Back to School?

Scarcely a week after comments from Archbishop Lori that suggested he had forgotten the distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil, we now have another bishop who appears to need some remedial education in moral theology.In a column published this week (HT: In All Things), Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin attempts to provide some guidance to Catholics trying to form political judgments:

However, the formation of conscience regarding particular policy issues is different depending on how fundamental to the ecology of human nature or the Catholic faith a particular issue is. 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.

Unfortunately, the bishop conflates things that are, in fact, intrinsic evils with things that are clearly not. An intrinsic evil is something that is evil by the nature of its object, regardless of the intent or circumstances. The taking of innocent human life is evil because of what the act does, regardless of the intent of the actor or the circumstances (although these may mitigate subjective moral culpability).Government coerced secularism and socialism, by contrast (assuming they are not merely epithets) are evaluative terms applied to a complex cluster of social and political institutions. One would have to know a great deal about the intent of the actors and the circumstances to make a judgment about whether a particular law or set of laws was evil.It is true that the U.S. bishops have employed the language of intrinsic evil in the context of the debate over the HHS mandate, but they have used it to condemn a law that requires Catholic institutions to facilitate (through the medium of insurance) acts of contraception, which are considered intrinsically evil. One may ultimately conclude that the law is evil, but it is not evil by nature of its object.Similarly, a law offering legal recognition of same-sex relationships is not intrinsically evil. Because the Church holds that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil (because they are closed to procreation), Church leaders have condemned such laws because they appear to endorse or facilitate evil acts. But if the bishops in a particular state were to conclude, for example, that the only way to prevent the greater evil of same-sex marriage would be to support a civil unions bill, it would not necessarily be sinful for them to support it. It would depend on the circumstances and their intent in supporting the legislation.It seems clear that Bishop Morlinoalong with a number of other U.S. bishopsis confusing the concept of intrinsic with the concept of grave. Many of the things the bishop enumerates are grave evils, but they are not intrinsic evils.What worries me about this is that bishops are, in the Catholic tradition, authoritative teachers of the faith. It is true that bishops, when speaking as individuals, do not possess the charism of infallibility. Nevertheless, they have an obligation to get their facts straight when acting as teachers of the faith. At a time when the credibility of the episcopacy is at a historic low, they need to take this responsibility more seriously than ever.

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