Moral Theology, Methodology of
MORAL THEOLOGY, METHODOLOGY OF
Because the method of a science is dependent upon its nature, the method of moral theology cannot be determined without taking exact account of the nature of theology in general and of moral theology in particular.
As Theology. This article defines the term "theology," or science about God, not as the natural theology, or the summit of metaphysical inquiry into the cause of things, but rather as "sacred theology," or the science about God as He has revealed Himself. This is the theology that seeks to achieve an "understanding of faith." Discipline requires a rational organization, in the mode of science, of the truths communicated by God through divine revelation. This basic notion already imposes upon the whole of Christian theology a number of requirements and articulations with no less bearing upon moral theology than upon any other part.
Theology receives its object from faith. This object is proposed to men through the witness of the Church, in Sacred Scripture, which is the fundamental document of revelation. Scripture itself is received and read within the limits and in the light of a tradition contained not only in books, but in what was once the living word of the Apostles and the practice inspired by them, handed on to remoter places and times in the form of truths to which witness had been borne, and in the form of living objects full of significance, such as the Sacraments and the liturgical life.
The first endeavor of theological study, whether in the field of moral or of any other of its branches, is to assemble and scrutinize the data of revelation. To this task positive theology, employing the methods of history and of criticism, is necessary. In addition to increased study of the Fathers, and the whole tradition of the Church, historico-critical studies on the Bible and the early Church help shed light upon the distinctive moral commitments of Christianity.
Every science seeks the explication of its subject to the extent that this is possible. The theologian, then, will not rest content when he knows that a doctrine truly pertains to revelation, that it has been revealed implicitly or explicitly, or that it has been subject to this or that development. He has yet to answer the question: what precisely is the meaning of the revealed truth in so far as it is possible for the human mind to grasp it? His task is to attempt to reach what Vatican Council I described as "an understanding of mysteries, derived as well by way of analogy with truths known naturally, as through the bond linking the mysteries themselves and with the final goal of man" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 3016).
Theological wisdom in which St. Thomas Aquinas saw a kind of "imprint on us of God's own knowledge" (Summa theologiae 1a, 1.3 ad 2) is constituted in that way. By its subject and by its distinctive intellectual vision, such a theology is a unique science. In all its parts it is ever "science about God," considering all else only as either proceeding from God, returning to Him, or expressing His image. For this reason, it is important that every part of theology, moral especially, be considered, not as isolated, but with reference to man's final destiny to be with God as this is seen linked with the revealed mysteries. This does not mean that moral theology lacks a specialized concentration and a method proper to itself. It does mean that it must remain in profound continuity with the totality of theology of which it is a practical function, to be exercised in the regulation of human conduct. This in turn means that any element of human life that touches upon human destiny (e.g., physical health, participation in the political and economic realms, conduct of war, matters pertaining to sexuality and human reproduction) is something about which the moral theologian, being true to his discipline, has something legitimate to say.
As Moral. A moral science is one concerned with human conduct. Many modern authors understand that any such science must be one of pure observation and description, concerned only with replying to the question "how do men live?" However, as applied to morality this is an woefully inadequate idea, falling short of what reason, even scientific reason, demands. A complete consideration of human conduct, precisely as such, cannot rest content with observation; it must deal also with the object of man's action, the operabile, that which is actualized and brought to realization. Intelligence grasps that object only when it is able to account for its being a goal of action. Thus a science of human conduct must be normative and in that sense practical. Obviously it draws on empirical inquiries embraced in the other sciences concerned with man—anthropology, sociology, ethnology, history, etc. However, a science that divorces the norms of morality from its consideration of the actual use man makes of his freedom cannot be, in a complete sense, "science of morals," for moral theology believes that there is a real, particular goal of human life that is attained through the performance, the doing, of discrete human acts.
