When it comes to judging human actions, it is perhaps best that God is in charge, and not only because He said so. The feeble mind of man cannot even remotely begin to have the capability to take into account all the influences on an individual when he acts. Any attempt on the part of man to assume God’s role results in miserable failure, as seen in both the heteronomous and autonomous movements in the Church. A heteronomous view of the salvation of man often excludes the role that conscience plays in an invincibly ignorant individual, leaving all the poor non-Catholics with nothing to do but twiddle their thumbs in Hell. Shifting to the opposite extreme leads one to an autonomous view of morality, which denies any sort of absolute moral norms and thereby allows any unholy fiend in human form to stand before the Almighty after sinning in defiance. The latter case is perhaps the more popular-for obvious reasons-but is just as incorrect and dangerous. Autonomous ideas may take many forms, but one version in the Church at present is what is known as Proportionalism, discussed in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. While the Pope’s assessment of the danger affords a very clear and thorough definition of Proportionalism, it focuses mainly on the teleological ramifications of subscribing to its teachings. Though some Proportionalists have cited St. Thomas Aquinas to support their error, a closer inspection of the full text of Aquinas shows that he is not only not a Proportionalist but also that his arguments are some of its most devastating opponents.
Understanding the Teachings of Proportionalism
Before launching into Aquinas’ account of human action that proves so fatal to Proportionalism, one must first understand the substance of the teachings of Proportionalism. Veritatis Splendor sums up the error nicely: “[Proportionalism], while acknowledging that moral values are indicated by reason and by Revelation, maintain[s] that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior which would be in conflict, in every circumstance and in every culture, with those values.”1 Given the fact that the Ten Commandments, among other teachings, seem very absolute, one would think that it is difficult to hold such a view. The Pope explains the way in which the Proportionalists endeavor to bypass such a fundamental barricade: “The 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 values to be respected. For some, concrete behavior would be right or wrong according as whether or not it is capable of producing a better state of affairs for all concerned.”2
Non-Moral or Pre-Moral
The terms “non-moral” or “pre-moral” in the Pope’s definition need clarification in order for one to understand the nature of Proportionalism. Non-moral or pre-moral goods are those that have some relation to the person doing the acting. The encyclical names “health or its endangerment, physical integrity, life, death, loss of material goods, etc.,”3 as some of the more often-named pre-moral goods. Put another way, these goods are of a kind that, if endangered or threatened, could allow the actor (or agent) to perform as a good act what, in other more ordinary circumstances, would be considered an evil act. On the other hand, there are pre-moral evils, linked inseparably to the good, since moral act implies a choice between good and evil. When one prepares to act, he “proportions,” or weighs the factors, and chooses those that have more values than disvalues.
For example, if a person were given the choice to place a tiny speck of incense on an altar to Zeus and deny his own God, or face horrible torture and death, the Proportionalists would claim that the values of staying alive, being with one’s family, etc. outweigh the disvalue of what may be only at the surface denying God. The act of saving one’s own life in the face of martyrdom can be legitimately performed as a good act, since the extraordinary circumstances of the individual’s position allow for that one exception to the First Commandment. The individual’s judgment of these potentially threatening circumstances thus becomes the deciding factor and the act’s “‘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.”4 Hence the name “pre-moral”: since the actions are judged by intention and the situational circumstances, both of which happen at the time the agent is faced with a difficulty in his path of action, the action itself is neutral until the agent’s own circumstances enter into the equation. It logically follows, then, that there can be no such thing as intrinsically evil acts, that is, acts that, by their very nature, regardless of the circumstances, are evil. Speaking in the voice of a Proportionalist, the Pope writes, “Even when grave matter is concerned, these precepts should be considered as operative norms which are always relative and open to exceptions.”5
It is precisely because of the conclusion that there are no universal, morally absolute, intrinsically evil acts that the Church entirely rejects the Proportionalist view. Though the Proportionalists may be acting out of good intentions, the Church cannot in any way make allowances for their teachings. The Pope understands that Proportionalism is an attempt to “provide liberation from the constraints of a voluntaristic and arbitrary morality of obligation which would ultimately be dehumanizing,”6 for, without any real choice, a person is not using his reason and freedom of choice, which distinguish him from the animals. But Proportionalism is one of the “false solutions, linked in particular to an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action.”7 Circumstances and intention can play a very important role in moral action, but they “can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.”8 As was said before, Pope John Paul II does not delve into the question of circumstances and intent; for that, one must turn to St. Thomas Aquinas.
Turning to St. Thomas Aquinas
Proportionalists point to certain lines in Aquinas to “prove” that he supports their theory. They claim that Aquinas writes that “circumstance transforms an action” and that “human action may be good or evil according to its circumstances” but such claims are quoting Thomas out of context-the latter quotation comes from the sed contra of Prima Secundae, question eighteen, article three, with which Aquinas proceeds to disagree. St. Thomas’ analysis may be broken down to three points: there are two kinds of circumstances, neither of which can make a bad action good; nor can good intent make a bad action good; but evil intent can make a good action bad. Before the reader gets entirely confused, he must first understand the essential difference in circumstances and how they may affect action.
