The National Catholic Review
Is the concept of intrinsic evil helpful to the Catholic voter?

As the November national elections approach, we need not delve too deeply into Catholic political discussions to realize the importance of the term “intrinsic evil.” The term is used not only in such documents as Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the 2008 Voting Guide for Catholics issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but also in political skirmishes among American Catholics. But what, exactly, is an “intrinsic evil”? Why should voters give special attention to intrinsic evils in considering the candidates? Almost no Catholic opinion-maker who invokes the term goes on to ask these questions, let alone to answer them.

Perhaps this is because the answers seem obvious. After all, the term “intrinsic evil” seems to connote great and contaminating evil—evil that we take inside ourselves simply by associating with it. The term itself suggests that “intrinsic evil” involves wrongdoing of an entirely different magnitude than ordinary, run-of-the-mill wrongdoing. Consequently, intrinsic evils must pose great moral dangers to both individuals and society at large, and these dangers ought to dwarf all other considerations in casting one’s vote.

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship tells us that intrinsically evil actions “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned,” because “they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons.” At the same time, in national debates during the current election season, some Catholic political commentators have complained about Catholics who support candidates who do not, in the commentator’s judgment, adequately oppose such intrinsic evils as abortion, euthanasia and homosexual acts, the last of which are implied by gay marriage.

The foregoing is meant to illustrate how the term “intrinsic evil” is used in the passionate give and take that characterizes many Catholic discussions about voting for a pro-choice politician. It is, however, in significant tension with the great weight of the church’s long moral tradition. The term “intrinsic evil” does not have its roots in the expansive imagery of the church’s prophetic witness, but rather in the tightly focused analysis of its moral casuistry. It is not a rhetorical flourish, but rather a technical term of Catholic moral theology. Ultimately, as Pope John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor), it is rooted in the action theory of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Meaning of ‘Intrinsically Evil’

In a nutshell, the fact that an act is called an intrinsic evil tells us two and only two things.

First, it tells us why an action is wrong—because of the “object” of the acting agent’s will. To identify the object of an action, one has to put oneself in the shoes of the one acting, and to describe the action from her perspective. The object is the immediate goal for which that person is acting; it is “the proximate end of a deliberate decision” (VS, No. 78).

Second, the fact that an act is intrinsically evil tells us that it is always wrong to perform that type of act, no matter what the other circumstances are. A good motive cannot make an act with a bad object morally permissible. In other words, we may never do evil so that good may come of it. To echo an example used by both Pope John Paul II and St. Thomas, a modern-day Robin Hood should not hold up a convenience store at gunpoint in order to give the money to a nearby homeless center. Robin Hood’s good motive (altruistic giving) does not wash away the bad object or immediate purpose of his action (robbery).

But to say that an act is intrinsically evil does not by itself say anything about the comparative gravity of the act. Some acts that are not intrinsically evil (driving while intoxicated) can on occasion be worse both objectively and subjectively than acts that are intrinsically evil (telling a jocose lie). Some homicides that are not intrinsically evil are worse than intrinsically evil homicides. Furthermore, the fact that an act is intrinsically evil does not by itself tell third parties anything at all about their duty to prevent that act from occurring.

The following analyses and reflections may provide some clarity and further issues for reflection as we continue to debate the use and misuse of church teachings in the political realm.

1. “Intrinsically evil” does not mean “gravely evil.”

Reflecting Aquinas’s action theory, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that for an act to be morally good, it needs to be good in every respect. For an act to be morally wrong, however, any single defect will suffice. It can be performed for the wrong motive; if I give alms solely in order to earn fame, then my act is morally wrong. It can be performed under the wrong circumstances; it is entirely good for a newly wedded couple to consummate their union, but not in the church vestibule immediately following the ceremony. Most significantly for our discussion, the immediate “object” of the acting agent’s will can be disordered or defective. Because an act takes its identity primarily from its object, Catholic moralists say that an act with a defective or disordered object is “intrinsically” evil.

Intrinsically evil acts are acts that are wrong by reason of their object, not by reason of their motive or their circumstance. The Splendor of Truth (No. 80) states that they are “‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.” Consequently, they can never be morally good, no matter what the intended outcomes. What are some examples? It is always wrong to act with the intention of killing an innocent human being, no matter what the context or larger motivation. This prohibition rules out not merely contract killing but also intentional killing of the dying in order to end their suffering, intentional killing of unborn children and saturation bombing of cities in wartime.

The church has taught, however, that there are other intrinsically evil acts that have nothing to do with violent assault. Not surprisingly sex, like death, also provides fertile ground for their identification. Masturbation, homosexual acts and contracepted heterosexual acts are all, according to Catholic moral teaching, intrinsically evil, in part because “they close the sexual act to the gift of life” (Catechism, No. 2357). It is never licit for a married couple to use contraception, even if a pregnancy would threaten the life of the woman and the baby she carried. The church teaches that if natural family planning does not provide sufficiently reliable protection, the couple must refrain from sex until menopause rather than use contraception even once.

One might argue, in response, that contraception in this case is acceptable because of the serious threat to the mother and child. Pope John Paul II, however, rejected that form of argument in The Splendor of Truth. No virtuous motive and no other feature of an intrinsically evil act can make it a good act, although it can mitigate the wrongdoing substantially. To hold otherwise, according to the pope, is to be a “proportionalist” and thereby to place oneself outside the Catholic moral tradition. Needless to say, there are Catholic moralists who disagree with the tradition, and who argue for its revision on a number of grounds. But this is official Catholic teaching.

Over the centuries, Catholic moralists have also identified other acts as intrinsically evil. For example, lying (defined as making a false assertion with the intent of deceiving) has often been identified as an intrinsically evil act. Consequently, it too is always wrong. So it is wrong to lie to the F.B.I.; it is also wrong to tell your Aunt Edna that you think her purple sunflower hat is fabulous if you think it is hideous. While such a lie would be intrinsically evil, it would not be a serious evil. To recognize that an act is intrinsically evil does not necessarily mean that it is a grave evil, either objectively or subjectively. While the church has long taught that all sexual misdeeds are objectively serious, it has also recognized that subjective culpability can vary from case to case. Objectively speaking, lying is not always seriously wrong. And few moralists would deny that contraception is less seriously wrong than abortion, which involves the taking of human life.

Furthermore, not all intrinsically evil acts involve a significant violation of justice, the precondition for making an act illegal. No serious candidate for national office maintains that masturbation, homosexual acts or contraception should be outlawed in the United States today; and most Catholic legal theorists, whether conservative or liberal, would agree with them.

2. An intrinsically evil homicide is not always worse than every other wrongful homicide.

At this point, someone might object: “The foregoing reflections may be true about intrinsically evil acts in general, but not about intrinsically evil acts involving the taking of life—particularly innocent life. Surely these must be the worst acts of all and the greatest acts of injustice, and therefore are the acts that the law needs to condemn most harshly.” But even this claim does not hold up under closer scrutiny. Intrinsically evil acts do not necessarily make for the worst form of homicide, with respect either to the subjective culpability of the killer or to the objective wrong done to the innocent victim. The following two examples ought to make that clear.

Consider first a man who burns down his own building one night for the insurance money, foreseeing but not intending that a single mother at work there will die in the blaze. He does not want her to die; her death forms no part of his purpose or plan. He simply does not care whether she dies or not. Now this is a heinous act, revealing great depravity on the part of the perpetrator and causing great harm to the victim. It is not, however, intrinsically evil. The object of his act, to burn down his own building, is not wrong in and of itself. The act is wrong because of its motive (theft by insurance fraud) and because of its circumstances: the likelihood that an innocent woman would lose her life in the course of it.

