True North: How moral theologians help set Catholics on the right course

Though I did not realize it for some time, two of my moral theology professors showed me the past and present of moral theology. The first professor told the class that his job was to teach the generally accepted positions of the church’s magisterium, as understood and presented by a majority of moral theologians. He taught us the tradition and how to put it into practice.

The second professor did much the same thing, but with two alterations. The textbook we used was The Law of Christ, by Bernard Häring, C.Ss.R., rather than the traditional handbooks of moral theology. Häring’s text was critical to the renewal of moral theology because it concentrated on Scripture and the role of love and shifted the focus to the moral agent, the person making the decision. Also, as students we felt an undercurrent running through this professor’s class, the significance of which was highlighted when he later resigned his teaching position. As a confessor, this priest-theologian encountered adults acting as moral agents through the formation of their consciences. It was a development he affirmed, yet he could not reconcile it with what he thought his job was as a presenter of the tradition.


Before and After the Council

These two stories represent two key models in the development of the role of the moral theologian and the laity as moral agents in their own right. The first is the pre-Vatican II role of the faithful dispenser of the church’s tradition, through a study of the traditional texts of moral theology and by following generally accepted opinions of leading moral theologians. This dominant image was documented in an essay by James Keenan, S.J., of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and the Rev. Peter Black of the University of Notre Dame entitled “The Evolving Self-Understanding of the Moral Theologian: 1900-2000” (Studia Moralia, 2001). In this model, the moral theologian is a “middle man,” one who, standing between the hierarchical magisterium and the laity, mediates the tradition to the laity.

Yet these authors note that sometimes the applications of these principles led to a new understanding of the principles themselves. While the moral theologian’s role was to present church teaching, there was a legitimate discussion about what that teaching was and the possibility of a growing “edge,” though always in union and harmony with the hierarchical magisterium, particularly the pope. The classic example is the development of the acceptability of surgery to remove part of the Fallopian tube during an ectopic pregnancy. This was eventually understood as directly intending to repair the tube that was in danger of rupturing; the removal of the embryo with the tube was understood as indirect.

My second professor’s approach represented a major shift in the understanding and practice of moral theology. It can be described as a shift to the subject, to postmodernity or to experience. Whatever one calls it, the shift implies that one cannot simply repeat the content of the manuals; one cannot simply repeat magisterial teachings; one cannot simply start with principles and directly and clearly derive moral conclusions from them. Father Black and Father Keenan cite the moralist Joseph Fuchs, S.J., in concluding that the shift went from utterances to persons—that is, to both moral theologians and the laity as moral agents.

This is also affirmed in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” First the council, speaking of the norm of human activity, writes: “In accord with the divine plan and will, it [the norm of human activity] should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow people as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it” (No. 35). Second, in speaking of harmonizing conjugal life with the responsible transmission of life, the council writes: “It [the moral aspect of a procedure] must be determined by objective standards. These [are to be] based on the nature of the human person and his acts” (No. 51). This, combined with the council’s overarching affirmation that society, and the church with it, has moved from a static to a dynamic understanding of history, led to new understandings of moral theology and the role of the moral theologian.

Thus, the moral theologian must not simply repeat the words of the tradition of various church teachings, but must understand these teachings in creative fidelity with the church and the times in which he or she lives. The task of the moral theologian also includes communicating the history of the tradition as well as the authority of the hierarchical magisterium.

To that end, the role played by history prior to Vatican II was quite different from its role today. In moral theology (as in Scripture and dogmatic theology) prior to the council, history was used as a source for proof-texting—that is, to prove a position by citing the approved authors, mainly St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. One used a text without paying attention to its historical setting or context. At the council, the shift was to ressourcement, rereading the tradition in light of its times and also the current times. This was not proof-texting; rather, it was a quest to reappropriate the insights of the tradition to one’s own situation. Fathers Black and Keenan phrase it as “the historical embodiment of the witness to the truth of Jesus Christ.”

An excellent example of this shift in the use of history can be found in John Noonan’s Contraception. His book not only rehearsed the history of contraception; more significantly, it documented the development of the teaching, described the various contexts to which it spoke and outlined how the doctrine had been imbedded in concrete situations and responded to particular historical problems and contexts. The teaching developed and must continue to develop. This book remains a model of how to mine the tradition so one can both apprehend it and apply it to respond to the current situation. Indeed, at a lecture Noonan gave after the book was published, he called for speculative moral theologians, active moral agents who would help bring the church into the future.

The role of the moral theologian was more clearly presented after the council as being in service to the whole church, the people of God. And a significant part of that service is the formation of a community that realizes its moral truth from within itself and finds that experience validated through this reappropriation of the tradition. The role of the moral theologian is not so much to tell people what to do as it is to help them to become moral agents by forming their conscience in a pilgrim church that exists within a larger community. Fathers Black and Keenan describe this as teaching the community how to practice the virtue of epikeia, or self-direction, a traditional concept in canon law. As they write, “epikeia provides the moral agent [with] self-direction.” The role of the moral theologian is to help develop and promote the moral maturity of the whole community.

