Locating Right and Wrong: ‘Veritatis’ v. Muddled Moralizing

Oedipus married his mother, Jocasta. Did he commit incest? Did she? He did not know that she was his mother; she did not know that he was her son. If we say that incest occurred, or happened, we are not making a moral remark. Moral action is something the human person knowingly sets out to do. To commit incest, morally speaking, one must knowingly do it.

If Oedipus had thought Jocasta was his mother, and she really wasn’t, would he have committed incest in marrying her? To say that incest did not occur is not an answer to the question. Morally speaking, in this case, Oedipus would indeed commit incest if that is what he intends to do.

There are events or happenings which involve human beings and which can be described in such a way that we simply cannot know about the moral behavior of the persons involved. In this sense, the mating of mother and son either takes place or it does not, but this does not tell us whether anyone committed incest.

We could vary the original example and have (a) the marriage of parent and child occurring, (b) Oedipus unaware that Jocasta is his mother, but (c) Jocasta aware that Oedipus is her son. Jocasta commits incest, Oedipus does not.

The moral appraisal of human action, then, concentrates on what the agent sets out to do, on the object of the person’s action. The object of the action is what one knowingly proposes to do: one has to be conscious and conscious of some possible doing that one then does. Morality is thus not simply in the mind, but it is also not just “out there.”

In chapter two of Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul II relies on the moral analysis of action that can be found in the Summa theologiae. The appraisal of a human action takes into account its object—what the agent proposes or has in mind to do—its end, and the circumstances in which it is done. An action will be good only if it is good in all three respects.

For a husband and wife to engage in sexual congress is a licit deed on their part, but if they should decide to do this on the sidewalk at a busy intersection, an otherwise good action would be rendered morally flawed by the circumstances.

Giving help to the poor is a good thing to do, but the deed may be flawed because it is done with an eye to something else, for example, to be praised. Here what is done, giving alms, is a good thing to do, but the further end to which it is here ordered, namely, the plaudits of observers of the deed, makes the action a bad one. It should be noted that an objectively bad act, that is, one that sets out to do something that cannot of itself be good, e.g., telling a lie, is not justified because it is aimed at a good consequence or end, say, saving a friend’s reputation.

Notice that “end” is used in several ways. The object of the act, what I set out to do, is of course the aim or end of the action. But when the end is distinguished from the object, it is taken to refer to some consequence of doing the act, something that it is hoped will follow upon it. It is end in this second sense that is distinguished from object.

An action is bad if it fails in any of these three respects, object, end or circumstances; in order to be accounted good, an action may be good in all three respects.

Some argue that when the Church condemns certain forms of ethical behavior, the object of the act is taken to be the physical happening alone, whereas normally, in non-sexual matters, when the Magisterium speaks of the object of an act it means what is knowingly done. Not only is there no basis for this criticism in Veritatis splendor, the encyclical explicitly addresses such an inadequate description of action. Those who have created a chasm between what they call the ontic or pre-moral goods and the moral goods may be confused about the object of the act. John Paul II certainly isn’t.

In chapter two, John Paul II is chiefly concerned to show that some acts are always bad because of their objects; they are intrinsically evil acts, and thus may never be done. We have seen that there are actions, e.g., conjugal love, whose objects are morally okay but which may not be engaged in just anywhere and anytime. What the Pope is concerned with in Veritatis splendor is actions which may never be done regardless of their circumstances or the further purpose for which one might do them.

It is important for Christians to understand that there are intrinsically evil acts. The Holy Father is reminding us of this, not simply on the basis of a philosophical analysis, but because the Commandments prohibit acts that are intrinsically evil. It is not the prohibition of lying, theft, fornication, and the like, that makes them wrong; they are prohibited because they are wrong. To set out to do them is precisely to set out to do something wrong. It is to separate ourselves from God.

The teaching that there are kinds of human acts which, because of their objects, may never be done has, the Holy Father thinks, been obscured in some recent moral theology. In the theological debates which followed Vatican II, “there have developed certain interpretations of Christian morality which are not consistent with ‘sound teaching’ (II Timothy 4:3)” (29). He names the theories he thinks obscure sound teaching, indicates the flaws in them, and concludes that they do not provide a basis for maintaining, or discarding, the notion that there are intrinsically evil acts.

