Reflectons on Veritatis Spleandor by Alfred McBride, O.Praem. To review books by Fr. Mc Bride: (The Millenium : End of Time? a New Beginning? (1998--$8.76), Father McBride's Family Catechism (1998--$7.96) or Father McBride'sTeen Catechism (1996--$7.19) at our on-line book store, click on the blue.

God’s moral law determines the morality of an act.

John Paul II forthrightly opposes a position of some Catholic moralists, known as proportionalism. The following story illustrates the point: A husband and wife are driving down the highway, when a truck hits their car. The man is only shaken up, but the woman suffers a serious head injury. At the hospital the doctors determine that she needs immediate surgery. She is conscious, so, while they are preparing for the operation, they allow the husband to visit her for a few minutes. "But be careful," they warn him. "She can’t afford to be upset. If her adrenaline goes up, she may bleed to death on the operating table. Don’t tell her how badly off she is."

The husband goes in to see his wife. He tries to be encouraging, but she insists on asking, "Is there a chance I might die?" The doctors told him to say "No." That's what proportionalists would probably tell him also: "Tell her, 'no.' Tell her she just needs to rest. Tell her anything except the truth."

The advice of those who believe there is an absolute, exceptionless moral norm which forbids lying: "Don’t upset her if you can help it, but since she put you on the spot by asking the question, tell her the truth." Of which counsel a proportionalist is likely to say: "Some morality! Kill your wife to avoid telling a white lie!" (The story is excerpted from Fulfillment in Christ, by Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw.)

Proportionalists argue morality from the outcome of an act - its consequences. They speak of proportions of good and evil: "Choose the greater good or the lesser evil." The pope is well aware of their position.

"Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention and consequences of human action. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice" (No. 77).

Why is it insufficient for making moral choices? First, it will be impossible to foresee all the outcomes. Take the case of a woman faced with sexual harassment. She quits rather than put up with the moral equivalent of prostitution. But job loss is not her only possible consequence. Could she not complain to top management or to the agency responsible for enforcing sex-discrimination laws? Or, as some women have successfully done, mount a lawsuit against the company? Imagination and creativity can foresee many outcomes, both good and bad. What matters is the way God’s moral law determines the morality of the act, influences the correctness of our intentions, and applies these wisely to the situation.

Second, moral norms are needed to judge good and bad outcomes. Proportionalists ask us to weigh the balance of good and bad results of an act and choose the greater good or lesser evil. But what will we use to measure these if we do not use moral laws? The husband in our earlier story is advised by the doctor to tell a white lie to save his wife. But is not his wife entitled to the truth so she can be prepared for possible death? Why should the husband who was always truthful to his wife now change? Is survival the most important thing? Or is not the honesty of their relationship more important? They have been committed to being truthful with each other. Will not fidelity to what God wants of them be the most important act in this moment of crisis? The greatest good is for the husband to do what is right as measured by a proper moral standard.

"The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of goodness in the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love.... For our works to be good and perfect they must be done for the sole purpose of pleasing God" (No. 78).

Probably the best argument against proportionalism is its impracticality for moral judgment. It seems like an apparently sensible approach, but actually it is far too complicated to be useful--let alone correct. It is best to stay with the Holy Father’s Veritatis Splendor, whose light of standards of truth and goodness provides the best path for judging the act, the motivation, and the situation.

*Books by Alfred McBride:The Millenium : End of Time? a New Beginning? (1998--$8.76) can be ordered through our on-line book store by clicking on the blue.

These syndicated articles are copyrighted by Our Sunday Visitor and are purchased with donations made to the Friends of the Good News who support this newsletter. Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated. 1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used by subcription. This article appeared in the January 1999 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046). Member of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.

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