Moral Theology, History of (20th-Century Developments)

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MORAL THEOLOGY, HISTORY OF (20TH-CENTURY DEVELOPMENTS)

Biblical Study. The mid-20th-century movements in the Church led to a change in approach and method in the teaching of moral theology, reflected also in subsequent writings. The remarkable increase in interest and work in Biblical studies, made possible and encouraged by Pius XII's encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu and important archeological discoveries, brought about a desire among theologians to use a more Biblical approach and to rely on scientific Biblical exegesis for interpretation of the message of salvation. Such a renewal was undoubtedly needed in all branches of theology, but especially in moral theology, where too much weight had been attached to philosophical and ethical reasoning and too little to the study of the teaching of the inspired word of God. The Biblical and kerygmatic movements helped much toward a more theological approach to moral theology even apart from the greater and more exact use of scriptural texts. This new approach has appeared especially in preaching and actual classroom teaching, and only more slowly in the textbook manuals, especially those that are merely new editions of older works.

More Positive Orientation. Also, an effect of the kerygmatic movement has been an effort to get away from the predominantly negative type of presentation that had prevailed in many older manuals. Whole books were written in an attempt to integrate this more positive, more theological, and more Biblical approach to moral theology; but by the mid-1960s not much success had been achieved in fully integrated works that would also stand as thorough scientific treatises of the whole of moral theology. It was left more to the living teachers and preachers to exhort their hearers to a fuller response of love to the call of Christ and at the same time to make clear what Christ Himself demanded in fulfillment of the Decalogue as a means of showing true love of God.

Some felt that such a positive approach requires a rearrangement of the order as well as the manner of treating moral theology. They insisted on dividing the matter of special moral theology according to the virtues rather than according to the precepts of the Decalogue, or according to the various relationships of man, i.e., to God, to himself, to his fellowman, and to his fellowman as individual and to society. However, it seemed that the positive approach, even by virtues, could still be achieved with the arrangement, for pedagogical and mnemonic purposes, of the precepts of the Decalogue. No one arrangement is essential to a positive approach.

Others felt that moral theology should include, in addition to what had theretofore been gathered under that name, a treatment of the ideal response to the call of Christ, and so have intermingled ascetic and moral theology. Certainly every individual Christian should respond on the ascetical plane, wanting to love Christ more and do the better thing always; but there is still room for exact treatment of the limits of obligations and rights.

Influence of Existentialism. Of tremendous influence for both good and bad was the philosophy of existentialism, with its moral counterpart known by various names such as situational, personalistic, or I-Thou dialogic ethics. It had a good influence in calling more attention to the personal and subjective factors entering into every real moral decision, and thus assisting in the assessment of the actual moral responsibility in individual real-life situations. It also helped moralists, and priests and counselors in general, to be more aware of the many complications of real-life problems and to see that a mere restatement of a universal negative precept of the divine law is never a full answer to such problems; help must be given to find alternative solutions that will be morally acceptable.

Existentialism also had a bad influence in a number of ways that called forth warnings and condemnations by Pius XII and the Holy Office in the 1950s. The atheism of the extremists in the movement seems to have led some Christian and even some Catholic writers to leave all consideration of God out of morality and to make morality merely a matter of deciding what best integrates an individual's own personality. Even when God is taken into account, the extremists tend to make morality merely a personal dialogue with God in which the individual tries to feel what God would have him do in a given situation, omitting all consideration of revelation and the teaching authority of the Church. Milder forms of bad influence appeared in writers who tend to neglect basic principles and rely more on sentiment and emotion in making moral decisions. Fortunately, these bad influences appeared more in popular writers or non-Catholics than in Catholic moral theologians, although the pope's warnings included some Catholic moralists.

Summary. To sum up trends in the 1960s: there was a definite effort on the part of most moral theologians to be more theological and Biblical, less philosophical and abstract; to be more positive in approach and emphasis, less negative; to treat morality more as a personal response to the divine call, less as a mere demand of human nature. The ideal seemed to lie in a delicate balance of the various elements, without letting the new emphases entirely eliminate the less important but still necessary elements.

Bibliography: j. c. ford and g. kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, 2 v. (Westminster, Md. 195863), v. 1. g. ermecke, "Die katholische Moraltheologie heute," Theologie und Glaube 41 (1951) 127142; summarized in Theology Digest 2 (1954) 1922. a. vermeersch, "Soixante ans de théologie morale," Novelle revue théologie 56 (1929) 863884. i. zeiger, "De conditione theologiae moralis moderna," Periodica de re morali canonica liturgica 28 (1939) 177189. g. thils, Tendances actuelles en théologie morale (Gembloux 1940). m. zalba, Theologiae moralis compendium, 2 v. [Biblioteca de autores cristianos (Madrid 1945) 175176; 1958], v.1.

[j. j. farraher]