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Bad Moral Theologians (BMTs)

August 4, AD2016

Dogs In Church

There are evil things that some people really, really want to do. There are some people who not only want to do evil things but also want to be justified in doing them. They want others to say their evil deeds would be good.

So, what to do if you are one of them? What if you want your bad things to be justified as good? Call on a bad moral theologian. I’ll call them BMTs for short.

Let’s Review Some Fundamentals

In authentic Catholic moral theology, when deciding whether an action is good or evil, we examine it from three sides. First we consider the object, and then the intention and the circumstances (CCC 1750 ff.).

The object is the act itself, things like making a donation, saying a prayer, doing a chore, taking the property of another, perform a work for hire, or a billion other acts.

According to the Catechism, “The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.” (CCC 1751)

Using our reason, then, we judge if the act will be objectively good or evil in itself.

The intention is why the act is done, for example, to alleviate someone’s suffering, to evangelize, to get someone into trouble, to satisfy one’s physical hunger, to be paid, or to experience pleasure.

The circumstances are the things that surround the action that affect it. For example, stealing is bad, but taking a one-pound bag of rice from a Whole Foods in San Francisco is not as bad as taking the same from a widow and her hungry children in Calcutta. Telling the truth is good, but telling the truth even though you are afraid it could get you in trouble because you’ve done something wrong could be even better.

Here are two additional important basic truths about morality.

The first is one most people readily understand: an act whose object is good in itself can be made better by the intention or circumstances, but the intention can also make the act worse or downright evil.

For example, when someone has loaned you property, it is good to return it. However, what if the property was a shotgun and the owner is drunk and angry when he asks for it back? If you returned it under these circumstances, your action would be bad. Or, if you returned the weapon because you think your friend will attack your enemy with it, your evil intention would make this act evil. In fact, in order for an act to be good, the object, intention, and circumstances must also be good.

So, when we evaluate an action whose object is good in itself, we can’t fully know whether that act is morally good or evil until the intention and circumstances are taken into account.

The second important basic truth about morality is very confused today and many people get it wrong.

An act whose object is evil in itself cannot be made good regardless of any good intention or any circumstance surrounding the act. The intention and circumstances may make the act less evil but they cannot make it good. This is why directly killing an innocent person, which is the object of acts like abortion, murder, and euthanasia, is intrinsically immoral. No amount of good intentions or extenuating circumstances can excuse the act, let alone make it good.

Enter the BMTs

The reason that many people are confused about this last truth is because many priests and laypersons were trained in erroneous systems of moral theology by BMTs.

These BMTs say, Yes, there are objective norms of morality expressed in the Ten Commandments or in the natural moral law. But these are suggestions, starting points, abstract principles. They have to be placed into people’s concrete lived experiences.

These BMTs claim that motivations and circumstances could overrule the principles and make something evil become good.

St. John Paul II critiqued and condemned these systems in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993).

St. John Paul II’s Critique

Here is what St. John Paul wrote.

[S]ome authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. (VS 56)

BMTs say that when the objective moral law and a person’s actual situation are in conflict, the person’s situation has “priority” over the objective moral law.

The Pope goes on to say, referring to the individual’s situation,

The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. (VS 56)

In other words, a person who follows a BMT’s advice could do something the moral law determines is intrinsically evil, like steal, lie, cheat, or use drugs, while in reality, this kind of erroneous moral theology is usually not applied to those kinds of sins. It is often used for actions having to do with sex: like fornication, adultery, sodomy, contraception, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and the like.

Following this line of specious reasoning, the Pope explains,

A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. (VS 56)

In other words, the BMT could say, “Yes, adultery in general is wrong, but not in your case” or “You are the only one who can decide if what you are doing is right or wrong.”

What is behind the BMT’s line of thought? St. John Paul explains it this way:

On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept. (VS 56)

In other words, even though the Sixth Commandment (“a particular negative precept”) is “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” the BMT has a way of interpreting it in your case that will let you do it anyway!

It’s Complicated–Not

In reality, the process of moral reasoning is very straightforward concerning things the moral law does not allow.

