Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Some of the most fascinating theology in the Church today can be found in the Question and Answer sessions conducted by Pope Benedict XVI with the clergy or seminarians during his pastoral visits abroad. Take for example the session at Bressanone (in German, Brixen), the same “vacation place” in the Tyrol where The Ratzinger Report interview occurred. (I recall presenting a paper on the book during a national convention in Worcester in 1985, the year it was published by Ignatius Press.)

One of the questions asked of Pope Benedict at Bressanone pertained to evident deficiencies in seminary education during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, errors which contributed to what the questioner called “the issue of sexual abuse by clergy.”

In his response, the Holy Father offered a general observation about weaknesses in the seminary formation programs. However, as an academic himself, he went on to cite inadequacies in teaching moral theology. And he identified one especially serious theological fault; namely, the theory of “proportionalism,” once almost a fad among some professors.

Pope Benedict’s words, which were hardly even reported anywhere else but in official Church sources, were:

“We have to reflect on what was insufficient in our education, in our teaching in recent decades; there was, in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the idea of proportionalism in ethics; it held that no  thing is bad in itself, but only in proportion to others; with proportionalism it was possible to think for some subjects – one could also be paedophilia – that in some proportion they could be a good thing. Now, it must be stated clearly, this was never Catholic doctrine.

“There are things which are always bad, and paedophilia is always bad…” (Italics added.)

Of course. Direct abortion is another example of an act which is always bad. So is infanticide. Likewise, genocide or euthanasia.

Proportionalism, or “the theory of the proportionate good” (as it is often described in ethics manuals) should have been summarily dismissed the moment it emerged.

Proportionalism appears in more than one mask. One usual variant begins by suggesting that no act is always evil in itself but can only be assessed as immoral (or moral) from an examination of the foreseeable consequences stemming from a specific choice. In its extreme form it becomes “consequentialism,” since its moral character can allegedly be recognized only after weighing the several (or many) values or good effects desired. In other words, one must try to balance “the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view toward the ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’ possible in a particular situation.”

Obviously, this kind of thinking affects vocabulary, so much so that proportionalists speak of “premoral” evil or “ontic” evil. Another phrase used is the “preference principle.”

The definition cited above is taken from Pope John Paul II’s monumental encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (1993), the first ever in history. “Reason attests,” wrote John Paul the Great, “that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’…: they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object. And quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.” (VS, no. 80)

The Holy Father cited examples of such intrinsically evil acts: “homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide…” Also, “whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, … slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit…,” etc.

In this doctrine, John Paul went on, “the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture.” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-10) Therefore, “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” (VS, no. 81)

Thus, any theory to the effect that all actions are “premoral” before their morality can be assessed must be rejected as inconsonant with reason and Revelation. On the contrary, there is an objective moral order. Phrases like “premoral evil” make no sense whatsoever.

Moreover, in the theory of the proportionate good, how can one even pretend to “weigh” good consequences against bad consequences, when (as always occurs) ethical values are “weighed” against sociological or psychological or even cultural values (whatever they may be).

How strains of the theory of proportionalism ever infected moral theology in the seminary beggars the imagination; it is so unreasonable, so inconsonant with the Scriptures as read within the Church, so alien a construct to basic principles of Christian ethics, so Kafkaesque (in that it attempts to “redescribe human actions in terms of their hoped-for results” to borrow the characterization of Dr. William E. May), that any seminary professor (or lecturer) truly competent about ethics should have known better.

As this seriously flawed theory penetrated the culture, including that of some Catholic theologians, I was deeply engaged both in writing about moral theology and teaching it in a graduate program in a seminary. I can recall, therefore, discussions or debates with theologians who were tricked by proportionalism. Some of the most intensive took place while lecturing in the Midwest, in Rochester and in the Boston area. I even recall canceling subscriptions to two theological journals because they had fallen prey to what was becoming faddish. At the time, I was convinced that a formal Papal intervention was needed. That came, thank God, with Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.