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Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Question C: What is the role of the teaching of the Church in the method of moral theology?

1. Systematic theology as a whole should proceed by a method which can be called “dialectical.”4 Dialectical method explores from within the reality in which one lives—one tries to understand the meanings and relationships which comprise the expanding and unified framework of one’s life.5 The use of dialectical method in Catholic theology means that, accepting the truth of Catholic faith present in the living Church of which one is a member, one seeks a better understanding of this truth in which one already lives.

2. Dialectical method in theology neither calls into question the truth of faith nor attempts to prove it (cf. S.t., 1, q. 1, a. 8; S.c.g., 1, 9). There is no superior standard by which to criticize or establish the word of God. Moreover, the Church is the living community of faith where God’s word is received and handed on. To try to contact this word apart from the Church would be to try to step outside oneself—outside one’s real world and history. This is impossible.6 Because it is, Catholic theology must presuppose the truth of Catholic faith in the word of God.

As Vatican II teaches: “Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation” (DV 24). Again: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (DV 10). In mentioning the living teaching office (magisterium) of the Church here, Vatican II incorporates by reference the teaching of Pius XII in Humani generis, that theology must defer to the magisterium in interpreting the deposit of faith and that defined doctrines, understood in the sense in which they have been defined by the Church, should serve in theology as explanatory principles (see DS 3886/2314).

Of course, even if it be granted that theology ought to proceed from Scripture and tradition as the magisterium interprets them, important questions remain concerning the certainty and permanence of various elements of Catholic teaching. In other words, one can ask whether a particular point of teaching received and handed on in the Church really does belong to the truth of Catholic faith. These questions will be treated in chapters thirty-five and thirty-six. But it is worth noticing here that when Vatican II prescribes that future priests be taught theology “under the light of faith and with the guidance of the Church’s teaching authority” (OT 16), the Council also refers to a section of Humani generis which includes the statement that “if the supreme pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same pontiffs, cannot be considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians” (DS 3885/2313; translation supplied).7

3. Dialectical method equally resists any attempt to explain faith scientifically. Although theology can be called a “science” in the sense that it is a careful study which must be accurate about facts and logical in reasoning, it is not a science in the sense that this word connotes comprehension, detachment from a subject matter, and control over it (see S.c.g., 1, 6). Theology tries to understand God’s intimate personal relationship with his people. This relationship is not subordinate to anything larger and more important in our experience; it is a mystery in which we share and, as such, is to be accepted and lived, not just analyzed and explained. Nor can it be mastered, made subject to our control.8

4. Today, as often in the past, methods which have shown their power in other disciplines are employed in theology. While theologians can make good use of scientific and other methods as tools for limited purposes, difficulties can arise from the uncritical application to theology of methods developed in other fields. A method suited to another subject matter may not be particularly suited to the investigation of faith. There is a danger that the rich and mysterious reality of which Christian life is part will be reduced to some human way of seeing things.

The method which seems appropriate in systematic theology is that of disciplined meditation and discussion, by which one clarifies various relationships among truths of faith and between them and other propositions, develops new concepts and propositions, and achieves a gradually growing understanding of the mysteries of faith and of other things in the light of faith. This method is called “dialectic,” but since there are many conceptions of dialectical method, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by this way of doing theology.

Anyone who has studied some of Plato’s dialogues will understand what dialectic is. Plato always tries to formulate clear questions and to distinguish the meanings of linguistic expressions. The devices of logic are used to determine whether propositions are compatible or incompatible, to find which propositions imply which other ones, and thus to clarify what is involved in holding a certain position.

In such dialectics, one finds reasoning similar to that required by various models of scientific inquiry. For example, sometimes the properties of something are shown to follow from what it essentially is, as in Aristotelian science; sometimes conclusions are proved from more certain principles, as in a rationalist science; and sometimes hypotheses are developed to account for a certain range of data, as in a modern empirical science. What is peculiar about the dialectical method as Plato uses it is that none of the models of science organizes inquiry as a whole. Each scientific model’s characteristic way of proceeding is employed where it seems helpful, but no attempt is made to organize all reflection according to a single model.

Dialectical method proceeds by considering propositions in one another’s light. This method of meditation and discussion can lead to some understanding of truths of faith by a comparison of true propositions of faith with other true propositions. But in proclaiming the gospel, the Church also must safeguard the faith by rejecting false propositions incompatible with it (see 2 Tm 4.1–5; 2 Pt 2.1–9; Jude 3–4).

