A brief history of the Catholic Church’s teaching on mercy and sin
My mentor in studying moral theology, the Jesuit Josef Fuchs, once noted that “innovation” marked the agenda of most Roman Catholic moral theologians from the 1940s through the end of the 20th century. The innovation was, for the most part, to take moral theology out of the isolating framework of the moral manuals in which it functioned from the beginning of the 17th until the mid-20th century. These manuals were attempts to outline what actions were sinful or evil.
The manualists, as they were called, distinguished themselves from those writing about pursuing the good. Those authors wrote about growing in “perfection” or the ascetical life. In a manner of speaking, for four centuries, moral theologians and ascetical theologians split the first principle of the natural law, to avoid evil and to do good, into two. In the church, all Catholics, at a minimum, were called to avoid evil to be saved; the pursuit of the good was optional.
We see this singular emphasis on the moral life as exclusively being about avoiding sin clearly in the first Roman Catholic moral manual in English, which appeared in 1908: A Manual of Moral Theology, by the English Jesuit Thomas Slater (1855-1928).
In its preface, Slater asserts that the manuals “are as technical as the text-books of the lawyer and the doctor. They are not intended for edification, nor do they hold up a high ideal of Christian perfection for the imitation of the faithful. They deal with what is of obligation under pain of sin; they are books of moral pathology.”
Slater notes the “very abundant” literature of ascetical theology, but adds that “moral theology proposes to itself the much humbler but still necessary task of defining what is right and what wrong in all the practical relations of the Christian life…. The first step on the right road of conduct is to avoid evil.”
A new moral minimalism had arrived in the manualist tradition, one singularly more anxious over personal damnation than the needs of the neighbor.
Confession of sin was part of a much bigger context: the communal search for holiness through responding to human suffering.
The need to reform
From the 1930s through the 1960s, several reforming theologians attempted to change that. One of them took a historical approach: the Benedictine Dom Odon Lottin (1880-1965), who studied the development of scholastic theology from the 12th to the 16th century. Rather than staying fixed in the manualists’ demarcated territory of the sinful action, Lottin produced eight enormous volumes that thematically treat the scholastics’ positions on the nature of moral agency, moral virtue and moral theology.
Lottin aimed to show that for centuries before the manualists, the scholastics urged Christians to avoid evil precisely as they pursued the good. Moreover, as opposed to the manualists, who highlighted the importance of a moral teaching being historically continuous (i.e., “as we have always taught”), Lottin found that the scholastic theologians were more interested in historical development than longstanding consistency; that is, unlike the manualists, they sought to innovate.
Lottin’s work was subsequently complemented by the Jesuit Gérard Gilleman, who proposed in The Primacy of Charity a spirituality-based ethics founded on charity, the virtue by which we are in union with God and called to love God, self and neighbor. Gilleman provided a deeper and more dynamic understanding of the moral truth that a person pursues. By re-establishing the primacy of charity whereby moral agents discover within themselves their primary identity of being children of God, Gilleman developed an anthropology that moved from the depths of the human person into expression in virtuous dispositions and actions. This was, of course, the foundation of the scholastics’ moral theology.
These theologians were contending against the manualists’ claims. Outside of the manualists, they argued, the moral tradition was about discipleship. But their claims were backed only by the scholastics. What was the rest of the moral tradition? Was it primarily about avoiding sin or pursuing the good? Theologians needed a comprehensive study of the influences that shaped the entire moral tradition. In 1987, the English Jesuit Jack Mahoney provided that study in The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition.
Mahoney’s work became the foundational text for the reformers. It gave us what we were lacking: an understanding and a critique of the moral tradition.
Mahoney’s powerful impact
Mahoney’s book had a magisterial impact. Though he clearly allied himself with those who wanted to expand the shaping of moral theology, unlike Lottin and Gilleman, Mahoney turned to history in order to find out what was holding it back. For this reason, almost all the reviewers of The Making of Moral Theology noted that from Mahoney we learned not about the riches of the tradition, but about its restraining elements. As the British theologian David Brown commented: “What one misses from this liberal Catholic is any sympathetic engagement with the past.”
Starting with the Irish penitentials from the sixth to the 10th century, Mahoney opened his work by noting the historic connection between moral theology and the categorization of sin:
To begin a historical study of the making of moral theology with an examination of the influence of auricular confession may appear to some an intriguing, and to others an unattractive prospect; but however one regards it there is no doubt that the development of the practice and of the discipline of moral theology is to be found in the growth and spread of ‘confession’ in the Church.
Mahoney convincingly narrated from the patristic era through the penitential and later confessional manuals into the moral manuals that the Catholic moral tradition has been fixated with sin or what he called a “spiritual pathology.” By examining early councils, the penitential tariffs themselves, the imposition of the “Easter duty” by Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council, the Council of Trent and the subsequent moral textbooks or manuals, Mahoney marshaled the evidence for his indictment of moral theology’s obsession with sin. Whereas many moral theologians criticized the manualist era for its emphasis on sin, Mahoney blasted the entire tradition as singularly focused on “man in his moral vulnerability.”
“The pessimistic anthropology from which it started,” Mahoney wrote, “and which served inevitably to confirm and reinforce itself, particularly when the subject was pursued in growing isolation from the rest of theology and developed as a spiritual arm of the Church’s legal system, drove moral theology increasingly to concern itself almost exclusively with the darker and insubordinate side of human existence.” He called this “miasma of sin” not only distasteful, “but profoundly disquieting.”
Mahoney’s work became the foundational text for the reformers. It gave us what we were lacking: an understanding and a critique of the moral tradition.
The Making of Moral Theology came out in 1987, the year I finished my dissertation. Like others, I wondered after reading it: Was the tradition so singularly focused on sin? Is that all there really was? Was scholasticism the exception and manualism the norm?
To answer that question, I began teaching courses on the history of Catholic theological ethics. In 2004, I was invited by the editors of TheOxford Handbook of Theological Ethics to contribute a piece on Mahoney’s text to a section titled “Books that Gave Shape to the Field.” I concluded my praiseworthy assessment by noting that because Mahoney was so critical of the tradition, his “Making animates us then to articulate another Making.”
What scholars on the tradition have been reporting since 1987, as I write in my new work A History of Catholic Theological Ethics, proves Lottin and Gilleman were right: In fact, scholasticism and not manualism better conveys the tradition’s long-term interests and purpose.
In fact, scholasticism and not manualism better conveys the tradition’s long-term interests and purpose.
Another history of Catholic theological ethics
To highlight how I think the tradition developed, I provide here some vignettes from the early life of the church that might show how recent historians capture the formative influences of the moral tradition. These narrative insights, which I develop in A History of Catholic Theological Ethics, prompt me to describe that tradition as leading Christians primarily to pathways of holiness instead of to the confession of sin.
For the longest time, we have thought of the Irish penitentials as evidence that Irish monks and nuns were as obsessed with sin as were the 20th-century manualists. Then the Irish theologian Hugh Connolly investigated the practice. In his study The Irish Penitentials and Their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today,Connolly noted the originality in the Celtic practice of confessing sins, in that the practice was not used as an instrument for punishment and readmission. Instead, these “confessions were usually made to a spiritual guide known as an anamchara, a Gaelic word which literally means a soul-friend, who was recognized within the monastic system.”
Writes Connolly, “An ancient Irish saying comments that ‘anyone without a soul-friend is like a body without a head.’ Every monk was expected to have an anamchara to whom he could make a manifestation of his conscience (manifestatio conscientiae).”
Connolly’s study dramatically shifted the understanding of the penitentials. It demonstrated that the manuals were effectively aids not for confessors, but for what today we would call “spiritual directors,” people who accompany others not primarily in their avoidance of sin but in their pursuit of the kingdom of God. As these pilgrims discerned their own right pathways to holiness, they acknowledged paths that they should have avoided.
The role of the soul-friend was not, then, a judicial one; rather, the anamchara was a guide to accompany the individual through the trials of life. The encounter between the soul-friend and the individual aimed at a dialogue that “was neither contractual nor constraining but which bore testimony, instead, to a God who was always willing to forgive.” The dialogue therefore was a “healing” one. For this reason the anamchara was to be hospitable, welcoming the weary nun or monk on her or his journey on the “same pilgrim path.”
The hospitality that the anamchara offered was solidarity, so that the pilgrim continued on the journey. The anamchara, Connolly writes, was one who “comes through the fire of real suffering and self-sacrifice while at the same time growing ever more open to the saving forgiving grace of Christ, and one who always reserves in his heart a sincere hospitality for the stranger, the fellow-pilgrim, the fellow-sufferer.”
Their confession of sin was then part of a much bigger context: the communal search for holiness through responding to human suffering.
At the Council of Orleans (538) the first ban on Sunday work appears. It is a ban on any labor that would keep the masses from the eucharistic celebration.
