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On false freedom and “intrinsically evil” acts

What we now see working itself more clearly among us is what happens when truth and error stand in direct contradiction to each other.

(Image: José Martín Ramírez C |


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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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).


  1. A completely accurate analysis using reason and the disastrous practical consequences of abandoning its use in most of the academic world. A sound thinking Jesuit like Saint Ignatius.

  2. Fr.Schall’s articles are always wise, measured and full of the Truth that is being so quickly abandoned by “good” societies that were once the bacjbone of Christian civilization. The reckoning has begun, it has just gone largely unrecognized for what it is. God will not be mocked forever.

  3. What a great assessment by Father Schall.

    It seems to be the case that modernity is playing a psychological game with us all, by attempting to guise that which is known by natural reason to be evil as the good. They tempt the intellect through language and advertisements, just like a certain serpent in a certain garden. That by the sophistry of it all, man will choose death, rather than life.

  4. As said here the key principle that references moral acts is intrinsic evil. Some acts are referenced by time, current need such as disciplinary laws to regulate social interaction. Others as you well explain transcend the temporal because they belong to the laws of nature ordained by God. The most coherent natural law that reflects eternal law, such as God’s ordaining Man and Woman as exclusive to the birth of human life and of the intrinsically exclusive sexual dimension. There are two issues at play in the dissolution of intrinsic evil within our culture. The first is the idea of the common good as end in itself that destroys the distinction between good and evil in order to arrive at a presumed universal good. The other is the Socratic notion that if Man discovers the good he would abide to it, a prev dead concept alive today that destroys responsibility and exalts conscience as impervious to the reality of inherent evil. Evil becomes what I perceive as evil not what is. That capacity to apprehend the difference between good and evil is not something essentially learned rather it is inherent and God given. Referred by Aquinas as the Natural Law Within common to all men. Insofar as sexual acts that eternal law transcends the good practical reasons we perceive because masculinity and femininity are ordained by God as inherent to the nature of Man and Woman. Male upon male or woman upon woman sex consequently goes entirely against the grain infinitely more gratingly evil than if I were to plane against the grain of wood. The distinction between Man and Woman and what is exclusive to them reflects the goodness and beauty of the Divinity.

  5. Well homosexuality is one of two words missing from any discussions amongst the magesterium. The other word is adultery.

    Extract from the book “Amoris laetitia? The sacraments reduced to morality” by Dom Giulio Meiattini, a Benedictine monk of the abbey of the Madonna della Scala in Noci, professor of theology at the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome.

    “It is a fact, not an opinion. The words “adultery” and “homosexuality” have both disappeared from the magisterium of the Church, the highest, that which reports to the Roman pontiff.

    About the first word this was already known. It disappeared completely just when it would have been most natural to say it, at the two synods on the family and shortly afterward, when Pope Francis settled the accounts in the exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”

    While the disappearance of the second is more recent. And this too happened right at the moment in which it seemed impossible not to say it: at the February 21-24 summit at the Vatican on sexual abuse committed by priests and bishops, almost all of it against the young and very young of the same sex.

    “It is known that when one wishes to marginalize or eliminate some truth, there is no need to contradict it openly; on the contrary, this would be the worst strategy, because it would prompt open reactions and draw attention. Much better, instead, to pass over it in silence, not talk about it anymore, to lock it up with the old junk in the attic or the basement, and over the span of some time all memory of it will be lost, and life will go on as if it were no longer there.”

    With these two sins no longer in their vocabulary, truth has vanished.

    • Too bad that Veritatis Splendor (1993) is such a recent casualty of the “throwaway culture,” and is no longer mentioned (not directly denied, surely, but rarely mentioned…): Instead, “The relationship between faith and morality shines with all its brilliance in the unconditional respect due to the insistent demands of the personal dignity of every man, demands protected by those moral norms which prohibit without exception [!] actions which are intrinsically evil” (n. 90).

