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Veritatis Splendor, Proportionalism, and Contraception
Janet E. Smith's Articles
Written by Dr. Janet E. Smith   

When Veritatis Splendor was issued, many in the media responded as though the encyclical were written with the purpose of reiterating the Catholic Church’s condemnation of contraception, in spite of the fact that contraception merits a mere mention in the document. Clearly, Veritatis Splendor was not written to reiterate the Church’s condemnation of contraception; rather it was written to establish that some views of the school of moral theology known as "proportionalism" are in conflict with magisterial Catholic moral teaching. Nonetheless, there was something right about the common perception, since it was largely because of Humanae Vitae that theologians challenged the concept of intrinsically evil actions. The proportionalist claim that contraception is not an intrinsically evil action, seems to have been the impetus for challenging the concept of intrinsically evil actions altogether. Much of the debate has centered on the proper way to describe and define moral actions. Elsewhere I have made my assessment of the proper understanding of the object of the moral act and how circumstances and the intention enter into the proper evaluation of the moral action.[2]

Here I wish to explore another terminological dispute, the dispute over the understanding of the term “intrinsic evil.” It is certainly problematic that proportionalists deny that there is any action that is intrinsically evil – i.e., any action that ought never to be done no matter how much good might result. Yet, it is also of key importance that proportionalists do not seem to have the same standard as the tradition for determining what makes any action evil, not just what makes intrinsically evil actions, intrinsically evil. This problem has been obscured in the debate over whether or not there are intrinsic evils. A review of how proportionalists responded to Veritatis Splendor should help us see that the differences between the magisterium and proportionalists is not only about the concept of “intrinsic evil” or the “parts” of the moral act, but also about how proportionalists and the magisterium value such goods as procreation and human life. This paper is largely an attempt to clear away the debris of the debate concerning intrinsic evil and move it in the direction of considering the very nature of the goods of procreation and marital union and their relation.

It is well known that proportionalists protested that Veritatis Splendor misrepresented their views. When the encyclical was first issued, Father Richard McCormick charged: "[T]he encyclical repeatedly states of proportionalism that it attempts to justify morally wrong actions by a good intention. This, I regret to say, is a misrepresentation."[3] He also charged, "Not a single theologian would hold that a good intention could sanctify what has already been described as a morally wrong act. And that is what the encyclical says proportionalists do. Revisionist writers should both reject and resent that."[4] This article intends first to show that the charge that McCormick believes Veritatis Splendor makes against proportionalists is not in fact the charge it makes against them. Certain terminological difficulties, however, explain why McCormick understands the charge as he does. That is, given proportionalist understanding of certain concepts, their response to Veritatis Splendor is not surprising. Yet, a comparison of portions of Veritatis Splendor with representative statements by proportionalists, will show that, once certain terms are properly understood, proportionalists should recognize their views in the pages of Veritatis Splendor.

The final portion of this paper will suggest that while Veritatis Splendor has succeeded in clarifying some ways in which proportionalism is incompatible with the moral teaching of the magisterium, a perhaps more daunting task lies ahead. Perhaps more problematic than determining what features of an action are determinative for judging the morality of an action, is determining just what evils are involved in any action. That is, how does one assess the disvalue or harm or evil in any action? Contraception will be utilized as a paradigm issue.

It should be kept in mind that Veritatis Splendor was not written as an academic response to proportionalism. Rather, it was written to clarify Church teaching and to assert some fundamental Catholic moral principles that proportionalists have called into question. Thus, one should not read Veritatis Splendor with the expectation that it will lay out systematically and patiently the principles of proportionalism and then provide a detailed response. Indeed, it will often appear that there is some distortion of the views of proportionalists because Veritatis Splendor resolutely speaks in the terminology of the magisterium, a terminology that proportionalism has to some extent redefined.

Malum, Culpa and Intrinsic Evil

Elsewhere[5] I have argued that one of the major sources of the difficulty of communication between proportionalists and the magisterium is that they use terms differently. I demonstrated that when the magisterium speaks of intrinsic evil, it is speaking of objective evil, of what is malum or"disordered" and not of moral evil; the term evaluates an action apart from the willed act of some individual agent. Those who perform intrinsically evil actions (intrinsece malum) are not necessarily doing something immoral; they are not necessarily sinning (e.g., one who killed an innocent human being unknowingly, would not be guilty of the sin of murder). Rather, those who freely and deliberately choose to perform an intrinsically evil action, are guilty of a culpa, a blamable action, a sin. Only concrete particular actions can be sins or culpae while actions understood as kinds can be spoken of as intrinsically evil. I maintained that proportionalists when speaking of intrinsically evil acts, are not speaking of acts as kinds, but are speaking of concrete particular actions, [6] which the Church understands to be culpae or sins.

I also challenged the claim of proportionalists that magisterial condemnations of moral actions are tautological. I believe the magisterium uses such terms as “adultery” to describe actions and then determines on an axiological basis that the action is moral or immoral. That is, “adultery” does not mean “having sexual intercourse with someone with whom one ought not to have sexual intercourse”; rather, it means “having sexual intercourse with someone who is not one’s spouse.” Once one understands what the proper behavior is in respect to spouses and non-spouses, one then can judge adultery to be wrong. It is essential to keep these distinctions in mind when attempting to assess the legitimacy of the charges of Veritatis Splendor against proportionalism.

