(In no particular order….)

1. Abortion

2. Rape

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.

4. Adultery

5. Physical torture

6. Masturbation

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

9. Calumny

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.

10. Racism

11. Bodily mutilation

12. Usury

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

15. Lying

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.

19. Slavery

20. Polygamy

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

26. Prostitution

27. Murder