Faulty Theories

Having recalled the three “sources of morality,” end, circumstances and object, the Pope observes that “there have emerged in the last few decades new or newly revived theological and cultural trends which call for careful discernment on the part of the Church’s Magisterium” (74). He calls these theories “teleological” and cites proportionalism and consequentialism as examples.

Although these theories show concern for the conformity of human acts with the ends pursued by the agent and with the goods intended, criteria for evaluating the moral rightness of an action “are drawn from the weighing of the non-moral or pre-moral goods” to be gained, and the corresponding “non-moral” or “pre-moral” goods to be respected. Concrete behavior would be right or wrong depending on whether or not it is capable of producing a better state of affairs for all concerned. How would this differ from utilitarianism or pragmatism? Those theories make no reference to man’s true ultimate end.

The Pope has some good things to say of this sort of approach, but thinks that in the end it arrives at false solutions because of “an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action” (75). Unlike consequentialism, which evaluates actions by calculating the foreseeable consequences of a given choice, proportionalism “focuses on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’ actually possible in a particular situation” (75). These theories deny that it is possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior as always in conflict, no matter the culture and circumstances, with moral values indicated by reason and revelation.

The Pope sees these theories as making a dual appraisal of the values or goods involved in a human action: a moral one, that is, the appraisal of the act with reference to moral values such as love of God and neighbor, justice, etc.; and a pre-moral one (non-moral, physical, ontic), with respect to the advantages and disadvantages accruing to the agent and other persons involved, for example, health, physical integrity, life, death, loss of material goods, etc. The moral goodness of the act is then appraised with respect to the agent’s intention as regards moral goods, and the rightness of the act is judged on the basis of foreseeable consequences and proportions with regard to pre-moral goods.

Thus, acts could be described as right or wrong without it thereby being possible to judge as morally good or bad the will of the person choosing them. The upshot is that a person could act in a way prohibited by a universal moral norm yet still intend, in accord with a responsible assessment of the good involved in the concrete action, the moral value judged to be decisive in the situation.

The Pope’s effort to give a clear account of the theories in question is in part thwarted by their inner incoherence. What he appears to see lurking in them—and this may be what he meant by newly revived theories—is the view that intending the appropriate moral value trumps all other considerations and renders good an act which is in conflict with a universal moral prohibition. These are theories which seek to justify “as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of divine and natural law” (76). Such theories, accordingly, are not grounded in the Catholic moral tradition. “Love of God and of one’s neighbor cannot be separated from the observance of the commandments of the Covenant renewed in the blood of Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit” (76).

How have these theologians gone wrong? They account for the intention with which an act is done, and they consider the probable consequences of acting, which are part of the circumstances of the act. But calculating consequences is notoriously chancy, and an absolute obligation—or an absolute prohibition—could not be founded upon them. What is absent from the theories of moral appraisal under consideration is the object of the act. “The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will,” the Pope writes, and he refers us to Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The object of the act must be seen “in the perspective of the acting person.” It is not “a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world” (78). It is because the objects of certain acts are incapable of being ordered to God that such acts are always and everywhere evil.


It is surprising to be told by moral theologians reviewing Veritatis splendor that neither they nor any of their colleagues recognize in the theories criticized positions of their own. Indeed, most of those who took part in a Commonweal symposium on the encyclical profess themselves to be in fundamental agreement with the Pope. Yet a parallel was frequently drawn between Veritatis splendor and Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis in order to suggest that the former, like the latter, has no real targets. Apparently there are no consequentialists, no proportionalists, no proponents of fundamental option. There will be general approval and acceptance, we are assured, of the reminder that there are non-negotiable aspects of Catholic teaching which provide the limits of permissible theological discourse, that morality is not a matter of subjective decision, that sincerity of conscience is not sufficient justification, that fundamental option cannot be divorced from one’s particular choices. The main negative reaction was to the alleged sexist language of the encyclical and its final section on Mary as stereotypical, patriarchal, etc., etc.