Beyond and Within

I would like to highlight two other facets of the role of the moral theologian. The first comes from the Rev. David Tracy in his article “Evil, Suffering, and Hope” (CTSA Proceedings, 1995).

There is an underside to all the talk about history in modern religion and theology. That underside is revealed in the shocking silence in most theologies of historical consciousness and historicity alike on the evil rampant in history, the sufferings of whole peoples, the destruction of nature itself…. [It is] a history without any sense of the radical interruptions of actual history, without a memory of historical suffering, especially the suffering caused by the pervasive systemic unconscious distortions in our history—sexism, racism, classism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Eurocentrism.

What is significant in Father Tracy’s comments is a recognition that moral theologians must see beyond themselves, beyond their education, beyond their experiences. They must be attentive, not just to their personal reality but to the reality of the community, the church and the world. History shows that moral theologians and the church community are not quite as innocent as we might like to think and that we must carefully attend to our history and to what is happening around us. There are movements in this direction: liberation theology, feminist theology, a growing body of work by theologians speaking from various groups that have historically been marginalized both within the church and the world. Clearly it is not possible for all moral theologians to address all these issues or write from all these perspectives. Yet we have to remind ourselves that our vision is limited and contextual. But we must listen, we must be attentive, we must be in solidarity. Our role is to listen and to learn and to incorporate other perspectives into our thinking and writing.

A second important facet in the changing role is something I learned from Ashley E. Shannon, my daughter, a specialist in postcolonial studies, British literature in particular. Commenting on the discomfort of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney at being asked to contribute poems to an anthology of British literature (his passport is green, he noted), she wrote:

Heaney’s somewhat facetious take on the issues of postcolonial identity nonetheless clearly reveals one of the great dilemmas of the imperial subject. Is it possible to profit from, perhaps even be materially or philosophically improved by, empire, while still maintaining the individual subjectivity that allows one to choose to identify with one’s own national culture? In other words, it is possible for the colonial subject to construct an identity that incorporates elements of the colonizing culture without being accused of complicity with the colonizer? Is hybridity possible? More importantly, is it desirable? If so, how can such an identity be negotiated in a literary text?

How can moral theologians and all the members of the laity be trained within the tradition of the church but still be faithful to themselves, their national culture, their community, indeed to their experience of being a Catholic in a particular country? Postcolonial studies raise the issue of the “double consciousness,” of the individual who is a subject of the empire and a subject of his/her own culture. How does one navigate within these two spheres? To which does one give fidelity? To which tradition does one turn in seeking to resolve issues?

Emerging from the pre-Vatican II era into the post-Vatican II tradition is analogous to the experience of identifying formation in postcolonial contexts. As Catholics we have multiple sources of identity, multiple sources of experience, multiple interpretations of traditions, multiple sources of fidelity. We are in the situation described by Seamus Heaney: We have multiple citizenships.

The role of all moral agents is to develop an intellectual hybridity, taking the best from what has been received and forging a synthesis. Simply repeating formulas from a past age, valid though they may be, does not make this tradition intelligible to or vibrant for this postmodern and pluralistic world. We have to bring the tradition with us as we enter unexplored land, creating moral teachings appropriate to our time and culture. We need to be multilingual and multicultural as we blend the best of the past with the concerns and realities of our contemporary life. This will require many virtues: courage, fidelity, discretion, integrity, prudence and creativity. It will also require the use of our creative and synthetic reason.

Our task as members of the adult Catholic community is to walk into this new land and to make the maps that others can use to create a new moral synthesis for our own time and culture.

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8 years 8 months ago
Someone once said that Bernard Haring should have entitled his later work: FAITHFUL AND FREE IN CHRIST instead of FREE AND FAITHFUL IN CHRIST. It seems that Haring is expressing the idea of the author of this article that creativity is more important than fidelity. Moreover Pope John Paul II has said in VERITATIS SPLENDOR,#54,"The way in which one conceives the relationship between freedom and law is intimately bound up with one's understanding of the moral conscience. Here the cultural tendencies referred to above-in which freedom and law are set in opposition to each other and kept apart, and freedom is exalted almost to the point of idolatry-lead to a "creative" understanding of moral conscience, which diverges from the teaching of the Church's tradition & her magisterium." Moral theologians today would do well to be less concerned with the "newness" of their map, and more concerned with which direction they are actually going!
8 years 8 months ago
The church needs to rethink its moral theology on artificial contraception and artificial insemination between husband and wife with only one egg fertilized at one time (for only one pregnancy). The church needs to accept modern medicine's advances. She accepts penicillin and blood transfusions and open heart surgery!!! Marilyn Sherry


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