Recently, I had the experience of a wonderful theological discussion with a Protestant repairman who came to our house.
In the course of it, we realized how much we agreed on the truths that divide our respective Christian cultures and their foundation in divine Revelation.
This occasion followed shortly after a visit to Birmingham, Ala., by the papal preacher, Franciscan Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who was enthusiastically received by students at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, which is Baptist.
Both incidents have highlighted for me the increasing divide between those seeking to remain faithful to the Gospel and to Christ and those Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, for whom citizenship in the world is evidently more important than citizenship in the Kingdom.
For Catholics, the initial visible rupture was certainly Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth). Its public rejection by many theologians, clergy and laity continues to the present day. However, their protests were, and are, merely the external expression of a pre-existing theological divide.
By 1968, many dogmatic theologians had imbibed the theological methods of Karl Rahner’s transcendental Thomism (more Kant and Heidegger than Aquinas) and Bernard Lonergan’s inductive method in theology (experience in dialogue with ever-new selves and circumstances).
These methods have accomplished what the search for the historical Jesus had already done for Scripture scholarship, separating the dogmas of the Church, seen as historically conditioned, from the faith of the Church, with the former to be discarded in favor of the personal experience of faith.
In moral theology, the consequences have been equally dire, taking the forms of proportionalism and the fundamental option.
For proportionalists, such as the theory’s father, Richard McCormick, moral decision-making is a balancing act. One can choose, in some set of circumstances, to do something acknowledged as evil if the goods to be gained are proportionally justified.
For instance, contraception, or even adultery (as dissenting theologian Father Charles Curran once argued), are morally wrong, but not intrinsically evil. One could envision a set of circumstances when they might be appropriate.
The Church, on the other hand, sees truth as knowable, both in the created order (the natural law) and as expressed in divine Revelation. The prohibitions of the Ten Commandments or of the Sermon on the Mount identify “intrinsic evils” which can never be justified, regardless of circumstances.
The theory of the fundamental option has been equally disastrous. It teaches that one’s “fundamental option” for God is more significant than this or that evil behavior in determining one’s relationship with him.
Without fear of offending God in the details of life, especially the sexual details, who needs to worry about personal sin or confession?
While Pope John Paul II felt it necessary to condemn both moral theories in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, few Catholics have probably heard of them, much less knowingly set out to apply them. They, nonetheless, are quite evident in the Church’s life.
For example, the recent case in the Diocese of Phoenix of the death by abortion of a child in a Catholic hospital, and the excommunication of the religious permitting it, illustrates both the theory of proportionalism and the extent to which it has become the reigning theory of moral theology for many Catholics. (The religious, Sister Margaret McBride, later reconciled with the Church.)
The mother was suffering from pulmonary issues caused by her pregnancy. In order to deliver her from those life-threatening health issues, she was “delivered of her pregnancy” by direct abortion.
The ethicist involved, and the many clergy, moralists and others who jumped to her defense, argued that Catholic teaching permitted such life-saving “treatment.”
The unwanted evil of the death of the child was balanced by the purity of motive of those who participated and the good of saving the mother’s life.
This is a quintessential example of proportionalist logic, a balancing of goods and evils, and the conclusion that the good to be gained outweighed the evil to be endured. After all, they argued, the child would die anyway.
There is also an ongoing example in the reaction of some Catholics and others to the abortifacient-sterilization mandate of the Obama administration.
For the Church, contraception, Plan B and Ella are intrinsically evil, either for a life-denying interference with marital union or for killing that life once conceived. Sterilization is, of course, both life-denying and an unjustified mutilation of the body.
The critics of the bishops, as well as those who see no great evil in compromising, seem to be following a proportionalist logic.
Against the negative of some level of association with evil, they see the good to be gained in terms of “women’s health,” the avoidance of the human and financial cost of poverty and single parenthood, and the assurance that federal funds continue to flow to their charitable institutions.
On balance, the compromise works for them and, like the Phoenix abortion, is justified on proportionate grounds.
Such a utilitarian analysis is at the root of the current crisis, as it is behind the hydra-headed institution of dissent in the Church, whether over sexuality, the priesthood, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, in vitro fertilization, contraception or the Health and Human Services mandate.
Catholics have become accustomed to observing the Church’s morality in the breach, often with a claimed personal opposition to evil, but finding for themselves, and others, the “hard circumstances” that excuse not following Church teaching.
Without a firmer resistance to the well-entrenched theological errors supporting these choices, any victory in the matter of the mandate will be short-lived and of little long-term value for the salvation of souls.
Colin Donovan, STL, is vice president for theology at EWTN.