In 2000 years of studying human behavior in the light of the Bible and the Natural Law, and drawing from some of the greatest philosophical minds in history, the Catholic Church has developed some rather nuanced teachings about morality.
Sometimes, when issues get discussed, people have a hard time distinguishing between discussion of principles and application of those principles to individuals. Some people point out that a basic difference between how Catholics think and how Americans think has to do with our different concepts of law. Catholic Canon Law is based upon Roman law. In Catholic law, things have to be written out very precisely (though it’s interesting that the 1917 _Code_ was the first ever codification of Canon Law). No law is “absolute” in the sense that there isn’t an “exception.” Catholic teaching has worked out a very good system of how to understand and apply what, for lack of a better term, we might call “exceptions.”
For some people, these nuanced, complicated systems have given rise to a word: Jesuitical–referring to the process of thinking like a Jesuit, a synonym for casuistry.
In Roman law, the law had to be precisely worded. If a person was brought up on charges of violating the law, the judge would see if the individual’s case applied to the law as worded. If the individual’s case did not apply, that individual was innocent. However, in the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition, if an exception can be found that the wording of the law does not apply for, or if a contradiction can be found between different laws, then that law itself has to be thrown out.
A couple generations ago, American Jesuits and the young Catholics they educated apparently decided they didn’t want to be Jesuitical anymore. Instead, they decided to start applying Anglo-Saxon methods to Catholic teachings, and if they could find an exceptional case where the law seemed unjust, then not only was that exception OK, but the Church teaching itself had to be thrown out (a key example of this is contraception).
Furthermore, in a move to emphasize feelings over Truth, the kinds of distinctions I’m going to talk about became uncomfortable to people because the new kind of Jesuitical thinking didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It was not enough to acknowledge that a particular exceptional case took away the personal sinfulness of an otherwise evil action, but you could no longer call that action “evil” because it might hurt someone’s feelings.
This mentality, for a few generations, was limited mostly to “progressive” Catholics. One of the things that distinguished “progressives” on the one hand from “conservatives” and “traditionalists” on the other was this mentality: those on the “Left” wanted to emphasize this knew form of interpreting Church teachings, while those on the metaphorical “Right” of the Church reacted against it often to the point of an overly strict absolutism.
In my own case, my rejection of the inherent flaws in the “progressive” movement led me to embrace the more conservative viewpoint. I always hailed conservatives for not compromising their principles, yet, in recent years, certain rifts have begun forming among conservatives, often on these very questions. With the rise of the Internet, and lay apologetics, more Catholics are thinking seriously about day-to-day moral questions we might have previously just dismissed.
When waterboarding became an issue, it became a hot button–not just because of voting, but because it got to fairly every day situations. If “torture” is intrinsically evil, what does that say about soldiers who are otherwise faithful Catholics? What does it say about police who may use “torture” of some sort in interrogation? What does it say about parents using corporal punishment?
If “lying” is always and in every case evil, what does that say about cops? Spies? Parents? Politicians?
Personally, I think part of the problem is that, since _Veritatis Splendor_, there has been a tendency to emphasize “intrinsic evil,” and that intrinsic evil itself has become a political term. The “Right” likes it because they use it to select certain intrinsic evils as what Catholic Answers called “non negotiables” for voting. The “Left” likes it because a) it takes attention away from personal sin and b) “intrinsic evil” can be used to apply a sort of Lutheran approach to Catholic moral teaching: “See! Lying is intrinsically evil! Abortion is intrinsically evil! Bad work conditions are intrinsically evil! See? They’re all evil!”
No, that’s not how it works. Intrinsic evil has nothing to do with the degree of evil involved in an act, but merely that the act may never be good.
One of the most helpful distinctions I ever learned is suggested by early 20th century theologian Karl Adam in his book _Spirit of Catholicism_: theological truth versus psychological truth. He uses this distinction for various complex issues, and anticipates many “Vatican II teachings”. What Adam calls “theological truths” are concrete, objective theological and moral principles. They’re absolute. However, our souls are limited. We cannot live in a world of absolute, so “psychological truth” is the subjective perspective of the individual and how and whether the theological truth applies.
For example, various Church documents of the passed emphasized that a Jew cannot be saved qua being Jewish: in other words, Judaism as a religion has no power to save. This is theological truth. In principle, no one who is literally outside the Church can be saved (extra ecclesia nulla sancta). Psychological truth, however, is that people have various levels of ignorance, and may not understand, or be able to understand, the truth of the Catholic faith. A person may be a sincere Jew and sincerely think the Catholic Church is wrong but try to follow God as best as possible. On the psychological level, this person is following the religion he thinks is most true, most good, and has made a conscious decision to be a Jew–because his knowledge of the Church is imperfect (if he has chosen Judaism because he *knows* the Catholic faith and rejects it, that’s another story). So, psychologically, he’s good.
