Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Choosing between good and evil

BC Catholic, 24 July, 2005
Reproduced with permission

Fr. Vincent Hawkswell*

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 evil.

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 jobs.

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 except pro-abortionists.

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 person.

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.

Double effect

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 I drive?

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."


world today.