Contrast this with a situation involving an elderly man suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Fearful of undergoing a protracted and difficult death, he begs his wife to kill him. Finally, she acquiesces to his pleas and kills him painlessly with an overdose of barbiturates. The wife has committed an intrinsically evil act. She has intentionally killed a helpless, innocent person. Her act is seriously wrong, yet her personal blameworthiness is mitigated by her motive of alleviating suffering. Moreover, the objective injustice is mitigated by the fact that her husband not only consented to the act, but begged her to do it.

The law ought to prohibit both acts, because both harm the common good. At the same time, however, the legal system ought to recognize that the first act, which is not intrinsically evil, is morally worse, both subjectively and objectively, than the second act, which is intrinsically evil. District attorneys would be eager to prosecute the death-dealing defrauder to the full extent of the law, but many of them would decline to press a murder case against the wife whose love and loyalty to her suffering husband took a deeply misguided form.

3. Preventing intrinsically evil acts is not always our top moral priority.

Some commentators have suggested that voters ought to prioritize opposition to gay marriage and abortion because third parties have an overriding duty to prevent intrinsically evil acts and to protect their potential victims. But this argument is incorrect. It is not always most important for third parties to intervene to prevent harm caused by intrinsically evil acts. Sometimes preventing harm caused by other kinds of wrongdoing, or even harm caused by natural disasters, can take priority.

Let us return to an earlier example. If a third party were unable to help both, he or she could legitimately choose to save the woman about to die as a result of her boss’s fire-setting (an evil act, but not an intrinsically evil one) rather than to protect the man with Lou Gehrig’s disease who is about to be voluntarily euthanized by his wife (an intrinsically evil act). Furthermore, under some circumstances one might legitimately choose to protect a person endangered by a natural disaster before coming to the rescue of a victim of human wrongdoing. One might choose, for example, to save a toddler about to drown in a flash flood rather than prevent that act of euthanasia, although the toddler’s death would not be due to any human wrongdoing at all.

More generally, one’s obligation to intervene to prevent harm to others, whether or not it is directly caused by an intrinsically evil act, depends upon a number of factors. Is one in any way responsible for the harm about to occur? Does one have a special responsibility for either the perpetrator (if there is one) or the victim? What is the likelihood that one’s efforts to intervene will succeed? Will those efforts make matters worse if they do not succeed? What good will one fail to do, what evil will one fail to prevent, if one devotes oneself to this particular rescue effort rather than to another? Is intervening in this situation incompatible with performing other duties?

4. The motive and circumstances of particular actions also deserve moral scrutiny.

Some Catholic commentators have claimed that the certainty we have about the wrongfulness of intrinsically evil acts means that we should give their prevention priority over other acts, which may or may not be wrong, depending upon the circumstances. Their argument seems to run like this: the church teaches that abortion, euthanasia and homosexual acts are always wrong, but not that war or capital punishment is always wrong. Therefore, good Catholics ought to focus their political efforts on preventing acts they know to be wrong, and remain agnostic about the rest. One commentator has suggested that the church gives us “wiggle room” on issues that do not involve intrinsically evil acts.

This way of understanding a Catholic approach to the morality of human action is deeply mistaken. The church teaches that acts can be wrong because of their object, motive or circumstances. If a particular act is not wrong by reason of its object, we have a duty to consider motive and circumstances before performing it or endorsing it, particularly if the consequences might bring great harm to other people (as, for example, collateral damage in war).

It is true, for example, that some wars are just and some wars are unjust. Yet this does not mean we can be agnostic about the justice of a particular war being waged by our own government here and now. We have a duty to evaluate that particular war according to the criteria set forth in just war theory. In order to justify the decision to go to war (jus ad bellum), seven criteria must be met: just cause, competent authority, comparative justice, right intention, last resort, probability of success and proportionality of means to ends. We cannot justify indifference to or agnosticism about a particular war on the grounds that war in general is not “intrinsically evil.” If we judge a war to be just using these criteria (e.g., World War II), we ought to support it. If we judge a war to be unjust (e.g., the Vietnam War), we ought to oppose it. We cannot hide behind a veil of culpable ignorance. There is no “wiggle room” on such questions for morally serious citizens.

5. Intrinsic evil is not the only useful category in deciding one’s vote.

Given the preceding analysis, how much help does the category of “intrinsic evil” offer us in deciding whom to vote for in an important national election? In my view, not much help at all.

A defender of the category’s usefulness might say that the fact that a candidate does not disapprove of an intrinsic evil reveals an unworthy character. That may be the case. But so does callousness toward the foreseen (but unintended) consequences of an unjust war, particularly toward the children who are orphaned, maimed or killed. So does indifference toward starving children in this country and in the world as a whole, many of whom are done an injustice not by individual Americans, but by American policy as a whole. In this fallen world, moral character alone is not enough. Political competence and other practical skills are also required. The person with the best moral character may not be the best president.

Second, a defender of the usefulness of the category of “intrinsic evil” might say that it helps us prioritize our actions, and that politicians have an obligation to oppose intrinsic evils, particularly those occurring within our borders, before addressing other sorts of evils occurring elsewhere. After all, we cannot police the world. The trouble with this argument is that in a democracy, we do need to police ourselves. If our policies, including our military policies, are unjustly harming the inhabitants of other countries, we have a duty to stop causing harm outside our borders that is at least as urgent as our duty to prevent harm within them. We Americans justly impose the same duty on other countries, including those harboring terrorists.

‘Intrinsic Evil’ as Prophetic Language

Finally, the defender might admit that there is one issue of overriding importance for which the term “intrinsic evil” is useful in political considerations: abortion. For more than three decades, the regime of legalized abortion has taken the lives of well over a million unborn children a year. The Supreme Court of the United States not only permits this regime, it honors it as the instantiation of a fundamental right. In this circumstance, the term “intrinsic evil” helps evoke why abortion deserves prime consideration in voting. Abortion happens inside a woman’s womb, inside what should be the safest relationship of all: that between mother and child. Abortion happens deep inside our society, permeating big cities and small towns alike.

But note that this use of the term “intrinsic evil” has moved far beyond the technical use normally employed in Catholic action theory: it is evocative, not analytical. Its prophetic tone echoes Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 27):

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.

Pope John Paul II used this passage to illustrate the incompatibility of intrinsic evil with human flourishing in “The Splendor of Truth” (No. 80). Like the use of the clearly prophetic word “infamies” in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” the prophetic use of the term “intrinsic evil” is meant to start an urgent discussion among people of good will about grave injustices in the world. It does not provide a detailed blueprint for action. Identifying infamies is one thing. Deciding upon a strategy to deal with them is something else again. For many pro-life Catholics, the issue of voting and abortion comes down to this: what does one do if one thinks that the candidate more likely to reduce the actual incidence of abortion is also the one more committed to keeping it legal? The language of intrinsic evil does not help us here. Only the virtue of practical wisdom, enlightened by charity, can take us further.

M. Cathleen Kaveny is the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Show Comments (61)

Comments (hide)

Michael Casey | 1/25/2010 - 9:16am

Thank you for elucidating these important distinctions.  It is important that the Church clarify its moral arguments about "evil" and such, although this piece serves to emphisize the gaping chasm that so many decent believers feel between their lives and Church teaching.  As St. Thomas would attest, being logically precise is in no way connected to being right (I could make a valid argument that the sky is made of cheese). So a group, however well-meaning, of celibate men making moral arguments about sex and marriage has the uncomfortable feel of a blind person making judgements about vision tests. One is almost too embarrassed to point out how ridiculous they sound, however logically they attempt to phrase their hapless prejudices.  It is perhaps this this utter inability to recognize the absurdity of such positions that lead Church leaders (and some lay people) to make  wild statements about things like contrception and homosexuality, and such willful blindness that allowed the child sex abuse (speaking of REAL evil) continue for decades. Kinda sad. Maybe they should stick to theology and leave sex to adults who practice it.

