THE MORAL THEOLOGY OF JOHN PAUL II
William E. May
Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology
John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C., USA
The book is a sustained attack on the late pope’s moral theology. Curran makes more than a dozen extremely serious charges that, if true, would be sufficient thoroughly to discredit John Paul II as a moral guide. He faults the pope for his theological presuppositions and methodology, his “classicist/deductive” approach and failure to recognize an “inductive/historical consciousness approach,” his absorption of anthropology into Christology and his flawed Christology, etc. If John Paul II had been a student in the Rev. Professor Curran’s graduate classes in moral theology he may have passed, but barely.
Here I will show how utterly false are several principal criticisms that Curran levels against John Paul’s thought. Similar criticisms could be made of his other charges.
The ones that I will consider are: (1) John Paul II’s failure to recognize the relativity of moral truths once one has left first principles and descended to the level of specific moral norms or the “secondary precepts” of natural law; (2) the way the encyclical Veritatis splendor misuses Scripture; (3) the seven “serious errors” in the natural law advocated by the pope; (4) a “theology of the body” that is inapplicable to most people, denies the fundamental goodness of sexuality, and ignores the role of passion; and (5) an emphasis on the sexual complementarity of men and women that leads to the conclusion that men and women who are not married are not complete and lack something about their humanity.
1. John Paul II’s Failure To Recognize the Relativity of Moral Truth
Curran claims that the later pope failed to recognize the significant limitations involved in our knowledge of moral truth, which deals with practical matters. Curran emphasizes that Thomas Aquinas realized that while “speculative truths are always true….secondary precepts of the moral law oblige generally; they admit of exceptions precisely because of the myriad circumstances that can enter in. John Paul II needs to recognize explicitly the limits on truth and certitude, especially in the moral order” (33-34; emphasis added; see also 132).
Curran’s—and other dissenting theologians’--favorite Thomistic text to support this is found in Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 4. There Thomas speaks of “secondary” norms of the natural law that oblige “for the most part” (valent ut in pluribus) but that admit of exceptions in a few cases (ut in paucioribus).  An example is the norm obliging us to return items we have borrowed to their owners.
The purpose of this criticism is to show that Thomas Aquinas did not think that “secondary precepts of natural law,” for instance, the precepts of the Decalogue, were absolute moral norms universally prohibiting “intrinsically evil acts/” They are rather generalizations valid for the most part but allowing exceptions. John Paul II, on the other hand, strongly affirmed that some moral norms are absolute, with no exceptions whatsoever, and that among such norms are those prohibiting always and everywhere acts such as the intentional killing of the innocent, adultery, fornication, contraception. Therefore John Paul II departs from the teaching of the Church’s “Common Doctor.”
Curran (with other revisionist theologians) elsewhere supplements this interpretation of Summa theologiae 1-2, 94, 4, with his interpretation of divine “dispensations” to the negative precepts of the Decalogue. In some texts  Aquinas says that God can dispense from these precepts, whereas in others  he says that even God cannot do so. Curran interprets this seeming contradiction by saying that in those texts affirming the absolute universality of specific moral norms such as the negative precepts of the Decalogue, Aquinas understands the precepts in a very general sense as condemning actions already understood to be immoral and hence allowing of no exceptions. But in other texts, where he acknowledges that there are exceptions to these precepts and that God can dispense from them, the precepts are to be understood more specifically.  Several revisionist theologians who agree with Curran offer a similar interpretation of Thomas’s teaching on “divine dispensations” from the negative precepts of the Decalogue; they claim that in texts unequivocally and absolutely condemning “fornication,” “adultery,” “lying” and the like and maintaining that even God cannot dispense from them, Aquinas is using these terms in a formal sense as identifying actions defined as immoral. In other words, in those texts “fornication” and “adultery” mean sex with the wrong person, something self-evidently morally wrong, “killing the innocent” means unjust killing, and “lying” means telling a falsehood to one who has a right to the truth. But in those texts where Aquinas says that God can dispense from these precepts and that therefore they are not universally binding he is using merely descriptive and not morally evaluative terms to describe the actions prohibited. In other words, in those texts “adultery” means sexual intercourse between a married person and some other person to whom that person is not married; “fornication” means sexual congress between persons who are not married, etc. 
This interpretation of Aquinas is grossly inaccurate, and thus the criticism of John Paul based on it is utterly gratuitous. Before showing why it is useful to note that for the past thirty years many competent theologians have shown precisely why this interpretation is so flawed, but Curran and other revisionist theologians have simply ignored their studies on these issues and have not sought to reply to them. 
First of all, note the glaring non-sequitur in the argument based on the text from 1-2, q. 94, a. 2. The text simply declares that some secondary precepts of natural law are valid for the most part but admit exceptions in certain cases. This is true, because not all secondary precepts of natural law are absolute. Aquinas himself makes this clear. He notes that while affirmative moral norms hold semper sed non ad semper (always but not for always), there are also negative moral norms that hold semper et ad semper (always and everywhere without exceptions). In fact, his illustration of the way general norms are subject to exception makes this evident. The norm requiring us to return borrowed items to those who have lent them is an affirmative responsibility subject to exceptions: if the lender has become a madman or a traitor and what one borrowed is a weapon, then the norm, based on principles of fairness, e.g., the Golden Rule,  does not require the return of this weapon here and now,  and St. Thomas makes it clear, in the texts cited in notes 8 and 9, that the norm requiring us to return borrowed items is based on the Golden Rule, and in the “case” at hand, the exception is governed by the same prinxiple, the principle of the Golden Rule, that requires us ordinarily to return borrowed items to their lenders.
