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Imagine that a depraved tyrant is oppressing your country, driving its citizens into misery. You have the opportunity to save the country: By starting an affair with the tyrant’s wife, you can gain access to the tyrant and depose him. Is that OK?

This case was raised by a commentator on Aristotle, who thought it a circumstance in which adultery might be justified. But St. Thomas Aquinas, in his De Malo, says that the commentator is wrong. “One ought not to commit adultery for any benefit,” St. Thomas writes, expressing the constant teaching of the Church. Some acts, whatever the circumstances, are just always bad—to use a theological term, they are intrinsically evil.

Those two words are all that needs adding to the many responses to the McCarrick scandal. As others have argued, there should be an inquest into who knew what; the bishops should directly confront the wickedness within their dioceses, while making it easier for whistleblowers to speak up; and, yes, maybe some literal sackcloth and ashes would help. Most fundamentally, as Bishop Edward Scharfenberger observed in a widely shared letter, any answer to the abuse crisis cannot succeed unless it is founded on spiritual renewal—a turning back to Christ and His teaching.

One part of this teaching, as Scharfenberger implies, is that there are such things as intrinsically evil acts, and that sexual abuse is among them. This is a useful doctrine, as well as a true one.

Few of us can enter into the twisted thoughts of a sexual predator. But everyone knows how the mind, when tempted to do something wrong, will cast around for justifications. It’s not that big a deal … Just this once … I need it for my health … Everybody else does it … Why would God care about something so trivial?… My situation’s very unusual, anyway … What can steel the mind against temptation is the knowledge that an act is, in itself, destructive of happiness and friendship with God; that it would be pointless to enter into dialogue with the temptation, because the only good answer is No.

That knowledge is even more helpful in the presence of cultural pressure to succumb. The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe gave a lifelong witness to the existence of intrinsic evils—as she put it, “the idea that any class of actions, such as murder, may be absolutely excluded.” She contrasted this with the idea that moral laws are “rules of thumb which an experienced person knows when to break.” Anscombe drew this contrast in reference to Harry Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. In 1956, she made a lonely protest against Oxford’s honorary degree for Truman. It did not matter, she argued, whether the bombs might have led to a smaller overall loss of life: “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder.” That “always” fortified her when majority opinion thought she was foolish. In a mad world, an understanding of intrinsic evil helps you to stay sane.

There never was an upswell of popular support for sexual exploitation, as there was for bombing civilians. But during the last century the world did lose its mind about sexual morality. Old disciplines were overturned, and the upheaval changed attitudes towards children and young people. In 1970s Britain, for instance, the Paedophile Information Network made great strides towards respectability. Polly Toynbee, the definition of a liberal columnist, has recalled her “sinking feeling that in another five years or so, their aims would eventually be incorporated into the general liberal credo, and we would all find them acceptable.” Across the Atlantic, the North American Man/Boy Love Association counted among its members Allen Ginsberg, paragon of the ’60s counterculture. (The inaugural meeting of what became NAMBLA, incidentally, was attended by Fr. Paul Shanley, a priest later convicted of child rape.) That was the era of change through which a generation of priests lived.

At around the same time, the Church was thrown into turmoil. Among the many novelties of those years was the advance of new moral theories, which shelved the idea of intrinsic evil. These theories proposed that what really matters is whether your heart remains basically open to God; or that your conscience can decide whether a moral law applies.

The people who came up with these theories were often well intentioned. They were trying to get away from needless inflexibility and cruel judgmentalism. But in discarding Church teaching, they also kicked away a means of support for the vulnerable. Those tempted by suicide, or sexual exploitation, are not helped by being told that each decision must be discerned in conscience on its own merits. One thing that may help them is to know that a certain choice is definitely the wrong choice, and that God can give them the grace to avoid it.

In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Sarah Miles speaks to a priest and tries to find a loophole so that she can continue her extramarital relationship. “Every time I asked him a question I had such hope; it was like opening the shutters of a new house and looking for the view, and every window just faced a blank wall. No, no, no, he said.”

Sarah walks out and slams the door, reflecting bitterly on the priest’s coldness. It’s God, she thinks, who has mercy. “And then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he’s got mercy, only it’s such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment.”

The idea of intrinsic evil may look harsh and punitive. But to those struggling to stay afloat, it can be a lifeline.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.

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