Oops. Unintended Consequences

Have you ever done something that caused an unintended consequence? Unfortunately, that’s life. With everything we do, there are always intended and unintended consequences. As much as we would like to account for every possible outcome and act in a way to limit potential harm, such a goal can never been realized to perfection. No matter what we do, we will always cause something to go wrong.

Should this give us reason for despair? Hopefully not. When approaching this situation from the perspective of moral theology, we know that, even if an act is sinful, it cannot be a “mortal sin” unless we have full knowledge and intent in our action; accidents or results that come because of an alternative intention do not place blame upon us.

The reason for this is often the “principle of double effect,” a concept presented by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. In essence, it protects someone from the guilt of sin as a result of unintended acts, even if the person knew the effect was going to happen.

Take the classic case of self defense as an example. Someone is attacking you. What do you do? The natural reaction is to preserve one’s life: try to disarm your attacker with your own force or violence. In the process, it’s possible that you will hurt or even kill your attacker, something that can never be heralded as a good. But since your intention was to save your own life and not to take theirs, you are free from moral guilt.

Sort of.

As I explain in this video, there are four criteria that need to be present in order for this principle to apply. It’s very philosophical and may seem like mental gymnastics to justify an action, but we must always remember its intent: to encourage us to will what is good at all times. Bad things cannot be willed to justify good effects, only good ones. We cannot get so caught up in the effects, possible or realized, that we change what we work for or fail to act. In every action, there are intended and unintended consequences. All we can ever worry about is doing what is good.

One Comment on “Oops. Unintended Consequences

  1. William S. Cossen and Erin Bartram wrote an interesting editorial in the Washington Post Oct. 16 ‘A group of Catholics has charged Pope Francis with heresy. Here’s why that matters.’

    “The incident — Catholics challenging the pope, even accusing him of heresy — no doubt seems shocking. But challenges to papal authority are nothing new in the Catholic Church. Laypeople, theologians and priests have claimed the right to define the nature of Catholicism throughout its 2,000-year history.
    Many of the signatories of the Filial Correction are Americans, and they are part of a long history of American laypeople challenging priests, and American laypeople and clergy challenging the pope, over matters of doctrine, governance and culture. What is notable about this document, though, is that it accuses the pope of “modernism.” This is not a rejection or condemnation of modern life, however. Instead, “modernism” refers to a particular set of beliefs formally condemned by church doctrine as heretical, including the belief that church dogma can change over time, which the authors argue the pope has advanced with his directions on the pastoral care of Catholics who are divorced or remarried.”

    In a stunning turn, the period after the Second Vatican Council, which was held from 1962 to 1965, saw the church reverse course and enshrine ideas of individuality and democratic values in its teachings. But while supporters of change and modernization saw Vatican II as a victory, conservatives and traditionalists, many of them American, struck back at aspects of the church’s new direction, like the use of the vernacular during mass, and the increasing role of lay leadership.
    Gravely dismayed by the course the church took after the 1960s, these defenders of traditionalism, drawn from the laity and the clergy, became dissenters against the hierarchy and its promulgations. In a near inversion of papal criticisms decades earlier, they attacked what they saw as creeping modernism and liberalism — this time emanating from the papacy itself.
    Something similar may be occurring with the current Filial Correction. A key difference between this dissent and that of an earlier period is the role played by digital communications and social media, which amplify the message of the correction in a manner that could have only been dreamed of by earlier generations. Most striking, though, is the deployment of modernism as an attack against a pope by Americans Catholics, whose predecessors were the subject of modernism’s original papal condemnation.”
    Brother ;I think Pope Francis may be experiencing one of the unintended consequences of Vatican ll.

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