The Proportionalism of Fr. Michael Prieur

As Socon or Bust readers know, Fr. Michael Prieur has had a long history of unorthodox beliefs in the area of sexual ethics, including his support of the infamous Winnipeg Statement which effectively opened the floodgates of abortion in Canada through its dissent from Humanae Vitae.   Furthermore, Fr. Prieur’s moral theology is rooted in proportionalism, which maintains that it is not possible, in many cases, to formulate an absolute prohibition against certain types of behaviours or actions which are inherently evil.  In 1993, Pope John Paul II condemned this thinking in his monumental encyclical Veritatis Splendor:

“But as part of the effort to work out such a rational morality (for this reason it is sometimes called an “autonomous morality” ) there exist false solutions, linked in particular to an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action. Some authors do not take into sufficient consideration the fact that the will is involved in the concrete choices which it makes: these choices are a condition of its moral goodness and its being ordered to the ultimate end of the person. Others are inspired by a notion of freedom which prescinds from the actual conditions of its exercise, from its objective reference to the truth about the good, and from its determination through choices of concrete kinds of behaviour. According to these theories, free will would neither be morally subjected to specific obligations nor shaped by its choices, while nonetheless still remaining responsible for its own acts and for their consequences. This “teleologism”, as a method for discovering the moral norm, can thus be called — according to terminology and approaches imported from different currents of thought — “consequentialism” or “proportionalism”. The former claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. The latter, by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the “greater good” or “lesser evil” actually possible in a particular situation.”   (Veritatis Splendor, 75)

Indeed, this proportionalism is the consistent, underlying philosophy which undergirds much of Fr. Prieur’s theological and moral positions on a whole host of issues.  The following paper will examine three of Fr. Prieur’s public and problematic positions: the Winnipeg Statement, the Fetal Euthanasia policy of St. Joseph’s hopital in London Ontario, and Fr. Prieur’s position on stem cell research as proposed in a paper he co-authored in 2006.

Winnipeg Statement

Fr. Prieur is well known for being an ardent supporter of the Winnipeg Statement which was condemned in all but name by John Paul II in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.  It is clear that the Pope had the Winnipeg Statement in mind in his exposition of the pernicious errors of “proportionalism” and “consequentialism”  (emphasis mine):

A separation or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil.  On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called “pastoral” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept. No one can fail to realize that these approaches pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God’s law. Only the clarification made earlier with regard to the relationship, based on truth, between freedom and law makes possible a discernment concerning this “creative” understanding of conscience. (56)

In the above section from the Encyclical, the Pope starts out with criticizing the general maxim which the dissenters propose.  He says that there is a false opposition established between the general precept (“contraception is evil”) recognized as the objective moral order, and binding on everyone, in every place, and at all times on the one hand, and the subjective order (via the conscience) which is not necessarily bound to the objective moral order, on the other hand.  For the dissenter, the objective moral order, then, becomes merely a reference point with no binding authority on one’s actions.  These proposals are offered in so-called “pastoral solutions” which the Pope says are “contrary to the teaching of the magisterium”.  This is a veiled reference to the various “pastoral documents” issued by the various episcopal conferences in response to Humanae Vitae.   The Winnipeg Statement was, in the recent words of one Australian bishop, “the worst” of these so-called “pastoral solutions”.  The Pope laments the creative attempts of the Canadian bishops to establish a “creative hermeneutic” by essentially allowing spouses to contracept.  While paying lip service to the general prohibition on contraceptive sex, the Canadian bishops ultimately divorced the moral conscience from a binding negative precept by their rejection of Humanae Vitae.

Despite the unmistakable condemnation of this proportionalistic morality and the Winnipeg Statement’s certain implication in it, as recently as 2005, Fr. Michael Prieur has continued to support the Winnipeg Statement and its grievous errors.  What is worse, the bishops of this country have done nothing to discipline him for these views or even to offer a gentle correction. In fact, he remains the chief ethicist for the diocese of London, the ethical advisor to St. Joseph’s hospital in London, Ontario, and professor of sacramental and moral theology at St. Peter’s seminary in London.   (The reason why there is no rebuke forthcoming, of course, is because the bishops of this country are still, at the very least, in tacit dissent from Humanae Vitae as evidence by their continued implicit support of the Winnipeg Statement (see the Editor’s note at the top of this article regarding Bishop Fred Henry.)  And that is why, dear friends, Canada remains at the bottom of the moral gutter in the world today concerning life and moral issues.)

