A Discipline of Diversity

Book cover
Moral Theology in an Age of Renewalby By Paulinus Ikechukwu Odozor, C.S.Sp.University of Notre Dame Press. 424p $70 (cloth), $35 (paper))

Ever since John Gallagher’s work, Time Past, Time Future (1990), chronicled the disintegration of the manualist genre in moral theology, we have needed a serious study that would examine the method, content, style and purpose of the post-manualist, conciliar-inspired fundamental moral theology. We now have that in this ambitious work by Paulinus Odozor, C.S.Sp., of the Spiritan International School of Theology in Nigeria, who is currently a visiting associate professor of Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame.

The thesis of Moral Theology in an Age of Renewal is that Roman Catholic moral theology is a commitment of ongoing reflection both to preserve and to expand by vigorous arguments the received tradition in the face of new challenges. Odozor develops this thesis by chronicling some of the major areas of debate within Catholic fundamental moral theology over the past 40 years. In doing so he shows that post-conciliar theology is marked by disagreements and innovations that, in his judgment, result from the rival readings among moral theologians of two primary sources: the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of Thomas Aquinas.


The book is organized in four parts. The three chapters of Part One make up one-third of the book and deal with the foundations of the renewal of moral theology—the council itself, the reactions to Humanae Vitae and the biblical renewal, along with Karl Rahner’s theology of grace. Part Two is the second third of the book and treats the distinctiveness of Christian ethics, the use of Scripture in ethics, natural law and the magisterium and personal conscience. Parts Three and Four make up the final third of the book. Part Three reviews the debate on moral norms and the re-emergence of virtue ethics and casuistry. Part Four includes the author’s own assessment of areas of fundamental agreement in the midst of so much diversity, and closes with the concerns of Pope John Paul II regarding the direction moral theology has taken since the council.

For the most part, Odozor has identified accurately the issues that represent the ongoing development of Catholic moral theology since the council. But in a book as ambitious as this, which tries to cover the contributions of so many theologians on issues of such complexity, there are bound to be parts every reader wishes had been covered better or positions that should have been given more emphasis. I have my favorite sections and my areas of disappointment.

Chapter 10 is my favorite. It organizes the diverse landscape of Catholic moral theology under five areas of fundamental agreement: (1) Catholic moral theology as God-talk; (2) revelation and reason in Catholic moral theology; (3) the anthropological bases of Catholic moral theology; (4) pastoral goals; and (5) specific canons of rationality. In this chapter, we hear Odozor’s voice more clearly than in the rest of the book, which contains many undigested quotes from primary sources. His synthesis and assessment of the renewal of moral theology clearly shows that Catholic morality is inevitably tied to how we understand God and the human person.

Although I do not mean to deny the value of this work as a resource for serious students of Catholic moral theology, I fnd dissatisfying some parts that deserve reconsideration. One is the treatment of dissent. Odozor uses the term dissent in the way it has been commonly used in theology, and by most Americans, to cover a wide range of thinking or acting that is not in strict conformity to an official position. I wish he had acknowledged that the meaning of “dissent” in recent magisterial documents is more restrictive than that. “Dissent” in the nuanced understanding of the post-Veritatis Splendor era denotes a rebellious attitude or action and fits far fewer situations than Odozor’s use of it leads us to believe.

Another issue is the author’s misuse of Louis Janssens’ distinction between ontic evil and moral evil. These are not the same. The failure to distinguish them can cause untold confusion for anyone trying to follow Janssens’ approach to proportionalism. On page 216 Odozor correctly applies Janssens’ definition of ontic evil as any lack of perfection or fulfillment that is a consequence of human limitation. But then he repeats this same definition on page 233 for moral evil. This error will have to be corrected in a future edition, because confusing these key notions only distorts the whole method of proportionate reasoning.

Further, there are some areas that I would like to have seen given some attention as significant parts of this age of renewal. One is feminist ethics. Much of the growth of moral theology has occurred because it has been declericalized and has engaged a variety of viewpoints from laypeople, especially women. I would like to have seen special attention given to feminist ethics itself and its contribution to the renewal of moral theology. This might have given Odozor an opportunity to address “experience” as a source of moral theology along with Scripture, tradition and natural law, which he covers adequately.

Another significant area is social sin. Odozor’s treatment of sin is brief and limited to the influence Karl Rahner’s notion of fundamental option has had on it. But the social reality of sin has also received considerable attention since the council, especially from liberation theologians—a group not represented in this book.

I would also like to have seen the author give some attention to the ecumenical influences on Catholic moral theology, as well as Bernard Lonergan’s understanding of authentic subjectivity and personalism in philosophy. Together, these played a key role in helping us acquire a richer understanding of ourselves as developing persons and in making the methodological transition from the classicist worldview of the neo-Thomist manuals to the historically conscious moral theology after Vatican II.

Moral Theology in an Age of Renewal has much to recommend it. It is well researched and, despite my previous caveats, represents fairly a variety of positions. Doctoral students in moral theology who seek to orient themselves amid the monumental changes that have swept the discipline over the past 40 years should welcome the way Odozor organizes the material and puts positions in dialogue with one another. But I think this book will be difficult for the beginner and the general reader. It remains at a fairly abstract level, presumes familiarity with complex issues, arguments and moral notions, and it does not offer sufficient examples to bring the material home.

The great contribution of this text is that it synthesizes in one volume what has happened in Catholic moral theology during a time of great development. We needed a map of the bumpy terrain, and Odozor has provided it.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019