Following the Pope's Lead in Moral Theology

Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology: Studies by Ten Outstanding Scholars Edited by J.A. DiNoia, OP, and Romanus Cessario, OP (Our Sunday Visitor and Midwest Theological Forum, 1999 290 pages, $14.95)

This book is a collection of 10 essays by moral theologians and philosophers celebrating Pope John Paul II's 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), which dealt with issues in fundamental moral theology. That encyclical generated much controversy among moral theologians, because it was seen primarily as an attack on the “proportionalist” or “revisionist” school, which had become very prominent and dominant in prestigious American and Western European circles. While insisting that the encyclical is more than just a polemic against revisionist moral-ists, the authors of these essays also show convincingly how and why the encyclical rejects proportionalism.

Proportionalism or revisionism, as a system of moral theology, emerged in the wake of controversies over Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae and has acquired a certain dominance in American Catholic colleges and universities. It grew out of efforts to justify the contraceptive pill. One should remember that, when Pope John XXIII appointed the so-called Birth Control Commission, later continued by Pope Paul VI, the question was not whether contraception was morally permissible but whether the newly discovered pill was contraceptive.

As the discussion progressed, it became apparent that either one would have to recognize that the pill was indeed contraceptive, and therefore immoral, or one would have to invent a new methodology for moral theology. The latter is precisely what some authors set out to do. Thus, proportionalism was born.

Proportionalism asserts that there are no intrinsically evil acts. At best, such acts bear “premoral evil” or “ontic disvalue.” One cannot discuss the morality of an act until one takes into account all the intentions — both immediate and long-term — of the moral agent. An act that contains “premoral evil” becomes morally wrong only when the good the agent would derive from the act is not proportionate to the premoral evil involved. If there is a proportional reason for causing that premoral evil, the act cannot be called morally evil.

Various authors in this collection examine and defend the Pope's rejection of proportionalism. William May's essay, “John Paul II, Moral Theology and the Moral Theologians,” documents how the Pope's criticism applies to the work of proponents of proportionalism, in spite of the fact that they assert the Pope does not understand their project.

Martin Rhonheimer's two essays, “Intrinsically Evil Acts and the Moral Viewpoint” and “Intentional Actions and the Meaning of Object,” both analyze and criticize the concept of intentionality used by proportionalists. Rhonheimer points out proportionalists favor long-term or “further” intentions over proximate ones. He says, however, that in choosing a particular kind of act, the moral agent necessarily embraces a proximate intention. He may have further intentions, but that does not change his more immediate intentions.

Rhonheimer gives an example: “The problem of the proportionalist ‘expanded notion of object’ can be well illustrated with the case of Paul Touvier, a French Nazi collaborator in the Vichy regime, recently condemned, who was ordered to shoot seven Jews on June 28, 1944. On trial fifty years later, Touvier argued that both he and the chief commander of the militia in Lyon knew that Gestapo chief Werner Knab was planning to execute a hundred Jews in reprisal for the Resistance's killing of Philippe Henriot, the head of Vichy's propaganda organization. By convincing Knab to execute only thirty, and then in fact executing seven Jews, Touvier argued that they had in fact prevented the execution of one hundred desired by the Gestapo commander. The key point here is their argument that what they did in reality (the morally relevant ‘object’ of their doing) was not kill seven Jews, but save the lives of ninety-three of them. “

Rhonheimer's critique is as succinct as it is cutting: “This way of describing an act by the intention involved in it is not always truthful. Thus it is not truthful to say that ‘Touvier saved ninety-three Jews’ instead of saying that ‘Touvier killed seven innocent Jews, and as a result ninety-three were saved.’ We cannot call this action an act of ‘life saving’ merely because the foreseeable result (the sparing of the ninety-three) was a ‘commensurate reason’ for shooting the seven, and thus ‘life itself’ was ‘better served.’ We are not calculating with quantities of the ‘good of life,’ but relating to concrete living persons. To speak truthfully, Touvier killed seven innocent people (he shot at them with the intention of ending their life [sic]) — which is murder — with the further intention of preventing the killing of a hundred.”

The authors in this book do not limit themselves, however, to an intra-ecclesial critique of proportionalism. They, like the Pope's encyclical, recognize that the distortion of moral reason within the Church is but a pale reflection of the moral chaos operative in the larger world. For example, authors like Russell Hittinger and Jesuit Father Avery Dulles show how far public discourse about natural law has drifted from its moorings in objective good and evil and that incompatible notions of freedom are operative in today's world.

It would be wrong to see this book as negative. Like Veritatis Splendor, this book takes up a long-neglected task: the genuine renewal of moral theology called for by the Second Vatican Council. One common theme for such a renewal is advanced by several authors in this book — the need to recover a virtue-centered ethic.

After reading this book, several concerns remain. To raise just one of them: In the post-Veritatis Splendor effort to affirm the distinctiveness of Christian ethics, we should not underestimate the possibilities of a renewed natural law approach. It might provide fresh possibilities for discussion about moral issues among citizens of different religions in a pluralistic polity.

Though there are also other hesitations, I strongly recommend this book. It provokes thought and pushes a renewed moral theology forward. Its technical nature limits its audience, but particularly for those with some theological training, especially priests, it will provide a challenging though worthwhile insight — from a Veritatis Splendor-favorable perspective — into what is at stake in the struggle for Catholic moral theology today.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from London.

Proportionalism asserts that there are no intrinsically evil acts.