In the church’s debate over the issue of capital punishment I was interested that the pope ruled that capital punishment is “impermissible” Note that he did not say that it is morally, objectively sinful or wrong, but that it is “impermissible”. Being interested in words and their meanings led me to look up “permissible” and ponder its relationship to morality.
Very simply “permissible” means something is allowed or permitted by law or custom–not that it is necessarily good or even beneficial and not even that it is legal. So it may be permissible to drive five miles per hour over the speed limit, but that doesn’t mean it is good, advisable or even technically legal.
So also, if something is “impermissible” it doesn’t mean that action is necessarily intrinsically evil or wrong.
An action’s permissibility or impermissibility therefore has more to do with its situational context and practicality. Capital punishment is impermissible because in modern society the church deems it to be un necessary, impractical and detrimental to the larger pro life philosophy.
I am not making this point in order to argue in favor of capital punishment, but to ponder the church’s terminology and its application to some other moral issues.
So, for example, we admit that, when a marriage is in crisis and a spouse is experiencing abuse that has no apparent solution, divorce may be permissible even though it is not, in itself, a good thing. A married couple may in good conscience decide that the use of artificial contraception is permissible even though it is not, in itself, a good thing. Are they justified in doing so?
How far can this distinction be pushed in the direction of moral relativism? While divorce may be permissible for a greater good, might re-marriage be permissible? Could euthanasia be permissible under certain circumstances? Contraception? Abortion?
The limits of permissibility are established by certain actions which are objectively evil and are never permissible. Marriage is for life and although it may be permissible to obtain a civil divorce, for Catholics, the indissoluble marriage bond still exists (unless nullity is established through the canonical process) therefore re-marriage is not only impermissible it is impossible. Likewise the direct action and intention of taking a human life is an objective evil and is never permissible–the classical exceptions of self defense, just war and capital punishment notwithstanding.
Finally, what is permissible is not necessarily good. In the area of sexual morality many Catholics would turn a blind eye to co-habitation and fornication if the couple are engaged to be married. LGBTQ activists might argue that same sex activities between “loving committed” individuals are permissible. Even if such actions are permissible it doesn’t make them good.
The objective goodness of an action needs to be explained on a more profound level than mere sentimentality, usefulness or the grounds of temporary pleasure or situational context. The morality of a sexual choice, for example, is rooted in the natural law and the divine law. The natural law makes clear that the sexual organs are designed for a complementary union of man and woman with the purpose and end of procreation. Divine law makes clear that his union is exclusive, life long and sacramental.
Society (and many Christians) may deem other options to be permissible, but is impossible to call them intrinsically good.