Moral Theology, History of (Contemporary Trends)

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In the years since Vatican II the problems and challenges facing moral theology have grown ever more extensive and complex. There have emerged not only novel questions regarding both old and new ethical subjects but also fundamental questions about even the methodology and the very identity of the discipline as well as about the ecclesiastical and academic roles of its professors. The questions, moreover, are not merely so many individual queries that can be addressed in turn; in many instances they are intricately interlocked and inseparable.

Reform of Moral Theology. The radical nature of the developmental process which has characterized post-conciliar moral theology and continues to do so is comparable to that of the reform of Catholic Biblical studies toward the middle of the century. Nevertheless, there is a great difference between the two transformations. Understanding the challenge facing them in terms of contemporary scholarship, the reformers of Biblical studies conceived their task, with easy clarity, as one of bringing the various forms of critical method to bear on Biblical materials in the light of current knowledge of history, science, and language. Moral theologians, however, are not favored with a similarly clear vision of what the reform of their discipline in fact entails; for while reform in moral theology would be inadequate without an updating in light of contemporary knowledge in related fields, it must include also significantly more than this.

The reform of moral theology began with a recognition of major shortcomings of the discipline in its preconciliar state. Having developed as a science for ministers of the Sacrament of Penance, it was focused largely on sin and was thus susceptible to tendencies toward minimalism and legalism, issuing from a truncated and distorted perspective of the Christian life. Insight into the unsatisfactory state of the science, however, constituted only an initial step in the direction of discovering its remedy. It is toward this goal that moral theology continues to strive, attempting to transform itself into a science or, as some would argue, an art-scienceof the Christian life in its fullness.

In an often cited passage of Optatam totius, Vatican II called for a reform of moral theology that is, in itself, a return to sources rather than an updating. Having noted that special care should be given to "the perfecting of moral theology," the Council went on to specify that "its scientific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of holy Scripture and should throw light on the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world" (n. 17). Thus from the Council itself emerged challenges regarding structure, content and methodology of moral theology.

Structure, Content, and Method. The reform with which the conciliar document is concerned looks directly and exclusively to the religious dimension of moral theology, i.e., its relation to the revelation transmitted in Scripture, and envisions a restructuring of this science according to a more intense bond with the Bible. It is again, however, one thing to recognize the need for such a bond and quite another to determine its precise nature and what that entails. The latter is a task left to theologians, and since the Council much study has been and is still being given to the relation of morality to Christian faith.

The mode, however, in which the question of this relation was raised and for the most part has been discussed within postconciliar Catholic moral theology was determined by influences not directly related to the Council. In the atmosphere of controversy following the publication of humanae vitae (1968) there was some discussion of whether it was the intention of the encyclical to present a specifically Catholic and/or Christian response to the moral issue of artificial birth control. The particular question was expanded into the general inquiry of whether there can be a specifically Christian morality. Because of the longstanding natural law methodology of Catholic moral theology, the latter question was understood as asking whether Christian faith alters or adds to the natural law norms, knowable by human reason, that govern human actsa question which, again as a natural law ethic, moral theology had long been inclined to answer negatively. This general question, which was eventually to appear in several forms, e.g., autonomous ethics or Glaubensethik, prescriptive norms versus parenetic dis-course (see parenesis), then became the point of departure for virtually all discussion of the relation between Scripture and morality.

As a point of departure, the question of this relation now formulated as a question of whether there can be a specifically Christian ethic focused the ensuing discussion upon limitations and restrictions of Scripture vis-àvis natural law, and courted a negative response. Thus in postconciliar moral theology the question of the relation between Scripture and morality has been framed in a restrictive, negatively oriented way.

While the question in this limiting mode attempted to refine particular moral issues such as that of artificial birth control, it did not facilitate the creation of the new structure and method of moral theology which would realize the ideal of the Council. It has led, on the contrary, in the marginal case, to the position that moral theology is, in the final analysis, the same as moral philosophy. Elsewhere it has resulted in making the return to Christian sources into the use of key Christian doctrines as proof-doctrines, analogous to the Biblical proof-texts employed in preconciliar moral theology: the doctrines of creation and Incarnation, for example, undergird perspectives on the goodness of the world and the dignity of the human person, while the doctrine of sin serves to show that a realistic ethic must take shape around the fact of evil in the world.

