On Veritas Splendor

First Things, January 1994.

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….

First Things