On Saturday’s sacrament post I commented that advances in one field of theology inevitably influence all of the others. This is no less true in moral theology, though given the very practical nature of the moral life—where the rubber meets the road—it is probably safe to say that moral theologians are impacted by secular life as well. This was certainly true in the twentieth century, where two World Wars, the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression, among other moral tragedies, were giving churchmen, statesmen, and philosophers many reasons to reflect upon the forces that led to these evils, specifically what was going on in the minds and hearts of men who perpetrated such things. But equally to the point, what was happening in the churches as the Nazi movement was evolving in a country composed of Lutherans and Catholics?
One way to put the question is whether Catholic life in the pews was a vibrant expression of God’s will, a true leaven to society. Again, reverting back to Saturday’s post, I recall Father Pius Parsch’s recollections of serving on the front lines of World War I, in which he was distressed at the lack of participation available to the soldiers in the Mass formulary of his day. His military experiences led him to a new career as a scholar and experimenter in the liturgical movement then beginning to blossom in Europe and the United States. The same kinds of conversions in Church life were occurring more and more frequently among thoughtful clerics, religious, and laity.
For the moral theologians, this conversion occurred at a time when morality itself was equated to the precision of the manuals in identifying and assessing sins. Again, referring to Saturday, I think back to the Vatican directive to moralists to incorporate specific penalties regarding women’s clothing into the compiling of new manuals—in 1943, the midst of the horrors of total world war. During and after the war there was a growing consensus that the entire science of moral theology needed a profound overhaul.
The best source for this revolution of Catholic moral theology is Father James Keenan’s history of twentieth-century developments (see home page), and I must admit that I cannot do justice here on the blog to all of the labors and the contributions of the European Catholic thinkers. I do recommend Father Keenan’s work to anyone who wants a close-up of the ecclesiastical and academic development of Catholic morality. A key point I do wish to make is that the United States lagged somewhat behind the Europeans in several areas of theology, including morality. In part this was due to the simple reality that European thinkers of all stripes, having experienced war in their front yard, approached religion and life questions with greater urgency. Many in Europe had despaired of organized religion in general. Others turned to philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre, the father of Existentialism, for outlooks to reality divorced from what they considered the corruption of bourgeois structures, perpetrated by institutions such as the Catholic Church. And, in post-war France and Italy in particular, Marxists and Socialists were making major inroads. European Catholic theologians were up against formidable foes, which brought out significant excellence, urgency, and imagination in the university classrooms, seminaries, and publishing.
Catholicism in the United States, as historians admit today, was not distinguished for its advanced academic strengths. American Catholicism was pragmatic—in 1947 the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was opening a new Catholic elementary school every ninety days—and the GI Bill of Rights enabled millions of Catholic vets to attend Catholic colleges for degrees in accounting, business, law, science, etc. Roman Catholicism in the United States had something of the reverse of the problems facing European Catholicism—the postwar economic boom here and the growth of Catholic families through the 1950’s placed enormous strains on American Bishops to provide the basics of Catholic life.
There was not a great deal of groundbreaking Catholic thought to be found in the United States prior to Vatican II, however. One could argue that the most internationally respected American theological scholar of the 1950’s was the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, whose work was in fact a major contribution to moral theology. In 1960 his We Hold These Truths discussed the challenge to Catholicism of living in free societies with no established religion, of which the United States was exhibit one. Although he was silenced by our old friend Cardinal Ottaviani, Father Murray was invited to Vatican II and contributed to the composition of the Council’s document on religious freedom.
But Murray was an exception to the rule. The thinkers who would impact Catholic morality in the United States were Europeans, and young American Catholic priests seeking advanced degrees in moral theology would of necessity travel overseas for their graduate studies. Father Keenan assesses the situation quite well: “In the 1950’s, Catholic moral theologians split over theological methods; they either stayed with the manualists and taught moral theology as an aid for the priest confessor or they followed the lead of the revisionists and began looking for a moral theology that was more positive, more theological and more attuned to human experience.” (p. 83) He goes on to quote the most visible of the mid-century revisionists, Father Bernard Haring, who observed that “Moral theology, as I understand it, is not concerned first with decision making and discrete acts. Its basic task and purpose is to gain the right vision, to assess the main perspectives, and to present those truths and values which should bear upon decisions to be taken before God.” (p. 83)
In 1954 Haring published The Law of Christ. This work, as much as any work I can recall, marked the beginning of a new age of undertaking the art of moral thinking and pastoral action. Next time we will cross the bridge with Father Haring from the moral manuals to the Gospel call to conversion.