Please explain what is meant by "lesser of two evils" with regards to Pope's remarks

I’ve always understood the Church’s teaching on the lesser of two evils to mean that when faced with needing to commit an act, one may choose the lesser moral evil.
With regards to Zika virus, Pope Francis stated women may choose birth control (later clarified by Fr Lombardi to mean condoms and contraception) as a lesser evil. But what act are they “needing” to commit? (Certainly not marital embrace as this isn’t a “need” but a desire). It’s ridiculous to suggest that the 2 acts women must choose between are abortion or contraception as both cause the woman to fall into mortal sin - there are other choices that won’t kill the life of God in her soul.:confused:

The idea of the lesser of two evils, correctly understood, only permits an evil to be tolerated – not committed. So it does not justify the commission of any moral evil (sin), not even the commission of a venial sin to avoid a mortal sin.

I am not sure what is meant by that. But I believe that although the Orthodox Church discourages the use of contraception, it will allow it under certain limited conditions.

Could you provide the exact quotes in question so that we might accurately respond to what was stated?

This is often misapplied. The original Cicero quote is “Primum, minima de malis” (Of all evils, choose the least.)

The lesser of two evils means just that. The Church considers contraception to be a lesser evil than abortion.

To get a different perspective, I looked in a Catholic Catechism published in 1908. Wilful murder (which would include abortion) is one of the four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. The other three are sodomy, the mistreatment of widows and orphans, and defrauding laborers out of their wages.

I looked all over for a reference to contraception in that catechism, and I couldn’t find one. It is probably included in the sins of impurity that they say are against the sixth commandment, which they say are lesser sins than adultery.

In the past, I have seen contraception referred to as “the sin against marriage.” I’m not sure where that leaves unmarried people.

Following is taken from text of Pope’s interview:

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.
Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best-case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.
On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as 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.

My question was how can actively doing an evil act - contraception, be the “lesser of two evils”? There are not 2 evils to choose from….there are other non-sinful choices available to a woman who wants to avoid the Zika virus.

Fr Lombardi made it clear that the Pope was not speaking about NFP but condoms and contraception. lifesitenews.com/news/breaking-vatican-affirms-pope-was-speaking-about-contraceptives-for-zika

Shouldn’t the Holy Father know that contraception is infallibly defined as never licit inside or outside of marriage and not fall for the straw man fallacy posed by the reporter? An infallible doctrine cannot be bound or loosed by Peter. (See Catholic Answers tract on birth control) “The Church also has affirmed that the licitness of contraception is an infallible doctrine. The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception….” catholic.com/tracts/birth-control

When has the Church EVER allowed for contraception for ANY reason? (Paul VI allowing nuns in danger of rape to use contraception is a lie - see in other threads that Paul VI wasn’t even Pope in ‘61 when Studi Cattolici published 3 theologians’ opinions arguing for nuns to use contraception) ronconte.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/did-pope-paul-vi-approve-of-contraception-for-nuns-in-the-congo-no/

Now the Philippine Bishops are expressing full support of women using contraception for Zika. And nobody seems to be concerned about those using contraception killing the life of God in the soul!

My husband suffered from serious heart trouble for 15 years and the last 5 years of his life he was unable to engage in the marital embrace. I never ever thought of seeking it in all the wrong places. He has been dead now for over 30 years and I haven’t yet died of lack of Sex. I wonder if anyone ever has. I’ve never heard of such a thing! For the sake of the potential baby, I would think both parents would think more of the baby than of themselves. God Bless, Memaw

No. In fact, that’s completely the opposite of the Church’s teaching. One may not choose a morally evil act, regardless of circumstance. From the catechism:

A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. (CCC, #1753)

One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (CCC, #1756)

So, in a “lesser of two evils” case, one may not choose a lesser moral evil in order to achieve the ‘good’ of avoiding the consequences of the greater evil.

Edward Peters, in his analysis of the pope’s recent comments, makes this statement:

There is no legitimate “principle” by which a “lesser of two evils” may ever be licitly engaged in. It is fundamental moral theology that even a small evil action may never be licitly engaged in—no matter how much good might seem to result therefrom and no matter how much evil might seem to be avoided thereby. There are, to be sure, principles by which a good or neutral action that has two effects, one good and one evil, might be licitly engaged in under certain circumstances despite the evil effects; and there are principles by which “lesser evils” may be tolerated (not chosen). But parsing these matters accurately and responsibly requires more time than can be devoted to them in a press conference.

We could talk about choosing a natural evil (i.e., not a sin) over a moral evil (i.e., a sin); but not about choosing one sin over another.

Thank you for the clarity. How then, can Pope Francis say that a woman can choose contraception but not abortion as the “lesser of two evils”? Or that contraception and abortion presents a “conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments”?

