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The Church serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family. [ Gaudium et Soes #40]

Intrinsic Evil? Is It Time to Retire the Use of This Term? (Part One)

Updated: Feb 2

In Catholic moral theology, a huge amount of attention has been given to analyzing specific, concrete actions.  There has been a recognition that one cannot morally evaluate a person’s action apart from the end intended and the circumstances surrounding the action that help to qualify the action.  But in practice there is a tendency to focus mostly on the objective description of the action itself, relegating the person’s intention and the circumstances into separate categories and to secondary levels.  This, in turn, leads to the tendency to categorize some actions as “intrinsically evil/illicit/wrong,” seemingly apart from any consideration of the full set of circumstances or intentions involved.  Read, for example, the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1749-1756) which ends with “There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”


I have no intention of disputing the Catechism’s use of this neo-Thomistic framework, although many theologians point to its limitations.  In fact, the history of Catholic moral theology since the Second Vatican Council can be analyzed via those who have tried to move away from this understanding of moral evaluation of human actions, those who nuance this understanding, and those who double-down on it.  Nor am I disputing that there are universally valid absolutes such as those mentioned in the Catechism above.  Rather, I want to ask the question of whether such a framework, especially with its emphasis on tying the idea of “intrinsic” to “evil” or other negative words (“illicit”, “dishonest”, “disordered”, “gravely wrong”, and so on), although it might have theoretical value, has outlived its pastoral usefulness.  In particular, I see three pastoral concerns connected to such an approach. First, does it really do justice to what has happened in our moral theological tradition?  If not, then maybe it is best not to use it.  Secondly, is the term used too broadly or used without enough nuance?  If so, then it can become pastorally confusing and misunderstood. Thirdly, does the use of “intrinsic” in a negative sense, especially in the context of marriage, family, sexual and gender issues, no matter how many nuances we include, undercut the wisdom and care we have to offer to persons who are struggling, by categorizing very different situations by one broad, negative term?  If so, then teaching framed with that type of language is unhelpful at best, and likely to be experienced as hurtful and demeaning.


The first point. Our moral tradition.  If something is intrinsically illicit/evil apart from any circumstances and intention, then it must always be such, correct?  Yet, take the action of lying.  Is it intrinsically evil/wrong/disordered?  At one time, the act of telling any falsehood would be a sinful lie and would be seen as intrinsically wrong/evil.  St. Augustine, for example, sees such non-truth telling as a distortion of the image of God in us and so always causes moral harm.  But our Catholic moral tradition has become more nuanced and now distinguishes falsehoods from lying.  We have no obligation to tell someone the truth, if it would reasonably be judged that they wanted to do us or others harm.  Lying involves withholding the truth or manipulating the truth toward someone who has a right to that truth.  Something similar has happened in our moral tradition with how we understand killing.  One could argue that our early tradition saw all killing, even to protect oneself or another person, as intrinsically wrong.  Augustine nuances this by distinguishing killing to protect oneself (still wrong) and killing to protect another (allowable under proportionate circumstances).  In turn, this gets further development, so that by the time of Thomas Aquinas, there are nuanced discussions about just war and justified killing (protecting oneself is allowed but not intending the death of the other).  In other words, actions that could have been put under the umbrella of “intrinsically evil/wrong/illicit,” if that language had been used at the time, no longer are.  Instead, our moral tradition realized that we need to include something of the intention (motive) and circumstances in the description of the action itself, in order to call lying intrinsically wrong. Or, to call killing wrong, we have to include intention and circumstances sufficiently so it can be categorized by the term for an unjustified killing (murder), and so can fall under an absolute prohibition.


The reverse process has happened as well.   Slavery, for example, was not seen as “intrinsically wrong/evil/disordered” for much of our moral tradition.  The moral focus was on the treatment of slaves, not the existence of slavery.  Yet, we now would not hesitate to call all slavery, no matter the circumstances, as “intrinsically evil”.  One could also argue that our Catholic teaching with regard to capital punishment has gone from morally allowable, if ordered by proper authority and under certain circumstances, to becoming an intrinsically wrong decision under all circumstances in today’s world.  Although such historical examples are relatively few in number, they do raise the question of whether it is pastorally wise to ever use the term “intrinsic” tied to a negative prohibition, unattached to circumstances and intentions.  Our moral tradition alerts us to the fact that the use of “intrinsic evil” is never simply a description of a specific physical action.  It is not just that circumstances and intention cannot change an intrinsically evil/wrong action. Rather, any action so described as “intrinsically evil” already includes an implied set of sufficient circumstances and/or intentions that no additional good intentions or circumstances can make the action morally good.


Take some of the examples that Pope John Paul II uses in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, a document he wrote precisely to safeguard the idea that intrinsically evil actions do exist.  In #80 he says that the Second Vatican Council describes a number of such intrinsically evil actions, and then he quotes Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word, #27): "Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator". 


Interestingly, the Council document does not describe the actions above as “intrinsically evil.” It avoids that term, simply pointing to the serious harm such actions cause, and I do not think there is any loss in terms of “how terribly wrong” the Church believes these actions to be.  But, if we do want to attach the term “intrinsically evil” to such actions, notice how entwined the description of the action (the “object” in terms of the neo-Thomistic framework mentioned above) is with circumstances and intention.  If we were to always understand that the use of the term “intrinsically evil actions” includes a whole set of qualifying circumstances and motives, then the term might be salvageable.  However, in practice I do not think we are careful enough with our use of the term (see below), and it is best to put it on hold.


This leads to the second pastoral problem, with the use of the term “intrinsic evil.” When we forget to properly or sufficiently nuance what we are calling an “intrinsic evil”, it can become pastorally confusing, easily misunderstood, or even misused.  For example, we can begin to create two separate categories—actions that are “intrinsically evil” and actions that are not.  It does not take much to then attach other binary descriptions to each. Intrinsically evil actions are said to be “most grave” and those that are not intrinsically evil are “less grave.”  Intrinsically evil actions require no prudential judgment of whether they are morally right or wrong, whereas actions that are not described as intrinsically evil require prudential judgment and therefore people of good will might disagree on the specific course of action.  But “intrinsically evil” does not mean that in our Catholic moral tradition.  For example, in vitro fertilization and masturbation are “intrinsically evil” in such a moral framework, but certainly not more gravely wrong than an unjust tax system or a lack of health care for all. 


We see some of this confusion in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, a document published every four years by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to help Catholics prepare themselves to vote on political referendums or political candidates.  The document uses the term “intrinsically evil” twelve times, showing how important an emphasis the bishops attach to the term, and ties the term to what should most strongly shape the formation of our conscience when voting.  But as mentioned above, the distinction between “most seriously wrong” and “less seriously wrong” is not what the moral tradition means by the term “intrinsically evil.”  The overall impression given by the document is that issues that cannot be described as intrinsically evil/wrong are less serious and lay less claim on our conscience, when we vote.  That is too simplistic and stems from a confusing and excessive use of the term “intrinsically evil.”  Better to lay out all the issues that are most important, point out the evils potentially involved, and even rank the issues, if that is believed to be pastorally necessary, but avoid the term “intrinsically evil/wrong” and do not simplistically equate it with “most wrong,” implying that actions which cannot be described as intrinsically evil are “less wrong.”

[Part Two forthcoming.]

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