TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Question F: What are the shortcomings of current efforts in moral theology?

1. Most Catholic moral theologians would agree in general with the criticisms of classical moral theology outlined above. Yet many faithful Catholic moralists, finding no better framework, continue to use this unsatisfactory one. Since Vatican II, many others have set aside the purposes and methods of classical moral theology. Few of them, however, really begin to meet the Council’s prescription for renewal.

2. Some claim that the resolution of moral issues is a work of human wisdom which can proceed without reference to faith.23 For them, the normative part of moral theology is simply ethics. Thus much recent work in moral theology is neither centered on Christ, nor tied to other central truths of faith, nor nourished by Scripture, nor oriented toward the heavenly calling of Christians.24

3. This work can be called “theology” only because those who do it hold positions as theologians and pay particular attention to the Church’s teaching. They invoke its support when they agree with it, while criticizing it and urging the faithful to ignore it when they disagree.

4. The renewal for which Vatican II calls began even before the Council. Some who then participated in the work of renewal still seek to emphasize Christ, scriptural themes, and some other theological dimensions which most current moral theology ignores. But not even these theologians succeed in clarifying the relationship between the theological dimensions they discuss and the special subject matter of moral theology—namely, human acts, their norms, and the shaping of Christian life to its heavenly-and-earthly end. In many cases their conclusions on specific issues are the same as those of theologians who frankly engage in moral reflection without reference to faith.25

5. Many recent works in moral theology emphasize the importance of human fulfillment and the well-being of society. This is in line with Vatican II’s emphasis on the obligation of Christians “to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world” (OT 16). As it finds expression in these theological works, however, this emphasis is often flawed by the influence of secular humanism.26 Under Marxist influence, for example, certain liberation theologians have developed a rationale for revolutionary violence, although such violence is hard to reconcile with the gospel.27 In wealthy, liberal societies like the United States and West Germany, some theologians dissent from the Church’s teaching and opt for solutions to personal and social problems involving sexuality and killing which were first proposed by nonbelieving thinkers.

6. One reason for this state of affairs lies in the fact that most contemporary moral theologians were trained in classical moral theology and retain its legalistic orientation. They assume that what is not absolutely and certainly forbidden must be permitted and that the faithful are free to do as they please in its regard. Much effort is spent trying to lessen the obligations of Christian life—for example, attempting to show that certain kinds of acts cannot be proved to be always wrong. Doing as one pleases is then called “following one’s conscience.”

7. Insofar as the requirement to assent to Catholic teaching is denied, the minimum set by the new moral theology is much lower than that set by classical moral theology. But the new remains as legalistic as the old.28 It provides no account in Christian terms of why one should seek human fulfillment in this life, what the specifically Christian way of life is, and how living as a Christian in this life is intrinsically related to fulfillment in everlasting life.

8. Beginning in the Old Testament and persisting throughout the Christian tradition is a sense of the ultimate seriousness of moral choices (see Gn 3; Jn 1.11–12; 3.17–21; Rv 22.10–11). One can freely choose life or death, and can do so in each choice one makes (see Dt 30.19; Sir 15.11–20; 1 Jn 1.6–10). This Christian moral seriousness is eliminated or greatly reduced by the new moral theology in its movement toward secular humanism. Some say everyone will go to heaven, without reference to the choices they make; others say one can have a fundamentally right orientation despite particular evil choices; still others, despite Christian hope’s specifically other-worldly orientation, simply ignore the question of a life beyond this one.

23. See McCormick, Notes, 296–303 and 626–38, for summaries of the thinking both of those who promote this view and of those who have criticized it. The problem of the distinctiveness of Christian ethics will be treated below (25‑E).

