There is a curious and intriguing passage in the third chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which in the context of the missive seems almost tossed-off, but which has proven to be a cornerstone of Catholic moral theology for the past two thousand years. Responding to some of his critics, Paul says, “And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ Their condemnation is deserved” (Rom. 3:8)! One might formulate Paul’s somewhat convoluted statement as follows: we should never do evil that good might come of it.
There are indeed truly wicked people who seem to take delight in doing evil for its own sake. Aristotle called them vicious, or in extreme cases, “beast-like.” But most of us who do bad things typically can find a justification for our behavior through appealing to a good end that we were hoping through our action to achieve. “I’m not really proud of what I did,” I might say to myself, “but at least it brought about some positive consequences.” But the Church, following the prompt of St. Paul, has consistently frowned on this manner of thinking, precisely because it opens the door to moral chaos. Concomitantly, it has recognized certain acts—slavery, adultery, the sexual abuse of children, the direct killing of the innocent, etc.—as “intrinsically evil”—which is to say, incapable of being justified through appeal to motivation, extenuating circumstances, or consequences. So far, so obvious.
But this principle has come to my mind recently, not so much in regard to the moral acts of individuals, but to the moral assumptions that seem to be guiding much of our society. I might suggest that a sea-change occurred in 1995 with the trial of O.J. Simpson. I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of reasonable people would concur that Simpson committed the terrible crimes of which he was accused, and yet he was exonerated by a jury of his peers and vehemently supported by large segments in our society. How can we explain this anomaly? The exculpation of O.J. Simpson was justified, in the minds of many, because it was seen as contributing to the solution of the great social ill of the racial profiling and persecution of African Americans by the Los Angeles police department in particular and police officers across the country in general. Allowing a guilty man to go free and allowing a gross injustice to remain unaddressed were, at the very least, tolerated, because it appeared they conduced to some greater good.
The O.J. Simpsonization of our legal thinking was on gross display much more recently in the sad case of Cardinal George Pell. Once again, given the wild implausibility of the charges and the complete lack of any corroborating evidence, reasonable people were bound to conclude that Cardinal Pell should never have been brought to trial much less convicted. And yet Pell was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, and a later appeal confirmed the original conviction. How could we possibly explain this disconnect? Many in Australian society, legitimately outraged at the abuse of children by priests and the subsequent cover-up by some in ecclesial authority, felt that the imprisonment of Cardinal Pell would somehow address this overarching issue. So once again, in violation of Paul’s principle, evil was done that good might come of it.
The same problem is evident in regard to sexual aggression against women. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein situation and the subsequent #MeToo movement, no serious person doubts that numerous women have been unconscionably mistreated by powerful men and that this abuse is a cancer on the body politic. Therefore, in order to achieve the good of solving this problem, men are sometimes accused, harassed, effectively condemned without investigation or trial. To show that I have no partisan axe to grind here, I will draw attention to the treatment of both Justice Brett Kavanaugh and, in recent days, former Vice President Joe Biden. The thinking seems, again, to be that the righting of a general wrong justifies morally irresponsible behavior in particular cases.
The prevalence of this moral consequentialism in our society is supremely dangerous, for the moment we say that evil can be done for the sake of the good, we have effectively denied that there are any intrinsically evil acts, and the moment we do that, the intellectual support for our moral system gives way automatically. And then the furies come. A very instructive example of the principle is the Terror that followed the French Revolution. Since there had been (undoubtedly) tremendous injustices done to the poor by the aristocratic class in eighteenth-century France, anyone perceived to be an enemy of the revolution was, without distinction or discrimination, swept to the guillotine. If innocents died alongside the guilty, so be it—for it served the building of the new society. I believe that it is no exaggeration to say that Western society has yet fully to recover from the moral chaos visited upon us by the lethal consequentialism of that time.
Therefore, even as we legitimately fight the great social evils of our time, we must remember Paul’s simple but trenchant principle: never do evil that good might come of it.
©Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Bishop Barron is a #1 Amazon bestselling author and has published numerous books, essays, and articles on theology and the spiritual life.
