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Bishop Johan Bonny and the Crisis in Ethics

Above: Antwerp, Belgium. Photo credit.

Johan Josef Bonny has been the bishop of Antwerp in Belgium since 2009. He has made problematic individual statements in contradiction to the Church’s teaching about various ethical questions including sexual ethics, the blessing of same-sex couples, and most recently euthanasia. Regarding the latter, he stated this past September “Euthanasia is not necessarily an evil as such.” That euthanasia is an intrinsically evil act is, he added, “too simple an answer that leaves no room for discernment.” Bonny explains: “Based on natural law, certain acts are qualified as ‘good’ or ‘intrinsically evil,’ independent of one’s personal surrounding, life experience or life history.” Rather, says Bonny, a moral judgment is person- and situation- specific; in other words, “a historically and existentially embedded judgment.” Hence, it “must always be pronounced according to the concrete situation, the culture, the circumstances, the context.”

In short, according to Bonny, there are no moral absolutes, no exceptionless moral norms, and hence he emphasizes the historical relativity of ethics and their corresponding standards. This is the crisis of ethics in which we find ourselves, a crisis that is reflected in Bonny’s ethical relativism. Significantly, Bonny’s relativism leaves us with a universally problematic state of moral norms, and hence without any indisputable, universally valid norm.

Unfortunately, the view of Bonny is not uncommon, even among clerics. Therefore, this article will analyze this view and provide a basis for Catholics to understand its roots and its dangers.[1]

Metaphysics and Ethics

What is at the root of his relativism and hence the depth of the crisis in ethics? Briefly, it is his anti-metaphysical stance. In other words, the basis for ethics presupposes the priority of the metaphysical dimension of reality, an ontology of the moral law and the vital significance of an understanding of the absolute and transcendent reality. The failure to make these distinctions puts objective moral reality at risk because it limits what is real to what is real for human beings, treating objective reality to be totally irrelevant to questions of moral truth. A consequence of Bonny’s view is the dependence of ethical convictions on conformity with the measure of human knowledge in a given day, rather than their conformity to the reality of things as they are. The Catholic moral tradition embraces the idea of a culture-transcendent moral law because the natural moral law is grounded in the eternal law of God. It also affirms that it is this law that gives moral propositions something to be true of, without which moral objectivity would be groundless. As Dignitatis Humanae (no. 2) of Vatican II puts it:

The highest norm of human life is the divine law itself—eternal, objective, and universal, by which God orders, directs and governs the whole world and the ways of the human community according to a plan conceived in his wisdom and love. God has enabled man to participate in this law of his so that, under the gentle disposition of divine providence, many may be able to arrive at a deeper and deeper knowledge of unchangeable truth.

The Concept of Natural Law

Consider now Bonny’s interpretation of the concept of natural law. He purports to derive his view from an appeal to the 2009 document from the International Theological Commission, “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law.”[2] The ITC offers, says Bonny, a “process of establishing concrete norms for behavior” that is consistent with the concept of natural law, but one that emphasizes its “dynamic and historical character.” He takes this to imply that “Christian ethics needs more space to judge and decide than a static or apodictic engagement with the concept ‘natural law’ permits.” Bonny adds, “We must learn to better define concepts and better distinguish situations.”

Bonny fails to give an accurate definition of the concept of natural law. He interprets ITC’s claim that “the natural law is not at all static in its expressions” to mean that the natural law as such is not, says Bonny, “immutable, detached from historical context and evolution.” But here Bonny is mistaken since the ITC is referring to the application and expression of the moral principles of the natural law, such principles being not only “universal since they apply to all humanity,” but also immutable since “they derive from a human nature whose essential components remain the same throughout history.” It is the application and expression of these moral principles that may vary over time and, in that sense, ITC speaks of the “historicity of the natural law.” The failure to make that distinction leads to a “situation ethics,” the historical relativity of ethics, which is rejected by the ITC.

Furthermore, the ITC gives a metaphysical justification of the natural law, that is, “the metaphysical dimension of the real can give to natural law its full and complete philosophical justification.” That is why ITC defines “the natural law . . . as a participation in the eternal law.”

The concept of natural law presupposes the idea that nature is for man the bearer of an ethical message and an implicit moral norm that human reason actualizes. The vision of the world within which the doctrine of natural law developed and still finds its meaning today, implies therefore the reasoned conviction that there exists a harmony among the three realities: God, man, and nature. In this perspective, the world is perceived as an intelligible whole, unified by the common reference of the beings that compose it to a divine originating principle, to a Logos.

