out that the Republican candidates almost never oppose abortion entirely while some fringe party candidates do. Then they say we must grudgingly vote for the candidate who offer a realistic hope of criminalizing more abortions even if they won’t criminalize them all.
Back when I was a student in college, before the 2004 election, somehow I remember the question of voting guides coming up in a conversation between me and my priest, and he said that the only permissible voting guide for distribution was the bishops’ one (Faithful Citizenship). At the time I did not understand what the problem was with CA’s guide, but, oh man, do I understand now. You do a good job exposing its dangers.
Jana: Thanks for posting this important, thoughtful, and creative piece. A couple of things I’d note:
First, you write, “Intrinsically evil acts…are those things humans do that are considered by Catholics to be always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstance. What makes these acts intrinsically evil is that the person’s goal (in technical terms: object) in doing an action is wrong.” I’d qualify this more: Intrinsically evil acts are those actions that are immoral regardless of circumstances and/or one’s intention(s) in doing them. The object of an act is not necessarily the same as one’s goal (intention). The object supposedly is the very built in telos of the action itself.
Second, in looking over the list you’ve gleaned and highlighted here of so-called intrinsically evil acts, it is apparent that many if not all include significant wording (“war of aggression” rather than simply “war”; “arbitrary imprisonment” rather than simply “imprisonment”); or the wording itself already contains within it a certain definition (“adultery” is a sex act performed by a married person with someone other than their spouse or by a person, married or not, with a married-to-someone-else person). In these cases, it seems that circumstances and/or intent have been considered, so that, as James Bretzke has put it, to label such actions as “intrinsicially evil” is more like a short-hand way of referring to them as immoral (i.e., the work of considering the intent and/or circumstances has already been done at some point in the past). I acknowledge that some of the “intrinsically evil” actions seem to have a built in object that makes them seem really intrinsically evil (e.g., slavery), so this is something that I continue to ponder myself.
So, in short, I may be in some agreement with Pendean above (after all, one of my professors was associated with the proportionalists). Might it not then be better to set aside the talk of “intrinsic evil” and focus instead on distinguishing grave evils from less-grave evils? Doing so would probably require more discernment, analysis, pastoral care, etc., but it also might avoid the oversimplification (the so-called 5 nonnegotiables) you are addressing–and it might help to reframe how we view the Catholic moral life (less action only focused and more integrated with, for example, a focus on the virtues and character).
Hi Tobias…thanks for pushing this conversation forward. I agree that the proportionalism debate ended too quickly, but I disagree that it leads to the the conclusion that we shouldn’t talk about intrinsic evils. The best of what the proportionalists did, it seems to me, was to push us to think how just what kinds of acts–described with what level of specificity–are intrinsically evil. Is “abortion” of a pregnancy intrinsically evil? No, the Church permits indirect abortion for a proportionate reason. Only abortions which aim at the death of an innocent person are intrinsically evil. Lots of detail there: about intention and about the innocence of the person killed. But once we get that level of specificity, do we really want to abandon the idea that it is always wrong–regardless of other circumstances or intentions–to aim at the death of an innocent person? Those who are marginalized will always be seen as having less value–and therefore injustice toward them as being less serious or “grave” (especially when their lesser value conflicts with the value of those who have power over them)–and the concept of intrinsically evil acts are actually a tool of liberation for such populations. And this liberating feature of intrinsically evil acts is not only there when it comes to protecting prenatal children from direct abortions, but also in cases of sex without consent, torture, usury, intentionally killing those with noncombatant immunity, and more. Once we reach this level of specificity in describing these acts, calling them “intrinsically evil” is surely saying more than “these acts are wrong”…it is saying that “the acts so described cannot be offered to God or the common good regardless of any other circumstances or intentions.”
Charlie, I agree with what you have written here. Indeed, I was just about to post a follow up comment that even with what I wrote, I believe that there are actions that are never ever morally justified (e.g., intentionally targetting civilian population centers with nuclear weapons; intentionally threatening to torture a terrorist’s child in order to get information from his family to find him; etc.). However, I still worry that the language of “intrinsically evil” (especially if it is explained through the language of “object” regardless of circumstances or intentions) has also been used perhaps to end discussion instead of as a “tool of liberation for such populations” (e.g., gay sex acts).