Thus, despite the prolonged and extensive discussion of whether there is a specifically Christian morality, Catholic moral theology does not yet confidently claim to have discerned and established the bond with Scripture called for by the Council or even to have achieved consensus on whether there is a specifically Christian morality.

Although this formulation of the question of the relation between Scripture and morality is still dominant within Catholic moral theology, recently another has emerged there. Instead of a question of Christian principles and rules in relation to natural law norms there has appeared a question of the Christian story in relation to the community formed by it and to the individuals constituting the community (see narrative theology). Reflecting the renewed interest in and respect for Scripture in the postconciliar Catholic Church, the latter approach, although promising, is still in only a very undeveloped state.

This scriptural approach, nevertheless, increasingly marks the pastoral social teaching of the Church, beginning with Gaudium et spes. Employing this approach, the U.S. bishops extend it to remarkable moral conclusions: pacifism is a Christian moral stance that complements adherence to just war theory (The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response ), and the evaluation of the socioeconomic condition of the U.S. from the standpoint of the poor and the powerless is a basic moral obligation.

Personal and Social Morality. Before the Council there was a rather sharp line of demarcation between moral theology and social ethics according to the distinction between so-called personal and social morality. Moral theology dealt with personal morality; the development of social morality, since the time of Leo XIII, was largely, albeit not exclusively, the achievement of the magisterium. In the postconciliar Church, however, moral theologians increasingly view their role as transcending any division between personal and social morality. Some indeed find the very division inadequate, believing that the categories reflect and sustain the individualistic bias of modern liberalism. Nevertheless, at this point in the development of moral theology, creative advances in social morality are still to be found chiefly in official Church documents while much of the work of moral theologians in this area has been commentary on ecclesiastical teaching.

In its brief statement about the reform of moral theology the Council did not address the matter of the secular or universalist aspects of the discipline, nor its points of contact with other forms of ethics. Reform relative to this dimension of moral theology is a matter, not of returning to sources, but of updating the discipline in the light of contemporary knowledge and culture. Nevertheless, there is for moral theology a point at which returning to sources coincides with updating; for the recovery of the Christian story and the development of historical consciousness go hand in hand.

Although it did not explicitly advert to the need for the updating of moral theology in its secular dimensions, the Council nevertheless indirectly provided important guidance for such reform, especially in Gaudium et spes. It is in this document, together with Dignitatis humanae, that the Council decisively moved the Church's official understanding of human relations out of a longstanding classicist mode and into that of historicity.

Viewing the dignity of the human person from the perspective of historical consciousness, the Council advanced the Church's official teaching on human rights by taking into account cultural pluralism. The claims of human dignity, according to the Council, are historically conditioned and cannot be fully defined apart from cultural situations.

This understanding of the historicity of human dignity and rights has been furthered in postconciliar social teachings on papal, synodal, and episcopal levels. It has, at least indirectly, even led the U.S. bishops to employ in their advancement of Catholic social morality methods previously not used in magisterial teaching. The bishops not only created a forum of public discussion both within and outside the Church to assist them in forming their teaching; they also distinguished their moral conclusions from universal moral principles and formal Church teaching, explicitly noting that not all persons of good will must necessarily agree with the former.

The magisterium is often accused of disregarding the new methodology. In dealing with questions of personal morality classicist consciousness still prevails. It is said that there is little in this area of official Catholic teaching to which historical consciousness and this methodology is congenial. On the other hand, when classicist consciousness is alienated from contemporary culture, it is no longer adequate for understanding the dignity of the human person in relation to society, and by the same token not equal to the task of illuminating the moral relations of people in contemporary society.

Traditionally focused on personal rather than social morality, moral theology, by contrast, has been steadily moving its understanding of personal morality toward historical consciousness. The goal is still ahead; the strong heritage of moral theology as a natural law ethics inclines it away from serious and adequate attention to cultural diversity and moral pluralism. Nevertheless, an emergent historical consciousness has already led many moral theologians to view the moral act itself in a less timeless way than what was common in preconciliar moral theology.

