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Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Appendix 3: A critique of some views on infallibility in morals

Besides recent denials and restrictions of infallibility in general, there also have been specific denials and restrictions of infallibility in the moral domain.

Rahner limits the possible range of infallible moral teaching drastically, by claiming it extends to “hardly any particular or individual norms of Christian morality.”61 Only universal norms of an abstract kind—perhaps he means: “Moral evil is to be avoided”—and the radical orientation of human life toward God could be proposed as dogmas. The reason he gives for this position is that concrete human nature is changeable, and the enduring universal nature of the human person yields little in the way of moral maxims.62

Rahner here obviously assumes a scholastic natural-law theory (criticized in 4‑F). Assuming such a theory, any admission of dynamism in human life seems to require a corresponding admission of evolution in ethics. But Rahner never troubles to make clear what he thinks is changing and what constant in human nature. Does Rahner think, for instance, that life once was an intrinsic good of persons, but no longer is so, or might cease to be so some time in the future? One does not know; he never considers such a question, but contents himself with talking abstractly about “concrete human nature.” If one does not claim that the basic human goods (5‑D), eventually will no longer fulfill human persons, then one does not exclude the foundations of a permanently valid normative ethics, whose norms are grounded, not in a demand to conform to human nature, but in the vocation to unfold the possibilities of human persons.

Peter Chirico also excludes infallibility for all the Church’s specific moral teaching. He asserts that infallibility has only to do with the “universal” (by which he apparently means very general), and so could concern only the process of Christian growth as such. No particular act always and everywhere contributes to or blocks this process. “It is the whole act taken in context of the life of the individual at his stage of development that determines whether he will or will not grow by it.”63 Chirico never shows that infallibility necessarily is limited to the universal; he himself wishes—commendably but inconsistently—to extend it to the belief that Jesus is God and man, that he died and is risen.64

But beyond this, Chirico makes no effort to show that certain kinds of acts, which always have been excluded by Christian moral teaching, are in fact compatible with growth in Christian love. Instead, he simply assumes a proportionalist theory of morality, and supposes that sometimes acts excluded by received Christian moral teaching will be helpful to “Christians in their march to the universal relatability of the risen Christ.”65 This last phrase seems to express Chirico’s conception of the basic principle by which all acts ought to be evaluated. As standards go, it is rather vague. Imagine a young couple tempted to fornicate pondering whether the act would or would not help in their march to the universal relatability of the risen Christ.

Like Chirico, Gerard J. Hughes, S.J., assumes a proportionalist theory of basic moral norms. On this assumption, infallible teaching in the moral domain would be limited to two kinds of propositions. One kind, which could be true permanently, would not be informative—for example, “Murder is always wrong,” where “murder” means unjust killing and leaves open whether a choice to kill the unborn or the aged should be considered unjust. The other kind, which might be informative, would be true only because of the consequences acts happen to have at a given time. A teaching excluding acts with all and only these consequences could be infallible, but Hughes argues that such a teaching would be useless. One always would have to appraise consequences for oneself to discover whether the teaching was relevant; it would be found so only if it agreed with one’s own judgment of the case.66

Hughes’ pervasive assumption of proportionalism undercuts his treatment of infallibility in morals. He assumes without proving that norms such as that excluding sexual intercourse apart from marriage are nonabsolute and based only on the bad consequences of such a practice.

A number of other theologians have suggested that moral norms cannot be proposed infallibly because any moral norm is expressed within a certain conceptual framework; when conceptual frameworks change, the moral norm can become invalid. An example of a norm in a conceptual framework is the belief of a primitive group concerning how they should worship God.

This suggestion fails for several reasons. First, it is never accompanied with evidence or arguments to show that basic moral principles are as dependent upon conceptual frameworks as are specific norms. Second, no proof is given that a true norm cannot be expressed in a rather inadequate “conceptual framework”—and the latter expression is none too clear. One would like to know what is inadequate about the conceptual framework in which the Christian tradition has, for example, rejected adultery, and how this inadequacy might invalidate the norm. Third, Christian moral norms are embedded within the framework of Christian faith and the description of the character of Jesus. It is not clear why this framework should be expected to change in the way that the beliefs of a primitive people can be expected to change.

61. Rahner, op. cit., 14.

62. Ibid., 14–15. Rahner’s distinction (15) between “transcendental necessity in human nature on the one hand, and human nature as it exists in the concrete on the other” is not explained here, but seems to invoke a mode of necessity (posited in Kantian metaphysics) involved in the very conditions of the possibility of any thinking whatsoever. Even if one takes such metaphysics seriously, one should try (but Rahner does not bother) to show that the invariant conditions of human action (which include the basic human goods) are insufficient to exclude permanently certain kinds of acts, such as choices to kill unborn persons. Rahner also talks about change in concrete human nature, says it is too slow to detect in one lifetime, but provides no criteria for detecting it at all, and even suggests (16) there are none. One begins to suspect that the criterion for change in human nature will be an antecedent judgment that a norm is no longer going to be accepted—for instance, that having decided to replace the Church’s very firm and constant teaching concerning contraception with a secular humanist evaluation of this practice, one will then say that in the contemporary world human nature has changed. For a devastating critique of Rahner’s philosophy of man: Cornelio Fabro, La svolta antropologica di Karl Rahner (Milan: Rusconi, 1974), esp. 87–121.

63. Chirico, op. cit., 185.

64. Ibid., 68–83.

65. Ibid., 185.

66. Gerard J. Hughes, S.J., Authority in Morals: An Essay in Christian Ethics (London: Heythrop Monographs, 1978), 99–110.