A Word About the Term ‘Intrinsically Immoral’

I mentioned the term “intrinsically immoral” in my discussions of the death penalty.  Lots of people are confused about that term.  Calling a sin “intrinsically immoral” does not make a sin extra super duper gravely evil.

Let’s back up.  The Church distinguishes grave sins from less serious ones.  Minor sins (or “venial” sins as they sometimes are called) are still sins and still hurt us.  It was, never forget, a minor sin called “stealing an apple” that got the snowball rolling for the whole human race back in the Garden.  By that trivial act, the human race signaled something catastrophic: the rejection of God himself. This is why, in a passage moderns find a bit kooky and obsessive, Augustine dwells at great length on a seemingly minor incident from his youth when he stole some pears. He’s on to something.

Some folks will give away their real attitude toward venial sin by replying “Well, that was different because Adam and Eve directly disobeyed God Almighty with that sin.”

Um, yes.  Because that’s what every sin from stealing apples to killing Cain is. Once the fundamental rejection of the life of God has happened, all the rest of human history is doomed. That’s what Augustine sees and we do not.

When people say things like “little sins don’t matter”, they give away the fact that they don’t really believe venial sin is sin at all and that “real” sin is just the Big Stuff: murder, adultery, grand theft auto, war crimes, etc.  In short, what they give away is their conviction that sin is a matter of keeping rules and observing legalities, not a matter of relationship with God.  But in fact venial sin, embraced and nursed and made a habit of dullness to the voice of God can lead to graver sins just as a scratch, left unattended, can lead to an infection that kills.  So we distinguish between venial and mortal sin because to not do so is crazy (we don’t jail people for twenty years for jaywalking) but we still recognize that venial sin is sin. When the seemingly trivial apple was plucked from the tree, in that very instant, God looked the human race in eye and saw that tragic, nearly imperceptible moment when we stopped having the child’s eyes of open, trusting love. Something glazed over in our gaze and returned to him only a looking cunning, deceit, distrust, alienation and remote distance. The act was small. But the change in us was as if galaxies stood between us and the Divine Love. And when our first parents lost that Life, they lost it for us all. We are all of us born withe a spiritual birth defect: a hole in our souls where the life of God should have been and is not. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. Our brokenness is first expressed in our actions, and then our actions make us and those around us more broken still.

Now, into the mix of both mortal and venial sins, the Church also describes certain sins as “intrinsically immoral”.  Many Catholics have taken that to mean “super duper extra immoral, the worst kind of sin there can be”.  It does not mean that.  A sin can be both intrinsically immoral and yet venial.  So, as we saw several years ago in the Great Lying Debate, the Church teaches that lying–all lying from fibs down to covering up the Holocaust–is “by its very nature” to be condemned (CCC 2485).  There is no such thing as a lie that is not a sin, according to the Church.  But it does not follow that every lie is a grave sin and, in fact, most lies (“No, that dress does not make you look fat”) are venial sins.

Conversely, things that are not intrinsically immoral may nonetheless be grave. Case in point, the death penalty. Again and again, the champions of the death penalty insist that because the death penalty is not intrinsically immoral, it is perfectly fine to make war on the Magisterium’s teaching and call for the execution of prisoners–and this is done despite the fact that, statistically speaking, it means that DP advocates are willing to kill roughly 4 innocent people out of any given pool of 100 condemned prisoners.

Slice that however you like, but when the Church is saying “We don’t *need* to kill any of these people” and you are saying “I don’t care if we kill four innocent people, I just want these other 96 to die so much that I’m willing to commit four human sacrifices to my lust for blood!” I would not be altogether certain of my standing on the Day of Judgment. Especially when our Tradition extends back to the story of God telling Abraham that he would spare Sodom itself if there were just a handful of righteous men there.

The implication (for all non-lawyerly non-rigorists) is obvious: God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and wants mercy, not vengeance for us all. In short, stop asking “When do we *get* to kill?” and start asking, “How can we show mercy wherever possible?” That is, think with the mind of the Church–the mind of Christ–and seek life, mercy and relationship, not technical, legal loopholes to satisfy a desire for death. And do it even–and especially–for those who do not deserve it, since that is what Jesus has done for you, who are guilty of nailing him to the cross.

O my Jesus, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.

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