Lecture 5: Moral Absolutes

Praised be Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church has always insisted that there are certain actions which of their very nature are so disordered that regardless of the circumstances a human being could never do those actions and truly remain faithful to his or her human dignity. Our Holy Father Pope John Paul II in his Reconciliatia et Penetencia insists that the Church has always taught that there exists acts which per se and in themselves independently of circumstances are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. In other words the moral object is always wrong. No matter the reason for choosing it, no matter the intention of the actor, there are certain actions which by their very nature, by their very structure, are not consonant with human nature and are not appropriate for attaining the goal that we really seek as human beings.

Remarkably, there are some theologians today who deny that there are moral absolutes. They make a distinction within an act itself to support their argument. Now let me explain a little bit what I mean here. There are theologians today, we might call them revisionists, who maintain that with the Catholic tradition, we must always seek good and avoid evil. This is just built into our human nature. Everyone pursues good and tries to avoid evil, or anyone who is trying to act morally does. Certain of these theologians maintain that certain dispositions go into our actions. We always ought to try to act justly, fairly, with love, so that every action which we do should be a loving act. Up to this point they agree with the tradition of the Church. Then they maintain that while there are these formal norms which indicate the way in which we ought to approach the moral life (i.e., we ought to act lovingly or justly), they maintain that there are no universally binding material norms. A material norm refers to a particular specific human act, such as murder or adultery, or even more neutrally taking the life of an innocent human being. We ought never to have sexual relations with the wrong person is another broad and general way in which it is expressed.

The revisionist theologians say that the names that are given to those acts carry with them already a certain kind of moral judgment so that murder constitutes indeed the unjust killing of another human being. Adultery defines our sleeping with the wrong person. They maintain that if we try to avoid these words which have a judgmental quality built right into them, then it is impossible to find material norms which are universally applicable. They say, for example, that directly to kill an innocent human being is a material norm which is binding -- unless there is a proportionately good reason for doing so.

We should never kill directly an innocent human being unless this is going to help us achieve some greater good. They refer to this direct killing of an innocent human being as an evil but not a moral evil. They refer to it as a pre-moral evil. They refer to it as an ante-evil. They refer to it as a material evil. It doesn't yet have its moral quality about it. A moral quality will be given to that act by virtue of the reason for which that act is performed. For example, in almost all cases it is wrong directly to take the life of an innocent human being, but will say: if it is necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman, and she has responsibility for other children in the family, then there is a proportionate reason for doing so. They say there is a greater good that is going to be achieved by destroying the life of that unborn child to save the life of the mother and thereby help her continue the care of her children. The ante-evil, that is the destruction of the life of the unborn child, is a material evil but it's not a moral evil. It becomes a moral good because it is being done for this proportionate reason, for this greater good.

One of the reasons our Holy Father issued his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, the Splendor of Truth, an encyclical which dealt with moral theology, was to point out the errors in this kind of thinking. In that Encyclical and also the one I mentioned earlier on Penance, the Holy Father insists with the entire Tradition that there are certain actions which may never be done. You can't do an objectively immoral act in order to attain some proportion of the greater good. Choosing this material evil pulls it into the context of moral choice. One actually embraces a moral evil and acts immorally. There are difficulties with this approach also because one can't always be certain what a proportionately greater reason would be which would justify our performing some kind of materially evil act.

These revisionists do not say that we can choose evil in order to do good. And they will agree with Saint Paul and the tradition that we may never do evil to achieve good. The revisionists, however, reinterpret that saying of Saint Paul. They say that what this really means is that we may never choose a moral evil in order to attain to a moral good. They claim that what they are proposing is not bad. They claim that what they are proposing is that it is legitimate to choose amaterial evil, in order to attain a moral good, and that it is the moral good that defines the act that they are performing. They suggest that the tradition has always made a distinction between the material and formal aspects of the given act and that they are taking advantage of this traditional distinction.

When the Church talks about a given act as being always wrong it takes into account both the formal and materialaspects of that act, i.e., the material structure of that act (what we were doing physically) and the formal (what we were choosing). If we consider the human person in terms of choosing the act on the basis of its structure, let's say killing another human being, then we have both the formal and material aspects of that act together. This is why the Holy Father says that there are certain acts which are always wrong from their object. If one chooses directly to take the life of an innocent human being, that is murder. One is choosing murder. If one has sexual relations physically with someone who is not one's spouse, he knows what he is doing. He chooses that and has committed adultery. Murder and adultery are always under all circumstances immoral because they do violence to the dignity of the human person and do not help the human person attain the end or the goal that they are truly seeking.