Elaine | 5/8/2009 - 10:10pm
Some Catholic commentators have claimed that the certainty we have about the wrongfulness of intrinsically evil acts means that we should give their prevention priority over other acts, which may or may not be wrong, depending upon the circumstances. Their argument seems to run like this: the church teaches that abortion, euthanasia and homosexual acts are always wrong, but not that war or capital punishment is always wrong. Therefore, good Catholics ought to focus their political efforts on preventing acts they know to be wrong, and remain agnostic about the rest. One commentator has suggested that the church gives us “wiggle room” on issues that do not involve intrinsically evil acts. This way of understanding a Catholic approach to the morality of human action is deeply mistaken. Ms. Kaveny is a Professor at NDU. Catholic "theology" no less. With people like her teaching no wonder NDU has lost its Catholic identity. Do you believe in a Hierarchy of good and evil Ms. Kaveny. By reading your article, I would say no.
Joseph O'Leary | 11/18/2008 - 11:36am
Thank you, Ms. Kaveny, for taking the time to pen this clear, reasoned piece. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future. Thank you, too, all the commentators on this piece, for bringing additional (if not tangential) detail to the discussion...including a few fine examples of logical fallacies, excessive group identification and disregard/ignorance of accepted scientific fact (of which I, too, do and likely will continue to unwittingly propagate). I look forward to reading your comments on future articles, as well. I think we all need to take a few steps back and consider that we have may be using select portions of Church teaching to justify our cherished personal worldviews, as opposed to actively seeking and listening to the Word.
Kate Webb | 11/14/2008 - 4:04am
I find the commenter who used the example of Hitler's war crimes (highly agressive wars which could in no way be considered "just", yet a "non-intrinsic" evil) versus restrictions of abortion to cases endangering the life of the mother (always an "intrinsic evil") to be highly ironic in the light of history. In graduate school, I studied carefully the rise of the Third Reich, and Hitler's consolidation of power and the propaganda he and his henchmen used to persuade the German public in general, and the churches in Germany, that he represented the "moral" candidate for Chancellor. Hitler gained great support from many Christians, especially from many Catholics. How? By cynically playing the abortion card (and the anti-homosexual card). In the Weimar Republic, abortion had been legal. By proclaiming his "family values" and his zeal to rid Germany of both legal abortion and tolerance for homosexuality, he gained many Catholic fans. It was all a cynical ploy, of course. [As I would maintain that the Republican party's anti-abortion stance is also a cynical ploy, the "hook" necessary to snag religious voters.] Well, we all know what became of Hitler's power grab. But at least Catholic Germans who supported him for his "moral" stance on abortion and his denunciation of the "intrinsic disorder" of homosexuals could sleep peacefully at night, untroubled by their consciences, knowing they'd made the right "moral" decision by choosing such a "good man" as Adolf Hitler -- a man with the necessary good character to denounce intrinsic evil and promote a return to family values! Right? If candidates for office prove they will not abide those two intrinsic evils, that's what's really important....Right??? It seems in the USA in recent years, a politician can get away with war crimes, and all manner of other grave evils which harm the lives of millions of people, merely by STATING that he or she opposes abortion. What a clever way to manipulate the electorate! The reason why the GOP never took real measures to eliminate abortion is because doing so would kill the "golden goose" of the religious voter's support if such measures finally succeeded. The hollow promise of some future pro-life success served as the bait, the carrot on the stick, to keep pro-life supporters as their most fervent political foot-soldiers, election after election after election. [Note: I am not at all painting a direct comparison between the ideology of the Nazi Party and the RNC, not at all. The Nazi Party's support among "regular churchgoers" does, nonetheless, provide a stark example of where such single-issue politics can eventually lead in a worst case scenario.]
Nancy Danielson | 11/13/2008 - 2:06pm
David Bindner, FYI, From the Merriam-Webster on Line Dictionary: conceive-1a: to become pregnant with, conceive a child b: to cause to begin From conception, a Child in their Mother's Womb is a person and not some form of potential Life. From conception, a Child has its own unique DNA, consistent with that of a Human Person.
Nancy Danielson | 11/13/2008 - 1:43pm
Patrick, what exactly is a safe abortion? From the Merriam-Webster on Line Dictionary: safe- 1: free from harm or risk
Patricia Grande | 11/10/2008 - 7:07pm
Michael, Michael, Michael I hope you still remember how to say the rosary because this country needs a lot of help from Our Blessed Lady. Did you forget about her? Where would we be if she had had an abortion? Our Lady has told us over and over again that Her Son, Our Savior, Jesus Christ is very displeased with us. Don't you think that the killing of 50 million babies could be part of the problem? Don't you think that reducing conception from an act of love between husband and wife to a bit of slim in a laboratory dish is displeasing to Our Lord? We have spent too many words trying to explain the simplest of facts. Killing of the unborn is a mortal sin and supporting that murder is also a mortal sin. One day we will all face God’s judgement, I for one want Him to ask if I tried to save the unborn rather than to tell me that I did nothing for one of His own. You must never forget that whatever you do to the least of His brethren so you do unto Him.
Patrick Finnegan | 11/8/2008 - 7:35pm
Excellent and clarifying article. It shows very clearly that certain distinctions that come from moral theology and have been developed to help in evaluating individual acts (say, in the context of Canon Law or sacramental confession, etc), may not be very helpful in providing voters with guidance on public policy matters. In my opinion, the misuse of technical terms of moral theology for rhetorical purposes is a sign of how out of touch the hierarchy is today with the concerns of ordinary people, but this is a wider subject. The author also states: "For many pro-life Catholics, the issue of voting and abortion comes down to this: what does one do if one thinks that the candidate more likely to reduce the actual incidence of abortion is also the one more committed to keeping it legal?" When one examines the facts, it is evident that this is not just a hypothetical question. In Europe, the countries with the lowest numbers of abortions are also the ones that are the most committed to legal, safe and free abortions. A true commitment to the pro-life cause is not about using the criminal justice system to come down hard on women and their doctors; it is primarily shown in laws and institutions that help women in need to make the right choice, not out of fear of prosecution, but because the community is there to support them. As a Catholic, I prefer that second alternative a thousand times over, and feel no hint of guilt in voting accordingly.
Richard Ling | 11/7/2008 - 11:15am
As a graduate student of ethics at Catholic University, I was led by professor Dr. Max Guzikowski to question traditional explanations of “intrinsically evil. It took me a few months of studying the prevalent manuals to find the error that moralists make when they label some acts as “intrinsically evil” and others simply as “evil.” M. Catherine Kaveny makes the same error in “Intrinsic Evil and Political Responsibility.” Although the mistake weaves itself throughout her article, it shows up most pointedly in her statement, “Intrinsically evil acts are acts that are wrong by reason of their object, not by reason of their motive or their circumstances” (my emphasis). Kaveny fails to realize that any act that we determine to be evil, whether “intrinsically” or not, has at least two components, a morality neutral action or non action and one or more morality inducing circumstances. Ultimately, this means I think we should stop using “intrinsically evil. Examples of morally neutral acts are expelling a fetus, killing an adult, picking up a feather, driving a car, etc. Stripped of all circumstances, we cannot determine whether any of these acts are good or evil. But when we add particular circumstances to such acts, we enter the arena of moral judgments. We do not consider expelling a fetus through a miscarriage as a moral evil, whereas we consider expelling a fetus deliberately for the mother’s convenience a moral evil. Killing an adult in self-defense might be morally acceptable but killing an adult out of revenge would be an evil. Picking up a feather to put it in the trash would be morally acceptable, but picking up a feather when bending over would injure a person’s weak back would be morally unjustified. I speak from personal experience when my doctor told me my ruptured disk was so bad that I shouldn’t bend over to pick up either a feather or a $100 bill. In many conversations about “intrinsically evil,” it has become clear to me that some persons have a hard time realizing that the only way we can determine whether an action is good or bad is by considering its circumstance(s). They have been hoodwinked by our frequent use of “intrinsically evil,” as if some acts (Kaveny calls them “objects”) can be judged morally wrong