‘Intrinsic Evil’ & Public Policy

A Partisan Abuse of the Church’s Moral Teachings

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.

About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com. He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



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The not-so-good bishop appears to have little or no understanding of politics or of the legislative process, nor of the role of a non-establishment church.

All elections in a representative democracy involve perception of the present state of the art of the possible -- what issues are presently moot and which are likely to be acted upon during the coming term.

By focusing on abortion, toujours abortion, the bishops give up their potential political influence on other issues where real movement is possible.   By emphasizing their opposition to contraception they have undermined political routes toward reducing abortions, unless they are still under the mis-conception that all modes of contraception are also abortions. 

Their political position on civil marriage is blinkered almost beyond belief.  The bishops can be entirely correct in their teaching on Sacramental Matrimony and still that is irrelevant to the matter of civil marriage.  The two are unrelated so long as the state accepts Sacramental Matrimony as also constituting one form of civil marriage.  Otherwise, the civil law deals with civil standards such as inheritance, health decisions, joint property, insurance coverage. Adding others to the category of who gets these privileges does nothing to hurt the sacramentaly married. 

If the people want same sex couples or any other arrangement to have these civil privileges, it is up to the government to provide them, which says nothing about the nature of marriage within any religion.  Only in states with established churches, such as England and Anglicanism, is it reasonable of religious leaders to expect civil laws to conform to religious ideals.  Even in those cases, as Cloutier indicates, it may be more prudent not to legislate morality because it might, like prohibition, lead to more civil disturbances than the misdeeds it seeks to correct. 


The Church has long held the position that private property is to be held in the interest of the common good. So, the owner of property is to exercise stewardship, putting it to uses that promote the common good until he or she is relieved of such duties, which might occur through financial loss or through death. Exercising proper stewardship might involve making investments in business, which provides employment (thus supporting the common good) and earns a profit on the money placed at risk in the business thus increasing the value of the investment, as did two investment managers in Matthew 25). Many successful investors give a portion of their profits each year to charity, but still amass large fortunes. As good stewards they also plan for their wealth to promote the common good after their death, often by bequests to foundations or directly to universities, charities, etc. The rich do not take their wealth into the grave. Yet, so many observers are uncomfortable with this process and see business profits as evidence of greed, or of exploiting employees, etc. Wealth is held in disdain. Many feel that unless profits and wealth are immediately taxed back into the public coffers, it serves no purpose, and cannot possibly be to the common good. That popular sentiment defies the clear teaching of Leo XIII and Successors who acknowledge that private property with proper stewardship, can serve the common good, and that indeed private ownership is needed to best assure stewardship of property. Fortunately there are many good stewards, and there were many in prior generations and their legacies fund so many good works long after they gave gone to give an accounting of their deeds. Let us not be afraid to accept the wisdom of numerous encyclicals.  Joseph J Dunn. Author of After One Hundred Years: Corporate Profits, Wealth, and American Society


Which came first, the Catholic Congressman who thinks Ayn Rand's philosophy is inspirational, or the successor of Christ's apostles who calls the right to private property an absolute? 

If this is part of the "New Evangelization," the church will be more of a laughing-stock than it is already.

Would I be engaging in an evil (intrinsically or otherwise) act, if I gave a donation to Planned Parenthood or NARAL? (not that I'm going to). Have I been engaging in evil acts, intrinsic or otherwise, by donating to an institution that has yet to come to terms with the enabling and protection of sexual predators in its ranks? (I have in mind, of course, Penn State and Horace Mann and the Boy Scouts).

Below I have linked to an inspirational election homily by Fr. Sammie Maletta. Fr. Maletta delivers a powerful and thought-provoking homily on the moral truths that we as Catholics are called to defend as citizens in in a free society. He argues that Catholic teaching is neither Democrat or Republican -- but, that does not mean we are free to vote as we wish. There is a hierarchy of moral truth that must inform our vote. Fr. Maletta's homily is a stirring call-to-action in the face of a world increasingly dominated by secularization and a world in which our religious freedom is increasingly threatened. THIS INSPIRATIONAL HOMILY IS WORTH YOUR TIME -- IT IS THAT GOOD! http://allhands-ondeck.blogspot.com/2012/10/inspirational-election-homily-fr-sammie.html

I believe many Catholics (particularly those that vote Democrat) would be surprised at the extent to which President Obama has advanced a pro-abortion agenda through a long list of “bill signings, speeches, appointments, and other actions” since his election in November, 2008.