But on the other hand Aquinas clearly teaches that certain human acts, specified by their moral objects, are intrinsically evil, mala ex genere,  prohibited by negative norms that are valid simper et pro simper. Such deeds, and among them he explicitly includes the killing of the innocent,  fornication,  adultery,  lying,  can never be done. Moreover, and this is very important, in those texts explicitly concerned with “dispensations” from the negative precepts of the Decalogue, St. Thomas clearly affirms that even God cannot grant such dispensations. 
This is clearly shown by Thomas in Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 100, a. 8, where an objection had claimed that God dispensed Abraham from the precept that we are not to kill. In his answer Thomas says that because of God’s intervention, the object morally specifying Abraham’s act was not “killing an innocent person,” but “executing the just command of God.” The former object is morally bad; the latter morally good. 
In condemning the actions listed above (killing the innocent, adultery, fornication etc.) as intrinsically evil Aquinas was not, as Curran and other revisionist theologians claim, identifying them as actions already defined as immoral, i.e., adultery and fornication as sex with the wrong person, killing of the innocent as murder or unjust killing. Many texts make this crystal clear. For instance, in Summa contra gentes, Book 3, chapter 122 the question is whether “simple fornication” is always gravely sinful, and “simple fornication” is described not in morally evaluative terms as sex with the wrong person but with sex between an unmarried man and a unmarried woman who “has control over her own body,” and he gives several counter arguments attempting to justify “simple fornication.”  But obviously it would be stupid to attempt to justify an act defined as morally wrong, such as intercourse with the wrong person.
Another exceptionally illuminating text is found in De Malo, question 15. a. 1. This article deals with the intrinsic malice of every act of lust. The fifth objection argues against this position. The objection reads as follows:
Whatever is sinful ex genere (intrinsically sinful) may not be done for any end however good, as Paul says in Romans 3:8….But as the Commentator on V Ethics says, a virtuous man commits adultery with the tyrant’s wife so that the tyrant may be killed and the country liberated. Therefore, adultery is not intrinsically (secundum se) evil, still less any other act of fornication. 
To this objection Thomas replied: “The Commentator is not to be followed on this matter; for one ought not commit adultery for any good (pro nulla utilitate debet aliquis adulterium committere…).”  Note that Thomas does not say that the objection, “adultery is not intrinsically evil” is nonsense, as it would be if adultery were defined as wrongful sex, i.e., sex with the wrong person. Rather Thomas argues, in the body of this article and elsewhere, that adultery, understood simply as sex with another’s spouse, is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances or end.
In connection with this issue, it is useful to note that Francis Suarez, in his famous and comprehensive study De legibus ac de Deo Legislatore, makes it evident that Aquinas, unlike Duns Scotus, clearly affirmed that even God cannot dispense from precepts of the second tablet of the Decalogue, and that these precepts are universally binding without exception. 
Finally, it is most important to note that St. Thomas, in Summa contra gentiles, declared that “we offend God only by acting contrary to our own good.”  John Paul II takes this up explicitly in Veritatis splendor, declaring, "Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature [as specific kinds of freely chosen objects] 'incapable of being ordered' to God because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image" (no. 80; emphasis added).
2. The Encyclical Veritatis splendor misuses Scripture
Curran faults John Paul II’s use of Scripture in Veritatis splendor on four counts:
Curran recognizes that the encyclical tries to put obedience to the Decalogue into a bigger picture, including the invitation to be perfect, to follow Jesus and the law of love but “the encyclical proposes all these as illustrations of obedience to God’s will and law” (53), and thus falsifies Scripture.
These accusations fly in the face of the encyclical itself.
First of all, John Paul II makes it clear, in his reflections on Jesus’ dialogue with the rich young man, that the moral life is not a matter of obeying rules, as Curran interprets him. Throughout the encyclical the pope vigorously rejects a legalistic understanding of the moral life. The pope insists that "for the young man the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the meaning of life...the question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man's life" (no. 7). It is, he goes on to say, "an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfillment of his own destiny" (no. 8). The question, John Paul II continues, is indeed "a religious question...The goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God and indeed is God himself" (no. 9).
It is indeed an existential question, for it is about the meaning of our lives as persons gifted with freedom of choice, the freedom to give to ourselves our identity as moral beings. This is a truth emphasized later in the encyclical. Thus John Paul II declared that human freedom is rightly regarded as being "not only the choice for one or another particular action" but "is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself" (n. 65). In other words, in and through the free choices we make we determine ourselves [this is indeed the reason why the young man's question has existential and religious significance and is about the meaning of life]. In connection with this the Holy Father quoted a marvelous passage from St. Gregory of Nyssa: “All things subject to change and becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or for worse….Now human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew. But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings; it is the result of free choice. Thus we are, in a certain sense, our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions” (no. 71). 