apart from any circumstance. One cause of this problem is how we use different words to describe human actions. We use “killing” in a morally neutral way. Is “killing” good or bad? It depends on the circumstances. When “killing” is unacceptable or morally wrong, we use a different word, “murder.” But unless we are careful, we can overlook the fact that “murder” is “killing” plus a morality engendering circumstance: “unjustifiable.” Perhaps this example will help. “Driving a car” is morality neutral. Even “driving a car in the opposite lane” is morality neutral. ” The action is legal when we can safely pass a car in front of us. It is wrong or “intrinsically evil” when it is “driving a car (1) in the opposite lane (2) when there is an on-coming car (3) that is so close an accident cannot be avoided.” It takes all three circumstances to determine that “driving a car” in that manner is “intrinsically evil.” Perhaps hundreds of years ago we began to speak of “intrinsically evil” acts as a more pointed way of identifying “seriously evil” acts which should never be done. But I maintain that any evil act, grave or small, is “intrinsically evil” by reason of one or more circumstances that make it wrong and therefore should never be done. Thus, “picking up a feather when bending over will injure my back” is “intrinsically evil” (what is intrinsic is the circumstance) and therefore is never morally acceptable. As with the word, “abortion,” we could coin a new word, “pluckering” as a brief way to refer to “picking up a feather when it will harm a person’s back” and say that “pluckering is intrinsically evil” and therefore should never be one. I have tried to make my point about “intrinsically evil”
Michael Bindner | 11/4/2008 - 11:49am
Nancy, Nancy, Nancy, no one is justifying abortion. There is a difference between supporting abortion and opposing the means proposed to restrict it. One need not support abortion to find problems with granting first trimester fetuses legal standing. Unique DNA is not determinative of ensoulment. Beastial relations will produce an zygote which will form a blastocyst with dividing stem cells until Gastrulation. Does that blastocyst have a Human soul? Of course not. The afterlife (neither Limbo or Heaven) is not filled with the souls of failed blastocysts. I pray that it contains failed embryos and fetuses, since we had two miscarriages where the children were deeply loved and wanted but did not survive due to genetic difficulties (one had a Trisome-13 which could have killed my wife had it developed - and if it had developed further would have been terminated to save her life - the child would have had no chance of survival outside the womb). An absolutist stance on abortion would have put my wife's life in danger, so I am not down with that and neither is the Church. In practical terms, had that child been a recognized member of society some hard charging pro-life prosecutor might have wanted to investigate the miscarriage and the resulting DNC. This is the last thing any family needs at such a time. It is bad enough that the Church offers little comfort. To have prosecutors and ambulance chasers involve themselves in family tragedy would be unconcionable. It would also result in Obstetricians not seeing any patient until after the 20th week - which was one of the reasons Roe was decided as it was. Don't say that this would not happen. In the days before Roe, abortion was an easy call for the court precisely because there was not legal status for the fetus. The only way to overcome the woman's right to privacy in these matters is to give legal recognition to the child. Doing so would grant the child, its heirs and society full equal protection rights to have its death treated like a born child, which means both investigation, prosecution and legal responsibility. If you do not favor full legal protection, then you really have no policy you are offering or have not thought the matter through, which confirms my belief that this is an electoral issue, not a serious policy proposal, which I need not adhere to (and did not, as I already voted straight ticket Democrat).
Nancy Danielson | 10/31/2008 - 10:41pm
You can continue to make your justifications for the gruesome act of abortion until the end of Time. There is no argument that exists that can change the fact that Human Life begins at Conception, when a unique Human Person, with unique DNA, consistent with that of a Human Being, separate from that of its Mother, exists. I find it mind boggling that some of the same people who claim that there does not exist compelling evidence for the personhood of a Baby in its Mother's Womb, claim that evidence exists for a gender that is neither Male or Female. There can be no compromise regarding the Sanctity of Life and Respect for the Sanctity of Marriage and the Family.
Michael Bindner | 10/31/2008 - 9:32am
It is an extreme act of "Golden Age" thinking to believe that the unborn were protected prior to Roe. In fact, before Roe the punishment for abortion was a fine. Abortion was not considered to be on the par with murder, which is why in Roe it was equated with contraception in the area of medical privacy - as granted in Griswold v. Connecticut. It is the responsibility of the pro-life movement to craft a solution which actually grants rights to the unborn. The Court in Roe looked for evidence that such rights had ever been granted and found none. If the pro-life movement has evidence of those rights, it should petition for a rehearing. In 35 years they have not, even though throughout this time the Court has been dominated by GOP appointees. The place to create these rights is Congress, which can do so under the enforcement power of the 14th Amendment, as well as its intrinsic power as the sovereign legislature. States do not have that brand of sovereignty. Of course, such an avenue would likely lead to compromise, which would take the wind out of the sails of the pro-life and Republican movements fundraising, since the spectre of late term abortion would no longer be there. Most families would not have the stomach for giving prosectutors power to investigate first trimester abortions, which would extend to the medical records of anyone who has had a miscarriage. That won't happen. The Republicans have used pro-life voters as political pawns for all of these years and have coopted the Church in doing so. Many Catholics in the pews have rightly seen that this is inappropriate and are voting for Obama. You cannot accuse us of sin when the other side is not really offering anything beyond lip service and personal opportunism. Those who think differently should be ashamed, especially when they are ordained, avowed or consecrated. Stick a fork in the Republican Party, its done. Hopefully it will be replaced by a party on the right or in the center which will embrace both the protection of the unborn after potential viability (23 weeks) as well as economic policies to take economics out of the decision to abort before that.
Jennie D. Latta | 10/30/2008 - 10:33am
Dear Professor Kaveny- Thank you for your excellent article, the first of the many I have read that has given me some framework for understanding why an act is labled "intrinscially evil." You have told us that there are two reasons: one, analytical and the other rhetorical. This disctinction itself is very helpful. Further, you have suggested that there is an appropriate distinction to be made between acts that are intrinscially evil and acts that are gravely immoral. Finally, you have framed the abortion question for me in a way that I have struggled unsuccessfully to do for myself: "What does one do if one thinks that the candidate more likely to reduce the actual incidence of abortion is also the one more committed to keeping it legal?" This, at last, gives a question capable of empirical evaluation: are there any, and if so, which, social policies that can be shown to reduce the incidence of abortion? I wish that your article had appeared much earlier in the election season, but thank you for providing me a way to better undertanding.
Celeste M. Bowman | 10/29/2008 - 11:04pm
Thanks for M.Cathleen Kaveny's article "Intrinsic Evil and Voting." She clearly explains and develops structure for our dangerously easy cliche 'intrinsic evil.' The file graphic used with title puts a picture image on my mental struggle through the murky folds of essence, accident, and incidentals around that concept. Prof. Kaveny's last paragraph however, pulls the curtain aside and lets a bright light blaze. How about adding a North Star to that graphic!
sr. marilyn walllace,rsm | 10/29/2008 - 4:54pm
Dear Editor, In response to the article by M. Cathleen Kaveny (Oct. 27,2008), I feel that the author makes her most fundamental mistake when she calls intrinsically evil acts "casuistry." Veritatis Splendor states that it is dissenters in the Church who practice casuistry, not St. Thomas(VS 76 & 78). Belief in intrinsically evil acts is rather belief in Church teaching(VS 80& 81). And it is in Lumen Gentium 25 that we are reminded one should ascent, not only to the infallible teaching of the Church,but also to the ordinary teachings of the magisterium. Therefore, although the author does not think that the language of intrinsically evil acts is particularly helpful, this may be due in fact to the way she has misrepresented the term in her own moral casuistry.
Fr. Joe Classen | 10/29/2008 - 1:49pm
