A reflection on Amoris Laetitia has been posted on the website of the Pontifical Academy for Life in which its author, a new member of the academy, proposes that the term “intrinsically evil” is outdated.

Hypothesizing on the moral theology of Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis’ principle that “time is greater than space” mentioned in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Professor Gerhard Höver argues that changes in perception, “namely, space and time,” have an “effect on specific theologies, such as the theological view of marriage and the family.”

The professor of moral theology at the University of Bonn, Germany, uses selected writings of St. Bonaventure and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to argue — quoting from Amoris Laetitia — against thinking that everything is “black and white” which results in closing off the “way of grace and of growth.”

He believes that the principle “time is greater than space” relates to an interplay between the eternal and temporal spheres, taking on a “moral-theological significance” that “affects the previous teaching about ‘intrinsically evil actions.’”

“It is not without reason that some have requested further clarification on this point,” he adds, referring to the second of the five dubia which asked the Pope whether, after Amoris Laetitia, one still needs to regard as valid “the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions.”

The Church currently teaches that intrinsically evil acts are always and everywhere wrong and immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. This is because, in part, they do not bring one closer to God, and prevent the common good.

But Höver argues that the term “intrinsically evil” is too restricting as it fails to account for some “regularity” within “irregular” situations, ones which could be allowed if one abides by the principle that ‘time is greater than space.’ “If even only one element is defective, the consequence is ‘badness’ and (in this sense) also ‘irregularity,’” he says.  

“It seems theological reasons lead Pope Francis to refuse to go on accepting this restriction,” Höver continues. “This does not in the least dispute the necessity of calling oppositions and irregularities by their names, above all in cases of injustice and unfairness vis-à-vis other persons. But the Pope regards the path that has been taken hitherto as inadequate to cope with the differentness and complexity of the situations in which people stand or live.”

A moral theologian speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity expressed astonishment that Höver was “digging into obscure references to Ratzinger’s doctoral dissertation on St. Bonaventure, which doesn't discuss intrinsic evil anywhere.”

“Where are the clear statements about the topic in St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the moral teaching of the Church, Veritatis Splendor?” he asked, adding that even if Höver’s thesis were correct, which he “could not admit, he is placing philosophy over the clear teaching of Christ, St. Paul, St. Peter and the entire moral tradition of the Church, not least Ratzinger himself who admits that intrinsic evil exists.”

 

Undermining Morality

Höver’s article is the latest example of a Vatican-appointed figure raising questions about the Church’s teaching on intrinsically evil acts.

In a lecture last month, new academy member and moral theologian Father Maurizio Chiodi partly justified his theory of allowing artificial contraception in some cases because the Pope makes no “explicit reference” to contraception as “intrinsically evil,” and adding that “it would have been very easy to do so given Veritatis Splendor.”

Another new member of the Pontifical Academy, Jesuit Father Alain Thomasset, has said he does not believe in the existence of the term.

Veritatis Splendor states that intrinsically evil acts “do not allow for any legitimate exception,” nor do they “leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the ‘creativity’ of any contrary determination whatsoever.”

The Church teaches that abortion, contraception, homosexual acts, adultery, and other gravely sinful actions are deemed “intrinsically evil.”

Rendering the term obsolete therefore potentially radically changes the Church’s moral teaching, according to the anonymous moral theologian, “undermining the whole notion of morality.”

His concerns are echoed by others as the Church marks 25 years since the publication of Veritatis Splendor and its clear articulation of the Church’s moral teaching on intrinsically evil acts, as well as the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae and its ban on the use of artificial contraception, deeming its use as “intrinsically wrong.”

A spokesman for Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Register Jan. 25 that Höver’s position “does not necessarily correspond to the position of the academy” and that it is normal for the academy to publish abstracts of members’ published works, with links to their full versions. If they publish something the academy fully agrees with, then he said they make that known.

But allowing academy members to publish hypotheses like Höver’s, challenging the Church's moral doctrine and the teaching of previous popes, is something new. In the past, new members had to sign a declaration of fidelity to the Church’s pro-life teachings, but new statutes implemented last year ended that requirement.

In an interview with the Register last year, Archbishop Paglia offered reassurance that the new statutes “require a stronger commitment on the part of members to the Church’s pro-life teaching” and that they “promote and defend the principles of the value of life and the dignity of the person, interpreted in conformity with the magisterium of the Church.”

But last summer, the archbishop oversaw the selection of new members, including Höver, Father Chiodi and Father Thomasset, who clearly have differences with the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life.

Asked if the academy’s leaders were aware of their views before they were selected, the spokesman told the Register “we knew” but added that it was important to provide them “space,” in continuity with “Pope Francis’ preference for dialogue and debate with those holding differing opinions.”

Archbishop Paglia was asked to comment on how these members of the academy reflect a new requirement for a “stronger commitment” to uphold the Church’s pro-life teaching, but he was unavailable.