Both men edited (1941-1954) the famous “Notes in Moral Theology” in the Catholic quarterly Theological Studies, a regular summary of moral theology writing and publishing. I am happy to say that “Notes” thrives to this day. As James Keenan (see home page) writes, “They were ardent defenders of the classical nature of the moral law. For instance, in a 1958 lecture on natural law, Ford taught ‘Given a principle of natural law, firmly established, e.g., parricide is immoral, it is valid for all men, at all times, in all places, and if the proposition is stated with sufficient precision, in all circumstances. There are no exempt days, no exempt territory. There is no such thing as a moral holiday where natural law is concerned.’” (p. 115)
I linger here for a second because the preceding paragraph from Keenan/Ford is as good a summary of the classical/moral approach to moral theology as you are likely to find anywhere. This is the language of law, of geometric logic, timeless and certainly ahistorical. It presupposes a knowledge base in the operations of all humans, an instinct of right and wrong, accessible with or without baptism. It is a system of morality that some Catholics wish was taught from pulpits, classrooms, and seminaries, because it is clear and despite its inflexibility, it gave comfort that in a crazy world there was one tried and true pillar of moral truth. Keenan adds the proviso that underwriting the entire moral system of classicists was absolute truth in the teaching Magisterium of the Church.
However, as anyone who has watched thirty minutes of “Law and Order” knows, law per se is messy. I am not antinomian or anti-law; quite the contrary. But I think that the same problems which constantly challenge civilian lawyers also challenge classical Church moralists. Post-World War II moralists such as Bernard Haring understood this and introduced the historical method with its emphasis upon Scripture and conscience for both religious and technical purposes. Moralists of the classical tradition such as Kelly and Ford were certainly aware of trends away from the traditional, and I am sure worked congenially with colleagues of the Haring tradition, at least until the mid-1960’s. One reason is the shared mission of moralists to serve the Church.
The biggest mistake one can make in an assessment of classicists is to think of them as inflexible, hard-hearted absolutists in their pastoral approach. Ask yourself a question: when you are in potential or actual trouble, who do you turn to? A good lawyer, of course. Since one of the basic premises of law is that what is not expressly forbidden is permitted, a Catholic moralist in the pre-Council era worked to protect both of his “clients” so to speak, The Law of God and the People of God. Moreover, a weakness of all case law structure is the inability of the legislator to anticipate all possible future circumstances, and a traditional moralist would be called upon to apply a principle of existing law to new circumstances. Both Kelly and Ford agreed, for example, that the “rhythm method” of periodic abstinence was permissible precisely because it was not forbidden in papal teaching.
Gerald Kelly is something of the father of medical ethics, and his interpretation of the fifth commandment and its direct prohibition of murder became the groundwork for end-of-life decision making in use today. Though one cannot actively kill, natural law—in Kelly’s analysis—does not advocate excessive lifesaving, either. In 1950 he asked whether oxygen and intravenous feeding had to be used to preserve the life of a patient in a terminal coma: “I see no reason why even the most delicate professional standard should call for their use….Their use creates expense and nervous strain without conferring any real benefit.” (p. 115)
John Ford, a fixture at Weston Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, was a more complex and controversial figure, and present day historians detect a strain of historical sympathy in some of his work. He condemned in print obliteration bombing, in 1944, at the height of World War II (such acts as the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo). Later Ford would write that alcoholism is primarily a physical disability and not a moral one. (Ford himself was a recovering alcoholic, as his biography here details.) His friend and colleague Father Kelly died in 1964, at a time when Ford found himself at the center of one of the most significant moral theology battles of the twentieth century, the issue of artificial birth control. Ford’s work was much respected by Pope Paul VI, who brought him into the inner circle of advisors debating the possibility of changing Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii of 1930 prohibiting artificial birth control.
Ford’s influence on the pope here was significant, but he maintained his silence until twenty years later (1988). Speaking to an audience, Ford said that “when I said to Pope Paul, ‘Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?’ Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said. He reacted exactly as though I was calling him a traitor to his Catholic belief.” (p. 122) Ford, needless to say, defended the 1968 Church teaching Humanae Vitae. His peers at Weston distanced themselves from him and he fell out of favor with students. Ford gave up the classroom a year after the encyclical.
Keenan observes that Humanae Vitae was a “rejection of the revisionists’ [moral theologians’] innovative approach and the first significant papal endorsement of neo-manualism after Vatican II. HV was a blow to the historical theologians of the Bernard Haring era, and Ford was the public figure in the United States to wear the albatross. Nor was his position attacked only by the historical practitioners; the extreme right of the Church has called him to task (posthumously) for not advocating infallibility status to the birth control teaching.
Ford, in a way, was caught in a matrix in 1968: he could not bring his full analytical skill to reproductive morality as he had with, say, rules of war or judgments on alcoholism. For the Vatican had raised the ante on a reproductive issue to the level of the integrity of the entire Church teaching enterprise, and in doing so had made loyalty to HV a litmus test of Church orthodoxy. In his position, Ford could choose only loyalty to the full teaching of the Church or a denial of the Magisterium. Unfortunately, this choice has become institutionalized into the present century.