From this reaction one would conclude that in the past few decades there have been no moral theologians teaching that masturbation, pre- and extra-marital sex, contraception, homosexual acts, abortion, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and the like, are sometimes morally permissible for Catholics. But surely such advice has been given all over the place. Readers of the chronicle of moral theology written for Theological Studies by Richard McCormick, S.J., for 20 years know that it is replete with discussions of positions precisely like those the Pope is criticizing. I take the volumes from my shelf and, in a sortes Virgiliance, open them at random.

“Similarly Curran rejects John McNeill’s idea that some homosexual acts can be viewed as falling under the principle of the choice of a lesser evil, for ‘in this opinion the act is still objectively wrong.’ Rather Curran returns to his principle of compromise. Sin forms a part of objective reality. ‘The presence of sin means that at times one might not be able to do what would be done if there were no sin present.’ In one sense, then, the act is not objectively wrong, ‘because in the presence of sin it remains the only viable alternative for the individual’ ” (Richard McCormick, Notes on Moral Theology 1965 through 1980, p. 396). I wouldn’t want to parse those sentences, but the drift is clear.

“The discussion of intrinsic evil necessarily brings into play the distinction between pre-moral and moral evil. Moral evil refers to those evils that render the person as a whole bad: e.g., the desire of and will to injustice or unchastity. But such evils do not tell us what concrete acts count as injustice or unchastity. That is, they do not tell us what concrete acts are morally right or wrong. Pre-moral evils do not touch directly the moral goodness of the person, but only the person’s well-being. But they are relevant to moral goodness. How? The morally good person will avoid causing them unless there is a correspondingly serious reason. Fuchs emphasizes the fact that no pre-moral evils or goods are absolute. Therefore they cannot be the grounds for intrinsic evils as this term is commonly understood” (Notes on Moral Theology 1981 through 1984, p. 110). That certainly sounds like what Veritatis splendor has in mind. Anyone who followed Father McCormick’s review of the literature must be startled to be told that the encyclical is imagining what it criticizes.

Here is an earlier example. “The sacredness of human life must always be respected, for example. However, in certain cases a man may kill. The ethical task is to determine what instances of killing are, because of special circumstances, compatible with respect for life. A knowledge of the circumstances and the ethical implications thereof is essential to this ethical task. To say in advance that no circumstance whatever could ever justify a particular action implies a foreknowledge of the ethical import of all possible circumstances” (Daniel Maguire in Charles Curran’s Absolutes in Moral Theology, pp. 81-2).

Is it necessary to recall the study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America, Human Sexuality, which is replete with the errors addressed in the encyclical?

These random soundings make it clear that many moral theologians have sought to appraise human acts in the ways the Holy Father criticizes in the encyclical. True, these positions are less obscure in his summary statements of them, but it is disingenuous to suggest that no one ever held them. Some express the concern that an ultramontane zealot will undertake to name the names that are not to be found in the encyclical. Denials that the positions criticized have been held fairly invite that sort of thing. Professional moral theologians will know the work of Fuchs, Haring, Böckle, and will know the criticism of their theories by Theo Belmens, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Janet Smith, et al. It is far more honest to acknowledge the target and attempt to escape the critique, as Father McCormick himself has done.

While it is understandable that theologians should want to dissociate themselves from positions that have been so lucidly assessed by John Paul II, it serves no good purpose to deny that such theories have proliferated and that they have had incalculable pastoral consequences. If the objects of certain actions are what the Church’s Magisterium says they are, then to say that they are sometimes morally justified is to be in conflict both with the moral Magisterium and with Veritatis splendor. The purpose of the encyclical is not to have a chilling effect, not to give moral theologians a hard time, but to preach the gospel whole and entire, preserving it from interpretations whose practical effect is to mislead the faithful into thinking they can do things explicitly forbidden by Scripture and tradition and still be faithful to the vocation to which we have been called.

Dissident theologians should be on notice. They are not going to disable this encyclical as they have so many previous documents of the Magisterium. They have sown enough confusion. May they sincerely welcome the clarifications and assessments made of their work by John Paul II. But anyone who attempts to ambush Veritatis splendor will find, to quote Aquinas, “that not only I, who am the least of men, but many others zealous for the truth, will resist his error and correct his ignorance.”


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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