Everyone knows what the Catholic Church teaches about abortion, right? It is an “intrinsically evil act.” Yet the answers of Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in the recent vice-presidential debate suggested, each in its own way, that knowledge of this teaching does not translate automatically into a particular position on abortion law and policy.

Vice President Biden affirmed his personal assent to the church’s teaching that life begins at conception, but he (mistakenly) referred to this as a “de fide doctrine” (a truth of faith), which the law ought not to impose on others. Representative Ryan, meanwhile, maintained that “the policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with the exceptions of rape, incest, and the life of the mother.” While the church has always taught that one could support less-than-ideal abortion laws if nothing better was possible, one gets the feeling that a Romney administration would view the exceptions as morally (rather than just politically) justified, a position incompatible with the claim that abortion is intrinsically evil—that is, evil in all circumstances. In the wake of Todd Akin’s comment on “legitimate rape,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner was asked during an interview on PBS whether his party had become “extreme” on abortion. Boehner answered: “Mitt Romney, myself, others who are very prolife, the American people today, a majority of them identify as prolife. But we all have exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother. And, frankly, almost all of my colleagues in the House have the same exceptions.” It is evident that Speaker Boehner has not mastered the script about intrinsically evil acts, either.

This complexity should alert us to the difficulty of using the moral concept of “intrinsic evil” in debates about public policy. Too often the term ends up being used as an overly simplistic accessory of various political positions. Its use in the public square introduces all sorts of confusion.

Take the important example of Bishop Robert Morlino’s defense of Paul Ryan’s budget plan. Bishop Morlino’s letter is problematic. There is no other way to say it. It suggests that Catholic teaching involves certain absolutes—such as the right to life and the right to private property—and that, beyond these, bishops have no competence to make moral pronouncements. Morlino writes:

Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property.

Violations of the above involve intrinsic evil—that is, an evil which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever. These evils are examples of direct pollution of the ecology of human nature and can be discerned as such by human reason alone. Thus, all people of good will who wish to follow human reason should deplore any and all violations in the above areas, without exception. The violations would be: abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, government-coerced secularism, and socialism.

In these most fundamental matters, a well-formed Catholic conscience, or the well-formed conscience of a person of good will, simply follows the conclusions demanded by the ecology of human nature and the reasoning process. A Catholic conscience can never take exception to the prohibition of actions which are intrinsically evil. Nor may a conscience well-formed by reason or the Catholic faith ever choose to vote for someone who clearly, consistently, persistently promotes that which is intrinsically evil.

However, a conscience well-formed according to reason or the Catholic faith, must also make choices where intrinsic evil is not involved. How best to care for the poor is probably the finest current example of this, though another would be how best to create jobs at a time when so many are suffering from the ravages of unemployment. In matters such as these, where intrinsic evil is not involved, the rational principles of solidarity and subsidiarity come into play.

So “socialism” is now an intrinsically evil act? But what is socialism? Does the bishop mean the complete abolition of private property, or just any redistribution of property by the government? Morlino’s attempt to align the right to private property with the right to life is seriously misleading. Unlike the right to life, the right to property is not absolute; it is constantly qualified throughout the Catholic tradition. The government clearly has the right to regulate property, the right to tax, and the responsibility to ensure the minimal conditions for the flourishing of all. The right to property is subordinated to the universal destination of goods.

Here is Pope John Paul II’s classic statement in Centesimus annus:

In Rerum novarum, Leo XIII strongly affirmed the natural character of the right to private property, using various arguments against the socialism of his time. This right, which is fundamental for the autonomy and development of the person, has always been defended by the Church up to our own day. At the same time, the Church teaches that the possession of material goods is not an absolute right, and that its limits are inscribed in its very nature as a human right. While the Pope proclaimed the right to private ownership, he affirmed with equal clarity that the “use” of goods, while marked by freedom, is subordinated to their original common destination as created goods, as well as to the will of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Gospel…. The Successors of Leo XIII have repeated this twofold affirmation: the necessity and therefore the legitimacy of private ownership, as well as the limits which are imposed on it.

