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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question G: How does proportionalism misconstrue the nature of morality?

1. Morality is primarily concerned with the fulfillment of persons in their existential dimension, an ongoing fulfillment which resides mainly in individual and communal choices, not in the definite states of affairs caused in carrying out choices (see 5‑G; S.t., 1–2, q. 57, aa. 4–5). However, as question B above points out, proportionalists leave out of consideration the reality human goods have simply in being chosen. Thus they misconstrue the nature of morality, reducing it to effectiveness in bringing about benefit and preventing harm. At the same time they ignore the personal and interpersonal significance choices have apart from the tangible benefit or harm they lead to.30

2. Proportionalists are correct in believing that the beneficial and harmful implications of choices are morally important. Right choices and commitments are directed to human goods, including substantive goods like life and truth whose realization is mainly apart from choice itself. There is no genuine love of self, of neighbor, or of God which does not embrace and serve the goods of all dimensions of persons (see 5‑H).

3. As the argument from providence in question F above makes clear, however, human persons have limited responsibility. We are responsible for choosing rightly and carrying out right choices; in doing so, we serve human fulfillment in a responsible way.31 However, for the realization of human good on the whole and in the long run, we must trust God. We do not have the same responsibility God has for the good he wills. That is why St. Paul teaches that we may not do evil that good may come of it (see Rom 3.8).32 We do God’s will by being faithful; he will accomplish the total good he wills by bringing all things to fulfillment in the Lord Jesus.

4. The faithfulness required of Christians is an essential part of their prophetic style of life (see 23‑E). For example, a woman who refuses an abortion which she has been told is medically indicated to save her life can bear outstanding witness to her faith and hope in God: faith if her refusal is based on her willingness to live by the Church’s teaching and to leave in God’s hands the risk of the disaster which might occur; hope if her choice shows her confidence that disaster accepted in Jesus is not final. By contrast, a woman who chooses to kill her unborn child to save her own life gives no such witness to faith and hope in God, even if she acts in good faith.

5. Misunderstanding morality as they do, proportionalists think of an upright choice as a mere means to an end beyond itself. They overlook the self-creativity of choices by which persons, individually and in communion, constitute themselves participants in goods which continue to unfold as they are responsibly pursued. Many proportionalists attack absolute norms—for example, “Adultery is always wrong”—as legalistic impositions which subordinate persons to rules. They fail to see that such absolutes make possible the commitments which are essential for genuine development. For instance, the absolute prohibition of adultery is essential to the authenticity of marital commitment; this prohibition defines marriage by what it excludes, while leaving its positive reality to each couple’s creative unfolding of their unique marital friendship. To limit human goods as proportionalism does, by focusing on their realization outside choice itself, tends to exclude such creativity. Instead married couples are reduced to pursuing fixed goals, such as “happiness” predefined in psychological terms or “optimum sexual adjustment” predefined in physiological terms.

Human acts are not just ways of getting results, as proportionalists tend to think. As was explained (2‑H), to make a free choice is to determine oneself. Human action is soul-making. Moral acts are ultimately most important insofar as they make a difference to the self one is constituting by doing the act. Ultimately, it would profit nothing if one saved the mortal lives of everyone in the world by committing one mortal sin.

Proportionalism also undermines unconditional commitments, which are essential to Christian personal vocation. Those who have lived in any state of life for a few years have a very different awareness of its good and bad points than they had upon entering it. Marital and religious vows often are set aside today with the encouragement of proportionalist theologians, who suggest that in some cases the choice to set them aside is a lesser evil than continuing fidelity without any apparent benefits.

30. See Pinckaers, op. cit., for a critique of proportionalism’s understanding of morality rooted in more strictly Thomistic insights, but very similar to that proposed here. Some additional theological critiques of proportionalism: John R. Connery, S.J., “Morality of Consequences: A Critical Appraisal,” Theological Studies, 34 (1973), 396–414; “Catholic Ethics: Has the Norm for Rule-Making Changed?” Theological Studies, 42 (1981), 232–50; Ferdinando Citterio, “La revisione critica dei tradizionali principi morali alle luce della teoria del ‘compromesso etico,’ ” Scuola cattolica, 110 (1982), 29–64; Dario Composta, “Il consequenzialismo: Una nuova corrente della ‘Nuova Morale,’ ” Divinitas, 25 (1981), 127–56; Marcelino Zalba, S.J., “Principia ethica in crisim vocata intra (propter?) crisim morum,” Periodica de Re Morali, Canonica, Liturgica, 71 (1982), 25–63 and 319–57; Gustav Ermecke, “Das Problem der Universalität oder Allgemeingültigkeit sittlicher Normen innerweltlicher Lebensgestaltung,” Münchener theologische Zeitschrift, 24 (1973), 1–24.

31. On the central bearing of morality upon the acting person’s self-determination in choice and self-fulfillment in action, see Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), 149–74.

32. Proportionalists deny the relevance of this verse of St. Paul as a proof text against their position. They claim that Paul only excludes the choice of a moral evil, not of a premoral evil proportionalism seeks to justify. However, the preceding verse is raising precisely the question whether what otherwise would be evil—a lie or refusal of truth—might not be justified if it promotes God’s glory. Still, I do not use Rom 3.8 as a proof text against proportionalism, for without an independent and conclusive critique of proportionalism, its proponents could plausibly argue that Paul’s rejection of violating truth to promote God’s glory is a specific norm whose extrapolation into a general principle is question-begging. However, Rom 3.8 has been cited by the magisterium for the general principle that “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.” See Paul VI, Humanae vitae, 60 AAS (1968) 491; The Papal Encyclicals, 277.14.