John Paul II sees an essential link between obedience to the commandments and eternal life. But the link is not a matter of obeying rules but is rather a matter of love of persons. After noting that God’s commandments show us the path to life and lead to it and that Jesus, “the new Moses,” definitively confirms and proposes them to us “as the way and condition of salvation” (no. 12), the Holy Father emphasizes that the negative precepts of the Decalogue, of which Jesus reminds the rich young man, are rooted in the commandment that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, a commandment expressing "the singular dignity of the human person, the 'only creature that God has wanted for its own sake'" (no. 13). 
And at this point the pope develops a matter of crucial importance for the meaning of our lives as moral beings, namely, that we can love our neighbor and respect his dignity as a person only by cherishing the goods perfective of him and by steadfastly refusing to damage, destroy, or impede these goods. Appealing to the words of Jesus, John Paul II stresses that "the different commandments of the Decalogue are really only so many reflections on the one commandment about the good of the person, at the level of the many different goods which characterize his identity as a spiritual and bodily being in relationship with God, with his neighbor, and with the material world....The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods" (no. 13). Continuing, John Paul II stresses that the negative precepts of the Decalogue "express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of marriage" and so on (no. 13).
Moreover, John Paul II goes on to emphasize that Jesus not only reconfirms the law given to Moses--the "ten words"--he also is the one who gives us the Sermon on the Mount, the "magna carta of Christian morality" (no. 15). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stressed that he had not "come to abolish the Law and the Prophets," but rather "to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). John Paul says, "Jesus brings the commandments to fulfillment... by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning..." (no. 15). The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount "speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore do not coincide exactly with the commandments. On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life" (no. 16). They are "above all promises, from which also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life....they are a sort of self-portrait of Christ...and...invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ" (no. 16). The moral life, John Paul II emphasizes, means ultimately the following of Christ. But we follow him not by any outward imitation but "by becoming conformed to him who became a servant, even to giving himself on the Cross" (cf. Phil 2:5-8) (no. 21). Following Christ means "holding fast to the very person of Jesus" (no. 19).
And it is possible to be conformed to Jesus, to hold fast to him, to love as he does, "only because of God's grace" (no. 22; cf. no. 11). "To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes capable of this love only by the virtue of a gift received" (no. 22; cf. no. 24).
From this it is evident how Curran’s first two complaints about John Paul II’s use of Scripture in Veritatis splendor are simply gratuitous. His third complaint is that John Paul II misuses Scripture in rejecting proportionalism and consequentialism and in speaking of some human acts as “intrinsically evil,” etc. According to Curran these philosophical concepts were unknown to Scripture and by appealing to Scripture to support the “hierachical” magisterium’s affirmation of absolute norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts John Paul II is misusing Holy Writ.
It is true that the terms “intrinsically evil” and “absolute moral norms” do not appear in Scripture. But there can be no doubt that Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, clearly identify certain kinds of actions as utterly incompatible with (a) the life of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament and (b) his holy people who are one body with Christ. Competent exegetes show, for instance, that the story of Onan in Genesis, despite the efforts of some contemporaries to ignore its relevance to such issues as masturbation and contraception and that Onan was struck dead solely because he violated the Levirate law, clearly shows that what Onan did, namely, spill his seed deliberately in the ground, was abominable to the Lord as well as the end for whose sake he did this.  It is likewise clear, from a reading of the text, that Paul clearly condemned fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, etc. In addition, no one can read 1 Cor 6 without realizing that such sexual sins as incest, fornication, adultery, anal/oral sex bodily unite persons, and that if done by the baptized, who are irrevocably, for good or ill, bodily one with Christ, debase the entire body of Christ. 
3. The Seven Serious Errors in John Paul II’s Understanding of Natural Law
Curran finds “seven problems” in John Paul II’s understanding of natural law.
(1) “The first, Curran says, is the concept of natural law as the participation of eternal law in the rational creature…there is a danger here that the characteristics of eternal law can be too readily and easily transferred to what one believes is natural law….the danger is that human reason can be seen as too readily and easily coming to the certitude of eternal law….” (113).
Curran cites no texts from the encyclical to show that for John Paul II “human reason can be seen as to readily and easily coming to the certitude of eternal law.” Surely, the notion that natural law is our participation in God’s eternal law is traditional in Catholic thought. It was central to the teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Moreover, with the Catholic tradition he insisted that the precepts of the Decalogue have been divinely revealed to us. He insists, as we have seen before, that the Decalogue’s negative precepts are rooted in the commandment to love our neighbor. This is precisely the teaching of St. Thomas, who taught that the precepts of the Decalogue are secondary principles of natural law, whose truth is seen in light of the first principles of the natural law, especially the twofold commandment to love.  Thomas also taught that, although these precepts ought to be easily grasped by human reason, God has revealed them because they are so necessary for salvation and our knowledge of them can be blocked by sin and a perverse culture.  In Veritatis splendor John Paul II, who elsewhere explicitly noted the perverse effect that the “culture of death” has on our grasp of moral truth, follows the thought of Aquinas carefully. Both recognize clearly the obstacles that can prevent human persons from coming to a clear knowledge of moral truth, and the classic Catholic answer has been that God has made the key moral truths of the natural law known to us through revelation because of their importance for our salvation.
