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Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Question B: What is moral theology?

1. Systematic theology is divided into contemplative and moral. Contemplative theology was formerly called “dogmatic theology”; today it is often called simply “systematics.” Contemplative systematic theologians try to work out a single, coherent view of reality in the light of faith. Some truths of faith can be known by reason, and contemplative theologians look for philosophical and other theories which seem to fit well with these. The theories are then used to round out the picture of reality provided by revelation itself.

2. To the extent it succeeds, contemplative systematic theology “does reach, by God’s gift, some understanding of mysteries, and that a most fruitful one” (DS 3016/1796; translation supplied). But this understanding by no means lessens the need for faith. Rather, it makes it clear that intimacy with God is God’s free gift, whose fullness will wholly surpass human understanding. Thus, genuine contemplative theology leads from talk about God to the “theology” which is talk with God: to prayer.

3. Moral theology is another systematic theological discipline. Like contemplative theology, it reflects upon the truths of faith, but it is less concerned to round out the Christian view of reality than to make clear how faith should shape Christian life, both the lives of individual Christians and the life of the Church.

Pagans who have never heard the gospel preached but who strive to live good lives share in some way in the redemption God brings about in Christ (see DV 16). They live Christian lives without knowing it. Persons who have heard and consciously accepted the gospel are not necessarily better or holier persons than such unconscious Christians. Why, then, is moral theology important for us?

Its primary importance is this: Having received the gift of an explicit knowledge of the truth revealed by God in Christ, we have the privilege and responsibility of sharing in the redemptive work of Jesus. He has made us friends and coworkers in carrying out his redemptive work in ourselves and in communicating him to others. Moral theology helps us better to understand and so better to do the work of redeeming which our Lord Jesus has assigned to us.

4. Revelation and faith establish an intimate relationship between God and us. Contemplative theology tries to appreciate the given reality of this relationship; moral theology tries to clarify our part in the relationship, understood as a friendship which we must do our part to maintain and develop. Contemplative theology is mainly concerned with what God has done and promises to do; moral theology is mainly concerned with how we ought to respond and cooperate. In moral theology we study revelation to find its meaning for our lives; from faith we seek guidance for practical thinking, choices, and commitments.

Yet one should not too sharply distinguish contemplative from moral theology. The source of both is the one word of Christ, which dwells by faith in the hearts of believers. It is a dynamic word, with power to perfect both the inner self and the whole of one’s life: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3.16–17). The revelation of God, the divine self-gift in the Lord Jesus, calls for thanks on our part. Thanks is expressed in two ways: praise and performance. By praise we acknowledge the generosity of God; by performance we give him in return for his gift all that we are, all that we have—our very lives (see Rom 12.1; Gal 5.13; 2 Tm 4.6–7; Heb 13.16; 1 Jn 3.16).

5. The most basic part of moral theology is the study of Christian moral principles. These, however, are not the only standards by which we distinguish right from wrong. The central mysteries of faith—the Trinity, the Incarnation, and our adoption as children of God—are also normative, as indeed the whole of revealed truth is. To say revelation is “normative” means that it has practical implications (see S.t., 1, q. 1, a. 4). Invited by the Father, Son, and Spirit to intimate communion, we are to live lives worthy of this calling (see Eph 4.1); but the only style of life worthy of children of God is that exemplified by Jesus. In clarifying this way of life, the study of Christian moral principles makes clear the practical relevance of the whole of Christian faith.

6. While the study of Christian moral principles comprises the basic part of moral theology, other parts draw out the implications of these principles. A complete moral theology deals with specific moral questions; it includes pastoral theology, a discipline concerned with the living of the Christian life not only by those to whom the pastor ministers but by the pastor himself; and it embraces spiritual theology, which studies the growth of Christian life to its proper perfection.

Moral theology cannot do its full job if it remains at the level of general principles. It also must show the relationship between divine revelation and Catholic teaching on particular issues, such as the morality of choosing one’s profession, of paying taxes, of sexual activity, and so on.

Pastoral theology studies the implications of the other parts of theology for the work of the priestly life. Inasmuch as pastoral theology concerns the Christian life—the lives of the faithful and also the life of the priest himself—its principles are those of Christian morals. But pastoral theology is not related to the other disciplines of systematic theology as medicine is related to biology. Pastoral work is not a mere technique. Rather, it is a way of making Jesus present to teach, govern, and sanctify humankind today.

7. Moral theology must be distinguished from two other disciplines: philosophical ethics and canon law. All three of these disciplines have a practical bearing on Christian life. Philosophical ethics, however, proceeds by the light of reason; its concepts and arguments must be accessible to persons who have not heard (or do not accept) the gospel. When the results of philosophical ethics are used by moral theology, they must be evaluated and transformed by incorporation in the more adequate view of reality provided by the truth of faith.

8. Canon law studies the meaning and application of the regulations established by Church authorities to coordinate the common life of the Church’s members. Hence, in themselves, the provisions of canon law are rules, not moral truths. Having been made by the Church, these rules can be changed by the Church; moreover, they have moral force for the Christian conscience only insofar as one understands the duty to obey those who enact them.