TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Question E: What does Vatican II say about renewal in moral theology?

1. For a century and more before Vatican II the unsatisfactoriness of classical moral theology was increasingly recognized.19 There were many criticisms and suggestions for renewal, some extreme but most of them sound and convergent. The Council accepts these sound suggestions and clearly calls for a development which will overcome the limitations and inadequacies of classical moral theology.

2. Vatican II calls for renewal in theology generally. It should be taught “under the light of faith and under the guidance of the Church’s teaching authority” (OT 16; translation supplied). Students should learn to draw Catholic doctrine from divine revelation, to understand this doctrine deeply, to nourish their spiritual lives with it, and to teach it to the faithful and proclaim it to the world.

3. Dogmatic theology should start from Scripture. Then it should examine the tradition of doctrine, its history and development. Speculation under the guidance of St. Thomas Aquinas will help students understand the mysteries of faith. Synthesis is important: Students should learn how the mysteries are interconnected and how they are present and active not only in doctrinal expressions but in the liturgy and the whole life of the Church. Vatican II builds a bridge between dogmatic and moral theology by saying that even in dogma students should learn to bring eternal truths to bear upon the human condition: “Let them learn to search for solutions to human problems with the light of revelation” (OT 16).

4. The Council also prescribes renewal for other theological disciplines, especially moral theology.20 This renewal requires “livelier contact with the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation.” Moral theology “should be more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching.” In this renewal of moral theology, two things call for equal attention: the nobility of the calling of Christians and “their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world” (OT 16). Christian life should be both other-worldly and this-worldly at the same time (see LG 48; GS 22, 38–39). The moral theology for which Vatican II calls must show how such a life can be lived.

In providing guidance for the implementation of this decree of Vatican II, the Holy See stresses that moral theology must include the dynamic aspect of Christian life. In other words, it is not enough to indicate what is expected of a Christian; moral theology also must consider how Christians can do what is expected. The unfolding of individual vocation and the principles for fully developing the image of God which is perfectly realized in Jesus are included in its concern.21

The Holy See recognizes that at present any systematic work in theology involves serious difficulty. Still, the ideal of “unity and synthesis, although it seems difficult, should interest both professors and students.” It is vital for the fruitfulness of theological studies. It includes synthesis of doctrines, of levels of theology (positive and systematic), and of disciplines and spiritual formation with the preparation for pastoral work and priestly life as a whole.22

19. See John C. Ford, S.J., and Gerald Kelly, S.J., Contemporary Moral Theology, vol. 1, Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology, (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1959), 42–79, for an introduction to some of the modern criticisms and suggested new approaches, and 80–103, for an evaluation from the point of view of classical moral theology. For a useful survey of developments in Catholic moral theology, with particular reference to principles, from 1918 to the post-Vatican II period, see Domenico Capone, C.Ss.R., “Per un manuale di teologia morale,” Seminarium, 16 n.s. (1976), 462–83. An important book published before Vatican II, which also refers to other reforming works: Gérard Gilleman, S.J., The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology (London: Burns and Oates, 1959). An earlier, and I think better, work, to which I owe a considerable debt: E. Mersch, S.J., Morality and the Mystical Body (New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1939). Two works first published before Vatican II and again since: Servais Pinckaers, O.P., La Renouveau de la Morale: Etudes pour une morale fidèle à ses sources et à sa mission présente, 2d ed. (Paris: Téqui, 1979); Octavio Nicolás Derisi, Los fundamentos metafisicos del orden moral, 4th ed. (Buenos Aires: Universidad Católica Argentina, 1980).

20. For an interesting exegesis of Vatican II’s call for the renewal of moral theology, see Josef Fuchs, S.J., Human Values and Christian Morality (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1970), 1–55. Most of what Fuchs says in this chapter seems to me right, and his thinking was very helpful in the reflection which led to the present work. Fuchs says unequivocally (49) that the mind of the Council on moral theology is that “the time has come at least for a change in the simple and uncomplicated approach to this subject which has prevailed (more or less) throughout a very long period indeed.” And he insists (49) that “moral theology has never yet—strictly speaking—attained the ideal contemplated by the Council” and (50) “no real tradition of the ideal moral theology contemplated by the Council exists today.” Perhaps the most successful attempt thus far to fulfill Vatican II’s prescription for renewal is the worthwhile, although not entirely satisfactory, work: Anselm Günthör, O.S.B., Chiamata e risposta: Una nuova teologia moral, 3 vols., 3d ed. (Rome: Paoline, 1979). Also, a clear exposition of an attempted reworking of fundamental moral by an author of one of the best of the classical manuals: Pietro Palazzini, Avviamento allo studio della morale cristiana (Rome: Paoline, 1979). A more elementary, but worthwhile, attempt: Carlo Caffarra, Viventi in Cristo (Milan: Jaca Book, 1981). A collective work highlighting problem areas in the renewal of moral theology: José Luis Illanes Maestre et al., eds., Etica y Teología ante la crisis contempóranea: I Simposio Internacional de Teología de la Universidad de Navarra (Pamplona, Spain: EUNSA, 1980).

21. CCE, 100.

22. CCE, 69–70.