Sadly and scandalously, some Church leaders – for what some mistakenly call “pastoral reasons” – are basically calling for a return to “situation ethics,” a form of relativism that has been thoroughly debunked in Catholic moral theology.
According to situation ethics, the situation determines the morality or an action, as opposed to bringing objective moral truths to different situations and applying them faithfully. This view gives a lot of weight to “intentions,” which, of course, are always “good,” so almost any action is justifiable. Cohabitation, adultery, contraception, and homosexuality – one cannot, per situation ethics, call these situations wrong, since we don’t know the particulars of each person’s situation.
“I want to, so I will” is not compatible with Catholic moral doctrine:
A good intention (for example, that helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just…Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1753 and 1754)
On the contrary, the primary factor in determining the goodness or badness of a human action is its “object.” Think of the object of an action as where intention meets reality: There is no such thing as a “good rape.” It is intrinsically – by its nature – evil, and any attempt to justify it is obviously corrupt from its beginning. There are other intrinsically evil human actions that must never be done: Adultery, fornication, use of contraception, abortion, homosexual acts, and euthanasia are such actions, even if there is even within this (incomplete) list some actions which are more destructive than others. Neither a good intention nor a particular situation or hoped-for consequence can make an intrinsically evil action into a good one.
Also, a person may not do evil so that good may result from it. Under one argument being presented by some at the Synod, a husband and wife can legitimately use contraception in “good conscience.” What we did not hear presented with this argument is any consideration of the need to form one’s conscience in accordance with the truth and in love. Leave aside for a moment the inevitable fruit of contraception – widespread abortion to end the entirely predictable “unintended pregnancies” that follow the failure of contraception. The use of contraception fundamentally changes the object of the sexual act by intentionally removing one of the two good and natural ends of the act, procreation.
The Catholic Church does teach that while a person “must obey the certain judgment of his conscience” (CCC 1800) his conscience, at the same time, must be formed by the “Word of God” (CCC 1802) and by “the Church’s authority and her teaching” to make judgments that are “in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” (CCC 1782-1785)
Another statement that has concerned many came from Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago, who said in reply to a question about divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion: “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.”
Even if His Excellency did not mean that any decision whatsoever is justifiable based on some concept of “good conscience,” his comments cause confusion.
If moral and religious truth is not absolute but relative to the situations and circumstances, then one can easily, with “good conscience,” choose an evil disguised as a good. We should consider the slippery slope onto which some of the Synod fathers are encouraging us to step. If one can, in conscience, choose to employ contraception, then why can the same person not choose in “good conscience” abortion as an exercise of fertility regulation?
Some might say that I am overreaching in this argument. Am I? If a couple can separate the unitive and procreative ends of marriage by employing contraception and its mentality, then when contraception fails (and it does), why can’t the same couple choose abortion? After all, they didn’t want a child to begin with.
Pope Saint John Paul II, in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, proclaimed to a culture swimming in a sea of relativism that there is no absolute freedom of conscience. Moral truths are objective, resting ultimately on basic truths about human nature and the world rather than on individual choice or social consensus. Moreover, these truths can be known by ordinary human reason.
In the light of Holy Scripture and the Magisterium, the Catholic Church’s official teachers have a special authority and role to play in assisting the faithful to reach these truths.
In 1995 Pope John Paul reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on human life in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae and reasserted the Church’s opposition to contraception, abortion, and euthanasia, which he saw were being embraced by a civilization that lives as though sin does not exist, and as if God does not exist. With great clarity the encyclical maps out the moral rationale by which Catholics and all people should judge decisions involving the human life.
Three years later, with Fides et Ratio, the Holy Father again confronted the Culture of Death and its promoters who questioned mankind’s ability to seek, know, and accept objective truth by denouncing the “fateful separation” between reason and faith in the modern era. Addressing the dangers of modern philosophies, John Paul argued that the main threat comes from a philosophy being widely embraced by the culture, a philosophy of “nothingness” called nihilism. Nihilism, according to John Paul, is at the root of the widespread mentality that asserts that a definitive commitment should no longer be made because everything is fleeting and provisional. He challenged people to reject the despair that led to the tragic events at the end of the 20th century; instead, he urged us to rediscover both our capacity to know the truth and to yearn for our true end with Our Lord, Jesus.
The dissenters of Humanae Vitae, some of whom are participating in the Synod and advising the Holy Father, believe they have found a new moment to once again propose their concessions to the world. They are attempting to move the Church, for pastoral reasons, to ignore her doctrine concerning marriage, human sexuality, and human life. They project upon the Church an illusion that her teaching on human sexuality is too difficult, uncompassionate, even hurtful, and no longer in line with cultural practices.
We must not be fooled. We are in a critical moment. We must pray for our Church leaders, and lovingly insist that they uphold the doctrine of the Church, which is loving because it is true. It is not disrespectful to ask that the Holy Father to reaffirm Humane Vitae’s magisterial teaching.
Pope Saint John Paul II, great defender of the family and life, pray for us!