The Human Act and Christian Moral Life. Where an earlier moral theology considered some acts to be ex obiecto intrinsically evil or inherently immoral, in much of contemporary moral theology there is an insistence on the historical concreteness of morality as distinguished from the abstractness of the object of an act. Only if an act is considered in light of its object, intention, and circumstances can its moral character be determined; evil entailed in its object, abstractly considered, is premoral or nonmoral.

This bringing of the moral act more directly into the historical dimension of human existence has caused many moral theologians to relativize some norms of personal morality previously held to be absolute; for, if an act in its object alone is not immoral but is, rather, a premoral evil, the moral prohibition of the act, so it was reasoned, cannot be universal. At this point in its argument, therefore, revisionist moral theology had to deal with the question of what conditions render allowable the doing of premoral evil; and from this question emerged the principle of proportionality or proportionate reason: premoral evil may be done for a proportionate reason.

The opponents of this revisionist moral theology, however, argue that there are incommensurable fundamental human goods, none of which a person has the right to sacrifice directly: there can be no proportionate reason to act against such a good. From this quarter, consequently, has come the charge that the proportionality principle introduces into moral theology a utiliarian consequentialism and fails to consider that adherence to an absolute moral norm can be the way of creating and developing personal commitment in life.

Centered on individual human acts, classicist moral theology eventually developed a close affinity with the study of canon law and to some extent became merged with it. This bond with canon law strengthened legalistic tendencies already present in an act-centered moral theology which had increasingly lost sight of the role of virtue in the moral life. The influence of rationalism eclipsed almost totally moral knowledge by connaturality, and the relation of affectivity to morality was largely overlooked. Heightening an individualistic sense of life, modernity divorced morality from tradition and story as well as from authority and confined it to the autonomous rational will of the individual. Thus focused virtually exclusively on doing as distinguished from being, classicist moral theology lacked a meaningful concept of the moral lifenot to mention the Christian moral life.

With no normative concept of the moral life in classicist moral theology, the point of departure for the discussion of morality could be only the human act, which was understood according to its object, intention, and circumstances. Accordingly, when the idea of fundamental option emerged in moral theology as it began to move toward historical consciousness after the Council, it met with considerable misunderstanding and resistance in the Church; for this notion presupposes that morality is to be understood from a more holistic perspective than that of the single human act, abstracted from life.

Nevertheless, despite widespread acceptance by contemporary theologians of the notion of fundamental option, the predominant point of departure as well as the most frequently employed framework for the investigation of morality in moral theology remains, as in the discussion of premoral evil and the principle of proportionality, the human act in its object, intention, and circumstances. There are in contemporary moral theology, however, early signs of an emerging normative understanding of the Christian moral life, as the Christian story is increasingly retrieved there and interest is taken by moral theologians in the subjects of virtue, the ages of human life, and its developmental stages.

Cultural Particularity and Universal Dimensions. In a still inchoative way contemporary moral theology, as already noted, encompasses social morality. Influenced by Latin American liberation theology and German political theology, themselves products of historical consciousness, moral theology in the U.S. is allowing itself to be molded by American culture and the national situation. In this respect moral theologians are following the lead of the U.S. bishops' pastoral letters on social issues. Although in earlier times it would have appeared to be an oxymoron, through historical consciousness the idea of an American Catholic moral theology is already taking shape in the literature.

While this shift toward particularity is still far from being a matter of theological consensus, it is a necessary step toward taking cultural and moral pluralism seriously, an inevitable result of the dawning of historical consciousness in moral theology. Thus one must expect to see this discipline, without losing its universal dimensions, become increasingly concerned with its own particular cultural and social situations and accordingly to become both more political and more self-critical.

One mode of such self-criticism has its source in feminism. Particularly strong in the U.S., the feminist movement has produced an extensive literature, which often deals with ethical issues, especially so-called feminist issues. Yet, among theologians feminist critiques have generally been focused more broadly on Scripture and Christian dogmas rather than on foundational moral theology. The focus of feminist criticism can be expected to expand as the number of women in the ranks of moral theologians continues to rise and as moral theologians, female and male, increasingly adopt feminist perspectives.

