How Proportionalism Corrupts Moral Theology

Anthony Zimmerman
Homiletic and Pastoral Review
November 1990
Reproduced with Permission

So called proportionalist moral theology and its sundry variations are hailed by many theologians as a valid adaptation of ethical values to the realities of our times. "The past two decades have witnessed a vigorous reevaluation not only of the conditions which make up the principle of double effect, but also the moral relevance of the principle itself" writes Fr. Richard Gula, SS (see Gula, p. 270). In this writing I will attempt to show why we cannot accept proportionalist reevaluations because they conflict basically with the perennial code of the ten commandments.

Father Gula presents the classic form of the principle of double effect as follows. For a human action to be morally good it is necessary that:

  1. The action itself is good or indifferent.
  2. The good effect is not produced by means of the evil effect.
  3. The evil effect is not directly intended.
  4. A proportionate reason supports causing or tolerating the evil effect.

The explanation is correct except that No. 4 should be stated more precisely. In the classic explanation, the action itself does not cause the evil effect directly, but only indirectly. That is, the action of and by itself, and the intention of the actor terminate in what is good; only indirectly does the same action also produce a second effect, which is materially but not morally evil. For example, when the physician intends to save the life of a pregnant mother by treatment of a cancerous uterus, his action is a healing treatment, which in turn may cause the death of the child. Neither the doctor nor the mother intend to kill the child as a health measure to cure the mother. But the mother is justly entitled to have her cancer treated, while she avoids harm to the child if at all possible. If it is possible to provide healing without causing the death of the child, of course, this must be done. The classic solution, therefore, does not make the doctor and mother murderers of the child, who treat the diseased organ and entrust the child to God.

Fr. Gula states that an increasing number of philosophers and theologians contend that the moral agent is responsible for the full range of effects which he foresees will follow from the action (Gula, p. 271). In other words, they would label the above doctor and mother as killers of the child. Those authors blur a valid distinction, I believe, and fail in sensitivity toward good doctors and mothers. Good people are rightly sensitive about this distinction. The "increasing number" of dissenting authors notwithstanding, mothers and doctors can serenely observe the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" AND accept legitimate therapy. Fr. Gula then explains that the traditional explanation of the principle is now illumined by more insight into the functions of the intention and the circumstances which modify the goodness or evil of an action in itself:

The first condition (namely that the action itself is good or indifferent) presumes we can specify the act-in-itself as morally good, bad, or indifferent independently of other factors. It implies that certain actions in themselves are intrinsically evil and to do them would always be morally wrong. However, when we enter the realm of a "moral" action we are speaking of an action qualified by intention and circumstances. So unqualified actions can only be properly called "premoral" actions. The first condition, then, points to "premoral" features of an action (pp. 270-271).

"Premoral" action is a trademark of proportionalism. But despite the fast footwork of some authors, they cannot succeed, I believe, in catching "premoral actions" (Fr. Gula's term) before they become moral actions. Actions are always done within a framework of circumstances and, when deliberate are intentional.

Maximize good; minimize evil

What is proportionalist "moral theology"? Germain Grisez identifies some of the proportionaIists in Chapter 6 of Christian Moral Principles where he also exposes their basic incoherence. He quotes this simple version of proportionalism as proposed by Timothy E. O'Connell:

We ought to do that action which maximizes the good and minimizes the evil. How do we discover the right thing to do? We discover it by balancing the various "goods" and "evils" that are part of the situation and by trying to achieve the greatest proportion of goods to evils. What constitutes right action? It is that action which contains the proportionally greatest maximization of good and minimization of evil (quoted in Grisez, p. 164).

Father Gula qualifies this over-simplification by explaining that proportionalism is not equivalent to consequentialism. Consequences are indeed important, but proportionalists want to include everything which gives an action its meaning. Seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is not the goal of proportionalists, he states (Gula, p. 277). We will probe, as we go along, whether proportionalists reject initially the only good which has lasting value, namely a good relationship with God, when they weigh the proportional merits of any and every other human good. One sees already that their weighing is on a horizontal scale, things of this life against other values of this life. The vertical relationship with God does not come to the fore.

