When Vatican II formally opened in October 1962, most seminaries were still teaching morality as an aid to their future priests for their confessional work in a fashion that was not noticeably more advanced than the Irish monks of the sixth century who invented personal and repeatable confession. The Irish monks composed the first written catalogues of sins and their satisfaction, i.e., “the penance” we receive in the box. These books written 1000-1500 years ago are collectively referred to as “Irish Penitentiaries” for those ordained monks hearing confessions. [Be careful if you google this.] After the Reformation a thousand years later, the Council of Trent [1545-1563] mandated the education of priests and the establishment of seminaries. By this time the old penitentiaries had been worked over for a millennium and were renamed “manuals.” When you read a history of moral theology today, you will see reference to the “Manualist Era” of moral theology, beginning around 1600 and gradually falling out of favor in the twentieth century.
The last published moral manual, per Amazon, appeared in 1962, the year Vatican II began, by Fathers Heribert Jone and Urban Adelman. Jone, I gather, was the specialist and Adelman the translator [Latin/English]. In 1971 I made my annual seminary retreat as a guest of the Capuchin Franciscan Father Adelman at a retreat house where he was superior. I mentioned to him that I had seen his work on sale in the Newman Bookstore, around the corner from Catholic University [as well as my favorite D.C. bar, Fred’s.] Father Adelman looked stricken and exclaimed, “Don’t tell me they are still selling that thing!” It wasn’t until this week that I researched examples of Father Jone’s work and understood Father Adelman’s dismay, and how far from the rest of Catholic scholarly theology and practice the manualist tribe had drifted.
During my graduate studies in moral theology my class was exposed to the Irish Penitentiaries for historical background purposes; personal confession in early Ireland, which began as a nightly “chapter of faults” of the monks, was built around the seven deadly sins. The later Manualist Era was built around a rather simplistic structure of the Ten Commandments that tunneled deeper and deeper into infinite possibilities of human misbehavior; the emphasis appears to be the absolute integrity of the confession of all sins “in number and species,” as we used to say then. In fact, the controversial young Catholic-educated George Carlin, of all people, understood the Manualist tradition so well that in 1969 he developed a confessional comedy routine that sliced and diced the supposedly dying Manualist-style confession with amazing precision. [If you care to google “George Carlin Confession” on YouTube, remember this is adult material.]
It is fair to say that by the time of Vatican II most Catholic academics, many of whom served as advisors at the Council, had long discarded the Manualist approach to morality. The approach itself was becoming, well, bizarre in its detail. Priests themselves were complaining to Pope Pius XII long before Vatican II that the format of confession had lost its impact as a motivator toward deeper faith and spirituality. The Council Fathers noted the separation of manual morality—specifically the rite of confession—from the fullness of the Church’s theological and sacramental wisdom; thus, on October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI issued the Conciliar decree “Optatam Totius: The Decree on Priestly Training.”
OT was a directive to bishops and seminary rectors to renew and improve the quality of both academic and pastoral training, to raise the bar such that all priests were familiar with every aspect of Church history and thought. OT added that continuing education of priests after ordination was a lifelong expectation and obligation. The Church needed better preachers, teachers, and pastors if the renewal of the Council had any chance of success. This teaching was long overdue. In the United States, for example, the noted Church historian Father John Tracy Ellis shook American complacency about its Catholic universities, colleges, and seminaries. In 1955 he published “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” a critique of the poor state of Catholic scholarship in this country. Interestingly, Cardinal Dolan of New York wrote on August 23 of this year that there are too many seminaries and too few excellent ones, and he advocated closing many U.S. seminaries to create regional seminaries of academic excellence.
On the matter of moral theology and confession, OT stated this: Likewise let the other theological disciplines be renewed through a more living contact with the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation. Special care must be given to the perfecting of moral theology. Its scientific exposition, nourished more on the teaching of the Bible, should shed light on the loftiness of the calling of the faithful in Christ and the obligation that is theirs of bearing fruit in charity for the life of the world. [para. 16] Put another way, Morality, and the Sacrament of Penance, like all sacraments, needed to pivot away from excessive legalism to its original point of origin: the Revelation of Christ in the Scriptures and the conversion of the baptized to charitable works which bring God’s grace to the world. In my seminary [1971-1974], morality and spirituality [prayer] were joined in one department as a response to OT.
However, when I was a student, the post-Council renewal of moral theology—as well as other theological disciplines--was still just beginning. My courses pointed out general directions for further reading, study, and processing. As a morality/spirituality major I did my master’s thesis on “women’s liberation and the Church,” for example, just as the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade on abortion was released in January 1973. Today I can remember only two Catholic woman theologians available to me in print from my bibliography. One was Mary Daly, whose 1968 work The Church and the Second Sex was very radical at the time and her first step in disengagement from the Catholic Church. The other was the more congenial Sidney Callahan, whose Beyond Birth Control: The Christian Experience also appeared in 1968. Callahan has been a prolific Catholic scholar and writer well into this century. I mention these two names to make the point that the renewal of theology called for by the Council for the Church at large was still just beginning a decade later and would take many years. The recently adjourned phase two of the Synod on Synodality cited the need for greater theological discussion on the involvement of women in the Church, a half century after this mediocre researcher plodded his way to roughly the same conclusion.