Moral theology on its own level respects this requirement, for while not becoming a "science concerned with man," (as sociology and anthropology are) it is rather, as theology, a "science concerned with God," being concerned with God as the exemplar, end, and source of human activity. Yet this does not free it from the obligation to seek a proper, complete knowledge of the human activity that has God as its exemplar, end, and source, for while God is the aim or ultimate target (telos ) of the action with which moral theology is concerned, that action is human action, straining to reach towards God. Hence the moral theologian must understand how and why human action takes place (perhaps thereby inviting consultation with other disciplines, such as philosophical ethics, law [both civil and canonical], and psychology).
The fact that moral theology is not a science specifically distinct from the rest of theology does not mean that it must remain at the level of generality; it must, on the contrary, extend to all the particularities of its object (individual human action) insofar as this is compatible with its universality as a science. There is, however, something moral theology will never attain, and should refrain from trying to attain: to become a substitute for prudence. For regulation of a human act, in the concrete, prudence is irreplaceable. Particular application cannot be a science. Even moral science might attempt to solve certain general cases of conscience that are more or less typical; moral science will never resolve a particular case in the concrete situation with all the circumstances delineating it and making it absolutely particular. Moral theology aims only at bringing principles of moral conduct to light; it is the business of prudence to ascertain, in the here and now, which moral principles are to be employed, and how.
Nevertheless, neither can moral theology escape into a kind of heaven beyond the temporal. A practical science by nature is relevant to the concrete singular action to the extent that this is possible in a scientific consideration. Speaking of moral science, St. Thomas says that it "obtains its completion in particular consideration" (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 6, prol.: in particulari consideratione perficitur ). Thus moral theology should be especially attentive to the reality of the historical evolution of man. Human nature does not change in its essential principles, but these principles apply to man as a being engaged in time and achieving himself at his allotted period in history. From this consideration arises the realization that the method of moral theology must ensure recognition of norms relevant to the Christian not only of yesterday, or of the Middle Ages, but of his own age. Our increasing understanding, for instance, of how the human body functions, and the role that physiology plays in our physical and emotional inclinations, is of central concern to the moral theologian.
To regulate Christian conduct means to define what is worthy of a Christian living the new life received in Baptism and meant to develop into eternal life with God. With its view adjusted properly to a distinctively Christian existence, moral theology notes among the norms it considers those that follow from the fact of being human (i.e., the precepts of natural law), and the virtues simply of human nature; but its vision embraces norms and virtues as they are adhered to and exercised in a properly Christian existence. Moral theology or Christian ethics may well concern itself with matters with which the philosophical moralist is also concerned (e.g., feeding the hungry); but while the philosopher urges a certain course of action he does so with an eye to this world and this life alone. The moral theologian will urge a course of action because the Christ teaches us that in clothing the naked we are clothing fellow images of God, and are thereby also clothing him and building up the Kingdom of God in this world, which is to find its consummation in the next.
Despite its historical association with the sacrament of penance, moral theology cannot be reduced to the negative consideration of sins to avoid, to the mere cataloguing of what is forbidden and what is permitted. Such considerations can, of course, be useful for confessional practice; but they cannot constitute moral theology, which is not a science of sins, nor a morality of the bare minimum. The Christian life is the scope of moral theology; its aim is primarily the delineation of the positive rather than the negative features of that life. Moreover, there is not one morality for the generality of men and another for the elite; there is but one Christian morality; it defines the proper activity of every man in his progress, following the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ, toward eternal happiness the Triune God our creator, and the community of the blessed in heaven. The fundamental precept of this morality is that of charity, i.e., the love of God. The other precepts, including in the present order of things the Ten Commandments, simply spell out the demands of that charity (i.e., how we love God above all things, our neighbors as ourselves).
Moral theology, however, does not stop at the point where ascetical, mystical, or even what is commonly called "spirituality" theology begin. It covers the whole route of the progress toward God, toward an ever more unequivocal belonging to God. What is commonly called spirituality, ascetical or mystical theology, is simply either a part of moral theology, or a special type of consideration of subjects within its scope [cf. M. M. Labourdette, "Connaissance pratique et savoir moral," Revue thomiste 48 (1948) 142–179]. This fact aids appreciation of how a moral theology of the "speculative-practical" type found in St. Thomas could be extended to include another plane and other categories, exploring a phenomenology of Christian existence.
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[m. m. labourdette./