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Paul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D. 2009.

At the foundations of the proportionalist rejection of the absoluteness of many specific

moral norms taught by the Magisterium, for example, the norm concerning contraception, is the
erroneous concept of theonomous autonomy, a type of God-sanctioned autonomy of the practical
reason to create moral norms on the part of man. It is good to seek a rightful autonomy of
practical reason, but in the years following the Second Vatican Council a number of prominent
proportionalists such as Alfons Auer (1915-2005),1 Franz Böckle (1921-1991),2 Josef Fuchs
(1912-2005),3 and Bruno Schüller (1925-2007)4 had sought out a concept of moral autonomy
with theses incompatible with Catholic Church doctrine, as the 1993 Encyclical Veritatis
Splendor (Splendor of Truth) of Pope John Paul II explains.5

A. AUER, Autonome Moral und christlicher Glaube, 2nd ed., Düsseldorf, 1984 ; Die Autonomie des Sittlichen
nach Thomas von Aquin, in Christlich glauben und handeln. Fragen einer fundamentalen Moraltheologie in der
Diskussion, edited by K. Demmer and B. Schüller, Düsseldorf, 1977, pp. 31-54 ; Hat die autonome Moral eine
Chance in der Kircke?, in Moral begründen – Moral verkünden, edited by G. Virt, Innsbruck and Vienna, 1985, pp.
F. BÖCKLE, Das 'aturrecht im Disput, Düsseldorf, 1966 ; Grundbegriffe der Moral, 8th ed., Aschaffenburg,
1966 ; 'atur als 'orm in der Moraltheologie, in 'aturgesetz und christliche Ethik, edited by F. Henrich, Munich,
1970, pp. 75-90 ; 'atürliches Gesetz als göttliches Gesetz in der Moral theologie, in 'aturrecht in der Kritik, edited
by F. Böckle and E.-W. Böckenförde, Mainz, 1973, pp. 165-188 ; Werteinsicht und 'ormbegründung, “Concilium,”
12 (1976), pp. 615-617 ; Fundamental Moral Theology, Pueblo, New York, 1980. For a detailed critique of Böckle’s
theonomous autonomy, see: F. J. MARIN-PORGUERES, La moral autonoma: un acercamiento desde Franz
Böckle, EUNSA, Pamplona, 2002.
J. FUCHS, Moral und Moraltheologie nach dem Konzil, Freiburg, 1967 ; Gibt es eine spezifisch chirstliche
Moral?, “Stimmen der Zeit,” 2 (1970), pp. 99-112 ; Der Absolutheitscharakter sittlicher Handlungsnormen, in
Testimonium Veritati, edited by H. Wolter, Frankfurter Theologische Studien 7, Frankfurt, 1971, pp. 211-240 ;
Autonome Moral und Glaubensethik, in Ethik im Kontext des Glaubens: Probleme, Grundsätze, Methode, edited by
D. Mieth, and F. Compagnoni, Fribourg-Freiburg-Vienna, 1978, pp. 46-74 ; ‘Intrinsece malum’: Überlegungen zu
einem umstrittenen Begriff, in Sittliche 'ormen: Zum Problem ihrer allgemeinen und unwandelbaren Geltung,
edited by W. Kerber, Düsseldorf, 1981, pp. 74-91 ; Das Gottesbild und die Moral innerweltlichen Handelns,
“Stimmen der Zeit,” 202 (1984), pp. 363-382; Personal Responsibility and Christian Morality, Georgetown
University Press, Washington, D.C., 1983.
B. SCHÜLLER, Zur theologischen Diskussion über die lex naturalis, “Theologie und Philosophie,” 4 (1966), pp.
481-503 ; Die Bedeuntung des natürlichen Sittengesetzes für den Christen, in Herausforderung und Kritik der
Moraltheologie, edited by G. Teichtweier and W. Dreier, Würzburg, 1971, pp. 105-130 ; 'euere Beiträge zum
Thema ‘Begründung sittlicher 'ormen, “Theologische Berichte, 4 (1974), pp. 109-181 ; Die Begründung sittlicher
Urteile: Typen ethischer Argumentation in der Moraltheologie, 2nd ed., Düsseldorf, 1980 ; Eine autonome Moral,
was is das?, Theol. Revue, 78.2 (1982), pp. 103-105 ; Pluralismus in der Ethik: Zum Stil wissenschaftlicher
Kontroversen, Münster, 1988 ; 'aturrecht und 'aturgesetz, in Grundlagen und Probleme der heutigen
Moraltheologie, edited by W. Ernst, Würzburg, 1989, pp. 61-74.
Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Veritatis Splendor (VS), no. 37. For studies regarding theonomous autonomy before the
publication of Veritatis Splendor, see: F. CITTERIO, Morale autonoma e fede cristiana. Il dibattito continua, I, “La
Scuola Cattolica,” 108 (1980), pp. 509-581 ; O. BERNASCONI, Morale autonoma ed etica della fede, Dehoniane,
Bologna, 1981 ; A. RODRÍGUEZ LUÑO, Sulla fondazione trascendentale della morale cristiana, in Persona,
verità e morale. Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Teologia Morale, Roma, 7-12 Aprile, 1986, Città Nuova
Editrice, Rome, 1987, pp. 61-78 ; M. RHONHEIMER, 'atur als Grundlage der Morale, Tyrolia, Innsbruck-Vienna,
1987 (English Translation: 'atural Law and Practical Reason, Fordham University Press, New York, 2000).
Regarding the studies on Veritatis Splendor with reference to the problem of theonomous autonomy, see: D.
COMPOSTA, Tendencias de la teología actual en el posconcilio Vaticano II, in Comentarios a la “Veritatis