There was a very celebrated case of a famous man who had become involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage. It really led to dire consequences for him, finally the loss of his position. He was jailed because other things came to light once this adulterous relationship was learned of. He said he had done it to try to save his marriage. His wife had become disenchanted with him and seemed to be interested in other younger men. He thought if he could simply do this adulterous act, it would make her jealous and pique her interest again and bring her back to the relationship. He was trying to choose a non-moral evil, as the revisionists would put it, in order to achieve the greater good of saving his marriage. One can't see what is going to happen if one chooses an act which of its nature is disordered and does violence to others. It does destructive work on the person whether these things become public or not. In his case, his whole life came unraveled when this act was discovered publicly. We may never do an act which of its nature is disordered because it does violence and harm to the human person.

Moral Absolutes means that there are certain actions which may never be done. Logically they can be done. We know that we can do murder or we know that we can commit adultery. We know that we can steal. When we say that they may never be done we're speaking morally. There are certain options which do violence to our nature as reasonable, free-will, loving human beings. We can never do these actions without doing violence to ourselves or to some other person.

For a human action to be good, all of the components of a human action have to be good. Your intention has to be right. The moral object has to be right. The circumstances have to be right. The moral object is the component which is being called into question by the revisionist theologians, they say that the moral object traditionally referred to physical acts. This isn't true. Traditionally a moral object referred not only to the physical act but to our choosing that act. In so choosing it is no longer simply a physical act. It becomes the moral object that we are choosing. Another principle of the moral life is that we may never do evil because it does violence to our human nature.

We know that in order to think logically we have to be guided by certain principles of speculative intellect. There is the principle of non-contradiction, for example, that guides us in logical discourse, that says that we can never affirm and deny the same thing under the same aspect at the same time. In other words, I can't insist that I am here and not here at the same time. That would be illogical; it would contradict itself. We can't make contradictory statements and affirm those statements as though they were true. This is just an insight that people have. We refer to these as innate principles of which we become aware. If someone denies the principle of non-contradiction there is virtually no way in which you can argue it. You just have to see that it is impossible to affirm and deny something at the same time under the same aspect. So there are certain principles that guide our speculative intellect and enable us to think logically, rationally, reasonably. By the same token there is a principle that guides us in terms of our behavior. It is that we are to do good and avoid evil. This is part of what constitutes us as human beings. Doing good will lead to our fulfillment and our flourishing. This is what all of us seek. Even when people do evil they usually think that somehow what they are doing is going to bring them a greater good.

We have to begin with an acknowledgment of this very fundamental principle in our moral lives that we are guided by this desire to do good and to avoid evil. But you know it's impossible for us to actualize, to achieve, to realize all the goods in life of which we are capable. There are certain ways in which we choose good. Our choosing of the goods, if they are going to be morally sound, have to be to our self-fulfillment, our integration. All of our drives, passions, and appetites have to be brought together in such a way that they order toward a good end which is our wholesome living and ultimately our life with God in Heaven. But since we can never act on all the goods which present themselves to us in this life, we must be careful about the goods that we choose. Goods provide the very basis for free human action. The fact that they are out there is what leads us to act in the first place. We must never act against a good because then we do violence again to ourselves, and we prevent ourselves from attaining the goal which we want. We may never directly will an evil in a sense because it goes contrary to our nature. It is beneath our dignity.

There are times in life in which we see that if we perform an act some evil may result from it. Life is a very very complex undertaking. We at times can be drawn to do a particular act. For example, I might have agreed to do a lecture but something comes up in my family life. I really should be there with my family at that time, but I have another commitment. What does one do in a situation like this? Not being with my family would be wrong. Not fulfilling the obligation that I have to speak someplace would also be wrong. We have to make choices sometimes that will entail perhaps some evil. Invariably that will happen. It happens in life. But what is critically important is that we never choose the evil. I may never choose to neglect my family. I may never choose to act against the good of my children. I may never choose to do any evil at all, because in so doing I violate my nature and I do great harm to myself.

Remember Saint Thomas Aquinas said this beautiful line that I have used before which clarifies things so much for us and that is: "God is offended by us only when we act against our own good." We act against our own good when we violate our nature as reasonable creatures. So we may never choose an evil. We find ourselves in some circumstances in life in which while we are choosing a good we see that an evil might result from that action. It might be attendant upon that action. It might be one of the consequences of that action which I have chosen. In choosing the good act, I see that there is also going to be accompanying that good act some evil, such as perhaps the neglect of my family because of the lecture that I am giving some place. We permit that evil to take place even though we don't will it. We say that, morally speaking, there is a vast difference between directly willing an evil and permitting an evil.

