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Ethical Theories Rejected By Veritatis Splendor

July 28, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

In last week’s installment, it was established that the morality of a human act depends on three sources or constituent elements: “the object chosen, either a true or apparent good; the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act; and the circumstances of the act, which include its consequences” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, [CCCC] n. 367).
As expressed by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, we may say they “are the what, the why, and the how of our behavior” (The Faith, p. 155).
Furthermore, it was shown that goodness must be present in all three sources simultaneously in order for the moral act to be good, but that a “chosen object can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety, even if the intention is good” (CCCC, n. 368).
The Compendium goes on to provide an excellent summary of correlative points that are integral to the Church’s traditional teaching on the sources of morality:
“It is not licit to do evil so that good may result from it. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself. On the other hand, a good end does not make an act good if the object of the act is evil, since the end does not justify the means. Circumstances can increase or diminish the responsibility of the one who is acting but they cannot change the moral quality of the acts themselves. They can never make good an act which is in itself evil” (ibid.).
This very point is reinforced by the Compendium: “There are some acts which, in and of themselves, are always illicit by reason of their object (e.g., blasphemy, homicide, adultery). Choosing such acts entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil which can never be justified by appealing to the good effects which could possibly result from them” (CCCC, n. 369).
“No matter what the motives for the action are and no matter what the circumstances, if an act is objectively wrong,” affirms Fr. Hardon, “it is a sin to do it” (The Faith, p. 156).
In other words, as authoritatively taught by Pope St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (VS), “there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God” (VS, n. 80 § 1). On account of their object, such acts are termed by the moral tradition of the Church as “intrinsically evil” — no good intention or extenuating circumstance can make them otherwise.
There are many, however, who deny the reality of moral absolutes and intrinsically evil acts. They defend ethical theories called consequentialism and proportionalism, “which hold that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its ‘object’ — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior 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” (VS, n. 79 § 1).
In fact, one of the main purposes that the Holy Father wrote Veritatis Splendor was to repudiate these flawed theories and to magisterially reaffirm “the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts” (VS, n. 115 § 3).
Before analyzing the underpinnings of consequentialism and proportionalism, it is interesting to observe that the prominent moral theologian Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP, who served on the commission that drafted the moral section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), links questions concerning “intrinsically evil acts” to the widespread dissent that surrounded Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Fr. Pinckaers, in fact, goes even further back in time to the pontificate of Pius XII when he addressed “situation ethics,” or moral systems based on the relativity of the moral values of a person (see Morality: The Catholic View, pp. 52-53).
What is “situation ethics”? In the first volume of Fundamentals of Catholicism (FoC-1), Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, explains that adherents of this view hold that “all human acts are basically indifferent — they are neither good nor evil in themselves. Their morality, they say, depends on the situation or circumstances. This is a very convenient system for the human ego, for what it means is that the individual at all times decides for himself what is good and what is bad. He recognizes, therefore, no ‘objective’ moral principles” (FoC-1, p. 136).
It was on April 18, 1952, that Pope Pius XII, in his “Discourse to the Participants in the Congress of the World Federation of Catholic Young Women,” issued a stern caution:
“The distinctive mark of this morality is that it is not based in effect on universal moral laws, such as, for example, the Ten Commandments, but on the real and concrete conditions or circumstances in which men act, and according to which the conscience of the individual must judge and choose. . . . [Advocates of] this new ethic, perhaps without being aware of it, act according to the principle that the end justifies the means” (nn. 4, 11).
It is with this background that we now examine more carefully the two currents of thought addressed in Veritatis Splendor.
There are important differences, to be sure, between consequentialism and proportionalism; however, they are similar in that both reject the idea that there are certain kinds of acts which are always and everywhere evil — acts that, unless repented, exclude people who knowingly and freely commit them from inheriting God’s Kingdom.
Specifically, consequentialism “claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice” (VS, n. 75 § 1).
Proportionalism, on the other hand, “by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’ actually possible in a particular situation” (ibid.).
Pope St. John Paul II categorically rejected consequentialism and proportionalism in Veritatis Splendor. “Such theories,” affirmed the Vicar of Christ, “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 the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition” (VS, n. 76 § 2).
“The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action,” continues the Holy Father, “is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behavior is ‘according to its species,’ or ‘in itself,’ morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species” (VS, n. 77 § 1).
Earlier in the encyclical, John Paul II resolutely indicated that certain moral truths (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the “natural moral law” written on man’s heart) remain always valid. He wrote:
“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behavior is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbor. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts” (VS, n. 52 § 1).

The Spirit Of The Gospel

John Paul II reinforced the existence of absolute and universally binding moral precepts in his 1995 encyclical letter “On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life”:
“God’s commandments teach us the way of life. The negative moral precepts, which declare that the choice of certain actions is morally unacceptable, have an absolute value for human freedom: they are valid always and everywhere, without exception. They make it clear that the choice of certain ways of acting is radically incompatible with the love of God and with the dignity of the person created in his image. Such choices cannot be redeemed by the goodness of any intention or of any consequence; they are irrevocably opposed to the bond between persons; they contradict the fundamental decision to direct one’s life to God (cf. CCC, nn. 1753 -1755; VS, nn. 81-82)” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 75 § 1).
Fr. Baker prudently encapsulates the underlying basis for the Church’s perennial teaching on consequentialism, proportionalism, and situation ethics: “The Catholic Church has consistently and continually rejected subjectivism and relativism in morality” (FoC-1, p. 136).
Indeed, as affirmed in an official Church document promulgated in 1975 by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics):
“The Church throughout her history has always considered a certain number of precepts of the natural law as having an absolute and immutable value, and in their transgression she has seen a contradiction of the teaching and spirit of the Gospel” (Persona Humana, n. 4 § 3).

+ + +

(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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