The changes that have occurred in Catholic moral theology in this century have come about especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
There was little or no change or creative development in moral theology for the first sixty years of this century. The manuals of moral theology with their primary purpose of training confessors for their role as judges in the sacrament of penance continued to be identified with all of moral theology.
The legal model of the manuals saw law as the objective norm of morality and conscience as the subjective norm with specific moral actions often considered in the light of the Ten Commandments. The primary concern was to establish what acts are sinful and whether or not they constitute mortal or venial sin.
Human reason, especially in the form of the natural law, was the primary source for moral theology with Scripture playing a very subordinate role often used merely as a proof text. However, the teaching of the hierarchical magisterium, especially the pope, and the opinions of theologians on disputed questions played an ever greater role in determining the morality of particular acts.
The fact that the moral theology of the manuals remained the Catholic approach to moral theology until the beginning of Vatican II is somewhat surprising in light of the ferment and creativity that had come to the fore at the end of the nineteenth century.
In his essay written in 1899, Thomas Bouquillon, a figure of worldwide repute in Catholic moral theology, severely castigated the manuals in the light of the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. Bouquillon insisted on the need for moral theology to employ more theological aspects and to recognize the importance of the speculative and systematic nature of the discipline in addition to its practical concerns. In keeping with the directives of Pope Leo XIII, Bouquillon urged the use of the neoscholastic method based on Thomas Aquinas.
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Bouquillon was not alone. The influential seminary rector, John B. Hogan, in his 1898 book Clerical Studies, rejected neoscholasticism, insisted on the need for a more inductive approach, recognized errors in past Catholic teaching, and pleaded for the recognition of more gray areas in moral theology. He objected especially to the manuals’ understanding of mortal and venial sin, even disagreeing in theory with the very distinction itself, and pointing out that in practice one could never judge the person only on the basis of the external act.
The outsider can never know the subjective disposition and moral reality of the person who has acted. Such an understanding basically pulls the rug out from underneath the whole purpose of the manuals. Hogan was even stronger than Bouquillon in his criticism of the manuals.
In an earlier 1896 book, John Talbot Smith made an even more biting indictment of moral theology strongly objecting to the fact that moral theology is the chief study of our seminaries, holding the first place in the curriculum and in the mind of the student.
Many believe that moral theology should not only be dethroned but also reformed and renovated; the very appealing and practical goal of moral theology has distorted the whole seminary curriculum. Smith ranked the importance of the disciplines for the formation of the priest in the seminary in this order — 1) Scripture, 2) philosophy, 3) dogmatic theology, 4) general literature, 5) a reformed moral theology.
However, nothing really changed until Vatican II as the manuals remained the textbooks for moral theology in seminaries. Moral theology was either equal to, or slightly less than, dogmatic theology in terms of the number of hours reserved for the subject. Occasional criticisms continued, but moral theology remained a practical discipline dealing primarily with sins and had very little of the scientific or theological about it.
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Vatican II emphasized the person and the primacy of the person. The very first chapter of such an important document as “the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern” World is entitled «The Dignity of the Human Person.» The historic Declaration on Religious Liberty changed the older teaching denying religious liberty by grounding its teaching in the dignity of the human person.
Fourth, Vatican II opened the door to ecumenical dialogue. The non-Catholic observers at the Council played a significant role outside the formal sessions of the meeting and were generally very positive about their experience. 42 The Constitution on the Church and the Decree on Ecumenism encouraged ecumenical dialogue and contact. From that time forward, Catholic theologians have worked ecumenically and dialogued with non-Catholic authors and positions in doing their theology.
Fifth, Vatican II also called for some changes that were more specifically aimed at moral theology. The Decree on the Training of Priests succinctly pointed out a general direction for the reform of moral theology. «Special care should be given to the perfecting of moral theology. Its scientific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of holy Scripture and should throw light upon the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit and charity for the life of the world.»
This concise observation brings three important aspects to the fore — the importance of Scripture for Catholic theology and life; the call of all Christians to holiness as found in the Constitution on the Church; and the insistence of the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” that all Christians and the church at large must work eagerly together with all the good people to promote justice and peace in this world we live in.
Intrinsically connected with the greater role of Scripture was the recognition that faith and grace must penetrate and influence whatever the Christian does. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World pointed out: «One of the biggest mistakes of our time is the dichotomy that exists between the faith many people profess and the things they do in their everyday life.»
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The manuals of moral theology ceased to exist. The scope of moral theology had to be much broader than simply outlining what exactly is sinful and the extent of sinfulness. In addition in the light of the emphasis on the person, theologians pointed out that sin cannot be adequately understood on the basis of the objective act alone. The external act can and should be described as right or wrong, but the presence of sin and its degree depends on the subjective involvement of the person. The dramatic falling off in the number of Catholics «going to confession» confirms this understanding.