The rise of Christianity
In The Rise of Christianity, the noted sociologist of religion Rodney Stark argued that “Christianity was an urban movement, and the New Testament was sent down by urbanites.” But those urban areas were dreadful; he describes the conditions as “social chaos and chronic urban misery.” This was in part due to population density: At the end of the first century, Antioch’s population within the city walls was 150,000, or 117 persons per acre. By contrast, New York City has a density of 37 persons per acre overall. Even Manhattan with its high-rise apartments has 100 persons per acre.
Contrary to earlier assumptions, Greco-Roman cities were not settled places whose inhabitants descended from previous generations. With high infant mortality rates and short life expectancy, these cities required “a constant and substantial stream of newcomers” in order to maintain their population levels. As a result, “the cities were comprised of strangers.”
These strangers were well-treated by Christians who, again contrary to assumptions, were not all poor. Through a variety of ways of caring for newcomers, financially secure Christians welcomed the newly arrived migrants. This welcoming was a new form of incorporation. Stark noted:
Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.
This new incorporation was distinctive. Certainly, pagan Romans practiced generosity, but their actions stemmed not from their religious traditions but from their own choices. Unlike them, Christians acknowledged that they were commanded to love their neighbor; as a result, the newly arrived were interested not only in the Christians, but even more in their God who gave such commands.
“This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues—that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful,” Stark concluded:
Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was entirely new. Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to ‘all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:2). This was revolutionary stuff. Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.
When Christianity made integrating the body and soul both a theological expression of humanity’s integrity and a normative task, it proposed to the Western world a new claim on the human body.
Hospitality for the Christian family
Stark’s claims were effectively developed by others. In Through the Eye of a Needle, the historian Peter Brown helped us to see that the practice of hospitality produced an appreciation for the poor as one’s sibling. Brown turned to St. Ambrose to substantiate his claim, noting that Ambrose insisted “that giving to the poor should be based upon a strong sense of solidarity.” Ambrose “did not wish the poor to be seen only as charged outsiders, sent by God to haunt the conscience of the rich,” Brown explains:
The intervention of a preacher such as Ambrose, toward the end of the fourth century, showed that the poor could no longer be spoken of only as “others”—as beggars to whom Christians should reach out across the chasm that divided the rich and the poor. They were also “brothers,” members of the Christian community who could also claim justice and protection.
Thus, collections and hospitable practices were not only provided by the wealthy. As Paul instructs: “On the first day of each week let each of you set something aside privately, storing up what each one can, if he has prospered” (1 Cor 16:2). The practices of hospitality as well as the raising of funds for the missionaries were intended for those with any income. These practices thus became the work of the whole community: Christians had collections, were prepared for the newly arrived, hosted them in the bishop’s name and recognized them as siblings. Moreover, the Christian practices were ordinary, constant and integral to their own self-identity. The pathways to holiness were for all Christians.
The New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks argued that these highly communal practices were effectively institutionalized. In his landmark work, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries, he made an extraordinarily broad claim about the aim of the New Testament in its relationship to moral agency: “Almost without exception, the documents that eventually became the New Testament and most of the other surviving documents from the same period of Christian beginnings are concerned with the way converts to the movement ought to behave.”
These documents are “addressed not to individuals but to communities, and they have among their primary aims the maintenance and growth of those communities.” The formation of a Christian moral order would lead to the up-building of community. He added a phrase that has been repeated by ethicists time and again: “Making morals means making community.”
This is an extraordinarily important claim: Our happiness depends on our upright communal behavior. A focus on mercy and hospitality, not an obsession with sin, is the trademark of early Christians. Their moral lives were clearly at the service of others whom they identified as siblings.
A focus on mercy and hospitality, not an obsession with sin, is the trademark of early Christians. Their moral lives were clearly at the service of others whom they identified as siblings.
Nowhere is the interest in incorporating others into the community as siblings of the Lord more in evidence than in the struggles of the early church to encourage communal worship. When we turn to the history of Sunday or “dominical observance,” as it was known, we find the longstanding effort to include others in the eucharistic celebration, in which the breaking of the bread is at once the means and the promise of a community becoming one and holy.
The early church did not prescribe a day of rest or Sabbath. On the contrary, like the frequent instances with which Jesus broke the Sabbath ban on work, early Christians seemed similarly to be a busy lot, not resting in any noticeable way on any Sabbath. Paul, for instance, often refers to his own rejection of laziness and acceptance of work (1 Thes 2:9; 2 Thes 3:10-12; Eph 4:28). The general tendency of early Christians was to work seven days a week.
