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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 Two)

Updated: Mar 28

[This post would be more understandable, if you first read Part One.]

This brings me to a third pastoral concern.  Does the term “intrinsically” attached to a negative like “evil, wrong, illicit, dishonest, disordered” undercut our pastoral response to people who are truly in need of our wisdom and care? 

When we attach the term “intrinsic” to a negative and see someone doing what we believe to be an intrinsically wrong action, we can all too easily judge their whole lives to be without God's grace. Pope Francis has been consistent in his exhortation not to do this. Although Pope Francis does not deal directly with the idea of “intrinsic evil,” notice how his approach to pastoral care for people in many ways addresses this third pastoral concern.  The Pope recognizes the mixture of good and bad (woundedness) in everyone, even to the point that he acknowledges some people might fall short of the ideal but that is the best they can do at this time, and so they should not be excluded from our care or community. One of the most consistent reminders that Pope Francis emphasizes in his homilies, speeches, and writings is the importance of accompanying people on the journey toward God’s kingdom by beginning with where they are, not with where we want them to be ideally. His use of the image of the Church as a “field hospital” conveys the idea that we are all wounded in this world of ours and we do not first ask “Do you believe what I believe?” before extending mercy and care.  His persistent and pointed condemnation of those who cling to a “rigid orthodoxy” which leads them to condemnation rather than mercy is a reminder that there is no “one size fits all” approach to difficult pastoral issues.  And the Pope’s recent emphasis on synodality, on walking together, listening especially to those who are very different from us, finding ways to emphasize the commonality of being brothers and sisters on a common journey—all point to a pastoral approach that begins not with negative absolutes that try to categorize the whole person but with where God’s goodness, grace, and mercy are being offered. If I had to offer my own summary of Pope Francis’ approach it would be this: begin with the good of the concrete person(s) in front of you; deal with the bad/evil in a merciful way; and recognize that we are on a journey together.

Also, when we start from what we believe to be wrong or evil rather than from what is right and good, we give more energy to naming and stopping the evil than honoring and enhancing the good.  In fact, we often direct all our efforts only toward stopping the evil. Take the issue of access to direct abortion with little or no restrictions.  The Church could rightly name this an “intrinsic evil.”  But then what happens?  Many of the states that have the most restrictive laws on access to abortion are the very states that have the weakest safety net of care for pregnant mothers and post-natal care of children, as though that is a lesser concern.  I think this stems directly from tying the term “intrinsically evil” to abortion but seeing care of pregnant women and infants as a matter of prudential judgment, and so minimal care is not seen as a grave evil.


A similar diminishing of the good in people can easily occur with the use of “intrinsic” in the Church’s official teaching on homosexuality and same-sex relationships.  In that teaching a distinction is made between the person and his/her actions, but in each case the word “intrinsic” tied to a negative emerges.  The condition of being attracted to someone of the same sex is said to be an “intrinsic disorder” and any same-sex intimate actions are called “intrinsically wrong/evil.”  To begin with the idea that someone is “intrinsically disordered” through no fault of their own is not a helpful pastoral starting point.  It starts with the negative, and though the Church is not saying that the person's character is disordered, it is nearly impossible not to experience that wording on a personal level as judgmental.  And, from a pastoral theological perspective it too easily can obscure an even more basic reality: that all humans have an intrinsic (God-given, graced, “made in the image and likeness of God”) goodness that is deeper than any disorder.


Finally, at least for me, the most persuasive pastoral reason for why the term “intrinsic” in connection to a negative like “evil/wrong/etc.” is not pastorally helpful is that it brings into one category too many diverse situations and so does not do justice to the care of the people involved.  Abortion, for example, can be a blatant disregard for human life that stems from a cavalier attitude toward sexual intimacy.  But it also can be a gut-wrenching decision by a single mother of five who cannot fathom how she will care for an additional child; a highly pressured decision after a woman has been raped; a decision encouraged by medical staff due to some abnormality in the pre-born child; a choice made in shame and secrecy by a teenager who finds herself pregnant; and so on. People involved in same-sex relationships can experience them as a series of quick, uncommitted moments of satisfying pleasure; as youthful experiments trying to understand one’s sexuality; as a committed, faithful relationship with a person of the same sex; and so on. From a theoretical point of view, using the Church’s current moral framework for evaluating actions, yes, one could say that none of the circumstances and intentions somehow make morally good what is understood to be intrinsically evil/wrong.  At the same time, however, I do not believe it to be pastorally the best approach to make “intrinsically evil/wrong the key message, because it is very difficult for people not to feel judged, condemned, and in a certain sense discarded by the Church.  We have good news to share about God, creation, grace, human relationships, sexuality, and so forth.  Not everyone will be ready to embrace and integrate perfectly into their lives that good news here and now.  That should lead not to chastisement and condemnation, but to accompaniment, listening, respect, sharing our truth in love, focusing on the good we can find, and inviting all, ourselves included, to a deeper, whole-hearted trust of our lives into God’s care.


A final thought, in case the above was too abstract.  St. Paul in his letters and St. James in his epistle, though they differ greatly in their approaches, understand the Torah and other examples of the law of God as both helpful and limited.  Helpful, because law shows us where we fail.  We all fail to perfectly keep all laws of God, and so, judged strictly by the law, we all are condemned in some sense, and so we all are seeking a saving freedom apart from the law.  Limited, because there is a freedom in Christ Jesus that is greater than the law, which invites us to go beyond simply following or not following the law.  When we start with naming what is intrinsically wrong/evil/illicit, it becomes all too easy to ignore how the grace and goodness of God is inviting us to a deeper freedom and not simply to condemnation.  Retiring the term “intrinsic” connected to negative words—or at least a moratorium on using them—would, I think, be much more pastorally useful.  Think about the words of James, which echo those of Jesus’ in the gospel (see Matthew 7:1-2; Luke 6:37-38): “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.  For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” [2:12-13, New Revised Standard Version].

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