Following in the Kantian tradition of opposition between autonomy and heteronomy, the
proportionalist dissenter Alfons Auer, for example, maintains that the concept of autonomy
involves self mastery of reason in opposition to all forms of heteronomy (or legislation by
another) coming from the outside. Auer writes: “The concept of autonomy expresses the idea
that man is a law unto himself; that moral norms are not imposed upon man from outside with
obligatory measures, but rather are developed by himself through the power of his reason.”6
For Auer, autonomous morality is the “world ethos,” a morality deduced from the totality
of scientifically constructed and socially communicated modes of human behavior carried out in
the midst of the world. “World ethos” means, he says, “the entirety of obligations that result
from the order of things in the lives of individual human beings. We are concerned here, it has
been shown, with an ethos of concreteness, with an immanent ethos that is evolved
autonomously and in a secular manner, in accordance with the intelligible horizon of any given
historical period. It belongs to the ‘truth of the world,’ and thus remains within the original
competence of the human spirit.”7
Though the proponents of theonomous autonomy are quick to state that they do not wish
to play off human freedom against God or to reject an ultimate religious foundation for moral
norms, nevertheless, theonomous autonomy has “been led,” explains Veritatis Splendor, “to
undertake a profound rethinking about the role of reason and of faith in identifying moral norms
with reference to ‘innerworldly’ kinds of behavior involving oneself, others, and the material
Theonomous autonomy introduces a profound change in the way of conceiving the
relationship between human reason and God. This orientation in essence negates the two
principal ways by which the participation of human reason with the Divine Wisdom is
established by the Catholic moral tradition. Veritatis Splendor explains that “disregarding the
dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom and the need, given the present state of fallen
nature, for Divine Revelation as an effective means for knowing moral truths, even those of the
natural order, some have actually posited a complete sovereignty of reason in the domain of
moral norms regarding the right ordering of life in this world.”9
We find that theonomous autonomy introduces a concept of a “creative reason” that
would establish, according to varying exigencies and new particular historical situations, what is
right or wrong within the realm of innerworldly activity. For theonomous autonomy, “such
norms would constitute the boundaries for a merely ‘human’ morality; they would be the
expression of a law which man in an autonomous manner lays down for himself and which has
its source exclusively in human reason. In no way could God be considered the Author of this

Splendor,” edited by G. Del Pozo Abejon, BAC, Madrid, 1994, pp. 301-340 ; M. RHONHEIMER, Sittliche
Autonomie und Theonomie gemäss der Enzyklika “Veritatis splendor,” “Forum Katholische Theologie,” 10/4
(1994), pp. 241-268 ; M. RHONHEIMER, Autonomía y teonomía moral según la “Veritatis splendor,” in
Comentarios a la “Veritatis Splendor,” edited by G. Del Pozo Abejon, BAC, Madrid, 1994, pp. 543-578 ; M.
RHONHEIMER, L’uomo, un progetto di Dio, in Lettera enciclica “Veritatis splendor,” del Sommo Pontefice
Giovanni Paolo II. Testo e commenti, Quarderni de “L’Osservatore Romano,” 22, Libreria Editrice Vaticana,
Vatican City, 1994, pp. 186-191 ; A. RODRÍGUEZ LUÑO, La libertà e la legge nell’enciclica “Veritatis
splendor,” in Veritatis splendor. Atti del Convegno dei Pontifici Atenei Romani (29-30 ottobre 1993), Libreria
Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1994, pp. 43-54.
A. AUER, Hat die autonome Moral eine Chance in der Kirche?, in Moral begünden/Moral verkünden, edited by
G. Virt, Innsbruck and Vienna, 1985, p. 11.
A. AUER, Autonome Moral und christlicher Glaube, 2nd ed., Düsseldorf, 1984, p. 185.
VS, 36.

law, except in the sense that human reason exercises its autonomy in setting down laws by virtue
of a primordial and total mandate given to man by God.”10
The above thesis would then be utilized by theonomous autonomy as a fundamental
criteria for biblical hermeneutics. “Creative reason” would be incompatible with the revelation
on the part of God of moral precepts regarding concrete behavior. Thus, this has “led to an actual
denial that there exists, in Divine Revelation, a specific and determined moral content,
universally valid and permanent.”11
The new concept of autonomy, say the advocates of theonomous autonomy, must remain
circumscribed within the realm of normative morality, and for this end there occurs a clean cut
separation of the normative level from the religious and salvific level. One thus distinguishes, as
Jesuit proportionalist Josef Fuchs, for example, holds, between “ethical truths” and the “truths of
salvation”12 (also called “world ethos” and “salvation ethos” by Auer13), a distinction which
Veritatis Splendor considers to be contrary to Catholic doctrine.14 The Swiss moral philosopher
Martin Rhonheimer (b. 1950) writes that in the autonomous morality of Auer, “one can clearly
see a tendency to allow what is ‘proper to ethics,’ or the ethical proprium, to appear as the
Christian proprium, at the level of revelation and as an ethics of salvation. The result appears, on
the one hand, as a ‘world ethos’ of ‘autonomous, objective law’ that is substituted for the
specifically moral dimension of human action, and, on the other hand, as a ‘salvation ethics’
fully taken up with moral demands, an ethics that imports theological justifications, motivations,
and exhortations into such an ethos of objectivity, while having to contribute nothing to the
‘facts’ of the situation.”15 Criticizing Auer, Rhonheimer observes: “While autonomous morality
speaks of norms, morality, and such, it nevertheless lacks an adequate concept of ‘moral
behavior’; the moral is no longer a quality of the human act that perfects the acting person
himself as an ‘immanent action’ (actio immanens), something whose consequences do not
primarily affect the objective surroundings of the acting person, but rather remain in the actor
himself. Instead, morality is conceived as a characteristic of modes of behavior that are socially,
culturally, and historically transmitted and modified, and are always becoming newly articulated
in changing norms.
“The concepts of ‘moral behavior’ and ‘moral norm’ are thus, on the plane of the ‘world
ethos,’ drawn into the orbit of sociological and not ethical definition. Such concepts do not
reflect an indwelling orientation of human behavior toward being perfected through virtue, to
which the self-governance of man is ordered and in which it finds its fulfillment. Instead, norms
become social regulations for human action: they are ‘indispensable, but have a propensity for
the ethical minimum. The Christian context, however, impels us unhesitatingly toward a highly
ethical understanding of morality’16
“Consequently, what is ‘proper to ethics’ or the ethical proprium – the orientation of
human behavior toward its specific perfection in virtue – is identified with the ‘Christian