(2) Curran says, “a second problem concerns the meaning of ‘natural’ and of ‘human nature.’” He contends that John Paul II’s use of the expression “natural inclinations” in the encyclical indicates “acceptance of the Thomistic understanding of human nature as involving the inclinations that we share with all living things, with animals, and those that are proper to us as human beings. But,” Curran continues, “notice that this involves a three-layered anthropology with a bottom layer of what we share with all living things,  a second layer of animality added on top of that, and a third layer of rationality on the top….This …is the ultimate reason why I judge the papal teaching to be guilty of physicalism—the identification of the physical or biological act (e.g., the act of sexual intercourse) with the moral” (113-114). Curran focuses on “physicalism” as the fourth serious problem with the pope’s understanding of natural law; I shall return to this below.
Curran’s criticism is rooted in a terribly flawed understanding of St. Thomas. Thomas did recognize that some of our “natural inclinations” are shared by all substantive entities (e.g., the inclination to preserve our being), that others are shared by other animals (e.g., the inclination to mate and have offspring), and that some (e.g., the inclination to know the truth about God and to live in fellowship with other persons) are unique to human beings, are “natural” only to humans.  But Aquinas did not think that human beings have three natures superimposed on each other as Curran claims. For Aquinas, and for John Paul II, human persons do not have three natures; rather they have one human nature. As Aquinas notes, these inclinations orient us to the goods perfective of us as human persons, goods such as life itself, marriage and the procreation and education of children, knowledge of the truth, action in accordance with reason, etc.  It precisely because these inclinations orient us toward the goods perfective of us that they are so important, as John Paul II says in Veritatis splendor nos. 12, 13, etc.
Moreover, John Paul II firmly rejected the claim made by many today (including Curran) that because of human “historicity” specific moral norms are not immutable but change with differing historical situations. He rejected this claim as a moral relativity incompatible with Christ's affirmation, in his teaching against divorce, of the permanent validity of God's plan from "the beginning" and also with the unity of human nature which all human beings share with Christ who "is the same yesterday and today and forever" (no. 53).
(3) According to Curran, “a third and related problem concerns the teaching of Veritatis splendor on the place of the human body in questions of natural law.” The pope opposes seeing the body as simply raw material that human freedom can shape in any way it pleases. He insists on the ‘unity of soul and body’ and ‘the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations.” But, Curran says, Catholic papal teaching in the past has not made bodily integrity an absolute. Catholic hierarchical moral teaching recognizes that the body and the material are subordinated to the spiritual or higher dimensions of human existence (114). Curran here appeals to the teaching of Pius XII in his November 24, 1957 address on “Prolongation of Human Life” to support this claim. Pius had said:
John Paul II in no way contradicts this passage from Pius XII. He does not absolutize the value of life, as Curran says that he does. John Paul II does teach, as did Pius XII, that the moral truth (norm) prohibiting always and everywhere (semper et pro semper) the intentional killing of innocent human beings—a teaching Curran denies. In fact, in Veritatis splendor, the Holy Father singles out, as champions of the truth that there are moral absolutes, the martyrs who willingly gave up their lives in order to bear “witness to the truth. "Martyrdom,” he wrote, “accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God's law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God's image and likeness" (no. 92). Indeed, "martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever 'human meaning' one might claim to attribute, even in 'exceptional' circumstances, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man's 'humanity,' in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it" (no. 92).
On this issue, it is most important to realize that John Paul II throughout his writings emphasized that the human person is a bodily being, and that the body with its own dynamisms is intrinsic to the human person, something good in itself and not merely instrumentally so. The late Holy Father saw a “dualistic” understanding of the human person as one of the roots of the “culture of death.”  Moreover, John Paul II accurately said, in considering contraception—which Curran justifies—that “the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.” 
Here I cannot show the truth of this statement by John Paul II, but a careful study of the arguments advanced by Catholic theologians, Curran among them, shows clearly that they regard the human body as a privileged instrumental good and not a good intrinsic to the person. An illuminating indication of the “dualistic” notion of the human being at the heart of the defense of contraception is found in one of the famous “Majority papers” of the Papal Commission on Population, the Family, and Natality.” Several texts in these papers shown that the authors regard the human body as a privileged instrument of the “person,” i.e., the one aware of himself as a self and capable of relating to other selves. But one text is particularly revealing. In it the authors declare that the biological processes involved in the generation of human life are physical or biological “givens,” and as such need to be “assumed into the human sphere and be regulated within it.”  Obviously, if our bodily power to generate human life were already human and personal, it would not need “to be assumed into the human sphere and regulated within it.” For more detailed studies to support John Paul II’s perceptive comment see the literature in the footnote below. 
(4) The fourth major error in John Paul’s understanding of natural law, Curran charges, is his “physicalism.” Curran says that the consideration of nature and the body “sets the stage for a deeper discussion of the problem of physicalism as found in papal teaching, especially in the area of sexuality. …One cannot interfere with the sexual act either to prevent procreation or even to encourage it [referring to Humanae vitae nos.10-12 and Donum vitae… ]. For the good of the person or the relationships one can interfere with the sexual faculty and its act. The physical conjugal act cannot and should not become a moral absolute.” Curran acknowledges that John Paul II proposes “personalist reasons to support the teaching condemning artificial insemination (116-117).” But he continues, “In light of the ultimate criterion of the person and the person’s relationships and in the light of the subordination of the bodily and material to spiritual ends, the charge of physicalism against some aspects of papal teaching makes sense” (117).
