Today, in a culture dominated by the presumption of an unlimited “freedom” to define ourselves as we see fit, many things that were once commonly discussed and understood cannot be openly and frankly spoken of without their advocates being shouted down, vilified, silenced, or otherwise marginalized.
Contrarily, “identity politics” has little concern with our freedom. Whether we like it or not, we are born with an identity that defines us by our color, genes, or heritage. Our loyalties are more tribal than rational. We spend our time and energy demanding that others recognize us. We are all victims of everyone else’s prejudices.
A basic, calm understanding of what a thing is seldom finds a welcome audience in universities, media, or pulpit. Few places are willing to consider the reason why things are said to be as they are. The older idea of a “liberal education” has almost disappeared with nary a trace. Students once had the capacity to accurately define evils of every sort without necessarily being implicated in the evil itself. The ability to define what is evil is itself a good. The deliberate doing of what is intrinsically evil, while not defining it as such, constitutes the disorder affecting the world both inside and outside of ourselves, as well as inside and outside of both Church and state.
Most people, no doubt, have at least heard that some act, religion, or saying is “intrinsically evil”. This concept, however, is often said to be preposterous. Even mentioning its possibility indicates bias. It is a threat to those who deny that any evil is “intrinsic”.
In the literature, “intrinsically evil acts” are often listed as aspects of Catholic thought. But there is nothing peculiarly Catholic about them. They are not considered “revealed” doctrines; they are at bottom conclusions of natural reason, with roots in the principle of contradiction. They apply to all men of whatever era or culture, and they presuppose an existing order in nature, including in human nature. Their two simplest formulations are the command: “Do good; avoid evil” and the Socratic: “It is never right to do wrong.”
As an example, many called the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan during the Second World War an “intrinsically evil” act. Others at the time, including President Truman, saw the atomic bomb as a lesser evil compared to invading Japan with the much greater loss of life and property that such an invasion would entail for both sides.
Christ said that divorce, from the “beginning”, was prohibited in spite of Moses’ temporary dispensation because of what He called the “hardness of men’s hearts”. The prohibition was evidently restored because a greater good was at stake. This “greater good” issue is still with us. It manifests itself in ongoing family crises that undermine the very foundations of our society. The Ruth Institute’s series of testimonies of children of divorce argues that modern divorce concepts are not seen from the viewpoint of children, but from the viewpoint of adults. Yet the old natural law on which the prohibition of divorce was maintained was first concerned with the proper home of the child, one that had a father, a mother, and usually other siblings. No other relationship could duplicate what a family was designed to do.
The notion that certain acts that we freely choose to engage in are “intrinsically evil” is obviously intended to inform men that they should not commit such acts no matter how “reasonable” the temptation to do them may seem at the time. The Machiavellian principle that we are free to do both good and evil is presented as a widening of our liberty. It is in fact a justification of the “do evil” alternative. The evil that results from them will always outweigh any apparent good that was hoped for in their doing. This result seems to be especially true when it is the state that mandates or permits the “intrinsic evil” by law and enforces the same against the conscience and good of those who see the act to be “intrinsically evil.” Of course, an “intrinsically evil” act will work out its dire consequences whether it is acknowledged to be evil or not. It will have its dire effects even if it is called, as it so often is, a “human right.” But the point of calling it an “intrinsically” evil act is that it cannot be presented under the guise of what is good.
In today’s world, the two now public activities that are usually called “intrinsically evil” are sodomy and abortion, especially the deliberate killing of a child born alive but unwanted by its parents. The so-called “logic” of abortion has finally worked itself out in public. The “right” to terminate any life, wanted or unwanted, young or old, could not stop at birth. It had to include the “right” to a dead child if it is the “right” of a mother or father to terminate the life of the child at any age. It will end in a civil “obligation” (that is, a right and duty) to assisted suicide after a certain age or type of illness.
Abortion, however, is simply an application of the old fifth commandment, itself natural reasoning, about not murdering another. This commandment presupposed a law in nature that was discoverable by the human mind. If it was not “intrinsically evil” to kill another innocent person, our own lives at any age could be immediately in jeopardy from someone who denied the existence of an “intrinsically evil” act when it came to our own lives.
Secondly, within a decade or so, many countries passed from considering sodomy an “intrinsic evil” to it becoming a positive good and a “human right”. Its “evilness” was related to the idea that an order is found in nature. We can understand what things are for. The relation of male and female had an intrinsic purpose in its relation to the bringing forth new human life into the world. Male-to-male and female-to-female relations are by nature sterile; no new life can come of them. They are intrinsically “in vain”, to use Aristotle’s phrase. Each human child requires (is owed) a father and a mother, and at least three irreplaceable, mutual relationships: husband to wife, father to child, mother to child. To deprive a child of this twofold relationship is an “intrinsic” evil.
To conclude, our public order today bases itself on its own positive laws that in fact and in principle deny the existence of “intrinsically evil” acts. But their legal denial does not prevent their existential consequences. Such are the real origins of our civil turmoil. What we have is a civil society that defines and enforces as good law what is in fact an “intrinsic evil”. The positive or civil law brooks no law higher than itself. The natural law, however, remains in existence. What is “intrinsically evil” remains so even when it is called a good civil law. Its consequences continue to carry themselves out in individual and civil law.
What we now see working itself more clearly among us—this time in a presumed democratic, not totalitarian, society—is what happens when truth and error stand in direct contradiction to each other. The origins of the mob scenes we are seeing, the refusals to deal with the other, and the designating “intrinsic evils” as “rights” are all located here. The civil laws will continue to unravel what in the natural order belongs together. The natural law will be defined precisely as itself an “intrinsic evil”. And the civil law will finally forbid any expression (“hate language”) of natural law that would imply a disorder in civil law. Such is the logic and, increasingly and quickly, such is the “reality” of that unreality.
(Editor’s note: This “Sojourns with Schall” essay was originally posted on March 17, 2019.)
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