The explanation of Charles E. Curran attempts to escape the limitations of a consequentialist calculus by including values which transcend weighing and comparison. But he does not explain how unweighable and incomparable values are finally compared by proportionist calculus:

The newer approaches call for a weighing and comparison of all the values involved so that I perform the action which brings about the greatest possible good. Note the obvious consequentialist calculus in such a determination but also the fact that the relative importance attached to the different values involved transcends the present limited situation and can be verified only in the context of the fullness of Christian experience (quoted in Grisez, p. 164).

To this Grisez dryly adds: "Curran did not explain how this fullness is brought to bear in setting aside norms accepted in the entire Christian tradition" (loc. cit.). And we should add: Christian experience includes obedience to the ten commandments, and to the changeless relationship of humans with God.

Eternal values are absolute

Richard A. McCormick, S.J. says that his approach does not involve considering a quantitative evaluation of all the pro and con values involved; rather, when the object of an act includes harm to a basic human good, one needs a proportionate reason for doing the act. One should do it only if it gives the 'best service' possible in the circumstances to that good. To which Grisez adds that McCormick nevertheless continues to use expressions which imply quantitative comparison, such as "overrides" and "lesser evil" (Grisez, p. 165).

Basic to proportionalism, then, is the contention that a moral judgment about a proposed action is "based on a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms promised by the possibilities for choice; one ought to choose the possibility which offers the best proportion of good to bad. . . This comparative evaluation of benefits and harms is central to all" (Grisez, p. 159).

Is it possible for humans, who judge goods in the mixed world of the here and the hereafter, to validly compare any goods of this life with those of the next? Simon the magician once offered goods of this world to Peter, to obtain spiritual gifts in exchange. Peter was outraged: "May you and your money go to hell, for thinking you can buy God's gift with money!" (Acts 8:20), he thundered. Proportionalists, if they weigh temporal advantages on the same scales with eternal, will always weigh disproportionately and therefore wrongly. Eternal values are absolute, temporal goods are not. One cannot measure space of an infinite extent with any yardstick at all. Neither can one weigh the merits of obedience to God against life, health, fame, property, philanthropy - against gaining the whole world.

David, before his conversion after sinning with Bathsheba, would have been a very proper proportionalist, I think. David was king, and his worth to the people was almost infinitely above that of Uriah the Hittite, armor bearer to Joab. One can always hire another armor bearer, but who can raise up another David here and now? If convicted of adultery David and Bathsheba should both be put to death (Deut. 22:22). David weighed the alternatives, and found the values of Uriah less than his own. He had Uriah killed, married Bathsheba, and the adultery was neatly taken care of! The trouble with that was that God did not agree. Nathan said: "Because you have shown such contempt for the Lord in doing this, your child shall die" (2 Sam. 12:14). God was not impressed by the calculations of David.

St. Perpetua (d. 203) would fail in all tests in proportionalist theology we maybe sure. Her father, on the contrary, would have passed proportionalist tests with good marks. Her father pleaded that she have consideration for his feelings, and for the welfare of her child. Her simple response was that she is a Christian and cannot do otherwise then remain true. She is honored by all the Church as an exemplary martyr (see Butler's Lives of the Saints,March 6).

Paul captured the disproportion between earthly thinking and our faith neatly when he wrote: "For what seems to be God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (I Cor. 1:25). We repeat: how can proportionalists possibly claim to weigh human advantages and disadvantages, goods of this kind or that, with the eternal goods which exist outside of the pale of any earthly goods whatsoever?

When God gave the Israelites the ten commandments, he gave this reason why they must obey: "I am the Lord,"was the reason He gave. He madethe mount smoke like a furnace, while the people trembled violently, made the trumpet blare louder and louder, and warned the people they must not touch the mountain lest they die. Then:

God spoke, and these were his words:
"I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, where you were slaves.
"Worship no god but me ...
"Do not use my name for evil purposes,
for I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name.
"Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy ...
"Respect your father and your mother ...
"Do not commit murder.
"Do not commit adultery.
"Do not steal.
"Do not accuse anyone falsely.
"Do not desire another man's house;
do not desire his wife, his slaves, his cattle, his donkeys,
or anything else that he owns" (Exod. 20).

Thus when God established his covenant with humans, he planted himself squarely on the scale and made no room for humans and human calculations to be weighed beside Himself. His covenant is not a catalogue of weighable merchandise with an attached price list.