Now, I’m about as Traditionalist as one can be this side of the Society of St. Pius X (or, really, this side of the Greek Orthodox Church, because that’s the direction I’d go if I were to go schismatic). Yet I am also a huge admirer of C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot. I hope both men are in Heaven. I would love to meet them there. In Lewis’s case, I believe his deep set issues about growing up Protestant in Northern Ireland constitute a kind of invincible ignorance where Catholicism is concerned–though I’ve also heard rumors that Lewis, who had a Catholic view of sacraments, received his final sacraments from a Catholic priest. In Eliot’s case, Russell Kirk says Eliot’s rejection of the Church was purely cultural, part of his embracing all things English, and Eliot himself recognized the contradiction. Again, I hope that Eliot had some kind of death bed conversion, but as far as what is publicly known about him, he consciously rejected the Catholic faith for no other reason than personal choice.
All right, so what does this say about issues? Again, we tend to confuse issues with people, and vice versa. If we admire or love someone, we want to overlook that person’s faults. “My husband’s a cop! How dare you suggest that [lying/shooting weapons at people/whatever] is wrong!” “I love John Paul II! How dare you suggest it’s wrong to kiss the Koran or let pagans have sacrifices in Catholic churches!” It’s that feelings thing again. Or it may be the opposite: “You think that it’s OK for cops to lie. You’re a BAD Catholic!” or “John Paul II kissed the Koran! He’s a heretic!” These are both unacceptable extremes that cross from looking at the act objectively to judging the person who commits the act (either judging them to be “bad” or judging them to be “good”).
Jesus says, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” He doesn’t say which way. I love it when I hear someone say, “My son is living with his girlfriend, but we’re not supposed to judge. And, after all, he’s a *good* man. He still goes to church, and he volunteers, and . . . . ” Judging works both ways, as Jane Austen teaches us in _Pride and Prejudice_.
Anyway, all that said, when the Church looks at a particular action, She takes three things into consideration: the act itself, the intent, and the end. All three must be good for an act to be fully good. If an act is good, it may be merely virtuous, or it may be heroically virtuous–going above and beyond the call of duty.
Our Lord establishes the concept of heroic virtue numerous times in the Gospel. For example, in the incident of the rich young man, the man asks what he must do to be saved, and Jesus tells him to keep the Commandments. The man says he does. Jesus replies, “If you wish to be PERFECT, then sell all you have and give it to the poor.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” And he talks about people who will be “greatest” and “least” in the Kingdom–this implies varying degrees of sanctity.
So, what does all this mean? Most people ought to know the difference between mortal and venial sin (though Vatican II parlance likes to say “grave” sin instead of mortal). They are kind of like mirror opposites of virtues and heroic virtues. Mortal sins completely sever the divine life in us. Venial sins, as Mark Shea says, are like “gateway drugs” to mortal sin. Virtues are good acts, but they require no special grace. They are normally in accordance with the Natural Law as commonly understood: boy scout type morality. We all know it’s a good thing to help an old lady across the street if you can. That’s a virtue. If you help thousands of old ladies across the street for no earthly reward, or if you help an old lady across a particularly dangerous street, in spite of fear, that’s heroic virtue.
I like to use the example of St. Gianna Baretta Molla. People are canonized as capital-S Saints because they exemplify heroic virtue–martyrs exemplify it par excellence.
One of the “gray areas” that comes in when we’re dealing with the psychological truth versus theological truth is what’s called “double effect.” My friend Jennifer Fitz recently wrote the best description I’ve ever read of Double Effect. See here:
There is a popular misconception that the Catholic Church sometimes allows killing. The Church, technically, never allows killing. While the death penalty is a stretch, every case of “justifiable killing” involves double effect. I recently watched a rerun of _Bones_ where the victim had brittle bone disease, and the killer technically killed him in self-defense. The two men were having a fight–the victim initiated the fight–and the “killer” (who went to prison not for the killing but for covering it up) pushed him in self-defense. The pusher was unaware of the genetic disorder, and when the “victim” fell back after being pushed in self-defense, his head shattered. That’s a *great* example of double effect.
Even in war, the Church’s teaching on Just War is extremely nuanced, compared to how it’s usually treated. Not only must the cause be just (and that’s one whole can of worms), but the way the war is waged must be just. There are weapons and methods of warfare which are intrinsically evil, and one of the Church’s teachings is that, even if the War is just because an assailant is invading another country, once the war has started, both sides have a right to self-defense. In other words, the Nazis may be evil, but the individual Nazi soldiers still retain their human rights. Any legitimate method of warfare must give both sides a fair shake at self-defense or escape.
