Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Father William Most Collection

Richard McCormick vs. the Pope

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

The Pope has missed the point , says Fr. McCormick in "Veritatis Splendor and Moral Theology", in America, Oct 30, 1993, pp. 8-11. He says the Pope accuses the Proportionalists of saying what they do not really say.

Here is how it comes about. All, even Proportionalists, agree that there are three things that determine the morality of an action: object, end, circumstances. The object is the nature of the thing just in itself, i.e., adultery is wrong, and we say that without reference to who does it etc. The end is the purpose of the one who does it. Circumstances vary widely.

McCormick insists that there is a problem of defining what is the object in specific cases, and thinks the Pope is inconsistent in the way in which he does that: "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."

His idea is that it is not always easy to define just which elements belong to the object. So in the case of killing, the object includes, he says, not just the mere physical act, but also the reason, e.g., killing in a just war is permissible. And in the case of lying, we may conceal the truth in diplomacy, for example, from those who have no right to it. Similarly, reasons McCormick, we should include enough in our definition of the object in speaking of contraception, or in speaking of gathering a sperm sample by self-stimulation for the sake of fertility testing.

So we need to look at each one of the proposed cases separately. We begin with killing. R. Friday in Adults Making Responsible Moral Decisions (National Conference of Directors of Diocesan Religious Education, 1979, 1986, 1992) says that killing is always objectively wrong - whether we kill a mosquito, or a turkey, or a human. The critical thing is our reason. If there is greater good to be had we call the act moral. Killing in itself is not immoral, just premoral.

What these two theologians have not noticed is the reason why murder is wrong. It is not the physical act of taking a life that is wrong, no, it is the violation of the rights of God, the supreme Lord of life. In killing a human without God's permission, we violate His rights. He does not object if we do it in capital punishment (cf. St. Paul in Romans 13:4) or in a just war. But otherwise we are violating God's rights if we kill a human. But there is no violation of God's rights if we kill a mosquito or a turkey. Why? God in Genesis made man the master of all lower creation. This, the best exegetes think, is what it means to say He created man in His own image and likeness. Just as God is the Lord of all, so God has made man Lord of lower creation.

This does not mean that God’s decision is purely arbitrary. It is not as if He said: I know there is nothing wrong with killing, but I want to hold it down a bit. Heavens no. He objects when it violates both His rights and those of others. The right to life comes from Him. Those who have it may not be deprived of it without grave reason -- then God decides it is reasonable and right. He at times really commanded it, as He did for some crimes in the OT period. He is pictured, especially in Isaiah, as Holy-that is, He is supremely concerned with what is right in itself. Murder is wrong since it is, objectively, a violation of the objective rights of the Lord of life. Lying is wrong since it is contrary to the function of speech, to convey truth.

We turn to lying. Here McCormick's problem is an inadequate definition of lying, which has led to unfortunate solutions by talking of broad and strict mental reservations - not convincing to all. But here is a better definition: A lie is any statement, which, when properly interpreted is known by the speaker to be false. We notice the underlined words. There is nothing strained about them. In reading or speaking or hearing we do pay attention to the context. For the meaning of a sentence is not just the total of the dictionary meanings of the words used, but includes also the whole setting or context. So if mother sends a child to tell the salesman she is not home, it really means - and the salesman knows how people speak too - "Maybe she is here, maybe not, but if she is here, she does not want to see you."

Or to have intercontinental missiles in place amounts to saying: If you do this, I will do that. Yet John Paul II in a message to United Nations said this can be permitted when nothing better can be done. How? The context is war and relations between nations. No man in his right mind expects a nation to give away its military and strategic secrets. So the proper interpretation of a statement made in that context is: Zero. Everyone should know that.

But artificial means of preventing God from giving new life in intercourse according to His plan are something else. There the evil is in violating the rights of God, who has set up this system to produce life, and wants it to operate thus. To frustrate His plan is evil. It is not evil to cooperate with the means He Himself has built into the nature of things to space births.

We conclude: the Pope is not guilty; Fr. McCormick is a bit confused.



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