It is important to have in mind yet another point of terminological precision. The term "moral evil" or "moral wrong" presents certain problems. Does it refer to malum (objective evil) or culpa (sinful action; that for which one can be blamed)? Various statements from Veritatis Splendor indicate that although the word “moral” appears to be used sometimes to refer to what is intrinsically malum (as something that ought not to be chosen) and sometimes to sin or culpae (an evil that has been chosen), it has a meaning distinct from both. The etymology of the word “moral” [7] indicates that it refers to habits or character (as does the word "ethical"). "Moral" actions, as opposed to other kinds of actions, are those actions that have an impact on the moral character of the human person; they are actions that contribute to the virtuousness or viciousness of the agent.[8] Veritatis Splendor in defining moral evil (sec. 78), cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1761): "there are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil." Here, "moral evil" seems equivalent to "culpa" for it refers to a choice that makes the will evil and "culpa" refers to an evil will. On the other hand, it is possible to speak of someone performing an objectively morally evil action -- an act that is evil in its moral species,[9] but of being not culpable, that is, not guilty of a sin.[10]

So, again, is "moral evil" a "sin" or is it "objective evil"? It seems it is not quite either. The category or species "moral evil," unlike the category or species "objective evil," includes the concept of choice; it includes in it a reference to some choice that may be or has been made of an action, but not necessarily to the choice of some concrete particular agent. Although "objective evil" and "intrinsic evil" are often used synonymously with "moral evil", it seems there exists this nuance between "objective" or "intrinsic evil," and "moral evil": when an act is spoken of as objectively or intrinsically evil, what is being emphasized is that this act works against some human good, whereas "moral evil" points to the damage that will be done to a specific kind of human good, to the good of an agent's moral character. For example, when adultery is spoken of as an "intrinsic evil", the focus is upon adultery as an act incompatible with the goods of marriage; when adultery is spoken of as a "moral evil" the focus is on the damage done to character of the person who chooses to commit adultery.

This, again, is an important distinction, for when proportionalists speak of "moral evil" they seem to be speaking of an action for which an agent is culpable; they seem to be speaking of "sin" or "culpa." A remark by McCormick seems to reflect this perspective. He responds to a criticism of proportionalism in this fashion:

McCarthy notes:

"The Church's tradition in moral theology has always recognized the possibility of human persons performing evil actions inculpably, but it has never conceded, as proportionalists contend, that these actions could coalesce into the species of morally good acts with the addition of further circumstances and ends."[11]

In response, McCormick observes,

Here we see the error I am concerned with. An action is stamped as evil (and there is no doubt that this is a morally qualifying term, for it is associated with "inculpable performance") and then it is stated that proportionalists would contend that the action could be justified by further circumstances. Straightforwardly, so-called proportionalists make no such contention and their thought is misrepresented when it is put that way. They would say that all things have to be considered before an act is said to be morally evil.[12]

McCormick's remark that McCarthy's use of "evil" must be a "morally qualifying" term is perplexing, for McCarthy is precisely talking about actions that are evil (malum) but not sinful (culpa). McCarthy is saying that the magisterium says that sometimes one who has done what is malum is not guilty of a sin (culpa) (and this is when the agent is ignorant [and not negligently ignorant] of what he is doing or is coerced into acting.) Proportionalists, however, allow that some circumstances or intentions make it morally justifiable (i.e. good) to choose freely and deliberately to do what is malum or evil (and here they wish to speak of "premoral" evil). These are not identical claims. When proportionalists see reference to "intrinsic evil" in Veritatis Splendor, they understand the document to be speaking of "moral evil" which they understand to mean "sinful". But such is not the meaning of "moral evil" in Veritatis Splendor. A closer examination of the document and the charges against proportionalism made there, should make this point more clearly.

Intrinsic Evil

One of the first terms that proportionalists and Veritatis Splendor disagree on is the term “intrinsic evil.” As the passage from McCormick cited earlier indicates, proportionalists resent the charge that they think it morally right to do what is intrinsically evil. McCormick's response to a remark by Father Richard Neuhaus draws into high relief the point of contention. McCormick cites Neuhaus as saying:

[In Veritatis Splendor] John Paul takes on those moralists, including Catholic theologians, who say that an evil act may be justified by the end to which it is directed ('consequentialism') or by weighing the other goods at stake ('proportionalism'). It is never licit to do evil in order to achieve good. To those of a contrary view the questions might be put: When is rape morally justified? Or torture of children? Or Auschwitz? John Paul's answer is never."[13]

McCormick asserts, "So is mine and so is that of anyone identified as a proportionalist, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the literature will realize."[14]

Proportionalists may even be willing to call such actions intrinsically evil, yet it is not clear that even so they mean what the magisterium means. Proportionalists adopt different stances in respect to the term “intrinsic evil.” So far as I could discover, proportionalists have identified three different understandings of “intrinsic evil” that some of them accept: a use confined 1) only to concrete particular acts, 2) a “weak sense” and 3) the “formal sense.” Concrete Particulars

Father Edward Vacek insists that “intrinsic” evil is properly applied only to concrete particular acts:

Contrary to what its critics say, P [proportionalism] is not opposed to the use of the terms "intrinsic evil," "duty," or absolute," but it uses these terms only for concrete acts. One ought not -- "absolutely" ought not -- do an act that is wrong. Such an act is "intrinsically evil." In the sphere of concrete moral decisions, P often is experientially indistinguishable from classical act-deontology. What P refuses to do is use these terms for norms or for classes of acts viewed independently of the agent of the circumstances. "Absolutes" commonly refer to a class of acts that are always prescribed or proscribed, i.e., in all circumstances, at all times, in all places, and for all persons without exception. For P, the word "absolute" is reserved for a particular contingent deed that is objectively required. Since no behavioral norm can foresee or include all the possible combinations of values involved in a concrete deed, absolute behavioral norms unjustifiably exclude consideration of features of an act that may be relevant.[15]

McCormick himself, in his earlier writings, recognized that this use of “intrinsic evil” is not that of the magisterium and that it thus creates difficulties for proportionalists:

[T]he notion of intrinsic evil has such a variety of understandings that it is all but useless in contemporary discourse. Secondly, many contemporary theologians are primarily concerned with departing from the term as it has been used in recent theological and magisterial literature ... In that literature, certain kinds of actions (directly killing an innocent human person, direct sterilization) have been proscribed as always wrong regardless of circumstances or consequences. These theologians argue that these contentions have not been satisfactorily established. In other words, they are primarily discoursing with their own tradition, and arguing that one cannot isolate the object of an act and say of it that it is always wrong in any conceivable circumstances. One can, of course, begin to add a variety of circumstances to the description of an act so that such an act is always wrong. For instance: abortion of a fetus in order to avoid a medical (delivery) bill. That is always wrong -- and, if one wishes, intrinsically wrong (scil., praeceptum quia malum, not malum quia praeceptum). There are a whole host of actions that fit this category; but when one says that, he must realize that he is no longer speaking of the object of the action as used in recent theological and magisterial literature.

