[This article was published in a symposium.]
Robert P. George
Not long ago, I was brought up short by the redoubtable Janet Smith when I complained that students come to college these days already fully indoctrinated into moral relativism. “Ask them,” she suggested, “whether in their opinion it is ever right to commit rape, discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, or park in spaces reserved for the handicapped.”
Professor Smith has a point: however faithfully they mouth the old relativist pieties, the majority of today’s freshmen are, in their politically correct heart of hearts, committed moral absolutists. Like Pope John Paul II, they believe that certain acts are to be condemned always and everywhere as wrong in themselves. They agree with the Pope that rape, for example, cannot be justified by “the circumstances” or by a putatively “greater good” to which the victim’s interests in not being raped may legitimately be sacrificed. They part company with him only on the question of which, if any, other acts qualify for such condemnation.
Of course, the “proportionalist” theologians against whose errors the Pope is writing in Veritatis Splendor are more sophisticated and imaginative than the freshmen that some of them may teach. It is true, a proportionalist might tell his class in Moral Theology 101, that refraining from committing rape will usually, or even “virtually always,” in itself and its consequences conduce to the net best proportion of benefit to harm overall and in the long run; but circumstances are imaginable in which the opposite choice would be “the lesser evil” or “for the greater good.” Suppose, for example, that you lived in Hitler’s Germany and the head of the local Gestapo confronted you with the following options: “Either you rape Sally Ann on your next date (which we will be secretly filming), or I will order my men to kill her and her entire family the following morning.” In these (admittedly unlikely) circumstances, the decision to commit date rape would, the proportionalist professor might conclude, be morally good inasmuch as it would be supported by a “proportionate reason.” But if this is so, he might go on to say, not even rape truly qualifies as an intrinsically evil act. Thus would the proportionalist professor awaken his charges from their dogmatic slumbers.
For more than twenty years theological proportionalists have labored to show that their method of moral analysis—one that purports to resolve moral questions by weighing the “pre-moral” (or “ontic”) values at stake in competing possible choices—is workable and sound. At the same time, they have sought to reinterpret biblical teaching and the whole of Christian tradition in ways that would render their method and the conclusions they suppose they can draw from it compatible with the sources upon which Catholics have always relied to guide their judgments of right and wrong.
The Bible says “Do not murder” and “Do not commit adultery.” Yet proportionalists are undaunted by these apparently categorical prohibitions. The Decalogue does not, they assure us, exclude all direct killing of the innocent or all sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not that person’s spouse. In forbidding “murder,” they say, the Fifth Commandment prohibits unjust or wrongful killing—that is to say, killing that is not “the lesser evil” or is not “for a greater good.” Similarly, in forbidding “adultery,” the Sixth Commandment prohibits unchaste or wrongful intercourse; that is to say, intercourse that is not supported by a “proportionate reason.”
Purely secular thinkers have joined Christian philosophers in identifying damning philosophical objections to proportionalism’s methodology of moral judgment. In Veritatis Splendor, the Pope sums these up in pointing out “the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects—defined as pre-moral—of one’s acts.” He does not, however, dwell on these methodological inadequacies. Rather, and significantly, he invokes revealed truths of faith in the light of which it is necessary to reject proportionalism and any other theory that undermines or compromises what the Church has always taught: that there are negative precepts which exclude without exception certain types of acts (such as killing the innocent and having intercourse with someone other than one’s spouse) the choice and intention of which may be identified and excluded without first identifying the circumstances and the further intentions of the agent. Here, as elsewhere in the encyclical, it is clear that the Pope espouses moral absolutes not in the unthinking manner of my freshmen, but after meditated reflection on proportionalism and other more or less sophisticated ways of denying or evading the perennial Christian doctrine on intrinsically evil acts.
“In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture.” For this teaching, the Pope cites two texts: Romans 3:8 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Proportionalists have always had difficulty explaining away these texts. Now the Pope has offered an authoritative interpretation which says, in effect, that these texts mean what they say: Evil may not be done even for the sake of good; those who with full awareness and consent commit grave wrongs—including killing the innocent and engaging in sexual immorality—will have no place in God’s Kingdom. Moreover, in discussing “the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments,” the Pope teaches that “Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions.”
The Pope adduces an additional consideration in support of the moral absolutes that exclude certain acts as intrinsically wrong. If there were no moral absolutes, he reasons, many martyrs could legitimately have conformed their behavior to what was demanded by their persecutors and thereby purchased their lives. But in raising such martyrs “to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances.”
For centuries, no Jew or Christian imagined that precepts such as “Do not murder” and “Do not commit adultery” meant not to kill or commit adultery unless one had a proportionate reason for doing so. Modern theologians who interpret God’s word as permitting such exceptions imply that the moral truths God meant to communicate in the Bible were in fact communicated ineffectively, or were, in any event, radically misunderstood by those to whom they were addressed. If such theologians are correct, then the whole body of believers—Jews and Christians alike—would have been mistaken about crucial matters pertaining to salvation until the final third of the twentieth century. But according to Catholic teaching, which the Pope here recalls and reaffirms (quoting Lumen Gentium 12), since Pentecost the Holy Spirit is permanently present in the Church, so that “the universal body of the faithful . . . cannot be mistaken . . . in matters of faith and morals.” Thus, it is by appeal not to his own infallibility that the Pope defends the Church’s traditional teaching on moral absolutes, but to that of the faithful themselves.
Undoubtedly, many of those who deny or have sought to weaken the Church’s affirmation of moral absolutes will reject the Pope’s interpretation of Scripture and tradition. In so doing, however, they will make plain their alienation from any truly Catholic conception of divine revelation and its communication. At the same time, they will escalate the conflict over crucial matters of what the Church is to believe, thus deepening the de facto schism that many responsible people believe exists already in the Church and perhaps making formal schism likely.
In holding that the Church’s teaching regarding intrinsically evil acts is a matter of revealed truth, the Pope implicitly asserts, as Germain Grisez has pointed out in an article on Veritatis Splendor in the Tablet, that it is definable. Of course, those who reject the teaching will deny that this is true, just as they deny the authoritativeness of the Pope’s interpretations of Scripture. Surely, as Grisez observes, the matter cannot remain unresolved; yet it cannot be settled by disputation among theologians. It will take the definitive judgment of the magisterium to resolve the matter. The ultimate significance of Veritatis Splendor may be that it sets the stage for that historic judgment.