I’m suspicious that the traditional languages of intention and direct/indirect will do the job required of it. I of course agree with Charlie and Tobias–but that version of ‘intrinsically evil’ seems to me not to yield anything stronger than a strong presumption against that could, in principle, be overridden. I don’t think it’s all that difficult to set up a version of Tobias’s second case where the argument could be made.
By the way, I’m Philip–but I don’t want to get WordPress confused.
Philip: Thanks for your contributions to this thread. If you are referring to my example of threatening to torture a terrorist’s child, I know that an argument could be made (along the lines of overriding a presumption against it, a la W.D. Ross); however, I do not think so within a Catholic moral framework (even without the language of “intrinsic evil”), especially if I take out the word “threatening” and substitute instead simply “torturing”. In other words, I do not think that all actions are possibly justifiable. I do think some actions are never justifiable, and I would rather die (I think and hope) than do them–but I am not convinced that the language of “intrinsic evil” is necessary or helpful here. A “presumptive” approach to morality, in my view, would never allow for the possibility of martyrdom. I do think, though, that my Jesuit proportionalist professor did believe in the possibility of martyrdom (there are some actions that should never be done and that we should be prepared to pay the price for refusing to do these actions), but perhaps not because these actions contained a built in object that is intrinsically immoral. Hmm.
Tobias – Yes – and this is one of the reasons why I hesitated to write this post at all, but settled for naming writing such a list as “dangerous”. I think Charlie shows why intrinsic evil is a helpful category, and I think at a time when so many lay people are using the term “intrinsic evil” it’s important to think through it more. Still, I’m uneasy about it, especially because of the complexity and enormity of sin in our world.
Jana–Yes–I am more or less in agreement with your overall thesis about the “dangerous” aspects of such a list. Charlie raises an important point about the possible helpfulness of the category of “intrinsic evil.” But I agree with you that the term “intrinsic evil” needs to be thought through more, and I think that “Veritatis splendor” did not settle the debate even though it more or less shut the discussion down so that it is now assumed that proportionalism lost and is no longer a perspective moral theologians hold (or admit to holding). Finally, I too view the moral life as complex in this world, whether we are talking about doing good or avoiding evil.
This strikes me as true, but something of a straw man. Archbishop Lori did say merely “intrinsic evil” but he at least qualified it with “standing for.” And most of the time when you hear this kind of argument, say from Mark Shea who bangs the drum regularly, they condemn “supporting *grave and* intrinsic evils.”
They do not mean that any politician that does not want to outlaw masturbation cannot be voted for. Such candidates neither positively support this evil, nor is it grave. So it doubly fails as a litmus test. But they do mean that you cannot vote for a candidate who positively supports a grave and intrinsic evil, like torture or an unjust war (see, e.g. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2012/07/this-will-all-be-relevant-again-soon.html).
Those who are consistent in their position are usually forced to vote for third parties (b/c all Republican nominees in recent memory positively support waterboarding, among other grave and intrinsic evils and Dems, abortion) (see Shea again http://www.ncregister.com/blog/mark-shea/a-reader-asks-about-the-act-of-voting/).
This is a contestable position. It may be wrong, but it is not so clearly wrong as the position you shoot down here, which is laughably over and under inclusive. It would be interesting to see a discussion on CMT.com about this position. At the very least it avoids the sin of matching your religious convictions to your political convictions, rather than the other way around (because it forces almost inevitable third party voting).
rpritchie – Well, as someone who may well vote third-party (if not go all out with a voting fast per an earlier post of mine) I think it’s certainly one that is viable. I think that most of the posts here in the past week or two have indicated more of Mark Shea kind of position, or at least a third party kind of position, or at least trying to mess up the dichotomies present in the current election – though we are all probably being more oblique about it than Shea.
