Choosing between good and evil
BC Catholic, 24 July, 2005
Reproduced with permission
We are forbidden to do evil. Moreover, "we have a
responsibility for the sins committed by others when we co-operate in them,"
warns the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We can do this "by participating
directly and voluntarily" in others' sins; "by ordering, advising, praising,
or approving" them; "by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an
obligation to do so"; and "by protecting evil-doers."
In the Gospel Reading this Sunday (Mt. 13:44-52), Jesus describes the
kingdom of heaven as a treasure, like a pearl of great value, which is worth
everything else that we have.
However, in a fallen world, where good and evil will remain entwined
until the angels separate them at the end of the world, it is not always
easy to recognize the treasure of the kingdom of heaven. In the First
Reading, therefore, Solomon asks God for "an understanding mind" which can
"discern between good and evil."
We are forbidden to do evil. Moreover, "we have a responsibility for the
sins committed by others when we co-operate in them," warns the Catechism of
the Catholic Church. We can do this "by participating directly and
voluntarily" in others' sins; "by ordering, advising, praising, or
approving" them; "by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an
obligation to do so"; and "by protecting evil-doers."
However, it sometimes seems that every option open to us will bring evil
as well as good. For example, it can be argued that because we are all
sinners, we co-operate with evil even by shopping at a store which is not
paying its employees fairly, or by inviting a cohabiting, unmarried couple
into our home.
In fact, we can be said to co-operate with evil just by co-existing with
others in a fallen, sinful world. "Sins give rise to social situations and
institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness," says the Catechism,
and these "structures of sin" make us "accomplices" of one another in doing
Co-operating with evil
It takes the wisdom of Solomon to decide the point at which we must we
refuse to co-operate with evil. You may remember the Wasilifsky case, in
which two pro-life North Vancouver teachers refused to join the B.C.
Teachers' Federation because of its stand on abortion, thereby risking their
Other pro-life teachers argued that no one would suppose that they were
pro-abortion just because they were BCTF members, and that the dismissal of
all pro-life teachers would leave public school children with no teachers
St. Paul gives some helpful advice. Speaking about meat that has been
sacrificed to idols, he says, "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market
without raising any question on the ground of conscience." In other words,
you do not have to examine the private life of the merchant to see whether
he is using his profits for evil. Similarly, "if an unbeliever invites you
to a meal, and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you
without raising any question on the ground of conscience."
On the other hand, he says, if someone tells you that the meat you are
eating comes from an animal which has been sacrificed to an idol, then you
have an obligation to show your disapproval, to set a good example and avoid
giving scandal, "out of consideration" for the conscience of the other
Choosing between good and evil is complicated by the fact that out of
evil, God always brings good that is greater than the evil. As St. Paul says
in this Sunday's Second Reading, "We know that in everything God works for
good for those who love Him."
In that case, may we, or should we, do evil to help bring about this
good? Jesus Himself gave us the answer. Speaking about His glorification and
our redemption, which the Catechism calls "the greatest of all goods," He
said, "The Son of Man is going the way Scripture tells of Him. Still,
accursed be that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It were better for
him that he had never been born." On another occasion He said, "Scandals
will inevitably arise, but woe to him through whom they come."
In other words, even though God always brings good out of evil, evil
itself never becomes a good, and it is never lawful to commit evil in order
that good may come of it later.
However, in our fallen world, "virtually inundated by sin," as the
Catechism says, it often happens that our actions have a number of effects,
some good, some evil. How should we choose?
For example, I spend a good deal of time in my car, visiting shut-ins,
hearing their confessions and giving them absolution, and taking them the
Blessed Sacrament. However, my car contributes to global warming, which is
already causing hardship to many people. Moreover, I run the risk of a car
accident, one of the primary causes of death in our society. How much should
The Church teaches that it is morally allowable to perform an act that
has both a good effect and a bad provided all of the following four
conditions exist: 1) the act must not be bad in itself, 2) the bad effect
must not be an essential factor in the accomplishment of the good effect,
but only a by-product, 3) the bad effect must not be intended, and 4) there
must be a sufficiently grave reason for permitting the bad effect.
Every one of our daily decisions is important. None of them is easy. Each
involves choosing between good and evil. We can only do our best, making the
words of this Sunday's Psalm our own: "My part, I have resolved, O Lord, is
to obey Your word. The law from Your mouth means more to me than silver and
gold.... Let Your love come and I shall live, for Your law is my delight."
As one of the saints said, "Death, rather than sin."