... [T]herefore, these theologians are arguing that when an action is always morally wrong, it is so not because of unnaturalness or defect of right (as recent tradition contends), but because when taken as a whole, the nonmoral evil outweighs the nonmoral good, and therefore the action is disproportionate. One can legitimately continue to call such an action intrinsically evil, but I see no great gain in doing so. Indeed, it is confusing; for the term is associated unavoidably with its usage in recent tradition.[16]

Here McCormick is objecting to the use of the term "intrinsic evil" to refer to acts described in the concrete particular and finds it confusing to use the term in such a fashion. Proportionalists, I believe, continue to use it in that fashion and in other senses as well. The Weak Sense

Father Albert Di Ianni speaks of a “weak sense” of intrinsic evil that he finds acceptable:

I would thus construe acts such as homicide, lying, stealing, etc., as morally intrinsically evil, but in a weak sense. By this I mean that they are not for this reason disallowed whatever the consequences, and here I abandon the strong sense of “intrinsically evil” found in the textbook tradition. Such acts are to be construed as the object of a negative moral ‘ought’ but of moral ‘ought’ which is not always decisive or overriding but is always relevant in every situation. Objects of such negative moral ‘oughts’ or claims would never be viewed as positive right-making or loving-making characteristics of a situation; they may at best become morally tolerable in some situations. The presumption is against them and they are in need of justification. A moral imperative (and meaning) is generated by them in the sense that if the good end sought could be achieved in some other way which avoids them and procures at least an equal amount of good this other must be done. Moreover, even when in some situation an action which is viewed as intrinsically evil in this weak sense can be legitimately posited it is viewed as a source of creative regret. In other words, in such cases one’s moral obligation would not cease but one would be obliged to actively attempt to make up for the evil wrought. The perpetration of such acts is to be strongly avoided even if it is not necessarily always forbidden, but can never be considered a positive moral feature in any situation.[17]

Clearly, this sense of “intrinsic evil” is very far removed from what the magisterium has meant and means by the term, for the magisterium certainly maintains that intrinsically evil actions are always forbidden.

The Formal Sense

Father Charles Curran speaks of the “formal sense” of intrinsic evil. He states:

... revisionist moral theologians are willing to accept some intrinsically evil acts when the object of the act is described in formal terms (murder is always wrong, stealing is always wrong) or when the act is described in terms of its significant circumstances (not telling the truth when the neighbor has no right to the truth).

The primary area of disagreement concerns the understanding of the moral object. The encyclical claims that morality is determined by the three sources of morality -- the object, the end, and the circumstances -- and that some actions are intrinsically evil by reason of their object (n. 71-83) The question is, how does one describe the object? As mentioned above, revisionist theologians would be willing to admit intrinsically evil acts by reason of the object if the object were described in a broad or formal way or with some significant circumstances.[18]

When Curran speaks of actions being intrinsically evil in the “formal sense”, he basically means that actions have are defined as evil and then said to be wrong; that is they are basically evaluated in a tautological fashion. That is, murder is always wrong because it means "killing unjustly."

The dispute of Veritatis Splendor is not with Vacek’s understanding of intrinsic evil nor with Di Ianni’s. Both of those senses bear so little resemblance to the magisterium’s sense and involve such an explicit rejection of it, that there is little room for discussion there. But there is room for discussion with Curran.

It is essential to note that the magisterium holds that no intention and no circumstance and no projected consequences could make "intentionally killing an innocent human being" or "having sexual intercourse with another's spouse" to be morally good. Do proportionalists as described by Curran and McCormick hold the same? Certainly, proportionalists hold "unjust killing" to be always wrong and "having sexual intercourse with the wrong person" to be always wrong, but do they hold the "intentional killing of an innocent human being" and the "having sexual intercourse with another's spouse" to be always unjustifiable? Veritatis Splendor maintains that the principles of proportionalists commit them to allowing that some intention, circumstance or consequence could render such actions to be moral; that is, that certain intentions or circumstances or consequences could allow for the "intentional killing of an innocent human being" and "having sexual intercourse with another's spouse." Neuhaus in the passage cited above is not saying that proportionalists have explicitly expressed approval of such actions as rape or Hitler’s pogroms, or that they ever would; rather he is saying that the principles of proportionalism could be used to justify such actions. Neuhaus is saying that according to proportionalist principles, if in some circumstances, more good than evil could be judged to result from "having sex with a woman against her will", such an act would be moral; the evil done to the woman would be "premoral". So too with torture, and pogroms. While Veritatis Splendor does not make the criticism so sharply as Neuhaus, the accusation is the same. The accusation is essentially this: Since proportionalists hold that there are no intrinsically evil actions, this means that some intention, some circumstance, some set of projected consequences could serve to justify any action.

A passage from the work of Father Joseph Fuchs further justifies the claim that that proportionalists cannot mean the same thing as the magisterium when they speak of intrinsically evil acts and that in fact they reject the magisterium’s understanding completely:

If the absoluteness of the moral norm signifies objectivity more than universal validity, can moral norms be universal at all, in the sense of being applicable always, everywhere and without exception, so that the action encompassed by them could never be objectively justified? Traditionally we are accustomed to speak of an "intrinsece malum."

Viewed theoretically, there seems to be no possibility of norms of this kind for human action in the inner-worldly realm. The reason is that an action cannot be judged morally at all, considered purely in itself, but only together with all the "circumstances" and the "intention." Consequently, a behavioral norm, universally valid in the full sense, would presuppose that those who arrive at it could know or foresee adequately all the possible combinations of the action concerned with circumstances and intentions, with (pre-moral) values and non-values (bona and mala "physica"). A priori, such knowledge is not attainable.[19]

Would it be wrong to interpret the principles articulated in this passage to allow for the possibility that there could be circumstances in which "intentionally killing an innocent human being" would be moral?