After reading the article in your October issue, Intrinsic Evil and Political Responsibility, I must say it was a brilliant attempt to ease the guilty conscience of “Catholics” who will vote for Obama. The article was well crafted and thought-out until the final paragraph where Kaveny states, “For many pro-life Catholics, the issue of voting and abortion comes down to this: what does one do if one thinks that the candidate more likely to reduce the actual incidence of abortion is also the one more committed to keeping it legal? The language of intrinsic evil does not help here.” The heart of the matter here rests in one word… “Thinks.” What one “thinks” (and hopes) a candidate will do is subjective. What one knows a candidate has done, and will continue to do is the objective evil that must be addressed in this matter. Obama is a candidate who willfully and aggressively promotes abortion at all stages of pregnancy and even condones killing a child who has survived an abortion attempt. Lest we forget, abortion is an act of cold-blooded murder in which an innocent, unborn child is violently ripped limb from limb from his or her mother’s womb and thrown into the garbage like a spoiled piece of meat. To support an individual who we know (not think) will continue this holocaust and have the audacity to call it “freedom” is a decision which should inspire one to beg God for mercy on their soul. God bless. Fr. Joe Classen
sjfan | 10/29/2008 - 10:29am
"For many pro-life Catholics, the issue of voting and abortion comes down to this: what does one do if one thinks that the candidate more likely to reduce the actual incidence of abortion is also the one more committed to keeping it legal? The language of intrinsic evil does not help us here. Only the virtue of practical wisdom, enlightened by charity, can take us further." Clearly, Obama is the one the author supposes to be better on the pro-life count, the one committed to keeping abortion legal. Oh, Let me count the ways that this is silly 1) Obama won't get rid of the incidence of abortion unless he makes it impossible to have an abortion (by, say, making it illegal) 2) The ways he claims will lower abortion don't lower it (Teaching kids that abstinence isn't the only choice) and some are intrinsically evil too (contraception- which violates the self-giving, complimentary, spousal nature of sex) 3) Besides, lowering abortion is a false goal. If it is evil, why not destroy it?? "Identifying infamies is one thing. Deciding upon a strategy to deal with them is something else again." 4) How about destroy it? Would you be so unsure of what to do about racism, segregation, etc?" "A defender of the category’s usefulness might say that the fact that a candidate does not disapprove of an intrinsic evil reveals an unworthy character. That may be the case. But so does callousness toward the foreseen (but unintended) consequences of an unjust war, particularly toward the children who are orphaned, maimed or killed.So does indifference toward starving children in this country and in the world as a whole, many of whom are done an injustice not by individual Americans, but by American policy as a whole. In this fallen world, moral character alone is not enough. Political competence and other practical skills are also required. The person with the best moral character may not be the best president." 5) This is a distraction. Supporting an intrinsic evil doesn't make you better than the guy who supports unjust wars or ignores starving children. Moral character would rule out both! In a fallen world, moral character is exactly what you need! Political competence and other practical skills do not lead necessarily to being a great loving guy. 6) Of course there's the obvious implication that if you don't support government sponsored charity, you are ignoring the poor. Yup. Sorry St. Vincent de Paul, Red Cross, Knights of Columbus, the whole Catholic Church and every parish, you're not a gov program so you don't care about the poor. (WHY I CAN'T SEE ANYTHING? I'M WAVING MY HANDS IN FRONT OF MY EYES!!!)
techwreck | 10/28/2008 - 7:39pm
It occurs to me that Ms. Kaveny's differences are with the U.S. Catholic bishops who promulgated "Faithful Citizenship", and not with the faithful. Perhaps a letter to the bishops would have been a more appropriate way of advancing her arguments than posting them in a public forum like "America". Surely, she is not suggesting that the laity disregard the guidance of the bishops when making their choice in the Presidential election. She well knows where the teaching authority rests in the U.S. Church, and that is not at Notre Dame. Her article is particularly ill-advised since she and other members of the Notre Dame faculty with roles in "Catholics for Obama" have lost their credibility with most serious Catholics regarding the election and the abortion issue. Since Ms. Kaveny and the other "Catholics for Obama" have become an irritant for many Catholics loyal to the Church, I have to wonder why "America" made the decision to feature her article in its pre-election issue.
Michael Bindner | 10/28/2008 - 9:25am
I must disagree with Ms. Swadesh. There is no need for population control to "save the planet" as the planet will do just fine no matter what we do. It makes no sense to limit the number of people to make the world better for people - how do you decide who belongs? Science can, and has, found ways to produce quite enough resources to accomondate the human population. I have every confidence it will continue to do so. She is right about the silliness of perpetual chastity, however. As a late middle aged married Catholic, I am personally insulted at comments which somehow denigrate sex without the possibility of procreation (since we are just past that phase). The Latin celibate clergy has always had difficulty dealing with the morality of sex. It is just best to ignore them on these questions. Note that the Greek Church has utterly rejected the idea of Continence for married priests - and for good reason.
daisy swadesh | 10/27/2008 - 8:02pm
While this article is a good analysis of the Catholic Church's use of the term "intrinsic evil", it doesn't mention Jesus' teaching at all. In the original Greek of the Gospels a number of words are used that are translated as sin. The one most often used is "hamartia"--to miss the mark, that is, one can do something generally considered good, but if it's inappropriate to the moment or the circumstances it is a sin--an action that misses the mark. Of course this isn't the term Jesus used, but it's the word in Greek that his disciples (and the Holy Spirit) felt best described what he was saying. Today we humans have created circumstances that people 2000 years ago could not have imagined. We have been fruitful and multiplied and filled the earth to the point where we are threatening essential parts of Creation on which we depend for life--the air, water, fish in the oceans, etc. This is a time when good stewardship is needed, and to read the signs of the times. Is it good to protect life in a way that will lead to environmental breakdown followed by a population collapse--possibly the death of many millions of people? Revelations speaks of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse--disease, famine, war and death. Until quite recently these were natural forms of population control, and we are now seeking to end them. If we are to end these things then we must practice some other form of birth control. Perpetual chastity is hard enough for people vowed to it. Marital relations are designed to stimulate oxytocin, a hormone that renews the bonding of marriage, and therefore perpetual chastity is inappropriate for marriage. This is the dilemma the Church faces.
kmk | 10/27/2008 - 5:42pm
Amen, LTC Prestgard (comment #3). I heard enough of this equivocating in my "World Religions" (aka "plenty of Liberation Theology") class, not to mention the Ethics course, during my undergrad years. One more reason to help our children avoid American Jesuit Institutes of Higher Learning. McCain, or 3rd party, those are my choices as a Catholic. K Kirby BA Poli Sci '88 Loyola College of Baltimore
WILLIAM STRANGE | 10/27/2008 - 9:41am
Unable to sleep at 3:00 a.m. this morning due to remnants from a stubborn cold, I am most struck by Cathleen Caveny's 10/27 essay on Intrinsic Evil-- "Furthermore, the fact that an act is intrinsically evil does not by itself tell third parties anything at all about their duty to prevent that act from occurring." She goes on to develop that theme very nicely, and it needs no reiteration here. When I finish reading the essay, I drift to the cover of today's America. There I see the candidates walking close together over a blood-red carpet--Obama's long left arm embracing McCain's back as if to propel him along--to take their place at a presidential debate. In the audience a young lady in a red jacket has her eyes locked on the candidates, as does a man to her left. I cross my eyes and suddenly I see two of each of them; and behind Obama, I see Father Abraham in his stovepipe hat with his long left arm supporting Obama's back, gently urging both of them along, and with them all of us too.
William Finan | 10/26/2008 - 4:24pm