Fetal Euthanasia

More recently in February of this year, Fr. Prieur was criticized for his support of the Fetal Euthanasia policy of St. Joseph’s Catholic hospital in London, Ontario where he serves as the chief ethical advisor for the hospital.   Since the controversy erupted in late 2008, the bishop of London, Ronald Fabbro, launched a review of the guidelines in March 2009 which has yet to be made public.   While the issue revolved around inducing supposed “viable fetuses”, it is actually much more serious and grievous than originally reported. 

First of all, in the 1997 guidelines for Early Induction for Lethal Fetal Anomalies (which has since been updated in 2006 with “no significant shifts in theological thinking”), Fr. Prieur admitted that the hospital had been, before that time, permitting early inductions before viability:

It would seem that we need to restrict the time in a pregnancy when we are permitting early inductions since the basis upon which we have been allowing them, especially before viability, does not seem to be in accord with an accurate understanding of Roman Catholic moral teachings.

So, in other words, since 1985 and for 12 years thereafter until 1997 when the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops Doctrine Committee released their statement entitled, Moral Principles Concerning Infants With Anencephaly, St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital was inducing labour of women with pre-viable unborn babies. They were killing innocent human life by early induction.  And we know this was the reality because their 2006 updated guidelines admit it:  “Procedures whose immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability are considered direct abortions. [Source: Early Induction for Lethal Fetal Anomalies, St. Joseph’s Health Care, London (St. Joseph’s) May 2006 (revised)].  While it is commendable that Fr. Prieur retracted the ethical guidelines of the hospital in the case of early inductions on learning the decision of the American bishops, it is still very disturbing that a knowledgeable theologian and bioethicist would make such a gross error in judgement.  Catholics can accept and respect an uneducated Catholic who makes honest mistakes regularly, and is obedient enough to redress his errors when the Church gives explicit directives.  It’s very different, however, for a policy-maker, decision-maker and seminary professor to be lacking in judgement.  Fr. Prieur may still be acting in good faith, but should he really be in a position of trust, if he can make such errors which go on for years and decades without correction?  And where have his bishops been during these years to allow this tragedy to go on – year after year? 

Secondly, in his interview with LifeSiteNews, Fr. Prieur explained that in order to do the early induction for infants with lethal fetal anomalies, “the babies have to be viable. It has to be done after 21 weeks just in case there’s a misdiagnosis.”  But this begs the question about when viability is, in fact, reached and, more importantly, what population is being addressed.  Twenty-one or twenty-two weeks might be the theoretical point of viability for a healthy child, but what about one with an anomaly?  Does the 21 or 22-week threshold hold for such a child?  Are the practitioners and enablers of fetal euthanasia at St. Joseph’s hospital aware of the differing “points of safety” for these particular babies (which is likely well past the threshold for a healthy baby), or are they content with applying a wrong standard to the wrong population?  In fact, according to Rev. Norman M. Ford, Director, Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics  in Australia, the morally permissible point of early induction of labour for anencephalic babies is actually 33 completed weeks. At this point, early induction “would almost certainly not expose infants with anencephaly to any new risk of death beyond that of their lethal defect” (Source).  And yet, St. Joseph’s hospital appears to be inducing too early, and inducing too early effectively means that St. Joseph’s is continuing its direct abortion policy.

Finally, it is very disconcerting to note that in the formulation of the guidelines concerning “Early Induction for Lethal Fetal Anomalies“, Fr. Prieur references the 1996 U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops Doctrine Committee statement entitled, Moral Principles Concerning Infants With Anencephaly.  He states:  “Recently, some newer articles and guidelines of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the U.S. have prompted us to revisit the question once again”.  This Statement is referenced in Fr. Prieur’s guidelines under Footnote 2.

2 See Kevin O’Rourke, O.P., “Ethical Opinions in Regard to the Question of Early Delivery of Anencephalic Infants”, Linacre Quarterly, August, 1996,55-59; NCCB Doctrine Committee, “Moral Principles Concerning Infants With Anencephaly”, Origins, Oct. 10, 1996, 276; and Peter 1. Cataldo, “The NCCB On Anencephaly”, Ethics and Medics, Vol. 22, no. 1(Jan. 1997),3-4;

This Statement by the U.S. bishops discusses both pre-viability and post-viability of an anencephalic child. In both cases, termination of the unborn child is strictly rejected:

Hence, it is clear that before “viability”it is never permitted to terminate the gestation of an anencephalic child as the means of avoiding psychological or physical risks to the mother. Nor is such termination permitted after “viability” if early delivery endangers the child’s life due to complications of prematurity. In such cases, it cannot reasonably be maintained that such a termination is simply a side-effect of the treatment of a pathology of the mother (as described in Directive 47). Anencephaly is not a pathology of the mother, but of the child, and terminating her pregnancy cannot be a treatment of a pathology she does not have. Only if the complications of the pregnancy result in a life-threatening pathology of the mother, may the treatment of this pathology be permitted even at a risk to the child, and then only if the child’s death is not a means to treating the mother.

