Questions Answered – March 2021

Is Moral Truth Always Objective?

Question: Can a Catholic accept proportionalism in morals? Hans Kung and many other theologians did in the 70s and 80s. There are still moralists who think it is true.

Answer: There has been a concerted attempt since Vatican II to do away with a natural law approach to morals and make the origin of moral truth less absolute. The most basic problem occurred in reaction to Humanae Vitae in 1968. Moralists and universities wanted to relate more to the culture and so dissented from papal teaching on contraception. At the time, this was the only traditional Catholic moral absolute they wanted to be free of. This has become so prevalent since in response to the libertarianism of the culture that as Benedict XVI observed one now has to deal with the “dictatorship of relativism.” Nowhere is this more true than in morals.

The most successful and interesting current of thought in this attempt is the school in Europe and America which reigned supreme in many Catholic academic institutions in the 1970s and 80s, known under the various names of “moderate teleology,” “consequentialism,” or “proportionalism.” Though all the members of this school do not speak about the same questions, they do have a general similarity in two aspects: a) moral truths cannot be derived from a metaphysical examination of the powers of the human soul common to all men and hence, b) there is no action which can be morally judged apart from the morally relevant circumstances.

Richard A. McCormick and others of this position call their school of thought “moderate teleology.” It is also called “proportionalism.” They use terminology derived from Emmanuel Kant to define their ideas. Kant had divided morals into two kinds: deontology and teleology. In deontology, actions were right or wrong regardless of the purpose. In teleology, it is the purpose or end which determines the goodness of the means. Strangely, this gets the discussion itself off to a bad start. Kant’s idea of morals was based on the idea that there was no truth in things in themselves. He did believe in moral truth but this could not be derived from human nature. It was derived from the subject’s need which created moral truth.

A famous consequentialist, Charles Curran, maintained that in the teaching of proportionalists (which denied it was possible to know a thing was evil until the consequences were considered), one could see the teaching of Aristotle. They use traditional moral solutions like “double effect” which is about very exceptional actions and is difficult to judge, to say that Catholic doctrine was never deontologist but always teleological.

Aristotle has nothing in common with Kant, so both he and the Catholic manualists can certainly not be seen as teleologists. Certainly St. Alphonsus, the patron of moral theologians, would not think there are exceptions to means which are contrary to the natural law because they may be advantageous to certain situations which accord with it.

Proponents of this theory wish to save the good and true parts of Catholic tradition and yet allow for certain exceptions which they believe are necessary according to the historical circumstances in which the Church is situated. They are not so crass as to say that the end justifies the means, but they generally hold that universal moral statements can never cover every situation and so MUST always take account of the consequences of a choice in the circumstances before they can truly oblige the conscience. For them, the culture determines evolution in Gospel teachings. What was evil in one era, like contraception, can now be a good because of the evolution of culture.

Catholic moral theology has held that there are three moral determinants: object, intention and circumstances. A proportionalist would hold that no act can be judged evil merely by the object considered universally until the consequences and circumstances are known. This amounts to saying the commandments are really just recommendations.

The Church struggled with proportionalism and consequentialism for many years without an authoritative statement. Then Pope John Paul II wrote the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. (August 6, 1993) These teachings are condemned there: “[…] The opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of the act for all persons concerned.” (n. 82) This is specifically the teaching of proportionalism.

I realize that there are still moralists who teach this school but because it denies moral absolutes and the natural law, it cannot be reconciled with Church teaching.

Religions and Sincerity

Question: How would one answer a statement such as: better a good Protestant/Muslim than a bad Catholic?

Answer: I find statements like this very strange and, since this is just about a practical answer, have no authoritative answer to give. I would say that one must distinguish what one means by good and bad in practicing one’s religion. If by being a good Protestant/Muslim means that one takes one’s religion seriously and practices this, then this is true. It means that the person is sincere and faithful to one’s belief. In other words, that one is not a hypocrite. Of course, if one means that the doctrines of these religions are better to believe in and do not lead to heresy or certain destructive human acts, then this statement would be outrageous. One can admire someone who has the courage of his convictions but still deplore the fact that those convictions are not only false but lead to inhuman behavior.

If one is speaking about the truth of a religion, then it also depends on what one means by bad Catholic. If you mean one who says they are nominally Catholic but denies Church doctrine in teaching — for example, a Catholic who cooperates either by teaching or deeds in abortion on demand — then one does not have the courage of convictions which Christianity teaches. In such a case the statement might be true. If by bad Catholic, one means that a person believes and teaches the faith, but sins from weakness, then the statement would not be correct. In fact, we are all sinners and striving for perfection. This striving is a process and takes place for a lifetime.

If one is speaking of the teachings of Catholicism, then the statement would not be true. It would be the result of a religious indifferentism which teaches that all religions are equally true.

It is interesting that this mentality was behind a kind of ecumenism popular in the past which allowed Protestants to come to communion. This was termed by Paul VI “false irenicism.” It was maintained that this would further dialogue among the religions. But this fails to answer the question as to how one can dialogue if everyone is saying the same thing. The denial of the absolute truth in religion as an absolute truth is self-contradictory. Dialogue means that, though one accepts the sincerity of someone of another faith, their belief is indeed different. If it were not, why do each of the participants not just agree and dialogue would end. This is one of the reasons why the Popes have stated clearly that intercommunion is not a means to cause union. People have to agree on doctrine before intercommunion. Otherwise one pretends agreement on doctrine is not necessary. This is putting the cart before the horse.

The statement in itself could stand if it was expressing respect and admiration for the fact that there are still people today who live their convictions. Otherwise, one must deny it by saying, for example, that being a good Muslim could lead a Muslim to become a murdering terrorist.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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  1. Avatar Delena L Rhodes says:

    What is the time frame when God intervened in history and created Adam and Eve? What about this Neanderthal man that was a type of prehistoric man who lived in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa from about 35,000 o 100,000 years ago? Most scientists classify Neanderthal man as an early sub-species of Homo sapiens (wise man). Also, what is the time frame of Noah’s flood? Everything was destroyed from earth except Noah’s family and pairs of animals. I have read on the internet that scientists are finding evidence in the earth of Australia to support the time frame and happenings the book of Genesis talks about when God created the universe – earth. This is fascinating and anything that scientists discover to prove the writings in the Bible really helps support my Faith in God.

  2. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Thank you for your faith and teaching.