Twenty years ago last month, Pope John Paul II published his controversial encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). He did it in the face of resistance from a majority of Anglo-American and European academic moralists who believed the encyclical was a ruse to centralize moral authority in Rome. They felt it was their duty to ignore or oppose it before it dragged the discipline of moral theology back to the hated days of the moral “manuals.” And so they did both.
But their fears were greatly exaggerated. The discipline survived and so did they. And although theological dissent still characterizes much of academic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor stands as an undeniable watershed marking a highpoint in dissent’s hegemony over the discipline. Because of the pope’s intervention, radical theological dissent in Catholic theology has been in retreat for twenty years.
In gratitude for the pope’s courageous intervention, I would like to recall some early events surrounding the publication of the encyclical. This might help us to see more clearly the task before us as we face challenges still posed to the Church by dissenting Catholic theologians.
The Problem of Proportionalism
To rephrase St. Jerome’s dolorous adage from the 4th century in reference to the 1980s: “the whole world groaned and marveled to find itself proportionalist” (in this case, the Catholic theological world). No exaggeration. When the great Canadian Cardinal Edouard Gagnon (d. 2007) was asked in 1983 for a solution to the moral problems of our time, he replied: “change 90 percent of the teachers of moral theology and stop them from teaching.”
How we got into such a sorry state is a topic for another essay. That we were there is a simple fact. In the 1980s, proportionalism was the undisputed champion of Catholic moral theology, with representatives in practically every Catholic seminary and university in the world: from internationally-renowned experts in moral theology who had served at the Second Vatican Council, such as Bernhard Häring, to the Church’s most influential moral theologians at Rome’s elite pontifical universities, such as Joseph Fuchs, to the leading chairs of America’s most prestigious Catholic Universities, such as Richard McCormick, to ten thousand of their students-come-priests, bishops and academics.
Only a very small number of Catholic theologians—the names of Germain Grisez and William E. May are most significant—had the courage and smarts to engage the regnant theory. Otherwise, Catholic moral theology was mute before the goliath.
It might be helpful to explain briefly what is meant by “proportionalism” (see also an earlier brief on the Idea of Maximizing The Good ).
Proportionalism is a method of moral reasoning used to arrive at moral judgments, especially in conflict situations.
Proportionalism is a variation of Consequentialism insofar as it appeals to a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms to determine the morality of acts. If we want to know whether some alternative under consideration is morally licit to choose, we compare the goods that we believe we can achieve by doing the act with the evils being threatened. If the goods outweigh the evils, we are justified in proceeding with the act, even though it might entail doing some kind of “lesser evil.”
For example, most proportionalists hold that we would be justified in deliberately lying to our enemy if in so doing some greater good promises to be achieved (e.g., we expose our enemy’s evil and he gets arrested) or a greater evil promises to be avoided (e.g., we avoid his unjust retribution). In either case, there exists in the situation what proponents refer to as a “proportionate reason” to do the lesser evil; this is the lynchpin justifying the commission of evil.
The Concept of “Pre-moral” Evil
I expect that a proportionalist might take exception to this definition. He might say that he does not argue that a lesser evil may be done to bring about a greater good; but that he only defends doing “pre-moral” evil for the sake of maximizing good. The distinction is all-important to the theory. You see, if after rendering a proportionalist analysis, you judge there is proportionate reason to do this evil here and now, then it’s not evil to do it.
Let me explain. Before the analysis is undertaken, any evil you are contemplating (e.g., killing the innocent, fornicating, lying) is said to be merely “pre-moral evil.” It is evil in some sense—call it “material” evil—in that some harm (or “disvalue”) will be intended; but it is not evil in a moral sense; it’s not wrong. It remains merely pre-moral evil unless and until we judge—through a proportionalist analysis—that there is not a “proportionate reason” to do it.
But if there is a proportionate reason, then we may proceed with the act, which remains merely “pre-morally” evil. And pre-moral evils are legitimate to intend.
Proportionalism and Intrinsically Evil Acts
The problem with this is that it erases the category of “intrinsically evil acts.” The Church has always taught that there are types of freely-chosen behavior that are always wrong to choose because they entail in their choosing a will that is radically contradictory to human good (e.g., sex outside of marriage, killing the innocent, telling a lie): “The whole tradition of the Church has lived and lives on the conviction” that “there exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object” (John Paul II, Address to Moral Theologians, 1986). According to Catholic tradition, there is never a “proportionate reason” intentionally to kill an innocent human being, engage in non-marital sex, or tell a lie.
By the mid-1980s, a majority of Catholic moral theologians were in open revolt against the concept of intrinsically evil acts (and the absolute moral norms they imply), especially on issues related to sex and life.
Veritatis Splendor and Proportionalism
In 1987, John Paul II announced that he intended to write an encyclical dealing with the foundations of moral theology. The pope’s intent was without precedent. Many documents had been written on concrete moral issues. He intended to address the adequacy of methods of moral reasoning used to assess those issues.
All knew what this meant. He intended to go after proportionalism.
He took six years of consultation and preparation to finish it. In August 1993, he promulgated Veritatis Splendor. He tellingly addressed it specifically to the bishops of the Catholic Church.
If you’ve never read Veritatis Splendor , I recommend it. Chapters 1 & 3 are among the most edifying of his papal writings. Chapter 2, where he lays the axe to the root of the tree of proportionalism, is, philosophically speaking, the hardest-hitting moral analysis found in all his writings.
The Encyclical’s Reception and Legacy
Unsurprisingly, the document was received bitterly by many moral theologians. And, unfortunately, it was received with benign neglect by most of the Catholic hierarchy.
Yet it gradually shaped episcopal appointments over the years and became a major factor in the review of Catholic seminaries.
Today, fewer proportionalists teach at Catholic seminaries, which is obviously good for the new generation of priests. Proportionalists still exist, but fewer proudly advertise themselves as such (they now call themselves “virtue ethicists” or other such things). Even fewer claim to be doing specifically Catholic moral theology. And even fewer are trusted by the U.S. bishops.
Twenty years may not quite be “history,” but Veritatis Splendor’s legacy is off to a good start.