And yet despite this clear statement by the NCCB, and Fr. Prieur’s knowledge of the Statement’s existence (by his reference in Footnote 2 above in the 1997 Guidelines), he prefers the opinion of one theologian instead of the Bishops’ Committee when considering the early induction of these children after viability:

3. An early induction may be permitted after viability for a proportionate reason which can include grave physical, psychological or psychiatric considerations. In this regard, we are considering the total good of the mother as well as that of the child. 4


 4 “If the mother is subject to such psychiatric repercussions over the anguish of carrying such a seriously handicapped infant and there is no other alternative to sedating her fears and anxieties, a case could be made for inducing labor soon after viability has been definitely diagnosed.” – Msgr. Orville Griese cited in Robert P. Craig, Ed.D., Ph.D., “Ethics Consultation: Induction of Labor for a Woman With an Anencephalic Fetus”, Quarterly, LinacreVol. 58, no. 3,(Aug. 1991),44-49 at 46.

Why does Fr. Prieur ignore the directive of the U.S. bishops which rejects early induction for post-viable anencaphalic babies, but accepts their directive for pre-viable anencaphalic babies, especially considering that both of these directives are found in the same document?!

Once again, we see Fr. Prieur using proportionalistic reasoning to justify early inductions at St. Joseph’s hospital, when, in fact, proportionalistic reasoning cannot be justified in the hastening of death of anencephelic babies.

Stem Cell Research

The most recent controversy involving Fr. Prieur involves the discovery of a paper he co-authored dealing with embryonic stem cell research which is at variance with both the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith.  (To view the process of how an embryo is destroyed, visit this site and click through the slides in the bottom right-hand corner of the charts.)

In his paper Stem Cell Research in a Catholic Institution: Yes or No? which he co-authored with other members of the St. Joseph’s London Health Care ethics committee, Fr. Prieur and his collaborators argue that Catholic institutions could legitimately allow research on cultures derived from stem cells of donated embryos and use any therapies that result. They claim that this would be acceptable mediate material cooperation and need not entail approving the destruction of the embryos used to derive cell lines nor necessarily promote the creation of more embryos for such research. The authors also propose that excelling in research that leads to therapies while showing appropriate moral restraint would enable Catholic institutions to show a good example.  (Stem Cell Research in a Catholic Institution: Yes or No?,Prieur, Michael R; Atkinson, Joan; Hardingham, Laurie; Hill, David; Kernaghan, Gillian; Miller, Rowell, Mary; Vallely, John F. Wilson, Suzanne, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 16:1 (March 2006): 73-98.)

They justify their position by pointing out that the use of stem cell lines are only material and mediate; there was not formal co-operation with the destruction of embryos and there is a certain distance of responsibility between the killing of the embryo and the use of its “biological material”:

“…embryonic stem cell research does not, in itself, involve the destruction of human embryos. Researchers need not derive their own stem cell lines, but simply utilize embryonic cell lines already available to the entire scientific community. Certainly, the derivation of these cell lines would have, according to current practice, involved the destruction of “surplus” IVF embryos. However, these acts would have taken place at some remotely prior time. Moreover, they would have occurred at other sites and likely would have occurred anyway. Researchers in Catholic institutions would not have been party in any way to the destruction of embryos at these remote sites. Embryos would not have been destroyed at the researcher’s request, nor would they necessarily even be in agreement with such destruction of embryos. Their participation in embryonic stem cell research would be consequent to any embryo’s death and not antecedent to it in any way, either by participation in or intending such a loss of human life. In this regard, such scientists would not be performing an evil action to benefit from it, but would be cooperating with the effect of a previous action, the results of which act, namely,  embryonic stem cells, would be available to the whole scientific research community. Whether such cooperation is licit will be discussed further on in the paper.” (p.85)

In response to the objection that co-operating with IVF procedures provide tacit approval for the destruction of human embryos and even the production of more embryos to be destroyed, the authors state:

“We maintain that the embryonic stem cell research we propose would not give tacit approval to IVF procedures since these already routinely occur at many sites that are totally distinct geographically and in ownership from any Catholic sites.” (p.88)

They later then conclude:

“Our present research leads us to believe that embryonic stem cell research on extant cell lines is, at the present time, a legitimate moral possibility for Catholic research facilities. We think that such research allows them to witness to a solid stance in favor of helping the world as it struggles to use the latest scientific discoveries to alleviate or cure human suffering.” (90-91)

The above paper was written in 2006. 

