When I was getting my degree in philosophy and theology at Boston College (many years ago), I took a class in sexual ethics. The professor, Lisa Sowle Cahill, did in fact teach what the Church teaches on morality, including that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. However, she also taught an alternative theory of ethics, to which she herself subscribed, that nothing is always wrong. This idea constitutes a radical revision of traditional moral theology, and, at this point in time, given the publication of Veritatis Splendor and Catechism of the Catholic Church, the idea is also heretical. It contradicts the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on morality.
Even so, this radical revisionist ethics has grown in popularity, due to the work of a number of priests, theologians, and online commentators. The idea now openly contends against the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium on morality, and — most alarmingly — now claims to be merely a proper understanding of Catholic doctrine.
Radical revisionist ethics claims that nothing is always wrong. This claim is pleasing to sinful Catholics, who wish to be able to justify popular sins, such as lying, contraception, abortifacient contraception, abortion to save the life of the mother, and various sexual sins. Radical revisionist ethics allows Catholics to justify certain sins, as if they were not sins at all, due to a good intention or a dire circumstance.
But if it is true that nothing is always wrong, what about the unpopular sins, such as rape, murder, or genocide? The answer given by Cahill was always: “I can’t think of an intention or circumstance that justifies genocide, but in principle nothing is always wrong.” Convenient. When a grave sin is unpopular, it is always condemned, even though the claim is made that no act is necessarily always immoral. And when a grave sin is popular, the radical revisionists go to work, offering a theological rationalization to justify the sin.
What about adultery? Surely the radical revisionists would condemn adultery as always immoral. Not necessarily. Cahill offered this scenario, to prove, supposedly, that adultery can be moral.
During World War 2, a woman’s husband is interned in a concentration camp. He faces torture and death if she cannot free him. She bribes one of the guards with sex, and the guard helps to free her husband. They both escape capture and live happy and long lives.
Her act was adultery, but supposedly an example of adultery that is justified. And this was presented as if to prove that no act is always wrong.
In truth, the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium is that some acts are always immoral. This teaching is particularly clear in Veritatis Splendor and the CCC:
Catechism of the Catholic Church: “There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil. It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. 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.” [CCC 1755-1756]
Adultery is always gravely immoral, even with a good intention, even in a dire circumstance. And at the time that Cahill proposed that even adultery can be justified in some cases, which was prior to the publication of Veritatis Splendor and the CCC by many years, it was already clear that the Church taught otherwise. The Church taught that some acts are always immoral; such acts are called intrinsically evil.
Back then, the radical revisionists were openly opposing Church teaching on ethics. They simply rejected the idea that some acts are always wrong. But, even at the time, there was another approach to radical revisionist ethics brewing: the idea that we can redefine an intrinsically evil act, so that, when the act is (supposedly) justified, it is not that type of act.
In the case of adultery discussed above, some radical revisionists would say that the act is adultery, but it is moral. But another approach is to claim that the act itself is not adultery. For the purpose of the act was not to cheat on one’s spouse, but to save the life of one’s spouse. So the intention or purpose of the act and the circumstance combine to redefine the moral nature of the act, making it no longer adultery and no longer intrinsically evil.
Of course, this approach is just a slightly more clever version of the same heresy.
Veritatis Splendor: 81. “In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: ‘Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God’ (1 Cor 6:9-10).
“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. ‘As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt),’ Saint Augustine writes, ‘like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?’.
“Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.”
Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral because the act is inherently morally disordered, that is, the nature of the act is itself evil. And the nature of the act is determined by the moral object. Neither a good intention or purpose, nor a dire circumstance, can change the moral object or the nature of the act at all.
The radical revisionists use various wordings and various versions of this claim, in order to justify the intrinsically evil acts that are popular among sinners today. Sometimes they claim that the nature of the act, and its moral object, is dependent on the purpose of the act. But purpose is simply another word for the font of morality called intention. The Compendium of the CCC phrases it this way: “the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act” [n. 367]. So it is not true that the purpose of the act gives the act a good moral object, or changes the act into a different moral type, one that is no longer intrinsically evil.
“No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” [Evangelium Vitae 61]
This attempt to redefine intrinsically evil acts, so that the act is called something else and is then supposedly justified, was often proposed by radical revisionists way back then. For example, after admitting that the Church teaches that lying is always wrong, Cahill proposed a new approach, one that redefines lying. She said something like: “Why can’t we define lying as the unjust telling of an untruth?” So, given this redefinition, lying would still be said to be always wrong, because whenever we think it is right to assert a falsehood, we call it the just telling of an untruth, which would not be lying under this redefinition.