Thank you for Cathleen Kaveny’s clarifying article “Intrinsic Evil and Political Responsibility.” Her summary and application of Aquinas’ action theory is as good as I have seen. Determining the moral object of an action is perhaps a bit more complex than Kaveny describes, but her description of motive and circumstances and Aquinas’ principle of “bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu” are right on. In the context of the ongoing debate about politicians and abortion, her article can be made explicit in a couple of areas. (1) The very people who note the intrinsic evil of abortion could be expected also to note the intrinsic evil of contraception. Do politicians have a moral obligation to outlaw contraception (as was the case even in Connecticut until a Supreme Court decision only a decade before Roe v Wade)? Do those Catholics who energetically point to the intrinsic evil of abortion want to revive a discussion of Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception? (2) What is “success” with respect to efforts to end abortions in the United States? Is the goal simply to overturn Roe v Wade, or is the goal to make abortion far less frequent? For nearly three decades the Catholic bishops appear to have followed a strategy focused on the former description of success, recently turning to the tactic of denying Communion to Catholic politicians (and suggesting something similar for Catholic voters who support the wrong candidates). That strategy seems to have failed; abortions continue in very high numbers. Should politicians be refused Communion for failing to cooperate with a strategy or should they be commended for policies that could lower the number of abortions? Finally, Kaveny’s description of action theory is a reminder that any discussion of the evil of abortion should focus on the pregnant woman and the doctor involved in the abortion. It is they who choose the intrinsically evil object. It is relatively easy to focus on a few Catholic politicians, painting them as seriously misguided (and evil), while not a word is heard about those who perform the abortions. Again, I get the impression that the Bishops are focusing on a strategy (and criticizing those who do not promote the strategy) rather than on those who are actually causing the intrinsically evil abortion.
Patricia Grande | 10/24/2008 - 9:11pm
After reading M. Cathleen Kaveny’s article on Intrinsic Evil and Political Responsibility, I am dumbfounded. It appears to be just a lot of verbiage to justify a candidate whose Catholic Advisory board she is a member. Her example of assisted suicide being mitigated by a wife’s motive of alleviating suffering is simply unbelievable. Euthanasia is also an intrinsically evil act. In his own words while in the Illinois Senate the candidate reveals his total lack of respect for the sanctity of human life. During a discussion concerning the saving of babies born alive during a failed abortion, Obama said, "the testimony during the committee indicated that one of the key concerns was—is there was a method of abortion, an induced abortion, where the — fetus or child, as —as some might describe it, is still temporarily alive outside the womb." He went on — "And one of the concerns that came out in the testimony was the fact that they were not being properly cared for during that brief period of time that they were still living." O'Malley responded, "This bill suggests that appropriate steps be taken to treat that baby as a—a citizen of the United States and afforded all the rights and protections it deserves under the Constitution of the United States." Obama then proceeded to invent a term for such a baby. He called him/her a "pre-viable fetus"—a complete contradiction in terms, since a born baby cannot be a "fetus." "I mean it — it would essentially bar abortions," said Obama, "because the equal protection clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this is a child, then this would be an anti-abortion statute." I can not see how anyone non-Catholic or Catholic can view this total disrespect for human life not intrinsically evil and vote for this candidate. There is no higher responsibility of an American citizen than to vote in manner that protects all human life from intrinsically evil acts from conception until natural death.
Michael Bindner | 10/24/2008 - 12:18pm
All the sponsored debate in Catholic publications is utlimately helpful in reaching the truth. Politically, however, Catholics for Obama still need some help from the top of the ticket. As a constitutional lawyer, Obama can point out the implications of overturning Roe in such a way as to move the matter back to the states. Doing so would also gut most equal protection precident, which is a conservative goal, but not necessarily a Catholic one. As a Catholic, Biden can distinguish the difference between being pro-abortion and pro-choice. Essentially, to be pro-choice is to resist measures which will force women to seek back alley and self-induced abortions. He can also point out that there really is no viable pro-life piece of legislation on the table which would do what the pro-life movement promises (granting rights to the unborn). It is all well and good to debate the rights of the unborn, but it accomplishes nothing without a viable proposal. One need not even justify a pro-choice position unless there is an actual alternative in play. Congress has it within its power to grant legal status during pregnancy. The states do not - which makes the entire National Right to Life judicial strategy kind of useless for everything but keeping the base radical and Republican. Last week, Archbisop Wurl gave an interview to National Catholic Reporter and pointed out that prior to Roe, no one went to jail for abortion. There was simply a fine (which effectively closed down abortion services by doctors). In other words, it was not considered murder - it was a gyno-crime. Roe properly stated that gyno-crimes violate privacy between women and their doctors. Fetuses can only be protected if you give them rights. The dividing line where a pregnancy is considered a person should be considered legislatively and would likely fall between initial viability with assistance (23 weeks) and full viability (30 weeks). The question to consider, especially if one favors a date even earlier, is at what age would you favor providing life insurance coverage for the fetus on a community rated basis where the pool goes from that point to either "natural death" or through childhood. In other words, at what age do you care enough about the child to pay its parents from your higher premiums if it dies?
THOMAS FARANDA | 10/23/2008 - 9:36pm
In 2005 Dr. Kaveny spoke at a forum in Briarcliff NY (Westchester County) and was critiqued in the Q & A for her undying support of Mr. Kerry in the prior election,including some less then charitable remarks in online forums - while criticizing Bush supporters for bashing Kerry! Nothing has changed. Kaveny is simply an apologist for the Democratic Party and will go to any extent to rationalize support for Obama. I have two degrees from Jesuit Universities and a son at Fordham Prep HS. Thank God they're not feeding him this drivel.
James Lindsay | 10/23/2008 - 6:45pm
It is not the right to life which I quarrel with, but the proposals to enforce it. The Court found that rights did not extend to the pre-born. Congress could change that - the states cannot. States cannot extend partial citizenship. It must either grant full rights at some stage in the pregnancy or no rights, because women have a right to be left alone if another legal person is not involved. Enact a living wage supported by a $500/month/dependent tax credit regardless of base income and you will see most abortion facilities disappear. Of course, most in the pro-life movement would consider such a thing to be socialism, which shows the true character of the movement.
WILLIAM DEMPSEY | 10/23/2008 - 4:20pm
Mr. Decker is wrong in asserting that it is the burden of Catholics who conclude that one cannot adhere to Church teaching while voting for Obama to "show that voting for their preferred candidate will actually avoid the evil (abortion) which motivates their choice. In other words, they need to show not just that abortion is a more grave problem than say, the war in Iraq, but that voting for McCain offers some hope of alleviating that problem." Is it, rather, plainly quite sufficient that an Obama presidency would materially increase the number of abortions. And surely it would, given his and his Party's support for public funding of abortion and the Freedom of Choice Act. At the least, it is the burden of those Catholics who wish to justify their vote for Obama to show that his policies would not increase abortions. This is a burden they cannot meet. That, I suspect, is why they do not discuss the significance of these policies that bear directly and importantly on the matter at hand. There is a further point. Consider this analogy: The Supreme Court rules that parents under the privacy rubric have a constitutional right to have their child humanely killed during the first 24 hours after birth if he or she is disabled. A presidential candidate vows to resist a constitutional amendment to reverse this decision and also any legislative attempts to narrow its scope, and also to cover the cost of the homicide under his or her new medical insurance program. If one accepts the Church's teaching that life in the fullness of its rights begins at conception, there is no difference between this case and that involving Obama and abortion. Accordingly, It is difficult, I think impossible, to avoid the conclusion that those Catholics, such as Dr. Kaveny, who purport to embrace the Church's view respecting the beginning of life at conception and the consequent gravity of the sin of abortion while at the same time supporting the Obama candidacy really do not in their hearts regard the fetus as fully human. They cannot unless they can justify voting for the hypothetical infanticide candidate. Rather, they place a lesser, indeterminate, value on fetal life. That is, of course, their right; but it is false advertising for them to claim adherence to the Church's teaching as to the fullness of personhood of fetal life.
Nancy Danielson | 10/23/2008 - 10:45am
Mr. Bindner, where in the Constitution does it say that a Mother has an inherent right to end the Life of any child in her Womb? The fact is, the right to abortion does not exist in our Constitution. The Right to Life is the very first Right that our Founding Fathers mentioned in the Declaration of Independence because everyone knows, without the Right to Life, there can be no other Rights. The Catholic Church's position on Life has always been pro-Life.