VS, 37.
Cf. J. FUCHS, Personal Responsibility and Christian Morality, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.,
1983 ; J. FUCHS, Etica cristiana in una società secolarizzata, Piemme, Casale Monferrato (AL), 1984 ; J. FUCHS,
Immagine di Dio e morale dell’agire intramondano, “Rassenga di Teologia,” 25/4 (1984), pp. 289-313.
Cf. A. AUER, Autonome Moral und christlicher Glaube, 2nd ed., Düsseldorf, 1984.
Cf. VS, 37. Cf. Canons 19-21 of the 6th Session of the Council of Trent (DS 1569-1571).
M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., p. 190.
A. AUER, Hat die autonome Moral eine Chance in der Kirche?, in Moral begünden/Moral verkünden, edited by
G. Virt, Innsbruck and Vienna, 1985, p. 28.

proprium’; the world ethos thus loses its own moral coherence. It is not an ethos of the moral
self-legislation of man; rather, it is an ‘ethos’ of the independence of ‘world behavior’ from the
specific and objective demands of morality. As such, it is capable of establishing ‘norms of
behavior,’ but it grounds them in their factual determination, and not in their morality. ‘Factual
determination’ thereby becomes dissociated from what is really meant by moral responsibility.”17
Rhonheimer explains that Auer “believes that the created dependence of man upon God
is a theme of revelation alone, and thus can be apparent only to a believer (Autonome Moral, p.
172). This position, that ‘theonomy,’ ‘God,’ and ‘creation’ are as such only themes of faith and
theology (as the ‘science of the faith,’ scientia fidei), is untenable, not least because of the whole
philosophical tradition: God, creation, dependence, of the world upon a first cause, and so on are
also philosophical themes and the subject matter of rational human discourse. There is a natural,
philosophical theology; the question about God, and about theonomy, belongs to metaphysics as
well as to ethics and the ‘normal’ realm of human action, independently of revelation and faith.
Indeed, the concept of moral action itself and moral experience are open to questions about God.
Furthermore, ‘religion’ – the virtue of religion – is part of a human and natural cardinal virtue:
the virtue of justice.
“Consequently, one may not maintain that questions about God and the theonomous
establishment of the moral are questions that arise only through faith, and then go on to ‘exclude’
from this any createdness of functionally autonomous earthly realities. It appears to me to be
especially mistaken to divide the moral realm into two, with an autonomous ‘world ethos’ on the
one side, and a ‘salvation ethos’ on the other, so that the question of theonomy would arise only
in the latter. The question of theonomy – the relation of earthly reality, man, and his actions to
God – belongs just as much to the ‘world ethos.’”18
“This receives clear expression in the documents of the Second Vatican Council
(Gaudium et Spes, n. 36); there is stated that there is a false understanding of the autonomy of
earthly realities which ignores the fact that created things depend upon God, implying that they
can be used without any reference to their Creator; but the creature itself, without any
acknowledgment of its dependence on God, would be ‘unintelligible.’ This means that the
autonomous world-ethos that does not include the dimension of createdness and theonomy
implies a concept of autonomy that falsifies the reality of the creature. Such a concept
approaches that which the Council calls ‘systematic atheism’(ibid., n. 20); of course, Auer is no
atheist, but his understanding of the ‘world ethos’ with a God that becomes visible only through
revelation and faith uses the same concept as that employed in ‘methodical atheism.’ He cannot
be spared this reproach.”19
Describing theonomous autonomy’s sharp distinction between the normative level
(ethical truths/world ethos) and the religious and salvific level (truths of salvation/salvation
ethos), and affirming its incompatibility with Catholic teaching, Veritatis Splendor explains: “In
their desire to keep the moral life in a Christian context, certain moral theologians have
introduced a sharp distinction, contrary to Catholic doctrine, between an ethical order, which
would be human in origin and of value for this world alone, and an order of salvation, for which
only certain intentions and interior attitudes regarding God and neighbor would be significant.
This has then led to an actual denial that there exists, in Divine Revelation, a specific and
determined moral content, universally valid and permanent. The word of God would be limited

M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., p. 191.
M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., pp. 217-218.
M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., p. 232.

