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Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book

Question I: What difficulties can be expected by those who study moral theology with this book?

1. The study of Christian moral principles makes demands on students as great as those made by any serious theological study. One ought to proceed with personal obedience of faith; one must submit one’s experience, insights, and wishes to the judgment of the Church’s teaching, prepared to reform oneself according to the mind of Christ (see Jn 12.44–50; Rom 12.2; Gal 2.2). This thorough intellectual conversion is not easy, and one will often be tempted to evade it.

2. It is also necessary to safeguard scholarly integrity in theological reflection. Difficulties should not be ignored or set aside. The elements of each difficulty must be examined patiently, in the confidence that a solution will eventually be forthcoming—if not to oneself, then to someone else—without compromising either fidelity to the Church’s teaching or intellectual honesty.

Catholic theologians should take up difficulties which arise and should pursue truth with the full power of their scholarly discipline, wherever that pursuit might lead. The question is: How can one function as a scholar without calling into question any truth of the Catholic faith?

The answer is that neither theology nor any other field of scholarship bearing upon faith deals in obvious matters of fact or in simple self-evident truths such as those of logic. Catholic scholars deal in historical probabilities which can be argued, in interpretations which are never absolutely certain, in theoretical constructions which are only more or less plausible. Therefore, scholarly conclusions never absolutely compel assent. If a conclusion appears to be incompatible with a truth of faith, one asks: Is this conclusion as certain as it seems to be? Is the result really incompatible with faith, or does it only seem to be so because of lack of understanding? Is one’s personal understanding of faith really an accurate grasp of the faith of the Church?

Nothing of intellectual rigor need be sacrificed in answering these questions, nor need one in the least doubt the truth of faith. Every apparent conflict is somehow soluble, although solutions do not always come easily (see S.t., 1, q. 1, a. 8; S.c.g., 1, 9). The human mind has in reserve a great capacity for withholding assent. If one has faith, one draws on this capacity to gain time for seemingly insoluble problems to be solved. In this way, not by hasty revisions, real progress is made in understanding faith.

3. Any work in moral theology presents three further difficulties. First, moral theology has a normative orientation; it is concerned not with what is but with what ought to be. This makes it more abstract and thus more difficult than most other subjects, such as history or psychology, which also study human action but do so descriptively or theoretically. Second, in bringing faith to bear upon the life of the person who studies it, moral theology challenges one to live according to one’s expressed convictions (see Mt 7.21–23; 23.2–3). Third, many today regard calling upon others to face up to their infidelity to the gospel as the most frightening duty of priestly ministry (see Jer 20.7–18; 2 Tm 4.1–2). The study of moral theology focuses ineluctably on this duty.

The moral methodology articulated in this book is likely to seem very complex. Students will wish that a simpler “system” might be used for moral-theological reflection. Unfortunately, the complexity is unavoidable. The situation here is somewhat like that in medicine. There was a time when a physician could learn what was needed rather easily; the practice of medicine was not so complicated. Today, a competent physician must be able to practice in accord with contemporary knowledge of bodily functions, diseases, drugs, and so on.

However, the situation is not so difficult as the analogy suggests. Moral theology articulates faith. The complexity of the methodology is not greater than the richness of faith, upon which one ought constantly to meditate. The present theological reflection is more complicated than the older moral theology mainly because it interprets systematically a wider range of the data of faith, making explicit many connections which formerly were left implicit.

One ought not to be impatient with this explication, which makes for complexity. In part, it is needed today for more effective pastoral work. One can see this to be so, for example, in the obvious unsatisfactoriness of merely insisting on the Church’s moral teaching as a set of norms to be obeyed, when it is possible to make their intrinsic sense clearer in the light of fundamental truths of faith.

