German Theologians: Redefining “Intrinsic Evil” As a Way of Justifying Amoris Laetitia

May 8, 2017

German Theologians: Redefining “Intrinsic Evil” As a Way of Justifying Amoris Laetitia

By Andrew Parrish


(ROME / La Stampa) – In a new book on Amoris Laetitia published last week, two of its authors criticize the section of the “dubia” statement which deals with the category of “intrinsically evil acts”, claiming that this criticism does not apply. Entitled “Amoris Laetitia: a turning point for moral theology?”, the work contains a postscript authored by Stephen Goertz, professor of moral theology at the University of Mainz, and Antonio Autiero, former moral theology professor at the University of Munster, with the title “Speaking of doubts, mistakes, and distinctions.”

It is the authors’ position that on Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis "made it clear that for him the pastoral solution contained in his document is undoubtedly compatible with the law of God, with the instance of mercy and with the Christian concept formed of consciousness." It is therefore possible that, in certain cases and under certain conditions the divorced and remarried can receive the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist – as Amoris Laetitia says: "You can no longer say that all those who are in some so-called “irregular” situation live in a state of mortal sin, deprived of sanctifying grace." 

In the tradition of Catholic moral theology adultery, which is the classification given to sexual relations with any person other than a spouse, is a mortal sin. Therefore, those who are civilly divorced and remarried, without an annulment, are not validly married for the second time and commit adultery in conjugal relations with their second “spouse.” Reflecting this understanding, question two of the five-point dubia statement issued by Cards. Burke, Caffarra, Brandmueller and Meisner asks directly whether, since Amoris Laetitia seems to indicate, as above, that knowing and public adultery is no longer always a state of mortal sin, the existence of “intrinsically evil” acts to which there are no circumstantial exceptions has been discarded as a Catholic theological concept.

To this question, “…a simplified answer with a yes or no would not be in harmony with the moral-theological discussion on the subject of intrinsically evil acts,” the authors claim. In their view, the category of intrinsically evil acts can be preserved, while allowing for certain cases of the act to not qualify for the technical term and thus not be intrinsically evil. In the case of adultery, the authors question whether “all those acts, which in the recent pronouncements of the Magisterium - under the influence of neoscholastic thoughts on sexuality and marriage - are attributed to this class of precepts …  belong as intrinsically evil acts." 

Referring to the encyclicals of John Paul II, the authors further assert, "The whole idea that in Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor is encoded a completely unassailable doctrine from the standpoint of moral theology, a doctrine that is solidly based on the Sacred Scripture and Tradition, a doctrine no longer in need of further developments, led to the blocks of thought and action in the Catholic church. With Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis intends to offer a starting point to continue the research in this field."  

Goertz and Autiero make a torturous argument. They claim that, obviously, adultery can never be “virtuous” because of the word adultery’s “negative connotations,” but some physical acts of sexuality outside of marriage could be something other than “adultery,” and that Amoris Laetitia “does not totally rule out… that human and spiritual fullness, also lived in the expressive forms of corporeal existence,” while still condemning adultery. This hypothetical sexual act, X, is perhaps not an intrinsically evil act, even though its details are exactly the same as adultery, which is. Furthermore, however, Goertz and Autiero say, perhaps adultery has itself been misclassified as an intrinsically evil act under the influence of “neoscholastic thoughts!” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which neither author appears to have read recently, the “neoscholastic thoughts” influencing the Church’s teaching on adultery include the words of Jesus and the Sixth Commandment (CCC 2380, 2381). It will be difficult to remove the influence of those thinkers from the Catholic Church.

As an additional note, if the two theology professors quoted Amoris Laetitia on “mortal sin” to support their argument, they have entirely missed the fundamental distinction between mortal sin and intrinsic evil. Adultery is an “intrinsically” evil act because it is an example of an act “that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing [it] entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil” (CCC 1755). This does not mean that it is in all cases a mortal sin. The three requirements for the commission of a mortal sin are full knowledge, grave matter and deliberate consent. There may be circumstances in which a particularly poorly-educated Catholic commits the intrinsically evil act of adultery, which is always “grave matter”, without thereby being responsible for a mortal sin. This is as far as Amoris Laetitia, in the quote cited, goes; up to this point it is a restatement of orthodoxy.  

The dubia question regarding intrinsic evil is necessary because Amoris Laetitia appears to officially (from the perspective of the Church) equate the state of grave evil attached to adultery with the state of grace, insofar as the reception of the Eucharist is concerned, and not respective of the individual culpability for a particular example of sin, in individual ignorance. The Church, rather than taking responsibility for correcting such lack of knowledge, will pretend it doesn’t matter. This new defense of Amoris Laetitia can be reduced to “adultery doesn’t have to be adultery if it has some other name.” “Human and spiritual fullness … lived in the expressive form of corporeal existence” is a notable attempt to find such a name, but one unlikely to enter the vernacular. In their choice of title for their postscript, Goertz and Autiero have much better luck: “Speaking of doubts, mistakes and distinctions” is doubly apt.

Written based on the original Italian, with the aid of Google Translate.

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By Andrew Parrish

Andrew Parrish is a 2015 graduate of the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. He holds a BA in Philosophy.

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