Intrinsic evil: slavery and the death penalty

Over at Vox Nova, David Cruz-Uribe asks two questions:

1) Does the Church now teach that slavery is an intrinsic evil?

2) Should the Church teach that the death penalty is an intrinsic evil?

These types of questions treat the moral teachings of the Church as if they were not absolute truths, as if they were not teachings from the eternal moral law. Theses types of questions treat morality as if it were subject to change, or subject to prudential judgment.

To the contrary, the eternal moral law is unchanging. The eternal moral law cannot be changed by the will of the Pope and the Bishops. Even God cannot change the eternal moral law because He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). The eternal moral law is the Justice inherent in the Nature of God.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the type of Divine Wisdom, as directing all actions and movements.” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 93, A. 1.)

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “So then no one can know the eternal law, as it is in itself, except the blessed who see God in His Essence. But every rational creature knows it in its reflection, greater or less. For every knowledge of truth is a kind of reflection and participation of the eternal law, which is the unchangeable truth, as Augustine says (De Vera Relig. xxxi).” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 91, A. 2.)

Instead of treating the teachings of the Church on morality as truths taught by the Holy Spirit through the charism of the Magisterium, these types of questions treat moral teachings as if they were rules decided upon by Church authority. This approach to morality, whereby we wait for a ruling from the Magisterium, and in the meantime claim to be unable to distinguish good from evil, is Pharisaical. And it is contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium that the entire moral law is accessible to reason. But the faithful are also assisted in understanding moral truth by the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The Magisterium teaches from Tradition and Scripture, and also from natural law. But the faithful are not guided in matters of morality solely by the Magisterium, but also directly by Tradition, directly by Scripture, and by reason and natural law.

1) Does the Church now teach that slavery is an intrinsic evil?

Whether or not slavery is intrinsically evil depends on its moral definition. Dulles holds that slavery is not intrinsically evil because he defines slavery broadly, as including many different types and degrees of subjection and servitude. Indentured servitude, is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible, and in many translations is rendered as ‘slavery’. The Israelites were permitted by God to have the form of subjection called indentured servitude, and so Dulles correctly concludes that not all forms of slavery, broadly defined, would be immoral. But intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. Therefore, slavery — when it is defined as subjection or as servitude — is not intrinsically evil.

If we define slavery very broadly, so as to include such forms as indentured servitude, and the requirement that imprisoned criminals work, then slavery, broadly defined, would neither be intrinsically evil, nor always immoral. However, Dulles states that a narrower definition of slavery would be always immoral, and this implies that the narrower definition is intrinsically evil.

Cardinal Avery Dulles: “Radical forms of slavery that deprive human beings of all personal rights are never morally permissible, but more or less moderate forms of subjection and servitude will always accompany the human condition.” (‘Development or Reversal?’, First Things, October 2005.)

So if we define slavery narrowly, such that its moral object is no longer subjection or servitude, but the deprivation of all human rights, certainly slavery, in its ‘radical’ or severe form, would be intrinsically evil. For the deprivation of all fundamental human rights is certainly an evil moral object.

In my book, the Catechism of Catholic Ethics, the chapter entitled ‘Slavery’ discusses whether or not slavery is intrinsically evil. I conclude the following:


Slavery is properly and narrowly defined as a set of intrinsically evil acts, each of which directly and deliberately deprives the human person of fundamental human rights. The concrete acts by which the human person is deprived of fundamental human rights are varied, and so the set of acts in particular cases is also varied. But each act in the set is intrinsically evil and gravely immoral, and each act is of the same type, depriving the human person of fundamental human rights. These acts are essential to slavery, such that slavery does not occur without a set of acts of this type. Therefore, the set of acts called slavery is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

2) Should the Church teach that the death penalty is an intrinsic evil?

The Magisterium already definitively teaches that the use of the death penalty is not intrinsically evil. This teaching is based on clear moral teachings in the Old and New Testaments.

[Luke]
{19:27} “Yet truly, as for those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here, and put them to death before me.”

[Acts]
{25:11} For if I have harmed them, or if I have done anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying….”

Cardinal Dulles: “In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty-six capital offenses calling for execution…. In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’ (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, referring to Exodus 2l:17; cf. Leviticus 20:9). When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify him, Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above — that is to say, from God (John 19:11). Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward of their deeds (Luke 23:41).” (‘Catholicism & Capital Punishment,’ First Things, April 2001)

Sacred Scripture plainly teaches, in both the Old and New Testaments, that the use of the death penalty (capital punishment) can be moral.

It is not possible for the Magisterium to change the teaching of Tradition or Scripture. The death penalty is not intrinsically evil because it has the good moral object of protecting the innocent of society from the guilty, and the good moral object of retributive justice (a good found in the just punishments of Purgatory as well as those of Hell). The death penalty does not have an evil moral object; therefore, it is not intrinsically evil. In other words, the death penalty is not inherently ordered toward an evil proximate end.

Pope John Paul II judged that the circumstances of modern society are such that the death penalty is not needed. This is a judgment of the temporal order, with which the faithful may disagree. But Pope John Paul II did not teach that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Intrinsically evil acts have an evil moral object. But in order to be moral, all three fonts of morality must be good: intention, moral object, circumstances.

Colorado Catholic Conference: “In some moral matters the use of reason allows for a legitimate diversity in our prudential judgments. Catholic voters may differ, for example, on what constitutes the best immigration policy, how to provide universal health care, or affordable housing. Catholics may even have differing judgments on the state’s use of the death penalty or the decision to wage a just war. The morality of such questions lies not in what is done (the moral object), but in the motive and circumstances. Therefore, because these prudential judgments do not involve a direct choice of something evil, and take into consideration various goods, it is possible for Catholic voters to arrive at different, even opposing judgments.” (Colorado Catholic Conference, Moral Principles for Catholic Voters, p. 2)

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” (Letter, Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, General Principles, n. 3)

Is the death penalty intrinsically evil? No. The Magisterium definitively teaches that it is not. It may be immoral due to intention or circumstances, but it does not have an evil moral object.

Is slavery intrinsically evil? If it is defined broadly, as subjection and servitude, then it is not. If it is defined narrowly, as the deprivation of all fundamental human rights, then it is intrinsically evil.

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