to proposing an exhortation, a generic paraenesis, which the autonomous reason alone would
then have the task of completing with normative directives which are truly ‘objective,’ that is,
adapted to the concrete historical situation. Naturally, an autonomy conceived in this way also
involves the denial of a specific doctrinal competence on the part of the Church and her
Magisterium with regard to particular moral norms which deal with the so-called ‘human good.’
Such norms would not be part of the proper content of Revelation, and would not in themselves
be relevant for salvation.
“No one can fail to see that such an interpretation of the autonomy of human reason
involves positions incompatible with Catholic teaching.”20
From the two theses of autonomous morality mentioned above (“creative reason” utilized
as a fundamental criteria for biblical hermeneutics and the sharp distinction between world ethos
and salvation ethos), there would logically occur, as Veritatis Splendor has just stated, “the
denial of a specific doctrinal competence on the part of the Church and her Magisterium with
regard to particular moral norms which deal with the so-called ‘human good,’”21 since with these
two theses of autonomous morality are negated the two reasons that principally ground such
competency. First, there is negated the fact that the Deposit of Faith (depositum fidei) contains
specific and concrete moral teaching. And second, there is rejected the fact that concrete norms
of the moral law are an integral part of the message of salvation that the Church carries to all
men in virtue of the mandate received from Christ.
Not distinguishing between functional autonomy and personal autonomy, Auer’s concept
of autonomy is basically reduced to a constitutive autonomy (also called competence autonomy),
taken from the fields of law and political science, and signifying the relative or absolute
indetermination of an area or action in relation to another area that is superordinated or pre-
established. God, for Auer, lets “man do as he pleases in freedom and does nothing to reduce him
to the status of a marionette…The transcendental causality of the Creator and the total
dependence of the world on His creative power do not endanger in the least the autonomy of the
world, but rather make it possible. God is not the rival of man, and will not drive him from the
governing position he has in the world; on the contrary, he wants him to have the most control
possible. Obviously, all of this is intelligible only to the believer and could not be demonstrated
to a nonbeliever.”22 Rhonheimer, criticizing Auer’s anthropomorphic theonomous grounding of
autonomy, states: “the concept of a human theonomously founded autonomy is set up in contrast
to a notion, presented as obviously mistaken, of a rivalry between man and God: human
autonomy is then the divinely established dominance of man in the world. But the concept of
autonomy here indicated is no less anthropomorphic than the concept used as ‘foil.’ Human
autonomy as ‘self-competence,’ ‘partnership,’ or ‘independence’ is nonsense from the point of
view of a creationist metaphysics. It projects the legal relationship that obtains between human
beings onto the relationship of creature/Creator, and comes perilously close to the Deist idea of
God as the great Watchmaker.
“The model of autonomy that Auer uses says both too much and too little. Too much
because man cannot have this kind of independence in relation to God. To notion that the
causality of the Creator would constitute only the ordered ‘frame’ within which the ‘competence’
space of an ‘autonomous world’ is found, is metaphysically untenable. The causal dependence of

VS, 37.
VS, 37.
A. AUER, Autonome Moral und christlicher Glaube, 2nd ed., Düsseldorf, 1984, p. 172.

the creature upon the Creator is total, both in being and in actions. Through the peculiar nature of
divine creative causality, there is an actually operative immanence of God in everything that is
created and acts.
“On the other side, Auer’s anthropomorphic view of human autonomy says far too little:
the actually existing personal autonomy of man is much more than a guaranteed ‘free space’ or
‘autonomous’ position of dominance, and this is so precisely because of man’s radical
dependence upon God. The personal autonomy of man has been created ad imaginem Dei; to
anticipate later arguments somewhat, it is not a ‘competence’ granted by God, but participation
in God’s own ‘competence,’ again not in the sense of ‘competence autonomy,’ but rather through
a ‘partaking’ (participation) in God’s own perfection. The justification of man’s personal
autonomy cannot be illustrated by anthropomorphic models such as the ‘granting of competence’
or the ‘transference of power.’ Man is not a ‘partner’ of God, but rather His creature and image.
“The relation of the creation to the Creator that is expressed by the concept of
participation cannot be expressed by the category of autonomy, which is taken from human,
intra-creational experience. In a certain sense, ‘autonomy’ and ‘participation’ signify mutually
exclusive situations: participation means something ‘seen from above,’ a communication of
one’s perfection to another in such a way that the communicated perfection becomes the
possession of the receiver; participation constitutes an immanence of the ‘giver’ in the ‘receiver.’
Participation establishes functional autonomy as participated perfection, but not as constitutive
autonomy. The latter is only a ‘comprehending’ or ‘carrying’ framework of order, inside which
any communication or participation would be left ‘blanked out’; it means the preservation of a
participation-free ‘space’ within which there is no immanence of the ‘giver,’ only independence
to make something ‘new.’
“The relationship of (constitutive) autonomy indicates an inter-human relationship; that
of participation indicates the way creature and Creator behave toward one another. Autonomy
constitutes an area of freedom by humans and among humans, conditioned by ownership or legal
relations; participation constitutes a created freedom brought about by the Creator, a freedom
that would sink into nothingness without the immanence of God made possible by such
participation – without, that is, the imago character of human freedom.
“The concept of autonomy, when conceived in an anthropomorphic fashion, is useless for
the relation between creature and Creator. The same anthropomorphism appears in somewhat
different fashion in the attempts of Böckle and his student K.-W. Merks to construct a
theonomously grounded autonomy of human morality by way of an interpretation of the eternal
and natural laws.”23

Theonomous Autonomy According to Franz Böckle

In his widely read manual, Fundamental Moral Theology, the German proportionalist
dissenter Franz Böckle writes that “since Kant, autonomy has meant man’s determination to
define himself as a rational being by his own doing.”24 He mentions that in the context of the
Kantian Copernican Revolution, “autonomy was seen as a fundamental condition of the
intelligible subject. As moral autonomy, it meant the binding of the subject to the law of rational

M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., pp. 219-220.
F. BÖCKLE, Fundamental Moral Theology, Pueblo, New York, 1980, p. 5.
F. BÖCKLE, op. cit., p. 32.

