Lesson 5: Proportionalism1 and Biologism2

This lecture builds upon Tape 5 that explains the Church's teaching on Contraception. There I spoke a great deal about the bad social consequences that have resulted from widespread use of contraception. In the second portion of that tape I mention the use of proportionalism to justify contraception and the charge that the Church's teaching is biologistic. In this lecture I elaborate on proportionalism and biologism.


What is proportionalism? Hesitant to give one formulation to the differing positions held by various theologians, Father Richard McCormick describes proportionalism in this fashion:

Common to all so-called proportionalists ... is the insistence that causing certain disvalues (nonmoral, premoral evils such as sterilization, deception in speech, wounding and violence) in our conduct does not by that very fact make the action morally wrong, as certain traditional formulations supposed. The action becomes morally wrong when, all things considered, there is not a proportionate reason in the act justifying the disvalue. Thus, just as not every killing is murder, not every falsehood is a lie, so not every artificial intervention preventing or promoting conception in marriage is necessarily an unchaste act.3

In large part many critics consider proportionalism to be subject to the same failings as consequentialism, and in many respects that is true. How does one calculate what are the consequences of an act? How does one measure what premoral values might outweigh the premoral evils of, say, abortion or adultery? How does one judge which circumstances justify causing premoral evils? Proportionalists, however, claim that they are not mere consequentialists. They claim that they do not merely balance out good and bad consequences but that they make full use of the method of moral analysis of the tradition and do so more consistently than the tradition has done. They raise questions about the consistency of the tradition in determining the object of the moral act and how the circumstances, intention, and consequences of the action interact with the object to establish the moral evaluation of an action. Several who have responded to the rejection of proportionalism by Veritatis Splendor have focused on these very questions.

As McCormick notes, proportionalism does consider as morally permissible some of the actions considered to be intrinsically evil by the magisterium; in his article he notes that proportionalism does justify acts such as sterilization, masturbation, and contraception when done for a proportionately good reasons. Yet, McCormick balks at the claim of the encyclical that the principles of proportionalism justify doing morally wrong actions for a proportionately good reason. Calling the claim of the encyclical a "misrepresentation," he claims "No proportionalist that I know would recognise himself or herself in that description."

What we have here is a classic case of "your terms or mine?" Since proportionalists do not think sterilization, masturbation, and contraception are intrinsically evil, when they justify such acts, they do not believe they are justifying morally wrong actions; they only permit premoral evil for proportionate goods. Since the magisterium considers such acts to be intrinsically evil, it believes that the principles of proportionalism justify morally wrong actions. What is key is that, as noted above, proportionalists admit that their principles do indeed justify what the magisterium teaches to be intrinsically morally wrong. Why speak of misrepresentations?

Why do proportionalists and the magisterium disagree about the moral evaluations of such actions? It can easily seem that the source of the disagreement is that the tradition thinks some actions are intrinsically evil by their object and proportionalists think that no actions are intrinsically evil by their object; they are only premoral evil (object here means the action itself, apart from the circumstances and intention of the agent).

McCormick, though, makes an interesting claim: he states: "[A]ll proportionalists would admit this [that some acts are intrinsically evil from their object] if the object is broadly understood as including all the morally relevant circumstances." McCormick fails to recognize that the tradition does indeed include all the morally relevant circumstances in the object of the act. McCormick thinks the magisterium does this for some actions but not for others. He thinks that the magisterium is inconsistent in allowing killing in some circumstances or for some reason (in self defense) and not allowing sterilization in any circumstances or for no reason. This is his accusation:

[T]he 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 which 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 as 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 sterilisation, it adds little or nothing to the material happening and regards such a materially described act alone as constituting the object. If it were consistent, it would describe the object as "sterilisation against the good of marriage." This all could accept.

What McCormick fails to see is that the magisterium defines sterilization, masturbation, and contraception in the same way that it defines theft (and lying, and murder). As McCormick states, "theft is taking another's property against the reasonable will of the owner". The "matter" of this act is "taking another's property", the morally relevant and specifying circumstance is "against the reasonable will of the owner." Lying has the matter of "telling a falsehood" and the morally relevant and specifying circumstance of "to one who deserves to know the truth". Murder has the matter of "killing a human being"; the morally relevant and specifying circumstance is that the human being is "innocent of wrong-doing worthy of being killed."