Karol Wojtyła joins ITC here when he writes, “Natural law points to the need for penetration into. . . ontic structure[s] and to the need to understand natures, i.e., the essence of things, essences which enter into the object of a human action.”[3] John Paul II argues that the moral order flows from human nature itself. That is, he understands a human being as one who possesses a permanent nature or, as Jacques Maritain puts it, “an ontological structure which is a locus of intelligible necessities,” meaning thereby, “man possesses ends which necessarily correspond to his essential constitution and which are the same for all.”[4] Maritain calls this the ontological element of natural law.

But there is also a second element, namely, the gnoseological element in natural law, which is “natural law as known.” This epistemic element is particularly important for giving an account of the growth of moral knowledge of the natural law. The ITC gives some examples of his growth. “It is sufficient to recall the [development] of moral reflection on questions such as slavery, lending at interest, dueling or the death penalty. Sometimes such [development] leads to a better comprehension of moral requirements.” Furthermore, the known natural law is not a codex, that is, a written law; there is always more to know. Ontologically speaking, “the natural law makes up,” says Wojtyła, “the foundation for all codification, make it possible, and verify it.” Moreover, adds Wojtyła, “The natural law is the ‘codex’ of the Creator himself, inscribed into the very being of man and of the world—and kept accessible to man as a rational being: knowable for and realizable by him.”

Moral Development

There remains to say something briefly about the charge implied by Bonny that all natural-law morality of the sort that John Paul II affirms in his 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, cannot do justice to man’s historical actuality, and to doctrinal development. That is simply not the case. There is doctrinal development, and it is by way of clarification. Says John Paul,

Certainly, there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law — like that of the “deposit of faith” — unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” [keeping the same meaning and the same judgment] in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium, whose decision is preceded and accompanied by the work of interpretation and formulation characteristic of the reason of individual believers and of theological reflection. (no. 53)

In line, then, with the thought of Vincent of Lérins (d. 450), John Paul follows Vatican II by distinguishing between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, truth-content and context, in sum, propositions and sentences. John XXIII alluded to these distinctions in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia:

For the deposit of faith [2 Tim 1:14], the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.”

The subordinate clause here – eodem sensu eademque sententia – is part of a larger passage from Vatican I’s Dei Filius, and this passage is, in turn, from the Commonitórium (23) of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.” We must always determine whether those new re-formulations are preserving the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths.

Moral Absolutes and Presumptive Moral Validity

Bonny also misunderstands ITC when it states that natural law is not about “an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject.” The ITC is talking about concrete moral norms and that is evident from its appeal to Aquinas’s distinction between negative precepts and positive precepts, moral absolutes and prima facie obligations, between those that apply in all cases and those that apply in most cases, with exceptions.

According to Aquinas, on the one hand, the negative moral norm regarding adultery is such that there are no exceptions to the moral precept that adultery is wrong, always and everywhere, in every circumstance. On the other hand, a moral precept that has prima facie, or presumptive, validity is such that there may be good reason to permit an exception rendering it inapplicable in this particular case.

To take an example from Aquinas: I have a presumptive obligation to return someone’s property to him, say, his car keys, that he has put in my safe keeping. “Goods entrusted to another must be restored to their owner.” However, suppose this individual gets drunk. Under that circumstance, it would be morally permissible not to return his keys to him because of the danger he poses to himself and others if he drives his car. In short, there may be certain exceptions regarding the affirmative norm that one should return what one has borrowed, entrusted with for safekeeping.

This makes it clear that what Aquinas has in mind here are affirmative norms that oblige always but not on every occasion, and not negative norms (moral absolutes) that hold semper et ad semper, excluding acts that are evil in themselves and cannot become good.

Moral Justification

Finally, how do we justify, according to Bonny, our moral judgments, that is, our “responsible conscience-base decisions?” We weigh up and order the goods obtained and evils avoided as a result of a person’s particular act by accounting for “the intention of [his] deed, the proportionality between act and consequence, and for [his] personal life history and the process of growth [he is] going through.” For Bonny, then, intention, or the end, consequences, circumstances, and sensitivity to a man’s moral progress (the law of gradualness) is essential to judge the morality of human acts. The Catholic moral tradition holds that the morality of human acts depends on 1.) the object chosen; 2.) the end in view or the intention; 3.) the circumstances of the action (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1750). Unlike Bonny, the Catechism (no. 1755) holds that “the object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts—such as fornication—that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.” Here, then, follows the sources of morality:

The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. the object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.