      So, practicing the Beatitudes is not to be “compassionately” amputated from the demands of the universally inborn natural law. Veritatis Splendor (elaborating the Catechism) clearly pinpoints the irreducible unity of the Commandments with the Beatitudes: “…the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken” (n. 52).

      A good move by Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict et al, to produce the Catechism as “a fruit of the Council.” The Holy Spirit is still at work…
      The Catechism (1992/94/97) has not been, and cannot be cancelled and still reliably identifies intrinsically evil acts—acts which are immoral under all circumstances and non-negotiable. These include: intentional killing of the innocent (nn. 2270, 2273), infanticide (n. 2268), abortion (n. 2273), euthanasia (n. 2277); and sexual immorality (nn. 2352, 2353, 2356, 2357, 2370, 2380, 2381), etc.

  6. Having rejected Tradition, Scripture…the right paganism of Aristotle and the best of Plato, the Church is now adrift…losing both faith and reason . on board with Hobbesian state/globalism, the Marxist this-world kingdom and the Hegelian sense of truth. Thomism was “boring” so it was replaced by? various offshoots of Rahner really…though Nietzsche at least had a better sense of the atheism that informs the more genuine? less hypocritical? “anonymous Christianity” now so valued even by the current Pontiff.

    The war on Reality. Pray the Rosary. It IS indeed that bad.

  7. I believe the Canon Law I grew up with stated that “sodomy” was the grave mortal sin that could be committed against any person, a male, female, or child. Sodomy was an act, not an identity, and considered a severe form of rape, because one person got pleasure at the expense of the other. Sodomy was a public health issue as it spread diseases, ripped the anus, and left many of the victims medically deformed and sterile as today many medical providers can attest to. Sodomy could lead to death rather than life. No mention of homosexuality, gays, lesbians, etc. in either canon law or in American law which seems to be a recent cultural myth, namely to focus on group identity rather than individual behaviors. I know the Supreme Court attempted to legalize the sex act long regarded as a form of violent rape, and make the act of sodomy legal if both parties consented to it. It begs to make one wonder what other forms of cruelty and mutilations are allowed if all parties give consent?

    Perhaps the smokescreen in all the discussions that is lost is an act of sexual cruelty and denigration is not “ok” if one labels the victim a consenting homosexual, or worse, even if the victim is a child under the most recent gender identity theory. What seems the major lie in all of this, is a loss of moral emphasis on ethics and the right to object to certain human behaviors that do bring death to the body, not to mention the soul. It is about behaviors, not identity.

    Also the myth that people who have been raped via sodomy are “born this way” especially if they go on to sodomize others. This myth fails to hold persons accountable for their behaviors in a vain attempt to make it about an identity that God created in this, and thus silence anyone who objects. What God other than the father of lies, the devil would advance such an argument?

    I think we need to go back to the specific sexual acts that are violent as Christians, rather than engage in the myths and lies of identity issues. Christians have a right to object to sexual violent acts, especially when aimed at their children, the right to protect their children and families. Let’s protect our children by discussing behaviors, not identity, and make it clear what behaviors are not ethically allowed by anyone who loves.

  8. Interesting comment about consent. Of course, this is now playing out in the area of euthanasia, which is quickly becoming a “right” and a positive good if the “recipient” consents.

  9. The target is none other than God Himself. Our intrinsic reflection of His Image and Nature puts us in the path of that demonic assault. Satan will always foment and eventually lead such mutiny until he is finally defeated and imprisoned and ultimately destroyed. The choice today could not be clearer. God help us choose TRUTH.

  10. How I miss Fr. Schall’s wisdom. But it gives me comfort to know he is experiencing the beatific vision where he is now.

  11. …”area of euthanasia, which is quickly becoming a “right” and a positive good if the “recipient” consents.”

    And in Europe and Canada where recent legislation makes that ‘consent’, arbitrary.

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