Past Morality and Future Morality

This might be sort of a weird question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I hope someone can enlighten me. In the history of the Church there have been a few revisions of moral teaching: I don’t want to say changes because I’m told that doesn’t happen, but certainly revisions. I don’t want to get too deeply into specific examples because they are not what I’m trying to arrive at, but as an example I would say that in the past some popes did not explicitly teach one way or the other about whether slavery was intrinsically evil, and some popes have felt that certain types of slavery were okay, and most of society generally agreed on that point, and unless I’m misreading paragraph eighty of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor, without qualification he asserts that slavery is among those acts which are “intrinsically evil,” and ‘“incapable of being ordered” to God.’

If you would quibble with my example, please consider whether you yourself know of any acts which the Church has historically either taken part in or did not approve nor disapprove of until a certain bull, encyclical, synod, council, &c was written or took place that explicitly deemed the act evil. If none come to mind, then my question will not be hard to answer.

My question is whether in the present there may in theory still be certain acts that even popes consider some forms of to be okay, or even the Church takes part in, and yet will be discovered to be without qualification intrinsically evil in the future, or, as of September, 2013, whether all intrinsically evil acts have been ferreted out for what they are.

I want to be clear that I do not mean the Church or the popes approve of the acts in spite of knowledge to the contrary, but because of the same reason as past approval of, or neutrality towards, acts that later it was determined were intrinsically evil.

I think predicting the future is not a worthy pursuit. In the past, the Church was confronted by various heretical ideas, such as Arianism, and a list of others. Jesus Christ fixed certain ideas about morality in the Bible and being the Son of God, he tells us Moses wrote concerning him.

The primary problem, based on simple observation, is that too many people believe in a force called change. In the area of morality, there are many easy to find examples of concerted attempts to corrupt the masses which the Church did address. Since, as the thinking goes, everything changes, including morality, and will continue to change, it ignores a basic truth. I think I can write with some confidence that since we can still enjoy and understand Greek plays written 2000 years ago today, I submit that man has not changed in the last 2000 years. Were there problems that needed to be addressed over the centuries? Yes, but one needs to look at both sides of the coin. Did the Church, for example, institute slavery?

I think an extreme desire for novelty drives some to look at good and bad as neutral ideas. Everything must be sampled. But do I need to burn my hand on a hot stove after being told it was hot and that getting burned was the outcome?

The Church also has to contend with dissidents within its ranks, as well as those outside. To quote from a movie, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” And I’ll expand on that by saying, some wish to see boredom disappear to be replaced by whatever. I saw a comment on the internet about something that had become legal. One person’s response was: “That’s legal now!? Darn. Now I’m going to have to find something else to protest.”

Human life, as lived by most of us, is not dramatic. It is a predictable series of general events that involve work, relaxation, finding a mate, or not, service to others, and dealing with getting older. That’s it. Regardless of how exciting some think their lives are, we ALL have to pay the bills, maintain our car, and pay taxes. This commonality of experience is sometimes ignored, including in moral situations. Perhaps without realizing it, if we can’t have shared values and common approaches toward dealing with life, then whatever the anarchists are yelling about at the moment becomes that change they can’t live without, followed a few weeks later by change demanded by some other group. Social engineering that is simply based on the thoughts of the few usually does not work at every level of society.

C’mon, give it a try! With no standard by which to measure against, some will. But if there is a standard, then most will just say no to most experiments.


Maybe the title I gave this thread is a misnomer, but I’m not so much asking anyone to predict the future (which would be a lot to ask!) as I am asking that they consider the present situation: is it theoretically possible, not necessarily true, that as of this writing, the Church either approves of or is neutral towards an act that in reality is intrinsically evil?

I’m fairly certain that in the past the Church approved of or was neutral towards certain evil acts–again not consciously, of course–that it now disapproves of unequivocally. Is it at all possible in principle that the Church currently either approves of or is neutral towards what is objectively an intrinsically evil act?