St. Thomas Aquinas is very clear when he distinguishes what will be called “specifying circumstances” and “circumstances of the agent.” Using Aristotelian terms, he explains that “just as the primary goodness of a natural thing is derived from its form, which gives it its species, so the primary goodness of a moral action is derived from its suitable object.”9 Form is the defining application of the natural thing itself; so, too, is the object for an action. For example, “using a hammer” is an action with no defining moral qualities-it is neutral. The act becomes a moral act when certain objects are introduced into its nature, or essence. “Using a hammer that is one’s own” is an instance of making use of one’s own property and is an act, as Thomas says, “good in its genus.”10 It is a good action because the circumstances that specify something intrinsic to the nature of the action-namely that the hammer belongs to the user-are good. “Taking a hammer that belongs to someone else,” however, contains the circumstances that necessitate some wrongdoing: stealing. The evil object of taking another’s property is necessitated by the specifying circumstance that the hammer does not belong to the one taking it. Since “the primary evil is that which is from the object…this action is said to be ‘evil in its genus,’ genus here standing for species.”11 To translate Thomas’ terminology, the species of an action is either good or evil, and is determined by a “circumstance added to the object that specifies the action.”12
Specifying circumstances affect the essence of an act itself and are therefore objective, but there is another kind of circumstances that are entirely subjective, varying from agent to agent. These are the circumstances of the agent, and “are in an action as accidents thereof.”13 This means that anything relating to the agent, such as moral education, invincible ignorance, pressure from outside sources, and other accidents that may be the reason why an individual acts may affect the extent to which he can be judged. Circumstances of the agent only affect the culpability of the agent, not the nature of the action itself. It is on this point that the Proportionalists are confused; they equate personal choices (and therefore culpability) with the essence of an action. A person’s bad intentions may make a good act bad, but they can never make an intrinsically evil act good, because the evil in such an act is wedded to the very “whatness” of the act itself.
Though it sounds as if the Church is holding a double standard, Thomas explains why this is not the case. There are four ways in which an act is good: by its genus, species, specifying circumstances, and end. “Nothing hinders an action that is good in one of the ways mentioned above, from lacking goodness in another way. And thus it may happen that an action which is good in its species or in its circumstances is ordained to an evil end, or vice versa; circumstances can transform an action, but only from a good act to a bad one. An action is not good simply, unless it is good in all those ways: since ‘evil results from any single defect, but good from the complete cause.'”14 So, an action that is good by its nature (that is, in its specifying circumstances) may be evil in other ways that disallow it from being a good act. Similarly, an action that is bad by nature can absolutely never be a good act. Put simply, it is just more difficult to be good than evil.
Lest his readers be confused on any points thus far, Thomas gives an account of an entire moral act, with all circumstances and intentions, hidden and visible, shown in their respective positions. Naturally his language is rather complicated, but by applying what has been dealt with previously regarding circumstances, one finds the explanation quite satisfactory. He begins by discussing how the “interior action of the will” (that is, the person’s intent and consent to an action) and the “external action of the will” (that which is actually done visibly) are both determined in species by their ends. Now, when the will consents interiorly, the action becomes formal-even before the body is able to carry it out. Material cooperation occurs when the body carries out what the will has ordered. Thus, the consent of the will is the first action in any circumstance, so if a person already consents to something evil but does not have the chance to carry it out, he has already committed a sin.15
Thus, St. Thomas’ discussion of circumstances is a death blow to Proportionalism. The difference between specifiying circumstances and circumstances of the agent will hardly allow any room for evasion. One can hardly claim that a person’s intention will make an evil act good when even the interior decision to do something evil without carrying the evil out is a grave sin. The only possible plea, when one has done evil, is that his circumstances, as an agent, were so grave that they either lessen or eliminate his culpability. Those circumstances do not touch the nature of the act itself. In the face of the difficulty, one should not attempt to escape the moral norms, but should embrace them, for it is an opportunity to prove one’s faith. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “And this is what takes place through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth of freedom and of love: in him we are enabled to interiorize the law, to receive it and to live it as the motivating force of true personal freedom: ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (James 1:25).”16
1 Veritatis Splendor, 75.2.
2 Ibid. 74.3.
3 Ibid. 75.2.
4 Ibid. 75.2.
5 Ibid. 75.3.
6 Ibid. 76.1.
7 Ibid. 75.1.
8 Ibid. 81.3.
9 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, q. 18, a. 2.
12 Ibid. q. 18, a. 10.
13 Ibid. q. 18, a. 3.
14 Ibid. q. 18, a.4.
15 Ibid. q.18, a. 6
16 Veritatis Splendor, 83.2.