His many pro-abortion actions are documented at the link below. The list is shockingly long and extensive. 

The link:



What the Catholic Church teaches, all poliltics aside, is that as Catholics, we put our souls into grave danger when we knowingly vote for a candidate who supports intrinsic evils;  abortion and contraception being two of them.  It doesn't matter what else the candidate stands for, or our opinion.  If one supports any intrinsic evil and the other candidate does not support any intrinsic evil, as is the case in today's presidential election,  it's a no brainer, regardless of our "politics."  There just isn't any "wiggle" room on what the Catholic Church teaches are and are not intrinsic evils.

On that same note, another intrinsic evil taught by the Catholic Chruch is racism.  IMO, anyone who uses that term, especially to falsely label  another racist for political gain or to "win" an argument  has comitted the greatest of intrinic evils not only on the falesly accused but against society. 

Thanks to our "racist obcessed" main stream media, any real racism left in this country will most likely go forever largely ignored, like"fire"  cried in a crowded theater when no fire was ever there.

On that note, I agree that words, especially words of such profound meaning and significance as the "intrinsic evils" matter a lot how and to whom we use them. 


I believe there are well formed consciences outside the dogmas of roman catholicism. And I also so believe that the just war doctrine prevents a well formed conscience. I wish the notion of a moral evil could be more clearly defined for a unified human discourse on conscience.

Bishop Morlino avoids the whole notion of souls, vegetative, animal and human in moral theolgy.  The abortion of vegetative and animal life as stages of human development is ignored contra Aquinas and others who allow abortion prior to the soul becoming human.  Being and becoming are not identical...basic moral theology.

So there  are no perfect Catholics that remain consistent on all the teachings of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church 100% of the time. It is easy to throw stones from your computer desk !!

This is a sad partisan attempt to parse one sides political stance and not the others.  Indeed, has Mr. Cloutier considered the instrinsic evil in saying, " beleive something is terrible, however I will do nothing to stop it" and won't speak out against it.  Joe Bides stands as the perfect example of this.  His stance on abortion is absurd in that he and his party have actually said that abortion is NEVER EVIL and that they will NEVER do anything about it.  The extreme view of the Democrats on this is clear.  According to Democrats (who vote unaanimously on much of this) , Abortion should be available at anytime, whether a fetus is 10 weeks or 40 weeks.  A child born after an abortion procedure can be left to die.  No law should be instituted to stop Abortion for gender selection purposes (PRENDA) .  People who beleive abortion is morally unconscinsable can be forced to pay for abortions (so far 60 million in 40 years).  Mr. Cloutier partisanship is a sad statement on his Christianity.

Execellent and long-overdue article.

Cloutier is parsing words, splitting hairs, but not approaching the heart of the matter.  The church teachings on abortion, marriage, eithanasia, adutery, etc. are about God's love for His people.  Our loving God never condones the harm of abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia.  Likewise, His mercy is great, as Jesus demonstrated when he saved the woman caught in adultery. As to civil law, we need application of the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, which can be moronic, especially with lack of mercy.  Cloutier could demonstrate more mercy in his judgment of the bishop, who I am sure is doing his best to lead the people entrusted to him to Christ.

More silly, tired relativism from a confused, so called "Catholic" intellectual. Sigh.

"Intrinsically evil", like "original sin", is a religious term that has no place in law. It implies a badness so thorough that it is irredeemable, eternal, and hence beyond the reach of law. "Malice" and its adjective "malicious" is a better formulation that does not sever the bond of humanity between the law and the accused.

Excellent article (despite the comments that seem not to understand the technical nature of this theological discussion).  One wonders, therefore, just what sort of technical, theological (as well as grammatical!) experts are assisting these bishops when they make such pronouncements. 

The not-so-good bishop appears to have little or no understanding of politics

I think the Bishop has a very good understanding of politics.  He takes a term ("intrinsic evil") that every man qualified to serve as a Catholic bishop knows does not mean "should be illegal under civil law," yet uses it in that way because focus groups financed by Republicans show that it mistakenly suggests that to some of the laity.

Bad religion.  Good politics. 

Why are a great number of the Bishops and Cardinals fat, while almost all, if not in fact all, of the Women Religious they so often disparage, are thin, obviously healtheir, and in most cases more intellegent?

In my opinion, having more women in in positions of power in American politics wouldn't change much.  But, having more women in positions of power in the Catholic Church would make a huge difference.  

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