I don’t think what I’ve discussed here is a straw man, given that I’ve actually had conversations with people that suggest exactly this kind of thinking (see com boxes in most of this blog’s recent political posts, and most recently the com box for my post last week on “How not to discuss Catholic social teaching with the bishops” for example). If it is a straw man, I apologize. My point in quoting Archbishop Lori was not to set him up as a straw man, but rather to note how important intrinsic evil is as a concept in thinking about the election – and then further to note how (some) people are using the term “intrinsic evil” and what they mean by it. I suspect you’re right (at least I would ardently hope so) that Archbishop Lori, along with most bishops, are very nuanced about intrinsic evil and its use. But I continue to be surprised by the way in which non-negotiables keeps popping up on my Facebook, some discussion boards I frequent, and some blogs….
Ok, fair enough. And you’re right, it isn’t a straw man. But I think that if we simply attack this low hanging fruit we obscure the fact that there is at least a reasonable arguments should be non-negotiables in voting, even if the typical lists published by Republican Catholics is over-inclusive, under-inclusive or both.
Couldn’t we say that support for permissive abortion law, waterboarding, euthanasia, or unjust war ipso facto makes a candidate unworthy of a Catholics support? In other words, isn’t it the content of the list of non-negotiables, and not the mere fact of having non-negotiables, that is the problem?
The best counterargument comes from the Pope, who notes:
“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”
I, of course, agree, but given the minimal impact our individual vote has on an election, I am hard pressed to say there ever could be “proportionate reasons” for voting for someone who actively supports certain particularly grave evils, like torture or permissive abortion laws. So perhaps “effectively non-negotiable” or “practically non-negotiable” would be more accurate. In any event, you get the point.
Am I wrong here?
I do think there’s room for a list of things we could never support. I just also see the downside of it, which is not only that it becomes over-inclusive or under-inclusive, but that we get so wedded to the list that we never see all the other grave or intrinsic evils encroaching that aren’t on “the list”.
A list can’t substitute for thought and conversation, like this one, though maybe it’s our best starting point?
That said, I’m curious about your last point: the relationship between minimal impact of individual votes and proportionate reason. Wouldn’t that suggest that, precisely because of the minimal impact of a vote, we could more easily negotiate proportionate reasons, because both the voting and the intention would seem to compound the remote material cooperation?
That is an interesting point. I think to some extent you’re right. On the other hand, I think my point stands when you consider a third party candidate with no shot of winning the election. The normal argument against voting for such a candidate is that you are wasting your vote.
My point, I suppose, is that you aren’t doing much with it anyway. For this reason one might argue that it is a more virtue-building exercise to insist on voting for a candidate that doesn’t ask you to cooperate in a grave evil at all, than to vote for a candidate who does ask you to do so (but is just barely morally licit to vote for when you take speculative proportionate reasons into account).
In contradistinction, if we lived in a society of, say, 20 and your vote had a decent shot of deciding the election, I think you might argue that voting for a hopeless candidate would be improper.
Clearly, however, I don’t have this fully thought out.
And here is a practical argument for non-negotiables. Recent studies have clearly shown that people tend to engage in “cultural cognition” of facts. See Yale Law School’s http://www.culturalcognition.net/
We should thus not be surprised to find (as we do) that conservatives seem to think opposition to abortion outweighs all the evils of the right and liberals seem to think that welfare programs outweigh all the evils of the left. We should not trust ourselves in this regard. “Non-negotiables” would help us to avoid the pitfalls of our own cultural cognition. This, I think, is similar to the argument Charles is making above about not wanting to dispense with the concept of intrinisic evils.
That is, I do not want to dispense with the concept of intrinsically wrong government actions. These would necessarily be different from intrinisically wrong human actions, of course. But they are still important.
Great post, Jana, and a very interesting discussion. A couple things: First, I am a little surprised by the claim that one’s vote actually counts for very little. This may be true for me (in Maryland!), but for Jana (in Ohio), this is decidedly not true. Florida 2000. The question would then be whether there were proportionate reasons.