Yet, in 2000, the Pontifical Academy for Life considered this very issue and came to this judgement:

The third ethical problem can be formulated thus: Is it morally licit to use ES [embryonic stem] cells, and the differentiated cells obtained from them, which are supplied by other researchers or are commercially obtainable?  

The answer is negative, since:  prescinding from the participation – formal or otherwise – in the morally illicit intention of the principal agent, the case in question entails a proximate material cooperation in the production and manipulation of human embryos on the part of those producing or supplying them. (Source:

This means that the use of cell lines is also illicit.  Fr. Prieur had judged the use of these cell lines to be “mediate (remote) material co-operation” which would have meant the participation in the use of cell lines would have been moral, but the Pontifical Academy for Life rightly judged the act to be immediate (i.e. proximate) material co-operation which means the use of these cell lines is immoral. 

Although the Pontifical Academy for Life pronounced on this question and although Fr. Prieur and his colleagues recognized the Academy’s position, they chose not to accept it.

“One recent statement of Roman Catholic teaching does not allow an embryo to be destroyed in order to obtain stem cells. The Pontifical Academy for Life stated that obtaining stem cells supplied by other researchers or available on the market is not morally permissible….However, it must be noted that, except for the aforementioned statement
by the Pontifical Academy for Life, the “Church’s Magisterium has not as yet specifically addressed this question” (Moraczewski 2002)…It seems clear that it is still a legitimate question to ask whether a Roman Catholic health care institution can cooperate in research using cell lines derived from stem cells obtained from frozen human embryos left over from IVF procedures, when these embryos have been acquired with both donors’ informed consent. (p.83-84)

Since then, and drawing on Donum vitae which was written in 1987,  the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith issued an updated “instruction” on this question on September 8, 2008.  The judgement of Cardinal Levada, the prefect of this Congregation, was that the use of embryonic stem cell lines as proposed and accepted by Fr. Prieur and the St. Joseph’s Ethics Committee was illicit and must be rejected.  The instruction called the “independence” rationale of defending a Catholic institution’s participation in research involving these cell lines “insufficient”, pointing out the inherent contradiction of such a position:

A different situation is created when researchers use “biological material” of illicit origin which has been produced apart from their research center or which has been obtained commercially. The Instruction Donum vitae formulated the general principle which must be observed in these cases: “The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or to autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and without the consent of the parents or of the mother. Furthermore, the moral requirements must be safeguarded that there be no complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk of scandal be avoided”.

In this regard, the criterion of independence as it has been formulated by some ethics committees is not sufficient (Editor’s note: italics in the original).  According to this criterion, the use of “biological material” of illicit origin would be ethically permissible provided there is a clear separation between those who, on the one hand, produce, freeze and cause the death of embryos and, on the other, the researchers involved in scientific experimentation. The criterion of independence is not sufficient to avoid a contradiction in the attitude of the person who says that he does not approve of the injustice perpetrated by others, but at the same time accepts for his own work the “biological material” which the others have obtained by means of that injustice. When the illicit action is endorsed by the laws which regulate healthcare and scientific research, it is necessary to distance oneself from the evil aspects of that system in order not to give the impression of a certain toleration or tacit acceptance of actions which are gravely unjust.  Any appearance of acceptance would in fact contribute to the growing indifference to, if not the approval of, such actions in certain medical and political circles.

At times, the objection is raised that the above-mentioned considerations would mean that people of good conscience involved in research would have the duty to oppose actively all the illicit actions that take place in the field of medicine, thus excessively broadening their ethical responsibility. In reality, the duty to avoid cooperation in evil and scandal relates to their ordinary professional activities, which they must pursue in a just manner and by means of which they must give witness to the value of life by their opposition to gravely unjust laws. Therefore, it needs to be stated that there is a duty to refuse to use such “biological material” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life. Therefore, the above-mentioned criterion of independence is necessary, but may be ethically insufficient.

Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material”. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.

In the context of the urgent need to mobilize consciences in favour of life, people in the field of healthcare need to be reminded that “their responsibility today is greatly increased. Its deepest inspiration and strongest support lie in the intrinsic and undeniable ethical dimension of the health-care profession, something already recognized by the ancient and still relevant Hippocratic Oath, which requires every doctor to commit himself to absolute respect for human life and its sacredness”. (Dignitas Personae, 35)

Note also that Cardinal Levada stresses that such a co-operation would give the impression of a certain tolerance or tacit acceptance of the destruction of human embryos, a claim that was rejected by Fr. Prieur (see above selection of  page 88 of his paper).  Cardinal Levada dismisses (almost completely) the mediation argument that Prieur advanced in his paper by stating:  “there is a duty to refuse to use such “biological material” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion.” 

