Sam Gregg: Intrinsic Evils, Final Realities, and the Synod

At CWR, Sam Gregg has a good piece of analysis.


It was inevitable. Any discussion about marriage and the family during a synod of Catholic bishops was always going to involve questions of morality. Just as the furor around Humanae Vitae was always about much more than contraception, so too do various proposals presented to the 2015 Synod unavoidably touch on the Catholic understanding of the moral life.

One phrase that has received much attention before and around the deliberations of the Synod fathers is that of “intrinsically evil acts.” To be clear, there are no intrinsically evil persons. There are sinful acts and sinners: i.e., all of us. But no human being is by nature intrinsically evil. The Church, however, has always taught that there are certain actions which by their very nature—or, more precisely, by reason of their object—are incapable of being ordered to the good and whose illicitness admits of no exceptions. The most recent authoritative declaration of this truth may be found in Saint John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. This mentioned intrinsically evil acts no less than sixteen times. Nor is there any question that the truth about such acts plays directly into several important subjects being addressed by the Synod.


Then there is the matter of conscience. This has been invoked by some prelates as a basis for legitimizing access to communion for someone who is, objectively-speaking, in a state of mortal sin but who believes, in conscience, that he is not. Conscience is certainly binding. But the well-formed conscience will know that there is never a good reason for someone to engage in an intrinsically evil act. If our conscience is a practical judgment which, as Pope John Paul reiterated, “applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil” (VS 59), then our conscience can never justify what reason itself tells us to be an intrinsically evil act such as torture or genocide. If we, however, conclude that an act of torture or genocide is acceptable, that’s a sure sign that either our conscience is in a state of invincible ignorance or severely malformed, or that we haven’t engaged in an honest discernment of the truth.

Even the notion of allowing bishops conferences to determine how to address the often-difficult pastoral situations they face in their own countries (such as polygamy in Africa) is affected by the fact of intrinsic evils. Leaving aside the question of whether bishops conferences actually possess any such authority (which no less than perhaps the greatest of twentieth century Catholic theologians, Cardinal Henri de Lubac SJ, viewed as a dubious proposition difficult to reconcile with Vatican II’s teaching on the nature of collegiality), no Catholic bishop—not even the pope—or bishops conference can authorize any pastoral measure within their diocese or country that involves acceptance or tolerance of intrinsically evil acts. An act of euthanasia is just as intrinsically evil in Belgium as it is in California. As Veritatis Splendor pointed out 22 years ago, “When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth” (VS 98).


Some Synod fathers have mentioned the need for the Church to look at reality and acknowledge the different state of affairs in which people find themselves. I agree. So here’s one reality that has been made manifest by contemporary discussions of intrinsically evil acts. It is this: that throughout much of the West the last fifty years havenot been marked by thorough catechesis in the truths of the Catholic Faith, or, as Vatican II stated in Lumen Gentium “the faith which is to be believed and applied to conduct” [fides credenda et moribus applicanda] (LG 25. My emphasis).


Just few snips.  Read the whole thing there.

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  1. Fr. Bryan says:

    Here is my take. LG 25 is rich. “The faith which is to be believed, and applied to conduct” It makes it clear to me that pastoral practice and doctrine are not, and can not be at odds with each other. Nor can they be separated. Belief and conduct are related, but so are prayer and belief. How we pray, how we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice has much to do with this. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Fr. Z’s motto “save the liturgy, save the world” applies here. If we want to be solidly connected to the Faith, and really understand what the Church teaches and believes, then we need to “do the red, and say the black” to quote Fr. Z again. We need to pay very particular attention to faithfully and obediently celebrating the Church’s Liturgy. Perhaps faithfulness needs to begin here. If we pray right, we will believe right, and if we have right belief, right conduct in our daily lives, in our families, etc., will follow.

  2. Mojoron says:

    I asked my PP to comment on his thoughts on the Synod and he said he was going to wait to see what Francis writes. I told him that that may be too late. You need to catch up with what is going on. I told him about VR Cupich’s statement and he looked at me in amazement. I said, “you see now?”

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Superb article, Fr. Z., and the reference to St. John Paul II’s great encyclical is most timely. Your clarity is a breath of fresh air as against the less rational and more political blog articles seen today.