If you can make it through the night, there’s a brighter day… Everything will be alright if you hold on to Him. Panic Stricken When the pandemic rolled in, it upended our lives, our homes and our reality like a hurricane. Suddenly — Six Feet Apart; Wash your Hands; Stay Home, and Steer Clear of Everyone became the mantras of the day. We became afraid of the future, the person passing by, or the scratchy throat we feel first thing in the morning. Do I have Covid-19? Does my husband? Is it in my home? Fear and anxiety took the centre stage as people whispered, ‘You will get sick and die alone, without your family around you. You will not be able to feed your family or pay the bills.” Updates on the latest restrictions and predictions of death figures filled our newsfeeds, ramping up our panic as we reeled under the weight of the invisible doom threatening us from all sides. ‘We will get through this’; ‘We are all in this together’, we were told, but where is God? Why did all this happen? Indescribable Anguish Many years ago, I was overcome by fear and panic as I was plunged deep into an indescribable anguish. A paediatric neurologist told my husband and me that our three and a half year old son would die from a rare disease and that there was nothing we could do about it. His words shattered me. They drove me into the depths of despair and they drove me to my knees, begging God for the life of my son. Desperate for prayers, miracles and hope, I sought the counsel of our local priest who advised me that I would learn to pray and teach my family how to pray. It was not the consolation I was looking for. Hope against All Hope My husband and I sought out the best specialist in the world for this particular disease. She bluntly told us, “We don’t know the cause, so there is no cure, but I will try to help you.” My son was admitted into a large children’s hospital in Chicago— two thousand miles from our home where our trials continued. One day my son passed out after he was stabbed with a needle over and over again in a botched attempt to put in an IV line. As I sank to the floor sobbing, a woman reached down to pull me up. Her eyes were full of love and compassion as she enquired, “Did you eat your breakfast this morning? Did you put on your makeup?” I stared at her in disbelief. Was she kidding? “No”. “What is your son’s ailment,” she asked. When I told her, she said, “Good, you have hope” then she pulled back the curtain to reveal a boy of about 12 in the next bed. “That’s my son Charles. He has a double brain tumour. They just operated on him, but couldn’t remove it. The operation took away his ability to speak.” “What are they going to do?” I gasped. “Nothing. They have given him two months to live” she revealed. I was shocked, but she continued, “I get up every morning and I put my make up on and eat my breakfast, not for me but for that young boy right there and I pray ‘Thank you Jesus that I have my son Charles today. That’s all that matters.’” I was speechless. She had no hope yet she was hopeful. I had hope but I was a wreck. Over the next eight days, I watched her go from room to room, bringing joy and hope as she checking on other suffering families. It was unbelievable. How could she do that while her son lay mute in his hospital bed where my son talked to him incessantly about Star Wars? Going through the Fiery Furnace After returning home with a plan to surgically implant a port for infusions three times a week and an appointment to return to Chicago to see his doctor, my husband sent Charles a signed Gator football hat, since we had discovered Charles loved the Gators. Sadly, we never heard back from Charles or his mom. When our son finally began to improve, I stayed on my knees. Our past dreams and ambitions had all disappeared. We stayed on tenterhooks watching our son get better, relapse, get better, relapse. Again and again, up and down, watching, waiting, praying, hoping. About two years later, as we once again stood in the hospital corridor waiting for blood results, I heard my name. Whirling around, I was delighted to see Charles and his mother! He ran up to our son, picked him up and twirled him around saying, “I couldn’t talk to you then, but I can talk to you now.” She looked at me with tears glistening in her eyes as she declared, “He’s not number one on the basketball team and he’s not a straight A student, but Thank You Jesus. I have my Charles today and that’s all that matters.” Even a double brain tumour was not big enough to stop the will of God! As I marvelled at her faith, I heard the words of scripture, Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:28-31 My son was not supposed to make it to 4 years old, but he did. And then he went to kindergarten, then middle school, and then he graduated from high school. Today he is at the tail end of a doctorate program and is a theologian. He has been sick off and on his whole life and I have been on my knees off and on my whole life. The priest was right. Suffering has kept me in prayer and taught me how small I am, how little control I have and what really matters. My life is not the life I intended but looking back I see that so many blessings came about because of the suffering. It tenderized my heart and revealed to me that no matter what comes, with God’s help, I will make it through. I will continue to thank Jesus for all that comes, knowing that no matter how hopeless things may appear, I can trust in God’s goodness to care for my family and for me.
