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Pope Francis Mexico Trip

Pope Muddies the Principle of Double Effect?

Pope Francis Mexico Trip

Pope Francis has put the teleological cat amongst the deontological pigeons. If you are not interested in what is right and what is wrong – don’t read on. If you are, and the words in italics are not clear to you, read on: all will be clear by the end of the post. I hope.

Natural Law, a usual way for Roman Catholics to make ethical decisions, draws on the philosophy of Aristotle. Natural Law is a deontological ethical-decision-making theory; that means it is not concerned with consequences of actions, but an action is good (in and of itself – without reference to guessed consequences) when it conforms to the intention seen in creation.

Humanae vitae is the 1968 definitive teaching on the use of contraceptives by Pope Paul VI. If you are of the opinion that Humanae vitae is infallible (note, that would be your fallible opinion) then that sort of ends discussion. The only odd thing being that the document Humanae vitae itself certainly is presents itself at arriving at its conclusions by logic rather than by Divine Revelation. The logical track it follows is the Natural Law path. That the theologians and bishops on the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control established by Paul VI’s predecessor, Pope John XXIII, (and which Paul VI had expanded) arrived at an opposing conclusion to Paul VI’s would point to discussion being open within the Natural Law framework.

Now to the “Principle of Double Effect”. This is an ethical decision-making principle within the “Natural Law” ethical system and integral within the approach. Natural Law, remember, is not a consequentialist system – it is concerned with an action being right or wrong in and of itself; not with the consequences of the action. So the Principle of Double Effect means you do a right action, but there is a result that your action did not have as the primary intention of achieving. And that is fine.

Example (1): someone is suffering and you increase the morphine to alleviate the suffering. Doing this is good under Natural Law. But the result: the person’s death is hastened. By the Principle of Double Effect this is fine. It is not Euthanasia – it is a secondary effect (hence the term, “Double Effect”) of the primary action: alleviating pain. Example (2): someone has unbearable period pain and only the contraceptive pill alleviates this pain. Doing this is good under Natural Law. But the result: the person is not able to get pregnant. By the Principle of Double Effect this is fine. It is not artificial contraception – it is a secondary effect of the primary action: alleviating pain.

During the press conference on Pope Francis’ flight home from Mexico, he was asked by a reporter about the threat of Zika in many Latin-American countries.

Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain): Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

Pope Francis: Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape…avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

A lot of energy has been expended on disputing the accuracy of the Paul VI story. The story seems to have grown from a conjectural piece in a scholarly article. But I want to underline that Pope Francis (following the question) is not using the Principle of Double Effect at all. These examples are about making ethical decisions based on possible outcomes of actions – what is called a “teleological” (consequentialist) ethical theory.

This approach is called “Proportionalism”, a consequentialist attempt to develop the Natural Law approach. One would have firm moral rules, but take circumstances and intentions into account in deciding on the nature of an act. For example, an act which may appear to be lying (“no there are no rebels being hidden in this house”) is recognised as being more complex to define if there is a proportionate reason which would justify this (these innocent people I am hiding would be killed if discovered). This means that an action may appear to be objectively wrong but is actually morally right, and another action may be objectively right but morally wrong. A person may have a good intention (keeping the innocent rebels alive) but may be able to achieve that intention only through an act which is considered to be, in itself, evil (lying).

Interested readers could explore Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Veritatis Splendor 1993 (especially section 75), and Evangelium Vitae 1995 (68) where he censures Proportionalism but promotes ethics founded on the object of the act (finis operis), the intention of the person performing the act (finis operantis), and the circumstances surrounding the action.

Whether the African nuns story is historically correct or not is a distraction. Pope Francis clearly follows an ethical theory that moves from the purely deontological into the clearly teleological. If systematised, this could be foundational to significant shifts.

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10 thoughts on “Pope Muddies the Principle of Double Effect?”

  1. I also think Francis is asking the question whether all those big words of his expert ethicists mean anything when much of his church ignores Humane Vitae on purely pragmatic grounds. The true “Francis effect”, in the end, will be that he has changed his church’s theory to conform more closely to its practice on the ground and in faraway dioceses.

    1. That certainly seems to be the effect, Peter. It extends further than the clearly en-masse abandonment of the Humanae vitae teaching in country/diocese after country/diocese. And will/may continue to extend into other areas. There has long been a disconnect between teaching and practice that has been greeted with cynicism that is unhelpful when more serious teaching gets caught up in that. This may work to heal that division, allowing core Christian teaching once again to have a better voice. Blessings.

  2. I don’t see there is anything consequentialist or proportionalist in what Pope Francis said and I don’t think this will herald any big shifts on Catholic moral thinking.

    It is a settled question in Catholic moral theology that Humanae Vitae does not apply to rape. Humanae Vitae is framed in terms of conjugal acts – genuine acts of sexual love in marriage and does not cover premarital sex, extramarital sex, rape (including rape in marriage), prostitution etc.

    In catholic moral theology, using contraception is not understood to be intrinsically evil, which is what Pope Francis is saying. The directives by Catholic bishops in the USA, Australia and the UK to Catholic hospitals explicitly allow contraception after rape. Pope Bendict commented favourably on the use of a condom by a male prostitute to limit disease spread.

    What is key here is the (promximate) moral object chosen.


    1. Thanks, Chris. I would like you to demonstrate your contention “It is a settled question in Catholic moral theology that Humanae Vitae does not apply to rape.” I cannot make sense of your statement. Are you suggesting the Vatican would pause a rapist to put on a condom, or that women should be prepared for rape by taking the birth control pill, or that after rape an aborting pill would be acceptable? I find your contention gravely flawed. Blessings.

    2. Thanks Bosco,

      As was pointed out by Bishop Peter Cullinane in a debate over condoms and AIDS in the NZ Catholic newspaper, Humanae Vitae is framed in terms of “conjugal acts” ie genuine acts of sexual love in marriage, which, by definition, excludes all forms of rape.

      This why those articles by eminent Catholic moral theologians over rape in the Congo, Bosnia have never been challenged by Catholic authorities because their view allowing contraception in rape is perfectly consistent with Humanae Vitae.

      To address your questions:


      or that women should be prepared for rape by taking the birth control pill?: THAT WOULD ALSO BE PERFECTLY CONSISTENT WITH HUMANAE VITAE.

      or that after rape an aborting pill would be acceptable? : NO.

      In Catholic moral theology, contraception is not understood to be intrinsically evil.

      Hope this helps.


      1. Thanks, Chris. Can you please provide a copy of the article by Bishop Peter Cullinane – rather than providing your interpretation of what he said and claiming that it supports your opinion. Thanks & blessings.

      1. Thanks, Chris.

        Bishop Peter Cullinane repeats the Congo story, which (see my post) appears to be a fabrication. But even if it were not, there is no intention on the part of the nuns to engage in sexual intercourse – quite the opposite: they vow not to.

        “When the intention really is to prevent a serious infection, the contraceptive effect of a barrier is a side effect, i.e. not the directly intended effect” is simply the Principle of Double Effect. “Lesser of two evils” does not come into it.


  3. I think there is a smidgen of consequentialism tucked away in the current teaching on marriage and birth control — that the sexual act between married persons must be “open” to procreation: this rather subtly shifts away from the pure act to the intention and consequences — not that procreation must result, but that any barrier to it must be ruled out. The means must be directed to specific ends, even if those ends are not realized.

    This current proviso represents a further step towards and “ends” mode of thought; avoiding pregnancy that might lead to the birth of a disabled child. Good observation.

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