  4. Curley says:

    I think we would all be looking at the pope’s speech yesterday were BXVI still reigning, because we would be confident in his commitment to the magisterium of St. JPII.

  5. THREEHEARTS says:

    I’m sorry that the present Pope is avoiding perhaps the Jesuit teaching on conscience I received so long ago by Fr Laurence Creehan SJ. He always started off this way.. Right or wrong….Informed conscience…the burden of choice. In Jesuit England with Farm Street, the Catholic Truth society we knew and we made no mistake that not to inform one’s conscience was a sin and could be of great error. Of course the other great Jesuit Suarez on the Miracle of Grace is sorely missed in the seminaries and at this synod. I thought it also might be this synod would push aside a great deal of Vatican 2 but it seems to me Trent on the Sacraments is about to be torpedoed.

  6. NOLAChas says:

    I read a lecture given by Cardinal Ratzinger to the the American Bishops where he defended acting according to one’s conscience, but admonished those who failed to form a reasoned, proper and informed conscience (i.e., the Nazi’s who slaughtered the Jewish people).

  7. Traductora says:

    Conscience in the modern day West simply means that little voice that tells you that whatever you are doing is cool and maybe some meanies don’t like it, but, hey, you’re doing it so therefore it’s cool.

  8. Siculum says:

    Crying shame that Caritas in Veritate is now to be consigned to the dustbin of old and irrelevant documents, even though it’s only one year older than my car, but we yet strive go back to keep figuring out to further implement whatever we want in the “Spirit” of Vatican II, from 50 years ago.

    How much we do not love the Lord, but ourselves. I sorely wish that, in the name of Mercy, for the Year of Mercy, in honor of the Doctor Misericordiae St. John Paul II, we could make the synod fathers all take a refresher course on the Spiritual Works of Mercy in their ENTIRETY. It is an act of LOVE to tell the TRUTH.

    So here’s another petition, instead of women deacons:

  9. aviva meriam says:

    Referring to Cardinal Henri de Lubac SJ was brilliant…. And wow do I miss Benedict XVI.

    Returning to prayer….

  10. Gerard Plourde says:

    It is certainly true that intrinsic evils do exist and that Catholics are to inform their consciences to the best of their ability so as to recognize and avoid them.

    That said, we are also obliged to remember that, unlike the heretical Protestants, who hold, in direct opposition to Scripture, that all sin results in damnation, Catholics recognize the existence of both Mortal and Venial Sin. “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” 1 Jn 5:17.

    Knowledge, intent and full consent of the will are each and all key elements in determining whether a grave sin is actually a Mortal Sin, or whether, in the absence of one or more of the above elements, the sin is Venial. It is especially for this reason that Catholics should seek reliable spiritual direction. A long-established way of doing this is to regularly attend retreats and days of reflection accompanied by reception of the Sacrament of Penance.

    Finally, as Catholics we recognize that all of us are sinners who only merit Heaven through the redemptive sacrifice of Our Savior and that good works done as a response to our faith and acceptance of this great gift are key as evidence of that faith and acceptance when standing before God. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Mt. 7:22. “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Mt. 25:34.

  11. chantgirl says:

    Gerard Plourde – If we, as a Church, spent more time on basic catechesis, no Catholic would have to go to spiritual direction to understand that abortion, homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery are intrinsically evil acts. This is just basic ignorance of, and willful blindness to, the clear teachings of Christ and His Church. For Heaven’s sake, we don’t need a new evangelization; we just need plain old evangelization.

  12. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Chantgirl,

    I agree that basic catechesis provieds a strong foundtion for the formation of a sound conscience. but I’m surprised that you see no value in spiritual direction in discerning the dangers attendant to life in this world.

    To start, I think that we can agree that the the sins you’ve enumerated are not ones likely to be committed by faithful Catholics like the readers of this blog. However, we are all sinners thanks to the inheritance we have received from the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve and consequently must be on our guard to understand what sins Satan knows to which we are susceptible and which he will surely use to lead us to Hell. Some examples of the pitfalls he can exploit from the remaing six Cardinal Sins –

    In a society awash in materialism that celebrates opulence how do we avoid the blandishments of Greed and the tinges of Envy?

    In a society that celebrates bare-knuckle verbal brawling on its news and information channels how do we recognize and avoid the sin of Anger?