It seems not. While McCormick holds that "murder is always wrong" (understood as "unjust killing"), McCormick himself takes exception to designating "the intentional killing of an innocent human being" as an intrinsic evil. He states:

...when one says that "direct killing of the innocent" is forbidden, he need not and should not imply that such killing is morally wrong "independently of whatever reasons, the agent might have had." He may and ought to imply that the conceivable reasons for killing in such circumstances are, under careful analysis, not proportionate to the harm done; for if it was a weighing of alternatives that honed the rule to its present precision, it is a weighing of alternatives that must test its continuing viability.[20]

That is, it seems that if a set of conceivable circumstances could be offered that would foresee evils that would outweigh the harm done in directly killing the innocent, such an action would be moral. This openness to the possibility that foreseeable circumstances could require "refinement" of the prohibition of the "intentional killing of the innocent" suggests that all "refinements" could then be further refined, and thus no "absolute" is truly absolute.

So too, while proportionalists argue that adultery by definition is always morally wrong, they hold that "having sexual intercourse with another's spouse" may be morally permissible in certain circumstances. Take the famous case of Mrs. Bergmeier where Mrs. Bergmeier would be released from prison were she to become pregnant. Some proportionalists would argue that for Mrs. Bergmeier to have sexual intercourse with a warden, someone not her spouse, would be morally permissible because she would be achieving the good of returning to her family.[21] They would not consider her act to be an act of adultery. They believe adultery to be always morally evil but they do not believe that Mrs. Bergmeier's act of "having sexual intercourse with one not her spouse" is morally evil because she has a proportionately good reason for doing so; they would not judge her to have committed an act of adultery.[22] Any evil involved would be a "pre-moral evil" not a moral evil.

The magisterium, however, maintains, that no intention can justify the evil of "having sexual intercourse with another's spouse" -- such is an objective, intrinsic, evil no matter what the intention or circumstances. In the eyes of the Church, Mrs. Bergmeier's act would be an act of adultery (an intrinsic evil, a malum); she ought not to have sexual intercourse with the prison guard. Whether or not she committed a culpa, that is, whether or not she was subjectively guilty, could only be determined by learning how she perceived her act.[23] Clearly, assuming that she does not wish to have sexual intercourse with the guard independent of the circumstances, we must judge Mrs. Bergmeier's act of adultery to be very different from that of another individual who commits adultery in a situation free from all external pressure. That is, no matter what her beliefs about the morality of her action, surely her culpability is mitigated by the circumstances, but the Church would hold that an act of intercourse with the guard would not be justified by the circumstances.

The Accusations

In light of the above, let us return to the proportionalists’ objection to the portrayal of their position in Veritatis Splendor.

Earlier, we cited Father Richard McCormick’s claim that proportionalists have never said that a good intention can justify doing what is morally wrong: indeed he says that Veritatis Splendor "repeatedly" makes this charge. He insists "Once the action is said to be wrong, no 'further purpose' will purge that wrongfulness" and "Not a single theologian would hold that a good intention could sanctify what has already been described as a morally wrong act."[24] But McCormick's reaction is unwarranted. Indeed, he is being somewhat imprecise, because Veritatis Splendor never explicitly makes such a charge. Certainly, it makes charges that McCormick understands to be equivalent, but it does not make the exact charge he claims. It never says that proportionalists say "it is justifiable to do what is morally wrong."

What is key to the difficulty are the phrases that McCormick uses in his above disclaimers. He speaks of an act that "is said" to be wrong and to acts that "have already been described" as morally wrong. The question here is: Who is doing the "saying" and the "describing"? It seems proportionalists think that what is being attributed to them is this claim: "Proportionalists claim that if an agent has a sufficiently good intention, he is justified (i.e., he is doing what he ought to do) in doing what he, the agent, believes ('says,' 'describes') to be morally wrong (i.e., something that ought not to be done; something that is sinful)." Proportionalists (as does the magisterium) hold that no one ought to do what he thinks he ought not to do; for that would involve violating one's own conscience, and one ought never to do that.

Or perhaps proportionalists think the charge against them is: "Proportionalists claim that if an agent has a sufficiently good intention, he is justified (i.e., he is doing what he ought to do), in doing an act that is intrinsically wrong (i.e., that ought never to be done)."[25] Proportionalists would disavow this position as incoherent since it claims that one ought to do what one ought not to do. They allow that if an action is morally wrong, one certainly ought never to do it but they deny that what has been called “intrinsically wrong” is in fact “intrinsically wrong.” That is, if there is a sufficiently good intention, the act can no longer be said to be intrinsically wrong.

Let us look carefully at several of the places in the encyclical where accusations against proportionalists are made. Consider first section 56; we read that some moral theories claim that "by taking account of circumstances and the situation, [a concrete existential consideration] could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law." (italics in the original; underlining is mine).[26] In section 75. we read, " act which, by contradicting a universal negative norm, directly violates goods considered as "premoral" could be qualified as morally acceptable if the intention of the subject is focused, in accordance with a 'responsible' assessment of the goods in the concrete action, on the moral value judged to be decisive in the situation." Later we find this: "Such theories however are not faithful to the Church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of divine and natural law" (sec. 76; underlining is mine). I think the proper interpretation of these passages is: "Proportionalists hold that if an agent has a proportionate reason, he is justified (i.e., he is doing what he ought to do) in doing what has in fact been judged intrinsically discordant with the human good (i.e., intrinsic evil)."

This accusation is different from that which proportionalists seem to think is being made against them. There is no violation of conscience involved in this accusation nor incoherence. Certainly, the precise charge is no more palatable to proportionalists but they will have difficulty rejecting it so dismissively. What is key here, it seems, is who has judged some act to be intrinsically evil? As we have seen, it cannot be the agent, for that would involve either a violation of conscience or an incoherence. What the Church is saying is that the moral law (both divine and natural) determines what is evil, a law properly interpreted by the Church; what is doing the judging is “right reason”.

