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Question 19: May a woman tolerate her husband’s incest with their daughter?

I dropped out of the seminary just before being ordained deacon, and am now serving as a pastoral worker in a parish. I encounter situations that involve not just difficult moral questions but absolutely insoluble dilemmas—situations in which people choose the lesser evil, knowing it is evil, and commit no sin in doing so. Here is one example, and it is only the latest in a whole string.

A woman brought in her fifteen-year-old daughter, the eldest of six children in the family. These people are legal immigrants, and the man makes a steady income working as the head of a crew that installs dry wall. He never has been faithful to his wife, and she has tolerated it. He always has treated the daughter affectionately and, after she started menstruating about a year ago, they began engaging in sex play and now are having intercourse. They are not being discreet about it, and the girl shows no sense of guilt; she also is contemptuous of her mother. The mother told her husband that she was going to the police to put a stop to the incest, but he threatened, as he often has before, to desert the family and return to their country of origin. This is a credible threat, for apparently he could work at his trade there. However, if she tried to follow him, the authorities in that country would do nothing for her and the children. In short, she has no practical alternative to tolerating the incest.

This woman was so desperate that she was nearly incoherent telling me her story. It took more than an hour, repeatedly interrupted by exchanges with her daughter, for her to get it out and for me to identify the two things bothering her that I could do something about. One was that the woman felt guilty, even though the situation is not her fault. I tried to reassure her but could not, so I got the priest and helped her go to confession. (She needed help because she speaks no English and the priest hardly speaks her language.) When we told her God understood and would forgive her, and the priest gave her absolution, she obviously was freed from a crushing load of guilt. The other thing bothering her was that the girl would get pregnant. I solved that by sending them to the Planned Parenthood clinic to get the girl put on the pill. Fortunately, she seemed willing to cooperate, and, no matter what the Church says about it, contraception clearly is appropriate in a case like this.


The central question, overlooked by the questioner, is: Should the woman tolerate her husband’s incest with their daughter? In view of the grave injury the incest is doing to the daughter and the family as a whole, the answer is no. The questioner also abused the sacrament of penance by using it to deal with what he regarded as a psychological problem. His attempted justification for violating the moral norm taught by the Church regarding contraception is an instance of consequentialism or proportionalism, rejected by John Paul II and rationally indefensible. An adequate response must indicate how the questioner should have handled this case.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I am appalled by your letter and even more appalled by the way you handled the case you describe.

In the first place, you failed to consider all the facts of the case in the light of relevant moral truths and instead looked only for the things you “could do something about.” Thus, you overlooked the moral question at the heart of the situation: May this woman tolerate her husband’s ongoing incest with their daughter? She may not. Perhaps she was justified in tolerating her husband’s previous infidelity. But incest is intolerable. It is an especially grave sin and very injurious to the whole family (see CCC, 2388). Moreover, the father’s incest is a crime against his daughter, and the mother has a clear legal duty to report it to the authorities, just as she would have a duty to call the police if her husband were beating one of the children severely enough to draw blood and break bones.

Even though the daughter shows no sense of guilt, she could be sinning mortally. About that, of course, only God knows. But the young woman plainly is being morally corrupted. Even if her responsibility for the incest is mitigated, she acts with contempt for her mother and disregard for the effect of the incest on her siblings. Moreover, the incest hardly is preparing her for a good marriage with a man who will respect her and be faithful to her. Rather, she is learning both to submit to sexual abuse and to abuse her own sexuality, and these lessons are likely to prepare her for a poor marriage, promiscuity, or even a life of prostitution.59

Since the incest is being carried on openly, it also gives very bad example to the younger children. If some are sons, they are learning how to exploit women; if some are daughters, they are being taught to submit to abuse. Also, if the mother tolerates her husband’s incest with the eldest daughter, her other daughters, if any, are likely to be victimized in turn as they mature.

As mother both to the eldest daughter and the other children, the woman is responsible for their well-being, and their moral character certainly is more important than anything the husband’s income can buy. The woman herself, moreover, has been injured by the husband’s infidelity and is further injured by the incest and her daughter’s contempt. She urgently needs to be freed from her husband’s oppression.60 Moreover, his soul also may well be at stake. If he is living in mortal sin, tolerating the incest hardly will motivate him to repent. Then too, the couple’s relationship has been gravely injured by the man’s infidelity; indeed, the marriage might well be invalid, particularly if he never has been faithful.

You assumed the woman must tolerate the incest, because otherwise her husband threatens to desert and leave the family destitute. Perhaps it is true that the man may flee the country or be sent to jail, either of which would result in the loss of his support for the woman and children. However, either also would end the incest, and time in jail might benefit the man by leading him to repent. Moreover, you should not be so unimaginative as to ignore or foreclose other possible ways of helping this woman. Various forms of public assistance surely can be obtained for her and her children, and, if necessary, it also would be suitable to enlist the help of parishioners and use the Church’s resources to help extricate this family from its wretched situation. Many people seek the Church’s help, but few have so great a claim on Christian mercy. If the parish’s resources are inadequate, you should not hesitate to ask for the diocese’s help, since poor parishes need and deserve the help of more affluent ones.