Though Böckle does not accept the entire transcendental idealist foundation of Kant’s
autonomous morality, including the professor from Konigsberg’s (now Kaliningrad in the
Russian Federation) rigid ethical formalism, he accepts instead the intrinsic consequences linked
to the Kantian concept of autonomy, namely, that moral legislation is the task that man
undertakes autonomously, and therefore, the theonomous foundation of ethics cannot realize
itself upon the basis of a God-Law-Giver.
Aware of this, Böckle affirms that this concept of autonomy, which is characteristic of
the modern world, “is a proclamation of freedom from the restriction of alien authorities. It
would seem, however, that this takes the ground away from under the feet of all religious
morality. It would be dishonest not to admit that many forms of the mediation and justification of
the Church’s moral teaching can only with difficulty be united with this theory of autonomy. One
can speak of a heteronomous morality based on commandment. Laws – commandments or
prohibitions – that are communicated to us by nature or the biblical revelation are regarded as an
expression of God’s will that is always valid and inviolable. These laws are norms of the divine
law that are guaranteed by God himself. On the other hand, however, it can be demonstrated that
this is not necessarily the case and that it does not in any sense correspond to the classical pattern
of Catholic moral theology. On the basis of faith in God’s creation, we ought rather to see man’s
ethical task in his moral self-determination.”26
For Böckle, every moral reflection founded upon the commandments or upon the
existence of a divine law is a heteronomy (being subject to a law imposed by another),
incompatible with the moral autonomy of man. He admits that this does not depart from the
Kantian dialectic according to which every space conceded to God is in turn taken away from
man and vice versa. Therefore, after his presentation of the history of the transcendental idealist
and absolute idealist concepts of autonomy, where the idea of a God-lawgiver is automatically
dismissed as heteronomy, Böckle is constrained to dedicate an entire section of his manual to
realize a theological legitimization, a theonomous grounding, of moral autonomy, in order not to
be categorized as a Kantian transcendental idealist agnostic heteronomist. “The Kantian
autonomy of reason,” notes Rhonheimer, “must in principle banish from itself every
‘dependence’; accordingly, it must also conceive theonomy as a heteronomy. It can accept the
reality of God only as a postulate of practical reason, as a regulative idea, but not as a normative
cause.”27 At this point, the proponents of theonomous autonomony like Böckle intervene,
“maintaining that autonomy and theonomy must be united. But the attempt to establish a
theonomy of the reason in the Kantian sense, which would have to be autonomous in respect to
natural inclination and any anthropological determinateness, leads to ‘theonomous autonomy’; a
conception that on closer analysis appears as a questionable anthropomorphism.”28
For Böckle (following Kant), God is not the author of the moral law, since for him, man
is the sole creator of moral norms. But if this is so, where then is the theonomy of Christian
ethics? Böckle indeed affirms that he is a Catholic moral theologian attempting to update moral
theology. The theonomy lies, he says, in the fact that God assigned to man the task of
autonomously shaping the world. God created man, but then left him to himself in a freedom or
autonomy that has the character of an original task to formulate norms concerning the formation
of the world. God, says Böckle, is the cause of finite human freedom that is called to establish

F. BÖCKLE, op. cit., pp. 5-6.
M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., p. 216.

moral norms in the presence of an Infinite Freedom. Moral obligation is therefore conceived in
reference to the divine origin of one’s own autonomy.
Böckle holds that the task of law-giving as such rests upon the creative activity of reason.
Through his divine image man himself is granted his own norm-giving competence. Man
participates in the divine ratio as God’s image and likeness, and such a participation, claims
Böckle, “ is to be found specifically in his natural inclination, experienced in practical reason, to
create norms with regard to his ultimate fulfilment.”29 But, in this case, theonomy and
dependence on God is reduced to the residual idea that the autonomous law-giving subject has of
the foundation of his being autonomous in God. Böckle writes that “freedom implies total
dependence, insofar as man is offered the possibility of deciding in favor of freedom as a gift
(creation as grace). On the other hand, however, it is also total independence, insofar as man
finds himself confronted with a choice with regard to the only possibility of freedom.”30
All this signifies that in Böckle’s theonomous autonomy, “there does not exist,” explains
moral philosopher and moral theologian Angel Rodriguez Luño, “a relationship of participation
between human reason and Divine Wisdom (the ordinatio rationis of God, the eternal law), but
only between human freedom and Divine freedom, which is viewed as a divine instance
disconnected from any ordinatio rationis regarding the good and evil of human actions. One
cannot anymore say that when human reason formulates or attains moral truths regarding our
behavior one is participating in the eternal law, because for Böckle there does not exist an eternal
law with precise content, but only as the will of God – indeterminate content-wise – to assign to
man the task of autonomously forming oneself and the world.”31
Therefore, Veritatis Splendor is correct in faulting theonomous autonomy with forgetting
“the dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom”32 Veritatis Splendor is also right in
pointing out that, for these advocates of theonomous autonomy who defend the position that
creative human reason itself creates the moral law, “in no way could God be considered the
Author of this law, except in the sense that human reason exercises its autonomy in setting down
laws by virtue of a primordial and total mandate given to man by God.”33
For Böckle, explains Rhonheimer, “man is totally dependent on God insofar as he
receives from Him the ‘possibility of deciding in favor of freedom as a gift [from God].’ At the
same time, however, man is totally independent from God insofar as he exercises this freedom in
the norm-giving activity of the reason. There is then no participative immanence of the divine
reason and its ordinatio, no immanence of the lex eterna in the act of the human ratio. The norm-
giving activity of man is not completely the work of God (as would be the case with the first
cause), but rather, Böckle maintains, ‘totally independent.’ But this is to say, then, that the moral
autonomy of man consists in an ‘independence’ or ‘self-competence’ established by God through
creation, and simply ‘ratified’ by God Himself for the sake of man’s autonomy. This further
implies that there is nothing naturally good for man apart from completely surrendering his
action to the norm-giving and creative activity of his reason. The theonomous grounding of such
autonomy means only that man possesses a God-given power, and a God-given duty as well, to
shape his life in independence, on the basis of the norm-giving activity of the reason. Böckle

