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Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Question D: Why is renewal in moral theology necessary?

1. Several factors tended to limit the effectiveness of Catholic theology after the Council of Trent.16 These included contention among rival theological schools, concentration on controversies with Protestants, and the simplification of theology resulting from efforts to adapt it to the seminary program. The most important factor, however, was the fact that philosophy in the seventeenth century was heavily influenced by the ideals of science and mathematics. A rationalistic method developed, emphasizing clarity of concepts, certainty of principles, and the quasi-mathematical proof of conclusions. Though unsuited to systematic theology, this rationalistic method was widely adopted by theologians. Efforts to understand faith often were set aside, their place taken by efforts to reduce faith to as few principles as possible and defend these effectively.

2. Trent’s program of reform had the good result of fostering better discipline of the sacraments, especially penance. Yet this encouraged a tendency to limit the study of moral theology to what priests need to know to hear confessions—especially what is and is not mortal sin, and how to resolve doubts of conscience. Rationalistic method meanwhile tended toward the codification of norms. The basic part of moral theology came sometimes to amount to little more than a study of the general notions needed to understand and work with this code.

3. Thus the effort to understand the living of Christian life in the light of the fundamental truths of faith was almost wholly abandoned by moral theologians. Moral and dogmatic theology were divorced, and Jesus ceased to play a significant role in moral theology. Moral theologians more and more ignored Scripture and other sources for systematic theological reflection, or else invoked them only to show that a certain kind of act violates the Christian code.

4. The moral theology which developed after Trent and persisted until Vatican II is here referred to as “classical moral theology.” Among the characteristics arising from its attempt to codify Christian morality, two of particular note are rationalism and legalism.17

5. Rationalism (see appendix 4) affected classical moral theology’s understanding of the objectivity of moral norms. On this view, essential and unchanging human nature is the standard of human goodness. This nature is open to rational observation; good acts conform to it, while bad acts do not. Judgments of fitness are, however, purely speculative, whereas the practical judgment that a certain act is morally licit or illicit requires a further principle: a divine command that human persons do good acts and avoid evil ones.

6. In thus tracing the practical force of moral obligation back to God as lawmaker, classical moral theology tended toward voluntarism. Voluntarism in general is a theory which assigns primacy to the will over reason. Classical moral theology assigned primacy in the genesis of moral obligation to God’s will, although it left a subordinate place for human reason. This limited voluntarism, together with the isolation of moral from dogmatic theology, led classical moralists to pay less and less attention to intrinsic reasons for accepting Christian moral norms as true. Instead, they increasingly tended to treat moral norms as laws which members of the Church must obey because the Church insists upon them with divine authority. By keeping these rules one would merit heaven; by violating them one would deserve eternal punishment in hell. In this perspective, an understanding of the intrinsic connection between Christian life in this world and eternal life was far less important than a firm conviction that the disobedience of mortal sin must be avoided.

7. Legalism emphasizes the regulation of behavior. The legalist tends to think of moral norms as if they were merely a body of rules binding members of a society to commonly accepted standards. Today some dismiss as “legalism” several positions characteristic of Christian morality itself—for example, that one may not do evil to achieve good and that even one unrepented mortal sin separates a sinner from God forever. But classical moral theology was legalistic in a more genuine sense; it can be found wanting even by those who accept all the positions characteristic of Christian morality.

8. First, classical moral theology focused on the detailed specification of duties, while ceasing to clarify the meaning of good and bad in terms of the total Christian vocation. Second, it became minimalistic, emphasizing the minimum required to avoid mortal sin. The basic categories of classical moral theology were not the good and the bad, but the permitted and the forbidden. Third, it tended to suggest that what is not forbidden is thereby permitted, in the sense that one is free to do as one pleases in regard to it; thus it tended to ignore the responsibilities of personal vocation. Fourth, classical moral theology tended to liken moral truths to Church laws. The clarification of moral truth in the light of faith was neglected in favor of procedures more like those used in developing a body of law: The opinions of moral theologians were regarded as if they were decisions of lower courts, and the judgment of the Church’s magisterium as if it were the decision of a supreme court. The results are now apparent in the suggestion that the Church might or should change its moral teaching, as if it were changeable law rather than unchangeable truth.

9. Legalism often causes the faithful to view the Church’s moral teaching as an imposition. The suspicion grows that the Christian life itself is a kind of arbitrary test for which different rules could well be devised if only the test maker chose. In these circumstances, the desire increases to do as one pleases as much as one can. Thus, while setting stringent requirements concerning a few matters, classical moral theology offers little or no helpful guidance for much of Christian life. The temptation to rebel against received teaching is nourished by its seeming arbitrariness, as well as by interests cultivated without reference to Christian faith.18

16. See Congar, op. cit., 144–99. On moral theology, see L. Vereecke, “Moral Theology, History of (700 to Vatican Council I),” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 9:1120–22; J. J. Farraher, S.J., “Moral Theology, History of (Contemporary Trends),” ibid., 1122–23.

17. St. Thomas Aquinas is not included in what I call “classical moral theology.” The view of moral teaching and the role for the moral theologian I call “classical” did not exist before the impact of rationalism. In Thomas, one finds a far less legalistic view, and conscience plays a comparatively minor role. See Thomas Deman, O.P., La Prudence, in S. Thomas d’Aquin, Somme théologique, 2a–2ae, Questions 47–56, 2nd ed. (Paris: Desclée, 1949), 478–523. Moreover, although the fundamental moral theology of St. Thomas is not Christocentric, his Christology includes the principle of the following of Christ, and Thomas never divided contemplative from moral theology as did later scholasticism: Louis B. Gillon, O.P., Christ and Moral Theology (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1967), 135–41. For an outline of a moral theology based on St. Thomas, in many respects fulfilled by the present work, see S. Pinckaers, O.P., “Esquisse d’une morale chrétienne: Ses bases: la Loi évangélique et la loi naturelle,” Nova et Vetera, 55 (1980), 102–25.

18. By the mid-nineteenth century, the unsatisfactory condition of Catholic theology was widely recognized. Leo XIII encouraged renewal in the study of Scripture and other areas of theology; he also urged a return to the Christian philosophy of St. Thomas. Before Vatican II much progress was made, especially during the pontificate of Pius XII. See P. de Letter, S.J., “Theology, History of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 14:56–58, for a brief summary with bibliography. Although one cannot agree with him in everything, Jacques Leclercq, Christ and Modern Conscience (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962), 39–68 and 197–204, offers a remarkably insightful analysis of legalistic morality (“code morality”) in contrast with a morality of truth (“wisdom morality”). The volume as a whole is useful for the comparisons it makes between Christian morality and many forms of non-Christian morality, including forms from non-Western cultures. Another insightful but not entirely fair dissection of classical moral theology: Marc Oraison, Morality for Our Time (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), 43–63.