Comment Opinion & Features

The moral theory that failed – but is now back in fashion

Vatican II (CNS)

You don’t have to be a Catholic theologian, journalist or even that much of a Church-watcher to understand that there has been a battle afoot during the Francis pontificate. It is a struggle for hegemony between two competing accounts of morality. That conflict has been notably more pronounced in the past three years with often very public manifestations.

From the promulgation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia and the ensuing firestorm over what exactly it implied about Holy Communion, divorce and remarriage; to the reconstitution of Rome’s John Paul II Institute, the unprecedented firing of two tenured faculty members and the hiring of two moral theologians known to challenge the Church’s teaching on contraception and homosexuality; and to the German bishops, led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, embarking upon a “synodal process” apparently contrary to Pope Francis’s wishes, and unmistakably aimed at rethinking priestly celibacy and certain of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. It’s all connected.

It’s a final push by a bloc of grey and ageing moral theologians and like-minded bishops to attain hegemony for their brand of moral theology, namely, Proportionalism.

Proportionalism is an umbrella term that groups together several approaches to moral theology that broadly share certain beliefs about human nature and the moral life.

Each is a version of an “ends justify the means” approach to moral problem solving. Proportionalism offers the possibility of engaging in a moral calculus of values which, presupposing a good intention or sufficiently weighty reason in the moral actor, could potentially validate any action – even those which Sacred Scripture and the Church’s perennial moral teaching have held to be intrinsically evil.

Proportionalism flourished in the three decades spanning the 1960s through the 1980s and dominated Catholic seminaries and moral theology departments on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in Germany and then notably in the United States. It was the theoretical vehicle justifying theological dissent from St Paul VI’s teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae. And it quickly became clear that Proportionalism could justify much more.

Many of the world’s bishops today were schooled as seminarians in Proportionalism. Not all embraced it, but many undoubtedly did, and their own understanding of Christian moral life was deeply affected by their exposure to it.

In addition to its radically autonomous concept of moral conscience (I – and only I – decide what’s right and wrong), Proportionalism follows many of the other contours of the modern moral zeitgeist: the subjective trumps the objective, conscience trumps the norm, a good intention trumps intrinsic malice. The theory presumes that virtually all human moral experience is so irreducibly complex that no one moral norm could possibly be generated over time to respond to each situation, and no behaviour in itself could be understood as always immoral in all circumstances.

Pope St John Paul II felt the urgency of responding to the fundamental tenets of Proportionalism, tackling them 26 years ago in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. In paragraphs 54-64, he rejected the notion of conscience as autonomous decision, and in paragraphs 74-83, he refuted Proportionalism’s denial of intrinsically evil acts.

For his part, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been unrelenting in his critique of Proportionalism, describing it as a moral theory detached from metaphysical moorings, “deaf and blind to the divine word in being” and a moral theory “that contradicts the very foundations of the Christian vision” He’s even gone so far – on more than one occasion – as to suggest that Proportionalist ideas are at least partly to blame for the clerical abuse crisis.

That notwithstanding, Proportionalism has had a broad appeal among progressive Catholics. Its veneer of eminent reasonableness, resulting primarily from its submissiveness to the secular moral zeitgeist, is also enhanced by the circumstances of history.

Proportionalism was a theological reaction to an older method of doing and teaching moral theology which had held sway in Catholic seminaries from the late 16th to the mid 20th centuries. That method – casuistry, sometimes referred to as manualism – while providing the Church with plenty of sound moral theology, also engendered a legalistic approach to the moral life which sapped moral truth of its richness and Christ-centered vitality.

With good reason Vatican II called for a renewal in the teaching of moral theology: a robust rooting of moral teaching in Sacred Scripture and a new emphasis on virtue, on the Beatitudes and on Christ-centred discipleship.

And there were some good steps taken in that direction. Yet, by and large, much of mainstream Catholic moral theology caved in to the cultural onslaught of the 1960s. And in that milieu, the first Proportionalist theories proliferated.

We can only be grateful that many among a new generation of theology students in the early-to-mid 1990s began to take a pass on the Proportionalism they continued to be taught in their moral theology courses. If the theory continues to exercise an influence today, it does so principally through an older generation of priests and bishops who stubbornly cling to it, while rejecting the teaching of Veritatis Splendor.

It’s not surprising then that over the decades a certain narrative has arisen around Proportionalism, contrasting its adherents with a caricature of its opponents. Adherents are reasonable and balanced; opponents are rigid and extreme. Proponents employ sound moral “discernment” in order to understand the specific situation of the individual; opponents do not. Proponents are pastorally realistic and sensitive; opponents not so much.

Pope Francis, for his part, has shown sympathy for that narrative. One can only assume that this is because he has been exposed to Proportionalism for much of his life. When Pope Francis speaks of priests who turn the confessional into a “torture chamber,” or who pharisaically “indoctrinate the Gospel”, converting its life-giving message into “dead stones to be hurled at others”, he might simply be referring to the older manualist approach to the moral life. But it also serves to reinforce the Proportionalist narrative.

The latest twist to the narrative holds that a cabal of American conservative Catholics is threatening schism with Francis or at least trying to undermine his pontificate. If Proportionalist loyalists have chosen to weaponise the notion of schism, maybe it’s because they are getting desperate.

Nonetheless, the German Church’s “synodal process”, along with the Amazon synod in Rome, present a cadre of progressive bishops, theologians and journalists with fresh opportunities to continue to press the Pope for an unambiguous endorsement of Proportionalism-inspired reworking of Catholic moral teaching – beyond the tacit endorsement some would speculate he has already granted.

Fr Thomas Berg is vice rector and professor of moral theology at St Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, New York. He is author of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017)