Roman Catholic Ethics: Three Approaches

by Brian Berry

This article first appeared in the March 1999 issue of Catholic Practice, the E-Magazine of PastoraLink, which is no longer online.

One of the evident features of contemporary reflection on ethical issues by Roman Catholic theologians is its plurality. Moral theologians today write about a range of concrete moral issues, such as homosexuality, physician-assisted suicide, and affirmative action. They also specialize in a variety of subdisciplines within moral theology, including sexual ethics, bioethics, social ethics, and environmental ethics. But, most importantly, they approach their reflection from within a variety of moral systems or schools of ethical thought, which have different perspectives on what ethics is and how it should proceed. All of this leads to not only an overwhelming amount of data, but a confusing cacophony of diverse moral positions within the one the community of faith. Some even suggest that it has left the discipline of moral theology in a state of "disarray."

This article attempts to bring some order to the seeming chaos that exists in Roman Catholic moral theology today. I suggest that developments in the discipline since the Second Vatican Council can be grouped under three main approaches to ethical reflection, what I describe as deontology, revisionism, and virtue ethics. Each of these approaches has distinct views about what ought to be the subject matter of ethics and its method of moral deliberation. In what follows, I will outline the main features of these three approaches using the thought of representative theologians, showing how their theories shape the position they take on the issue of abortion, a complex moral problem that is of special concern to the Roman Catholic community.


One of the main approaches to Roman Catholic moral theology since Vatican II is "deontology." This approach places strong emphasis on human actions. It seeks to evaluate human behavior by asking, "What is my duty?" and appeals to moral laws, norms, principles, and rules that are then applied to particular situations. According to deontological ethics, a behavior is moral if the act in itself is right and it is done with the right motive or intention. The consequences of the act are irrelevant for evaluating its moral status.

A key representative of the deontological approach to Roman Catholic ethics is Germain Grisez. Taking the formal principle "do good and avoid evil" as his starting point, Grisez argues that knowledge of the good is "self-evident" to human beings. By this he means that human beings, on the basis of their experience of desiring those things towards which all persons are naturally inclined, can know that certain human goods are "basic" or desirable in and of themselves. Grisez identifies eight such basic human goods: life, play, aesthetic experience, speculative knowledge, integrity, practical reasonableness, friendship, and religion. No one of these is more important any other, and the ideal of integral human fulfillment means the enjoyment of all eight of these basic goods.

How are individual actions to be evaluated from a deontological perspective? Grisez argues that a human action is moral only if it is aimed in some way at securing one or more of the basic human goods. We cannot aim at all eight of the basic goods at all times, but we must act in a way which remains open to those basic goods that we do not actively pursue in any given action. A behavior which aims at one basic good, while arbitrarily slighting another, is immoral to the extent that it turns from a basic good without adequate reason.

This last point is especially important for Grisez. He interprets it to mean that some kinds of actions are never morally permissible. In other words, certain human behaviors are "intrinsically evil," that is, always and everywhere wrong, regardless of the circumstances. Specifically, he insists that any kind of action that involves a direct attack on a basic human good, for example, direct homicide, deliberate contraception, or lying, can never be morally justified.

What are the implications of this interpretation for evaluating the morality of abortion?

Grisez insists that direct abortion is always wrong, since it involves a direct attack on the basic good of human life. However, under certain circumstances, indirect abortion can be morally justified. An abortion is indirect if a good effect is intended, for example, saving the life of the mother, and the bad effect, namely, the killing of the fetus, is not. Classic cases of indirect abortion are those performed in cases of an ectopic pregnancy or cancerous uterus, providing these are done before late second trimester. These are referred to as indirect abortions because the intention is not to kill the innocent life of the fetus, but to remove the pathological condition that will otherwise kill both the mother and the fetus.

While the deontological approach to ethics has traditionally been more typical of Protestants theologians, it exercised a considerable influence on Roman Catholic ethics in the twentieth century, particularly before the Second Vatican Council. The deontological approach of Grisez in particular has also shaped the moral teaching of Pope John Paul II, especially his recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.


A second main approach to Roman Catholic ethics since the Council is "revisionism" or "proportionalism." Like deontology, this approach places great emphasis on human actions. However, it seeks to evaluate human behavior not deontologically but teleologically by asking "What is my goal?" Viewing the ultimate goal or end of human life as union with God, it then tries to determine which actions are most conducive to achieving the values and goods that will lead to this ultimate end.

Revisionism, while working within the above framework, has a deeper appreciation of the range of goods and evils that might result from a given action than more traditional teleological approaches tended to acknowledge. Like the deontological approach, it considers the act in itself as well as the intention, but it also takes account of the likely consequences of an action on the human relationships that are involved. It then asks, "which alternative course of action would not intend wrong and would result in a proportionately greater amount of good over evil?"