James Lindsay | 10/22/2008 - 7:51pm
No, Ms. Danielson, I am merely pointing out that the premise the Bishops were using is wrong. The position you are making assumes that there is actually a movement to legalize abortion. There is not, for it is already legal. The burden of argument is not whether it should be legal, but what is the best way to reduce the number of abortions. It is up to the pro-life side to propose something. Absent that, there is no issue on which to base one's vote. The current strategy of the pro-life movement is to seek to overturn federal supremacy on civil rights issues, which would be the effect of turning Roe back to the states. One need not favor abortion to oppose such a rewriting of constitutional relations. Last week, Barack Obama came out in support of ending all late term abortions, which is an appropriate exercise of federal power (not state power). He does support a health exception, however this can be defined further by federal legislation (not state legislation). To say that such exceptions are immoral is to live in a dream world. Such decisions are made every time one deals with separating conjoined twins. This is why hospitals have ethics boards. The Church's position on this issue actually causes abortion, since if Catholic hospitals performed induction abortions, viable or semi-viable children could be saved and adopted, rather than condemning them to the hands of abortionists.
Nancy Danielson | 10/22/2008 - 9:32am
Michael Bindner, is this your argument for justifying the gruesome act of abortion resulting in the death of millions of Children in their Mother's Womb?
James Lindsay | 10/22/2008 - 7:16am
If the test of intrinsic evil is that it is always wrong in every possible circumstance, then abortion does not qualify as such an act. In the case of Trisome 13 pregnancies, the defect in the developing fetus (which has no long term chance of survival) could kill the mother if the pregnancy is allowed to continue. Directly aborting the child in this circumstance is NOT an evil act. Usually induction as a method is preferable, of course, since it carries with it less risk than dismemberment. However, the fact that the pregnancy must be ended is not debateable by any but the most obtuse. To stick to ones doctrine in the face of such circumstances is not a moral act either. Relying on doctrine is no substitute for using moral judgement.
Bruce Snowden | 10/21/2008 - 3:00pm
Regarding "Intrinsic Evil And Political Responsibility" allow me to say the un-sayable simply, plainly and without gloss, also probably "ecumenically incorrect," or something like that. Were it not for the disunity in Christian moral teaching caused by the Protestant Reformation, there would be no question about the intrinsic evil in abortion, euthansia, homosexual marriage, the whole moral and ethical barrel of worms now facing the Christian world, affecting as well the voting conscience of millions of Christians. Were it not for the Reformation's rupture and the resulting moral confusion in the theology of at least 25,000 different Protestant sects all claiming to be the true Church of Christ, there would be a single Christian message coming from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This confusion was never intended or foreseen by Luther, Calvin and others who to their dying day posessed a recognizable Catholic instinct. How severely they would repremand those who followed them, distorting their Reform which was needed and even necessary At least, so it seems to me. I only hope in God's own way and in God's own time all the moral confusion will work unto good. Some may say it already has!
Anne | 10/21/2008 - 12:36am
America magazine has sunk to a new low. Discussion and analysis and theorizing are one thing. Lies, obfuscation and heresy are another. How many children will be painfully ripped from their motherss wombs as a result of THIS article? May God forgive you, I cannot and will never read America again.
gabriel | 10/20/2008 - 8:23pm
Professor Kaveny, along with Doug Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi, believe that Obama is the best choice to protect the unborn. Her pro-Obama affiliation should have been made clear early in the article. Moreover, there is every indication that Obama's political profile, his statements, and his support for the Freedom of Choice Act, in addition to a pro-abortion Catholic Vice-Presidential candidate, might create the most pro-abortion administration in American history. What is a conscientious Catholic to do on November 4? Kaveny's obfuscation does not make the options clear. If anything, it makes it easier to vote against Obama. I also propose that the editors of America request the authors to write less opaque prose. The defense of life can surely be expressed with greater clarity.
Christopher Decker | 10/20/2008 - 7:47pm
The importance of the article is in refuting the argument advanced by George Wiegel in Newsweek, and many others, that avoiding evils such as an unjust war could NEVER supply a proportionate reason to vote for a candidate who supports legal abortion because abortion is an "intrinsic" evil while an unjust is evil not by virtue of its object but by virtue of the intent of the actor and the circumstances. Since the gravity of an evil is not determined solely by whether the evil lies in the act itself, this argument is false, as I tried to show in my first post above. The argument that Wiegel and others should be making is that the evil that will be avoided by a vote for their preferred candidate outweighs the evil that could be avoided by a vote for the alternative candidate. But, to make that argument, they need to also show that voting for their preferred candidate will actually avoid the evil (abortion) which motivates their choice. In other words, they need to show not just that abortion is a more grave problem than say, the war in Iraq, but that voting for McCain offers some hope of alleviating that problem. If not, then an effective step toward eliminating some lesser evil could supply the proportionate reason for not taking an ineffective stop toward eliminating a greater evil.
Bruno | 10/20/2008 - 6:19pm
I am a Spaniard, so I don't care much about Obama or McCain. You could say that I'm politically neutral in this case. Speaking only on moral grounds, I must say that the author of this article misrepresents the main issue. She creates a "straw man": the idea that abortion should only be opposed because it is intrinsecally evil. Then, she beats up the straw man by (rightly) showing that the seriousness of evils must also be taken into account and not only whether they are intrinsecally evil or not. The problem with this kind of argument is that abortion is a vital issue because: - it is intrinsically evil, AND - it is something extremely, breath-tankingly and hugely serious (it's really hard to think of something more serious than the killing of innocent children). That is, abortion shows BOTH things that should be considered (according to the author) to make something an essential item to decide one's vote. In my opinion, the article is only an excuse for someone who, against the teaching of the Church, does not really believe that an abortion kills a child.
colleen kelly spellecy | 10/20/2008 - 3:42pm
Let's be real, Cathleen. Your regular joe in the pew who needs guidelines for voting, is not going to wade through the philosophic jargon of intrinsic evil.I trust the regular church going voter to recognize evil when it's evil
Joe | 10/20/2008 - 2:01pm
I question the reasoning in the example of the insurance fraud homicide vs. the intended euthanasia. Characterizing the act of the arsonist as not intrinsically evil seems highly questionable. The point is secured by specifying the action as "burning down one's own house," but what if it is instead specified as "fraudulently destroying insured property"? The point is that dividing up the act from the intention is not as straightforward as it seems. This is thorny stuff. It's also debatable that inaction or failure to include consideration of the good of another in one's deliberation means that the act which harms that person isn't intrinsically evil. There is a moral distinction between action and inaction, but that alone doesn't give you the result you need. The premise you are relying on is that there is no intrinsic moral status to this guy's treatment of the woman at all, because he doesn't refer to her one way or another in making his decision. That's questionable, since he is refraining from adjusting his actions even when they have grave consequences for her well-being. Isn't it plausible that we must ALWAYS take it into consideration when our proposed action has consequences for the well-being of another? No less a philosopher than Kant certainly thought so, and while he is not necessarily a touchstone of Catholic moral teaching (!), he is a notable absolutist on moral norms, which is relevant here. What are the consequences? I'm not sure. You could probably replace the example with another where there is no way to construe the act as intrinsically evil. But the broader point that bears mentioning is the degree to which we are especially responsible for our participation in intrinsically evil acts. More needs to be said about that. And I agree with Marcia above; doesn't standard full disclosure policy demand that Kaveny be identified as serving in an advisory capacity for the Obama campaign? I don't think there's anything dishonest in the article, but it does a disservice to readers not to provide this information.
Rosie | 10/20/2008 - 12:10pm