Our Lord could not have chosen His own death. Our Lord could not have chosen that evil would befall Him. I mean, how could He choose such a thing? We know that He had a task to perform, and He was doing the will of His Father who had sent Him to Jerusalem. We have a beautiful passage in Scripture which says Our Lord "set his face straight toward Jerusalem". He was going to go to Jerusalem to fulfill the word of His Father, and even as He was doing that He knew what lay ahead. There was going to be great suffering and deprivation, and humiliation, and beatings, scourging, being spat upon, carrying His cross. These were horrible things. These were evil. But when Jesus went to Jerusalem, He didn't choose those evils. He chose the great good of our salvation. He chose the good of doing the will of His Father. He could foresee those evils, but He did not choose them. So we make a distinction here between a direct will, a direct intention and a permitting will. Even if the will directs some good, they see that there is an evil with it. They don't will that. They don't directly will it, they permit it. This is morally allowable in one's life. In fact, there simply is no way of avoiding this kind of situation given the complexity of living in an evil and sinful world. The Catholic Church has always taken this distinction of a directed will and a permitting will into account when it has done evaluations of moral acts.

One of the things that the revisionists have done (these revisionists who are denying that there are such things as moral absolutes which may never be done) is to deny that there is any real distinction between a directing will and a permitting will. They say that there is merely a verbal distinction that has no meaning in the concrete world. If we choose to do something and see that there is going to be an evil attendant upon it, we're directly choosing that evil. It's a little difficult to go further with these people. I hope that the way I just explained the difference between the two has been clear to you that when somebody simply denies that there is a difference between these two aspects of the choosing will, it seems to me that there is not much further that we can go. I believe that they really deny the distinction because if you hold to the distinction it undermines their position that there are certain material norms that can be violated which generally are regarded as being always and everywhere, in all circumstances, evil. In other words it becomes a tool to help them advance their position which really has no support within the Catholic moral tradition.

Life is difficult. We have to make choices all the time which seem to involve some evil. A woman is thrilled at the news of her pregnancy and she carefully monitors the development of the child within her that she and her husband are looking forward to so much. Then one day she receives some dreadful news. She has uterine cancer. If it isn't taken care of right away it's very likely that she is going to die. This poor woman is faced with a terrible choice. She loves the child that she is already carrying within her; she and her husband want this child desperately. She also wants to live; she has responsibility for her husband and other children who are already born. What does the poor woman do? If she chooses not to have the cancerous uterus removed she may well die. This would be a dreadful situation for her husband, her children being deprived of a wife and mother. But if she does have the cancerous uterus removed the child that she is looking forward to carrying for and raising will certainly die. This is an awful choice and regrettably life is filled with these kinds of choices, but one thing the Catholic tradition has always said is that we may never choose evil in order to do good. No matter what good we are seeking morally our act is undermined, is vitiated, if we choose an evil to attain that good. Because people are often faced with these kinds of choices and because the Catholic Church believes that it is possible with God's grace and God's help to avoid making evil choices in this life. God has promised us that His grace is always sufficient to help us overcome the difficulties in life.

Catholic theologians have thought long and hard and reflected carefully on these kinds of situations and have come up with certain principles to help guide us through such terrible and difficult choices. The moral theologians of the Catholic Church have developed a principle known as the principle of double effect. This is used to help us through the kinds of difficult choices that I have just mentioned. What happens when we are faced with a situation in which we see that the good which we choose is also going to have some evil effect? That's why this is called the principle of double effect. The action we are going to choose is going to have two effects. One effect is good the other effect is evil, but we may never do evil. May we go ahead and perform this act which we see will have two effects? And the Church says, yes you may, if the four following conditions are met.

The first condition is that the action itself which we are choosing is itself good. Even though we see that we are going to perform a good action which will have an evil effect it has to be the good action, the good moral logic that we are choosing, and not the bad or evil effect. The act itself must be good.

The second condition is that we intend only the good. We see that the action is going to have two effects. The action itself must be good and the only thing which we can intend is the good effect.