This charge, which Curran and other dissenting theologians have made since the appearance of Humanae vitae in 1968,  is utterly false. According to Curran’s own description, physicalism consists in the “identification of the physical or biological act (e.g., the act of sexual intercourse) with the moral” (113-114). But this is precisely what John Paul II explicitly repudiates. With Thomas Aquinas, he insisted that "the morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the 'object' rationally chosen by the deliberate will" (no. 78). In a very important passage, he then says:
Note that here John Paul II explicitly says: “By the object of a given moral act…one cannot mean a process or an event in the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world” (emphasis added). But on Curran’s own account physicalism identifies the moral meaning of a human act with the physical event. Sexual intercourse is an illuminating example. According to Curran, physicalists, among them Paul VI and John Paul II, identify “the act of intercourse with the moral” (113-114). In fact, in his addresses comprising the “theology of the body” (which Curran denigrates) John Paul II shows that the act of intercourse between persons who happen to be married can be, from the moral perspective, an act of adultery if the “object” of the husband’s choice is to use his wife’s body merely as a means for gratifying sexual desire without regard for her condition as his wife. 
Curran claims that Paul VI in Humanae vitae is also guilty of “physicalism.” In fact, he declares: “The encyclical Humanae vitae itself recognizes that it identifies the biological processes with moral norms: ‘In relation to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means the knowledge and respect of their functions; human intellect discovers, in the power of giving life, biological laws that are part of the human person’ (no. 10)” (115-116). This is utter nonsense. By “biological laws” here Paul VI is clearly not referring to moral laws or norms. For a the end of this passage he adds a most important footnote, footnote 9, which refers to Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 2, the famous article where St. Thomas speaks of the “natural inclinations orienting us to the goods of human existence,” among them the good of marrying and having and raising children. That Paul VI does not identify the “biological act of intercourse” with the moral act (Curran’s own definition of “physicalism”) is clear. In his encyclical Paul accurately describes the nature of contraception by identifying it as "every action, which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [or indeed of any genital act], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes [intendat], either as end or means, to impede procreation [ut procreatio impediatur] (Humanae vitae, no. 14). In other words, an act is contraceptive not because of its physical or biological structure but because the acting person’s “object of choice,” what he “intends, either as means or end,” is to impede procreation. And in a key passage of Humanae vitae, ignored by Curran and others who claim it is physicalistic, Paul had written: "People rightly understand that a conjugal act [i.e., a "marital" act in the purely descriptive sense] imposed on a spouse, with no consideration given to the condition of the spouse or to the legitimate desires of the spouse, is not a true act of love. They understand that such an act opposes what the moral order rightly requires from spouses," that is, they understand that such an act does not truly participate in the marriage itself and in the "goods" of marriage. Quite to the contrary, it violates the good of marital unity and friendship. He goes on to say: "To be consistent, then, if they reflect further, they should acknowledge that it is necessarily true that an act of mutual love that impairs the capacity of bringing forth life contradicts both the divine plan that established the nature of the conjugal bond and also the will of the first Author of human life. For this capacity of bringing forth life was designed by God, the Creator of All, according to [his] specific laws" (ibid, no. 13). Earlier, Paul had made the point that the conjugal act, while intimately uniting husband and wife, “makes them fit or worthy (Latin, eos idoneos facit) to bring forth new life according to laws inscribed in their very being and man and woman” (ibid, no. 12).
(5) “A fifth problem,” Curran says, “…is the failure to give enough importance to history and to recognize a more historically conscious approach. According to Veritatis splendor we find moral truth about the human being written in human nature…Moral truth is thus given in human nature and not in history. And because human nature remains basically the same, there is no real change or development. Moral reasoning begins with the first principle of the natural law…The methodology is thus from the general to the specific and does not give much attention to the signs of the times and the historical developments and diversity existing at the present time” (117-118).
I touched on this issue above, and it is a criticism that Curran repeats several times in his book. It is one of the major arguments used by revisionist theologians to deny the existence of intrinsically evil acts and, corresponding to them, specific moral norms that are universally true, moral absolutes admitting of no exceptions. A central claim made by revisionists, among them Curran, is that specific moral norms, or what some of them call “material” or “behavioral” norms, norms such as those proscribing the killing the innocent, fornication, adultery etc. are known inductively by the collaborative effort of persons living in communities and reflecting on their experience. Since such experience is open-ended, it follows, they claim, that “we can never exclude the possibility that future experience, hitherto unimagined, might put a moral problem into a new frame of reference which would call for a revision of a norm which, when formulated, could not have taken such experience into account.” 
This position, however has been devastatingly shown to be false by several theologians, in particular by John Finnis and Germain Grisez,  and it is noteworthy that no revisionist theologians, including Curran, have even acknowledged their criticism let alone tried to answer it. As Finnis says,
Here Finnis is referring to the goods perfective of human persons toward which we are naturally inclined. These goods were goods for our first parents, for those living at the time of Christ, and for us today. And it is on respect for these goods that morality, as John Paul II so clearly explained in Veritatis splendor, is based.
Moreover, as Finnis again notes in criticizing this “historicism” which John Paul II himself criticized,
From this we can see how grossly inaccurate is Curran’s fifth charge against John Paul II’s understanding of natural law in Veritatis splendor.
