Abortion Bioethics Medical abortion Philosophy

The latest on natural-law theory and unborn human life

In a past post, I mentioned the dialogue between philosopher Fr. Martin Rhonheimer and his critics – or, perhaps one should say, one of the dialogues, or one aspect of the dialogue – namely, that concerning his ‘vital conflicts’ theory. In the Autumn 2011 issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, there is more, dealing with both the theory itself and its (and also Germain Grisez’s theory’s) possible application to the recent case of an abortion in a Catholic hospital in Phoenix. See Thomas A. Cavanaugh, “Double-Effect Reasoning, Craniotomy, and Vital Conflicts: A Case of Contemporary Catholic Casuistry,” NCBQ 11 (2011): 453-63; Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, “Abortion in a Case of Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension: A Test Case for Two Rival Theories of Human Action,” NCBQ 11 (2011): 503-18; Martin Rhonheimer, “Vital Conflicts, Direct Killing, and Justice: A Response to Rev. Benedict Guevin and Other Critics,” NCBQ 11 (2011): 519-40.

There’s more than a bit in Rhonheimer’s work that I like. With regard to action theory, I largely agree with him (and with Grisez – and with others who aren’t followers of either, like Christopher Kaczor) that the ‘object’ of a human action needs to be defined more narrowly than it has tended to be in the neo-Thomistic account. With regard to natural-law theory, I tend to agree with him (against both Grisez and the neo-Thomists) regarding the central importance of virtue (e.g., justice) in questions of how one person should treat another. But I’m simply not convinced by Rhonheimer’s claim that the action he proposes in cases of ‘vital conflict’ is not unjust. I think that he is too focused on consequences in his account of justice.

Kevin Miller

Kevin E. Miller is Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His BS (biochemistry and molecular biology), MA (political philosophy), and PhD (theology; dissertation: "Mercy, Justice, and Politics: John Paul II on Capital Punishment") are all from Marquette University. Besides several UFL conference papers over the years, he has contributed chapters to books on sexual morality and Catholic social thought, and published short essays, papers, and book reviews in Linacre Quarterly, National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, and Communio, among other journals. In fundamental moral theology, he is especially interested in natural-law theory, virtue ethics, and the distinctively Christian contribution to moral thought. In applied moral theology, he works especially in the areas of sexual, social, and medical/health-care morality. With regard to texts/authors, he studies especially Scripture, Aquinas, Henri de Lubac, and John Paul II. His website: