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Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Appendix 2: Pluralism, theological synthesis, and the present work

In providing guidance for the implementation of Vatican II’s plan for the renewal of theology, the Holy See recognizes legitimate pluralism in theology, which can arise from differences in philosophies used, methods employed, terminologies adopted, purposes pursued, plans of organization followed, and so forth. The Church favors pluralism “provided always that such pluralism is a further enrichment of the doctrine of faith already well and clearly determined and in constant reference to it.”32 But continuity with past theological tradition is important in seminary training.33 Even more important, unity of faith must be safeguarded: “In theology there is a nucleus of affirmations that are certain, common, and which cannot be given up, constituting the basis of all Catholic dogmatic teaching. These cannot be questioned but only clarified, studied in depth, and better explained in their historical and theological context.”34 Thus it is essential to distinguish matters of faith from matters in which a choice of opinions is legitimate.

The Holy See also recognizes that at the present time there are inherent difficulties in any attempt at theological synthesis:

  The theology of today in its search for new arrangement and new formulae is marked by a transitory and provisional character. Always in search of a new synthesis, it is like a huge construction-site in which the building is only partly completed, while within there is an accumulation of material which must be used in the building.
  Consequently, the teaching of theology has in many cases lost its unity and compactness, and presents an incomplete fragmentary aspect so that it is often said that theological knowledge has become “atomized”. When order and completeness are lacking, the central truths of the faith are easily lost to sight. Therefore, it is not at all to be wondered at, if, in such a climate, various fashionable “theologies”, which are in great part one sided, partial, and sometimes unfounded, gain ground.35
As a partial remedy for all these difficulties, a more intense collaboration among persons in various fields is urged.36 And despite the difficulties, for the sake of effective seminary formation with a preparation in systematic theology which will be sound and complete, “up-to-date textbooks for each of the disciplines are highly to be recommended as the basis of both lectures and private study.”37 The present book is offered in response to this last recommendation.

In attempting to carry out this project, I see a chief obstacle in the transitory and provisional character of current theology, which the Holy See notes. The present flux in thinking about central doctrines on Jesus, original sin, the last things, grace, and so on is especially disconcerting, for I must touch on all of these matters, but can hardly become expert in every one of these fields.

To try to overcome this obstacle, I undertake to expound doctrinal points not so much in a subtle as in an accurate way, for the most part taking for granted positions commonly held by Catholic theologians until recent years. Fresh reflection upon the implications of faith for living the Christian life cannot wait for the settling of all other theological questions.

Also, because this work is intended as an essay at fulfilling the mandate of Vatican II, I must make extensive use of sacred Scripture and other witnesses of faith. Much of what I have just said about the present situation in systematic theology applies analogously to the situation in Scripture scholarship and positive theology in general. While I shall do my best not to abuse Scripture and other witnesses of faith by distorting their meanings, I cannot pretend to handle these materials with the competence of a Scripture scholar. I shall strive only to use Scripture and other witnesses as the Church uses them in her teaching—for example, as they are used in the documents of Vatican II.

Doctrine develops, and theologians must work to probe received teachings, so that the refinement and better expression which are needed can be achieved by the Church. But one must not think of the witnesses of faith in Scripture and in other aspects of the life of the Church as if they were merely past realities. By the service of the magisterium, these witnesses of faith remain present and effective. The unfolding of faith is a living and creative process; the Church as a whole and every one of her active members contributes to this process as the Spirit expands and extends the Mystical Body of the Lord Jesus through spaces and times.

The Church remains one eucharistic fellowship, the communion of those united with one another by being united in Jesus. What we say of him does not come from ourselves; it is the Spirit of his Father speaking in us (see Jn 14.26). In the Lord Jesus, the identity and self-consistency of the Church is assured. What the Church as such proposes as an essential part of Jesus’ teaching is affirmed by the Spirit always and everywhere; he does not say yes and no to the same proposition (see 2 Cor 1.18–19). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings” (Heb 13.8–9).

For this reason, I am confident that the more radical proposals for revision of Catholic teaching never will receive the acceptance of the Church as a whole. But undoubtedly many less radical proposals, including some which appear at first glance to be unacceptable, will turn out with proper clarification, qualification, and expression to be important contributions to the Church’s knowledge of her Lord. By ignoring these proposals, I lose here the advantage of such eventual developments. However, since they will not contradict what the Church has hitherto accepted as saving truth, I am confident that future developments will not undermine the main outlines of the theology of Christian life presented here, although they will demand improvements and make it possible for others to do better what I am attempting here.

32. CCE, 66. Discussions of theological pluralism frequently not only ignore the criterion for legitimate pluralism the Holy See points out, but other necessary distinctions as well. See, for instance, W. M. Shea, “Pluralism, Theological,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 17:513–14. Shea never considers the difference between a set of logically inconsistent positions and plural but logically compatible positions; he ignores the difference between propositions and linguistic expressions; he confuses theological speculation with interpretation; and he gratuitously denies the priority of magisterium to theology in judging the soundness of interpretations of Scripture and the creeds.

33. CCE, 66–67.

34. CCE, 68. A helpful theological study: José Luis Illanes Maestre, “Pluralismo teológico y verdad de la fe,” Scripta Theologica, 7 (1975), 619–84.

35. CCE, 69. For a clear and well-documented treatment of the situation, with a discussion of authentic and false pluralism: Eugene M. Kevane, “The Faith and the Theologies,” in The Teaching Church in Our Time, ed. George A. Kelly (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1978), 13–61.

36. CCE, 125.

37. CCE, 126.