Professor Alain Thomasett SJ of Paris University began his paper to the German French and Swiss bishops’ study day for the 2015 family synod, with a reflection on the concept of “intrinsically disordered” acts, and the difficulties which it raises for many Catholics in making moral judgements.
This is the section on the importance of taking into account the subjective context of the person and her/his story, in my own translation from the original French text
The issue of intrinsically evil acts
The interpretation of the doctrine of acts known as “intrinsically evil” seems to be one of the fundamental sources of the current difficulties in the pastoral care of families, as it largely determines the condemnation of artificial contraception, the sexual acts of remarried divorcees and of couples in stable same-sex relationships. It appears to many to be incomprehensible and seems pastorally counter productive. If it rightly insists on objective benchmarks necessary for moral life, it neglects precisely the biographical dimension of existence, and the specific conditions of each personal journey, elements to which our contemporaries are very sensitive and which contribute to the current conditions for the reception of Church doctrine. Several arguments point in the direction of greater integration of the history of the people.
The subjective side, the need for discernment of the situation and the place of conscience
a) The final report of the Extraordinary Synod itself acknowledges this difficulty (no. 52), because it poses a “distinction between the objective situation of sin and mitigating circumstances, as ‘the accountability and responsibility for an action can be reduced or even eliminated’ by various ‘psychological or social factors’ (Catholic Catechism No. 1735).” According to this doctrine, although the objective evil remains, it can be mitigated (Veritatis Splendor, No. 81.2), subjective responsibility can be reduced or even eliminated. An objective disorder does not necessarily produce subjective guilt. To state it more clearly, the intent and the circumstances can influence the objective qualification of the act, and secondly, they are necessary to determine the moral responsibility of the subject who must decide and act according to conscience. All Catholic moral tradition calls for discernment that takes into account these different elements for a moral judgement that is left in the last resort to the conscience of the people. Vatican II recalled the primacy of conscience which must be the judge of last resort (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n ° 16.50)1.
b) Individuals and couples often face conflicts of obligations which force them, when it is impossible to satisfy all values at once, to choose after deliberation to prioritize the most important duty.
In practical situations, discernment is needed: for example if openness to life and the preservation of marital and familial equilibrium conflict with each other. The pastoral notes of nine episcopates after Humanae Vitae (including those of the French , German and Swiss Bishops for 1968), also go in this direction; in cases of conflicts they refer to the judgement of conscience and responsible parenthood, repeating the arguments of the Council. Must this not restore to its place the conscience of the people? This in no way removes the need to form the conscience, but demands that conscience not be replaced.
c) A biographical perspective and narrative forces us to think that moral evaluation is not about isolated acts, but about human actions inserted into a history.
A single act, isolated from its context and the history of the subject who may be responsible (which the term intrinsically means) is not yet a human act but an element of assessment which must be completed to be judged. A homicide is a gesture, a physical act. To make a human action involves determining who is the author and to understand the reasons and circumstances that led to this action. Is it self-defence, an accident, a crime of passion, a murder, premeditated or otherwise. Likewise, do not be too quick to call a sexual act of contraception ‘intrinsically evil! Paul Ricoeur and the contemporary philosophy of action remind us that an act can be assigned to an author who can be held accountable solely through the medium of narrative.
This is the set of elements of the story that can give meaning to action, and therefore qualify to evaluate it 2. This is the judgement of conscience that ultimately can carry it. Moral standards describe acts. Conscience must judge an action. The objectives ethical guidelines given by the Church are only one element (admittedly essential but not unique) of moral discernment which must take place in conscience. We must give a fair place to moral standards and conscience to avoid giving the impression that conscience is reduced to blind obedience to rules that are imposed on it from outside. To omit this would reduce Christian ethics to a pure moralism, which Christians moreover reject overwhelmingly and justifiably. 3
1 “Only the conscience of the subject can provide the immediate norm for action (…) Natural law can not be presented as an already established set of rules imposed a priori on the moral subject, but it is an objective source of inspiration for his eminently personal, approach to decision making.” International Theological Commission, “In search of a universal. ethic A New Look at Natural Law, Rome, 2008, No. 59. See also GS 50.2: “This judgement is ultimately that of the couple themselves who must decide it before God“
2 See, among others, Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as another, Seuil, 1990, especially Chapter 5 and 6.
3 For further details, see Alain Thomasset, “In fidelity to the Second Vatican Council: the hermeneutic dimension of moral theology”, Journal of Ethics and Moral Theology, No. 263, March 2011, p. 31-61 and No. 264, June 2011, p. 9-27