Looking for beauty that never fades? Then this is for you! Mark Twain, the celebrated American writer and humorist, once said “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Humor aside, we all know that it is not easy to deal with aging no matter who we are. And for the rich and famous, it is especially challenging to watch youth and beauty fade away. Flying High As a teenager in the early 1960s Mary Ann was beautiful, charming and full of energy. When she saw Dolores Hart’s film “Come Fly with Me” in 1963, she was fascinated by the status and privilege of the globetrotting stewardesses who were the movie’s main characters. The film glorified the glamor, prestige and adventure of being a stewardess. She started dreaming of being like Dolores Hart’s character traveling the world seeking romance and excitement. Landing a job as a stewardess in those days was difficult. But Mary Ann was smart and beautiful and soon got that dream job. TWA, in those days, was one of the most prestigious international airlines and Mary Ann was soon featured in the company’s Skyliner magazine and got lots of attention. Eventually, she found more success after switching careers to publishing and journalism. She enjoyed the attention she received and maintained an active lifestyle. By the time she hit fifty, she started noticing wrinkles on her face. They horrified her. How could she remain who she was without her beauty and youthful smile? Meeting the Abbess A close friend noticed the change in Mary Ann’s mood. When they talked, Mary Ann confessed her concern over the aging process. Her friend recommended that she meet someone special at the nearby Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Cloistered Convent located in Bethlehem, Connecticut. On the day of the meeting, her friend introduced Mary Ann to the Prioress, Mother Dolores Hart. Mary Ann quickly noticed the resemblance between the Prioress and the actress she adored in that 60’s movie. Mother Dolores assured her that she was the same Dolores! Mary Ann could not believe that the favorite actress of her teen years was the Mother Superior of a convent, and a cloistered convent at that! In their private time together, Mary Ann told Mother Dolores about the pain of growing old and how the thought of losing her beauty and charm terrified her. Here was Mary Ann speaking with a woman who, before joining the convent was a prominent actress throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Not only had she received the Theatre World Award and a Tony Award nomination, she was the first actress to kiss Elvis Presley on screen. She had grown up near Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood dreaming of becoming a movie star. Her dream came true, but God had other plans. Out of the Limelight In the early 1960s, Dolores performed at the Broadway theaters in New York City. During a long break, she did not have a house to go to like other actors who lived in the area. A friend told her about an Abbey in Connecticut which included guest quarters, in compliance with the rule of St. Benedict. Dolores decided to stay at this Abbey with its cloistered convent. She was fascinated by how the sisters worked hard and yet remained so gracious. Her stay in the Abbey captivated her so much that she knew she would return soon! Eventually, Dolores recognized a calling to religious life and abandoned her career, her engagement to her fiancée, and the life she had known in order to embrace life in a cloistered convent. A Lesson for Life As Mary Ann listened to this story, she was totally absorbed. Mother Dolores told her that, at the height of her career, she looked at the mirror one day and realized that her fame had come because of her beauty and youthfulness, but those good looks would soon fade. She came to understand that the only beauty which lasts is inner beauty. Mary Ann left that conversation with a new perspective on life. Though still a beautiful woman, it was Sister Dolores’ inner beauty that radiated from her. The body is a temple for the soul, so when we care for the beauty of the soul, that inner beauty is reflected on the face and in all our actions.
When I look into the future, I am frightened, But why plunge into the future? Only the present moment is precious to me. As the future may never enter my soul at all. It is no longer in my power, To change, correct, or add to the past; For neither sages nor prophets could do that. And so, what the past has embraced I must entrust to God. O present moment you belong to me, whole and entire. I desire to use you as best as I can Although I am weak and small, You grant me the grace of Your omnipotence. And so, trusting n Your mercy, I walk through life like a little child, Offering you each day this heart Burning with love for your greater glory.
When it is hot and humid, cold and windy, or during an epidemic, people often resort to expressions like: How unbearable the heat! How piercing the cold! What a tragedy! Is this the right way to deal with situations that are beyond our control? Saint Alphonsus Ligouri in his book, “Uniformity with God’s Will”, narrates an incident that happened in the life of Saint Francis Borgia: Late one night Father Francis Borgia arrived unexpectedly at a Jesuit house during a snow storm. He knocked several times on the door but to no avail. They were all asleep. In the morning all in the community were greatly distressed and embarrassed to know that he had to spend the whole night in the open. Father Francis comforted them saying that he enjoyed the greatest consolation during those long hours of the night by imagining that the Lord was showering snowflakes upon Him from Heaven. Saints are full of imagination! How often have we lamented over natural weaknesses of body or mind? If only I had a brilliant mind, or a more robust body, I would have done wonders. But perhaps if I were more talented, athletic or attractive, I may have lost my soul! Great talent and knowledge have caused many to be puffed up with the idea of their own importance and, in their pride, they have despised others. How easily those who have these gifts may fall into sin and gravely endanger their salvation! On the contrary, how many who suffer poverty, infirmity or physical deformity have become saints! Let us be content with what God has given us. Only one thing is necessary and it is not beauty, not strength, not talent. It is the salvation of the immortal soul.
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