Looking back on the controversy that preceded Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, I get the impression that there was an even deeper issue in play than the question of the morally appropriate means to regulate human fertility. Underneath that debate, another issue was being contested: How should Catholics do moral theology?
The forces pushing for a change in the Church’s longstanding rejection of artificial means of contraception were also pressing for the acceptance of a new moral-theological method, “proportionalism,” as the approved Catholic way of thinking through the tangled issues of the moral life. Those defending the Church’s traditional position were, by the same token, defending more classical ways of moral reasoning. The change people denied that there were “intrinsically evil acts,” because, they argued, moral choices should be judged by a “proportional” calculation of intention, act, and consequence. The defenders of the tradition held that some things were always and everywhere wrong, in and of themselves.
A brilliant article by a German Catholic philosopher, Professor Thomas Stark, suggests that the same dynamic””an argument beneath the argument””may be afoot in the controversies that will be aired again at the Synod of Bishops in October.
In a painstaking analysis of the intellectual building-blocks of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s theological project, Professor Stark argues that, for Kasper, the notion of what we might call “sacred givens” in theology has been displaced by the idea that our perceptions of truth are always conditioned by the flux of history””thus there really are no “sacred givens” to which the Church is accountable…