Thursday, June 9, 2016

Intrinsic Evils and Politics

I frequently see Catholics trying to draw a distinction between the Democratic and Republican Parties on the basis that whatever the evils of the Republican Party may be, they are not intrinsic evils.  This indicates a misunderstanding of what "intrinsic evil" means. It does not mean something that is distinguished by being a very serious wrong; the word for that is "grave matter" -- the phrase you will see if you look up the bit about mortal sin in paragraph 1857 of the Catechism. You can think of this as being something analogous to a felony in secular law.

Something that is intrinsically evil is not distinguished by the magnitude of the evil, but by the fact that the act cannot be separated from evil; it can never be an acceptable means to a good end. The parallel would be to an unconstitutional act.

Most intrinsic evils are closely tied to grave sins, but many grave sins involve doing something that might, under other circumstances, be permissible. For example, Catholic Tradition (as mentioned in the Catechism) allows for the possibility of capital punishment under certain circumstances, but obviously many evil governments have used capital punishment as a way to murder their opponents, or those from whom they wished to steal.

When some Catholics refer to non-negotiable principles, they are introducing yet another category. These have to do with the intersection between moral theology and secular politics. It may be a mortal sin to miss Mass (it is clearly a grave matter), but few if any priests or bishops would want the government enforcing a law that everyone must attend Mass on Sundays and days of obligation.

Saying that a particular sin is not an intrinsic evil does not mean it is not important or that we can safely ignore it in a political context. Think back to the four sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance: (1) willful murder, (2) the sin of Sodom, (3) oppressing the poor, and (4) denying workers their just wages. Number 4, for example, is not necessarily an intrinsic evil; it may come in the form of giving the workers SOMETHING, just not what they are due. Noting that it "cries out to Heaven for vengeance", though, is a pretty good indication that it's serious, and it clearly is something that the government should have some role in preventing.

Here's a hypothetical. Let's say a candidate was running on a platform that included a nuclear strike against North Korea before North Korea develops nuclear-tipped ICBMs. This would be a dangerously stupid idea, but not an impossible one. It would arguably not involve an intrinsic evil, but it would be unambiguously wrong (violating principles that have been spelled out for centuries), and its consequences would certainly be catastrophic for the Korean Peninsula, and potentially for the whole world. I don't doubt that priests and bishops would make it clear that such a strike would be a non-negotiable evil that no Catholic, Christian, or even sane person should have any part of.

Bringing these back into the realm of politics, it is an indisputable fact that the Democratic Party is deeply committed to defending practices that are intrinsically evil.  An individual Democrat might not support these planks of his party's platform, but he obviously does not find them so objectionable that he leaves his party.  The Republican Party's grave evils tend to be things like the support of unjust (and even unconstitutional) wars and torture.  These may not be intrinsic evils, but a serious Catholic can no more ignore them than the evils of the Democrats.  Finding a candidate one can support in good conscience is not easy these days, and in many races it may be impossible.

No comments:

Post a Comment