The only reason I brought up the future was that I assumed if anyone answered “yes,” they’d most likely feel optimistic that it was only a matter of time until the Church recognized and warned against the hypothetical, currently unknown, evil act. Do disregard that aspect of my question if it damages the clarity; it isn’t the important part.

:hmmm: The example you brought is interesting, let’s see what the Church had to deal with.

In antiquity during the time of the OT there was 2 types of slavery. The one practiced by the “gentiles” and the one practiced by the Israelites. Major differences.

The gentiles would obtain “slaves” either through war or by commercial transaction.
and example of the first is when the Assirians conquered Israel they took Jerusalem’s inhabitants as slaves and drove them to Babilon.
On the other hand Joseph the son of Isaac was sold into slavery and ended up in Egipt.

The Israelites meanwhile had a different approach to “Slavery” for them it was more like indetured work. That is someone had debts that could not pay and therefore gave the only thing of value it had. This was regulated by contract and the “owner” HAD to release “the slave” after 7 years.
Also and differently from the gentiles who could dispose of the life of the slaves without repercussions, the Israelites could not mistreat those who were “slaves”.
In fact since the time of Abraham they were considered part of the family. And sometimes the “slaves” themselves would prefer to remain in “slavery” because they had a much better life under their “master”.

When the Church was born, this was the landscape.
Most of the slavery the Church had to contend with in the Roman empire, was the “gentiles” variety.
And when possible the Church taught that it would be morally wrong to harm someone that was a slave and when possible freedom should be afforded to them.
How can you account for the disappearence of slavery in Europe?

The west “rediscovered” slavery after the discovery and colonization of the Americas. Cheap labor as the incentive, the colonizers of the new world turned to slave runners that took African natives that provided them slaves.
Interestingly maybe should be noted that in Islam slavery was practiced quite commonly.
And many of the primary sources of African slaves, where precisely muslim slave traders.
Also interestingly the main western slave traders were the Dutch and the English.
The Church has always condemned the mistreatment of slaves.
So from this I hope you will see that there is NO such “change” in morals.
Did the Church have any control over the process of slave aquisition by the Romans or the Dutch?

Nope they did not. Also it is very important to distinguish between the teaching of the Magisterium and what some lost soul may or may not have declared during his lifetime.
You and me and even a Bishop can make a mistake. That does noo mean that the Church is bound by our mistakes.

In the end, I hope you will realize that we can be assured, that as in the past, the Church that Jesus founded, will not change the tenets of basic morality. Even when pressured to do so by the surrounding culture.

I agree with the OP, it may be interesting to speculate, and here is one way to go about it: Pick something which is harmful but legal. Then consider what may happen if society makes a decisive turn against it. That’s sort of what happened with slavery. It could happen with other “evils.”

How about smoking cigarettes? If you examine the chemical composition of smoke and its biological effects, you might conclude that is utterly, jaw-droppingly stupid to intentionally inhale combustion products. It harms the individual, healthwise and financially, and this harm is not offset by any benefit to the individual. While there is an economic benefit to tobacco farmers and manufacturers, I suspect there is no net benefit to the overall economy, but rather a net loss, if you take into account the economic impact of smoking-related disease.

If it is such an awful thing, why do people do it? Tradition (going back thousands of years), modern social influences, assertion of personal liberty, oral fixation, habit, and to satisfy a nicotine addiction. With the livelihood of tobacco farmers and the economies of several southern states at stake, it is at present politically impossible to outlaw smoking in the US, and in other countries for various other reasons. For the foreseeable future, smoking will remain legal.

But in a hundred years or more, who knows? Let’s suppose that at some future date, society decides that smoking is bad for all the reasons I recited above, plus any more reasons that may be discovered between now and then. Smoking may then be considered unethical. It may be considered immoral. Would it then be possible for the church to declare it to be a sin? I think so. It is not a sin now, but could it be a sin in some future social framework. Would it be intrinsically disordered? Intrinsically evil? I don’t know, but maybe. After all, look at how we turned around on slavery.

Okay, next on the agenda: drinking alcohol. Like smoking, this is another ancient tradition, originating in prehistory. There certainly is harm, at least to some members of society. The benefits are questionable. The US tried prohibition and it didn’t work. I guess the time wasn’t ripe for it, but in some distant, hypothetical future, in a century or two, that might change.