F. BÖCKLE, op. cit., p. 62.
F. BÖCKLE, op. cit., p. 63.
A. RODRIGUEZ LUÑO, ‘Veritatis Splendor’ un anno dopo. Appunti per un bilancio (I), “Acta Philosophica,”
4:2 (1995), p. 252.
VS, 36.

calls this ‘created freedom’: ‘In the light of faith in God’s creation, the unconditioned obligatory
claim is simply the dependence of a personally free self, over which a total claim is made, in this
freedom, to be in control of itself, also in freedom.’34
“Here any notion of participation completely disappears, and is replaced by an
anthropomorphically conceived constitutive autonomy: what Böckle presents as an
understanding of freedom that rests upon ‘faith in God’s creation’ really pertains to the
categories used to formulate juristic relations within society. Let us imagine that as a result of a
decision taken in a centralized state, a law is passed that leaves it to the competence of a certain
region or community to set up a school system. Such a transfer of competence establishes for the
receiver an inalienable obligation to realize that competence, and places the receiver into the
dependence on an unconditional ‘ought,’ but at the same time guarantees an independence for
the arrangement of concrete details within the prescribed area of competence and within the
framework of the law. If the region in question did not set up the school system, it would offend
against the obligation imposed upon it and could be brought to account, since it possesses no
competence to establish its own autonomy. The ‘autonomous’ region is thus required by a
superordinated authority ‘to be in control of itself, also in freedom.’
“Böckle’s concept of autonomy can be wholly correlated to such patterns. But it is the
opposition between total dependence and total independence that really cancels out any idea of
participation. For participation does not allow for an ‘independence’ of the participating entity,
but rather a ‘possessing of its own,’ an appropriation of something. It is a relation that in itself
has nothing to do with autonomy, but provides the basis for autonomy in the sense of functional
Again, one should point out that theonomous autonomy does not teach that there is no
relationship at all between the autonomous moral subject and God. Such a relationship exists but
is gravely deficient and entails an anthropomorphic conception of God. Theonomous autonomy
asserts, writes Rodriguez Luño, “a relationship between finite freedom and infinite Freedom
actuated on the transcendental level, but not on the categorical level of the fundamental content
of the natural moral law (do not kill, commit adultery, etc.), content that Christ unequivocably
presents as divine commandments.”36 Theonomous autonomy “retains that the call of God and
the response of man is encountered on the transcendental plane. And here is where the concepts
of transcendental or ‘fundamental’ freedom and the fundamental option enter into play,”37
seriously distorting the Catholic teaching on sin and forgiveness.38
Theonomous autonomy’s “autonomy or independence of human reason to formulate
moral norms regarding innerworldly actions, even if ‘theonomously’ founded, renders a divine
revelation of concrete moral commandments inconceivable. The ethical teachings of Sacred
Scripture, whether of the Old or New Testament, would then have merely a parenetic character,
or would be inferred each time from the ethos of the historically determined and socio-culturally
conditioned world, upon which the faith would undertake a critical role of selection,

F. BÖCKLE, op. cit., p. 57.
M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., pp. 223-224.
A. RODRIGUEZ LUÑO, op. cit., p. 253.
For a critique of the fundamental option theory proposed by the advocates of theonomous autonomy, see: D.
COMPOSTA, La nuova morale e i suoi problemi, Studi tomistici 38, Pontificia Accademia di s. Tommaso, Libreria
Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1990, pp. 91-107 ; L. MELINA, L’opzione fondamentale, in “Veritatis splendor”.
Testo integrale e commento filosofico-teologico, Paoline, Cinisello Balsamo (Milan), 1994, pp. 317-334.

modification and accentuation.”39 “The Christ-event” states Böckle, “is not a sufficient criteria
for the structuring of concrete moral exegencies.” There is no doubt that with these assertions of
theonomous autonomy would mean the cancelling out of the competence of the Magisterium of
the Church in matters concerning the natural moral law. Böckle will accept whatever the
Magisterium says is morally good or morally evil only if these pronouncements conform to
creative reason’s ultimate judgment. Since the creative reason of man is the creator and judge of
moral norms, the institution of the ecclesiastical Magisterium by Christ does not imply, asserts
Böckle, any specific competence in matters of normative morality.

