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Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Question G: What fundamental problem underlies the unsatisfactory development of moral theology?

1. The unsatisfactory character and results of both classical moral theology and the new moral theology point to real problems. The theologians of both groups have been essentially intelligent and decent people who wished to serve the faith. There must therefore be an underlying reason or reasons why nothing approximating the moral theology envisaged by Vatican II was achieved in the past or is now being achieved.

2. It is suggested—and the suggestion will be elaborated in this volume as a whole—that the underlying difficulty is as follows. Jesus is both human and divine, and so, too, is his entire life. In him the human and divine are distinct but inseparable, dynamically integrated but not commingled (that is, mixed with one another). The early Church experienced many difficulties and deviations before this central truth about Jesus and his life was clarified and accepted by all faithful Christians. This truth does not pertain only to Jesus, however. The Christian is to be like Jesus, with both a human nature and an adoptive share in divinity—with a life fully human but also truly divine. Difficulties analogous to those in Christology appear to have blocked an accurate understanding of the complex make up of the Christian and to have led to many mistakes concerning the structure of Christian life. In short, the underlying difficulty in moral theology has been an inadequate understanding of how Christian life must and can be at the same time completely human and divine (see GS 22, 43, 45, 92).

3. The Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine, gave an account of Christian life which stressed the supernatural and other-worldly but hardly did justice to the human and this-worldly (see 34‑A). Medieval thought, even that of St. Thomas Aquinas, failed to resolve the problem.29 At the time of the Renaissance and Reformation many accepted a false dichotomy. Some opted for a humanism which evolved during the centuries of the modern era into rejection of faith and the supernatural. Others opted for a fideistic supernaturalism which regarded human nature as the corrupt vessel of Christian life rather than an essential part of it. During the last century and one-half, the second option, that of Protestantism of the Reformation, has been more and more widely abandoned, while secular humanism has become dominant. Although the Catholic Church has never accepted this dichotomy and some contemporary Protestants also reject it, the underlying problem has not yet been resolved.

4. Vatican I pointed to a solution in its definitive teaching that reason and faith are not mutually exclusive (see DS 3015–20/1795–1800). Vatican II sketched the solution without working it out in detail. To make room for divine life, Christians need not set aside anything of their human lives; and to live fully human lives, they cannot aim at anything less than lives of the highest holiness (see LG 39–41; GS 1, 11, 21, 22, 32, 34, 92; AA 7). The call to intimacy with God who definitively reveals himself in Jesus is also a call to protect and promote the flourishing of human persons and societies in the goods which fulfill human nature (see GS 34–35).

5. Without anticipating later chapters, it is possible even at this point to glimpse the underlying reason for the inadequacy of both the classical and the new moral theologies. Classical moral theology remained too other-worldly. Its tendency to commingle the human and the divine caused it to confuse the human good of religion, which is only one human good among others, with the superhuman, adoptive divine life of the Christian. The new moral theology also usually involves commingling; for example, it generally reduces charity to human good will or good deeds. But it also is too this-worldly. Attending insufficiently to the transitory character of this present life, it dispenses in practice with Christian hope for the total re-creation—the new heavens and the new earth—by which alone God will finally overcome evil (see Rv 21.1–4; GS 39).

If there really is no necessary conflict between the divine and human aspects of Christian life, still many people think they perceive some incompatibility here. How does this illusion arise? There are two factors.

First, sin diminishes human nature and makes it seem incompatible with one’s sharing in the divine nature (see GS 37). The remedy is to make humanity whole, and Catholic faith teaches that men and women who accept the gift of the Spirit can overcome sin and grow in holiness in this life (see GS 38). By the redemptive work of Jesus, God preserved the Virgin Mary from all sin; by the same redemptive work, he calls every human person to holiness (see LG 48 and 59–65). A good human life in which much effort must be spent in overcoming sin is quite different from what a good human life would be if there were no sin to overcome. But a human life spent in overcoming sin is devoted to the good fruits of human nature and effort; like the life of Jesus, such a life is not less but more fully and perfectly human than a life based on a refusal to acknowledge and fight against sin.

Second, the illusion of inevitable conflict between the divine and human aspects of Christian life arises from the mistake of supposing that the expressions used about God in the language of faith can have the same meaning they would have in other contexts. If one makes this mistake, the divine and human aspects of Christian life are imagined to be on the same level. Then not only sin but even human good itself would have to diminish in order that grace might abound. The Catholic Church teaches the opposite: The call to intimacy with God who reveals himself in a definitive way in the man, Jesus, is also a call to protect and promote the flourishing of human persons and societies in the goods which enrich human nature as such (see GS 34–35).

For precisely this reason, the Catholic Church has insisted—especially during the past century—upon moral teaching which belongs both to natural and to gospel law. The social teaching of the Church insists upon principles demanded both by human fairness and by Christian mercy. The Church’s teaching on other subjects, such as marital morality, equally insists upon principles demanded both by the nature of human persons and their acts, and by the eternal destiny to which each human person is called (see GS 51).

29. The unsynthesized fragments of an account of the natural end of human persons, which one finds in St. Thomas’ various works, are a clear symptom of the unsatisfactoriness of his synthesis in this respect. See Germain Grisez, “Man, the Natural End of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 9:134–37. Both Aristotle and St. Augustine pointed Thomas in the direction of an overly definite conception of the natural end of human persons. The exigencies of this end—knowledge of the divine—made it hard to treat it in practice as a real end distinct from the beatific vision. Thus in Thomas there is an unresolved tension between a natural desire for beatitude and the gratuity of the supernatural end, which (despite his intentions and efforts) threatens to become the natural end of the human person. It seems to me that a better solution is suggested by Vatican II, especially in Gaudium et spes; this view will be articulated in the present work, particularly in chapters nineteen and thirty-four.