Certainly, proportionalists also quarrel with the accusation stated more accurately: they deny that they would allow some intentions, circumstances or consequences to justify doing what is intrinsically evil. They should, however, acknowledge that what they mean is that they believe it is never morally right to do what is morally wrong or intrinsically evil by their standards. They should also acknowledge that they do say that it is sometimes morally right to do what the magisterium teaches to be intrinsically evil. This is what Veritatis Splendor is attributing to proportionalists. Proportionalists rightly deny that they think it justifiable to do what is said to be morally wrong or so "described" by their standards (or the agent's standards). Veritatis Splendor, however, attributes to proportionalists the claim that on occasion it is morally permissible to do what the magisterium judges to be intrinsically evil. (Again, the magisterium understands itself to be a proper judge of what is truly intrinsically evil). It makes this very clear when it rejects the proportionalist view that "deliberate consent to certain kinds of behaviour declared illicit by traditional moral theology would not imply an objective moral evil" (sec. 75).

It is undeniable that when proportionalists make their evaluations of what is right and what is wrong, their judgments often differ from those of traditional moral theology. For instance, magisterial documents teach that contraception is an intrinsic evil and thus, when proportionalists say that it is morally permissible to use contraception, the Church understands proportionalists to hold that it is morally permissible to do something intrinsically evil. Since proportionalists deny that contraception is intrinsically evil, they resent having it said that they claim that it is morally right to do what is intrinsically wrong. Yet, given its understanding of contraception, it is not peculiar or wrong for the Church to state that on occasion proportionalists assert that it is morally right to do what is intrinsically or objectively evil.[27] And this is, in fact, what Veritatis Splendor charges.

The Deeper Divide

Is the dispute between proportionalists and the magisterium largely a terminological one? Is it about what constitutes the object of the moral act, what role circumstances play in the definition of a moral action, whether norms are tautological, or whether there are any intrinsically evil actions? All of these are important issues, but I believe that the most important difference between proportionalists and the magisterium is one that has been somewhat obscured by concentrating on the issues listed above. I suspect that the deepest divide between proportionalists and the magisterium is on what standard one uses to determine what is evil and, of course, what constitutes moral evil.[28]

In his response to Veritatis Splendor, Father Charles Curran repeatedly raised the question: "What is truth?" or "What is moral truth?" He set up the question in this fashion:

The charge of physicalism is intimately connected with the theory of proportionalism. Rather than describe the physical act of an object as morally wrong, this theory speaks of premoral, ontic, or physical evil that can be justified for a proportionate reason. This challenges the hierarchical teaching on contraception, but also explains the existing hierarchical teaching on killing, mutilation, taking property, etc. There is no doubt that Catholic moral theologians are calling for a change in hierarchical teaching, especially in the area of sexuality, but they are precisely challenging these areas in which the moral aspect has been a priori identified with the physical aspect of the of the act. Thus the differences between these revisionist moral theologians and the pope are much less than the encyclical recognizes. The problem is not that dissenting moral theologians absolutize freedom and/or conscience or separate them from truth. The question remains: What is moral truth?[29]

This passage raises several questions that may further clarify the differences between proportionalists and the magisterium: 1) Does the magisterium condemn acts, particularly sexual acts, on the basis of the physical aspect of the act? 2) What do proportionalists mean by "premoral, ontic, or physical evil?"[30] 3) What is moral truth in the understanding of proportionalists? and 4) What is moral truth in the understanding of the magisterium? Space does not permit a full answer to any of these questions, but simply an attempt to sketch out preliminary answers should show that the differences between proportionalists and the magisterium are not less than they seem, but perhaps even greater.

Although hesitant to give one definition for the many varieties of proportionalism, Father Richard McCormick describes proportionalism in this fashion:[31]

Common to all so-called proportionalists ... is the insistence that causing certain disvalues (nonmoral, premoral evils such as sterilization, deception in speech, wounding and violence) in our conduct does not by that very fact make the action morally wrong, as certain traditional formulations supposed. The action becomes morally wrong when, all things considered, there is not a proportionate reason in the act justifying the disvalue. Thus, just as not every killing is murder, not every falsehood is a lie, so not every artificial intervention preventing or promoting conception in marriage is necessarily an unchaste act.[32]

Proportionalists hold that “killing”, “telling a falsehood,” and “contracepting” are all premoral evils that need some further specification to determine whether or not it would be immoral to perform such actions. Proportionalists have given various definitions of "premoral, nonmoral, physical, ontic, and material evil" over the years. Perhaps the summary statement of Father Richard Gula will provide a sufficient description:

Ontic evil or ... "premoral disvalue" is Janssens' way of accounting for the ambiguity of human actions. This ambiguity is the result of the limitations of being human. Ontic evil/premoral disvalue expresses the lack of perfection in anything whatsoever. These notions express limitation, the failure to reach the full actualization of human potential. Ontic evils or premoral disvalues are what we experience as regrettable, harmful, detrimental to full human growth. These would be such things as suffering, injury, fatigue, ignorance, violence, death, etc. Ontic evils are inevitably present in human actions because of the unavoidable limitations that come with being human. As Janssens puts it, ontic evil is present in our actions "because we are temporal and spatial, and live together with others in the same material world, are involved and act in a common sinful situation." This means that we are not able to realize the good without causing or admitting to some ontic evil, or premoral disvalue.

Ontic evil is not moral evil. If these were the same, we could not act morally at all. Moral evil is causing or permitting ontic evil without a proportionate reason.[33]

There are certainly some apparent correspondences between proportionalists and the magisterium. In fact, “ontic evil” seems to be the malum of the magisterium. Both the magisterium and proportionalists would certainly agree that "Ontic evil/premoral disvalue expresses the lack of perfection in anything whatsoever.” And both would agree that some ontic evils outweigh others (it is permissible to throw a grand piano overboard to save a sinking ship). The magisterium, however, thinks that some ontic evils can never be the object of a morally correct choice whereas proportionalists think that all ontic evils can be the object of a morally correct choice if a proportionate reason exists for choosing them.

