In his encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, Pope St. John Paul II writes:
“Judgments about morality cannot be made without taking into consideration whether or not the deliberate choice of a specific kind of behavior is in conformity with the dignity and integral vocation of the human person… In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent. But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids… (79).
No room for creativity? Well, that’s not something we are used to hearing. It seems so confining. I mean, isn’t the most important 21st century skill heralded to be “creative problem solving”? Not so with God’s commandments, it seems. Certainly not with the negative precepts: “Thou shalt not…”
While there may be a variety of ways to accomplish a particular good (such as honoring your father and mother) and while the best way to do this given the concrete limitations of a given situation may involve a certain “creativity,” one may never freely choose evil or get “creative” with it. Evil, in fact, is never creative. It is only destructive.
In the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, we see the young George Bailey, working at Mr. Gower’s pharmacy, asked to deliver a prescription to a local family. Mr. Gower, distraught by the news of his son’s sudden and tragic death, and drowning his sorrow in alcohol, inadvertently puts poison into the prescription bottle. When young George questions Mr. Gower, the pharmacist gets angry and tells him to go and do what he was told. What does George do? After an unsuccessful attempt to get his father’s advice, he chooses not to deliver the bottle. When he returns, he gets a beating for his disobedience, until George finally convinces Mr. Gower of his grave error, and Mr. Gower embraces him in gratitude and showers him with words and tears of contrition.
Did George obey the fourth commandment, which includes respect and obedience to all authority figures? I argue that he did. Not delivering the “prescription” was the best way to honor it. And he actually spared Mr. Gower from an even more devastating suffering than the loss of his son.
Yet, let’s take another instance from the movie. George, at the end of his rope and facing prison, financial ruin, and public disgrace for his Uncle Billy’s accidental loss of a bank deposit, likewise drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Then a thought occurs to him – due to his insurance policy, he is worth more dead than alive. He resolves to commit suicide. At least then, he thinks, his family would be spared financial hardship, if not scandal. The rest of the movie is an angel visiting George and trying to convince him that his calculations are wrong and that he really had a “wonderful life.”
George is getting creative here with evil, seeing all sorts of benefits from committing it (or at least believing it is the “lesser evil”). But the moral law does not permit such creativity, which really only amounts to a change in syntax.
Listen to these words of Pope St. Paul VI from his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in which he reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s teaching on the intrinsic evil of contraception:
“Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Romans 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general” (n. 14).
The deliberate choice to do what is evil is never in conformity with the dignity of the human person, who is created in the image of God, or with his vocation to love as God loves. Acts which are evil “by their very nature” must be judged unworthy of man for they are incapable of bringing about our true good and full flourishing, or of being expressions of authentic love, regardless of the intentions or circumstances. They must be judged unworthy of man because they contradict the image of God that we are.
It is the “object” of the act – the “what” that is being freely chosen – that determines the uprightness of our will. As St. John Paul II continues in Veritatis Splendor: “The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love” (n. 81). This is precisely why the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that there are certain kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose (see #1761).
One of these kinds of behavior is contraception: “Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these… it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong” (Humanae Vitae, n. 14). Another one is abortion. St. John Paul II states that while different “in nature and moral gravity” than contraception, abortion is closely connected with it, as they are “fruits of the same tree” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 14). Both are always wrong to choose. Remember, evil leaves no room for creativity.
Thus, “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… 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” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81). Let’s be clear: conscience can never condone and God will never approve such acts. They simply are not good – they are not good for us or for others; they are not good for societies or for nations – no matter how we creatively restructure the sentences. And not only can we never choose them ourselves, we can never approve them or support them or those that do.
Could it be that the Evil One’s tactic is to convince us of our creativity? To entice us to engage in “problem solving” when the problem has already been solved? To get us to believe we need to decide what is good or evil and grasp at being “like God,” instead of recognizing that we are “like God,” as creatures made in His image, and that will live “like God” by leaving the Tree alone and conforming our behavior to what God says is good and evil? I think so. And it is likely to come in the form of well-meaning advice from a seemingly compassionate voice telling you that “God understands.”
God may understand, but He doesn’t accept it. Our Creator has too much compassion, cares too much about us, and is too good to do that.
David C. Hajduk, Ph.D. has over thirty years of experience in religious education and pastoral ministry, including youth, family life, and pro-life ministries. David did his doctoral work in Theology at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, England, and wrote his dissertation on the thought of St. John Paul II. Since 1998, David has been a member of the Theology Department at Delbarton School in Morristown, New Jersey, and since 2002 has been the Director of Mission and Ministry. David also has served as an Adjunct Professor of Moral Theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University since 2008. He is the Theological Programming Director for Array of Hope, a ministry in service of the “New Evangelization” that shares the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith through high quality media and events that are current, relevant, and engaging.