Evil in Human Guise: Reflections Occasioned by Plan B
It turns out that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius surprised everybody by denying approval for over-the-counter sales of Plan B. Had the petition gone through, it would have removed age restrictions from a drug which either prevents or ends pregnancy when taken shortly after intercourse.
There are a number of issues buried in all this and, as you’ll see, the one that interests me most is the spiritual mystery of how evil infects and occupies the human mind and will. But before examining this more universal aspect of evil, it is necessary to reaffirm that each particular evil must be understood and countered in a specific way. Although I am using Plan B as an occasion for a deeper spiritual reflection, I do not wish to slight this necessity, especially since this is one of those issues which typically reveals a total lack of understanding of how moral reasoning must be done.
Moral Analysis is Critical
This is particularly evident in in the outrage of those who, in opposing the continued restriction on Plan B to adults, claim the moral high ground:
“We are outraged that this administration has let politics trump science,” said Kirsten Moore of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, an advocacy group. “There is no rationale for this move.”
“What else can this be but politics?” said Cynthia Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network, an advocacy group that supports making Plan B available to all ages. “It's not science. It's not medicine. It's not women's health.”
These remarks are laughable, of course, for they presume that science can answer the question of whether it is wise to put any given drug into the hands of girls as young as eleven years old without parental involvement. The presumption is that if a sex-related drug is physically safe for the girl, then its use must be permitted under all circumstances. Never mind that the same girl must have parental permission (signed, sealed and delivered) to go on a school field trip. What might this mean?
What it means is that no further moral analysis is necessary because we have already decided that the complete sexual freedom of the child trumps every other concern except direct and immediate physical harm (and not always that). Since the FDA had determined that younger girls could follow the instructions for proper use of the drug, and that the drug is “safe” (in the sense of not presenting an immediate high statistical chance of physical danger), all other moral analysis is superfluous.
This is why proponents of unrestricted access to Plan B react by dismissing all opposition as merely political. If no moral analysis is necessary, then opponents of Plan B cannot be construed to be doing moral analysis. Nothing communicates their moral emptiness as effectively as dismissing their motivation as “political”.
Science Reveals So Little
But of course, science can tell us very little about these matters and, even if the denial in this case were politically motivated, politics itself usually provides considerably more moral information than science about the advisability of various policies. This is because politics incorporates and considers, in one way or another, all the reasons that happen to be of concern to people in considering a particular course of action. Does anybody really believe that only scientific studies of drug safety are relevant? Of course not. And neither do the advocates of “reproductive rights”, who regularly push for the use of contraceptives and abortifacients which pose health problems that would prevent their approval in any other sphere of medicine.
But while we are on the subject of scientific claims, we might also consider the almost deliberate refusal of the proponents of Plan B to understand and make clear what Plan B actually does. Although the drug has long been marketed with the information that it can be both contraceptive and abortifacient, there is actually some evidence that it is not abortifacient at all (see Plan B: Not an Abortifacient?). To a Catholic, of course, the use of Plan B is both morally wrong and remarkably imprudent even as a contraceptive to facilitate sterile voluntary sexual relations, though a purely contraceptive action would not be immoral in the case of rape. But there is a big difference between contraception and abortion, and it would seem highly relevant to have this question settled more definitively by “science”, since the drug’s advocates constantly emphasize that science knows so much.
Does the drug prevent ovulation? Yes, often. Does it prevent fertilization? We think so, sometimes. Does it prevent implantation in the uterus, thereby ending a human life? Maybe, maybe not. But inquiring minds really do want to know. One would think that the FDA and HHS would want to know too. And this confusion alone leads us to conclude that the quarrel here is not about science, which proponents are content to leave murky, but about rights and duties, opportunities and responsibilities. In a word, morality lies at the heart of this discussion, and it is already verbal sleight of hand to pretend that it does not.
The Mystery of Human Iniquity
Now, at the heart of morality lies virtue, and of course sin. Therefore, what interests me most, as I said, are the spiritual ramifications of all this. We are, after all, talking about a drug which is at least widely believed to take the life of an innocent human person whenever such a person is so unlucky to be on his or her way to implantation in the uterine wall when Plan B is administered.
I grant that it is difficult to work up an emotional attachment to so small a person. But this problem is not limited to abortion. It is operative in many kinds of evil. It is rather like becoming concerned about all those people so far away who die when we Americans invade other countries. Are even pro-life Americans generally concerned enough to take the trouble to morally evaluate these actions? The same question arises when we consider altering our lives because there are huge numbers of children starving in the third world. We do not know any of these people, and we class them easily as morally irrelevant. Who are they to us?