Proportionalists accuse the magisterium of inconsistency in the way that it evaluates moral action. Their charge against the magisterium can be seen clearly in this passage from McCormick:

[T]he tradition has defined certain actions as morally wrong ex objecto because it has included in the object not simply the material happening (object in a very narrow sense) but also elements beyond it which clearly exclude any possible justification. Thus, a theft is not simply "taking another's property", but doing so "against the reasonable will of the owner." This latter addition has two characteristics in the tradition. (1) It is considered as essential to the object. (2) It excludes any possible exceptions. Why? because if a person is in extreme difficulty and needs food, the owner is not reasonably unwilling that his food be taken. Fair enough. Yet, when the same tradition deals with, for example, masturbation or sterilisation, it adds little or nothing to the material happening and regards such a materially described act alone as constituting the object. If it were consistent, it would describe the object as "sterilisation against the good of marriage." This all could accept.[34]

Again, proportionalists argue that the Church is inconsistent because they claim that the Church will allow “killing,” “telling falsehoods,” and “taking another’s property,” for example, for proportionate reason, whereas it will not allow that it is moral to perform such actions as “contraception,” “masturbation,” and “sterilization” for proportionate reasons. They claim that the Church condemns various sexual acts on the basis of their physical description only while allowing other considerations to alter the moral evaluations of the “physical” acts of “killing,” “telling falsehoods,” and “taking another’s property.” Proportionalists are correct that the Church allows some “proportionate reason” to “redefine” certain acts and that the three actions just identified are among those actions. They are wrong to think that the Church treats sexual acts differently.

First let us address a fairly clear error. Those proportionalists who seem to think that the Church is balancing goods and evils when it calls an action morally evil are not correct. They seem to think that the Church condemns murder, theft and lying because so much evil comes from such actions and that the Church allows killing in self-defense, the occasional “taking of another’s property” and the “telling of falsehoods” in instances where the bad consequences outweigh the good. They believe that in all instances the “physical action” is the same, but that the consequences are what determine the morality of the actions. Portions of the actions may be the same, but there are some features of the actions, the moral features, that render the actions to be of different kinds.

The fact is that the Church holds that murder, theft, and lying violate certain fundamental human goods, that they are against right reason. Murder (deliberate killing of an innocent person) is wrong because it violates the good of innocent life; theft (taking property needed by the one who owns it) is wrong because it violates the good of property, and lying (telling what is false to someone who deserves to know the truth) is wrong because it violates justice. Bad consequences may come from respecting these goods, but these goods ought never to be deliberately violated nonetheless.

The Church allows killing in self-defense because reason requires that the innocent be able to defend themselves against the guilty, even if great evil comes from such defense. The Church allows the telling a falsehood to defend the innocent, again, because reason establishes the guilty are not deserving of the truth. The Church allows a starving man to take from another’s excess because in God’s universe we are really only stewards of our goods; excess goods belong in some important sense to those who have true need of them.[35]

Proportionalists are wrong to think that the Church permits such actions as “killing”; “taking the [excess] property owned by another,” and “telling a falsehood” when good consequences outweigh the evil. First let us note that the evil consequent upon any of these actions may in fact outweigh the good but the actions may still be morally good. That is, someone killing an unjust aggressor may in fact be a reprobate without social value, whereas the unjust aggressor may be a famous scientist who knows a cure for a devastating disease. His death may deprive more people of good than the death of the victim would, but the act of self-defense would nonetheless be morally good. Someone may tell a falsehood to a Nazi looking for the Jews in hiding. By doing so, he may protect those Jews, but in fact lead to the retaliatory death of many others. Also a reasonable owner of excess food may not withhold that food from a needy man who takes it without his permission (who “steals” it) and it may be right that the needy man get the food. Still, the needy man may be a horrible murderer who with the strength he acquires from the food is now able to kill several innocent victims. The reasonable owner did right allowing his food to be taken but more evil than good resulted from his action.

The Church would allow that all of the above agents acted morally: the reprobate killing the famous scientist in self-defense, the man who told a falsehood to the Nazi, the man who stole food from a reasonable owner. Nonetheless in each case, more good than evil issued from the action; a balancing of goods and evils, then, is not the criterion used to judge such actions to be good. (It is not clear to me how proportionalists would evaluate each action; the diversity possible in the application of proportionalist principles is one of the signs of the imperfection of the theory.)

To summarize: murder, taking another’s property and lying are intrinsically wrong and can never be done. Killing in self-defense, taking [excess] property owned by another, and telling a falsehood are not exceptions to the rules; they are not instances of murder, theft, and lying that are have become permissible because of circumstances that exempt one from absolute prohibitions; they are not justified because of the magnitude of evil that they prohibit. Rather, they are different acts entirely that share some physical features in common.

Nor is the fact that evil usually results from contraception, masturbation, or sterilization the reason why the Church condemns such actions. Rather, it holds that all these actions are wrong because they are violations of fundamental human goods. It holds that all these actions are intrinsically against the goods of sexuality that are integrally a part of the “good of marriage." It believes that these actions cannot be transformed into good actions by good consequences. To be perfectly clear, the Church holds it to be impossible that there are acts of contraception, masturbation, and sterilization deliberately chosen as such that can be in accord with the good of marriage – exceptions cannot be made since the acts as defined are irredeemable.

Let us use contraception as our paradigm case to elaborate this point. And since different modes of contraception would need to be defined differently, let us use the contraceptive pill as our example.

A (partial)[36] physical description of the use of the contraceptive pill would be "taking female hormonal treatments that render one infertile;" as described this is a morally indifferent action. That is, one is not able to make a moral judgment of that action on the basis of the physical description alone (though the physical evil of infertility does already suggest a negativity about the action – an ontic evil). "Taking female hormonal treatments that render one infertile for the purpose of frustrating the fertility of the sexual act" adds a moral dimension: it defines the ultimate ordination of the act as one against the good of fertility. The magisterium judges that the deliberate frustration of the fertility of the sexual act is a direct violation of an intrinsic human good – of the good of marriage. The human good that is violated is twofold: it includes both procreation and union. (I shall say more about these goods in a moment.) These are distinctively human goods and not simply "physical goods." If they were simply physical goods, we would expect that they could be sacrificed to higher human values. Certainly we permit the sterilization of other animals and their physical processes for higher goods.[37]

"Taking female hormonal treatments that render one infertile, for the purpose of reducing cysts" is an act physically identical to the physical act of contracepting; the two actions are distinguished morally on the basis of their ultimate ordination, not on some "physical basis." (In this second case the resulting infertility is a side-effect of the medication; in the case of contraceptors the infertility is precisely what is intended.) The difference between the magisterium and proportionalists, then, is not that proportionalists look beyond the physical act. Indeed, proportionalists allow that there is evil in contracepting but they find it to be only a premoral, ontic, or physical evil;[38] it is the magisterium that finds contraception to violate distinctively human goods.