Second, I tend to lean toward the side that agrees with the need for some sort of claim about moral absolutes, even as I recognize that description is what matters. Nevertheless, I think there are two difficulties with “translating” this into the political realm. First, there is the long-standing issue that not all vice can be suppressed by civil laws – only those that are the most disruptive to social order. So there is some judgment needed about what those are. Second, I think there is a key distinction between the government DOING something evil and the government PERMITTING something evil. Obviously, the latter can be wrong (slavery!) – but there is still a substantial difference. Say one of the parties decided that free government-sponsored sterilization would be a great way to reduce the number of children born out of wedlock. This would be quite different from permitting sterilization. I think this point is important, because I personally struggle with the deep militarism of the Republican party, as well as its support for things like torture and capital punishment. In these case, government is actually the agent of the wrong action. Many (perhaps most, in a free society) government actions are a matter of permitting things that are wrong – permitting abuse of the environment, permitting substandard work compensation, permitting a lack of health care, permitting abortion. But the government does also do things, and I know no one is interested in foreign policy in this election, but bad decisions in this realm can wreck havoc directly on a huge scale.
I am jumping in a little late, but I want to respond to Tobias’s earlier post on intrinsic evil. Tobias writes:
“Intrinsically evil acts are those actions that are immoral regardless of circumstances and/or one’s intention(s) in doing them. The object of an act is not necessarily the same as one’s goal (intention). The object supposedly is the very built in telos of the action itself.”
Maybe. Obviously we are not going to settle a debate that has been going on for forty years, but I just wanted to point out another side in this discussion.
In Veritatis Splendor (#78), Pope John Paul II defines the object of an action as “he proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person.” His use of the word “end” here is meant to suggest that there is an element of intentionality even in the object itself.
The philosopher Martin Rhonheimer has provided the best explanation for this idea, as well as an argument that this is the best interpretation of Aquinas on the issue. What Rhonheimer argues is that the object itself includes intentionality, a “proximate end” that gives the action its “moral species.” What Aquinas is referring to as “intention” in the traditional three “sources of morality” (object, intention, circumstances) are further intentions beyond that initial intention that defines the object.
For example, I believe that Aquinas uses the example of giving alms in order to be seen by others to illustrate how a bad intention can make an otherwise good action evil. But notice that giving alms already involves an intention, which is what makes it different from accidentally dropping money in the collection plate. So there is a proximate intention, giving alms, and a remote intention, being seen by others.
Point being, Rhonheimer is saying that certain actions are intrinsically evil because of their object/proximate intention, regardless of any further intentions. He claims that proportionalists confuse matters by not distinguishing these two types of intention.
I find this argument the most persuasive, but again, my point is not to settle the debate, just to point out a perspective that is already out there.
Thanks, Matthew, for providing this additional input, which is helpful. I agree that interpreting JP II in VS and Aquinas on object, intention, and circumstances has been under debate. I understand what Rhonheimer is attempting to argue.
It reminds me a bit of what I’ve published on cluster munitions, with many critics arguing that they are inherently or intrinsically immoral (similar to how landmines were criticized earlier). Most just war analysis, however, examined the intention and the circumstances of their use (i.e., how they are used). I, however, argued that intention does not necessarily have to arise only in the decision by a lieutenant on the battlefield on whether or not to use them in a particular case, but intention also surfaces in the very design and making of the weapon. So, if a weapon is invented, designed, and produced (and then used) so as to kill lots of people, mostly civilians, then we are very close to being able to say that it is inherently or intrinsically immoral.
Nevertheless, I am not convinced by Rhonheimer’s argument about object/proximate intention. To me, if he’s correct, it sort of reinforces the overall point I have attempted to make that the language of “intrinsic evil” isn’t exactly right or helpful. How is something “intrinsically evil” if we must take into account it’s “proximate intention”? In doing so it doesn’t seem very “intrinsic” to me. Thus I still find Bretzke’s explanation (in his A MORALLY COMPLEX WORLD) a bit more persuasive (that the language of “intrinsic” is short-hand for this sort of work/evaluation that has already been done at some point).
