In doing some research for a paper that I am writing regarding freedom and its relation to truth, I decided to read John Paul II’s monumental encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, once again. I was surprised to come across a number of instances where John Paul II first explains and then dismantles the philosophical moral underpinnings of the theories used to justify contraception. In fact, in more than one place, it is clear that he had the Winnipeg Statement in mind in his exposition of the pernicious errors of “proportionalism” and “consequentialism”. No honest Catholic – bishop or layperson – can say that Veritatis Splendor does not utterly dismantle the reasoning and arguments used in the Winnipeg Statement. Presented below are some of the relevant excerpts of the encyclical in blue text, along with my commentary.
55. According to the opinion of some theologians, the function of conscience had been reduced, at least at a certain period in the past, to a simple application of general moral norms to individual cases in the life of the person. But those norms, they continue, cannot be expected to foresee and to respect all the individual concrete acts of the person in all their uniqueness and particularity. While such norms might somehow be useful for a correct assessment of the situation, they cannot replace the individual personal decision on how to act in particular cases.
John Paul II is explaining that there is an attempt being made here to remove the absolute and categorical rejection of a (sinful) action in favour of its possible acceptance in particular circumstances. In other words, something might be wrong as a general rule, but there might be an exception to the rule in particular cases, given the right context. In the case of contraception and the Winnipeg Statement, the idea would be that, generally speaking, contraception is wrong, but depending on the gravity of the personal situation, spouses can use their conscience to decide “what is best for them”, apart from the general moral norm.
The critique already mentioned of the traditional understanding of human nature and of its importance for the moral life has even led certain authors to state that these norms are not so much a binding objective criterion for judgments of conscience, but a general perspective which helps man tentatively to put order into his personal and social life. These authors also stress the complexity typical of the phenomenon of conscience, a complexity profoundly related to the whole sphere of psychology and the emotions, and to the numerous influences exerted by the individual’s social and cultural environment. On the other hand, they give maximum attention to the value of conscience, which the Council itself defined as “the sanctuary of man, where he is alone with God whose voice echoes within him”. This voice, it is said, leads man not so much to a meticulous observance of universal norms as to a creative and responsible acceptance of the personal tasks entrusted to him by God.
In fact, some of the dissenters go so far as to deny the idea that morality has an objective criterion, but instead such norms merely provide a “general perspective”, something akin, one may say, to the infamous ”suggestions of God” instead of His commandments. This type of language is used throughout the Winnipeg Statement as well, the most notorious being in paragraph 26.
…if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience. (26)
In this section from the Winnipeg Statement, the whole problem of subjectivism and relativism is apparent. It is a statement which does not acknowledge the basic objective norm of the evil of contraception, but rather bases the ultimate morality on conscience, whether well-formed or ill-formed. Needless to say, however, that a well-formed conscience will recognize the objective moral norm in the first place! There exists in this statement a separation between the objective evil of contraception and the subjective assessment of it. But the subjective element in morality (via the conscience) should always be informed by and bound to the objective moral order. Unlike what the Winnipeg Statement clearly implies, the subjective element in decision making is not independent of the objective moral order.
In their desire to emphasize the “creative” character of conscience, certain authors no longer call its actions “judgments” but “decisions” : only by making these decisions “autonomously” would man be able to attain moral maturity. Some even hold that this process of maturing is inhibited by the excessively categorical position adopted by the Church’s Magisterium in many moral questions; for them, the Church’s interventions are the cause of unnecessary conflicts of conscience.
Here the Pope explicitly underscores how the dissenters view the conscience as “autonomous” from objective morality. Like contraception itself which seeks to separate the unitive and procreative elements of sex, the philosophy undergirding it in the Winnipeg Statement also uses separation and “independence” as its foundation.
56. In order to justify these positions, some authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law.
The Pope continues on this theme of the separation of subjective and objective orders by highlighting the consequence of such a philosophy. He calls it a “double status of moral truth” which provides the “basis for exceptions to the general rule” and results in engaging in a practice which is intrinsically evil, albeit within a mirage of doing so “in good conscience”. Here the Pope is focusing his criticism, almost certainly, on the Winnipeg Statement’s use of the phrase “in good conscience” (see below) when spouses opt for contraception.
…if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience. (26)
A separation or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called “pastoral” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept. No one can fail to realize that these approaches pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God’s law. Only the clarification made earlier with regard to the relationship, based on truth, between freedom and law makes possible a discernment concerning this “creative” understanding of conscience.