4. To make good use of this book students will have to possess or acquire the ability to do certain things: to study regularly and effectively, to dialogue with opposing points of view, to face and resolve personal resistances, and to integrate theological reflection into a life of prayer which, for seminarians, is also in a formative stage. They are not likely to meet these challenges unless they dedicate themselves to the well-being of those who will be their spiritual children. To be good students, seminarians must care above all about helping people grow in Jesus toward fulfillment both as human beings and adopted children of God.

Prayer, both personal and liturgical, is essential for one who undertakes theological reflection. The Holy See points out: “Since theology has for its object truths which are principles of life and personal commitment, both for the individual and the community of which he is part, it has a spiritual dimension and, therefore, the theologian cannot be purely intellectual in his research and study, but must always follow the requirements of faith, always deepening his existential union with God and his lively participation in the Church.”30 The Council similarly teaches that seminarians must live the mystery of Christ and of human salvation which they will find present in the liturgy (see AG 16).

The fundamental reason why prayer is needed is that theology reflects on revelation, and revelation is not merely a collection of words, not even merely a collection of statements expressing propositional truths. Rather, revelation is personal communication. The realities and not merely the words which pertain to this communication are made present to us in the Church. The divine communication passed down from the apostles and received by us grows in us: “This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2.19, 51), through the intimate understanding they experience of spiritual things, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth” (DV 8; translation supplied).31 Theology without prayer is cut off from its real subject of study: God. Theology without prayer turns him into an object, and it turns our personal relationship with him into an interesting, magnificent, but ultimately unreal idea.

Theology only leads to growth in understanding when one who undertakes it attends with full openness to the presence of Jesus in the Church: to his presence in the word of God and especially in the liturgy, to his presence in the successors of the apostles teaching in his name, and to his presence in those for whose service through pastoral activity or other work the study of theology is undertaken.

In the liturgy one experiences bodily and sensible aspects of God’s revelation in the Lord Jesus which are not captured—which cannot be captured—in propositions or expressed in language. Moreover, liturgical prayer, because it is communal and public, eliminates the merely subjective and private biases of one who undertakes theological reflection. The Liturgy of the Hours, for example, often does not fit one’s individual mood and disposition; for this very reason, such prayer is invaluable to keep one thinking with the Church at large about God and humankind’s friendship with him.

Private prayer also is essential. One can assent to all the truths of faith and wish to hold them firmly, just as the Church believes and teaches them, yet not have a lively sense of the reality grasped in these truths. If one lacks a lively sense of the reality, one also will have an inadequate sense of the importance of each particular truth. One who engages in theological reflection must focus on parts of the truth of faith, one by one, and sometimes must study some single point with great intensity. Only by private prayer can one engaged in theological reflection keep a vivid sense of the importance of every other article of faith, and remain resolved to respect fully even the most minor truth of faith. For only in private prayer can one constantly and systematically ponder all the truths of faith in one’s heart, and so keep real for oneself every truth which must be clung to as an indispensable aspect of one’s clinging to Jesus.

If theological reflection is to be fruitful, one’s clinging to Jesus and to all the truths of faith must be confident, not nervous. Only the confidence and easy familiarity with the Lord Jesus which prayer gives enable one to face every question with fearless faith. The failure to explore difficulties, the refusal to face objections straightforwardly, and the evasion of situations in which one’s faith is likely to be challenged are sins against the vocation of one who undertakes theological work. Because there is no growth without struggle, no creativity without the overcoming of obstacles, these sins will block that deeper understanding of faith which a theologian should always seek. One who has a vivid sense of the reality grasped in the truths of faith is less likely to be tempted to commit these sins and is more able to resist the temptation should it arise.

30. CCE, 22; cf. 73.

31. See 1 Tm 4.14; 2 Tm 1.6–7, 13–14. On the prophetic gift which makes the teaching of revelation certain, see Jerome D. Quinn, “ ‘Charisma Veritatis Certum’: Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 4, 26, 2,” Theological Studies, 39 (1978), 520–25. The concept of Irenaeus seems to provide an important link between Scripture and the teaching of Vatican I and II concerning infallibility in certain acts of the magisterium.