Vatican I teaches that the possibility of disagreement between faith and any other source of knowledge is excluded in principle (cf. S.t., 1, q. 1, a. 8, c.). God cannot be inconsistent, and all knowledge ultimately comes from him either by revelation or by the natural light of reason. Of course, apparent contradictions do crop up. But “. . . the chief source of this merely apparent contradiction lies in the fact that dogmas of faith have not been understood and explained according to the mind of the Church or that contrivances of opinion are taken as deliverances of reason” (DS 3017/1797; translation supplied).

The Church has the mission of proclaiming the gospel, the source of all saving truth and moral teaching (see DS 1501/783; DV 7). To carry out her mission, the Church must safeguard the faith by rejecting false claims to knowledge, so that no one will be misled by faulty theories and sophistical arguments. It follows that Catholic theologians and “. . . all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as legitimate conclusions of science such opinions that are known to be opposed to the doctrine of faith, especially if they have been censured by the Church; rather, they are absolutely bound to regard them as errors that have taken on the false appearance of truth” (DS 3018/1798; translation supplied). The phrase “doctrine of faith” used here must not be limited to truths solemnly defined. It also includes at least those truths of faith and morals proposed by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church as truths to be held definitively, whether as truths divinely revealed or as truths essential to guard as inviolable and faithfully unfold the deposit of divine revelation (see DS 3011/1792; LG 25).9

Thus it is characteristic of Catholic theologians to think with the Church, to conform their judgments to the doctrine of faith, and to treat as erroneous every opinion which the Church condemns as such. St. Vincent of Lerins accurately describes the ideal of the theologian: “He is a true and genuine Catholic who loves the truth of God, the Church, and the Body of Christ; who puts nothing else before divine religion and the Catholic Faith, neither the authority nor the love nor the genius nor the eloquence nor the philosophy of any man whatsoever, but, despising all that and being fixed, stable, and persevering in his faith, is determined in himself to hold and believe that only which he knows the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient times” (FEF 2172).

5. Before one makes a judgment of conscience, one must have factual knowledge of the possibilities open to choice, including the circumstances and likely consequences of carrying out each of them. Moreover, one must proceed logically from basic principles, and these principles come to be understood by children only as they learn about and spontaneously act for human goods. Nevertheless, the judgment of conscience, which characterizes each possible choice as right or wrong, cannot be deduced from facts and logic. How things are cannot finally determine how one ought to live. Moral principles and judgments neither can be established nor overturned by experience or the sciences. Whenever it is argued that some finding of contemporary science undercuts a Christian moral norm, critical examination will show that the argument depends on at least one nonscientific assumption at odds with Christian faith.

For this reason, it is a mistake to think that the Church’s rejection of the proposals of a new morality can lead to an embarrassment similar to that which followed from the rejection on their own level of the factual observations included in Galileo’s research. Facts can no more show the Church’s moral teaching false than they can prove it true. The situation in this matter is strictly parallel to a matter of faith such as the bodily presence of Jesus in the Eucharist: Chemical tests cannot show him present, nor can the results of such tests disprove what faith teaches.

Nevertheless, the moral teaching of the Church and the data of the experience of Christian life—such as the lives of the saints—are mutually illuminating. Likewise, the concrete moral judgments the faithful make are relevant to the reflective work of Catholic moral theology.

Every moral theory, philosophical or theological, reflects upon the moral experience and judgments of a certain community.10 To the extent that the theory fits the data, the latter are used to testify to the theory’s realism and practicability. To the extent that the theory must reject moral judgments commonly made in the community, reasons are given to explain why false moral judgments are made. A moral theorist can disagree with the moral judgments made in his or her own community provided the theory belongs to a view of reality which allows the theorist to transcend the limits of this particular community.

For example, many secular humanists reject racial discrimination. A poll might show that the sense of the community favors racial discrimination in certain instances. The secular humanist who engages in ethical theory does not accept the sense of the community as determinative. Instead, witnesses who favor discrimination are disqualified—as insufficiently informed, say, or as narrow-minded and short-sighted.

In a similar way, Catholic moral theology finds the experience of Christian life and the judgments of the faithful illuminating, but does not allow such data to override the Church’s moral teaching. Catholic moral theologians are helped to keep their balance by bearing in mind that the community to which Catholic moral theology is relevant is not merely the present membership of the Church in affluent societies, but the whole People of God, from Abraham to the last man, from Calcutta to Amsterdam, Cracow, New York, Peking, and Rome.