Now consider intrinsic evils where McCormick thinks the tradition does not include relevant circumstances. Sterilization (let's consider a hysterectomy) has the matter of "surgically removing one's reproductive organs" and the morally relevant and specifying circumstance of "for the purpose of preventing conception" (which the magisterium considers to be "against the good of marriage"). Masturbation is "the manipulation of one's sexual organs" with the morally relevant and specifying circumstance of "intending to have an orgasm". Contraception is the "taking of drugs or using devices that render one incapable of conceiving" with the morally relevant and specifying circumstance that this is done with the intent to prevent the sexual act from achieving its procreative end.

All actions that have the same matter could be performed under other morally specifying circumstances that would make them good actions; the evils that may result would be considered to be justified by the principle of double effect. One could take what belongs to another, to save the owner's life (e.g., a gun with which the owner intends to kill himself); one can kill a human being in self defense, one can tell a falsehood to one who does not deserve to know the truth (e.g., the Nazi searching for Jews). One could have one's reproductive organs removed for the sake of removing a cancerous growth (the prevention of conception would be the double effect); one could "manipulate one's sexual organs" for the purpose of discovering a cancerous growth (if orgasm occurred it would be the double effect); one could use drugs to regulate a menstrual cycle (the resulting infertility being the double effect).

The magisterium is not inconsistent. Every moral act considered evil by its object has within its description some morally relevant and specifying circumstances (and the intention can be considered one of the circumstances). At this level, the real source of the debate about terminology is what counts as morally relevant and defining circumstances. Whereas the magisterium counts as morally specifying circumstances those that transcend particular circumstances, proportionalists want to count as morally relevant and defining the circumstances of particular agents. For proportionalists, none of the acts described above would qualify as intrinsically evil. For instance, if one had a proportionately good reason given one's circumstances to kill an innocent human being, one would be justified in doing so. The proportionalist does not think this would be an act of murder, since for the proportionalist "murder" is the "killing of an innocent human being without a proportionate reason." For a proportionalist "killing an innocent human being" is not an intrinsic moral evil; it is a premoral evil that could be outweighed by the good consequences that the act might produce. Still, proportionalists readily admit that they think there are "virtually" intrinsically moral evils; there are acts, such as, perhaps, "killing an innocent human being" for which one can hardly conceive of a justifying circumstance. But, for the magisterium, "killing an innocent human being" is an intrinsic moral evil called murder and not because one cannot conceive of circumstances that would justify it. The magisterium does not accept the principle of the proportionalists, that one must weigh premoral evils to determine what is moral evil. It judges acts to be either in accord with right reason or not in accord with right reason. If an action is not in accord with right reason, it ought not to be done no matter what the consequences. The magisterium considers sterilization, masturbation, and contraception to be against right reason, against the very meaning of the sexual act, and thus it considers them to be intrinsically evil.

So proportionalists and the magisterium have a different standard for judging what is moral evil; proportionalists weigh and balance premoral evil and goods; the tradition speaks of acts being against right reason, against nature, against virtue (all synonymous standards, in the view of the magisterium). What is not clear is what is the standard by which proportionalists judge something to be "premoral evil". They generally reject "nature" as a standard. But once they do so, it is difficult to determine what is the standard for "premoral evil". Why should homosexuality, for instance, be considered any evil at all, if the sexual powers do not have a specific and natural ordination? But let that question rest.

What needs to be noted is the centrality of the concern with sexual ethics, central not so much to the magisterium, but to proportionalists. Indeed, as McCormick acknowledges, it is primarily the magisterium's teaching about sexual matters that proportionalists resist. Proportionalism really began with the dissent against Humanae Vitae. It does not seem foolish to speculate that had Humanae Vitae not been issued, proportionalism would not have gained the prominence it has among Catholic theologians; the Catholic tradition has unfailingly asserted that there are intrinsic moral wrongs and this has been uncontroverted until recent decades (post Humanae Vitae). Proportionalism followed on the heels of situation ethics and can be seen as an attempt to gain the flexibility of situation ethics while retaining the traditional terms of Catholic moral theology. Yet, situation ethics is completely incompatible with the Catholic tradition and would not have found a home there had it not served the important role of justifying the rejection of contraception as an intrinsically evil action. The Catholic tradition has always accepted that there are intrinsic moral evils; McCormick's attempt to claim that proportionalists have never denied this demonstrates that he too wishes to be part of that tradition.