The third condition might be a little more difficult to understand although it is not all that difficult. These reflections and directives by the Church are really very commonsensical. The third condition says that when we are choosing an action, and we see that it will have a good and an evil effect, the good effect must precede the evil effect. Usually that is understood temporally, in time, that is, the good effect has to happen before the evil effect does. Another way it is sometimes put is that the good action must precede the evil, or the evil might arise with it simultaneously. What is key in that condition is that the choice of an evil is not leading to a good. In other words it is the choice of the good which we are pursuing and the good might have attendant upon it some evil effect or consequence. It has to be the good which we are willing and the good that is what we are actually accomplishing with the evil effect being attendant upon that. We are merely tolerating or permitting the evil effect. We are not willing it. It also says that there is simply no other way in which I can achieve this good. Even if all of these three conditions are met, we still can't go ahead and perform the action unless there is a grave reason for doing so, and it has to be a proportionately grave reason. So what do I mean here? Well, you can choose a good action. It might be a small good. So the action itself is quite all right, there is nothing wrong with it. But you see that it will have a very grave and bad unintended evil side effect. The evil has far outweighed the good there, the good that is even sought and directly willed, and simply couldn't justify our going ahead and performing that kind of action. So there has to be a proportionately grave reason for doing the action at all.

Which brings us back to this poor woman and the dilemma in which she finds herself with her pregnancy. What can she do? The Church has taught that she may go ahead and have the cancerous uterus removed in order to save her life, because what she is seeking is a good. She is doing this with good reasons to be supportive and faithful to her husband and to her children. What is being removed is the pathology. It is an evil that is a disease for which she is seeking its healing. That's all that she intends as well. She certainly doesn't intend the death of the child in the uterus. She experiences great anguish at the thought of the death of the child, but the death of the child is indirect, it's permitted, it's not willed. She sees that it is a consequence that will result from her action, but it is not the immediate one. It is indirect; it's tolerated. It's not chosen, it's permitted. And obviously in this case there is a proportionately grave reason for doing so. We are not talking about her performing an act like this because she wants to preserve her youthful figure. Under normal circumstances it is a good thing to try to preserve your youthful figure, but obviously here we are talking about a life and death situation, the only sort of thing that could ever justify this kind of act.

The Church didn't say that she has to undergo this surgery for the removal of the cancerous uterus, but rather that she may, that she would be doing no moral wrong, performing no moral evil, if she did. Someone in a situation like this could have chosen not to undergo that kind of surgery. I just recently read of a woman in Italy who had refused treatment for cancer because she feared that it would undoubtedly lead to the death of the child that she was carrying, and she chose to take her chances to bring the child to term and then to settle down to the task of trying to fight her cancer. She knew the risks that were involved. She took those risks. The child was born and the woman died some three or four months later from the cancer. In that case she didn't choose her death. She chose to bring the child to term. She chose to bear the son, and she foresaw that there might be an evil effect if she made that choice which might have been her own death from cancer. But you can't say that she chose to die of cancer. Indeed she fought it very hard. As soon as the baby was born she underwent all the procedures that would have possibly have helped her overcome her cancer, but none of them were adequate.

So this principle helps to give us some guidance in making hard choices in living in a sinful world. We are going to have to be making choices which are hard choices and which may involve some evil. The only way in which we can justify doing that is if we can apply this principle of double effect. This is a beautiful tool. I was well into my twenties before I ever even heard of the principle of double effect. To me it has been a wonderfully useful tool to help me make decisions in life as I struggle to remain faithful to the good and the truth. I try to remain faithful to God and to make the kinds of choices that are necessary for me to be faithful to Him. We are not talking here about distinctions which are verbal only. I think in the example that we have just given in this segment that we are not dealing with simple semantics or logical distinctions. We are talking about realities and concrete existence that will enable us to lead a good life and to avoid evil. In this struggle to attain the morally good life the Church has provided us with some tools that help us make distinctions and make the kinds of choices which will enable us to attain the good that God wants for us.

I use the principle of double effect to explain what a pregnant mother might do in a dreadful situation in which she discovered that she had a cancerous uterus. This principle can be used in many other circumstances as well. For example, we know that in the moral waging of war that soldiers may never directly take the life of noncombatants. Noncombatants, non-soldiers, are immune from warfare, and they are never to be attacked. It is evil to do so. But let's say a military commander sees that a platoon and tanks are coming down a valley, and this is going to greatly endanger his position. In fact, if the tanks get through they really have no hope of being able to fend off the enemy's advance. There is a particular place in the Pass where, if they bombarded it, they can likely stop these tanks. Now one of the very unfortunate things is that there is a small village near the Pass where the tanks are coming through. In the course of the attempt to stop the tanks there will undoubtedly be some stray shells which may fall into the village and result probably in the death of some noncombatants. The people in this village are also the ones who are getting protected by this military commander. May he go ahead and try to stop the tank's advance even though he sees that there may be some loss of innocent human life? Again the principle of double effect would be applied in that situation in terms of his willing only the good which is stopping the advance of the enemy. That is the good he is choosing. That's what he is intending. The loss of civilian life would be permitted, not desired at all. Finally there must be a very grave reason for even allowing that to happen.