In a global age universal human solidarity must necessarily become, as is happening, a basic theme of Christian life and, therefore, of moral theology. Paradoxically, however, the truly universal dimensions of moral theology become apparent and are distinguishable from false universalities such as sexist conceptions of human nature only when they emerge from the dynamic, continuous mediation of self-critical historical particularities. Thus an incipient concern for global solidarity in contemporary moral theology is inseparable from newly generated concern with historical movements, communities, and societies.

While dialogue with Protestant ethics has become an essential element of method in postconciliar Catholic moral theology, there is still very little, and no systematic, intercultural engagement of ethical thought from other religious traditions. However, a meeting of the ethical traditions of world religions will inevitably become a necessary component of moral theology as the influence of historical consciousness makes headway in the discipline and its perspective is broadened from natural law to the dignity of the human person in different cultures.

With the technological developments of the present age another kind of particularity originates in moral theology. As this discipline moves decisively beyond its longstanding concentration on so-called personal morality, a concentration which both resulted from and contributed to the "privatizing" of ethics and morality, its scope is being broadened to encompass life in its totality in an age of advanced technology. Thus specialization is becoming an apparently permanent feature of moral theology, just as it has come to characterize the culture in which the discipline is rooted. Business ethics requires detailed knowledge of complex institutions constituting complicated economic systems. medical ethics has evolved into bioethics, whose ever increasing complexity and importance are reflected in recent events: in 1971 the beginning of The Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and Bioethics, now the Institute of Ethics; in 1978 the publication of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics ; and in 1987 the establishing by the Catholic Theological Society of America of a seminar in addition to its seminar on moral theology"Health Care Theology and Ethics." These and other areas of ethics, some of whichsuch as ecological and space age ethicsare new, frequently require very specialized knowledge from several different disciplines. Thus, while the field of moral theology is being vastly extended, the individual moral theologian is becoming less and less capable of representing the entire breadth of the discipline, and moral theology is becoming more a communal, collaborative, "team" effort.

The Magisterium and Moral Theologians. Having been a topic of theological discussion in the period following the publication of Humanae vitae, dissent from Church teaching has again become a much discussed subject among theologians, especially moral theologians. Once again there is controversy in the Church over questions of personal morality, but now the controversy is focused on the question of dissent itself. With the question of dissent, however, many other matters are intertwined: the relation of the magisterium to theology in general and to moral theology in particular, the distinction between the magisterium's relation to morals and its relation to faith, the role of the theologian in the Church and the academy, the theological basis for a canonical mandatum to teach theology, the nature of a Catholic university, private versus public dissent, private dissent and the public nature of the role of the theologian, etc.

While some theologians maintain that a certain tension between the teaching of the magisterium and theology is a normal dynamic between conserving the faith and creatively advancing the understanding of it, others see the origin of such tension, which in fact has been mainly between magisterial teaching and moral theology, in the difference between classicist and historical consciousness. Supporting the latter opinion is the fact that the tension surrounds matters of so-called personal morality; and, as noted above, while the approach of the magisterium to these questions remains largely a classicist point of view, many moral theologians are moving toward historical consciousness in their discussion of them.

As unfinished business for both magisterium and theologians there remain, after Lumen gentium of Vatican II, nonjuridical questions about doctrinal statements of the magisterium, especially with regard to morality. Vatican II, following the lead of Vatican I, discussed the authority of the Church regarding matters of faith and morals without distinguishing between the relation of the magisterium to faith and its relation to morals, relationsor more precisely, sets of relationswhich must be understood in analogous, rather than univocal, concepts. It is, however, only through the clarification of these complex sets of analogous relations that the respective ecclesiastical offices of the magisterium and the moral theologian, with regard to morality and ethics, can be delimited and adequately understood. Toward this end the U.S. bishops in their 1983 and 1986 pastoral letters have made a significant contribution, in practice if not in theory, by distinguishing in their own moral teaching a level of inviting assent from levels requiring it.

The task of defining the respective places in the Church of magisterial moral teaching and moral theology has become one of the most urgent problems facing moral theologians. It is a problem characteristic of moral theology in a Church at the crossroads between a classicist and an historicist culture.

See Also: moral theology; natural law; personalist ethics; teleological ethics.

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[n. j. rigali]

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Moral Theology, History of (Contemporary Trends)

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