It is time to spend less time on the meaning of technical terms, though it must be acknowledged that the debate spawned by proportionalists has aided in the clarification of those terms. But the clarification has been made and there is no quarter on that level for dissenters to have their way. What they need to do is to address the Church's understanding of the meaning and purpose of sexuality for that is the true source of their disagreement with the Church. It is time to have a discussion on what the goods of marriage are and how contraception, for instance, affects those goods. Such a discussion should stay as far as possible from the terms "object", "circumstances," "consequences" and premoral evil and speak of "personalism" and "self-mastery" and "self-giving" and of the importance of children and fidelity and heterosexuality. Pope John Paul II has provided an incredible wealth of material on these subjects. The debate on proportionalism has had its day; let us get down to the real focal point of the debate; what is sexuality for and what modes of sexual conduct are compatible with the purpose of sexuality? It is time that proportionalists faced this issue and the challenge that Pope John Paul II has given them.


Recently, in the pages of America, Robert Heaney notes that a deeper understanding of reality can advance our understanding of natural law. Drawing upon his training as a biologist, he argues that in its condemnation of contraception the Church has based its teaching on bad biology. What Heaney fails to see is that our further knowledge of what a contraceptive culture looks like, indicates that contraception hardly contributes to the well-being of human beings. Far from having a barnyard view of sexuality, Humanae Vitae, as more are beginning to see, had a prophetic view of the contraceptive culture. Among other evils, Humanae Vitae 17 predicted that with widespread use of contraception, there would be a general lowering of morality and that there would be less respect for women. Most can see that our morality is low and we have little respect for women but few have seen the connection between these realities and contraception.

Twenty-five years ago, many thought that contraceptives would make for fewer abortions, fewer illegitimate pregnancies, better marriages. Does anyone want to argue that these expectations have come true? Heaney fails to see that contraception has not brought us out of the barnyard but has instead fostered a barnyard morality. The culture that contraceptive sex has fostered resembles a barnyard more than the utopia of sexual intimacy Heaney depicts. It is in the barnyard that sterilization, random couplings, breeding, the cavalier killing of the unwanted and imperfect, etc. are "natural". Clearly, -- and it is essential to see this -- contraception would not be condemned by the Church if it were an offense only or primarily against the biological purpose of the sexual act for there is no prohibition against contracepting and manipulating animal sex in any way deemed beneficial.

It is precisely because man is not on the same level with animals that he is called to live in accord with a higher view of sexuality. Whereas animal sex is a fleeting union and results in simply another member of the species, human sex is meant to promote a profound bond and brings forth an immortal soul. The following argues that contraceptive sex tends to foster fleeting and shallow unions more than the deeply intimate unions appropriate to human persons. Here let me briefly note that contraception does not merely thwart a mere biological capacity. God, loving creator that He is, chose to bring forth new human life through the loving act of spouses. The male provides the sperm, the female the ovum, and God the human soul. Contraception allows couples to enjoy the pleasure God designed for sexual intercourse but shuts God out from performing his creative act in the arena He designed for bringing forth new human life.

An elaboration on how contraceptive sex contributes to barnyard morality should be preceded by noting that contraception is also bad biology. The "pill" treats the perfectly healthy condition of fertility as though it were an illness or defect. And the pill has many and vile side effects: it can cause blood clots and strokes and infertility, for instance; these occur only in a small percentage of cases to be sure, but since sixteen million of women are using the pill, the small percentages can add up to large numbers.

The everyday, common side effects of the "pill" are not insignificant. It is common for women who use the pill to complain of increased irritability, depression, weight gain, and a decreased libido. Isn't the pill something every woman and her husband wants -- something to help her be more irritable, to be more depressed, to gain weight, and to have a decreased desire to have sexual intercourse! In our age when we have come to discover how foolish it is to dump alien chemicals into the environment, why do we think it sensible for women to put so many alien chemicals into their bodies?

Heaney, like most dissenters writing on the Church's teaching on contraception, evinces no knowledge of John Paul II's claim that one violates the unitive meaning of the sexual act whenever one violates the procreative meaning. John Paul II has written extensively on human sexuality, not from a biological perspective but from a personalist perspective. It is possible here to give only the briefest sketch of his thought. He observes that male and female are made for each other. Each sex is really incomplete without the other; physically and psychically the sexes complete each other. John Paul II maintains that we have a deep and natural need to give ourselves to another person; to make ourselves whole by giving ourselves to another. He says that this giving is most completely performed in the sexual act between male and female, an act that is meant to express the deep commitment and desire for union that we feel and wish to express. He says that the attempt to thwart the fertility of the sexual act means that one is withholding one's fertility from the other -- one is withholding something that belongs in the sexual act.