In his foundational work on the development of the dominical observance, the Redemptorist Louis Vereecke noted that from the very beginning the early church came together on the first day of the week (See 1 Cor 16:1-2; Acts 20:7-12) to celebrate a meal, the supper of the Lord (1 Cor 11:20). They chose to worship on Sunday because it was the day that Christ rose from the dead. On that day, the new creation began. For the first three centuries, Christians simply celebrated Eucharist as a meal on Sunday, without any law—neither a law to rest nor a law to worship.
In 321, Emperor Constantine prohibited civil servants and soldiers from doing public work on Sunday. But he did permit personal as well as agricultural work. As Vereecke noted, the civil law existed to permit soldiers the opportunity to participate in the Eucharist; the law was to free them to worship in the community and had no roots in Sabbath law.
Later, at the end of the fourth century, apocryphal texts from Syria and Alexandria contained “orders of the Lord” to give rest to slaves and to those oppressed by work, so that, again, like Constantine’s soldiers and civil servants, these too could participate in the Eucharist.
At the Council of Orleans (538) the first ban on Sunday work appears. It is a ban on any labor that would keep the masses from the eucharistic celebration. In effect, the poor, like the soldiers and slaves earlier, were freed to worship, and the weight of the law was borne by the masters of the poor who had to release them from this labor. Later, Martin of Braga (d. 580) used for the first time the term “servile work” to designate the work of serfs as prohibited by the Sunday observance.
These laws were designed to free those who did not have the freedom to participate in the Eucharist. Now the poor and enslaved could be brought into the Eucharist, could come and receive the Gospel and enter the community of believers and worshipers. Through the Eucharist, they could pursue as family such pathways to holiness.
If our corporeality encompasses our existence and is the basis for our relationality, then the resurrection of our bodies means that in our bodies we will be one with one another in glory.
The centrality of mercy
In A History of Catholic Theological Ethics, I often turn to the works of mercy as they were developed in early Christian communities, the abbeys of the Early Middle Ages, the guilds in the 13th century or the confraternities of the 16th century.
In the early church the most interesting work of mercy is the last. While, as St. Augustine notes, belief in the resurrection is what separates Christians from all others, the Emperor Julian contended that one of the factors favoring the growth of Christianity was the great care Christians took in burying the dead. Though individuals often performed the task, the church as a community assigned it to the deacons. And, as Tertullian tells us, the expenses were assumed by the community.
Lactantius reminds us further that not only did Christians bury the Christian dead, they buried all of the abandoned: “We will not therefore allow the image and workmanship of God to lie as prey for beasts and birds, but we shall return it to the earth, whence it sprang.” The significance of burying the dead is thus rooted in the profound respect that Christians have for the way we are related through the human body.
Where does that respect come from? The New Testament reveals not simply who we are in Christ, but who we will be. If our corporeality encompasses our existence and is the basis for our relationality, then the resurrection of our bodies means that in our bodies we will be one with one another in glory. That promise also leads to the hope that we will never be at war within our bodies again.
In his study of the early church, the professor of comparative religion Gedaliahu Stroumsa announced that integrating the divinity and humanity of Christ was the major theological task and accomplishment of the early church. He writes: “The unity of Christ, possessor of two natures but remaining nonetheless one single persona, is, of course, in a nutshell, the main achievement of centuries of Christological and Trinitarian pugnacious investigations.” To follow Christ meant that Christians were called to seek a unified self like Christ’s: As Christ brought divinity and humanity into one, Christians were called to bring body and soul together. Integration became a key task for all early Christians, as Stroumsa noted, to “be an entity of body and soul, a Christ-bearing exemplar.”
Such integration of body and soul was not a pagan task. As Meeks and others note, the self in Greek thought was distinct from the body. For Plato, “to know oneself—the reflexive attitude par excellence—meant to attend to one’s soul, at the exclusion of the body.” Thus when Christianity, on the belief that the human is in God’s image, made integrating the body and soul both a theological expression of humanity’s integrity and a normative task, it proposed to the Western world a new claim on the human body. Stroumsa writes: “The discovery of the person as a unified composite of soul and body in late antiquity was indeed a Christian discovery.”
In light of these investigations, in A History of Catholic Theological Ethics, I argue that the moral tradition developed from its inception pathways to holiness, embodied pathways that were collective, merciful, hospitable, inclusive, exemplary and grace-filled. Yes, Christians in the past confessed their sins, but they did so not as much out of a fear of damnation as out of a manifest love to become more like the One whom they followed, who called them from being lost into the field of service.