If Kaveny is pro-life, but unwilling to support the Republican party because she doesn't think it conforms to her view of social justice, she can then get involved with the Republican party to change its social justice platform or work with the Democratic Party to change its pro-abortion platform. Don't insult our intelligence aka Nancy Pelosi to tell us that it is okay for Catholics to support Obama. She should quietly vote for him - if that is what she wants and not corrupt confused Catholics.
Fremont | 10/20/2008 - 11:18am
I have avoided voting for President in the past. Abortion definitly evil -how many Americans belive and vote? Any war is insanity and killing. Who do I vote for with right conscience? God be Merciful.
Marcia | 10/20/2008 - 8:23am
WHY does the byline of this article not state that Kaveny is a part of Obama's Catholic Advisory group?
Nancy Danielson | 10/19/2008 - 7:43pm
The Supreme Court's position in regards to abortion came down to the Court's opinion that somehow, based on the Constitution, the Right to Privacy trumped the Right to Life. Certainly, our Founding Fathers did not agree, as the very first Right listed in the Declaration of Independence is the Right to Life, without which, there could be no other Rights. The court majority determined that the original intent of the Constitution did not include the unborn. How could that possibly be true if at that period of time no one could ever have imagined the possibility that the right to abortion would one day be protected by our Constitution? In Section X, the Court reiterated, "The State does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman...and that it has still another and important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life." We are not talking about the "potentiality" of Human Life, however, since Science has proven, that at conception, a unique Human Being exists, with unique DNA, consistent with that of a Human Person, separate from that of its Mother. A person is a person, despite their location. To be born in regards to childbirth, means to come forth from a Mothers Womb alive. It is not the beginning of Life but rather the continuation of Life. Let us Pray, that with a change in the Supreme Court Justices, the Truth about Life will prevail.
Joseph Anderson | 10/19/2008 - 6:29pm
A very interesting article in that it draws important distinctions between terms like intrinsic, grave, object, motive and circumstance. At the same time, it is an insidious and deceptive article, in that it tries to use these legitimate distinctions to mitigate the horrors of abortion. To use the article, and John Paul II's own words, to imply that an intrinsic evil like abortion may be not gravely evil and may be less evil than other homicides is scandalous. I am at loss to describe what is left of the reputation and the morals of a Society of Jesus that will print this in a Catholic magazine. The same question goes for what will be tolerated at the author's Notre Dame. As Catholics, we are all called to watch over and care for our souls. I am trying to watch over my own. I can only plead that you will look at yours in light of this article.
WILLIAM DEMPSEY | 10/19/2008 - 4:43pm
Dr. Kaveny’s article seems addressed in the main to those who believe that a Catholic can never in good conscience strike a balance in favor of voting for a pro-abortion politician because abortion is an intrinsic evil, irrespective of the incidence and gravity of the evil. I suspect that hardly anyone who has concluded that he or she cannot ethically vote for Obama thinks in those terms, but rather is moved by the immensity of the horror that is abortion without regard to its proper theological name. In those terms, the question whether there are sufficiently grave moral considerations to justify a vote for a pro-abortion candidate is necessarily fact-based. What would be the difference if one candidate were elected rather than the other? Dr. Kaveny, in a glancing but revealing pass at this question at the very end of her article, frames the question in terms of the pro-choice candidate’s also being the one who, thorugh social and economic programs, is “more likely to reduce the actual incidence of abortion” than the pro-life candidate. This is framing the issue correctly but providing the wrong answer. It is not necessary to speculate as to whether a differently composed Supreme Court might overrule Roe v. Wade and, if it did, what the consequences would be in terms of state law. One can even put aside predictions as to how a change in the composition of the Court would affect future litigation as to limitations on abortion such as waiting periods, parental notification, and partial birth abortion. What one cannot put aside is Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s commitment to public funding of abortion and the enactment of the Freedom of Choice Act (already mentioned by Ms. Danielson). Data indicate, not surprisingly, that public funding of abortion increases abortions by something in the range of 10-20%. Accordingly, since it is surely fair to take Obama and the Party at their word, one may reasonably anticipate an additional 100,000 to 200,000 intentional homicides a year as a result of the election of Obama in combination with a Democratic Congress. And the immorality of the legislative and executive action in providing the means for these homicides would be of a profoundly different order than declining to prohibit or limit abortions, serious as this withholding of protection of life is. What data with this degree of probability can be adduced in support of the proposition that Obama and a Democratic Congress would launch programs that would reduce abortions comparably? And even if there were such evidence, how could the birth of, say, 150,000 children serve as moral justicication for the killing of a different 150,000? In short, I suggest that hopeful generalizations about the possible effects of additional social and economic legislation cannot serve in the face of the threat of public funding of abortion and the FOCA -- particularly since new fiscal constraints will almost surely mean that these proposals should now be spoken of in the past tense. Dr. Kaveny is quite right in her conclusion that “the language of intrinsic evil does not help us here.” It is quite unnecessary.
Larry Hunt | 10/19/2008 - 4:22pm
Ms. Cathleen Kaveny's article is an insult to those who are truly pro-life. No wonder the world has so little confidence in what we say. If the murder of unborn children is not important enough to shape our voting practices, please tell me what is?
Chris Sullivan | 10/19/2008 - 3:11pm
Good article. I just wanted to point out that contracepted heterosexual acts are not, according to Catholic moral teaching, intrinsically evil. They are evil in marriage but not intrinsically evil. For example, the instructions issued by the US Catholic Bishops to Catholic hospitals mandate that raped women be treated with contraceptive procedures, such as a careful mechanical removal of the rapists sperm. This is an act of contraception and it is not intrinsically evil at all. See section 36. God Bless
Paul Bradford | 10/18/2008 - 11:47pm
Abortion is an intrinsically evil act. Therefore the person who performs an abortion is guilty of evil, the person who requests an abortion is guilty of evil, the person who arranges an abortion is guilty of evil, the person who encourages an abortion is guilty of evil -- but what of the person who questions the efficacy of creating legal restrictions to abortion in a society where the majority of people do not even admit to the humanity of the unborn? Is that intrinsic evil, or prudent judgment? Laws can reflect the values of a society, they cannot shape them. Those of us who wish to advance the Culture of Life need to continue focusing the national discourse of this topic on the question of whether a woman SHOULD have an abortion. It's pointless, at this stage in our nation's moral development, to argue about whether she MAY have one.
Christopher Decker | 10/18/2008 - 6:09pm
The notion that, when voting, one must always prioritize avoiding intrinsic evils over avoiding evils which depend on the intent of the actor and/or circumstances surrounding the act leads to the following reduction ad absurdum: Since waging war is not an intrinsic evil, Hitler’s decision to launch World War II was an error in prudential judgment only — an extrinsic but not intrinsic evil. A law that banned all abortions except for cases of rape and incest would be an intrinsic evil, however, because abortion is always and everywhere wrong. Therefore, the law that bans all abortions except in cases of rape and incest is a worse evil than World War II. And, in casting one's vote, it would be more important to close the gap in this imperfect law than to avoid World War II. I think this example illustrates how the gavity of the evil is independent of whether that evil is properly classified as "intrinsic."
Christopher Decker | 10/18/2008 - 6:05pm
The notion that, when voting, one must always prioritize avoiding intrinsic evils over avoiding evils which depend on the intent of the actor and/or circumstances surrounding the act leads to the following reduction ad absurdum: Since waging war is not an intrinsic evil, Hitler’s decision to launch World War II was an error in prudential judgment only — an extrinsic but not intrinsic evil. A law that banned all abortions except for cases of rape and incest would be an intrinsic evil, however, because abortion is always and everywhere wrong. Therefore, the law that bans all abortions except in cases of rape and incest is a worse evil than World War II. And, in casting one's vote, it would be more important to close the gap in this imperfect law than to avoid World War II. I think this example illustrates how the gavity of the evil is independent of whether that evil is properly classified as "intrinsic."


Recently by M. Cathleen Kaveny

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