Bishop Morino is confusing absolute norms and absolute rights. The church’s teachings about intrinsically evil acts belong to the former category, not the latter. Exceptionless moral norms are negative norms, whose object is carefully delineated in the description of an act. An intrinsically evil act always involves the intentional violation of the human good. By confusing rights and rules, Bishop Morlino risks confusing the limited understanding of rights in the Catholic tradition with the absolutist libertarian view of rights.

Morlino encounters these difficulties because of his deeper desire to draw a radical distinction between issues having to do with “intrinsic evil” (which involve absolutes) and all other matters (which do not). He says the former set of issues involve “direct pollution” of the moral ecology, and therefore no Catholic can vote for someone “who clearly, consistently, persistently promotes that which is intrinsically evil.”

Notice, however, that the bishop conflates the “most fundamental” issues with the issues involving “intrinsic evil.” But the word “intrinsic” does not denote gravity: “intrinsic evil” isn’t just a fancy way of saying “very evil.” And speaking of ecology, the native habitat of the term “instrinsic evil” is moral theology; it does not apply in any straightforward way to civil laws. It applies to acts, not to the effects of policy.

The opposite of “intrinsic evil” is “extrinsically evil.” An act that is extrinsically evil is one that might not be evil in other circumstances or with a different intention. Acts which are “intrinsically evil” have a built-in intention that is always contrary to the human good, even if they may seem to bring about good consequences. Lying involves the intent to deceive, and the intent to deceive is always wrong. If we presume marriage, described in a certain way, to be an important human good, then we will recognize that adulterous acts can never be compatible with marriage—even if one’s declared intent is to help one’s marriage by “spicing it up.”

Moral theologians will continue to debate which acts, described in what way, fall into the category of the “intrinsically evil.” But the case of adultery highlights how inappropriate the term “intrinsic evil” can be in discussions about civil law. After all, adultery is both intrinsically evil and grave…and yet very few people are hankering to recover civil laws against adultery. So a moral category that seems to promise clarity and purity loses its clarity and purity as soon as it is applied in the public sphere. Not everything the civil law forbids is intrinsically evil, and not all intrinsic evils ought to be forbidden by law.

Meanwhile, while we squabble over non-negotiables, Hitler swamps Europe, or the rich use government coercion to oppress the poor in Latin America, or we all continue to abuse the natural world as if its resources and resilience were infinite. If the non-negotiables are supposed to trump everything else, why should Paul VI and John Paul II have even bothered writing documents on peace and on the right to development of poorer nations? And what are we to make of Benedict XVI’s categorical insistence in Caritas in veritate that advanced countries “can and must lower their domestic energy consumption” and must make “a serious review of its lifestyle which…is prone to hedonism and consumerism”? Are these statements to be ignored by the citizens of the richest, most militarized and consumerist nation in the world just because they aren’t about intrinsically evil acts?

I fear this term’s use has become ideological. It is no longer a technical term used to analyze moral action, but an intimidating buzzword used to elevate certain issues to prominence…issues that happen to be aligned with one major political party. This use is ideological because it serves to distort the overall teaching of the church by diminishing the importance of other issues that may be equally grave, or even graver, but do not fall under an absolute norm. The very selective use of the term unwittingly demonstrates that political prudence is always necessary for dealing with moral absolutes. By decriminalizing adultery (or “sodomy” or any of a host of acts that are always wrong), we acknowledge that political bodies can and do make prudential decisions about what are the most grave evils threatening a given society. These decisions are not simply a matter of identifying which issues involve intrinsically evil acts and which do not.

The church’s teaching about intrinsically evil acts has a great deal of integrity, but it loses that integrity when it is put into the service of thinly veiled partisanship. The church needs to make sure that the desire to be influential in the public square does not end up trumping the complexity and integrity of its own tradition.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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