6. Therefore, a sound method in moral theology will not allow the moral experiences and judgments of some of the contemporary faithful to override the constant and very firm moral teaching of the Church. Instead the moral theologian must go back to the principles of Christian morality—ultimately to the fundamental truths of faith—to find resources for explaining modern experience and criticizing dissenting opinions. In doing so, the Catholic moralist will proceed very much as does the secular, philosophical moralist who, for example, does not allow the fact of racial prejudice to settle its morality. Rather, the secular moralist uses a world view which goes beyond facts and science to criticize such prejudice, no matter how widespread, and to explain why it exists although it is wrong.

7. Since divine revelation does not just convey a set of theoretical truths but establishes a personal relationship, the one gospel is “the source of all saving truth and moral teaching” (DS 1501/783; DV 7). One is called not only to hear God’s word but to adhere to it, to do God’s will by putting our Lord’s teaching into practice (see Mt 7.15–17; Jas 1.23–25; 2.14–26). It follows that the teaching authority of the Church, with the gift of infallibly identifying what God reveals, extends to matters of morals as well as faith (cf. Mt 16.19; 28.20; 1 Jn 3.18; DS 3007/1788, 3032/1811, 3074/1839; LG 25). A sound Catholic moral theology will therefore adhere to the authoritative moral teaching of the Church.

Someone might object that the answer to this question disregards the present pluralism in Catholic moral theology, a pluralism both of methodology and of positions on specific moral issues.11 It will be pointed out that the absolute solidarity of opinion which existed in Catholic moral theology prior to Vatican II no longer obtains, and one must come to terms with this new situation.

As question D will show, I fully recognize the limitations of the older moral theology, which all the newer approaches, including the present work, seek to overcome. Moreover, theological pluralism compatible with the unity of faith in God’s word articulated in the common doctrine of the Church is both inevitable and accepted by the Holy See itself (see appendix 2). In Catholic moral theology, there is room even for a diversity of positions inconsistent with one another on questions about which the Church as such has reached no definite judgment.12

However, not all opinions expressed in recent years by Catholics in moral theology can be accepted uncritically as justified and responsible positions. Some writers maintain that there is no specifically Christian ethics, and on this basis more or less limit the role of the Church’s teaching authority in the moral field.13 The following chapters, especially twenty-three through twenty-seven, show that there is a specifically Christian morality and a place in the tradition of faith for concrete moral teaching. Some writers accept as legitimate various theological opinions inconsistent with the constant and universal teaching of the Church.14 Chapters thirty-five and thirty-six will mark out the narrow limits of responsible dissent and criticize attempts to justify radical dissent.

Most dissenting theologians have adopted the method of proportionalism.15 Proportionalism is not a method of systematic theology as such, but a method of defending specific moral judgments—for example, that in a difficult case it is right to do something otherwise wrong because in the actual situation it is the lesser evil. Proportionalism is advocated by some nonbelieving moral philosophers as well as by some moral theologians. As chapter six will show, this method can be criticized decisively on purely rational grounds.

4. Appendix 4 considers and excludes several alternatives to dialectic as the method of theology as a whole, especially alternatives which conceive theology as some sort of science. But what about transcendental method? How is it related to what I call “dialectic?” This question is not easy to answer, for “transcendental method” has various meanings. For Rahner, “transcendental theology is not simply the whole of theology and must not claim to be anything more than one part or one aspect of it” (“Reflections on Methodology in Theology,” Theological Investigations, vol. 11, Confrontations I, trans. David Bourke [New York: Seabury Press, 1974], 84). Moreover, as Rahner makes clear (86), transcendental theology is more than a method, for it includes an acceptance of modern philosophy. For my part, I have argued in a previous work that the major approaches of modern philosophy must be rejected on strictly philosophical grounds, although each of them has something to contribute to an anti-reductionist, anti-rationalist metaphysics: Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 94–240 and 343–56. Transcendental Thomism as developed by Coreth and Rahner seems to me an unnecessary hypothesis whose plausibility arises from the inadequate critique by Maréchal and his followers of modern philosophy, especially Kant. Moreover, this form of Thomism has been expounded with parasitic dependence on St. Thomas, not as a free-standing philosophical effort, yet in important respects it is inconsistent with Thomas’ theory of knowledge. See, for instance, James B. Reichmann, “Transcendental Method and the Psychogenesis of Being,” Thomist, 32 (1968), 449–508; Cornelio Fabro, La svolta antropologica di Karl Rahner (Milan: Rusconi, 1974), esp. 87–121. Bernard Lonergan’s conception of transcendental method is quite different; for him, this method simply is the process of human knowing as such: Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 13–14. His discussion of the specific method of systematic theology as a whole is in his treatment (235–353) of four of the functional specialties he enumerates: dialectic, foundations, doctrines, and systematics. Although I do not agree with everything in Lonergan’s treatment of these matters, still on the whole what he describes in these four chapters corresponds to what I mean by “dialectic,” which I thus use in a wider sense than Lonergan does. Moreover, in maintaining the permanence of dogmas (320–24) and the distinction between doctrine and systematics, with the priority of the former (349–50), Lonergan locates the source of theology as reflection in the living faith of the Church. In this, Lonergan shows himself a Catholic theologian, by contrast with Hans Küng, for example, who also uses a dialectical method in theology, but accepts as sources only two: (1) the historical reality of Israel and of Jesus accessible by historical-critical method, and (2) the contemporary human world of experience as a whole, without the interpretation and criticism of the Church’s magisterium: “Toward a New Consensus in Catholic (and Ecumenical) Theology,” in Consensus in Theology? A Dialogue with Hans Küng et al., ed. Leonard Swidler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 1–17. Walter Kasper, The Methods of Dogmatic Theology (Glen Rock, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1969), 11–21 and 45–48, argues against considering theology a science and, 22–32 and 48–65, in favor of a methodology which incorporates many elements of what I call “dialectic.” Unfortunately, Kasper is insufficiently critical of modern and contemporary philosophy, and so even he is in danger of overlooking ideological elements in it which tend toward an inconsistent historicism—the claim that every position except itself is a time-conditioned point of view on reality.

5. See the excellent and brief exposition: Cornelius Ernst, “Theological Methodology,” Encyclopedia of Theology, 1671–78. I doubt that the “perspective” of meaning suggested by Ernst can be worked out in the way toward which he points. But it would be, in any case, a “perspective” for a contemplative system. The “perspective” of the present work is determined by its moral preoccupation to be divine-human cooperation.

6. On the relationship between ecclesiastical tradition and Scripture, see Grelot, op. cit., 26–33.

7. The note of Vatican II is numbered 31 in the official notes, and 46 in the Abbott edition. The reference is to AAS 42 (1950) 567–69, which includes the passage quoted. On Vatican II’s teaching on theological method: José Luis Illanes Maestre, “Teología y método teológico en los documentos del Concilio Vaticano II,” Scripta Theologica, 12 (1980), 761–86.

8. Thus, as I conceive it, theology does not solve problems, but rather clarifies mysteries, using “problem” and “mystery” in the sense they have for Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having: An Existentialist Diary (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), 116–21; see Kenneth T. Gallagher, The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (New York: Fordham University Press, 1962), 30–49, for an exposition of Marcel’s method, which is dialectical in my sense of the word. Because theological reflection is relative not only to the common and objective principle of the faith of the Church and its authoritative articulation by the magisterium, but also to the proper and subjective principle of each theologian’s personal and culturally conditioned appropriation of this faith, pluralism in theology is inevitable and in practice insurmountable: see W. M. Shea, “Pluralism, Theological,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 17:513–14, and the works cited in his bibliography. Still, such pluralism does not entail the subjugation of faith and the life of faith in the Church to a multitude of mutually inconsistent theological speculations. For, in the first place, authentic Catholic theology recognizes and submits to the antecedent faith of the Church: see International Theological Commission, Theses on the Relationship between the Ecclesiastical Magisterium and Theology (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1977), esp. theses 5 and 8. And, in the second place, genuine Catholic theologians do not present themselves as authorities whose propositions might be believed alongside (or even in place of) truths of faith, but only as fellow believers whose observations and reflections might commend themselves by the inherent cogency they have in the light of faith.

9. Thus it is a mistake to argue: “This point of Catholic teaching has not been solemnly defined; therefore, it has not been infallibly proposed, and it could be false.” See John C. Ford, S.J., and Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,” Theological Studies, 39 (1978), 263–77.

