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Chapter 1: Introduction to Moral Theology and to This Book


“Theology” in the most general sense means thought and talk about God, and also about everything else insofar as it is related to God. In a narrower sense, “theology” refers to reflection upon the sources in which the truth of faith is articulated; it is subordinate to Scripture and to other normative documents which bear witness to the Church’s faith. Positive theology tries to find and state the true and full meaning of these normative sources, while systematic theology attempts to determine the relationships between truths of faith and other propositions which are not revealed but seem true.

Systematic theology is divided into contemplative and moral. Contemplative theology seeks to work out a single, coherent view of reality in the light of faith. Moral theology also reflects upon the truths of faith, but it is less concerned with elaborating a Christian world view than with making clear how faith should shape Christian life. It includes pastoral theology and spiritual theology.

The appropriate method of theology can be called “dialectical.” This method explores from within the reality in which one lives. Its use in Catholic theology means that one who accepts the truth of Catholic faith, present in the living Church of which he or she is a member, seeks a better understanding of this truth in which he or she already lives.

There is a need for renewal in moral theology today.

In the seventeenth century, after the Council of Trent, Catholic theology generally adopted a rationalistic method emphasizing clarity of concepts, certainty of principles, and the quasi-mathematical proof of conclusions. As manifested in the moral theology which persisted until Vatican II, this approach was marked by a legalism which helped give the impression that the Church’s moral teaching consists of changeable laws rather than unchangeable truths.

Vatican II called for renewal in theology generally. Regarding moral theology, it prescribed “livelier contact with the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation,” a firmer grounding in Scripture, and clear recognition that the Christian calling has a heavenly character while also involving the “obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world” (OT 16).

Many, however, view moral theology as essentially a human science which can be carried on without reference to faith. Thus, much recent work in moral theology is neither focused on Christ, nor related to other central truths of faith, nor nourished by Scripture, nor oriented toward the heavenly calling of Christians. While it sets minimum standards of behavior lower than the old moral theology did, its approach is no less legalistic.

The fundamental difficulty of both the classical moral theology of the past and much moral theology of the present is their failure to appreciate the complex make up of the Christian and of Christian life. As the human and divine are distinct but inseparable in Jesus, dynamically integrated but not commingled, so the Christian has a human nature and an adoptive share in divinity, and is to lead a life fully human but also truly divine.

In view of this, an adequate treatise on Christian moral principles, which meets the Council’s prescription for renewal, must clarify what a Christian is and how Christian life can be at once and entirely both human and divine. It must explain how human goods determine Christian moral norms and show why a life in accord with Christian norms is the only life which is really humanly good, while also showing how to live such a life. It should be oriented toward preaching, teaching, and counseling, while providing an adequate basis for studies leading to the formation of confessors. Finally, it must explain the authority of the Church’s teaching.