Now things get more interesting: Wine is part of our religion. Can we have the Eucharist with just bread and not wine? Maybe. Could the church declare the consumption of alcohol to be immoral or disordered, when it appears so prominently in ancient Jewish and Christian traditions? I don’t know… but we certainly can argue about it.

I am sorry but I believe that you missing the point, first let me say that any “vice” is sin now. The question you may ask what is a vice.

Any time that you let something take control of you, it automatically becomes sin.

Drunkenness is a sin now, not in a 100 years.
If you allow smoking to control your life, sin
If you allow your appetite to control your will, “gluttony”, sin

They are allready considered sin by the Catholic Church.

What the OP enquires is, changing the morality of past and present be changed in light of the culture.
I suggest that it will not. If anything the Church has to “reconquer” the culture, just as it did with the depraved Roman Empire.
Slavery was eliminated in Europe while the Catholic Church spread it’s message, was that a “coincidence”?
I am saying that it was not.
Slavery WAS abolished precisely BECAUSE the message of the Chatholic Church ran contrary with that practice.


I wish I had been clearer that I did not mean, “act X wasn’t evil before, but is now,” or “act X isn’t evil now, but will be later.” I certainly didn’t mean anything about culture deciding such things. I think my question as it was phrased here is the most clear so far:

I didn’t mean act X is okay now, but won’t be after the Church “decides” it’s wrong or something. I mean act X is evil now, but the Church is not aware of as much. Is it possible in theory that there is an act that is intrinsically evil, that the Church doesn’t know at this moment is intrinsically evil? I’m sort of deducing that your answer is ‘no?’ Is it your understanding that the Church is not ignorant of any sort of intrinsically evil act, nor ever was?

I was under the impression that at one point the view of the church on slavery could be summed up in this sentence: “Not all slavery is intrinsically evil,” and now it can be summed up in this sentence, “All slavery is intrinsically evil.” If that is not the case, I withdraw the example, and I invite you to ask yourself whether you are aware of any examples where the Church once either approved of or was neutral towards an act which is now recognized as intrinsically evil, and if so, whether all such recognitions have already occurred, and if not, to answer ‘no,’ and discuss the principle that you based your answer upon.

Thanks, JerryZ and Subcontrary, for those clarifications.

Subcontrary, your latest remarks lead me to wonder if there could be some objective evil which is so pervasive, socially acceptable, and unobvious that it has completely escaped our notice. Or perhaps not completely, but largely escaped notice.

How about eating mammals? Yeah, I know I am going out on a limb here, okay, but it’s hypothetical. I’m not saying this is going to be an issue for certain, but what if advances in science allowed humans to discover the secret intellect of cows, pigs, sheep, etc., and we realized that our farming and slaughtering practices were physically and emotionally tormenting to them?

What if scientific advances enabled us to communicate with them, and we found that they had a spiritual side, that God communicated with them, and that they loved God? Heresy, no doubt; I know it says in the bible that Man shall subdue the earth and have dominion over all living things. However, we don’t learn science from Scripture. We learn science from Creation, and Creation is what it is, as God created it, and it is not always as we expected according to our limited understanding. As we grow in our understanding and appreciation of creation, we may discover things that challenge our old ideas.

So, anyway, if all this came to pass, would the church teachings with regard to animals change? Would it then be sinful to kill animals?

My apologies, Subcontrary, if I have gone too far afield and missed your point yet again. (Edit: But that’s the sort of thing that will happen when amateurs dabble in philosophy. Ha! :o)


Your example is very interesting. Needless to say any example itself is not required to answer the question, but that one is certainly a good illustration. I’m heavily leaning on “yes,” it is in principle possible that there is an intrinsically evil act the Church is yet unaware of and as a result does not claim the act is evil. We are learning more about animal cognition every day, and it seems unwise to affirm without caution that even in principle, no new knowledge could ever indicate that there are gaps in the the Church’s moral theory that need to be filled.

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