The moral method known as proportionalism is making a comeback. And this is good. For too long in Catholic public discourse, leaders have talked about the moral life as if we have clarity about “absolute good” and “evil,” largely focused on a description of an external act. Catholics have been told not to engage in acts that are “intrinsically evil,” that is, evil by virtue of the object of the act, no matter the intent or circumstances (torture, abortion, birth control, euthanasia). In an effort to avoid so-called “moral relativism,” there has been a reluctance to engage in moral reflection on complex everyday contexts in which there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex particular problem.

But that won’t work for us now. Our moral imaginations need language to capture the complexity of the decisions we face as we navigate a global pandemic and the realities of everyday dilemmas. Thinking about proportionalism and discernment now can provide some helpful guideposts from our tradition as we navigate difficult questions as covid-19 headlines dominate the landscape. We need to recover our tradition’s robust understanding of the virtue of prudence to guide us in these times, as we ask:

  • Should my family resume going to Mass on Sunday?
  • Should I cancel my family’s summer vacation?
  • Should I visit Grandma in the nursing home?
  • Should I decline the invitation to a friend’s birthday party in her home?
  • Should schools reopen for in-person classroom lessons?
  • What will I do if schools don’t reopen and I have to return to work?

In each of these real-life questions, values are at stake. Christians live in the real world and have to make choices every day. Frequently now our discernment involves the weighing of risks and benefits, values and disvalues. We have to figure out how to live our faith in the midst of very real, ordinary dilemmas.

Of course, it is always preferable to act in such a way that one does not cause any harm or permit any evil. But the moral life frequently requires that we make decisions in which every choice seems to carry some combination of value and disvalue. Peter Knauer authored a 1967 essay on the principle of double effect in which he writes that “one may permit the evil effect of his act only if he has a commensurate reason for it.” (Knauer, 1967, 137). In other words, if I acknowledge that my action may cause harm, I have to have a reason for accepting it; I have to be able to justify (explain, provide rationale for) why I can accept that harm in light of the expected good effect(s) of the act I am engaging.

For example, returning to Mass in person means the opportunity to worship with our parish community in person, to greet friends we have not seen in months, to feel the comfort of our home church, and to receive the Eucharist. These are certainly goods worth naming. But returning to Mass in person also carries risk of being exposed to the coronavirus or exposing others if I am an asymptomatic carrier. In order to return to Mass, I have to prayerfully consider this risk and decide if it is a risk I am willing to accept. Do I have commensurate reason for it? I could ‘participate’ remotely by watching the livestream Mass and can contribute electronically to the collection basket. At home, I can sing, which I can’t do (safely) in church. Each week I must reassess my risks and make a new decision. Do I have a temperature or any other symptoms? Has anyone in my family been exposed to the virus this week (to my best knowledge)? What underlying medical conditions of my family members may make the risk of going to Mass in person too risky for us in these circumstances? How is my virtual participation in ecclesial life forming me as a Christian, as a person? Would going to Mass in person help me to become more or less virtuous, more or less scrupulous, more or less compassionate, more or less holy? Is the risk of exposing my family or another’s to a dangerous disease worth it because of the benefits to my spiritual life and my participation in my parish community?

Scholars such as Aline Kalbian, Paulinus Odozor, and Jim Keenan have written about proportionalism within Catholic theology, and many others have demonstrated its value in medical ethics, ethics of war and peace, and sexual ethics. Proportionalism helps the person to think about the moral life as a means by which one evaluates human action in order to determine the right in particular circumstances for a particular agent. The misrepresentation of proportionalism in Veritatis Splendor (1993)  was unfortunate, and led to confusion in pastoral theology. Moralists in the Catholic tradition who invoke proportionalism should not be described as “moral relativists” because they are seeking an objective knowledge of good and evil; they just locate it differently. (For more on this, see the collection of essays edited by Nenad Polgar and Joseph A. Selling, below).

Today, we may say that a general first principle to which we can all agree is that states should reopen safely. But how does that principle apply to my life? In a world in which we have to make careful decisions about leaving our homes, it is good that people are increasingly weighing the risks. The moral language of “intrinsically evil acts” does not offer us the proper tools that we need to think through our daily choices today in order to determine the right course of action.

Instead, we need to be vigilant about minimizing risk, reducing harm, and at the same time fulfilling other necessary responsibilities. The choices are not easy. Applying the criteria of proportionate reason to specific cases is difficult. One has to have an adequate grasp of the relevant data in order to understand the potential consequences of various courses of action; one has to reflect honestly about one’s intent in a particular action, and be willing to examine the evidence that would uncover moral blindness rooted in self-interest; and one must be able to describe and examine the circumstances of one’s actions and recognize the impact of other people’s actions on one’s own degree of safety in public.

The coronavirus pandemic is teaching us about the importance of thinking not only about our own personal safety but about how our decisions reflect our care for those most vulnerable in our communities. Even if I’m feeling fine, going out to a dine-in restaurant may further the spread of the disease in my community, further straining the medical resources in my local hospital system. School administrators are engaging in very complex discernments about the risks of in-person classroom experiences and the benefits of reopening campuses. We need more theological discussion on the ethics of risk. What risks are ethical, by whom, under what circumstances? For example, under what circumstances should an employer compel an employee to risk their health? What risks should I be willing to take, out of love for my family, my students, a stranger I will never meet? With further conversation, we may see that there is not a “one size fits all” answer to these questions. Even members of the same household may come to different prudential judgments.

Prudence is a virtue (practiced over time) by which right reason is applied to action. Prudence is the virtue that guides our practical decision-making as we navigate a world of risks in the light of our Christian faith. As we stretch our moral imaginations to practice proportionalism in everyday life, prudence and charity must be our guideposts.

Recommended Readings:

  • Aline H. Kalbian, “Where Have All the Proportionalists Gone?” Journal of Religious Ethics 30:1 (2002): 3-22.
  • Nenad Polgar and Joseph A. Selling, eds. The Concept of Intrinsic Evil and Catholic Theological Ethics (Lanham: Lexington, 2019).
  • Peter Knauer, “The Hermeneutic Function of the Principle of Double Effect” Natural Law Forum 12 (1967) 132-162.
  • James F. Keenan, SJ, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (New York: Continuum, 2010).
  • Paulinus Odozor, Moral Theology in an Age of Renewal (University of Notre Dame Press); Richard A. McCormick and the Renewal of Moral Theology (University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).
  • Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, Introduction to Catholic Theological Ethics: Foundations and Applications (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2019).