While the magisterium holds that violating the procreative good of the conjugal act ought never to be done, proportionalists believe that while some evil is incurred in violating this good, other values of marriage justify violating this good. What seems to be dividing proportionalists and the magisterium is not so much whether "procreation" is a physical good or how intentions and circumstances and consequences figure into the analysis of an action, but what kind of goods procreation and union are. While it would require an extensive analysis to explain precisely the nature of the goods of procreation and union, perhaps a brief sketch of them would assist us in discerning what may be the crucial divide between proportionalists and traditionalists on the subject of contraception.

The Intrinsic Goods of Union and Procreation

The tradition has always made the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic goods. All material things in this world are instrumental to human goods; they exist for the purpose of helping human beings perfect themselves. They can be sacrificed in behalf of human goods. A human soul is an intrinsic good and thus the moral good of the soul cannot be sacrificed for any other good. I have been calling “fundamental goods” those goods that are integral to human perfection; justice, moderation, and courage, for example, are instances of fundamental goods; they cannot be violated for higher goods since they are ultimate goods.

In his Love and Responsibility, Pope John Paul II (then Karol Wojtyla) explained how contraception is a violation of the justice that one owes to God. The sexual relationship between spouses is one of God’s great gifts to mankind; it enables human beings to overcome their existential loneliness and to overcome their selfishness by participating in a common good and a good of inestimable value– the good of bringing into existence another creature with an immortal soul. Without the ordination to new life, Wojtyla explains, the sexual urge remains fundamentally selfish, an act of self-satisfaction rather than an act that is ordained to a good that spouses can share. Wojtyla argues that pleasure is a subjective good – one that by its very nature cannot be shared, whereas the gift of life is a gift that one makes to another with another. Contraception negates the good of the ordination to human life that is inherent in the sexual act of humans and trivializes the commitment that is implied in the sexual act. Because it is humans who are engaging in human sexual acts, such acts are good only within the context of an indissoluble marriage and good only when respecting the good of procreation. Human goods require that sexual intercourse be confined to marriage – human goods such as the need for humans (spouses and child) to be loved unconditionally, human goods such as the need a child has for loving parents of both sexes.

I understand the above claims to be weighty with assumptions and in need of considerable elaboration. Karol Wojtyla has provided much of that elaboration in his Love and Responsibility, a work sadly neglected by dissenting theologians. I believe that the debate between proportionalists and traditionalists should now move away from concerns about the parts of the moral act and the question of what constitutes an intrinsic evil. Turning to the question of what kind of goods are the goods of procreation and union, and how contraception impacts upon those goods should draw us closer to the heart of the matter.

[1] I would like to acknowledge the assistance in the writing of this essay given to me by Lance Simmons, Ronald K. Tacelli, S.J., and especially Mark Lowery and several members of his class on moral theology.

[2] See my forthcoming article, “Moral Terminology and Proportionalism” in a festschrift for Ralph McInerny, edited by Thomas Hibbs

[3] Richard McCormick, S.J. published essentially the same article three different places: "Document begs many legitimate moral questions," National Catholic Reporter (Oct. 15, 1993) p. 17; "Veritatis Splendor and Moral Theology" America (October 30, 1993), p. 8-11, and "Veritatis Splendor in Focus: Killing the Patient," in The Tablet (30 October 1993) pp. 1410-1411. This passage can be found in America, p. 10.

[4] Richard McCormick, S.J. ,"Some Early Reactions to Veritatis Splendor," Theological Studies 55 (1994) 481-506 (hereafter "Some Early Reactions").

[5] Again, see my forthcoming article, “Moral Terminology and Proportionalism” in a festschrift for Ralph McInerny, edited by Thomas Hibbs.

[6] Father Edward Vacek makes this point clear: "Contrary to what its critics say, P [proportionalism] is not opposed to the use of the terms "intrinsic evil," "duty," or absolute," but it uses these terms only for concrete acts. One ought not -- "absolutely" ought not -- do an act that is wrong. Such an act is "intrinsically evil." In the sphere of concrete moral decisions, P often is experientially indistinguishable from classical act-deontology. What P refuses to do is use these terms for norms or for classes of acts viewed independently of the agent of the circumstances. "Absolutes" commonly refer to a class of acts that are always prescribed or proscribed, i.e., in all circumstances, at all times, in all places, and for all persons without exception. For P, the word "absolute" is reserved for a particular contingent deed that is objectively required. Since no behavioral norm can foresee or include all the possible combinations of values involved in a concrete deed, absolute behavioral norms unjustifiably exclude consideration of features of an act that may be relevant." Edward V. Vacek, "Proportionalism: One View of the Debate," Theological Studies 46 (1985), p. 294. See also, Brian Thomas Mullady's, O.P., The Meaning of the Term "Moral" in St. Thomas Aquinas (Pontificia Accademia de S. Tommaso: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1986); Mullady claims that proportionalism (which he calls "moderate teleology") grew out of a response to Karl Rahner's call for an existentialist ethics that provides individual norms for concrete particular actions.

[7] In Summa Theologica, I, Q. 58, art. 1, Aquinas states: "...moral virtue is so called from mos in the sense of a natural or quasi-natural inclination to do some particular action. And the other meaning of mos, i.e., custom, is akin to this, because custom somehow becomes a nature, and produces an inclination similar to a natural one" (trans. from Anton C. Pegis, ed., Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Modern Library Edition, 1948). See also, Summa Contra Gentiles III, 10, sec. 11-18.

[8] "Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits." (Veritatis Splendor, 71)

[9] Veritatis Splendor 78 speaks of the "object" specifying the moral species of an action.

[10] See Veritatis Splendor 62: "The Council reminds us that in cases where such invincible ignorance is not culpable, conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order [translate: to do moral evil], it continues to speak in the name of that truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely" (the insertion is mine). See also, section 63.

