Holding Moral Theory Accountable

The death earlier this year of Germain Grisez, the eminent Catholic moral theologian, made me think of the last time I saw something bearing his name in the media. To the best of my recollection, it was an Open Letter addressed to Pope Francis that he and the distinguished legal theorist John Finnis wrote on November 21, 2016. What occasioned the Open Letter was the issuance of the papal document Amoris Laetitia (2016). The concern articulated by Grisez and Finnis was that the misuse of Amoris Laetitia supports errors against the Catholic faith. What the two men do in their Open Letter is identify eight positions which contradict Catholic teaching. My interest is in two of these positions—the ones labelled Position C and Position D.

Position C says that no general moral rule is exceptionless. Even divine commandments forbidding specific kinds of actions are subject to exceptions in some situations. Position D is similar and it holds that divine commandments only express ideals which do not bind us in complex, concrete situations. It is thus morally permissible to act against these divine precepts depending on the circumstances.

The other positions outlined by Grisez and Finnis in their Open Letter—positions A, B, E, F, G and H—are not unimportant for they have to do with sin (A and B), conscience (E), sexual pleasure (F), marriage’s indissolubility (G) and the risk of hell (H). Each one and all of them together are central considerations in Catholic moral theology. What sets positions C and D apart, though, is their connection to an enormously problematical moral theory which makes the misuse of Amoris Laetitia not less but more likely.

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While in the prime of his career, Grisez in The Way of the Lord Jesus (1983) deals with the moral theory we call proportionalism. Not only does he describe it there as an appeal to the proportion of good and bad as a basis of moral judgment, but he critiques it as a misconstrual of morality. It undermines the absoluteness of moral norms, he contends, and makes possible the unravelling of unconditional commitments such as are made by spouses in holy matrimony. We must be careful though not to think of proportionalism as some kind of inchoate, arbitrary arrangement which happens to be at the service of moral actors. It really is a conceptual framework or mentality which then is made habitual after repeated personal usage.

Proportionalism is, not surprisingly, subject to an exacting assessment in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993). There, Saint John Paul II says that proportionalism cannot be considered a sound moral theory because its precepts are always relative and open to exceptions. The upshot of this mentality, he argues, would be to deny that there is a universally valid objective morality. He goes on to observe that only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exceptions, can guarantee the ethical foundation of society.

There is no getting around the fact that Veritatis Splendor is a re-affirmation of traditional truths in the field of moral philosophy. While Amoris Laetitia is not a work of moral philosophy, its prescriptions for pastoral life are not drawn out of thin air, either. No, they originate with ideas. And ideas have consequences, Richard Weaver reminds us in his book (1948) by this very title. We would all do well to heed this philosophical and practical admonition.

Two months ago, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said in an interview that Amoris Laetitia represents a “paradigm shift.” In the aftermath of this characterization by Parolin, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, called the idea of a paradigm shift a corruption, not a development. Here, he was following the thinking of Blessed John Henry Newman who judged real doctrinal development according to certain tests. Likewise, George Weigel, the American scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., ruled out a paradigm shift because it suggests a rupture with what has gone before it. He too was relying on Newman’s principles of authentic doctrinal development. Newman, we know, held that genuine development is organic and in continuity with the Tradition, not in conflict with it.

Objection to the notion of a paradigm shift also comes from Archbishop Charles Chaput who makes his position clear in an interview last month with the Catholic News Agency. An amplification of his position is found in an article in the March issue of First Things where he writes that the de-coupling of philosophy and theology in our time has produced an historicism. By historicism, he is referring to the enshrinement of one historical epoch over others, and almost always it is the modern era which is given priority. The temptation to “historicize” the truth is noted by Saint John Paul II in Fides et Ratio (1998). In that encyclical, the pontiff contends that historicism makes the odd claim that what was true in one period may not be true in another. As others have already pointed out about Amoris Laetitia, where you live could determine the interpretation and implementation of the document. This arises from the fact that bishops of various local churches have taken various positions on the right meaning of Amoris Laetitia. Now we can say that depending on when you live may determine how Catholic moral theology is to be understood.

A sense of time is utterly decisive for proportionalism. We know this because the proportionalist mindset grew out of what is known as historical consciousness. Against a classical consciousness which holds that there is a constancy to things despite the passage of time, an historical consciousness is premised on the notion that things are always changing—including of course circumstances. So, could this mean that our moral theology now turns on circumstances? Up till now, we could always say that we do not cede to circumstances an authority in moral discernment which human nature and reality have precluded for them.

It is good to recall here that changing circumstances has been a part of the campaign to reverse or modify Catholic teaching on contraception. What was acceptable for spouses fifty years ago regarding the inseparability of life and love in the marital act is no longer acceptable today because of changing circumstances, the argument is made. History evolves and our moral stances evolve too—at least that is what some will try to argue today.

The Catholic position has always been that circumstances do affect moral evaluation, but they cannot be determinative in moral judgment as proportionalists would have us believe. We realize this when we remember that moral theology, like all of theology itself, is centered on the Logos. The Logos entered history in the fulness of time. But time does not make the Logos; the Logos makes time. Making time is not essentially innovative but restorative. Christ redeems us in time so that we can be fit for eternity.

The goal of Catholic moral theology ought to be the illumination of what are perennially valid principles, ones which are true in all circumstances. This way, we will then be able to apply these unchanging principles in such a way that the Lord of history reigns over all circumstances. For it is the eternal Logos who guides us providentially, not circumstantially, through the portals of history unto life on high with him.

(Photo credit: Cardinal Parolin from Wikicommons)


  • Msgr. Robert Batule

    Msgr. Robert J. Batule is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre and Pastor of Saint Margaret Parish in Selden, New York. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the Catholic Social Science Review until his term ended in 2022, and has contributed many articles, essays, and book reviews to Catholic journals and magazines.

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