Well, why can’t we do that with lying? Of course the reason is that this approach essentially nullifies the entire set of teachings on ethics in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. First, you decide if you want the act to be considered just or unjust, then you name the act accordingly: “This is a just use of abortifacient contraception, and that is an unjust use of abortifacient contraception. This is a just abortion, and that is an unjust abortion.” And so on. The decision as to whether the act is just or unjust has, then, no basis in any teaching of the Faith, and subsequent to the person making a subjective baseless claim as to whether or not the act is moral, the act is given the corresponding label.
Peter Kreeft has proposed a similar approach, his own version of radical revisionist ethics, on the subject of lying. His proposal is that, first, you decide if the proposed false assertion is moral or immoral, based on your moral intuition. Then, you either call it a lie that is justified, and say that lying is not always wrong, or you say that it is a false assertion that is not a lie. And he doesn’t care which. You decide what you wish the truth to be on the morality of an act, then subsequently you reconcile that decision with Church teaching by manipulating the definition of acts and the principle of morality into agreement.
Janet Smith is one of the leading radical revisionists today. She justifies abortifacient contraception by saying that the act (using the birth control pill while sexually active), in certain cases, should not be called contraception. The deaths of the prenatals are termed an acceptable risk. She disingenuously claims to believe that intrinsically evil are always immoral. She simply redefines each intrinsically evil act that she wishes to justify. So she can say that contraception is always immoral. What about a woman who uses abortifacient contraception, while sexually active, for a good purpose or in a dire circumstance? Well, that act should not be called “contraception”, she claims. Using this approach, which is not very different from the radical revisionist ethics of Cahill, Smith justifies abortifacient contraception, direct sterilization, unnatural sexual acts in marriage, and of course lying.
In her article, “Fig Leaves and Falsehoods“, Janet Smith justifies lying. How does she do it? There are two main approaches of the radical revisionists: (1) to claim that an intrinsically evil act is not always wrong, (2) to redefine the intrinsically evil act, so that it can be called something else when one wishes it to be justified. She uses the second approach: “I believe that the telling of some falsehoods and other forms of false signification are compatible with the absolute prohibition of lying.” Right, you just redefine lying so that the telling of a falsehood, for certain intentions or purposes, is no longer called a lie. So Smith claims that lying is always wrong, we just need to redefine lying so that you can deliberately assert a falsehood and somehow not be lying.
This opposing view supports the traditional Catholic teaching, in contradiction to Smith. And servant of God, Fr. John Hardon of course condemns lying as always wrong, based on the 8th Commandment, which extends not only to lying under oath, but all lying. Then the CCC as this to say on lying:
“By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” [CCC 2485]
” A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means.” [CCC 1753]
Lying is wrong by its very nature; it is intrinsically disordered. So the Catechism teaches that lying is intrinsically evil, and not justified by any intention or circumstance.
Cahill, Smith, and many others today are promoting a radical revision of Catholic ethics, so that intrinsically evil acts can be justified, but only when those acts are popular. Only the popular sins, which many Catholics wish were not sins, are given the radical revisionist treatment: lying, contraception, abortifacient contraception, direct abortion to save the life of the mother, and various grave sexual sins.
Then, when it comes to unpopular grave sins, like rape, murder, and genocide, the radical revisionists shrug their shoulders and pretend as if the same heretical methodology cannot be applied to those intrinsically evil acts. Somehow, only acts that are popular are able to be justified by clever redefinition of the act itself or the basic moral principles.
But wait, I spoke too soon. Abortion is genocide; it is the worst genocide that the world has ever seen. More human persons have been killed by abortion than by all genocides and all past wars combined. And the radical revisionists have no problem justifying abortifacient contraception and direct abortion to save the life of the mother. In fact, Germain Grisez justifies partial birth abortions, in which the physician crushes the skill of the prenatal during birth.
Pope Saint John Paul II realized this problem, found in theology faculties at Catholic universities and in Catholic seminaries, and so he wrote Veritatis Splendor to put an end to radical revisionist ethics. But the proponents of radical revisionism laughed at this encyclical, and set to work writing radical revisions of its teaching, so as to continue to justify intrinsically evil acts. They now take the approach of Janet Smith, saying that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, but redefining and renaming any act they wish to justify.
This blatant rejection of the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on morality has caught on. It is very commonly proposed now, in Catholic blogs and discussion groups, and it is presented as if it were merely a proper understanding of Church teaching. Abject heresy, clearly condemned by the CCC and by a Pope-Saint in an encyclical, is being widely taught as if it were doctrine. Poison is being fed to children, with the claim that it is healthy food (figuratively speaking).
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