When we consider the differences between right and wrong we naturally go to the Commandments – and in most instances to the “social” commandments. But we are aware that they need some interpretation. For example, we understand immediately the value being protected in “Honour thy father and thy mother’. But in practice we have to consider what this requires in the precise circumstances we find ourselves. “Thou shalt not kill” is definite enough, but how about self defence, or just war? “Keep thou holy the Sabbath Day” requires interpretation. Maybe I shouldn’t be ploughing a field on a Sunday, but is it OK for me to compose a post for this Blog? (I hasten to say that I am drafting this on a Wednesday, so there is no danger of association in you reading it.)
But here is another category to consider. Let me call it “God’s law expressed in the structure of creation”. A straightforward example of this is homosexual activity. It is immediately clear that this involves a mismatch between gender and sexual expression — a simple matter of plumbing. So we instantly recognise an action which goes against our created nature. Thus it is a perversion – that is a “turning away” from proper purpose.
Similarly, of course, barrier contraception artificially removes from sexual intercourse the inherent characteristic of openness to conception. Another perversion. Here we can see the structural nature with clarity because the intention alone, as in the use of the safe period, is, by contrast, innocent and often meritorious.
The same approach applies outside the sexual sphere. For example the moral assessment of telling a lie is not confined to the harm it might do; its root morality lies in the fact that we were given by God the power of communication in order to convey the truth. A lie – however small or however motivated – is intrinsically a defiance of God’s intentions. In a situation where the truth must be concealed, we are allowed to deceive through using “discreet” language; but we may never lie. (CCC 2482-2489)
And “never” is the word. Unlike the commandments, the moral conclusion from “God’s law expressed in the structure of creation” allows of absolutely no exceptions. It is God speaking to us. The rather forbidding phrase “intrinsically evil” – which is perhaps less threateningly described as “wrong by virtue of its own nature” – is used.
Yet I can easily understand a homosexual saying “No matter what might be generally true of human nature, my own nature (God-given) is different. I find the prospect of heterosexual activity quite revolting, whereas homosexual activity is not only acceptable but supports my close relationships.” Or a married person who claims that contraceptive intercourse gives the peace of mind needed for the close bonding of marriage. Or the individual, while not given to lying, who can sometimes judge that a lie is the only practical answer in a particular case.
So perhaps an initial question to consider is why we are not permitted to recognise exceptions to “God’s law expressed in the structure of creation” in appropriate cases – as we can in the matter of the Commandments. This does not mean that we disregard such laws but that they are not absolutes which forbid us to take into account particular circumstances.
It is possible that I will return to this topic for a full column in the Catholic Herald. So I have an extra reason for valuing the views of contributors on this subject.