“Moving forward by way of review” as one of my teachers used to say, the last full posts centered around the work of Bernard Haring, the German theologian whose 1954 The Law of Christ established a new template for moralists to interpret Scripture and Church Tradition. I have been listening to Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters on Audible and it occurred to me that twentieth century scholars of many Christian Churches, including Roman Catholicism, were (and still are) catching up with that revolution of thought called the Enlightenment. In 1600 Catholics and the multiple Protestant churches could agree on one thing, that in the end this was God’s universe in every sense of the word. By the end of that century Galileo had redesigned the “heavens,” Sir Isaac Newton established empirical scientific law as root principle of reality, and Rene Descartes established that reality begins in the subjective mind; “I think, therefore I am.”
The Enlightenment played havoc with organized religion, but all the churches of the sixteenth century had diminished themselves in doctrinal wars that eventually became military; the death count from “the Religious Wars” stood in the millions before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Doubt in the entire religious enterprise was understandable at the time. Catholicism resisted aspects of the Enlightenment for a long time—the United States practices of democratic government and freedom of conscience in religious belief were still being defended by bishops in Vatican II.
By 1962, the first session of the Council, practicing Catholics enjoyed freedom of conscience only to the extent that they could personally choose to follow the teachings of the Church, or not. There was no hierarchy of moral severity nor (officially) room for debate upon the seriousness of sins, aside from the mortal/venial polarity. If opening day at Yankee Stadium fell upon a meatless Friday, you had better hope that some of the vendors were peddling brook trout, as eating meat on Friday was designated a mortal sin. In fairness, Catholicism was following a well-established principle of all societies, establishing marks of distinction and rites of membership. One could argue that collective abstinence fell into the same category as the celebration of major feasts, such as the Ascension, when Catholics broke from the civil calendar to collectively celebrate a day of religious significance.
One way to get a handle on moral theology is to think of the Church’s moral teaching as its statement of identity, as in “this is how we wish to be known to the world.” When early pagan observers of Christianity commented on the way that followers of Jesus loved one another, they were responding to an evident and observable moral behavior, and they were the richer for it, to the point that many joined. The quest of moral theology remains the pursuit of behaviors and choices that identify the believer and the assembly as members of the apostolic community established in the works and deeds of Jesus.
Of course, the practice of living and teaching moral theology is a bit more complicated than I just laid it out, which is why discussion of contemporary Catholic moral teaching always looks and sounds like the third day at Gettysburg. Here are several challenges and conditions that the Church faces in its definition and teaching of morality: (1) It is not always clear exactly what Jesus would say or do in the new circumstances of history, such as nuclear arms or global warming. (2) The Church, as authentic interpreter of the Scriptures, is influenced by the time in which it lives and its own limitations of knowledge and virtue. (3) The Church Fathers, notably Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, differed in philosophical understanding and rationale of evil, sin, and grace.
(4) The manuals of morality promulgated by the Church after the Council of Trent adopted a legal or casuistic description of sin as opposed to a mystical one. (5) The wide definition of mortal sin—particularly in matters of sexual nature—tends to belittle the seriousness of true alienation of God. (6) Traditional moral theology has skated too close to physicalism; e.g., why are barrier and pharmaceutical contraceptives mortally sinful but periodic abstinence is not, when the intent of all these methods is the same? (7) Is there room for individual human spiritual judgment in matters of sin and guilt? (8) Is the matter of psychology and spirituality given sufficient play in consideration of sin and virtue? (9) Does the Church need to address the ongoing historical reality that official pronouncements regarding sin have come from an exclusively male experience?
There is one more point I will address at greater length down the road: the trend in my lifetime at least to equate adherence to specific sexual teachings with loyalty to the entire Catholic Church? Matters of sexuality seem to have become the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy when in fact the Catechism itself cites many categories of human failure. Why the preoccupation with sexual matters?
These are the questions that keep theologians up at night—and that will occupy our reflections on the post Vatican II era in weeks to come.