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Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response

Appendix 3: The present theology and received Catholic teaching

This chapter completes the treatment of the normative principles of Christian morality. This treatment is grounded in Christian revelation—preserved, unfolded, and defended in the Church’s teaching. Yet to the extent that I offer a theology, my account of normative principles is a construct which goes beyond the data of faith. The perceptive student will wonder to what extent the account I offer will generate normative judgments in accord with the Church’s specific teaching on matters such as sexual activity, social justice, and so on.

In general, there is likely to be agreement but not perfect identity between the normative implications of the principles articulated here and the specific norms proposed by the Church.

There is likely to be agreement, because the principles articulated here are not the result of autonomous philosophical reflection; I have tried to understand the gospel, not simply impose preconceived ideas on it. (Although I engaged in philosophical reflection on moral questions for twenty years before undertaking the present theological work, my philosophical reflection also was conducted in the light of faith.) Likewise, the Church’s moral teaching is very closely based upon divine revelation, for it either is drawn directly from revelation or has been developed by the reflection of twenty centuries of Christians (and more centuries of faithful Jews), who were striving with God’s grace to live their lives in the light of faith.

There also is not likely to be perfect identity between the normative conclusions one will reach by systematic reflection and the specific norms received in the Church. To a great extent, the nonidentity will not be discrepancy; there will be a difference but no conflict. Systematic treatment provides a means for dealing with every possible question about individual and social morality; the Church’s teaching is limited to actual questions which have been important to Christians up to the present. Thus the normative implications of the system will extend beyond the boundaries of received teaching, without necessarily conflicting with it.

To some extent, however, there are going to be inconsistencies, and for two quite different reasons. First, no theological system is perfect. I expect errors to be found in the system I have articulated, and some of these errors will lead to false normative conclusions. Where there appears to be an inconsistency between the implications of the system and Catholic moral teaching, it is clear that anyone would be prudent to assume the error is mine. As history amply demonstrates, any theologian or group of theologians is far more likely to be wrong about any question than is the magisterium.

Still, the teaching of the Church is one thing, and teaching received in the Church is another, as I will explain in chapter thirty-five. Not all received teaching has been proposed infallibly, and teaching which has not been proposed infallibly might possibly require refinement and correction in its details. There is a possibility of legitimate development, including the correction of errors on some points. One purpose of theological reflection is to assist such refinement of the Church’s teaching. I believe such refinement is possible and appropriate, for example, with respect to capital punishment and (in a slightly different way) war.4

Dissent from a moral norm proposed authoritatively, although not infallibly, within the Church cannot be justified unless one can appeal to a superior theological source (35 G). Insofar as the normative principles for moral-theological reflection which I have outlined are an interpretation of the data of revelation contained in Scripture, they provide some basis for justifying dissent from some moral teachings in the Church.

4. A treatment of the problem in ethical theory: Germain Grisez, “Toward a Consistent Natural-Law Ethics of Killing,” American Journal of Jurisprudence and Legal Philosophy, 15 (1970), 64–96.