He goes on to say that “contraception is not an absolute moral evil” and I’m not sure what he is basing this on? CA tract on birth control says illicitness of contraception is an infallible defined doctrine and an intrinsic evil. catholic.com/tracts/birth-control (The Paul VI story of allowing nuns in Africa to use contraception is dubious at best. See Jimmy Akin’s blog on it. jimmyakin.com/2016/02/pope-francis-speaks-on-hot-button-issues-9-things-to-know-and-share.html)

Correct. We may tolerate an evil consequence. We should choose a a good act, well intentioned, and of such possible acts, the one with a good consequence, or if not possible, the one with the least evil I n the consequences. Thus, we tolerate the lesser of two evils (in the consequences).

Sure didn’t express himself clearly, did he!

Contraception is a moral evil, but avoiding pregnancy, as in a rape scenario, is not.

Contraception in cases of rape is indirect and justifiable. But abortion is never justified in cases of rape. So then, what should we say about abortifacient contraception in cases of rape? It is not justified because it is a type of abortion.

Many Catholic commentators err gravely by treating abortifacient contraception as if it were merely a type of contraception, not also a type of abortion. There are cases in which mere contraception can be used because it is indirect, but in the same case abortion and abortifacient contraception are still direct and still gravely immoral.

Teachers will have the stricter judgment (cf. James 3:1). Whoever justifies abortifacient contraception, justifies abortion. If abortion is not moral in a particular case, then neither is abortifacient contraception.

First sadly, the Holy Father doesn’t have his facts straight. Paul VI did not give nuns permission to use contraceptives either explicitly or implicitly by silence. See here which includes why the Zika virus does not bear on the contraception teaching: canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/misunderstanding-the-alleged-congo-contraception-case/

Have you sent that link to the pope? Maybe he doesn’t have access to the information we do in regaurds to Vatican documents…

We would not likely have such access to information while rather exhausted already - in the middle of an in-flight- Q &A…

I am not saying one why or another regarding the noted case of the nuns - for it does not really matter too much for that is some very long ago situation that no longer exists…

(twas part of an off the cuff discussion that was focused on very very very serious nature of aborting children with birth defects or any children for that matter).

But lets not get into some idea that the Pope knows everything or had access to everything at at all times…the Pope can yes make a mistake and take for a fact what he had heard from others …before checking it out. Such things can happen to us…and they can happen to him.

Actually, he doesn’t say that a person can choose the ‘lesser of two evils’! That was what the reporter asked, but Francis did not reply in the affirmative. Here’s what was really said, as reported by the National Catholic Register:

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.
Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best-case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.
On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as 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.

Francis seems to be saying that the “lesser evil” – that is, avoiding the evil of passing Zika on to a child – is really a question of ‘avoiding pregnancy’ ,and not of contraception per se. He points out that there are cases in which it is licit to avoid pregnancy (in fact, the Church’s approval of the use of Natural Family Planning demonstrates that not all attempts of avoiding pregnancy are sinful). Unfortunately, he makes recourse to the urban legend of “Paul VI and the nuns in the Congo in the 1960s” – that story appears to be one that’s widely accepted but not verifiable as having actually occurred. Yet, the question remains: are there ways to avoid pregnancy in order to avoid the birth of babies affected by these viruses? The answer is ‘yes’, but a qualified ‘yes’: avoiding pregnancy can be morally licit, but not all methods of avoiding pregnancy are licit.

Or that contraception and abortion presents a “conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments”?

I think it would be more precise to locate the conflict not between the commandments themselves, as such, but between the desire to avoid negative effects of the viruses and the various means that are proposed in order to do so. The conflict, it would seem, is in navigating between doing good on one hand and avoiding killing children or mistreating the conjugal act on the other…

He goes on to say that “contraception is not an absolute moral evil”

No… he says that avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute moral evil. Big difference…

“An action which is objectively evil, even if a lesser evil, can never be licitly willed.”
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
22/12/2010

I understood the Pope’s comments to mean that using a condom was the lesser evil than spreading the virus to the woman which might result in paralysis or may be then spread to the third person of the unborn child and harm him with microcephaly, NFP would not protect. ONLY a condom or complete 100% abstinence forever would protect. Missing out on the unitive aspects of coitus through 100% abstinence could also be considered a harm to a marriage. In this respect, Pope Francis definitely IS contradicting HV by making a case that there are times when contracepting can rightly be used as the lesser of evils

Abortion was described by the Pope as being not in the same category, and thus not negotiable the way contracepting is.

That’s my less than two cents worth.

There is no theological basis to suggest that certain (moral) evils are negotiable, and others not. That would seem to be the ultimate slippery slope.

There is no principle by which a (moral) evil can be “chosen”, because it is less aggregious than some other moral evil. It can arise that certain physical evils can be chosen (eg. Cut off an arm to save a life), but there is no established theological basis for contraception (by which I mean a married couple using contraceptives to avoid pregnancy) to be judged a physical evil only, let alone a neutral or good act.

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