Insofar as vaccines derived from such stem cell lines go, however, Cardinal Levada states that there is a distinction between those who have a choice in accepting such biological material for research purposes, and those who have no choice in the matter like a patient who might die unless he receives the treatment derived from the vaccine. The key in discerning the licitness of these situations depend on the mediacy of the act (i.e. how distant and independent one is from the immoral act), the proportionate reason (i.e. its gravity), and the potential scandal caused by using it.  Cardinal Levada is saying that all three of these areas for moral consideration are much more problematic in the case of a researcher than it they are with someone who is simply accepting the benefits of a vaccine: “…in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of  those who have no voice in such a decision.”

About four months before the release of Dignitas Personae, Fr. Prieur was honoured by the Catholic Health Association of Canada with its “Performace Citation Award”, an award given to “a person who makes an outstanding contribution in health care, reflecting CHAC’s mission to strengthen and support the ministry of Catholic health care organizations and sponsors.”  St. Joseph’s media release also stated that:  “Over the past 40 years Father Prieur has made valued contributions to St. Joseph’s Health Care, London, including authoring 31 position papers for the health ethics committee. With the St. Joseph’s Health Care London ethics committee, Father Prieur was the principle author on a ground-breaking position paper called Stem Cell Research in a Catholic Institution: Yes or No?, which was published in The Kennedy Institute of Ethics – one of the world’s oldest and most comprehensive academic bioethics centres.”

Now that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has rejected the conclusion of Father Prieur’s “ground-breaking position paper” on the subject of stem cell research and stem cell lines, there are a few questions to be asked:

1) Why did Fr. Prieur not accept the Pontifical Academy for Life’s judgement on the illicit use of stem cell lines when he published his paper? 

2) In his paper, Fr. Prieur says, “if subsequent evidence proves that cooperation in such research is morally indefensible, we will cease to advocate any consideration of participation in it”(p.74).  In light of both the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s positions, does Fr. Prieur now renounce the conclusion of his paper?

3) More importantly, does this “ground-breaking” position paper still reflect the position of St. Joseph’s ethics committee?  If so, why?  If not, what public statement or communication, if any, has St. Joseph’s Health Care London ethics committee ever made to distance itself from its original position paper on the subject?

4) What influence has Fr. Prieur’s position paper had on the Catholic Health Association of Canada?  Does the CHAC hold to Fr. Prieur’s original position or does it hold to the Vatican’s view?

5) What is the official position of the Diocese of London on this issue?  Does it support the position paper of Father Prieur? If not, what public communication has it made to clear up the confusion that has been caused by the publication of this paper?  (It appears that Bishop Fabbro “did not think he could approve any research being done on stem cells derived from human embryos at the St. Joseph’s site.  He did encourage to publish to further the discussion of the subject.” [Source: CHAC, Slide 4])

The proportionalistic ethic is not as apparent in Fr. Prieur’s position on embyronic stem cells as it is in the case of the Winnipeg Statement or the Fetal Euthanasia at St. Joseph’s hospital, but it is there nonetheless, even if it is one level removed, so to speak. There is a failure to recognize the intrinsic and inviolable dignity of the human being or the human body, for that matter, in giving tacit approval, or at least the impression of tolerance, in co-operating in the most unspeakable crime humanity has ever committed against itself.   This is because, consciously or not, our society and many in the Church have become desensitized to the violence in the womb.  Instead of providing a “clean break” with (and witness to) the culture of death, there is a movement which seeks to accommodate the perversion for the sake of another good while attempting to remain within the guidelines of Catholic moral teaching.  In other words, we are not trying to stop it by closing up possible markets for the death peddlers. On the contrary, we are trying our best to accommodate it while remaining “holy on paper”.

Fr. Prieur might very well be an otherwise good priest. Indeed, his supporters point out examples of his fidelity to the Church and her teachings.  There is no judgement being made on Fr. Prieur’s person or his otherwise excellent qualities as a priest.  We commend him for these other fine qualities and his witness of fidelity, and we wish that he continue to bear witness to the Gospel through them.  His efforts in these areas have most assuredly born fruit for the Lord.  Nevertheless, his fidelity in these other areas, however admirable and laudatory they are, do not take away from the places where there is a certain and serious deficiency.  We pray that he will examine them again in light of the Church’s teaching magisterium.  And we also pray that the ecclesiastical authorities, who are currently responsible for ensuring Catholic moral teaching is followed, recognize their own grave responsibility before God and act expeditiously to clarify the Church’s ethical guidelines in these matters.

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