In the latest round of debate over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, a fervent defender of the document sniffed at some of its critics that “the Magisterium doesn’t bow to middle-class lobbies” and cited Humanae Vitae as an example of papal tough-mindedness in the face of bourgeois cultural pressures. It was a clever move, rhetorically, and we may hope that it’s right about the magisterial kowtow. But I fear it also misses the point—or, better, several points.
At the Synods of 2014 and 2015, to which Amoris Laetitia is a response, the most intense lobbying for a change in the Church’s traditional practice in the matter of holy communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—a proposal the great majority of Synod fathers thought an unwarranted break with truths taught by divine revelation—came from the German-speaking bishops: prelates who represent perhaps the most thoroughly bourgeois countries on the planet. Thus, one does not strain against veracity or charity by describing the German-speaking bishops as something of a lobby for middle-class preoccupations. Passionate defenders of Amoris Laetitia might thus be a bit more careful when dismissing as a middle-class lobby those who raise legitimate concerns about the ambiguities in the document; what goes around, comes around.
There was, of course, far more going on in the 2014-2015 German campaign to permit holy communion for the divorced and civilly remarried than lobbying on behalf of the bourgeois morality of secular, middle-class societies. There was, for example, the ongoing, two-front German war against Humanae Vitae (Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning) and Veritatis Splendor (St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology). We are told, now, that a commission is examining the full range of documentation involved in the preparation of Humanae Vitae. One hopes that that study will bring to the fore what Paul VI realized when he rejected the counsel of many and reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to natural family planning as the humanly and morally appropriate means of regulating fertility.
For what Pope Paul realized—and what he had the courage to stand against, despite fierce pressures—was that a deeper game was going on beneath the agitations of various “middle-class lobbies” for a change in the Church’s position on artificial means of contraception. What was afoot was an attempt, reflecting currents in the German-speaking world of Catholic theology, to enshrine the moral method known as “proportionalism” as Catholicism’s official moral theology. And according to proportionalists, there is no such thing as an intrinsically evil act: Every moral action must be judged, not only in itself, but by a person’s intentions and the action’s consequences.
This, Paul VI realized, would be a disastrous concession to the spirit of the age. But the proportionalists didn’t quit the field after their defeat in Humanae Vitae, and that brings us to Veritatis Splendor. John Paul II had spent the greater part of his academic and intellectual life trying to reconstitute the foundations of the moral life in a confused age dominated by (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a bourgeois culture and its laissez-faire concept of morality. He knew that the triumph of proportionalism and the vindication of its denial that some things are simply wrong, period, would gut the moral life of both its tether to reality and its human drama. And that, inevitably, would lead to unhappiness, misery, and social chaos. So in Veritatis Splendor, the most intellectually sophisticated and pastorally experienced pope in centuries reaffirmed, as the settled and unchangeable teaching of the Church, that there are intrinsically evil acts: that some things are just wrong, without exception, no matter the calculus of intentions and consequences.
And still the proportionalists wouldn’t quit; one German commentary critical of Veritatis Splendor went so far as to claim that the German-speaking world had a special, privileged responsibility for Catholic theology. It was a statement of breathtaking arrogance, not least because it was made by theologians whose local churches were largely empty of congregants, thanks in no small part to the bourgeois lifestyle of post-war Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.