Again, you are totally correct that there is another perspective out there. Obviously, this is not the place for rehashing and renewing the debate. Let’s do so through another round of publications! 🙂
There may well be a theologically valid reason to dissect the meaning of “intrinsically evil” acts but it seems the phrase is clear enough to convey a concept that is commonly understood. I don’t think most people had any trouble understanding the point Jana was making. My objection to the article and its reference to the “five non-negotiable issues” in the list created by CA was that it lost sight of their caveat that while there are surely more than five intrinsically evil actions the others “are not in play politically.”
The first two items Jana listed (abortion and rape) make the point. Plenty of politicians support the right to an abortion and while there aren’t any supporting the right to rape it is surely fair to assume that such support would automatically disqualify the politician who took that position.
If we can justify automatically disqualifying any politician from consideration who openly supported rape can we not reasonably do the same thing for one who supports abortion? I think this is the point CA was trying to make: should we not disqualify a candidate if he publicly supports a grave, intrinsic evil? Would any of us consider for a moment voting for a candidate who came out in support of rape? One may be justified in viewing the CA list as inadequate but that’s a different argument than suggesting the approach was ill conceived.
Ender, I think the problem is that it just seems so close to being partisan in favor of (current) American conservative views. It is inadequate in such a dramatic way that it is also appears to be ill conceived. Usury, for instance, is also an intrinsic, grave, and widely-supported and practiced evil. Why wasn’t it mentioned in this list? How about torture? Direct support of that grave and intrinsic evil is happening far more often than is support of cloning. And practices of usury and torture are clearly in play politically.
In leaving these off the list, along with other issues like wars of aggression (that are a bit more politically complex), the CA list seems to have American conservativism as its source of ultimate concern rather than a commitment to the tradition. Is there another way to look at this that I’m missing?
Ender: Actually, I do not think the phrase “intrinsically evil” is clear enough, especially when Catholics are presented with the long (longer than 5) list of so-called intrinsically-evil acts. Moreover, this has, as noted in these comments already, been a serious subject of debate in recent decades–with a major encyclical, Veritatis splendor, addressing it. I agree that most readers, though, probably got the point Jana was making, and I even noted that I did too.
In our “About Us” link (which I hope readers see), we say: “We are a group of North American Catholic moral theologians who come together in friendship to engage each other in theological discussion, to aid one another in our common search for wisdom, and to help one another live lives of discipleship, all in service to the reign of God. We understand our role as scholars and teachers to be a vocation rooted in the Church and so we seek to place the fruits of our training at the service of the Church, as well as the academy and the world. We recognize that we as a group will have disagreements, but want to avoid the standard ‘liberal /conservative’ divide that often characterizes contemporary conversation, as well as the bitterly divisive tone of so much ethical discussion (particularly on the internet). We therefore endeavor to converse with each other and others in a spirit of respect, charity, and humility.”
I was actually attempting to revive with my colleagues this question that many, if not all, of us studied when we were in graduate school, especially since we studied in some different programs with professors who may have disagreed on the question.
Charles: I accept that there are shortcomings in the CA list to the extent that torture should probably be included. As for usury, I would put it in the category with wars of aggression as something evil but ill-defined. Unlike, say, euthanasia, I could not tell you at what point a loan goes from acceptable to usurious.
I do of course recognize the political significance of the CA list but the list stands or falls on its own merits regardless of its political influence. One clear difference between the items it contains and those it left off is that, unlike the other evils Jana mentioned, every evil on the CA list is openly supported by name. No one is promoting usury per se, even those who might be practicing it. We should not discount the significance of advocating an evil as a good.
Tobias: I confess that there is a subtlety to the discussion of intrinsic evil that I had not imagined and while that debate is one I might not contribute to it is one I would follow with interest.
1) I agree that the idea of intrinsic evil is a useful concept for inspiring thoughtful reflection and discussion.
2) The concept becomes less useful to the degree we attempt to use it to create universal absolutes.
3) Regrettably the list of intrinsically evil acts becomes somewhat ridiculous as we start tacking on things like masterbation and gay sex.
The progression from 1 to 3 above may shine an insightful light on Catholic culture. We can be a very intelligent and thoughtful people, with a weakness for thinking things to death. In our earnest intellectual enthusiasm we sometimes race blindly past good old common sense.