A major figure representing the revisionist approach to Roman Catholic ethics is Richard McCormick. McCormick accepts much of Grisez's analysis of basic human goods, and agrees that an action that aims at one basic good, while arbitrarily slighting another without adequate reason, is immoral. Where he differs from Grisez, however, are in his claims that there are no "intrinsically evil" acts, and that directly turning against a basic human good is not always morally wrong. McCormick insists that a direct attack on a basic human good is only a "premoral"--rather than a moral--evil if there is a proportionate reason for doing the act. "Premoral" evil here refers to the inconvenience, limitations, and harm that are inevitably a part of all human efforts to do good, since human beings are historical, social and live in a sinful world.

When is there a proportionate reason for doing an action that contains premoral evil? McCormick explains that a "proportionate reason" exists when (a) there is a value at stake at least equal to the value being sacrificed; (b) there is no less harmful way of protecting the value at present; and (c) the manner of protecting it under the circumstances will not actually undermine it. Admittedly, determining whether such conditions exist is a difficult one. It means weighing the likely consequences of an action, but also asking if it would be good if everyone in similar circumstances did this, asking whether one is operating out of cultural bias, paying attention to the wisdom of past experience embodied in moral norms, consulting broadly to avoid personal bias, and allowing the full force of one's religious beliefs to be brought to bear on one's judgment. A correct judgment that a proportionate reason exists would mean that the good intended by a given action outweighs the evil results, and that forming the act would be morally permissible.

What are the implications of this approach for evaluating the morality of abortion?

In a lecture he gave nearly ten years ago, entitled "Abortion: A Middle Ground," McCormick argued that, while there is a moral presumption against abortion since it involves the killing of human life, abortion to save the life of the mother is morally acceptable. By this he would have meant not only that indirect abortions are permissible, such as in cases of an ectopic pregnancy or cancerous uterus, but that direct abortions are sometimes morally justified. In other of his writings, he has suggested that a proportionate reason for abortion may exist in the case of a mother whose life is threatened by pregnancy because she has a bad heart, or in the case of anencephalic fetus.

Virtue Ethics

A third major approach to Roman Catholic ethics since the Council is "virtue ethics." Unlike deontology and revisionism, this approach does not focus on human actions, but on being a certain kind of person. In fact, virtue ethics criticizes deontology and revisionism for focusing on actions and neglecting the importance of moral character. It argues that morality is as much about who we are as about what we do. Who we are extends into what we do and do not do, and what we do and do not do shapes the kind of persons we become.

At the same time, virtue ethics is similar to revisionism inasmuch as it seeks to evaluate moral character teleologically by asking, "What is my goal?" Viewing the ultimate goal or end of human life as union with God, it attempts to determine which virtues ought to be cultivated, both by individuals and communities, to achieve this ultimate end. "Virtues" refer to habits or practiced patterns of doing good and living life well, as opposed to "vices" or habits of doing evil and living life badly. Virtues traditionally have been "theological," such as faith, hope, and love, as well as "moral," such as prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.

A major representative of the "virtue ethics" approach in Roman Catholicism today is James Keenan. Keenan argues that the focus of ethics should not be on acts, but on who we are, who we are to become, and how we are to get there. The specific tasks of virtue ethics are to help us understand ourselves as the people we are, to set goals for the type of people we ought to become, and to suggest what are the significant steps we should take to achieve these ends. In other words, for Keenan, the virtues inform us both about who we are to be and about what we are to do. And like revisionism, Keenan sees human relationships as the context within which the moral life is practiced and evaluated.

What implications does this approach have for evaluating the morality of abortion? Rather than examining the question of whether abortion is ever morally licit, Keenan criticizes aspects of American culture that have led to us having the most liberal abortion policy in the developed world. Rather than pitting the rights of the woman against those of the fetus, and leaving the woman to make her own private decision, Keenan advocates that we rediscover a concern for the common good, address ourselves to why so many pregnancies in our society are unwanted, and ask how we are the way we are and how can we become better. At present, we seem incapable as a society of making ourselves into the kind of people we would or could want to become in our relationships with the unborn.

In this article, I have outlined three main approaches to ethics that typify the thought of Roman Catholic moral theologians writing today. The moral systems of deontology and revisionism are primarily interested in the moral evaluation of particular human actions, the deontologists arguing that only indirect attacks on a basic human good may be justified, the revisionists insisting that even direct attacks may be permissible if there is a proportionate reason. Virtue ethics, however, is more interested in the moral character of persons, inviting us to focus on the good habits we need to cultivate if we are to live a genuinely moral life.

The future of Roman Catholic moral theology, it seems to me, lies in the dialogue between these three existing approaches, each of which have their basis in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Deontology and revisionism have some specific moral guidance to offer those concerned with such "big-life" moral dilemmas as whether or not to have or provide an abortion, and do so with varying degrees of appreciation of the regrettable and often tragic dimension of much of human existence. At the same time, virtue ethics gives much needed attention to the commonplace, to such things as bettering one's relationships, doing one's job better, taking better care of one's health, and becoming more conscious of one's neighbor, all with a view to helping people become the best persons they can be.

Brian Berry is assistant professor of Religious Studies at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. from Boston College in 1995.