“Intrinsically Evil” and Moral Judgement (2): Historical Developments

3) From the objective side, the historical development of moral norms and their limited scope

a) According to Veritatis Splendor which emphasizes the objectivity of moral standards, “The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will” (VS, 78, cf. St Thomas, ST I-II, Q.18, a.6). It therefore is not limited to pure materiality and already includes in part an intention and circumstances. Actions that are said to be contraceptive include thoseintended to prevent procreation. Sexual acts between divorced and remarried include the fact that the first marital relationship was terminated, etc.  But this definition is too short or too general to reflect the truth of such acts, because the intention and circumstances (that help define the object) can be complex.

In the case of the union of spouses, for example, is it sufficient to define it, to say that a conjugal act seeks to render procreation impossible, while it also has intends to strengthen the union of the spouses and that these acts are legitimate and honest (cf. Gaudium et Spes, No. 49.2)? How can we take into account the difference between an act of adultery and sexual relations of a  remarried couple in a stable relationship?

I note that John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, having firmly recalled the moral norm and sacramental discipline about the divorced and remarried, invites us to consider the “different situations” (FC, 84) and moreover he evokes the law of gradualness to promote a “gradual integration of the gifts of God and of the requirements love “(FC, 9). We could continue this intuition that the Pope has not developed.

B) We must add that moral norms are always understood in a historical process that involves the experience of believers.

The objectivity of moral truth can not be reduced to a kind of scientific or apodictic truth which pretends to hold once and for all, in an ahistorical manner. This truth is always to be found in a constant dialogue between the legacy of past experience, the pulled together reflection of reason and revelation, and the always new experience of Christians in a time and a given culture. The sensus fidei of Christians is to be considered. Moral normativity is constructed in a constant coming and going between the search for the universal and the consideration of particular features. History shows this historical process at work in developing the content of natural law itself. We gain a lot in the development of moral standards and pastoral practice from listening more to experience and the sensus fidei of couples who are trying their best to live their call to holiness, especially that of the poor who know better than other what it means to rely on God. (Note 4)

c) The concept of revelation as self-communication of God himself (Dei Verbum, 2) forces us to think that separation of doctrine from pastoral practice is impossible. If the doctrine is the systematic reflection on the experience of faith lived by Christians, it can not fail to take into account the circumstances of this experience and the conditions of reception of this divine revelation (that is precisely what pastoral care tries to do). Divine communication and its reception by the believing subject originate together.

The announcement of the faith in a manner adapted to the circumstances of the time “which ought to remain the law of all evangelization” (Gaudium et Spes, 44), can not fail to flow back to the understanding of the doctrine itself. We must think of this normative reflection as an historical process always on the move. This is what the Second Vatican Council called the pastorality of the doctrine.

With the help of all these elements, we can imagine exercise discretion in the assessment of human actions, both by giving a clearer place in the end for the role of conscience, but also by refining the current moral standards to reflect the specific situations that permit freeing the subjects from guilt. To not leave this assessment solely to the subjectivity of individuals, there could be determined from sufficiently frequent situations, noticeable types. One could, for example, distinguish between an adulterous relationship, cohabitation, and remarried divorced couples living  in a stable relationship with the intention to rebuild a family. In the latter case, imputing criminal responsibility to this disorder would no longer be considered.

Such an interpretation of human moral acts, which remains part of the Catholic tradition, would have several consequences:

For people who have remarried, it would recognize that in some cases and because of the particular circumstances, sexual acts of the couple are no longer regarded as morally culpable. This would open access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. Assessment of the circumstances and the access to the sacraments could be left to a competent ecclesial authority after a period of penance. Criteria have already been given in the synod report (No. 52). It contains the elements of discernment already presented by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger in 1972 that recognized a second union can constitute a true “ethical reality.”5

For married couples, sexual acts using non-abortive contraceptives could also be considered subjectively not guilty, because of the circumstances and to the extent that the spouses are open to the acceptance of life as part of responsible and generous paternity and where these acts express the gift of self and mutual love of the spouses.

– for homosexuals living as a stable and faithful couple, the same mitigation of the objective evil of sexual acts could be posed and the subjective moral responsibility diminished or even eliminated. This would be consistent with the statement (and the testimony of many Catholics) that living in stable and faithful homosexual relationship can be a path to holiness, a holiness to which the Council calls all Christians (Lumen Gentium, Chap. V). Furthermore, the homosexual person can not be reduced to his / her sexual orientation, or her / his actions. Like any person in a biographical perspective, she is “able to integrate constructively non-normative features of his body into his psyche” (Thevenot). It’s about helping people to live in a way that is humanly possible on a path of growth to what is desirable.


4 On the historicity of natural law, its greatest uncertainty in contingent things and the need to appeal to the wisdom of the experience of those who are engaged in action, see: International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic. A New Look at Natural Law, 2008, No. 53-54.

5 See Joseph Ratzinger, “Zur Frage nach der Ehe der Unauflöslichkeit. Bemerkungen zum und zu seiner dogmengeschichtlichen Befund gegenwärtigen Bedeutung (About the question of the indissolubility of marriage. Observations show the history of dogma on its current importance) “, in Franz Henrich and Volker Eid (ed.), Ehe und Ehescheidung. Diskussion unter Christen (Marriage and Divorce. Discussion between Christians) “Kösel-Verlag, München, 1972, p. 35-56. In its new edition of 2014, the author alters its position.

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