10. Although one cannot agree with the implicit relativism, the procedure of moral theory is decribed with some accuracy by John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 17–22. The use of this method in theology presupposes the infallibility of the Church as a whole: Jesús Sancho Bielsa, Infalibilidad del Pueblo de Dios: “Sensus fidei” e infalibilidad organica de la Iglesia en la Constitucion “Lumen gentium” del Concilio Vaticano II (Pamplona, Spain: EUNSA, 1979). Peter Eicher, “Administered Revelation: The Official Church and Experience,” in Revelation and Experience, Concilium, vol. 113, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx and Bas van Iersal (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 3–17, sets up a dichotomy between religious experience and dogma, and between the magisterium and experience as a whole. In doing this, he ignores the fact that each new convert or generation of Catholics receives a tradition which includes liturgical practice and a Catholic way of life, and so has a concrete basis for the linguistically expressed propositional content of faith (see DV 8). Eicher is allergic to the authority without which there can be no obedience of faith; he proposes to displace this: “The scientifically explained experience of modern times, the suffering experience of everyday life as illumined by literature, and the unarticulated life-experience of the nameless millions without any apparent relationship with God, is no longer testified to by the authority of lived experience of faith, but is ultimately confronted by the sterile claim of a quite non-experiential and formal authority” (9). One counterexample—e.g., Mother Teresa—falsifies this generalization, and if the whole of the Catholic Church does not bear witness as it should, this fact is due to defects of fidelity and holiness, not to the work of the magisterium. Further, when Eicher invokes the “scientifically explained experience of modern times,” it is clear that the real criterion by which he wishes to judge Catholic teaching is not experience, but rather the ideological presuppositions of those academic disciplines which succeed sufficiently in academic politics to retain or acquire the social status marked by the honorific title of “science.”

11. See Richard A. McCormick, S.J., Notes on Moral Theology: 1965–1980 (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), 522–29 (cited hereinafter as “Notes”). See also Thomas Dubay, S.M., “The State of Moral Theology: A Critical Appraisal,” Theological Studies, 35 (1974), 482–506, with which I agree in general; Charles E. Curran, Ongoing Revision in Moral Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides/Claretian, 1975), 37–65, to which chapter thirty-six of the present work may be taken as a response.

12. Besides the treatment in chapter thirty-five, see Austin B. Vaughan, “The Role of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Universal Episcopate,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 22 (1967), 1–19; Luigi Ciappi, “Crisis of the Magisterium, Crisis of Faith?” Thomist, 32 (1968), 147–70.

13. See McCormick, Notes, 296–303, 428–29, and 626–38, for a summary of various positions and counterpositions on this issue. Those who deny that there is a specifically Christian ethics hold for the autonomy of human reason in the determination of right and wrong; the role of faith and Church teaching in respect to moral life is in adding a characteristic motivation and significance to what is and can be known to be right and wrong even without faith. The thesis sometimes is expressed by saying that materially (that is, in respect to specific moral norms) Christian ethics is nothing but common human morality; my position is that Christian norms further specify the norms which can be known without faith.

14. See Charles E. Curran, Transition and Tradition in Moral Theology (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 43–55; McCormick, Notes, 242–51, 668–82, 737–45, and 817–26. Two essays contributed to one volume can serve as an introductory critique of the attempt to justify dissent: Donald McCarthy, “The Teaching of the Church and Moral Theology,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), 45–71; Richard R. Roach, S.J., “Moral Theology and the Mission of the Church: Idolatry in Our Day,” ibid., 19–43. Also: Dario Composta, “Il magistero di fronte al diritto naturale,” Apollinaris, 49 (1976), 79–105; Gustav Ermecke, “Die katholische Theologie in der Krise,” Münchener theologische Zeitschrift, 32 (1981), 194–205; Bernhard Stoeckle, “Flucht in das Humane? Erwägungen zur Diskussion über die Frage nach dem Proprium christlicher Ethik,” Internationale katholische Zeitschrift (Communio), 6 (1977), 312–24; Marcelino Zalba, S.J., “Principia ethica in crisim vocata intra (propter?) crisim morum,” Periodica de Re Morali, Canonica, Liturgica, 71 (1982), 25–63 and 319–57.

15. See McCormick, Notes, 648–52; Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, eds., Readings in Moral Theology No. 1: Moral Norms and Catholic Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1979). In his own essay in this volume, “Utilitarianism and Contemporary Moral Theology: Situating the Debates,” Curran says (354) that “reforming Catholic theologians generally speaking do not embrace utilitarianism” but what “can be described as mixed consequentialism.” Curran is correct, but it remains that the indefensibility of consequentialism vitiates their thought just to the extent that they do make some use of this method. See Germain G. Grisez, “Christian Moral Theology and Consequentialism,” in May, ed., op. cit., 293–327; Ferdinando Citterio, “La revisione critica dei tradizionali principi morali alle luce della teoria del ‘compromesso etico,’ ” Scuola cattolica, 110 (1982), 29–64; Dario Composta, “Il consequenzialismo: Una nuova corrente della ‘Nuova Morale,’ ” Divinitas, 25 (1981), 127–56. The argument that dissenting opinions, defended by partly consequentialist (proportionalist) arguments, ought not to be condoned in the Church has been criticized as uncharitable, and this criticism has been answered: Germain Grisez, “Charity and Dissenting Theologians,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 80 (November 1979), 11–21.