Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A Question of Evil

We live in a world permeated with shades of grey. The Fall of our first parents has left us with an intellect darkened, a will weakened, and a body susceptible to death (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 399-400). Despite these shortcomings, we recognize that all our human acts have moral value and eternal consequence. No one can read the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel and not shutter at the fate of the “goats” nor the blindness that prevents them from recognizing Christ in those in need.

The first principle for our moral actions directs us to “avoid evil and do good (CCC 1777).” If the world is truly a place of grey, one cannot fulfill this principle. We are doomed to muddle through a series of half-hearted decisions for which no real moral determination exists. As the Gospel demonstrates to us, the world is not grey. It is more like a carpet fiber, where good and evil are closely woven together, such that the impression created is of grey. Each of our moral choices attempts to extract the white threads of good and leave behind the black threads of evil. This leads us to the all-important question. Given that I cannot combat all the evils of the world simultaneously, which evil do I combat first?

Let’s start with what evil is. The Church defines evil as “the absence or a privation of a good that should be present.” Evil is not a force that exists as the “opposite” of God. Rather evil is an emptiness which exists in either our choices or in reality. Further, we can make the distinction between physical evil and moral evil. Physical evil represents a privation in the created order, and we usually experience this as the weakness of our bodies (CCC 310). Anyone who has been laid up with a bad case of flu knows all too well a small taste of physical evil. Moral evil represents the absence of good in someone’s moral choosing (CCC 311, 1849). Either the person has chosen a bad end, a bad intention, or a bad means to the end (CCC 1750). The result is the same. Evil enters the world anew.

But not all evils are equal. The Church recognizes this when she makes the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin. In the first letter of Saint John, Saint John writes, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly (I John 5:16-17).” Therefore, we must strive to overcome first those things which are deadly sins. That which is dead, by definition cannot change. It can only decay.

In our moral choices, we must rank evils by the goods which they assault. There are the goods of health, education, shelter, proper environment, and just laws. Before all these goods comes the most basic, the good of existence. All those other goods are irrelevant if one does not come into being. What does proper shelter matter if one is never born? Therefore, when one argues for the priority of abortion in moral considerations, it is not to say that other things are not evil. They are of a different priority. The Church deems some actions to be intrinsically evil or morally unacceptable. This means that no matter what the motive, the act is always wrong (CCC 1755). Using the Catechism as a guide, it identifies the following: artificial fertilization and insemination, contraception, detraction, direct sterilization, economic theories which make profit the only goal, euthanasia, fornication, homosexual acts, masturbation, murder, and rape. For abortion, the Catechism sets out especially strong language. First, of those listed here, only abortion carries a penalty of automatic excommunication which attaches “by the commission of the act (CCC 2272).” Second, the moral evil of abortion is a teaching that “has not changed and remains unchangeable (CCC 2271).” The moral teaching concerning abortion enjoys an infallible status, defined through the ordinary office of the magisterium. This highlights the severity of the matter in the mind of the Church.

Notice what did not make the list. Capital punishment is not intrinsically evil. The Holy Father’s admonition goes to how capital punishment is employed, not the punishment per se. War is not intrinsically evil. It is a legitimate use of force to defend one’s self from a hostile aggressor. While the average citizen might have reservations about whether our recent outing against Saddam Hussein was justified, ultimately, that prudential decision fell into the lap of our President.

If we really want elected officials who are going to make good decisions in all matters they must recognize “the inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation: ‘The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority...(CCC 2273).” If they are unwilling to concede that point, there is no limit to what can be condoned. Once the human person is valued only for what he can give and not for what he is, half the work is over. If it starts with infants in the womb, why can’t it extend to the elderly who are a “burden” on the health care system. They can be eliminated. How about the mentally ill or disabled? They don’t have a high enough quality of life. They can be eliminated. While a slippery slope is not the best argument, it is the human history most often follows.

More importantly, the question of evil and cooperation with evil reminds us of our need for forgiveness. The Gospel calls us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Before the issue of our elected officials’ possible collaboration in moral evil, we must examine our complicity in moral evil. Each one of us must weigh in his conscience whether his action is good or evil. It follows that we have a grave obligation to form our consciences properly, in accord with the dictates of right reason and the moral law (CCC 1783-1784). The best way to form our conscience is to examine its decisions. Where an error of judgment appears, we repent of it as an offense against God and against our neighbor. Perhaps this explains the decline in the use of the sacrament of Confession. We do not feel the need to repent because we do not examine our behavior often enough. Because we do not examine ourselves properly, we remain mired in the sins we commit, inflicting new wounds upon the ones we love. Thankfully, the Gospel also reminds us that God, through His priests, desires to forgive sins and to restore communion to those who would repent (Matthew 16:19, John 20:21-23).

In closing, we must not delude ourselves. Democracy will not prevent the United States from turning into a totalitarian state. Recall that Hitler started out as an elected official. When law loses its connection with the natural law and with supernatural law, the state in question is already on its way to totalitarianism. Only the truth of the goodness and the intrinsic worth of the human person will prevent a further slide into darkness.


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