Double effect means that you’re trying to do something good, or neutral, and something bad happens. If you don’t want the bad thing to happen, then the act is not a sin. However, even if double effect is at work, as soon as you will it, it’s a sin.
As Jen Fitz puts it, you can draw a nice warm bath for your enemy in the hopes that the relaxing bath might make him nicer to you–that would actually be very virtuous to do. However, if you set up the bath so your enemy will slip, or drown or be scalded, or if you even *WISH* for one of those things to happen while your enemy is in the bath, that’s a mortal sin.
If double effect is in play, and the action you’re trying to do is morally neutral, and you don’t intended the bad effect, it’s neutral. If double effect is in play, and the action is virtuous (such as doing something nice for an enemy), that’s virtuous.
In Gianna Molla’s case, many people think she refused an abortion to save her child. This is not exactly the case. The Church teaches that it’s OK for a pregnant woman to have a medical procedure to save her own life so long as the baby is not directly killed. For example, in the very tricky situation of tubal ligation, the baby is killed by double effect: the baby is in the tubes instead of the uterus; the tubes are damaged and need to be removed. The fact that the baby is removed with them is an unintended consequence. However, if the doctor did something to kill the baby *first*, that would be morally evil.
St. Gianna chose not just to reject evil but to reject a procedure where double effect came into play. That is what we call “heroic virtue.” It’s sometimes what people call “scruples” (and then accuse most of the Saints of “scruples). It’s choosing the option that most absolutely conforms to the Gospels and the examples of the saints, the option that is the absolute most virtuous, even if it costs material benefit or one’s own life.
A similar “gray area” or modifier of action is culpability. Like the non-Christian who really doesn’t know Christ or the Church, there are lots of reasons why a person might not make a fully informed decision to sin.
In order for a sin to be mortal, the person must fully choose to engage in the act.
If someone holds a gun to your head and says, “Renounce Jesus,” and you say, “I believe in one God, . . ..,” that’s heroic virtue. If a person holds a gun to your head and says, “Renounce Jesus,” and you say something like, “Whatever you say,” you’re not really desiring to renounce Jesus, but you’re justifiably scared for your life. So it’s not mortally sinful. It may not even be venially sinful, but it never hurts to confess something like that.
On the sin side, lack of culpability may reduce mortal sin to venial or even take away all guilt. On the flip side, if a person overcomes a lack of culpability and does the virtuous thing anyway, that becomes heroic virtue.
So, a person may not be culpable because of coercion, or because of ignorance (i.e., a woman who doesn’t know birth control pills cause abortions isn’t guilty of abortion), or because of psychological disorder or even physiological disorder (i.e., a person in extreme pain does something bad because of the pain). There are lots of reasons people may not be culpable, and it’s important to know those reasons. However, the mentality I addressed at the beginning of this piece suggests that the exceptions should be treated as normative.
Even in the case of contraception, John Paul II taught that couples who use artificial birth control because of extreme health circumstances or financial circumstances may not be fully culpable for their actions–and the greater guilt lies with society for not providing them with the support they need.
That is not to say contraception is “OK”, but merely that the sin involved is not as severe for a couple in extreme circumstances. The Church can have compassion for the person in the extreme without saying “this teaching no longer applies because there is this one extreme case, and the rest of you can go on and do whatever you want.”
When someone’s holding a gun to your head, either literally or metaphorically, and you do something intrinsically evil, you’re not a sinner. If the Nazis are at your door, and you lie out of fear, that’s not heroic virtue, but it’s also not a sin.
Again, intrinsic evil just means that the act is always evil and can never be virtuous in and of itself. It does not mean that it’s as bad as something else or better than something else.
1. Means, motive and end are all good? Act is virtuous.
2. Means, motive and end are good, circumstances are extreme? Act is heroically virtuous.
3. Means are neutral or good. Intentions are good. There are multiple ends, at least one bad and one good? This is “double effect”.
4. Means are bad. Intentions are good. Ends are bad. Circumstances are extreme or person is ignorant? The act is wrong, but culpability is reduced, possibly to nothing.
5. Means are bad. Intentions are bad. Ends are bad. Person is ignorant or not acting in total freedom; and/or matter is not grave? Venial sin.
6. Means are bad. Intentions are bad. Ends are bad. Person acts in full knowledge and freedom. Matter is grave. Mortal sin.
It is really crucial to be clear on these distinctions. To say “X is intrinsically evil” is not the same thing as saying “Y is a sinner for doing X” or even to say that “X is always mortally sinful”. It’s just to say that the using X as a means puts the action under categories 4-6 above.