Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In a recently published memoir, The Seal: A Priest’s Story , Fr. Timothy Mockaitis recounts his central role in an unprecedented legal drama. On a fairly routine visit to Oregon’s Lane County Jail, Mockaitis heard the confession of an inmate accused of multiple homicide. Unbeknownst to this priest, he was not the only one hearing the confession. The district attorney, aware of the inmate’s request for the sacrament, had secretly wiretapped the visitors area to obtain that exchange, and planned to submit the tape as evidence in court. When a local reporter tipped Mockaitis off, a dramatic showdown ensued, threatening the precarious balance of church“state relations.

In the wake of a public outcry, the district attorney’s initial defense maintained that his skullduggery simply represented the most efficient means to the conviction of an accused murderer. Surely, the conventions of privacy privileges must cede to the pressing demand for justice. The legal battle that followed, ultimately vindicating the Catholic Church, shed a rare and welcome light upon the principle of intrinsic moral norms. In the objective order, there are certain actions which are wrong always and everywhere, without exceptions. No matter how good a desired end may be, it can never, under any circumstances, warrant recourse to a wrong or evil action as a means of obtaining that end.

Such evils stand alone in their absoluteness; there are no absolute goods, things which always and everywhere must be done. One’s duty to attend a religious service, for example, may be outweighed by the more pressing duty to care for a sick child. But while there is no upper limit on moral goodness, there is a bottom line. The seal of confession stands as a good example of this principle: A priest may never divulge anything heard in the sacrament of confession. Even knowledge that could prevent great harm (such as an imminent terrorist attack) must remain forever under that seal. Were the priest to act in any way upon that information (tipping off the FBI, telling his parents to flee the city), he would automatically incur the severest ecclesial penalties. In this way, the seal acts as a fitting touchstone against a pervasive practicality.

Those outraged by the district attorney’s actions understood a larger principle at work: One can never do evil for the sake of good, or, to put it more commonly, the ends never justify the means. John Paul II reaffirmed this principle, writing in Veritatis Splendor : “These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’; they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.”

The faithful, and many of no faith, seemed to sense a violation of this principle in the district attorney’s actions. Catholics most especially were shocked and angered. In the end, the appellate court and the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against this utilitarian abuse of intrinsic evils. But in the absence of so blatant and personal a case, how universally is this principle applied in the public square today? For many, the idea of intrinsic evils has been entirely lost or is entirely disregarded. A recent New York Times headline read, “Interrogations’ Effectiveness May Prove Elusive.” The debate over torture on Capitol Hill has centered on whether or not various methods yielded practical results, such as extracting intelligence. Hardly any regard is given to whether or not these methods are morally permissible in themselves; rather, everything is reduced to a cost-benefit analysis. In this equation, ethical discourse itself becomes impoverished.

Traditionally, people of faith have formed the vanguard against such consequentialist equations. Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, while a fellow at Oxford, famously protested the university’s decision to grant Harry Truman an honorary degree. Denouncing Truman for crimes against humanity, Anscombe rightly saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki as egregious violations of just war principles. Civilians can never be targeted as ends, and Truman’s rationale of a hastened victory and avoidance of further casualties rang hollow to Anscombe. If one cannot win a war justly, then one simply cannot win a war. Anscombe understood that the price of war is high, but it is not to be paid with one’s soul. Unfortunately, one finds Catholic theologians today—and I mean the good kind—who will yet obfuscate the clear principles of intrinsic evils when the desired end looms large.

As a common case in point, one hears otherwise orthodox moral theologians attempt to justify methods of entrapment on the part of law enforcement. Used here in the moral sense of leading another to do wrong for the purpose of catching the wrongdoer in the act, such entrapment can never be justified insofar as it presents others with, indeed encourages them toward, an occasion of sin. So the undercover agent who poses as a prostitute, only to have policemen arrest those she solicits, finds herself guilty of tempting others to immorality. Regardless of whether or not the act actually takes place, her solicitation has already led to interior consent, a willful decision (which is a culpable act in itself), on the solicitee’s part. Without attempting to justify these offenses, a moral absolutist maintains that efforts to fight even the most heinous crimes must not be tainted by the moral myopia these efforts seek to rectify.

Nor can such absolutists blind themselves to the traps set by the current discourse, steeped as it is in consequentialist parameters. In any discussion over embryonic stem-cell research, for example, one will inevitably hear an informed and articulate pro-lifer mention the lack of cures that such research has yet yielded. But what defense will remain if, tomorrow, embryonic stem-cell research were to produce a bevy of cures for terminal diseases? Even if the pro-research consequentialist were to accept the above premise, and change his position based on the supposed futility of this research, the victory is a pyrrhic one. For the rules of engagement have shifted onto a pragmatic playing-field, where any moral standard now lies susceptible to a more pressing need. When we compromise even the slightest on intrinsic evils, entertaining effects and trying to use them in our favor, we can hardly be surprised when recourse to first principles no longer carries weight in the great conversations of our day.

In a time when the distinction between can and should has become increasingly blurred, and when fundamental moral norms are under unprecedented attack, the principle of intrinsic evil requires and deserves a staunch defense. The threat of utilitarianism is hardly new; after all, it was the calculating Caiaphas who asserted it was better for one man to die than the whole nation to perish. In the face of public demand for expediency and results—with little or no regard for what seem to be ethical niceties—the pressure of pragmatism can test the purest of consciences. At times the price for holding fast to these absolutes can be very high indeed. But ours is not to count the cost. For these moral norms are not our own; rather, they point always beyond us to a law that we did not invent, a law that we cannot change.

An objective morality naturally bespeaks an objective truth, and in an age of ascendant relativism such allegiance should stand as a sign of contradiction. It ought to lead others to ask a question, or at least a different question: not Does it work? , but Is it right? Without a steadfast adherence to the primacy of that latter question, there is no limit on the brute horrors that wait to be unleashed. The past century is nothing if not a stark lesson in how easily utilitarian calculations can, in the name of some greater good, strike at the very roots of human dignity. Such a conviction as to intrinsic wrongs formed a first line of defense in Mockaitis’ pursuit of justice. For the rest of us, it forms a last line of defense against the triumph of moral anarchy.

Brian A. Graebe is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of New York, studying at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles