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As the estimable Larry Chapp recently put it on his blog, Gaudium et Spes 22, “the deepest, most important, most contentious, most divisive, and most destructive debates [after Vatican II] surrounded moral theology, especially after Humanae Vitae and the massive dissent from it that followed.” Dr. Chapp also notes that you had to have lived through those debates to grasp, today, their volatility. For the dissenting theologians (and the bishops who tacitly or overtly supported them) were gobsmacked by Pope Paul VI’s re-affirmation of the Church’s long-standing ban on artificial means of contraception—and even more so by the moral reasoning by which he reached his decision.

For the “birth control debate” during and after Vatican II was never just about the morally acceptable means of exercising the moral responsibility to regulate fertility. It was also about the theological guild’s determination to enshrine the theory known as “proportionalism” as the Church’s official moral theology. Dr. Chapp again:

“[P]roportionalism” . . . taught that there can be no absolute moral norms since moral actions are largely determined . . . by the concrete circumstances in the life of the person committing the act . . . [which were] almost always . . . fraught with the ambiguity of “difficult and mitigating” circumstances. It is a bit of a caricature, but for the sake of a useful shorthand . . . proportionalism is a subspecies (in Catholic drag) of situation ethics.

How did otherwise intelligent people come to the absurd conclusion that there are no absolute moral norms that might not bend before “difficult and mitigating” circumstances? (What about murder, rape, and torturing children?) That’s a long story, involving the Sage of Königsberg, Immanuel Kant, and the Edinburgh philosopher David Hume. Suffice it to say that what many regarded as Kant’s destruction of metaphysics (i.e., the idea that there are deep truths built into the world and into us that we can know by reason) and Hume’s demolition of the claim that we can reason our way from a fact (e.g., there are innocent human beings) to a moral truth or value (e.g., innocent human life is inviolable) played starring roles in this drama. And, as always, ideas had consequences.

The Catholic debate over proportionalism ought to have been settled by two of John Paul II’s encyclicals. In 1993, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) rejected proportionalism as a legitimate Catholic method of doing moral theology by authoritatively teaching that there are, in fact, intrinsically evil acts that are absolutely forbidden morally. Two years later, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) illustrated that point by authoritatively teaching that the willful taking of innocent human life, abortion, and euthanasia are always gravely evil, irrespective of difficult and complicating circumstances.

But the theologians’ guild never conceded defeat and is now promoting proportionalism in, of all places, Roman universities.

Thus in May 2022, Fr. Julio Martinez, S.J., gave a lecture at the Pontifical Gregorian University (a hotbed of proportionalist thinking during the post-conciliar debates); there, he charged that Veritatis Splendor had tied knots (his phrase) in Catholic moral theology, completing a process of knot-tying that had begun with Humanae Vitae, which did not “discern and consider the circumstances [of] . . . marriage and family life . . . in an accurate way.” Fr. Martinez also complained that Veritatis Splendor was ill-advised in insisting that the Church’s magisterium has the responsibility of “teaching morals in a very precise and clear way.” The good news was that Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia had “introduced discernment” (formerly a method of spiritual direction) into the Church’s approach to the ethics of human love in “the concrete circumstances of marriage and family life,” which is “a really new thing in moral theology.”

Whether or not that is what Amoris Laetitia did (or intended to do), Fr. Martinez was endorsing proportionalism as a superior method of moral reasoning that would “untie the knots” created by Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor—irrespective of the latter’s authoritative rejection of proportionalism’s bottom-line claim that there are no absolute moral norms because there are no intrinsically evil acts.

Cue George Orwell: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Proportionalism’s return has had effects beyond the theologians’ guild. It has played an influential role in the German apostasy and in the commentary of various bishops on LGBT issues. The great Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers once wrote that moral theology is “the meeting place of the Church’s theory and practice, thought and life.” So these are not just games intellectuals play.

Which is why this degradation of moral theology, and its effects, will not go unremarked in the next papal conclave.        

George Weigel’s column “The Catholic Difference” is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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Photos by Krzysztof Golik licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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