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  • Transcultural Moral Truth in Veritatis Splendor and Fides et RatioResources for Discerning Revisionist Concerns
  • Matthew McWhorter

At the end of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II underscores that his purpose in writing the encyclical is to evaluate "certain trends in moral theology today" that reject transcultural Christian moral norms.1 In contrast with these trends, the pontiff reaffirms the continued validity of absolute moral norms—specifically, norms that proscribe Christian persons from performing the kinds of acts that are judged to involve intrinsic moral evil.2 The pontiff 's concern is occasioned by contemporary ethical theories that interpret traditional moral commandments not in an absolute or immutable manner but rather as precepts that are "always relative and open to exceptions."3 The doctrine proscribing intrinsic moral evils had been a matter of significant academic debate during the postconciliar milieu leading up to John Paul II's promulgation of the encyclical. Moral theologian James Keenan explains that this controversy was between moral "revisionists and neo-manualists."4 He describes Veritatis Splendor itself as a preeminent expression of the latter approach to moral reflection.5 [End Page 25]

Moral revisionists have critiqued the doctrine proscribing intrinsic moral evils in three ways: (1) by disclaiming its historical legitimacy,6 (2) by advancing an alternative methodology for moral decision-making (proportionalism),7 and (3) by arguing against the contemporary intellectual viability of the doctrine.8 Various revisionist authors have focused on different aspects of the doctrine with respect to this third area of critique. Charles Curran, for example, maintains that a primary concern of revisionists is with the putative "physicalism" of the doctrine (i.e., that the doctrine allegedly reduces a moral act to a physical or biological act).9 Keenan cites two essays by Josef Fuchs as expressing a noteworthy battery of arguments against the doctrine.10 Referring to an essay by Fuchs, Keenan asserts that within [End Page 26] it, "Fuchs undid not only the credibility of the concept of intrinsic evil, but also the claims of any metaphysical a prioris that could diminish the range of consideration necessary to make a prudential judgment."11 Fuchs reiterates a number of his original concerns in later essays authored after the release of Veritatis Splendor.12 Fuchs, who is described as "one of the leading proportionalists,"13 continues to remain influential upon contemporary academic moral theologians.14

Various scholars have responded to the distinct areas of revisionist critique. By way of evaluation of the revisionist critique of the historical legitimacy of the doctrine, several authors have presented alternative historical research.15 Meanwhile, other scholars have raised concerns with the methodology [End Page 27] of proportionalism16 (John Paul II also evaluates the proportionalist rationale in Veritatis Splendor17). Similarly, scholars have engaged the charge of physicalism in response to Curran18 (here too, the pontiff likewise engages the topic of physicalism19). Further, there have also been evaluations of the arguments of Fuchs.20 Germain Grisez, for example, provided an extensive [End Page 28] critique of Fuchs's influential essay that questioned the truth of moral absolutes.21

In what follows, I first examine Fuchs's revisionist moral concerns about the legitimacy of transcultural moral norms, especially norms proscribing certain kinds of voluntary acts on the basis that they involve intrinsic moral evil. I focus in a particular way upon the issue of culture in relation to methodology in academic moral theology.22 In the second section, I examine Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio with respect to passages connected with the theme of culture and the pontiff's affirmation of transcultural moral truth. Lastly, I offer a few closing methodological reflections from a theological perspective. Overall, I argue that the distinction affirmed in Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio between transcultural moral truth and the de facto customs of diverse cultures remains a helpful methodological presupposition for academic moral theology. By subsuming moral norms within the category of "culture" and by rejecting (1) a transcultural Christian moral tradition as well as (2) an ontology that affirms the reality of transcultural moral kinds, revisionist moral theologians risk both a historicism and a nominalism in method. [End Page 29]

I. The Methodological Concerns of Josef...


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