The above section is virtually a direct reference to the Winnipeg Statement. The Pope starts out with criticizing the general maxim which the dissenters propose. He says there is an opposition established between the general precept (“contraception is evil”) recognized as the objective moral order, and binding on everyone, in every place, and at all times on the one hand, and the subjective order (via the conscience) which is not bound to the moral order but really independent of it, on the other hand. The objective moral order then becomes merely a reference point with no binding authority on one’s actions.
The Pope then turns his sight to the so-called “pastoral solutions” which he says are “contrary to the teaching of the magisterium”. This is a veiled reference to the various “pastoral documents” issued by the various episcopal conferences in response to Humanae Vitae. Many of these “pastoral documents” dissented from the teaching of Humanae Vitae, with the Winnipeg Statement being, in the recent words of one Australian bishop, “the worst”. The Pope laments that the creative attempts of the Canadian bishops to establish a “creative hermeneutic” by essentially allowing spouses to contracept, while paying lip service to the general prohibition on contraceptive sex, thereby ultimately divorcing the moral conscience from a binding negative precept.
75. But as part of the effort to work out such a rational morality (for this reason it is sometimes called an “autonomous morality” ) there exist false solutions, linked in particular to an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action. Some authors do not take into sufficient consideration the fact that the will is involved in the concrete choices which it makes: these choices are a condition of its moral goodness and its being ordered to the ultimate end of the person. Others are inspired by a notion of freedom which prescinds from the actual conditions of its exercise, from its objective reference to the truth about the good, and from its determination through choices of concrete kinds of behaviour. According to these theories, free will would neither be morally subjected to specific obligations nor shaped by its choices, while nonetheless still remaining responsible for its own acts and for their consequences. This “teleologism”, as a method for discovering the moral norm, can thus be called — according to terminology and approaches imported from different currents of thought — “consequentialism” or “proportionalism”. The former claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. The latter, by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather 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.
By assenting to the putative legitimate use of contraception “in good conscience”, the Winnipeg Statement is imbued with both “consequentialism” and “proportionalism”. Instead of treating contraception as an objective moral evil to be absolutely condemned and avoided, the Winnipeg Statement suggests that the moral legitimacy of the act is not determined by its objective roots, but can be justified by an appeal to “the circumstances” or the consequences.
Counsellors may meet others who, accepting the teaching of the Holy Father, find that because of particular circumstances they are involved in what seems to them a clear conflict of duties, e.g., the reconciling of conjugal love and responsible parenthood with the education of children already born or with the health of the mother. In accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience. (26)
The teleological ethical theories (proportionalism, consequentialism), while acknowledging that moral values are indicated by reason and by Revelation, maintain that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behaviour which would be in conflict, in every circumstance and in every culture, with those values. The acting subject would indeed be responsible for attaining the values pursued, but in two ways: the values or goods involved in a human act would be, from one viewpoint, of the moral order (in relation to properly moral values, such as love of God and neighbour, justice, etc.) and, from another viewpoint, of the pre-moral order, which some term non-moral, physical or ontic (in relation to the advantages and disadvantages accruing both to the agent and to all other persons possibly involved, such as, for example, health or its endangerment, physical integrity, life, death, loss of material goods, etc.). In a world where goodness is always mixed with evil, and every good effect linked to other evil effects, the morality of an act would be judged in two different ways: its moral “goodness” would be judged on the basis of the subject’s intention in reference to moral goods, and its “rightness” on the basis of a consideration of its foreseeable effects or consequences and of their proportion. Consequently, concrete kinds of behaviour could be described as “right” or “wrong”, without it being thereby possible to judge as morally “good” or “bad” the will of the person choosing them. In this way, an act which, by contradicting a universal negative norm, directly violates goods considered as “pre-moral” could be qualified as morally acceptable if the intention of the subject is focused, in accordance with a “responsible” assessment of the goods involved in the concrete action, on the moral value judged to be decisive in the situation.
The evaluation of the consequences of the action, based on the proportion between the act and its effects and between the effects themselves, would regard only the pre-moral order. The moral specificity of acts, that is their goodness or evil, would be determined exclusively by the faithfulness of the person to the highest values of charity and prudence, without this faithfulness necessarily being incompatible with choices contrary to certain particular moral precepts. Even when grave matter is concerned, these precepts should be considered as operative norms which are always relative and open to exceptions.
In this view, deliberate consent to certain kinds of behaviour declared illicit by traditional moral theology would not imply an objective moral evil.
