Truth and Intrinsically Evil Acts

In 1993, Pope St. John Paul II presented the world with an encyclical entitled Veritatis Splendor, Latin for “the splendor of the truth.”  The encyclical is one of the most comprehensive and philosophical documents on moral theology in the Catholic Church.  The opening sentences set the tone: “The splendor of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: ‘Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord’ (Ps 4:6).”

The encyclical begins by asserting that there are absolute truths accessible to all persons, and that that moral law is universal across people in varying cultures, even among non-believers.  This contrasts with the assertions of moral relativism which argue that there is no objective right or wrong, and that people in different cultures might hold differing beliefs regarding morality.

A key element of the encyclical is the understanding of acts that are “intrinsically evil.”  Intrinsically evil acts are acts that are always wrong, and there are never circumstances in which they may be permitted if done knowingly and intentionally.  In the encyclical, the Holy Father states: “By acknowledging and teaching the existence of intrinsic evil in given human acts, the Church remains faithful to the integral truth about man; she thus respects and promotes man in his dignity and vocation.”  Examples of intrinsically evil acts are willful murder, genocide, rape, abortion, euthanasia and slavery.

In our highly charged political climate, a recent letter to the editor in the Times-Picayune/Advocate written by a priest was brought to my attention by a number of our parishioners.  In the letter, the priest compared abortion to other political issues like immigration policy, homelessness and healthcare.  Let’s be clear that there is a difference between supporting an intrinsically evil act and making prudential judgments on the best ways to handle other social and political issues. Reasonable people of goodwill may have different opinions on how to best respond to immigration, homelessness and a healthcare crisis, but there is no argument that can justify the intrinsically evil act that is abortion. At the end of this letter, the priest-writer went on to mention the candidate for whom he would vote.

In response to this letter appearing in the paper on the morning of August 26, 2020, Archbishop Aymond emailed a letter on the same day to all priests in the Archdiocese reminding us:

Clergy and lay people have complementary roles in public life. We bishops have the primary responsibility to hand on the Church’s moral and social teaching. Together with priests and deacons, assisted by religious and lay leaders of the Church, we are to teach fundamental moral principles that help Catholics form their consciences correctly, to provide guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life. In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church’s leaders avoid endorsing or opposing candidates. (emphasis by the Archbishop, himself).

This statement comes from a document issued by the US Conference of Bishops entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a good and fruitful guide for helping us to form our consciences in advance of voting.  I encourage you to read it: