Enlightening Lessons

Visions and Valuesby Judith A. Dwyer (ed.)Georgetown Univ. Press. 210p $19.95 (paper)

Developments in Catholic theology during the second half of the 20th century have not always found their way into the standard curriculum of our schools and colleges. Ethics education has especially suffered. This book is an attempt to rectify that.

Edited by Judith A. Dwyer (executive vice president of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., and professor of moral theology there), this collection of 10 essays is the outgrowth of a renewed emphasis on ethics in the undergraduate curriculum at Villanova University. Its purpose is to provide foundations for ethics as well as to address selected contemporary issues in light of the vision and values of the Catholic tradition. Six of the contributors (Paul Danove, Michael J. Scanlon, James J. McCartney, William Werpehowski, Sarah-Vaughan Brakman and Sally J. Scholz) are professors at Villanova and have written original essays for this volume. The essays of the other four contributors (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Marie J. Giblin, Dwyer and David J. Hollenbach) were previously published elsewhere.


The first three essays are foundational. The use of Scripture in ethics (Danove) and anthropology (Scanlon) are standard material in establishing foundations in ethics. Elizabeth Johnson’s essay on retrieving the cosmos in theology, however, offers a new perspective. By addressing the whole world as God’s good creation, she challenges the narrowness of anthropocentrism and holds up cosmology as a framework within which to think about theological topics. This is a much-needed perspective for the next generation of Catholics.

Danove’s essay on the use of Scripture distinguishes the fundamentalist and historical-critical approaches. It clearly presents their presuppositions and uses sufficient examples to illustrate each method and its principles for systematizing the results of analysis. By choosing to contrast these two approaches, Danove may very well be taking his students where they are and trying to move them away from fundamentalism and toward a critical approach to the Bible. But by limiting himself to these two methods, he risks not adequately preparing students to appreciate how biblical paradigms and the metaphorical and symbolic language of biblical narratives inform the moral imaginationour fundamental power for negotiating life. Scanlon’s anthropological essay, which follows Danove’s, identifies the centrality of the imagination and its relation to the biblical narrative for understanding the moral life in Christ.

One of the most exciting developments in Christian ethics today is its retrieval of the spiritual roots of the moral life. A key feature in making this connection is the role of the analogical imagination as the bridge from the story of Jesus to moral living. We link the biblical narratives to our sensibilities, motivation and identity through the imagination and so discover new ways of acting that are faithful to the story of Jesus. The imagination’s capacity to spot analogies comes by way of learning about the biblical narratives and being able to reflect on our own experience in light of them. The spiritual practices of praying with the Bible and communal worship, for example, train our perception to see the relation between our present experience and the sayings and stories of Jesus. But this necessary link of spirituality, imagination and the moral life is missing in these foundational essays.

The seven essays on specific issues cover medical ethics (McCartney and Giblin), sexual ethics (Werpehowski) and social ethics (Brakman, Dwyer, Scholz and Hollenbach).

Giblin’s essay shows how constructive the feminist perspective can be in reforming the thin conception of human dignity, justice and community that dominate mainstream bioethics. McCartney’s essay on legal and ethical dimensions of reverencing human life in its beginning and at its end is the longest one in the book. He develops his essay around four values characteristic of the Catholic tradition: the dignity of the person, the common good, the preferential option for the poor and responsible stewardship in using reasonable means to sustain life. He clearly underscores how the church sees promoting life and health as a personal responsibility of stewardship over the gift of life. The church allows people great discretion regarding the means they consider necessary to enhance health or to cure disease. But McCartney unnecessarily complicates the question of determining whether to treat or not to treat. For him, treatment can be ordinary or extraordinary, burdensome or beneficial, useless or useful, or some combination of any or all of these criteria. But these are not distinct criteria; they are variations on ways to express the common-sense realism of the traditional ordinary/extraordinary means standard.

Werpehowski’s essay on sexual ethics gives both the traditional Catholic position and some revisionist ones, along with questions for debate. And it presumes a fairly well-developed level of sophistication about relationships, sexuality and moral argument in order to appreciate it.

The remaining essays, in social ethics, deal with responsibilities within the family (Brakman), hierarchical teaching on peace (Dwyer), the dignity of work (Scholz) and the common good (Hollenbach). Brakman’s essay on what children owe their parents is the only sustained virtue ethics approach in this collection. To include this issue in a course of undergraduate ethics is timely and makes for a socially responsible curriculum, given the projection that the senior adult population will more than double in the next 50 years.

If these essays represent the quality and depth of treatment of ethics at the undergraduate level, then we can feel confident that our young Catholics of this new millennium will be more prepared than we were to engage the world with the vision and values of our Catholic tradition.

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