In discussing the erroneous morality proposed by these theories, it is clear that their foundation rests on relativism. The Pope points this out as well. He says above, “The moral specificity of acts, that is their goodness or evil, would be determined exclusively by the faithfulness of the person to the highest values of charity and prudence, without this faithfulness necessarily being incompatible with choices contrary to certain particular moral precepts. Even when grave matter is concerned, these precepts should be considered as operative norms which are always relative and open to exceptions.”
76. …The faithful are obliged to acknowledge and respect the specific moral precepts declared and taught by the Church in the name of God, the Creator and Lord. When the Apostle Paul sums up the fulfilment of the law in the precept of love of neighbour as oneself (cf. Rom 13:8-10), he is not weakening the commandments but reinforcing them, since he is revealing their requirements and their gravity. Love of God and of one’s neighbour 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. It is an honour characteristic of Christians to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29) and accept even martyrdom as a consequence, like the holy men and women of the Old and New Testaments, who are considered such because they gave their lives rather than perform this or that particular act contrary to faith or virtue.
77. In order to offer rational criteria for a right moral decision, the theories mentioned above take account of the intention and consequences of human action. Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention — as Jesus forcefully insisted in clear disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees, who prescribed in great detail certain outward practices without paying attention to the heart (cf. Mk 7:20-21; Mt 15:19) — and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice. The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behaviour is “according to its species”, or “in itself”, morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.
In other words, John Paul II is speaking of the inherent nature of the act by referring to the “moral species”. While, as he says, the culpability of an evil act may be mitigated by the circumstances, it does not change the moral substance of what the act is. We know that abortion is evil, for instance, but we also know there are circumstances which may mitigate against the full culpability of engaging in it such as compulsion or even rape. But, in no way, can we refer to abortion (or contraception, for that matter) as something which can be a priori considered a moral option.
Moreover, everyone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects — defined as pre-moral — of one’s own acts: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure? How could an absolute obligation be justified on the basis of such debatable calculations?
Indeed. This is also a very important point. What one person considers a proportionally strong reason for committing an act would not be considered to be so by another person in the exact same situation. On other other hand, an absolute prohibition on a particular act does not have such “relative” or ”subjective” weaknesses.
78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean 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. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”. And Saint Thomas observes that “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. ‘There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just’ (Rom 3:8)”.
The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who “alone is good”, and thus brings about the perfection of the person. An act is therefore good if its object is in conformity with the good of the person with respect for the goods morally relevant for him. Christian ethics, which pays particular attention to the moral object, does not refuse to consider the inner “teleology” of acting, inasmuch as it is directed to promoting the true good of the person; but it recognizes that it is really pursued only when the essential elements of human nature are respected. The human act, good according to its object, is also capable of being ordered to its ultimate end. That same act then attains its ultimate and decisive perfection when the will actually does order it to God through charity. As the Patron of moral theologians and confessors teaches: “It is not enough to do good works; they need to be done well. For our works to be good and perfect, they must be done for the sole purpose of pleasing God”.
Another concomitant of this fraudulent relativistic and consequentialist philosophy is that it also appears with the “ends justifies the means” approach to ethics. This has permeated our culture so thoroughly that it infects almost every sector of public policy where moral judgements are required. Take, for instance, the whole question of “safe injection sites” for drug users which ends up encouraging the very thing it is trying to overcome.
79. One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its “object” — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned….
Here, John Paul II makes it clear that the thesis of proportionalism, and by implication the Winnipeg Statement, is to be “rejected”. He goes on to state that there are always acts which, by their very nature and in themselves, are incapable of being ordered to God and therefore are intrinsically evil:
80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.
With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general”.
In concluding his encyclical, the Pope repeats the Church’s rejection of the erroneous theories which negate the binding nature of the objective moral order, prefacing it with the words “we repeat” so as to ensure that there is no misunderstanding. He even go so far as to exclude both the intention and the consequences in assessing whether an act is evil according to its very nature or, as he say, its “species”.
82. Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression. The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order”and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.
While not mentioning it by name per se, the Winnipeg Statement is referred to indirectly when the Pope skewered the “pastoral solutions” which attempted to separate the subjective and objective moral orders. In so doing, the rejection of these solutions was, in point of fact – and unmistakably so – a rejection and condemnation of the Winnipeg Statement and its reliance on proportionalism, consequentialism, relativism, and subjectivism. It is crystal clear that the solemn Magisterium has condemned these false and pernicious errors that undergird the Winnipeg Statement. Now it’s time for the bishops of Canada to reverse themselves, submit to the solemn magisterium of the Church, and retract their errors.