Aware that it is a half-century since I left the theological classroom, I purchased Father James F. Keenan, S.J.’s A History of Catholic Theological Ethics. . It was a magnificent read, based upon the research of post-Vatican II Church historians, biblical scholars, philosophers, and moralists, guided by Vatican II’s documents. There is energy and unity in the narrative. I marked up my copy and enshrined it in my “working reference library,” though there are many things in the book I need to go back and unpack more satisfactorily. For a reader who wishes to know how the Catholic Church’s moral history unfolded—and what a story it is—this kind of treatment will carry you along, based upon the freshest scholarship available and sensitive to both ancient writing and new moral issues including genetics, gender and transitioning, environmental issues, etc. It also introduces the reader to moral trends and scholarship today in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Father Keenan’s 456-page opus is a challenge. I believe it was the late Father Andrew Greeley who said that the Church is reluctant to recommend books to the faithful longer than 100 pages and without pictures. Amazon provides a healthy free sample of the book, including the table of contents. If you scan this information you will come across many unfamiliar names, philosophies, and controversies, but Father Keenan seems to know his audience…this is new material to just about everyone. I had no work of this nature available to me back in the day.
You will meet or become better friend with such diverse folks as St. Thomas Aquinas [1224-74], the Angelic Doctor, whose philosophical-theological synthesis still holds a unique place in Catholic scholarship; and you will meet Duns Scotus [1287-1347] who worked to dismantle Aquinas’s principles. Aquinas’s generation of thinkers depended upon, among others, the earlier thinking of the monk Peter Abelard [1079-1142] and his young student Heloise [1101-1164]. Yes, the very same Abelard and Heloise who collaborated on more than just books. Father Keenan quotes Heloise on morality and marriage, in the twelfth century, no less: “A woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale.” [p. 136] I mention Heloise here as a prime example of a woman scholar who is getting greater recognition today, in part because more lay and religious women are embracing advanced study and leadership in Church scholarship.
Father Keenan takes us into the post-Reformation Manualist era and the internal wars between the manualist scholars. The most famous of these was over the issue of “probabilism.” To put it simply—as if I could--if a penitent tells a priest confessor that, when presented with a moral dilemma, in good faith he chose option A even though the prevailing moral scholarship of the day would have held for option B, he is judged innocent by a Probablist priest or guilty by a Probabiliorist priest. Many in the Church saw the Probablist position as more respectful of the penitent; those opposed called the position laxist. Fortunately, the Church canonized the moralist St. Alphonsus Ligouri, a Probablist who founded the Redemptorist Order. About St. Alphonsus from Wikipedia: "The penitents should be treated as souls to be saved rather than as criminals to be punished". He is said never to have refused absolution to a penitent.
Probabilism has obviously dropped from current day Catholic usage, but the tension between mercy and law is still very much with us. Pastoral care for the LGBQ community was a difficult subject at the Synod this past week. But Father Keenan takes us further beyond United States concerns. His final section, “Moral Agency for a Global Theological Ethics,” addresses an issue I touched upon earlier. “Moralists are no longer singularly clerical priests, their training is not necessarily at Catholic institutions, and their professional positions are not episcopally controlled.” [p. 292] The author does not mention this, but Catholic scholars in general can publish frequently with secular powerhouses like Norton and Eerdmans’s. I get a regular catalogue from Yale University Press. Consequently, the old probabilism debates may continue nowadays on Amazon or your neighborhood Barnes and Noble.
Beyond that, Father Keenan examines the state of moral theology around the world and who is teaching and writing today. Except for Antarctica, every continent has sizeable Catholic populations, schools, and indigenous theologians. Catholic moral thinking is diverse, particularly between richer and poorer nations. Building upon the theological teachings of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, many Catholic theologians from developing nations are focusing upon the dignity of the human person. To give one example, they are outspoken that climate change presents the greatest danger and suffering to the poorest regions of the world, and they maintain that Church teaching must address the lifestyles and priorities of more affluent societies. Any of us who hang out in parishes are painfully aware that some of our brethren refer to Pope Francis as a “socialist” [or worse] when he speaks of the need of equality for those struggling to survive.
Given that we are hours away from Halloween—and my neighborhood is ground zero for trick-or-treaters, who arrive in vans, golf carts, and flatbed trucks—I am going to stop on a dime with the hope that sometime in the near future you pick up this book and explode your mind with an in-depth examination of history and morality that will enrich your appreciation of your Catholic heritage.