One way of seeing John Paul II's point is to think of the difference between the phrases "I want to have sex with you" and "I am open to having babies with you." The first phrase is one our culture utters with the greatest of casualness; contracepted sex is often engaged in with the same commitment that going out to dinner or playing tennis with another suggests -- that is, not much. Being open to having a baby with another, however, bespeaks a very great commitment to another, the kind of commitment worthy of human beings, the kind of commitment that should be made by those engaging in an act that might in fact result in a human baby! It bespeaks the willingness to have one's whole life entwined with another, to have breakfast together, to go to little league games, to plan weddings.

Heaney, without identifying it, invokes the principle of totality, a principle that tells us that it is permissible to tolerate harm to a part for the sake of the whole; e.g., it is permissible to amputate a foot for the sake of the whole body. Treating sexual acts as a part of the whole of marriage he argues that it is permissible to violate the procreative meaning of the sexual act as long as the whole of the marriage is open to children. He observes "sexual intercourse serves the enduring, committed relationship between partners ... openness to life inheres in the relationship and not in individual sexual acts." Heaney gives no response to the many counter-arguments to this old chestnut that is addressed in sections 3, 14, and 17 of Humanae Vitae. Let me give an analogy that at least illustrates some of the problems. The Church teaches that all one's sexual acts should be with one's spouse. Suppose one were able to argue that this view is based on an outdated biology; after all the laws about marriage were made when people had an average life-span of around forty. Who can expect people to be faithful to one spouse for decades? A few extramarital thrills might put the lilt back in one's step. As long as one is faithful most of the time, why should one have to be all the time? Certainly, some seriously argue this way, but such is not the reasoning of the Church about moral matters. Being faithful most of the time, or truthful most of the time, or nonracist most of the time is not sufficient. Moral acts are judged individually, not as parts of some aggregate whole.

There is not so much biology in the Church's teaching as Heaney suspects -- and what there is, is good biology. It cannot be denied that sexual intercourse can result in babies and that it can result in intimate bonding. These goods that are the result of a physical act are not physical goods. They are great human goods that ought not to be violated. What greater observation of reality shows us is that contraception violates both these goods and unleashes a host of evils on individuals and societies. Our culture is a mess and it is largely young people and particularly young women who are suffering the consequences of this mess. We can hardly blame them for the choices they make since they are the choices that we have deemed "responsible". Most who contracept have little understanding of what damage it can do to their relationships and to society as a whole. But as any biologist knows, if one is ingesting poison, even if it is cleverly disguised as something good, one will still suffer the ill effects of the poison.

Required Texts

My tape Contraception: Why Not distributed by One More Soul.

Humanae Vitae (my translation recommended: Appendix 1 in my Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and published as a separate pamphlet A Challenge to Love: Humanae Vitae by Catholics United for Life).

Catechism: 1749-1761

Additional Readings

Janet E. Smith, Humane Vitae: A Generation Later. Catholic University of America Press. 1991

______"Veritatis Splendor," Proportionalism, and Contraception," Irish Theological Quarterly 63: 4 (1998) 307-26.

______ "Moral Terminology and Proportionalism," in Recovering Nature : Essays in Natural Philosophy, Ethics, and Metaphysics in Honor of Ralph McInerny ed. by Thomas Hibbs and John O'Callaghan (Notre Dame Press, 1999) 127-46.

_______ "The connection between contraception and abortion," Homiletic and Pastoral Review 93:7 (April 1993) 10-18.


Michael, Robert T. "The Rise in Divorce Rates, 1960-1974: Age Specific Components." Demography 15:2(May 1978): 177-82.

______. "Determinants of Divorce." In Sociological Economics, edited by Louis Levy-Garboua, 223-54. London: SAGE Publications, 1979.

______. "Why Did the U.S. Divorce Rate Double Within a Decade." In Research in Population, 361-99. Greenwich: JAI Press, 1988.

Paper Topics

1. Explain why the pill is not good biology and not good "humanity."

2. Explain why the principle of totality does not justify using the pill although the principle of double effect does justify using sterilizing hormones.

3. Explain how contraception leads to abortion and euthanasia (see Evangelium Vitae).

1. This lecture is my "Moral Methodologies: Proportionalism," in Ethics and Medics 19:6 (June 1994), pp. 1-3.

2. This lecture is adapted from my "Barnyard Morality," in America (August 13, 1994) pp. 12-14. It is a response to Robert Heaney's Sex, Natural Law, and Breadcrumbs, in America (February 26, 1994), 12-16.

3. The citations are from Richard McCormick, "Veritatis Splendor in Focus: Killing the Patient," The Tablet (30 October 1993) 1410-1411.


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