Bp. Strickland

Bishop Strickland

Bishop Joseph Strickland writes for The Wanderer — I have been discussing Catholic Moral Teaching in the last two columns. The authentic Magisterium of the Catholic Church affirms that there are intrinsically evil acts which can never, ever, ever be chosen. A clear summary of this teaching is found in paragraph 80 of the encyclical letter of Pope St. John Paul II entitled The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor):

“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’.”

Procured abortion is an intrinsically evil act which can never be chosen. We examined that clear Catholic teaching last week. Yet, we all know there are self-professing Catholics, both in public office and running for public office, who directly reject the clear teaching of the Scripture, the Natural Moral Law, the teaching office of the Catholic Church, and medical science.
One of the reasons they do so is the errant catechesis they have received. There have been several influences on the development of moral theology since the Second Vatican Council that have undermined the faith and still lead many astray. Let’s examine one in this column, what is called Proportionalism, and the relativism which is one of its bad fruits.


The rise of proportionalism (sometimes called consequentialism) was, and is, predicated upon a thin notion of freedom as a “freedom from” any kind of absolute moral norms which govern our choices. It provided a cover of sorts for misguided moral theologians within the Catholic Church. They confused many of the Catholic faithful who accepted their teaching, presuming that they spoke for the Church.

The proponents of proportionalism maintained that there were what they called “ontic” or “pre-moral” evils which one may choose when considering the morality of an action, if such a choice was made for the sake of a greater “pre-moral” good.

In this approach to the exercise of human freedom and choice the promoters of proportionalism rejected longstanding Christian teaching concerning the existence of intrinsically evil actions that are always and everywhere wrong. They simply cannot ever be chosen. One cannot do evil to achieve a good end.

Though there were variances within their language, and an almost chameleon-like quality to their rhetoric, most held that it could be a moral course of action — at least in what was perceived to be a “complex” or “difficult” decision — to choose what promised to realize a greater proportion of this “pre-moral good” over a “pre-moral evil.”

The definitive response to this errant teaching was the 1993 encyclical letter of Pope St. John Paul II entitled The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor [1]). Given the late Pope’s commitment to building what he called an “adequate anthropology,” it is interesting that he released this encyclical letter on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6 on the Roman calendar. The feast certainly underscored the message of the encyclical, the call to our complete transformation in Christ.

The encyclical letter affirmed that what we choose helps to determine who we become, informs our experience of life in this world, and paves the path to our eternal destiny and fulfillment in the beatific vision.

In this one sentence, excerpted from paragraph 76 of this encyclical, the late Pope explains that such allegedly moral theories “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 commandments of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition.”

Veritatis Splendor rejected proportionalism and authoritatively taught Catholic moral theology afresh for the Third Millennium. [2] In both style and structure, Veritatis Splendor also responded to the call of the Second Vatican Council to re-root moral teaching first within the Sacred Scriptures. This effort prompted a return to a more patristic approach to Scripture which emphasizes that the Bible is the “soul of theology.” [3]

In its first chapter, it provided an extraordinary biblical exegesis based upon the Lord’s encounter with the Rich Young Man. It then used this story to expound a moral theology of choice and freedom. This encyclical letter contributed not only to the renewal of moral theology, but it was a part of John Paul’s whole life project of developing an adequate theological anthropology.
It was also a clarion call as well to develop an ethics of virtue, by addressing the true meaning and implications of our choices and authentic human freedom as it relates to personal transformation and growth in holiness.

It addressed the proper development and formation of conscience in relationship to objective truth, and gave a strong reaffirmation of the natural law, a view that was consistent with classical Thomism, though certainly infused with Pope St. John Paul’s characteristic personalism.


Sadly, since Pope Benedict’s resignation from office, there now seems to be a resurgence of proportionalism rearing its ugly head again. It is undermining the late Pope’s teaching. I believe it constitutes a real danger if it is not exposed and rejected.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI warned of what could result in such a turn of events. In a homily of April 18, 2005, given by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger at the eve of the convocation which would elect him to be the Successor of Peter, he preached the following words of warning about a creeping relativism:

“How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking….The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves — thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth.

“Every day new sects are created and what St. Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf. Eph. 4:14). Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism — which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching’ — looks like the only attitude which is acceptable in today’s standards.

