Before I left last weekend, I had indicated on this stream that I would attempt to sort out the various directions of moral theology in the late twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries. I took this project with me last week and discovered that sorting out the streams of moral thinking was going to be a bigger challenge than I realized, because there are so many of them, and a lot of things have changed and influenced Catholic thought in the past half-century.
Although U.S. Catholic theologians were aware of “social sin” such as racism and poverty in the 1960’s, and gradually the Viet Nam War, the “systems” under which they worked, the neo-classicist and the revisionist, were both heavily indebted to European thinking—traditional Roman or progressive Western European. In a sense, both were “bourgeois” in that they addressed themselves to middle class people in generally democratic nations regarding life within the Church, such as sexual ethics, and the Church’s reach (or overreach, as some argued) in its claims to moral teaching authority.
The first stirrings of a new systematic approach to moral thinking and acting actually emerged in Central and South America. At Vatican II many Latin American bishops articulated concerns not just about the poverty of their people, but about the pervasive injustices of economic and governmental structures. Some of this language found its way into the texts of the Council, but with a bourgeois twist: an encouraging of first world churches like dioceses in the U.S. to send more priests as missionaries, and the reestablishment of the permanent diaconate for priest-less regions of the world. In other words, the majority of Council fathers viewed the sufferings of the Americas as a spiritual or priestly problem alone and missed the greater cultural struggle of the region.
Since 1955 the Latin American Bishops Conference bishops (CELAM) had gathered regularly in a regional conference to discuss the common pastoral and societal needs of their countries, most of which were “third world” (and many still are.) No English text of the history of CELAM has been produced as of this date, but the period of 1955-1980 would make compelling if disturbing reading. Two thinkers who would have great influence upon CELAM and the identity of the Latin American Church in its approach to moral thinking were Paulo Freire and Gustavo Gutierrez. If I had to order them, I would begin with the Brazilian Freire, an educator/philosopher with widespread influence through his writing and political action. Freire’s epic work is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (1968) where Freire writes: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (See video of Freire here.)
Freire did not explicitly exercise ministry in the Church, but his works are the product of a Catholic country, and it is easy to see how his educational desire to open the eyes of the young to the harsh realities of the world around them inevitably impacted the life of the Church. However, it remained for Catholic moralists like Guttierez to bring this style of thought to Catholic moral practice, and the courage of bishops at CELAM, notably the Medellin Conference of 1968, to rework the pastoral life of Latin America. We will follow that next Monday.
Unfortunately, I have to go to work now—clinic Monday.