Critique of Theonomous Autonomy and Defense of Participated Theonomy

What is the difference between a creative reason theonomously founded (our so-called
“theonomous autonomy”) and a “participated theonomy,” which is accepted by Veritatis
Splendor? What does it mean to say that the idea of participation founds the relationship between
freedom and truth, while the concept of creative reason can only found a pure freedom, however
finite, but not its essential reference to the truth?
Rodriguez Luño explains that “the concept of ‘participated theonomy’ is congruent with a
God in whom the freedom of the creative act is really inseparable from the Wisdom and from the
provident Love marking out a plan for man, in such a way that its gradual discovery on the part
of human reason must be considered as a participation in the eternal law of God.40
A. RODRIGUEZ LUÑO, op. cit., p. 253.
Veritatis Splendor explains: “Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the
divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity. This is
clearly stated by the Council: ‘Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated
and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man
achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good,
pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means’.
“In his journey towards God, the One who ‘alone is good’, man must freely do good and avoid evil. But in order
to accomplish this he must be able to distinguish good from evil. And this takes place above all thanks to the light of
natural reason, the reflection in man of the splendour of God’s countenance. Thus Saint Thomas, commenting on a
verse of Psalm 4, writes: ‘After saying: Offer right sacrifices (Ps 4:5), as if some had then asked him what right
works were, the Psalmist adds: There are many who say: Who will make us see good? And in reply to the question
he says: The light of your face, Lord, is signed upon us, thereby implying that the light of natural reason whereby we
discern good from evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else but an imprint on us of the divine
light’. It also becomes clear why this law is called the natural law: it receives this name not because it refers to the
nature of irrational beings but because the reason which promulgates it is proper to human nature.
“The Second Vatican Council points out that the ‘supreme rule of life is the divine law itself, the eternal,
objective and universal law by which God out of his wisdom and love arranges, directs and governs the whole world
and the paths of the human community. God has enabled man to share in this divine law, and hence man is able
under the gentle guidance of God's providence increasingly to recognize the unchanging truth’.
“The Council refers back to the classic teaching on God's eternal law. Saint Augustine defines this as ‘the reason
or the will of God, who commands us to respect the natural order and forbids us to disturb it’. Saint Thomas
identifies it with ‘the type of the divine wisdom as moving all things to their due end’. And God’s wisdom is
providence, a love which cares. God himself loves and cares, in the most literal and basic sense, for all creation (cf.
Wis 7:22; 8:11). But God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not
persons. He cares for man not ‘from without’, through the laws of physical nature, but ‘from within’, through
reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God’s eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to
take in his free actions. In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the
world — not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons — through man himself, through man’s
reasonable and responsible care. The natural law enters here as the human expression of God’s eternal law. Saint
Thomas writes: ‘Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way,

“The concept of ‘theonomous autonomy,’ instead, presupposes a God who, in order to
respect human freedom, has no other choice but to retreat Himself from the life and world of
men, in such a way that to the legislative autonomy of man corresponds a blank space in God, in
which there is ‘written’ nothing. One is dealing therefore with a God who has nothing to do with
the moral order of our activities, given that this has been entirely entrusted to the changing
dictates of creative reason.”41
The concept of participated theonomy is clearly accepted by the Catholic Church, while
the concept of theonomous autonomy has been decisively rejected by her Magisterium,
specifically, in the pages of Veritatis Splendor.
Against Böckle’s erroneous understanding and misinterpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas’
treatment of the natural law as a participation in the eternal law, Rhonheimer writes: “The natural
law…is the eternal law itself as participated by man. This implies that the eternal law is not
unknown to us; that we recognize it, insofar as concerns us, in the natural law.
“Once again, we are confronted with the concept of participation. If the natural law is…
the eternal law, which has become the possession of the creature by way of participation, this
would also mean that it shows the same characteristics as all created realities constituted through
participation: it reveals an order preordained and founded in God (in this case, in the lex
aeterna), but grounded in a capability that belongs to, and is immanent in, the person (i.e., it is
functionally autonomous). The participative character of the lex naturalis says much more,
therefore, than the fact that it is founded in God. It says that in the natural law an ‘ordinatio’ of

insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of
the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end. This participation of the eternal
law in the rational creature is called natural law’.
“The Church has often made reference to the Thomistic doctrine of natural law, including it in her own teaching
on morality. Thus my Venerable Predecessor Leo XIII emphasized the essential subordination of reason and human
law to the Wisdom of God and to his law. After stating that ‘the natural law is written and engraved in the heart of
each and every man, since it is none other than human reason itself which commands us to do good and counsels us
not to sin’, Leo XIII appealed to the ‘higher reason’ of the divine Lawgiver: ‘But this prescription of human reason
could not have the force of law unless it were the voice and the interpreter of some higher reason to which our spirit
and our freedom must be subject’. Indeed, the force of law consists in its authority to impose duties, to confer rights
and to sanction certain behaviour: ‘Now all of this, clearly, could not exist in man if, as his own supreme legislator,
he gave himself the rule of his own actions’. And he concluded: ‘It follows that the natural law is itself the eternal
law, implanted in beings endowed with reason, and inclining them towards their right action and end; it is none
other than the eternal reason of the Creator and Ruler of the universe’.
“Man is able to recognize good and evil thanks to that discernment of good from evil which he himself carries
out by his reason, in particular by his reason enlightened by Divine Revelation and by faith, through the law which
God gave to the Chosen People, beginning with the commandments on Sinai. Israel was called to accept and to live
out God’s law as a particular gift and sign of its election and of the divine Covenant, and also as a pledge of God’s
blessing. Thus Moses could address the children of Israel and ask them: ‘What great nation is that that has a god so
near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes
and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?’ (Dt 4:7-8). In the Psalms we encounter
the sentiments of praise, gratitude and veneration which the Chosen People is called to show towards God’s law,
together with an exhortation to know it, ponder it and translate it into life. ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the
counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of
the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night’ (Ps 1:1-2). ‘The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the
testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the
commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes’ (Ps 18/19:8-9)”(JOHN PAUL II, Veritatis Splendor, nos.
A. RODRIGUEZ LUÑO, op. cit., p. 255.