But when we put it like this, is it not immediately obvious that this callousness is a very grave evil, indeed one of the gravest evils imaginable? Clearly we ought never to underestimate our potential for ignoring those to whom we are not emotionally attached. Is it possible for us to live with such a profound disregard for other people that we really cannot interest ourselves in the question of whether they live or die? Does this lead us to be easily fooled into endorsing policies based, by default, on what is most convenient for ourselves? Of course, it is not that we particularly want to murder other people, or even to let them die when we might prevent it. No, it is simply that we do not know them, and they have the misfortune of being irrelevant to our own purposes. Their existence does not signify.
All of suggests that it is fairly difficult for us to avoid imprisonment in our own subjectivity when we attempt to perceive the reality of evil. For, in fact, every objective evil is a lack of a due good that cries out to be supplied. Moreover, it is our first spiritual priority to bring our internal dispositions into alignment with the objective order, with reality itself. Some succeed in doing this better than others, but most of us presume that we always do this when, in fact, very few actually work at doing it, and none of us does it perfectly.
I have introduced several issues—contraception, abortion, war, hunger, and even slavery in one place below—not because they are the only possible moral issues (far from it) and certainly not because they are all the same, for the moral criteria necessary to address them are in each case significantly different. Rather, I have introduced them precisely because the confused and even underhanded motivations which lead to their acceptance are also different, and these respective confusions and motivations seem to afflict different kinds of people. Using terminology common in the West, for example, conservatives and liberals seem to both embrace and ignore different portions of the objective moral order. Yet as with Plan B, the elucidation of every moral problem is very important; each of us ought to examine moral questions carefully, taking nothing for granted, seeing past the rhetoric, and appraising things at their true value.
But, again, we often fail to do so. Moreover, this failure is frequently so total as to escape our notice. We do not even realize that we have failed! And it is precisely this blissful ignorance of ourselves which enables grave, objective evil to become normal. Our own reluctance to see, which constantly reinforces an injured and weakened personal subjectivity, simply prevents us from recognizing the full extent of the objectively monstrous moral distortions which surround us.
How, after all, is it possible for ordinary Christians to own slaves? How can self-proclaimed humanists support abortion? How can pro-life advocates (among whom I include myself and most of my readers) ignore the pressing moral questions raised by military conflict and endemic poverty? How is it possible for nice people of every kind to eat well while doing nothing at all for those who are starving? These are all variations on the question of how an objectively monstrous callousness can become for each one of us something as normal as breathing.
Even if we insist on exempting ourselves from such questions (a damning choice), it remains inescapably true that whole peoples, in various times and places in history, become inured to many endemic evils, and for no better reason than that they take them for granted as necessary if they are to continue to live in what they conceive as a “normal” manner. Sometimes the evils are relatively removed, in that those in question really do not encounter them in their normal rounds. For most Americans, this is true of extreme hunger. But sometimes, yes even in our own lives, evils can be very close at hand, yet we simply do not see them, or perhaps—even unknown to ourselves—we refuse to see them.
Such evils, so damning to both our culture and our own personal habits, simply do not signify. They are scarcely noticed. In another time and place they will be justly condemned. But right now they are simply normal.
The Mercy of God
This normality has an important yet paradoxical corollary. No matter how objectively monstrous certain moral evils become, we are in some sense protected by our very subjectivity from truly becoming monsters ourselves. More paradoxically still, one of the main reasons that this is so—one of the main reasons most of us, despite our sins, cannot be dismissed as mere spiritual monsters—is found in the mercy of God.
God permits our intellects to be darkened and our wills to be weakened by sin in general, and especially by our own initial sins as we turn away from some good. This darkening and weakening is far more pronounced when certain habits of blindness and sin become inculturated, thereby minimizing the potential ability of contrary moral stimuli to penetrate our hearts and minds. Thus we become, in a certain sense, victims of our own culpable ignorance, or even of our own adherence to preconceived ideas or mental frameworks. The result is that, as we continue in evil, we generally become progressively less and less guilty.
The theologian William Most, in his monumental study of Grace, Predestination and the Salvific Will of God (see my review Difficult Theology and the Goodness of God), explains this point as follows:
Now we can see both mercy and justice here. The fact that the man is losing light is justice; he has earned that. But at the same time, what he does not understand at the time of acting can lower his culpability. He may lose even the ability to see some doctrinal truths. Yes, there is a responsibility taken on at the start of the decline, when and if the person sees himself declining, and consents to it. But at the later times of acting, responsibility may be diminished. (p. 671)
For exactly this reason, a person may not really will the monumental evil of abortion, of slavery, of unjust war, of needless starvation, and so on. He is very likely guilty in some way, and even at least partially responsible for his own blindness and hardness. But he is also very often spared the temptation to fully will a grave evil for a very simple reason: He does not perceive the evil. And so, in many cases—and probably in most cases—those guilty of even monstrous evil are not monsters. They are merely (like even the best of us to a lesser degree) confused, weak, selfish and wrong.