(6) Curran’s sixth complaint is the pope’s “failure to recognize that human reason is historically and culturally conditioned and limited. In addition, human sinfulness can and does affect human reason” (118).
The first part of this complaint—the historical and cultural conditioning of human reasons—has, I believe, been adequately answered in considering Curran’s fifth claim. And John Paul II clearly recognizes that human sinfulness can cloud human reason, and does so in Veritatis splendor, as I pointed earlier. Moreover, John Paul II considered at length the effect that sin can have on human reason is his apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Poenitentia and in his encyclical Evangelium vitae.
(7) The seventh problem Curran finds “comes from the relationship between faith and philosophy.” Curran recognizes that in Fides et Ratio John Paul II insisted that the Church has no philosophy of its own, but he claims that Veritatis splendor “definitely seems to be canonizing and making its own the philosophical theory of natural law proposed by Thomas Aquinas”…and that “one cannot claim absolute certitude for these approaches and understandings [of philosophy such as that of Aquinas] that by their very nature are quite removed from the core of faith” (120).
This again is a misplaced complaint. In Veritatis splendor itself the pope insists that he does not intend to impose any particular philosophical system on theologians and others, but he did wish to exclude philosophical positions, such as consequentialism and proportionalism, that are incompatible with Catholic faith. And, like previous popes, he finds the teaching of Aquinas compatible with the faith.
I believe this suffices for the third major criticism of John Paul’s moral theology raised by Curran to be considered in this review essay.
I now turn to a fourth criticism.
4. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” Is Not Valid for All Bodies, Does Not Recognize the Goodness of Sexuality, Ignores the Role of Passion, etc.
Curran claims that John Paul II’s theology “cannot serve as a theology for all bodies….what the pope develops in terms of the nuptial meaning of the body really does not apply to people who are single or those who are widows or widowers….Implicitly, John Paul II’s theology of the body maintains that heterosexual marriage is the only context of human sexuality” (168). He says that John Paul II so emphasizes concupiscence and lust that he ignores the fact that “sexual passion is basically a good that is often disturbed by sin….The impression given by The Theology of the Body is that passion and sexual pleasure are totally suspect and in need of control. The pope does not seem to acknowledge a fundamental goodness about sexuality” (171). “These talks for all practical purposes ignore the positive aspect of sexual pleasure…[which] itself is a good…The failure to develop the proper role of sexual pleasure seems to be associated with a fear of such pleasure and a tendency to see it primarily in a negative way” (172).
Curran explicitly chose not to consider pre-papal works such as Love and Responsibility. However, I think it pertinent to cite some passages from that work. In it Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) affirmed that “sensuality is a “response to the sexual values of the body-person and a response to the person as a “potential object of enjoyment.’”  Nonetheless, he emphasized that sensuality is “a sort of raw material for true, conjugal love,” and he insisted that “an exuberant and readily roused sensuality is the stuff from which a rich—if difficult—personal life may be made.” 
It is inconceivable that the same person could have the negative attitude toward human sexuality, sexual passion, and sexual pleasure that Curran attributes to John Paul II as author of the addresses on the “theology of the body.” And it is inconceivable. Curran simply failed to read the audiences making up the theology of the body carefully. In addresses numbers 47 and 48, entitled, in English, “‘Eros’ and ‘Ethos’ meet and bear fruit in the human heart” and “Spontaneity: the mature result of conscience,” John Paul II has much to say about the goodness of sexual passion. Thus in address 47 he writes:
John Paul II thus clearly recognizes, in his “theology of the body,” that the sexual desire of man for woman and vice versa is itself something good, although “lust,” sinful desire, is not. And in address number 48 he explicitly recognizes that sexual desire can have a “noble” fulfillment, in other words, a joyful, pleasurable, sinless sexual union between husband and wife in the conjugal act. He declares:
These passages give the lie to Curran’s outrageous exegesis of John Paul II’s “theology of the body.”
5. John Paul II’s Emphasis on Sexual Complementarity “means that men and women who are not married are not complete and lack something about their humanity”
Curran makes this charge in a section of his book dealing with John Paul II’s teaching on the dignity and vocation of women (pp. 192-193). This claim is rooted in Curran’s apparent understanding of sexual complementarity as a “fractional” complementarity, as if a male person or a female person is only one-half a full human being and become “whole” only in some kind of androgynous union.  For John Paul II, the sexual complementarity between man and woman is integral and asymmetrical. For in his thought man and woman are gifts to each other; they are called to “give” and “receive” each other, but each does so in complementary and asymmetrical ways.
Thus in a remarkable passage in his “theology of the body” concerned with the way in which man and woman “give” and “receive” each other, the Holy Father wrote as follows:
I have emphasized the passage affirming that the specific essence of man’s masculinity enables him to give himself and to receive the other’s gift. I do so because I believe that John Paul II’s position here harmonizes with the view taken by Robert Joyce concerning the complementarity in the way men and women “give and receive” each other. According to Joyce, and I agree with him and believe that his thought is fully in accord with this passage from John Paul II, both the man and the woman are called both to give and to receive, but the man is the one who emphatically gives in a receiving way, whereas the woman is the one who emphatically receives in a giving way. This is beautifully illustrated in the conjugal act. In it the man-person, precisely because of his complementary sexuality, is able personally to enter into the body-person of his wife, giving himself to her and in doing so receiving her. Moreover, his wife, precisely because of her complementary sexuality, is uniquely able to receive his body-person into her body and in doing so to give herself to him.
