Karl Rahner, Paul VI and John Paul II regarding morally difficult situations

The real issue raised by the ambiguous statements of Pope Francis and Father Lombardi is this: Are there situations when you can do something that is morally evil in order to accomplish some good? Can you do something your regard as a lesser evil in order to avoid what you regard as a greater evil? This is certainly not a new question. Karl Rahner S.J. addressed this issue in general terms; both Paul VI and John Paul II addressed it specifically in terms of marital contraception.

Let’s start with a quotation from Father Karl Rahner, SJ. It’s in the section on situation ethics in Sex and the Marriage Covenant, Chapter 11, “The Hard Cases,” p. 205.

“If we Christians, when faced with a moral decision, really realized that the world is under the Cross on which God himself hung nailed and pierced, that obedience to God’s law can also entail man’s death, that we may not do evil in order that good may come of it, that it is an error and heresy of this eudomonic modern age to hold that the morally right thing can never lead to a tragic situation from which in this world there is no way out;

if we really realized that as Christians we must expect almost to take for granted that at some time in our life our Christianity will involve us in a situation in which we must either sacrifice everything or lose our souls, that we cannot expect always to avoid a “heroic” situation, then there would indeed be fewer Christians who think that their situation requires a special ruling which is not so harsh as the laws proclaimed as God’s laws by the Church, then there would be fewer confessors and spiritual advisors who, for fear of telling their penitent how strict is God’ law, fail in their duty and tell him instead to follow his conscience,

as if he had not asked, and done right to ask, which among all the many voices clamoring within him was the true voice of God, as if it were not for God’s Church to try and distinguish it in accordance with His law, as if the true conscience could speak even when it had not been informed by God and the faith which comes from hearing.”
—Nature and Grace: Dilemmas in the Modern Church, pp. 55-56, copyright 1964, Sheed and Ward. Permission granted to quote in Sex and the Marriage Covenant.


Pope Paul VI regarding difficult situations

The following quotation comes from that same chapter in Sex and the Marriage Covenant in a section titled “The end does not justify the means” p.206:

JFK text: “The majority report of the papal birth control commission had rationalized that acts of contraceptive intercourse could be made morally good by occurring within a marriage that had some non-contraceptive acts of intercourse. Pope Paul VI specifically rejected this hypothesis in Humanae Vitae, and in doing so he reiterated the moral principle that the end does not justify the means. For convenience, the passage is repeated here in the translation of Fr. Marc Caligari, S.J.

And to justify conjugal acts made intentionally infertile one cannot invoke as valid reasons the lesser evil, or the fact that when taken together with the fertile acts already performed or to follow later, such acts would coalesce into a whole and hence would share in the one and the same moral goodness. In truth, if it is sometimes permissible to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or to promote a greater good, it is not permissible, not even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom. One may not, in other words, make into the object of a positive act of the will something that is intrinsically disordered and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family, or social goods.     —Humanae Vitae, n,14.



Saint John Paul II on difficult situations

A Vatican II document on the constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, teaches when the Pope’s teaching must be accepted as an authentic exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church. In section 25, it lists several requirements and specifically states: “His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” St. John Paul II more than fulfilled these requirements, and Chapter 7 of Sex and the Marriage Covenant lists a significant number of his documents and talks.  Here I will quote only the summary on page 148.

“In his manner of speaking, John Paul II has left no room for doubt that the doctrine of marital non-contraception reaffirmed by Casti Connubii, Humanae Vitae, and Familiaris Consortio must be believed . He has taught that

● to hold out for exceptions as if God’s grace were not sufficient is a form of atheism (September 17, 1983);

● denying the doctrine of marital non-contraception is ‘equivalent to denying the Catholic concept of revelation’ (April 10, 1986);

● it is a teaching whose truth is beyond discussion (June 5, 1987);

● it is a ‘teaching which belongs to the permanent patrimony of the Church’s moral doctrine’ and ‘a truth which cannot be questioned’ (March 14, 1988);

● it is a teaching which is intrinsic to our human nature and that calling it into question ‘ is equivalent to refusing God himself the obedience of our intelligence’ (November 12, 1988); and finally,

● ‘what is being questioned by rejecting that teaching . . . is the very idea of the holiness of God’ (November 12, 1988)” italics in 1988 original.

It should be noted that his teaching on November 12, 1988 was given to a group of some 400 moral theologians. In that address he also referenced the doctrine of the Cross of Christ in 1Cor 1:17.

All of the above summary statements are fleshed out in detail earlier in that same chapter.

Allow me to put in a plug for my book, Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality published by Ignatius Press in 2005. It is useful because of its quotations; it also addresses other issues that have been raised again in the light of the ambiguous comments of Pope Francis.

John F. Kippley, February 23, 2016.







Comments are closed.