“We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

We live in a declining Western culture which is growing increasingly hostile to classical, faithful Christianity, and especially to the Catholic Church. It denies the very existence of objective Truth. There is a clash of worldviews, personal and corporate, and competing definitions of human freedom, human dignity, and human flourishing.

Two Examples, Life and Marriage

Western Christians are now facing the hostility of a relativism which claims there are no truths. But we, Catholic Christians, insist that there is Truth, it can be known — and it must govern our lives. Therefore, we face an increasing soft persecution. We are accused of being against progress and science for defending the dignity of every human life — including the lives of our first neighbors in the womb.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Science confirms what our conscience long ago confirmed, those little girls and boys in the womb are our neighbors. We will not compromise on the truth concerning the dignity of every human life from conception through natural death.
In the face of the ascendency of a counterfeit notion of marriage, we insist that marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of the universe. Truth does not change; people and cultures do; sometimes for good and sometimes for evil.

Marriage is solely possible between one man and one woman. Heterosexual marriage, procreation, and the nurturing of children form the foundation for the family, and the family forms the foundation of civil society. It is the first society into which children should be born, learn to be fully human, grow in virtue, flourish and take their role in families and communities.
We will never stop making the claim that children have a right to a mother and a father. They do. Of course, we care about the single-parent family and the many broken homes. However, their existence does not change the norm necessary to build a stable and healthy society. Intact marriages and families are the glue of a healthy and happy social order.

As with our position concerning the truth about life, our position on the nature and ends of marriage is not simply a religious position. Marriage between one man and one woman, open to life, intended for life, and formative of family, is the most fundamental of all human social institutions.

It is a relationship defined by nature itself and protected by the natural law that binds all men and women. It finds its foundation in the order of creation. Civil institutions do not create marriage nor can they create a right to marry for those who are incapable of achieving the ends of marriage.

The institutions of government should, when acting properly, defend marriage against those who would redefine it. It is failing to do so and, as a result, the West is collapsing. To limit marriage to heterosexual couples is not discriminatory. Homosexual couples cannot bring into existence what marriage intends by its definition.

Good government has long regulated marriage for the common good. For example, the ban on polygamy and age requirements were enforced in order to ensure that there was a mature decision at the basis of the marriage contract.

To live in faithful, heterosexual marriages open to bearing and rearing children within a family is now countercultural. This is not the first time in Christian history this has occurred. Libertine cultures are the mission field into which the Church is sent. What changes is not the Church, but those cultures, from the influence of the Church.

Natural Law

We also insist upon the existence of a Natural Moral Law which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason. We do so because such a Natural Moral Law does exist — and it is the only stable foundation for civil law, giving us the moral norms needed to build societies and govern ourselves. This Natural Law must inform our positive or civil law, or we will become lawless and our society will devolve into anarchy and tyranny. The evidence is all around us in the West.

These claims of ours are unpopular and are increasingly ridiculed. Those who hold to them will face growing disparagement and ostracism. However, they are the only antidote to the malady which is rotting Western civilization from within. We need to become a counterculture to be ready to face what is to come. Knowing our Christian history can help.

Our Missionary Mandate

The early Church was sent into cultures filled with people who thought they were advanced considering the arts and sciences of their day. Yet, those cultures practiced primitive forms of abortion and exposure, a practice of leaving unwanted children on rocks to be eaten by birds of prey or picked up by slave traders. They also adopted false notions of choosing evil so that an alleged good could result.

Early Christian manuscripts like the Letter to Diognetus offer us a window into how the early Christians transformed those ancient cultures very much like our own. Those were also Cultures of Death and use where people were treated as property, cultures of excess where freedom was perceived as a power over others and license masqueraded as liberty.

They eventually changed them from within through heroic faith, power-filled prayer, and a willingness to suffer for the truth.

We can change the culture of the contemporary West, if we are willing to suffer, struggle, and offer ourselves to the Lord for the task. God still loves the world so much that He sent His Only Son (John 3:16). The Son of God, Jesus the Christ, has been raised from the dead. He continues His redemptive mission through His Mystical Body, the Church. The Return of Proportionalism threatens the Church and the Culture into which She is Sent.



  1. Encyclical Letter of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), 1993. (Boston: Mass. Pauline Books and Media).
    2. See, e.g. V.S. Par. 75 and 76 for a clear, unequivocal refutation of proportionalism.
    3. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965.