Hence, on the one hand, the judgment of conscience derives its justification from the moral law; that judgment “does not establish the law,” that is, the universal and objective norm of morality, but rather “it bears witness to the authority of the natural law and of the practical reason with reference to the supreme good” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 60). On this view, it is the object of the human act that “establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God” (no. 79). Reaching the chief end of man through intelligent and free choices brings about integral human fulfillment and “thus the perfection of the person” (no. 78). Ethics is based on “the nature of the human person and human action.” Pace Bonny, personalism and natural law are not incompatible.

The Catechism describes intention and circumstances like this:

In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. The end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. the intention is a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken.

A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus, the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).

The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil (Catechism, nos. 1751-1754).

Bonny rejects the classical Catholic moral tradition, as described above, because there are no intrinsically evil acts, “independent of one’s personal surrounding, life experience or life history.” We need a Christian ethics that allows, he adds, “more space to judge and decide than static or apodictic engagement” which this concept of natural law permits. Bonny rejects deontological reasoning in which the logic of moral judgments involves exceptionless norms; no circumstance can justify their violation. He thinks that we need to take account of “the variability of reality and the complexity of truth.” The former refers to the various situations in which moral judgments are made; the latter to the recognition that there are no indisputable, universally valid norms.

In sum, Bonny is a historicist, a relativist, if you will, one who denies the enduring validity of truth, and an anti-realist about truth, which is one who puts objective moral reality at risk because he limits what is real to what is real for human beings, treating objective reality to be totally irrelevant to questions of moral truth.

Personalism and Natural Law

Bonny suggests that post-conciliar Catholic moral theology has been monolithic in approach, “built on a particular interpretation of natural law,” resistant to “the human intellect’s multifaceted search for truth and goodness,” and hence closed to the “complementarity of theological models.” He claims, in particular, that the “personalist school [was] consigned to the corner as suspicious and to be avoided.” Pace Bonny, Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II sought to integrate personalism, existential/hermeneutic phenomenology, and a traditional Thomism, particularly natural law ethics, in his philosophical and theological work (See Volumes 1 and 2 of the English Critical Edition of the Works of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II, Person and Act, and Related Essays, and The Lublin Lectures and Works on Max Scheler, respectively). This is an approach open to the complementarity of theological and philosophical models.

Briefly, consider Karol Wojtyła’s Man in the Field of Responsibility. Wojtyła states, “the experience of morality possesses, as it were, different layers and different aspects.” These aspects and their corresponding approaches are as follows. There are objective values which reflects the teleological interpretation of human action in which such values “become real ‘in action,’ within the dynamic structure of action as an actus personae,” and by means of which the human person becomes good or evil. Wojtyła adds, “As a result, moral value somehow ‘makes its abode’ in the person: it roots itself in the person and becomes a quality of the person.” A man, qua man, “becomes good or evil through the act.” There is a metaphysical foundation to the “experience of being [man as a being] and becoming good or evil through one or another act.” For it is “the subject itself, the ‘I’—the person [who] becomes morally good or evil.” Hence, the axiological and the praxiological layers, and thoroughly anthropological, personalistic, and metaphysical reality, of the experience of morality, of becoming and being. Chiefly, however, there is the deontological layer, which, according to Wojtyła, is the “proper element of morality [that] is contained in the experience of duty.”[6]

There is a deontic dynamism here, too, because the normative principles that constitute duty, which is an objectification of the truth of the good, grounded in the natural law, are also about making the person good. Deontic dynamism and a corresponding duty is an indicator of “the principle of being good and acting well.” The element of duty, says Wojtyła, is “the distinctive constitutivum of the lived experience to which we ascribe a moral character in the proper sense of the term. Duty is more decisive for morality than is value,” namely, “what exactly ought I to do?” and “why ought I to do what I ought to do?” He adds, “This is an understanding of duty not only as a lived experience, but at the same time as an objective fact.”[7] Elsewhere Wojtyła states, in sum:

The existence proper to a person is an existence in truth, an existence in dynamic relation to truth. And that is why persons exist and act, actualizing their esse and their operari, not just on the level of values, but also on the level of principles. Morality is the essential coordination of these levels.

Bishop Bonny would do well to study the philosophical ethics of Karol Wojtyła that he is quick to dismiss. It would help him to overcome the crisis in ethics and his descent into moral normlessness.


[1] Further citations in this article are from Bishop Johan Bonny, “Synod on the Family: Expectations of a Diocesan Bishop,” September 1, 2014. Online:

[2] On line: “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law” International Theological Commission (

[3] Karol Wojtyła, Man in the Field of Responsibility, translated by Kenneth W. Kemp & Zuzanna Maślanka. Kieroń (South Bend, Indiana, 2011 [1991]), 72.

[4] Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, Translated by Doris C. Anson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 86.

[5] Wojtyła, op. cit., 71.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 8.

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