[11] McCormick, Notes on Moral Theology: 1965-1980, p. 700, is citing Donald McCarthy whose critique was contained in a letter from Archbishop Joseph L. Bernadin to his priests. No bibliographical data is given for the letter.

[12] Notes on Moral Theology: 1965-1980, p. 700.

[13] "Some Early Reactions," p. 487.

[14] "Some Early Reactions," p. 487.

[15] Edward V. Vacek, "Proportionalism: One View of the Debate," Theological Studies 46 (1985), p. 294. See also, Brian Thomas Mullady's, O.P., The Meaning of the Term "Moral" in St. Thomas Aquinas (Pontificia Accademia de S. Tommaso: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1986); Mullady claims that proportionalism (which he calls "moderate teleology") grew out of a response to Karl Rahner's call for an existentialist ethics that provides individual norms for concrete particular actions.

[16] Notes on Moral Theology 1960-1980: p. 710.

[17] “The Direct/Indirect Distinction in Morals” in Readings in Moral Theology No. 1 ed. By Charles Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. (1979), 224.

[18] "Veritatis Splendor: A Revisionist Perspective," in Veritatis Splendor: American Responses ed. by Michael E. Allsopp and John J. O'Keefe, (Kansas City, MO.: Sheed and Ward, 1995) 238.

[19] Joseph Fuchs, S.J., "The Absoluteness of Moral Terms" in Readings in Moral Theology No. 1 ed. by Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1979) 124. One tends to think that Veritatis Splendor had such a passage in mind when it claimed: "teleological and proportionalist theories ... hold that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species -- its 'object' -- the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned." (sec. 79)

[20] NMT, 1965-1980, p. 542.

[21] McCormick notes that two proportionalists, Joseph Fuchs (NMT, p. 512) and David Blanchfield (NMT, p. 536) believe Mrs. Bergmeier's having sexual intercourse with the prison guard to be morally justified. McCormick does not seem altogether comfortable with their assessment but allows that justification is a possibility (NMT, p. 537).

[22] See Richard McCormick: "...the question is not whether adultery is justified by a good intent. It is rather how the circumstances and intent must be weighed before an action is called adultery (or theft, or blasphemy)" (NMT, 1965-1980, p. 581).

[23] See my forthcoming article, “Moral Terminology and Proportionalism” in a festschrift for Ralph McInerny, edited by Thomas Hibbs for an elaboration of the difference between “malum” and “culpa”.

[24] "Some Recent Reactions", p. 497. And further, McCormick asserts "Fuchs underlines the fact that no proportionalist says or can be forced (logically) to say that a good end justifies a morally wrong means. Once an action is said to be morally wrong, nothing can justify it." ("Some Recent Reactions", p. 500).

[25] In this second charge it is not clear who has "said" or "described" the act performed as "morally wrong"; perhaps the "speaker" is understood to be "the good moral reasoner."

[26] Citations from Veritatis Splendor are from the translation issued by the Vatican (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana).

[27] If A (who does not believe abortion to be intrinsically evil) says that abortion is morally justified, and B says that abortion is intrinsically evil, is it wrong for B to say that A. holds that something intrinsically evil is morally justified?

[28] There has been some discussion on supporters of the magisterium and proportionalists on this issue. See, for instance, William May's "Contraception and Responsible Parenthood," Faith and Reason 3 (1977) 34-52 and Richard McCormick's response, NMT 1965-1980, 708-10 as well as Servais Pinckaers, O.P., "La question des acts intrinsequement mauvais et le 'proportionalisme,'" Revus thomiste 82 (1982) 181-212 and McCormick's response in Notes on Moral Theology 1981 through 1984 (Lanham, MD; University Press of America, 1984) 110-113; hereafter NMT, 1981-1984.

[29] Charles Curran in American Responses, p. 238.

[30] See my earlier and somewhat fuller treatment of this question in Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington, D.C.; Catholic University of America Press, 1991), pp. 199-229.

[31] As proportionalists are quick to point out, proportionalism is not a monolithic system; different proponents of proportionalism have different terms to describe the evil that they think adheres to an act prior to a moral specification of the act by intention, circumstances or consequences. Since McCormick seems most comfortable with "premoral evil" as a standard designation, this term has been adopted here.

[32] America, 9-10.

[33] Richard M. Gula, S.S., What are they saying about moral norms? (New York: Ramsey Press, 1982), p. 71-72. The first citation is from Louis Janssens, "Norms and Priorities in a Love Ethics," Louvain Studies 4 (Spring 1977): 207-208; the second is from Janssens' "Ontic Evil and Moral Evil," Readings in Moral Theology No. 1, p. 60; the third citation is ibid., p. 61.

[34] America, p. 10.

[35] The description of these actions can be explained in terms of allowing a “specifying circumstance” to enter into the “object” of the action. For such an explanation see my forthcoming article, “Moral Terminology and Proportionalism” in a festschrift for Ralph McInerny, edited by Thomas Hibbs.

[36] A full physical description would need to include the harmful physical side effects. Dissenters never comment upon the considerable unpleasant side effects that accompany all chemical contraceptives. The “disvalue” of these should play some role in their evaluation of at least chemical contraceptives.

[37] See my article “Barnyard Morality…

[38] See McCormick, NMT 1965-1980, 704.


  • 1) No Title


    I saw Dr. Smith last night on EWTN discussing our Faith and sexuality.She was outstanding! Such incite!God bless her.

  • 2) relativism

    Author: SarahS

    New convert here, going on 3 years. In my mid40's, I had a faith crisis as a lifelong 'Bible' Christian (Baptist). I suddenly needed to know where the Church was, if it had authority, and what kind of pastoral interest it had in me. The issue of canonization was instrumental in my conversion, and now a large part of my study has to do w/ inerrancy and inspiration. Relativism seems to be the background noise to the modern theology, and in the case of your article here I have this representative question. If sex outside of marriage is wrong because it denies the potential child of the union of a father and mother... what of homosexual adoption in the case of an orphan who is languishing in an institutional setting? Isn't this, though not the ideal, better than not having any parents or family at all? Thank you!!

  • 3) Greatwork everyoje

    Author: seb

    nice work everyone

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