These are not household names I am going to spring on you, but each priest identified here was a significant player in shaping the direction of moral theology, precisely in their attitudes and commentaries on the manuals. The first is Thomas Slater (1855-1928), whose Manual of Moral Theology appeared in 1906, and was, in Keenan’s view, “the most consulted manual in English.” (p. 10) You won’t believe it, but this work is still available on Amazon as of this morning, a 1928 leather-bound edition. The first significant point to note is the English text itself; Slater was the first to produce an English language manual; Latin had been the exclusive language of manuals since the Council of Trent and before. Several other countries produced manuals in the vernacular prior to Slater’s English edition.
Slater was bound to the structure of the manual—the categorizing and weighing of sins--as was every other moralist, but manualists were also commentators on moral law, its use in the confessional, and the sources of revelation and history. Slater never deviated from this duty, and he recognized that the chief duty of a moralist/manualist was service to the priest in the confessional. In short, given the pastoral practice of the times, the manualist was to assist in one of the essential rites for the validity of the Sacrament of Penance, the actual confession of sin.
In his preface, though, Slater stepped back and provided his own overview of the manuals themselves: “They are the product of centuries of labor bestowed by able and holy men on the practical problems of Christian ethics. Here, however, we must ask the reader to bear in mind that the manuals of moral theology are technical works intended to help the confessor and the parish priest in the discharge of their duties. They are as technical as the text-books of the doctor and the lawyer. They are not intended for edification, nor do they hold up a high ideal of Christian perfection for the imitation of the faithful. They deal with what is of obligation under pain of sin, they are books of moral pathology.” (Keenan, p. 11) Slater goes on to advise that in the full Christian life, the exercise of morality in his day represented the starting line, not the victor’s circle, in achieving holiness. In language reminiscent of the ancient Hippocrates, morality’s message was “to do good and avoid evil.” The manuals of his time involved themselves with the latter, avoiding evil. To do good, he teaches, turn to the manuals of ascetical, devotional, or mystical theology, to find “the high ideal of Christian perfection.” (p. 12)
Slater is no doubt referring to the immense treasury of devotional writing available to Catholics in the early twentieth century, from the Benedictine rules of discipline and asceticism to the Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola to the humble essays of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, to cite but a few. Slater was not the first of his age to see the one-dimensional nature of morality of the time, but the fact that his text appeared in English made it accessible to a wider range of laity (and yes, clergy, as few of us truly mastered lingua Latina.)
It is hard not to wonder about the dilemma of thoughtful moralists like Slater and many who would follow in the first half of the twentieth century. Most, if not all, were priests of particularly intense dedication, writing for brother priests in their confessional duties. Young men do not generally enter seminary with the minds of pathologists but with the ideals of sanctity. Slater was no exception, and I sense a certain sadness in his reflection upon his life’s work, as he realized that what the Church was calling “morality” in 1900 was actually only half the picture. For those seeking virtue in the manuals, Slater was forced to say “look elsewhere” for holiness. The idea that morality would one day embrace the full range of human experience from sin to virtue was born or reborn in Slater’s analysis, though it would be some years before the unity or morality and spirituality would be achieved in Church life and practice.
Slater was very much ahead of his time. The teaching office of the Church tended to issue more specific directives on behavior after Slater’s work. His successor Henry Davis (1866-1952) was forced to integrate Vatican directives, such as this one, into his manual: “Girls and women who dress unbecomingly are to be refused Holy Communion, and not allowed to be sponsors in Baptism or Confirmation, and should occasion demand, they shall be forbidden admittance into the Church.” (p. 19) In a rather troubling commentary on the shortcomings of the manuals and the odd roles they were taking on in Catholic life, the above-cited insertion on female modesty was issued in 1943—the heart of World War II! If Slater had been concerned about the manuals’ shortcomings in terms of virtue, his successors were saddled with an even greater dissonance in the pathology of sin. In retrospect, it was the limited or non-existent response of the manuals to truly grave contemporary sin—the deaths of non-combatants in war, the genocide of the Jews, etc.—that would lead a new generation of moralists to examine the discipline itself after World War II with an eye toward Scripture, Liturgy or Worship, and the nature of the human being.