The War Against Evil
Please do not misunderstand me. The monstrosity of objective evil remains. God really does abhor it utterly, and He calls us to correct it. This is so true, in fact, that God’s justice demands a rebalancing of the objective order so that His goodness will in fact prevail. This is embedded deeply in Scripture, as may be seen, for example, in the Hebrew concept of sedaqah, or moral rectitude, as applied to God Himself. In another work—the appendix to his brilliant commentary on St. Paul (see my review What Does it Mean to Be Saved?)—Fr. Most goes on to illuminate God’s incomparable concern for the objective moral order:
We have surveyed the usages of sedaqah, as reflected in the Old Testament, in Intertestamental Literature, in the New Testament, in the Rabbis, and in the Fathers of the Church. We have found that one of the most dominant concepts underlying many things is the idea that God’s Holiness is concerned with the moral order, with what is morally right. This appears in His conferring benefits. It appears also in His punishing. His Holiness wills that the moral order be righted if it is violated: for sin is viewed widely as a debt. (p. 301)
Like all debts, the debt of sin must be paid. There are several ways by which God ensures that this payment is made, and so balances the moral order. Punishment for sin, both here and hereafter, is certainly one of them. But we all know the chief means of payment: It is the infinite sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son. By this great sacrifice, the Father binds Himself to provide great grace to all men, not only accepting the payment but willing that we be transformed in goodness so that we may be united with Him. The Father so vehemently wills our salvation that he offers to impenetrate us with grace again and again, and He reprobates only those who persistently resist this universal salvific will.
But there is even more. There is what St. Paul referred to when he said: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). God wills to incorporate us so fully in His plan for salvation as to permit us, unworthy servants though we are, to contribute to the rebalancing of the objective order, and to merit even more grace for the conversion, if possible, of even the most hardened sinners—even those whom the rest of us would dismiss as mere monsters, but whom our Father will always love.
The Christian Call
God’s justice and His mercy are in Him always the same. They are differentiated only by us, because we cannot grasp their operations fully any more than we can see the full enormity of our sins. Apart from doing our best to combat the evils we see, then, how are we to respond spiritually to evil as a whole, and to the many grave sinners with whom we are surrounded, and by whom we are beset?
First, we must recognize that even saints sin. Moreover, even the holiest among us have only limited self-knowledge. In fact, you and I are even at the present moment guilty of sins that we do not even perceive as sins. So we must make our own the prayer of the Psalmist:
The ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! (Ps 19:9-13)
Second, we must seek not only to correct the sinner but win grace for him, to make up with St. Paul what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Here we have the age-old Catholic understanding of the need for joyful acceptance of our own trials, for penance and for reparation.
Nor is this just for others. This is how goodness seeps into our very bones, purifying our inclinations, clarifying our perceptions, and bringing our own subjectivity into line with objective moral reality. Prayer and penance are of supreme value not only in atoning for but in eliminating our own blindness and habitual ignorance of deep truths—our own failure to see and to respond morally.
God hates sin. Everything written here should underscore that point. Yet we must also realize that we do not see as God sees; indeed, we continue to need His help to see at all. If we have been blessed, then, we must be the first to recall the parable of the talents (Mt 25, Lk 19) and to recognize that we are all under the same sentence (Lk 23:40). Our role, then, is to demonstrate not that sinners are monsters but that they are loved. We are called to prove anew in our own lives the very greatness of our Faith. Saint Paul explained what this means:
Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5:20-21)
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Posted by: extremeCatholic -
May. 27, 2018 12:43 PM ET USA
I think it's helpful to add the Church has been on the losing side of every contested battle in the culture wars since 1956. I get it's not about "winning", but 62 years is quite a losing streak when it comes to the renewal of the temporal order.
Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
May. 21, 2018 3:44 PM ET USA
A brilliant, comprehensive, and subtle essay. More subtle than the Boniface VIII quote. However authoritative it might be when contextualized or parsed, as it is given, it tempts one to retort that a pontiff may also sin.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
May. 18, 2018 7:05 PM ET USA
Reminds of the much-abused declaration of Boniface VIII: "It is absolutely necessary for the salvation of all human creatures that they submit to the Roman pontiff" (DH 875). Five months prior when accused of asserting direct power over kings, he said: "For 40 years We have been experienced in the law, and We know that 2 powers have been ordained by God. ...We wish to usurp the jurisdiction of a king in nothing...A king or any other person among the faithful...is subject to us by reason of sin."