That the woman is called on to “receive in a giving way” and that the man is summoned to “give in a receiving way” is also illustrated magnificently in the “gift” of new human life. John Paul II noted that new life, like every human life, is entrusted "to each and every other human being.” But, he continued, it is entrusted “in a special way to woman, precisely because the woman in virtue of her special experience of motherhood is seen to have a specific sensitivity towards the human person and all that constitutes the individual's true welfare, beginning with the fundamental value of life."  Indeed, he also declared:
In other words the woman is disposed, because of her sexuality, to receive her husband and others in a giving way. The husband-father, to exercise his fatherhood, must give himself in a receiving way, something he learns from the wife-mother, to his child, just as he is summoned to give himself in a receiving way to his wife in the conjugal act.
I have shown here how utterly false are four major criticisms Charles Curran levels against the moral thought of John Paul II. Other criticisms he levels in his book can likewise be shown to be gratuitous and rooted in a profound failure to read carefully the texts he criticizes and also to a failure on his part to even consider the criticism his views on such issues as physicalism, historicism, etc. have met from other theologians.
I believe that it is now time for Curran and other dissenting theologians to repudiate their acceptance of contraception and the moral reasoning employed to justify it. It has been shown conclusively in my opinion that the denial of moral absolutes that led to John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor has its roots in the reasoning advanced in the middle 1960s to justify contraception.  Moreover, competent scholars have shown that Paul VI was truly prophetic in his encyclical. When it appeared its critics, like Curran, excoriated the pope for saying that the practice of contraception would lead to infidelity in marriage, sex outside of marriage etc. But social scientists such as W. Bradford Wilcox, George Akerlof, and Robert Michaels today provide abundant evidence that Paul VI was correct and not his Catholic critics.
1. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005, xii+262 pages. A volume in the Moral Traditions Series, James F. Keenan, S.J., series editor.
2. Many other “revisionist” moral theologians make the same claim and appeal to the same text for support. See, for instance, Richard McCormick, S.J., Notes on Moral Theology 1965-1980 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1981; reprinted Georgetown University Press, 1985), pp. 582-594; Franz Scholz, “Problems on Norms Raised by Ethical Borderline Situations,” in Readings in Moral Theology, No. 1. Moral Norms and the Catholic Tradition, eds. Richard McCormick, S.J., and Charles E. Curran (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), pp. 164-165; Daniel Maguire, The Moral Choice (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978), pp. 117-118; Louis Janssens, “Considerations on Humanae Vitae,” Louvain Studies 2 (1969), 239-240. It is worth pointing out that Curran referred to the same text in the Summa theologiae in a book published in 1968 in which he claimed that no specific moral norms are absolute, i.e., exceptionless. See his A New Look at Christian Morality (Chicago: Fides, 1968), p 82.
3. In 1 Sent., d. 47, q. 1, a. 4; De Malo, q.3, a. 1, ad 17.
4. In 3 Sent., d. 37, q. un. a. 4 c and ad 1; Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 100, a. 8.
5. Curran, “Absolute Norms in Moral Theology,” in his A New Look at Christian Morality (Notre Dame, IN: Fides, 1968), pp. 82-83.
6. See in particular John Milhaven, “Moral Absolutes in Thomas Aquinas,” in Absolutes in Moral Theology, ed. Charles E. Curran (Washington, D.C.: Corpus Instrumentorum, 1968), pp. 154-185; John Dedek, “Intrinsically Evil Acts: An Historical Study of the Mind of St. Thomas,” The Thomist 43 (1979) 385-413.
7. See, for example, the superb essay by Patrick Lee, “The Permanence of the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Modern Commentators,” Theological Studies 42 (1981) 422-443; John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and the Truth (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), pp. 30-33; my own "Aquinas and Janssens on the Moral Meaning of Human Acts," The Thomist 48.4 (1984) 566-616.
8. St. Thomas includes, among the first and indemonstrable principles of the natural law the twofold commandment to love God and neighbor and the Golden Rule, namely, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and not do to others as we would not have them do to us. See Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 4, ad 1 for the Golden Rule and 1-2, q. 100, a. 3, ad 1 for the twofold commandment of love. And it is in light of these first principles, as Thomas says in ibid, 1-2, q.100, a. 3 c, that we come to know the truth of secondary precepts of natural law. Hence an affirmative norm generated by these principles admits of exceptions in light of the same principles. Thus the Golden Rule requires us to return borrowed items to those who have lent them to us, and it also requires that we not do so when doing so here and now would harm our neighbor.
9. Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 4.
10. Ibid, 1-2, q. 18, a. 2.
11. See, e.g., Ibid, 1-2, q. 100, a. 8, ad 3; 2-2, q. 64, a. 6.
12. Ibid, 2-2, q. 154, a. 2.
13. Ibid, 2-2, q. 154, a. 8.
14. Ibid, 2-2, q. 110, aa. 1 and 3.
15. The texts in In 3 Sent., d. 37, q. un, a. 4 c and ad 1 and Summa theologiae 1-2, q. 100, a. 8 deal precisely with the question whether God can dispense and unequivocally answer in the negative.
16. Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 100, a. 3, ad 1. On this issue it is very worth reading and re-reading the superb article by Patrick Lee on “The Permanence of the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Modern Commentators” (referred to above in note 7) in which he shows at length the flawed claims of those theologians who claim that when Thomas says that even God cannot dispense from the negative precepts of the Decalogue Thomas understands that the acts proscribed are defined as morally wrong to begin with.
17. St. Thomas, Summa contra gentiles, 3, ch. 122.
18. De Malo, q. 15, a. 1, objection 5.
19. Ibid, ad 5.
20. Francis Suarez, De Legibus ac De Deo Legislatore, I, 15, 7 and 8.
21. Book 3, chapter 122.
22. The citation from St. Gregory of Nyssa is from his De vita Moysis II, 2, 3 (PG
23. The internal citation is from Gaudium et spes, no. 22.
24. On this see Manuel Miguens, “Biblical Thoughts on Human Sexuality,” from Human Sexuality in Our Time, ed.Rev. Msgr. George E. Kelly (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1979).
25. On this issue perhaps the very finest work is Silverio Zedda, S.J., Assoluto e relative nel morale di
San Paolo (Brescia, 1988).
26. See St. Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 2, ch. 4; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 91, a. 2.
27. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 100, aa. 1 and 3, ad 1.
28. Ibid, 1-2, q. 100, a. 5, ad 1.
29. It is worth noting here that Curran mistakenly claims that the first kind of “natural inclinations” that we, as human beings have, we share with other “living things.” In the relevant Thomistic text, referred to in the next footnote, Aquinas speaks of inclinations we share “with other substances.”
30. Ibid, 1-2, q. 94, a. 2.
31. Ibid. See 1-2, q. 94, a. 3, for the good of acting in accord with reason or the moral good. On this entire matter see John Finnis, Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 79-102.
32. Pope Pius XII, “The Prolongation of Life: Allocution to the International Congress of Anesthesiologists” (November 24, 1957), in The Pope Speaks 4 (1958) 396.
33. On this see his Encyclical Evangelium vitae, no. 19, where he affirmed that one of the major roots of this culture is “the mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others.” This mentality recognizes that from conception on there is a living human body but it refuses to recognize this living human body as a person. John Paul II—and Catholic faith—do.
34. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, no. 32; emphasis added.
35. This paper, entitled in English “The Question Is Not Closed: The Liberals Reply” is found in The Birth Control Debate: Interim History from the National Catholic Reporter (Kansas City, MO: National Catholic Reporter, 1969), p. 70.
36. Germain Grisez, “Dualism and the New Morality,” in Atti del Congresso Internazionale: Tommaso d’Aquino nel suo settimo Centenario (Naples: Edizioni Domenicane Italiane, 1974), Vol. 5, L’Agire Morale, pp. 323-330; William E. May, "'Irreconcilable Concepts of the Human Person and Human Sexuality,'" The Catholic Faith 3.1 (January-February 1997) 38-43.
37. Charles E. Curran, “Natural Law and Contemporary Moral Theology,” from Contraception, Authority, and Dissent, ed. Charles E. Curran. New York: Herder & Herder, 1969, pp. 151-175, Louis Janssens, “Considerations on Humanae Vitae,” Louvain Studies 2 (1969) 231-253, and a host of others including Bernard Häring, Daniel Maguire, Rosemary Ruether, etc. It has been answered time and time again by such theologians as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Ronald Lawler and others, but those making the claim have ignored these replies.
38. Thus John Paul II, in Address no. 47 of his “Theology of the Body” explicitly says (in company with a long tradition) that a husband who “looks lustfully at his own wife” can commit adultery with her in his heart.
39. Francis Sullivan, S. J., Magisterium:Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (New York: Paulist, 1983), pp. 151-152. In a footnote Sullivan notes that theologians such as Richard McCormick, S.J., Joseph Fuchs, S.J., Louis Janssens, Franz Böckle and others hold this view. So does Curran.
40. See in particular John Finnis’ Etienne Gilson Lecture, “Historical Consciousness” and Theological Foundations. Etienne Gilson Series, No. 14 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, 1992); his superb essay, “The Natural Law, Objective Morality, and Vatican Council II,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), pp. 113-150, especially pp. 139-142; Germain Grisez, Principles of Catholic Moral Life (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press [now Franciscan Press of Quincy College, Quincy, IL], 1983), chapter 6.
41. Finnis, “The Natural Law, Objective Morality, and Vatican Council II,” p. 140.
42. Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), p. 105.
43. Ibid, p. 109.
44. On this see Sister Prudence Allen, “Integral Sexual Complementarity and the Theology of Communion,” Communio: International Catholic Review 17 (1990), an essay commenting on John Paul II’s “theology of the body.”
45. See Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy and Ethics of Man and Woman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), pp. 67-71; See also William E. May, "Marriage and the Complementarity of Male and Female," Anthropotes: Rivista di Studi sulla Persona e la Famiglia 8.1 (June 1992) 41-60. A shorter version of this essay was published as chapter two of May’s Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Based (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), pp. 39-66, at pp. 50-54.
46. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, no. 51. See also Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 30: "The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way--precisely because of their femininity--and this in a particular way determines their vocation."
47. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 18.
48. On this see Finnis, Moral Absolutes, pp.
84-90; my own book Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life (Huntington,
IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000), chapter 4, on contraception.
Copyright ©; William E. May 2005