God left no doubt to linger in the minds of the Israelites about who was in charge of the commandments. The words "I am the Lord your God"are God's simple explanation for all the commandments. That is enough. We are his creatures, and for that reason must follow the prescriptions of the Creator. That these prescriptions are not arbitrary we also know, because God is not able to give commands which do not proceed from eternal wisdom. That these prescriptions are based on the reality that we are images of God we also know. God knows what is good in himself, because he is existential Goodness. He knows what is goodness in us, because we are images of that existential Goodness.

God gave commandments which codify our behavior to facilitate our understanding about which actions conform or do not conform to the image of God which we are. When we obey, we honor God; when we disobey, we insult him. By insulting him we initiate a kind of cold war, or even cut off diplomatic relations.

The measure of the goodness of an action, then, is the degree of conformity of our acting personhood with God's ever present holiness; the measure of evil in an action is the degree by which we and God disagree, collide, and mutually repel each other.

A shift from heaven to earth

Maudlin wishful thinking, and calculus of proportionalists notwithstanding God is sensitive about what we do with ourselves, because we are his image and his children. He watches us by day and by night, and rejoices when we grow into greater likeness of himself, whereas he is disappointed when we deform that image by actions unsuitable to members of his household. Paul speaks of God's wrath against sinners, which means that he rejects and excludes them from his select household:

God's anger is revealed from heaven against all the sin and evil of the people whose evil ways prevent the truth from being known... They know that God's law says that people who live in this way deserve death. Yet, not only do they continue to do these very things, but they even approve of others who do them (Rom. 1:18;32).

If a human act is out of harmony with one's relationship to God, then that settles the morality of that act. No proportionate good or harm can dislodge that eternal morality which inheres in our relationship with God.

Msgr. Carlo Caffarra writes beautifully that humans who are an image of God, also perceive the absolute norms which are attributes of the divinity. We distort our own image of God -and our inner harmony - when we act in discord with absolute norms:

Let us try to encapsulate the concept of absoluteness. The love with which God loves himself and his own absolute necessity, is the source from which the whole hierarchy of values and duties flows; this love is the archetype of every obligation. When God wills and loves spiritual subjects other than himself, these share formally in the act of love with which God loves them for his own sake and for their sake (propter Se et propter seipsos); the two targets are not opposed and not juxtaposed. This sharing is the basis of the absoluteness of moral Value. This participating in God's action also indicates the content of moral Value to be recognition of God as God and, in an inseparable act, of person as person (one's own and that of others) (Caffarra, P. 189).

God approves our behavior, then, when we act as genuine children of himself. He cannot change his own nature, nor can he love in us actions which do not harmonize with his nature and wisdom. Moral norms, then, are absolute because God is absolute. His Wisdom decrees that rational creatures also act wisely - in accord with unchangeable eternal Wisdom.

God revealed himself to humans and gave them explicit commandments for two basic reasons: 1) Because without this revelation humans could not possibly know and believe in their supernatural destiny; natural knowledge alone does not yield truths which are beyond the scope of what is natural. The commandments now regulate behavior of supernatural kings and queens called to eternal glory. 2) Because the human intellect has inbuilt limitations which make it an unreliable moral guide unless aided by revelation:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that refer to God and concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of all things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence, they call for self surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Humani Generis, 1950, DS 3875, ND 144).

Despite the weakness of the human intellect to know God's laws adequately by its own powers, proportionalists try anyway: "Contemporary Theology has shifted its gaze from heaven to earth, from God to man, from the afterlife to the present life. Human existence and its meaning are the primary problems of contemporary theology (Fr. Charles Curran, in A New Look at Christian Morality,Fides, 1970). This reads as though Fr. Curran wants to "invent the wheel" again as they say, ignoring Moses and Christ and Peter, and inventing a do-it-yourself moral code Without having been commissioned thereto, he presumes to seat himself in the chair of Moses. And he invites all humans to be their own Moses, to find in themselves the rules of proper conduct.

But if we are born into God's household, into this kingly realm, we cannot ourselves presume to invent behavior proper to the heavenly household. We must comply with what has been fixed in eternity as proper behavior for children of God. We must do as Kiko Kawashima who is now engaged to marry a member of the Japanese imperial family: she is training herself under tutorship in manners proper to the Japanese Imperial Household.