Therefore, you should encourage and help this woman to put an end to the incest. Almost certainly that will require compelling the husband to leave the household, and an appropriate public agency and/or the police should be asked to apply the necessary coercion. Indeed, having learned of the sexual abuse of a minor child, you as a counselor may well have a legal obligation to report the father’s wrongdoing to the public authorities. However, to forestall an accusation of parental neglect against the mother, you probably should persuade her to join you in asking the authorities to intervene. Moreover, if their intervention does not at once make it impossible for the man to continue abusing his daughter, you should help the mother find another, safe and decent place for the young woman to live.

In the second place, the sacrament of penance is one thing, psychological therapy another, and you are confusing the two.

The purpose of the sacrament of penance is to free Christians from their sins, not relieve their groundless guilt feelings. But even though you thought that the situation was not the woman’s fault, having tried but failed to relieve her sense of guilt by reassuring her, you called in the priest and helped her go to confession. You think you benefited the woman, since “she obviously was freed from a crushing load of guilt.” Instead of judging the woman innocent and proceeding as you did, you should have encouraged her to examine her conscience properly and, if necessary, make a good confession. Rather than focusing on guilt feelings, you should have focused on the possibility of real guilt. Objectively, at least, she should not have tolerated the incest so as to retain the man’s support. Still, her responsibility for the incest undoubtedly was limited. But, regardless of the degree of her guilt, this woman needed—and perhaps still needs—to repent whatever sins she actually committed.

The daughter, too, needs pastoral help to comprehend not only what her father has done to her but what she has done to herself, her mother, and her siblings. She should be encouraged to repent, to receive the sacrament of penance worthily, to forgive her father, and to treat her mother with respect. Only in this way can this young woman be liberated and recover her integrity and true sense of self-respect.

Though the mother quite naturally resents her daughter’s behavior, she should be encouraged not to hate her, but rather to forgive her and try to build a better relationship with her. To this end, both mother and daughter no doubt could also benefit from sound counseling by someone both competent in psychology and faithful to Catholic teaching. Such sound counseling would help them understand what they have suffered, come to terms with their feelings, and develop a better relationship with each other.

In the third place, it was wrong to send the mother and daughter to the Planned Parenthood clinic to have the girl put on the pill. That only facilitated the ongoing incest. Besides, though one might argue that the girl, due to immaturity, is being raped by her father, you and the girl’s mother decided to tolerate the rape. So, the effort to prevent the incest from resulting in conception plainly was not meant to oppose it as the culmination of rape but as the beginning of new life, and so was contraceptive. Moreover, since the pill on occasion functions as an abortifacient, you and the mother, by unjustifiably resorting to the pill, also wrongly accepted abortion as a side effect (see LCL, 504–5).

In trying to justify exceptions to the norms excluding contraception and other intrinsically evil acts, you assume that one can compare diverse evils and rationally judge which of the options available for choice offers the prospect of a less bad outcome. Apparently, like many people engaged in pastoral ministry, you have been influenced by theological dissent and have adopted a form of consequentialism or proportionalism. However, John Paul II condemned those dissenting views and reaffirmed the exceptionless moral norms that the Church has constantly taught.61 Moreover, your argument serves to illustrate the error of such views. They sacrifice the genuine goods of the person, which moral absolutes protect, in order to spare people hardships and sufferings that, though painful, are morally acceptable.

In sum, as a pastoral worker, in situations such as this you should speak God’s saving word and serve his People’s true interests by trying to help everyone involved to save his or her soul. You seem to have proceeded as if you were a social worker devoid of faith and concerned only about dealing with immediate problems. I know you were trying to help, and I assume you did what you thought right in light of your training, which perhaps makes it appear that compassionate pastoral practice consists simply in following feelings. But your way of dealing with this situation fell far short of authentic pastoral care. To make up for this, you should do all you can to assure that each member of this family, including the father, receives the spiritual help she or he needs, not only now but in the future.

People who come to the Church with their problems should find genuine love and the help necessary to escape from sin and deal with the evils they are suffering. They never should be encouraged and supported in living a sinful life or facilitating the sins of others. It never is necessary to choose an evil knowing it to be evil, for at least one morally right option always is available, though choosing it and accepting its bad side effects may be very hard. Thus, a so-called moral dilemma is insoluble only in the sense that none of the options is appealing—a state of affairs not uncommon in our fallen world. True pastoral ministry requires the courage to help each person take up his or her cross rather than take a seemingly easy way out.

59. Though Elaine Westerlund, Women’s Sexuality after Childhood Incest (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), rejects excessive generalizations on these matters by previous researchers, her work bears out this point; see especially the summary, 178–79.

60. Even if the mothers of girls who are victims of incest do not do all they should to oppose it, the mothers themselves often are victims; see Janis Tyler Johnson, Mothers of Incest Survivors: Another Side of the Story (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1992).

61. See John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 71–83, AAS 85 (1993) 1190–1200, OR, 6 Oct. 1993, xi–xiii; cf. CMP, 141–71.