Welcome new readers! And Welcome EVERYONE to the first official post of 2020.
Here’s a good ol’ fashioned #QuidquidQuestion!
Steve, via email, asks a fascinating set of questions concerning the ranking of moral evils. The questions come from a discussion comparing the evils of the current sexual abuse scandal in the Church with the historical evil of executing supposed witches by Puritans. The conversation moved to a discussion of which evil was worse. This led to a thought on the part of Steve:
Evil acts are evil acts, but shoplifting of a candy bar (an evil act) is not on par with the acts mentioned in the listed conversation.
And then two questions:
1) Can evil be quantified/qualified?
2) Is the evil of the current church scandal the equivalent of burning witches or other such immoral actions?
Here are some thoughts in response.
First, let us assume that the actions of the sexually abusive priests and the Puritan executioners were true sins, not just evil acts.
Evil acts are merely actions which are neither good nor neutral; they are evil either in themselves (intrinsically evil actions), in intention (the reason the person is doing the action) or in the circumstances (something about the context of the action makes it an evil action). Intrinsically evil actions are never just, or good, actions; these include things like murder, which can never be justified by intentions of the doer or the circumstances of the murder.
However, even a good or neutral act could be done wrongly or “evilly.” For example, someone with a sizable income could donate money to a charity in order to make someone else look bad. In that situation, we have a good act (donating money) + good circumstances (donations to a good cause, which don’t bankrupt the donor) + bad intention (using charity as a way to harm another person’s reputation) = a bad act.
Another example might be a stay-at-home mom who prays the Divine Office daily, with the intention of growing closer to God. These are a good act with a good, even holy, intention. However, if the mother neglects her duties towards her family as a result of her praying, this would actually be a bad action (“evil”) because of the circumstances.
That is what moral theologians mean by saying an act is morally bad or evil. We discussed this in a prior post laying the groundwork for a high school-aged discussion on sexual ethics.
Whether someone is guilty of a sin or not depends on whether or not the person
- a) knew that their action was evil, and
- b) had full consent in performing the action.
Let’s look at the shoplifting, which Steve brings up in his question. Someone could steal a candy bar from a convenience store on purpose, knowing that stealing is wrong, but choosing to do it anyway. In that case, such a thief is guilty of the sin of stealing. If, however, the person did not know that stealing is wrong (perhaps he was never taught that stealing was wrong), or if he was forced to steal the candy bar (perhaps his life or someone he cares for is in danger), then he would not be guilty of the sin.
This DOES NOT make stealing a good action, but it does lesson or even remove the guilt that thief might have for stealing the candy.
This brings us to the question: Can evil be quantified or qualified? In a sense, yes. As I mentioned above, there are actions which are, in themselves, always evil; good circumstances and intentions cannot make them good acts. These actions, thus, are more evil than other actions. The horrific murders committed by Jack the Ripper are in a different category of evil than the teen who steals a candy bar from the store, or a man who is envious of another man’s nice new car.
While all three of these actions are sins, if done with full understanding of the evil and with full consent of the will, the murders are far worse than shoplifting or envy.
Again, as with our discussion of guilt, this DOES NOT make shoplifting or envying others a good or acceptable action. Just because there are eviler actions one could do does not make lesser sins not sins. Sins are sins.
That said, the Church distinguishes between mortal and venial sins, or, to use the language of 1 John 5, between “deadly” sin and “not deadly” sins. Murdering five women in Victorian England would be a mortal sin. Shoplifting a candy bar would still be a sin, but it would more likely be a venial sin.
What of the comparison between burning witches and the current sex abuse crisis in the Church? These are two different types of evil. I am going to get into how they differ in a second, but I want to be very, very clear: THESE WERE BOTH EVIL ACTIONS. Whether the Puritans or priests are guilty is not for me to judge (although I will have something to say about that below). Even if the Puritans or the priests were, in a sense, not-guilty for these actions, that would not make the actions good, or even neutral.
Regarding Witch Trials: One could argue that those who called for and encouraged the burning of witches in Europe and the American colonies were not guilty of the sin of murder against the “witches” executed. I say this because the circumstances or intentions of the people involved may have lessened their guilt (again, this is not saying the “witches’” deaths were good things). The people who witnessed against the “witches” may have been forced or uninformed of what was happening. The prosecutors may have thought that they were defending the common good of society; just as a murderer or a traitor endangered the common good, so also, the standard argument went, did witches. There were shocking flaws in the way the witch trials progressed; some of that was by design, others unintentional because of the hysteria surrounding the trials.
In other words, a lack of full consent, unclear circumstances, and good intentions may have lessened the guilt of those involved. Should they have done the trials? No, and I think that clearer heads could have prevailed if the court system was more structured and balanced.
This isn’t the place to talk about the Medieval or Spanish Inquisitions, but there is a reason why such hysteria did not erupt in places like Spain or in Medieval France (where the Inquisition was strong). The Inquisition structure allowed more vetting for cases, and sensational accusations were not allowed. If evidence of heresy could not be produced, then the inquisitors threw out the case.
Regarding Sexual Abuse by Clergy: Honestly, I have a very hard time coming up with the same type of rational for diminished guilt that I laid out above for the Puritans. At least the Puritans could say they were defending the common good of society, that there was a potential spiritual danger, theoretically, in someone infecting the community through Satanic communications. Evil should be eradicated from our lives, and societies should work to order themselves to the common good, so that people can reach their ends as human persons.
What of abusive priests and those who defended, transferred, and hid them?
I do not see the same sort of justification. Worst, of course, would be the abusers themselves, who abused the victims, the sacrament of Holy Orders, and the trust of the faithful. Bishops and those in ecclesial authority that covered up the abuses likewise abused; while their abuse was non-sexual in nature, their abuse of power, authority, and the trust of the faithful was, likewise, scandalous.
Those that protected abuser priests, like the Puritan witch hunters, could appeal to protection of the common good as an explanation for their actions. However, what aspect of the common good did they seek to defend? It would appear that they sought to avoid scandalizing the faithful, as if to keep the image of a morally perfect priest would protect the integrity of the Church. In that process, in making a deal with predatory priests, they allowed the evil to grow and fester. In doing so, they inadvertently broke the confidence they sought to protect.
In many cases, bishops, et al. trusted the opinions of the psychotherapists rather than their own theological training and traditions. Perhaps they thought, like many today, that depravity is a matter of psychological failings, rather than spiritual evil. Perhaps, if they had acted with more vigor, with zeal like those in Salem, balanced with the reason of the Church’s tradition, then we could have avoided the scandals. Perhaps the evil would have been blotted out before it spread like a virus throughout our Church.
PRAYERS! We are called to pray for those who have done evil, both to us and to others. In light of that perennial teaching of the Church, please continue to pray (or begin to pray) for those who hunted witches, who were victims of their hunts, for those who do seek in evil a way to live their life. Please continue to pray (or start to pray) for priests who committed the evils of abuse in any shape and form, but especially those who sexually abused those under their care. Pray for their victims and for the Church.
Bring all of these prayers to Christ crucified, who died for both abuser and their victims, for witch hunters and their prey. May all of us be open to the graces He provides to all of us each day.
For Further Reading
Robert Barron, Letter to a Suffering Church resource site.
Tim Staples, “Mortal and Venial Sins?”
Jess Blumberg, A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials
Thomas Aquinas, “On Mortal and Venial Sin” (Summa Theologiae I.II, Q. 88).