One of the things which the revisionists did, (the revisionists who deny that there is such a thing as absolute moral norms or moral absolutes) was to collapse this whole process of reflection into the last condition of proportionality. They say that tradition has said that if there is a proportionally grave reason we can go ahead and do anything. But the tradition doesn't say that. The revisionists have used that to deny that there is such a thing as objective material norms against certain actions which apply always and under all circumstances. But the principle that will affect isn't even necessary unless there is a prior conviction that there are certain actions which simply may never be done. In other words, if were there no moral absolutes, the Church would never have gone to the trouble of trying to develop these principles that help us make moral choices in life when we see that evil might result. So what separates us from the Proportionalists (or these revisionists) is the fact that we hold to the truth that there are certain actions which simply may never be done. There are moral absolutes. That can be seen in the first condition of this principle that the action which we choose must be a morally good act and not an evil act.

Now there is another principle that we use in trying to make difficult decisions in a complex life. It is known as the principle of formal cooperation in the evil act of another. We can find ourselves in situations sometimes where the people we are working with are involved in doing something immoral. Why continue to work with these people? To what extent can I? How evil does the action have to be before I fully withdraw myself from any kind of participation with them? How closely involved in their evil do I have to be before I say, I'm sorry I can't work here anymore? This could pose a very complex question for us. I mean even as simple a thing as a teenager looking for work after school in a video store with X-rated movies -- now even though the young man wouldn't watch them, he would have nothing to do with them, he would never sell them, he would never buy them. This video store also rents all kinds of very good films that this young man would like to encourage people to see. There is good involved. It's not a totally X-rated video store which he would never dream of going to work in. May he go ahead and work there? Well, these are some of the tough questions that Catholics encounter all the time.

The first thing that we have to say is that we may never go along with the evil that is being done. If we do that would be called formal cooperation in the evil. We would be entering into the evil intent of the person doing the evil act. Let's say the owner of the video store is the one that has chosen to have an X-rated section of these kinds of movies in his store. You couldn't go there and work there and say, well I agree with you, and I think everybody ought to be able to have access to these kinds of movies, and I think you've got a great store and great program here, and I go along with it. That would be formal cooperation in evil. We may never formally cooperate in evil, but sometimes we find ourselves in these situations which have us cooperating materially. That is, I happen to be present, I am there and even though I don't agree with what is being done, in some indirect way I am actually contributing to it.

The question arises whether or not I may still go ahead and perform the act. We make a distinction here between the immediate material cooperation and someone's evil act. Immediate material cooperation would mean that even though I internally disapprove of what is being done, nevertheless I go ahead and do it. There is an immediate cooperation. This isn't permitted either. Even though I don't approve of these things, I am going to go ahead and help you with the advertising and so forth because it is part of your business. Even though you now know that I don't agree with it, I'm still going to work with you because I've made my position known. This is immediate material cooperation, and it involves us too closely with what is being done. It actually helps us to promote the evil which is being done. But there is what is called mediate material cooperation. This is a way in which I not only do not approve of what you are doing, I make it known I don't approve.

At the same time I might be involved in part of the enterprise which really doesn't have me immediately involved in the evil action. It might be that I work in a large hospital where I polish the floors, and it might be that there is one part of the hospital in which abortions are sometimes performed. I am fiercely pro-life, I am opposed to abortion. This is the only job, however, I've been able to find. I was out of work for six months. I have my own family to provide for. Does my being involved in cleaning the floors in one of the wings in this hospital in which some abortions are done involve me in this evil? Well, in a very mediate and remote kind of way.

If you could find a job someplace else you would do it. If not taking that job will result in grave family consequences and if you are remote from the evil which is being performed, and it is only a mediate rather than an immediate involvement, one might continue to be involved in that kind of work. A nurse who is on the floor in which evil deeds were being performed, that is abortions, would be immediately involved. She might be opposed to it, she might want it to be known that she is opposed to it, but she would be too proximate to the evil that is being performed to allow her to continue in that kind of situation.

Another factor that we have to keep in mind is the principle of a scandal. Never do we want willfully to do anything to lead someone else to sin. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where the actions that we are performing at the place where we are working, even though it isn't actually involving us in sin, is so associated with sin in people's minds that it leaves us exposed to being understood as being involved in evil. In order to avoid scandal to others, to avoid perhaps leading others to sin, we really have a responsibility to remove ourselves from that position. Saint Paul would refrain from eating meat offered to idols just because of the danger of people thinking that perhaps he is somehow involved in the worship of idols. So the Church has developed these principles to help us always to pursue the good in life, the good to which God is calling us in a very complex and sinful world.


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