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Document begs many legitimate moral questions.

Veritatis Splendor is 179 pages long. Parts of it are extremely dense and technical. That is all but a guarantee that most laypeople will not read it. Even many bishops will have to call on their theologians to bring Chapter 2 into focus.

But therein lies a problem. The bishops are likely to find many of the theologians they turn to sharing the very perspectives the encyclical is criticizing. The criticized will be interpreting the critique to their prospective critics. Very interesting. If that is the case, the pivotal question becomes: Are these theologians accurately portrayed in Veritatis Splendor?

On two key points - fundamental freedom and proportionalism - my answer is no. In a short space I can say only a few words about the latter.

The encyclical repeatedly states of proportionalism that it attempts to justify morally wrong actions by a good intention. Thus Veritatis Splendor states: "Such theories however are not faithful to the church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commands of the divine and natural law."

In the same vein it states (No. 81) that "if acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it." Clearly the Holy Father believes that proportionalists are saying that "ulterior intentions" (No. 80) can justify what has already been described as morally wrong. This, I regret to say, is a misrepresentation.

I wish the pope's advisers had been more careful here. No proportionalist that I know would recognize her/himself in that description. The stated objection is not new. It has been discussed - and I believe successfully rebutted - for many years. I shall try to summarize here what I believe is really going on in some recent work. I realize that the matter is heavy rowing. But here goes.

In the past, some have objected that certain actions are (and have been taught by the magisterium to be) morally wrong ex objecto (from the object). But the proportionalist, it is asserted, does not and cannot say this since he/she insists on looking at all dimensions of the act before saying it is morally wrong. The acts in question are contraception, masturbation, etc.

What is to be said of this objection (and remember, it is the pope's objection)? I think it misses the point of what proportionalists are saying. When contemporary theologians say that certain dismalness in our actions can be justified by a proportionate reason, they are not saying that morally wrong actions (ex objecto) can be justified by the end. They are saying that an action cannot be qualified morally simply by looking at the material happening, or at its object in a very narrow and restricted sense.

This is precisely what tradition has done in the categories exempted from teleological assessment (e.g., contraception, sterilization). It does this in no other area.

If we want to put this in traditional categories (object, end, circumstances), we can say that the tradition has defined certain actions as morally wrong ex objecto because it has included in the object not simply the material happening (object in a very narrow sense) but also elements beyond it that clearly exclude any possible justification.

Thus, a theft is not simply "taking another's property" but doing so "against the reasonable will of the owner."

This latter addition has two characteristics in the tradition: 1. It is considered essential to the object; 2. It excludes any possible exceptions. Why? Because if a person is in extreme difficulty and needs food, the owner is not reasonably unwilling that his food be taken. Fair enough. Yet, when the same tradition deals with, for example, masturbation or sterilization, it adds little or nothing to the material happening and regards such materia alone as constituting the object.

If it were consistent, it would describe "sterilization against the good of marriage" as the object. This is something all could accept.

This consideration leads to a much broader one. It concerns the very usefulness of the traditional object-and-circumstances terminology. The major confusing element is the usage of "object." What is to be included in this notion? Sometimes traditional usage has included what really are morally relevant circumstances. Sometimes it has not and has defined the object in terms of the material happening (object in a very narrow sense).

In other words, what is included in the object and what is left out is a function of what one wants to condemn or approve. If this is unavoidable, then the terminology were better abandoned.

Let me return to John Paul II's language. He cites as an objection to proportionalist tendencies the notion that some acts are intrinsically evil from their object. I believe all proportionalists would admit this if the object is broadly understood as including all the morally relevant circumstances.

Take an example sometimes cited by opponents of proportionalism: the solitary sex act. This, it is urged, is intrinsically evil from its object. This is the view of the pope. Proportionalists would argue that this ("solitary sex act") is an inadequate description of the action. For self-stimulation for sperm testing is a different human act from self-pleasuring, much as self-defense is different from homicide during a robbery,

They are different because of different reasons for the act, i.e., different goods sought and aimed at different intentions. Intention tells us what is going on.

In conclusion, proportionalists are not justifying "deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commands of the divine and natural law." They are saying that we must look at all dimensions (morally relevant circumstances) before we know what the action is and whether it should be said to be "contrary to the commands of the divine and natural law."

Not every killing is murder. Not every falsehood is a lie. Not every taking of another's property is theft. Why, therefore, is every contraceptive act or every sterilization an unchaste act? Why, indeed? The questions remain, and remain legitimate even after Veritatis Splendor
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Title Annotation:papal encyclical, 'Veritatis Splendor'
Author:McCormick, Richard Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 15, 1993
Previous Article:Reactions: hierarch; moral theologians; others.
Next Article:Contraception a baby among church's sins: new encyclical out of step with tradition.

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