Let’s say I want to have sex with a certain person. First, I recall the moral law, which is also God’s law, “in conformity with the true good.” It says I can only have natural sex with my lawfully wedded wife. Next, using my ability to reason, I ask myself, “Is this person I want to have sex with my lawfully wedded wife?” Finally, I use my reason to reach a conclusion. If the answer is no, then the conclusion is “don’t do it.”

When it comes to negative moral precepts, why do things get complicated? One reason is BMTs. Another is many people want to be lied to if it lets them do what they want. Often people want to lie to themselves for the very same reason.

There are evil things that some people really, really want to do. There are some people who not only want to do evil things but also want to be justified in doing them. They want others to say they are doing good. BMTs are their enablers.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Kevin lives with his wife and seven children in Springfield, IL. He is currently doing freelance curriculum and research projects and teaching. In his free time he writes screenplays, TV pilots, novels, and non-fiction books and articles. His homiletic lectionary-based blog is Doctrinal Homily Outlines. He is also pursing a MA in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary via distance learning.

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  • BXVI

    PF (in AL) is obviously the BMT in this essay, as contrasted with St. JPII the Great (in VS). The disconnect between the two popes could not be more profound.

  • james

    Let’s say there are two Catholic persons male and female who are on a 5 year mission to Mars They
    are young, healthy and single and since intimacy is hard wired into our physical and psychological
    beings the propensity to become intimate is “natural”. Somewhere into that mission the two adults
    ‘want to have sex” as a way of making a stressful vocation better. They understand what maybe the natural consequences of an intimate relationship but all intentions are to regulate it as a way of staving
    off an even greater threat emotional isolation and extreme angst due to a God-given Hypothalamus which regulates not only this drive but of their fears, hunger and aggression. What should they do ?

    1. Ask mission control to send a backup space craft with a Catholic (otherwise it would be recognized as valid) priest on board to marry them.

    2. Hold off this need for 5 years and most likely commit the equally mortal act of masturbation.

    3. Ignore the situation and hope for the best.

    4 Let their conscious be their guide.

    5. None of the above.

    Your black and white world, Kevin is unnatural and since you don’t think in terms of grey and even use the term adultery in an erroneous way I can only conclude that your Good Moral Theologians could not pass the Turing Test

    • Kevin Aldrich

      How did I use the term adultery erroneously?

    • james

      Well, knowing your exactitude for church understanding – extending it to include all sins
      of a sexual nature under a word that is universally understood to mean just what history
      and married folks say it is – using Ambrose Bierce’s devils dictionary for the word / term
      Fidelity you can say that it is : “a virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.”
      I will side with you on a stricter interpretation of the 6th commandment to include anyone who cheats on someone they are intimate with, married or not and this takes into account the 9th commandment too. And in a venial way, this includes those who cheat ( ie:date) someone other than the boy/girl friend they are going steady with using stealth.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Let’s suppose the two persons were brother and sister or father and daughter.

      Suppose one of the two developed a murderous hatred for the other.

      Regardless of what passion her or she might feel, what counts is first the object of the act he or she has an impulse toward, which only the reason can discern.

    • james

      CCC 1751 needs to deal with the 5 choices I’ve laid out. Adultery is not involved,
      conscience is clear, reason says the “true good” is what they want for each other
      if all intentions are honorable.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I assume you understand that all sins of a sexual nature are included in the sixth and ninth commandments, of which adultery, strictly speaking, is just one.

      In your scenario, the sin would be fornication. The “object” is not to have fun or relieve desire. That would be the intention.

    • james

      If the second condition for sin were not met (and I’m sure these two astronauts would meet that criteria ) it would be fun relieved desire. Nice dueling with you, Kevin.