human actions toward their goal, existing from eternity in the divine wisdom, come here to
expression and realization.
“In such terms, the notion that the natural law leaves free an area of specifically human
‘creative’ normativity is more than questionable, and lacks metaphysical justification. For if the
natural law is participation of the eternal law and, accordingly, if there is an identity by way of
participation (an immanence of the lex aeterna in the lex naturalis), then the natural law cannot
be limited to a ‘natural inclination, experienced in practical reason, to create norms for his
ultimate fulfillment,’ as Böckle has taken it. If it were only that, the eternal law (at least in
relation to man) would be only an inclination or a ‘potential rationality’ (of the divine reason) for
norm-giving acts, the actualisation of which would be left to the creature in his autonomy; it
could not then be an ordinatio of the divine reason that is actual, universal, and perfect, and in
existence from eternity, which is what Thomas expressly maintains. Böckle’s concept implies
that the eternal law is not an ordinatio of human actions toward their goal, but rather that this
ordinatio has been left to the autonomy of the creature. As already shown, the image is
anthropomorphic, and is untenable with respect to both metaphysics and the text of St. Thomas.
It claims that in God there is a freedom that does not establish an order to the good. It would
assume in the divine wisdom, whose ratio is indeed the lex aeterna, an ‘openness’ or
indetermination. Only in this way would Böckle’s understanding of the natural law still be
conceived as a participation of the eternal law.
“Is it still possible to say that the ordinatio of the natural law (or the human reason) is
constitutively autonomous in respect to the eternal law? Then one could no longer say that the
natural law is a participation of the eternal law and is the same law. It would only be a law made
possible by the eternal law, but still different from it: a law that would fall under the ordinatio of
the lex aeterna only insofar as it developed within the ‘free-space’ ordained and preserved by the
lex aeterna. Again, this view, too, would be anthropomorphic and would obviously contradict
the fundamental doctrine of St. Thomas, that the natural law is a participation of the eternal law.
“On the basis of the participative structure of the lex naturalis, there is only one
possibility: in the natural law stands revealed the eternal and universally valid ordinatio, through
the wisdom of the divine reason, of human actions toward their end.”42
Böckle’s concept of ‘theonomous autonomy’ and his attempt at a reduction of the natural
law to a purely formal, materially undetermined ‘natural inclination of the reason to create
norms’ both involve a single theme, that is, that of the relationship between the human ratio,
formally constituting the lex naturalis, and the lex aeterna, by which all creatures are guided
toward their final goal.
For Auer, the lex aeterna grounds the activity of the practical reason in a ‘final context of
justification’ and a ‘comprehensive horizon of meaning,’ which explains the autonomous, self-
determining ‘freedom to create norms’ as God’s unconditioned moral claim upon man, which
leaves it up to human ‘creative reason’ to fashion the actual content of human actions. The lex
aeterna would then simply point to a ‘context of justification,’ namely, that formed by the
coherence between theonomy and human autonomy.
Against Auer and Böckle’s conception of the theonomous grounding of autonomy
towards theonomous autonomy, and in defense of a participated theonomy, Rhonheimer writes:
“The imago Dei – precisely because of its participative character – does not throw man upon
himself, but rather refers him to God. If the intellectuality of God means that He knows and
loves himself, the participated intellectuality of man does not mean that man is related to himself
M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., pp. 226-227.

in the same way as God is to Himself, but rather that he has been created for this relatedness to
God, and this is to be realized in acts that possess a character of divine likeness – in other words,
through an intellective knowing and loving. Here is where the imago is to be found, at the most
profound level: for the human being is not a ‘copy’ of divine perfection but rather, like every
creature, a completely unique and special participation thereof. This is why the imago character
of personal autonomy (and its power and freedom) is not really theonomously grounded
autonomy, but rather ‘participated theonomy.’ Participation in the divine Self-relatedness does
not consist in human self-relatedness but in human ‘God-relatedness.’
“The imago character of personal autonomy implies something twofold. First, it is a
participation in the spirituality of God through the understanding (intelligere) and the love
(amare) that are based upon it: two actions that in their participative structure refer man to God.
Man is in the divine likeness because he is capable, like God Himself, of knowing and loving
God. Now this is the basis of the second aspect: man, like every other creature, is ordered to the
‘common good’ (bonum commune) of the creation, God Himself, and this is so in accord with the
special character of the divine imago that he bears. The participation in ‘knowing and loving
God’ (intelligere et amare) grounds not only an ordering toward God but also the manner of this
ordering: in freedom, through the mastery over his own acts, and through personal autonomy.
This in fact is a characteristic of knowing and loving itself: a knowing and loving orientation
toward God by its nature can take place only in freedom and through mastery over one’s own
acts, otherwise it would no longer be the spiritual knowing and loving orientation that becomes
the imago. The empowered, personal autonomy of the human being provides at the same time
both the goal of this freedom and the manner of its realization.”43
“Man is not an ‘autonomous’ and self-powered master in his own petty kingdom, but
rather, because of his natura intellectualis, partakes in his personal autonomy and, in an
‘imaged’ way, in the divine perfection. Such ‘partaking’ can be brought through action – moral,
personal action – to a humanly possible perfection: and it would have to be brought to only a
humanly possible perfection, were not man not also called, through grace, to a still higher
participation in the divine perfection. Such a calling is outside the province of philosophical
ethics, and leads to participation in God’s holiness itself… in a life that is at once human and
“The area of personal autonomy of man, and the ‘empowered’ (or ‘potestative’) quality
that results from his imago character, cannot be understood as a ‘theonomous autonomy,’ such
that divine providence would provide only a ‘transcendental framework’ within which man
himself ‘creatively’ shapes the order of good actions; or, in other words, as a ‘categorical’ free
space that God does not enter, leaving it up to man to determine what the content should be. In
view of the participative character of the imago, such a position is meaningless. This ‘creative’
autonomy, which casts man back upon himself and his own purposes, is like a ‘mess of pottage’
accepted in exchange for the real greatness and dignity that belongs to man in virtue of being
made in the image of God.
“When we realize that there is a ‘plan’ (a ratio) that underlies the divine government of
the world, and that this ratio gubernationis is called the eternal law, then we can understand what
it means to say that the natural law is a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.
Above all, it should be clear that the lex naturalis cannot simply ground a normative free space
of creative-rational governance by man (a conception that is metaphysically useless and

M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., p. 239.
M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., p. 241.

anthropomorphic); rather, the natural law in man is a participation in the ordering (ordinatio) of
the divine reason itself…”45

M. RHONHEIMER, op. cit., pp. 243-244.