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!
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.