    • Gus

      You posed a pretty dumb scenario james. If the two astronauts are highly educated and extremely self-disciplined (which they would have to be),as well as good, devout Catholics, with well-formed consciences, they would know that 1) they would have to use artificial contraception as the surest means of preventing a pregnancy in space, which is against Catholic Doctrine and is a sin; 2) giving in to a basic human urge for sexual pleasure outside of marriage is against Catholic Doctrine and is a sin; 3) God put us on the earth to love and serve Him and He gave us His Commandments, the Bible, and His Son’s Teachings to guide us, and nowhere in any of this does it say ‘when in doubt let your base animal urges take over.‘

      Life is actually a lot more black and white than you realize james. Jesus Christ is and should be our role model in everything we do. His entire life was spent serving God and that is what we are called to do. It sounds like you are falling victim to moral relativism. And by the way, you should know that the Turing Test does not test people; it tests machines to see it they can emulate human intelligence.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Some people have a bias against saying certain behaviors are black or white. A lot of the time, the gray area is actually fog due to a difficulty in discerning what the object in and untangling motivations and circumstances.

      This might help. The judgment of reason in which conscience consists can be stated as a syllogism. The major premise comes from the general relationship of the moral law to being. It is expressed as “I must do good and avoid evil” (natural law) or “I must obey the law of God” (revealed law). The minor premise is a more specific statement gleaned from something like the Decalogue, for example, “The killing of an innocent human being is evil and proscribed by the law of God.” The conclusion that follows is “Therefore, I must not kill this innocent person because it is evil and proscribed by the law of God.”

    • james

      Gus, you are theo-Neanderthal and not quite in my league. Re: the test –
      only a machine would give out black and white answers, human or not.

    • Gus

      Name calling is strictly little league, so you are right — I am not in your league. And regarding the Turing Test, you might want to look into a little bit more. The test evaluates a machine’s (AI) ability to simulate human responses. Even black and white answers can be nuanced and phrased in such a way that a machine can fool the questioner into believing that the response is coming from a human being and not a machine.

    • james

      I was thinking more along the lines of the wizard in OZ who fooled Dot and company until Toto pulled back the curtain. Also, those cursive codes humans
      have to type in to verify they are not a machine. Both represent manipulation
      and designed to keep someone on a course not of their choosing. And re: the
      two space voyagers you forgot to mention that they would need a dispensation
      from going to mass and not making their Easter duty and you assumed they were not using NFP. Regardless, this notion of “sin” that you laid on them in my
      ” dumb scenario ” could be a Turing of its own since they could truly commit to
      their relationship, get married and stay faithful forever while the Catholic couple
      in the next mission could be properly married with no pre-marital experience
      and have it all come undone to include divorce without annulment. So, your idea of “sin”, which hasn’t any value.ends up null and void. The CC hasn’t the wits to proclaim (yet) that sin in reality is entanglement and consequences that are taken on and handled in different ways. In some situations if intention and motive are honorable the effects don’t always apply You are not in my league because you are unable to think out of the box – you keep looking back and we’re not going that way.

    • Gus

      James you have a proclivity toward jibber jabber, so I will just respond to your statements that “The CC hasn’t the wits to proclaim (yet) that sin in reality is entanglement and consequences that are taken on and handled in different ways. In some situations if intention and motive are honorable the effects don’t always apply” and “you keep looking back and we’re not going that way.” Who is the “we,” you are referring to james, because Catholic Dogma has not changed. You are redefining sin according to what you think sin is, which is not in line with Catholic Teaching. The CCC says (1872) “Sin is an act contrary to reason.” For example, a lie is lie. It can never be justified regardless of the intention and the motive. Your so called out of the box thinking is nothing new at all. It’s called Protestantism.

      Have bothered to read that Catholic Stand masthead where it says, “Living the Truth the Church Teaches?” Perhaps you would be more comfortable commenting at The Crux, Commonweal Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, or US Catholic.

    • james

      And you have a tendency to … spout.

    • Gus

      With all of your wisdom and out of the box thinking that’s the best you can do?

    • BXVI

      Your hypothetical reflects the modernist view that places sex above all things, considers the sexual urge to be essentially irresistible, and sees the concept of chastity as absurd. That is not the Catholic view. Why do you find it so incredibly absurd that they should refrain from both sex (and masturbation) until their 5-year journey is over?

    • james

      ” …sex above all things … essentially irresistible … chastity … absurd.”

      I don’t place it anywhere above or below its other three hypothalami friends, namely:
      eating, fearing and aggression. I had 12 years of nuns BX and highly respected their
      chastity – it was their calling.. You should find Gus and come up with a better strategy
      over some coffee.