24. See J. J. Farraher, op. cit., 433–35, for a summary and bibliography. See also Servais Pinckaers, O.P., “La question des actes intrinsèquement mauvais et le ‘proportionnalisme,’ ” Revue Thomiste, 82 (1982), 181–212. Most recent work in moral theology is in essays on various topics, rather than in synthetic works. An exception: Timothy E. O’Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury Press, 1978). This work includes brief chapters on biblical morality (20–29) and “Christ and Moral Theology” (30–41). The themes treated in the former chapter yield no fruit in the remainder of the work; the latter chapter is used to reduce moral theology to ethics by way of the humanity of Christ. O’Connell states his position concisely (40): “Christian ethics, like all of the Christian faith, is essentially and profoundly human. It is a human task seeking human wisdom about the human conduct of human affairs. It is therefore not an isolated enterprise. It does not possess any secret sources of information, and it does not lead to any ‘mysterious’ conclusions. Thus, in a certain sense, moral theology is not theology at all. It is moral philosophy, pursued by persons who are believers. Moral theology is a science that seeks to benefit from all the sources of wisdom within our world. It listens respectfully to all philosophies, and uses them. It accepts and cherishes the evidence and conclusions of the social sciences. It tests its own conclusions against the experience of mankind, not only that of members of the Church. It speaks in the midst of the human community and attempts to speak for and to that whole community.” For a sympathetic exposition and critique of O’Connell’s book and similar work: Raphael Gallagher, C.Ss.R., “Fundamental Moral Theology, 1975–1979: A bulletin-analysis of some significant writings examined from a methodological stance,” Studia Moralia, 18 (1980), 149–68.

25. Bernard Häring, C.Ss.R., is typical. His preconciliar work, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser, C.Pp.S., vol. 1 (Westminster, Md: Newman Press, 1961), 23–33, summarized the reform movement which began in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which Häring’s work took to its highest point. Unfortunately, this movement never clarified the intrinsic relationship between the requirements of human goodness and the status of Christians as children of God. After Vatican II, Häring joined in dissent concerning points of received Catholic moral teaching, even on matters such as the indissolubility of marriage: “Internal Forum Solutions to Insoluble Marriage Cases,” Jurist, 30 (1970), 21–30. He then published a new work, Free and Faithful in Christ: Moral Theology for Clergy and Laity, vol. 1 (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), which still often mentions Christ and scriptural themes, but now proceeds on the supposition that theological dissent is justified and conscience is autonomous in relation to the Church’s teaching (see 4–5, 280–84, 331–33 and 345–48). Häring’s second systematic work makes no progress in solving the problem of synthesis. Häring’s thought at times seems more Lutheran than Catholic; when he locates himself in respect to the question of the specificity of Christian ethics, he significantly says (27, n. 12): “For those who have followed or are studying this problem I want to indicate that my position comes very close to James M. Gustafson.” A brilliant critique of Free and Faithful in Christ: Ramón García de Haro, “Vecchi Errori della Nuova Morale: L’ultimo libro di Bernhard Häring,” Studi Cattolici, 25 (1981), 83–94.

26. For an explanation of the way in which secular humanism has impacted on Christian theology, see Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1969), 127–71. For a broader treatment of the modern social and ideological situation as a challenge to faith: Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1980), 467–540; bibliography, 672–73, 726–35. For a broad historical background concerning the emergence of secular humanism and its influence on Christian faith, leading to the emergence of liberalized Christianity: James Hitchcock, What Is Secular Humanism? Why Humanism Became Secular and How It Is Changing Our World (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1982), esp. 7–48 and 115–38.

27. See Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1976), 154–75, who argues that truly communitarian and generous-hearted ends can justify any necessary means whatsoever, and who tries to reconcile this with the gospel by the simple expedient of declaring anything in the gospel incompatible with it “ideology.” For references to some other relevant literature, see McCormick, Notes, 181–86. John Paul II clearly and forcefully rejects the sort of liberation theology I criticize here in his Allocution to the Third General Meeting of the Bishops of Latin America, Puebla, Mexico (28 January 1979), 71 AAS (1979) 190–91; L’Osservatore Romano, Eng. ed., 5 February 1979, 2. See also Quentin L. Quade, ed., John Paul II Confronts Liberation Theology (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1983).

28. Someone might object that a work such as Häring’s Free and Faithful in Christ, with its emphasis on responsibility toward God as person and on creative liberty (62–76) really does transcend legalism, as Häring claims (69, 128–29, and passim). A position like Häring’s certainly differs from older forms of legalism, and it is a matter of semantics whether one calls it “legalism.” It is like the legalism of classical moral theology in locating the force of moral responsibility in a relationship to God’s antecedent choice, rather than in the truth about human fulfillment (see DH 2–3); significantly, the freedom Häring emphasizes is liberty, not freedom of choice (see GS 17). For further discussion of the shortcomings in most efforts in moral theology since Vatican II, see Philippe Delhaye, La Scienza del bene e del male: La morale del Vaticano II e il “metaconcilio” (Milan: Ares, 1981); Ermenegildo Lio, Morale perenne e morale nuova nella formazione ed educazione della coscienza (Rome: Città Nuova, 1979).