    Do we have intellectual gifts or some other area of prowess that can be exploited to tempt us to pride?

    Can we be tempted to avoid a rigorous examination of our consciences (a form of sloth, perhaps?) in order to “give ourselves a pass” on a dubious behavior we engage in?

    Do we give in to gluttony by ovrindugling in something (it need not be food)?

    To paraphrase C.S. Lewis’s observation in “The Screwtape Letters” – Why tempt a person to commit murder when his fanactical addiction to card-playing grants access?

    It is to guard against these subtle temptations that spiritual direction is of use.

  13. LarryW2LJ says:

    Oh, how I wish Papa Benedict still had his hands on the reins. I would love to be able to sit down, one-on-one with him and get his take on all this.

  14. Joe in Canada says:

    I’ve never understood why I have to be bound by someone else’s conscience. If someone’s conscience leads them to a position at odds with the Church, they should have the integrity to stop communicating. Otherwise they don’t REALLY believe their conscience.

  15. Ferde Rombola says:

    Gerard Plourde, thank you for your wisdom. It is very helpful for me.

  16. Ferde Rombola says:

    I’m having trouble with the hair splitting. Acts proceed from persons. Ergo, intrinsically evil acts proceed from (fill in the blank).

  17. chantgirl says:

    Gerard Plourde – Please understand that I hold spiritual direction as an extremely important gift of the Church. However, in our Catholic triage situation, most people need basic catechesis before spiritual direction. Yes, readers of this blog probably accept the Church’s teachings on sex, but some may still experience practical situations in their married life which call for direction. In fact, you could apply St. Teresa of Avila’s interior castle to chastity in that those who have not yet journeyed into the castle are the majority of Catholics who have not yet assented to the Church’s teachings on sex. Those who assent pass into the castle but still may find it difficult to advance. So, a married couple may follow all of the “rules” about sex and still experience a battle with lust. I remember reading JPII and him mentioning that the marital bed is the prime battlefield on which lust is fought. So, yes, for Catholics who have assented to the Church’s teachings, spiritual direction is immensely helpful. Most Catholics are still in the moat on the “pelvic issues”, and need some basic catechesis, basic evangelization first. We have to help pull people out of the moat by praying that God will convert them and by explaining the truths of the faith to them.

    This synod is still stuck in the moat, and until the synod fathers can accept the Church’s teaching on sex, they will never advance into the castle to help the average Catholic.

  18. What a marvelously unambiguous article by Dr. Gregg.
    Keith Töpfer

  19. Gerard Plourde says:

    Chantgirl- I’m glad we are in agreement on the need for spiritual direction. I would posit that good spiritual direction is a form of catechesis. Even in the period before the Second Vatican Council too many individuals were equipped with basic catechesis through the Baltimore Catechism but didn’t necessarily get direction to be able to apply their learning to the broader issues they would confront as adults, and these constitute everyday issues are just as basic as those we consign to the “pelvic moat.”

    As an example, take the Third Commandment. The prohibition aganst unnecessary servile work on Sunday had the example of a man doing a number of unnecessary tasks on Sunday (one of them was washing the car) just “to have something to do.” Perhaps the question should be updated to “Is shopping on Sunday an activity that Catholics should forego as it entails unnecessary servile work and distracts from the purpose of the Sabbath?” (This is one that I am guilty of.)

    Related to this – Am I distracted during Mass by thoughts of what I’m going to buy afterwards (or the football game I’m going to or annoyed by some aspect of the Mass I’m attending) and could I be violating the First Commandment by entertaining these thoughts instead of being mentally present to the Holy Sacrifice?

    Or another example – “If I’m selling something on eBay, what kinds of omissions of full disclosure violate the Eighth Commandment (and possibly the Seventh Commandment as well if I get an undeserved higher price beacuse of it)?” If I know I’m lying by omission and therefore taking advantage of the buyer I would argue that this meets all of the criteria of Mortal Sin. Here’s the analysis – Concealing the truth to defraud is a serious matter (1). I know this (2) and willingly do it (3). It’s compounded if I try to justify it as “Just a little white lie.”

  20. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Knowledge, intent and full consent of the will are each and all key elements in determining whether a grave sin is actually a Mortal Sin, or whether, in the absence of one or more of the above elements, the sin is Venial.”