Did proportionalism not achieve fame by acting as cheerleader for the hometown contraception team? Do proportionalists not get a free ride, like soaring hawks, on rising currents of contraceptive atmospherics? When we read the list of prominent proportionalists, we see a duplicate list of HV dissenters. They do not profess obedience to the Church, and to Peter as her spokesman. The tragedy of proportionalism and of its followers comes into focus when Peter's teachings are contrasted with their dissent:

By describing the contraceptive act as intrinsically illicit, Paul VI meant to teach that the moral norm is such that it does not admit exceptions. No personal or social circumstances could ever, can now, or will ever, render such an act lawful in itself. The existence of particular norms regarding man's way of acting in the world, which are endowed with a binding force that excludes always and in whatever situation the possibility of exceptions, is a constant teaching of Tradition and of the Church's Magisterium, which cannot be called in question by the Catholic theologian ...

If one looks closely at what is being questioned by rejecting that teaching, one sees that it is the very idea of the Holiness of God. In predestining us to be holy and immaculate in his sight, he created us "in Christ Jesus for good works ... that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10).These moral norms are simply the demand - from which no historical circumstance can dispense - of the Holiness of God which is shared in the concrete, no longer in the abstract, with the individual human person (To Moral Theologians, 12 November 1988).

Ignoring Tradition and the Magisteriurn, however, author Gula nevertheless suggests that the eternal and holy law which sanctifies marriage by excluding contraception, may and even ought to be broken. He presents the already tired canard of a couple who ought not to have more offspring lest they compromise the well-being of their present children; yet they feel that regular sexual expression is necessary for the growth and development of their marital relationship. They do not feel that they can respond adequately to their own and their children's needs, while following the prescription of Humanae Vitae. So what do they do? (p. 290). "Gula does not give an answer to his question," writes Dr. William May, who rejects the implied conclusion of Gula's proportionalism. May continues:

Readers will conclude, I am sure, that in this instance the couple could rightly choose to contracept, for by so doing they would be acting for a proportionately greater good and they would be acting contrary only to a "material norm" that must, after all, be interpreted as .containing the implied qualifier, 'unless there is a proportionate reason'" (Gula p. 291;May's refutation, p. 7).

Dr. May rightly regrets that this "seriously flawed work, one that denies the truth set forth as a doctrine by Pope John Paul II, is now a book which will probably be used widely in seminaries and in some colleges and universities as a basic text in Catholic moral theology (May, p. 8). Will it be another action of self-destruction within our Church in the USA?

Note how Fr. Gula avoids even mention of natural family planning as a viable solution for the couples in question. Perhaps he doesn't know the system well. Perhaps most of the clergy in the USA know very, very little about the art of NFP, even though the Pope is urging that all cooperate to make knowledge about the bodily rhythms available to all married couples and to the young (Familiaris Consortio,No. 33). So far as I know, one will search in vain in proportionalist texts for a good explanation of NFP. Adequate knowledge about the natural methods, however, is today a necessary part of the professional knowledge of pastors.

We already know what happened when some Conferences of Bishops, in 1968, presumed to allow just a wee bit of contraception; to be used only exceptionally in abnormal cases, by couples who "cannot" (!) obey the norm and must contracept to save their marriages. The ink had not yet dried on those documents before a MAJORITY of couples became those exceptions; became the abnormal couples who cannot obey the norm and still save their marriages. That, at least, is what happened in the Church in Japan. The proverbial camel entered the tent with lightning swiftness.

God does not mislead

God, we know, does not mislead us by allowing the Church to fall into serious error about moral matters. Christ, qualified superbly as our Divine Administrator, would not permit such a credibility gap to happen in his Church. The commandment against contraception is a commandment of God, not of man. We ask again: can any good at all be measured against the good of conforming our actions with the Wisdom of God? Is that not our absolute good, against which all comparisons recede into insignificance? And contrariwise, if any created good draws us away from God, its value becomes absolute zero: "If your hand or your foot makes you lose your faith, cut it off and throw it away! It is better for you to enter life without a hand or foot then to keep both hands and both feet and be thrown into the eternal fire" (Matt. 18:8). The good of our friendship with God is of a value of a different category than any created goods, and that makes comparison between a mixed bag of evils and goods a black hole of contrived human sophistry which has no substance. Such is the nature of proportionalism. It is that conniving and clever tailor who sold what he called an invisible "suit of clothes" to the emperor. A child, less sophisticated than the grown ups, pointed out the deception: "The emperor is naked!" And so, I think, is proportionalism.