Second, the emphasis on the role of Scripture and grace and the importance of the person have changed the primary focus of moral theology from the act to the person, from doing to being. The biblical concepts of conversion, loving response to God’s gracious gift, and change of heart have come to the fore.
The person’s fundamental response to God’s loving gift makes clear who the person is. This basic orientation of the person involves living out the baptismal commitment to love God above all things and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This basic orientation or fundamental option has been developed in different ways depending on anthropological and philosophical considerations.
The emphasis on the person as subject and agent has called for the renewed recognition of the importance of the virtues in the Christian life. Virtues both make the person the type of person she is and influence how the person will act. The scriptural narrative and story are very important in shaping the person and the virtues of the person. Thus narrative theology has a significant role to play in moral theology.
Third, the Vatican II effort to relate faith, grace, and Scripture more clearly to daily life both gave a new understanding to Christian life in the world and raised new methodological issues. Christology and soteriology now have great import for the life of Christians in the world. Above all eschatology came to the fore.
What is the proper relationship between the fullness of the reign of God and what is happening here and now? The newer emphasis also raised the question about the proper role and function of the Scriptures in moral theology. Likewise the debated issue of what is unique and distinctive about Christian morality came to the fore.
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The manuals of moral theology with their natural law approach had assumed that the morality proposed for Christians was exactly the same as the morality proposed for all human beings because it was based on the same human nature. Now, with a greater emphasis on grace, faith, and Christology, the question naturally arose about what is distinctive or unique about Christian morality. Does this uniqueness affect the intentionality and motivation alone or does it also have some effect on the content?
The Gospel message of liberation applies also to the social, political, economic, and cultural levels of human existence. The Scriptures also heavily emphasize God’s special concern for the poor and the needy. One can thus see how liberation theology grew out of the developments at Vatican II to overcome the split between faith and daily life.
Fourth, as a result of Vatican II’s criticism of neoscholasticism and emphasis on dialogue, there no longer existed the Catholic philosophy. Despite the importance of grace, faith, and Scripture, the traditional Catholic emphasis on the human and human reason continued. Theology needs to employ philosophical and anthropological understandings in order to study faith and life in a systematic and scientific way.
Different theologies have adopted different philosophical approaches. Historical consciousness and the turn to the person as subject and agent have influenced the philosophical approaches used in Catholic moral theology. Even in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”, anyone is entitled to see both personalism and a greater historical consciousness as illustrated in the importance assigned to the signs of time and the inductive methodology.
Liberation theologies in all their forms have insisted on the importance of praxis. Truth appears when the practical involvement exists in the battle against injustice and coercion. Feminist ethics shares much with other forms of liberation theology in that it begins with the experience of oppression. However, Christian feminist ethics differs from South American liberation theology because of its use of Scripture.
The feminist experience, unlike the experience of the poor, does not find that much support in the Bible and opposes the patriarchy found in the Scriptures. Since the Catholic tradition was more open to interpreting the Scripture on the basis on reason and experience, Catholic feminists were originally more open to criticize the Scripture than were some Protestant feminist theologians who came out of a sola Scriptura background.
Feminism, like all liberation theologies, emphasizes the importance of the social location of the person and begins from the concrete experience of oppression. Pre-Vatican II classicism overemphasized universality, underplayed particularity, and often overlooked the oppression of the poor and minorities.
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Catholic feminists, in the light of the catholicity and universality of the Catholic tradition, still insist on the need for some universal ethical dimensions despite starting with the experience of the oppression of one group. All people have to work for the common good. The methodological and epistemological discussions about universality and particularity continue.
The new directions in moral theology occasioned by Vatican II continued to call for further discussion and elucidation. In addition to the issues already mentioned, the integration of spirituality and liturgy into moral theology calls for special attention. Likewise, the role of the human sciences in moral theology requires more in-depth discussion.
Immediately after Vatican II Catholic theology in general and moral theology in particular were too optimistic and failed to recognize the continuing reality of human sinfulness and the fact that the fullness of the reign of God will only come outside history. Pre-Vatican II moral theology had overstressed sin as a particular act but had forgotten about the power of sin.
Despite the very deep and significant changes that have occurred in this century of moral theology in the United States, important basic continuities have also been present and should be noted. The Catholic tradition with its emphasis on universality and inclusiveness has been characterized methodologically by its «and» — Scripture and tradition, faith and reason, grace and works, Jesus and the church and Mary and the saints.