McCormick, Richard A.
MCCORMICK, RICHARD A.
Jesuit, moral theologian, writer; b. Oct. 3, 1922, Toledo, Ohio; d. Feb. 12, 2000, Clarkston, Mich., the son of Edward J. McCormick, a distinguished physician and sometime president of the American Medical Association, and Josephine Beck McCormick. McCormick entered the Society of Jesus in 1940; he then studied philosophy at the Jesuit seminary in West Baden Indiana. Beginning in 1947 he taught English and Greek at St. Ignatius High School, Cleveland, before returning to West Baden in 1950 to study theology. McCormick was ordained a priest in 1953. He attended the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1955–57), where he earned a doctorate in moral theology. From 1957 to 1973, he taught moral theology at the Jesuit theologate, which during those years moved from West Baden to Chicago. In 1974, he was named the Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, and in 1986 he became the John A. O'Brien Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame.
McCormick's numerous articles in theological and medical journals as well as in Catholic intellectual journals of opinion, especially the Jesuit magazine America, for which he once served as an associate editor, gained him an international reputation. McCormick's most important publications were the "Notes on Moral Theology" he published annually in Theological Studies (1965–84). These notes were subsequently collected in two volumes—Notes on Moral Theology, 1965–80 (Washington 1981) and Notes on Moral Theology 1981–84 (Lanham, Md. 1984). He authored How Brave a New World? Dilemmas in Bioethics (Garden City, N.Y. 1981) and Health and Medicine in the Catholic Tradition (New York, 1984). The volume he edited with Paul Ramsey, Doing Evil to Achieve Good: Moral Choice in Conflict Situations (Chicago 1978), brings together theologians from different churches and philosophers who discussed McCormick's theory of proportionalism. McCormick was co-editor with Charles E. Curran of eleven volumes in the series Readings in Moral Theology (Paulist Press). His last two books were collections of essays: The Critical Calling: Moral Dilemmas Since Vatican II (Washington, 1989) and Corrective Vision: Explorations in Moral Theology (Kansas City, Mo.1994).
The time frame in which McCormick wrote witnessed a significant change toward a more academic understanding of the discipline itself. Prior to the 1960s, moral theology was associated with the seminary and the manuals of moral theology had as their purpose the training of confessors. The second vatican council specifically called for a life-oriented moral theology that would reflect on the totality of the Christian life, including the vocation to perfection and holiness. Vatican II urged new methodological approaches that would give more prominence to the role of the Scriptures, seek to bridge the gulf between faith and daily life as well as the separation between the supernatural and the natural, recognize the importance of historicity, and engage in dialogue with other theological disciplines. The post-conciliar period was a time of great ferment in the theological disciplines. Pope paul vi's encyclical humanae vitae in 1968 reiterated the condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses and raised the two issues that dominated much of Catholic moral theology in succeeding decades, namely, the existence and grounding of absolute moral norms such as the condemnation of contraception, and practical questions of ecclesiology regarding the role and function of hierarchical teaching on moral matters and the proper response of Catholics. With his characteristic clarity and incisiveness, McCormick insisted on the [progresssive?] processive nature of the search for moral truth by all in the church and pointed out that the hierarchical church has a learning function as well as a teaching function. He firmly defended the possibility—and even the need—to dissent from some non-infallible church teaching. McCormick's early training and extensive knowledge of the manualist tradition continued to influence him, but over the years he modified his position on a number of significant issues. He himself listed ten areas in which his theological views changed: the nature of the church, the importance of lay witness, ecumenism and the search for moral truth, the role of dissent, the changeable and the unchangeable in the church, certainty and uncertainty, effective teaching in the church, the imperative of honesty, and the dynamic nature of faith.
In the course of his academic career, McCormick challenged and disagreed with the hierarchy's positions on specific points of sexual and marital ethics and some conflict situations, but he staunchly defended the very early beginning of the truly human life of the fetus and the condemnation of active euthanasia. In dealing with the question of absolute norms in moral theology, McCormick developed a theory of proportionalism by which he sought to establish a middle position between the traditional neoscholastic natural law approach, on the one hand, and a utilitarianism or consequentialism, on the other hand. The natural law with its theological acceptance of human sources of moral wisdom and knowledge and its philosophical emphasis on a realistic epistemology formed the basis for his understanding of moral theology. He proposed an understanding of natural law that involved a shift from classicism to historical consciousness with a greater emphasis on human experience, a move to the person and the subject away from the emphasis on the natural and the given, a development away from the teaching of the manuals that tended to identify the human and the moral with the physical structure of the act, and a change from the deontological or law model of the manuals of moral theology. While he recognized the need to incorporate both Scripture and systematic theology into moral theology, these two aspects are more implicit than explicit in his work.
McCormick served as a president of the catholic theological society of america and was the recipient of its Cardinal Spellman Award as "Outstanding Theologian of the Year" in 1969. In addition to his service in many Catholic institutions and societies, he was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. A member of the Ethics Advisory Board of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he served on ethics committees of the American Hospital Association, the National Hospice Organization, and the American Fertility Society. In 1990, he was elected to membership in the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
McCormick never fully recovered from the stroke he suffered in June of 1999, and he died at the Jesuit Healthcare Community at Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Mich. The funeral liturgy was celebrated at Gesù Jesuit Church in Toledo, Feb. 17, 2000, with burial in the Jesuit cemetery next door. His papers are at Loyola University of Chicago.
[c. e. curran]