    Not really complete. There is an objective and a subjective aspect to sin. Every intrinsically evil act that is committed is objectively sinful, because the disorder is contained within the act, itself. The act is evil based solely on the object of the act, not the intent or circumstances, etc. (which are called extrinsic sins). Abortion is no less an evil act if one is poor or rich. The sin may not be imputed, subjectively, as a mortal sin to the individual, if there is some impediment, such as a lack of knowledge, or full consent (i.e., getting the abortion without permission), but the act, once done, is, objectively, always and everywhere, opposed to either God or reason or both and, in itself, sinful.

    Homosexual sex is always and everywhere an objective evil and no mis-formed conscience or excuse of, “love,” can make it otherwise. Conscience cannot change an intrinsic evil into an extrinsic one. Not believing the truth does not make an intrinsic mortal sin less objectively sinful.

    It is not true that any conscience must be followed. The correct statement is that a well-formed conscience must be followed. If one will not form one’s conscience correctly, then one is guilty of crass negligence, which is a sin, in itself. If one does not believe what the Church infallibly teaches, tough. One cannot disagree, in conscience, with an infallible teaching and call oneself a reasoned human being having a well-formed conscience. This, “conscience,” would not, normally, mitigate a mortal sin to a venial one, if one is able to recognize that the church, in itself, has the right to speak infallibly on certain moral issues.

    It is the same with Cardinal Kaspar’s nonsense about divorced and re-married people receiving Communion. That will always and everywhere be sinful, if the marriage is adulterous. Adultery is an intrinsic evil opposed to Nature. What Cardinal Kaspar is doing is, I am sorry to say, identical to what NASA did when they were told about the O-ring failure potential on the Challenger Shuttle – groupthink the problem into non-existence. Well, I would love to be able to alter physical constants to anything I like, but the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, in his scathing critique of NASA in the appendix F to the Challenger Report, reads almost like a prescient rebuke of the Synod. Just replace marriage with space shuttle and it easily rebuts Cardinal Kaspar:


    If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering
    often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of
    originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a
    very safe vehicle [marriage]. In these situations, subtly, and often with
    apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights
    may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively
    unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent
    (it is difficult to be more accurate).

    Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the
    probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this
    may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and
    success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that
    they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost
    incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working

    In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most
    serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a
    dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary
    airliner [Communion for the divorced and re-married without annulment]. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks,
    and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was
    equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of
    the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

    Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a
    world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and
    imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate
    them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of
    the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be
    realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty
    of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed,
    schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way
    the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to
    the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and
    informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for
    the use of their limited resources.

    For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over
    public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

    There, Cardinal Kaspar, is your reality. Quit trying to fool the public with a reality-ignoring ideology of mercy. Your form of mercy is unnatural.

    The Chicken

  21. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Masked Chicken,

    You’re quite correct that there is an objective component to sin. Perhaps I should have made clear that the starting point is the recognition that all sins, both Mortal and Venial are objectively (or intrinsically) evil. Even Venial Sins can over time deaden the conscience to a degree that facilitates commission of Mortal Sin. The remedy is the one Fr. Z prescribes, frequent confession.

  22. Mr. Graves says:

    “I remember reading JPII and him mentioning that the marital bed is the prime battlefield on which lust is fought.”

    In which encyclical or writing did JPII say this? I’d like to explore it further.

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    It sounds like part of the addresses that make up the Theology of the Body. Here is from an audience of July 23, 1980:

    “The heart has become a battlefield between love and lust. The more lust dominates the heart, the less the heart experiences the nuptial meaning of the body. It becomes less sensitive to the gift of the person, which expresses that meaning in the mutual relations of man and woman. Certainly, that lust which Christ speaks of in Matthew 5:27-28 appears in many forms in the human heart. It is not always plain and obvious. Sometimes it is concealed, so that it passes itself off as love, although it changes its true profile and dims the limpidity of the gift in the mutual relationship of persons. Does this mean that it is our duty to distrust the human heart? No! It only means that we must keep it under control.”

    A summary of the audiences may be found, here:

    Finally, a list of all of the general audiences comprising the Theology of the Body:

    The Chicken

  24. The Masked Chicken says:

    As soon as it gets out of moderation, I have links to Pope St. John Paul II that should satisfy Mr. Graves.

    The Chicken

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