Moral theologians at loggerheads? So it may seem to us amateurs. Let’s try to understand the problem by starting with natural law which underpins our moral decisions. This is based on our understanding of human nature as God has created it. Thus we recognise the obligation to keep promises because we see that we are social animals. Similarly taking human life is wrong. But neither of these is unconditional because there are (rare) circumstances which can justify exceptions. This contrasts with another approach to natural law which is sometimes called physicalism or biologism.
Here what we look at is structure. It tells us that certain actions are wrong because they are a misuse of human structure. The Catechism describes them as intrinsically evil. An obvious example is a homosexual act which involves a mismatch between the organs and the activity. This approach is deep in our traditional morality because it is seen as a direct defiance of our created nature. For example, were we to follow Aquinas’s thinking, we would judge that self-abuse was, by nature, more grave than rape. He sees it as a direct sin against God’s law expressed in creation, while rape is wrong through a misuse of right reason. (He speaks of the status of the act not the guilt of the sinner.)
Many intrinsic evils are concerned with aspects of sexuality, but the principle goes beyond this. Take lying. The Catechism tells us that, by its very nature, it is a profanation of speech, whose purpose is to communicate known truth to others. The only alternative is “discreet language” – a phrase which has caused controversy in its time. A characteristic of an intrinsically evil act is that it can never be justified through motive or circumstances. It may however be allowed as an unintended side effect. Thus sterilisation for its own sake is intrinsically wrong, but incidental sterilisation caused by, say, a needed hysterectomy is allowed.
But there are problems in this approach. A good example may be taken from Humanae Vitae “God has wisely ordered the laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in a way that successive births are naturally spaced…” Yes and no. What God has done is to use his great creative algorithm of evolution for this purpose. So it does not follow that the natural fertility rate will always match different cultural circumstances. Paul VI apparently did not take evolution into account though he had less excuse than the medieval Aquinas. Evolution, too, is an element in the nature God created.
Other problems can arise from this increase of human knowledge. Thus it was once held that kidney transplants inter vivos constituted the intrinsic evil of mutilation since it was not for the sake of the donor. Modern medicine has caused a rethink. In the words of the theologian Gerald Kelly SJ “it is not only morally justifiable but, in some instances, heroic”. Once controversial, it is now in the Catechism. A reverse example was the readiness at one time, to allow Vatican choristers to be castrated for the sake of their singing.
It would appear to us outsiders that there is a tension between those moral theologians who hold fast to the principles of intrinsic evil, and those who, while recognising the anomaly built into the structure of certain acts, argue that a moral decision needs, at the personal level, to take also into account intention and circumstances. In the end we are not saved by the law but through our determination to follow the good as we discern it to be.
But this may not be the last chapter. When Pope Francis was questioned about the use of contraception in the matter of the Zika crisis, which is thought to be a serious threat to the development of the foetus, he accepted that, in such a serious emergency, it could be justified. “The Church can’t say an act is “intrinsically evil” and absolutely forbidden, and yet be permissible under certain circumstances. That’s just not intellectually coherent.” wrote Michael Kelly SJ in Global Pulse.
Unsurprisingly, this triggered considerable heated controversy. Janet E Smith, that doyenne of thoughtful orthodoxy, described it as potentially mind-blowing. Was it an off the cuff remark to be disregarded? No, it was subsequently confirmed by his spokesman. Was the Pope heretical? Unlikely, but not impossible. Or was he anticipating Amoris Laetitia by reminding us that the discernment of conscience justifies moral conclusions — even those contrary to explicit law?
Here he follows Aquinas who teaches that we are bound by conscience even if we are objectively wrong. The Exhortation requests pastoral respect for all decisions of conscience, while requiring us to be constantly open to our deeper understanding of what God requires from those who love him. The change of emphasis, if not of doctrine, is profound.