There was an old saying that more ecclesiastical teaching careers came crashing to an end on the rocks of morality than any other theological discipline in the Church. As a psychotherapist in private practice with a master’s in theology and college teaching experience, I worked weekends for my home diocese teaching theological disciplines to catechists and schoolteachers over many years for their certifications. I could not help but notice that I was getting a lot of assignments to teach morality and human sexuality. Perhaps it was the fact that I did not depend upon my diocese for my full-time employment, unlike my fellow teaching colleagues, which gave me a certain bulletproof status in teaching the most contentious of Church disciplines. For we live currently in a time of “old school versus new school” understanding of Catholic morality.
I approached the challenge of teaching morality and sexuality in a twofold way. I was careful to teach the literal instructions of Catholic texts, but I also provided pastoral background on how some of the more controversial teachings, such as those dealing with divorce or artificial birth control, were handled in the confessional or in confidential priestly counseling, known as “the internal forum,” of pastoral moral practice. In fact, my own seminary training included a course on the internal forum dynamic of confession, i.e., how to assist those whose consciences led them to other moral decisions at variance with official public Church teaching.
Several students over the years accused me of teaching heresy and in some cases became highly disruptive in the classroom at the idea that there might be “exceptions” in the face of what they believed to be infallible Church teaching. These instances, fortunately, were not common. What I did come to see were several distinct attitudes among Catholic adults in approaching Catholic moral teaching.  Catholic moral teachings were absolute. Students could nor conceptualize exceptions without bringing down the whole house of cards.  Catholic moral teachings obliged to varying degrees. Although artificial contraception, such as the pill, is explicitly forbidden by the Church, no student minister of mine seemed unduly concerned about the preponderance of two and three children families at the communion rail every Sunday.  Celibate, fallible males do not possess unquestioned authority to dictate matters of personal choice to lay Catholics. Few would say this out loud, but I read it frequently in course evaluations, and recently much more so in Catholic blog sites and Facebook streams.
What is painfully obvious to me is the perception of morality as a matter of the institution and the individual. One is hard pressed to extract from any discussion of Catholic morality a relationship to the Bible, or more specifically, to the following of and discipleship of Jesus Christ. Nor is there any widespread sense among Catholics of why the Church has felt obligated to teach as it does. Consequently, the need for an overhaul in the catechetics and pastoral life of the Church is desperately overdue, and since the Catechist Café started posting in late 2014, I have been searching for an introductory moral theology text I might use in my own work and review and recommend to those who follow this blog, one that explains the present day conflicts in moral methodology.
I am enthused to say that I have come across a splendid introductory book on understanding the meaning of a moral life. A few weeks ago, I posted the 2021 Spring Catalogue of Liturgical Press, and I noted the inclusion of An Introduction to Christian Ethics: A New Testament Perspective [2015, 2020] by Alberto de Mingo Kaminouchi. The term “introduction” is appropriate. The author provides an overview of how to conceptualize faith and right behavior; he uses the term “Christian” [instead of Catholic] because of his belief that all morality flows from a union with Christ as we meet him in the Bible, and in this respect Christian ethics or morality is an ecumenical venture we share with all the baptized.
Typically, Catholic morality was [and for many, still is] conceived as a free-standing legal system, akin to a superficial understanding of the Law of the Hebrew Scripture, a point-by-point directive for all peoples always to observe at the command of God, to avoid hell and achieve heaven. Western Catholicism is unique in that it believes itself to be the official arbiter and interpreter of the Bible in its moral legislation, inspired to properly articulate moral behaviors for new circumstances not envisioned in Biblical times. Consider sexuality. The exhortation in the Book of Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” has been conjoined to Genesis 38:9, [“But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So, whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother”] to formulate Catholic teaching against a multitude of sins, including masturbation, in vitro fertilization, and artificial birth control.
Since the mid-twentieth century Catholic theologians have come to question the propositional approach to morality, known as casuistry. Kaminouchi explains in his introduction that casuistic morality does not date back to New Testament times but was born on July 15, 1563. On that day, the Council of Trent mandated the creation of seminaries and a new science of morality to train future confessors in making proper judgments of guilt in the confessional. The priest, as judge, needed case law to assess the moral condition of the penitent’s soul. Case law was compiled into manuals, hence the term “Manualist Era” which has endured in some circles into our lifetimes. Consider the life and work of Father John Ford of Boston College. He is widely believed to be the manual moralist who convinced Pope Paul VI not to change the ban on artificial birth control in the pope’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae on the ground that changing one moral law in the system would bring the whole system crashing down. Such is the congenital weakness of systems. Ford retired from his teaching post in the following year, 1969, as BC students stopped registering for his courses. [See “John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: Moral Theologian at the End of the Manualist Era” who died in 1989].
If the desired product of moral theology was correct judgment on the state of the soul in terms of guilt, appropriate sorrow, and absolution, the system was sufficient, if not engaging. However, over the past two centuries theological scholars in other Church disciplines, notably Scripture, discerned from their studies of the New Testament a different dynamic of salvation and redemption, drawn from the example of Jesus and his early followers. The beginning of moral law, they found, was not codes and propositions but a radical change in the human being who, having encountered Jesus personally or in the preaching of his followers, “became a new person” in baptism and sealing by the Holy Spirit.
In the 1950’s the German moralist Father Bernard Haring brought the insights of the Scripture into the realm of moral theology in his epic The Law of Christ. [See my review of Haring’s 1998 autobiography, Free and Faithful: My Life in the Church, which describes how Haring’s World War II experiences led him to reexamine the role of moral theology in the Church.] Kaminouchi quotes Haring: “Such a moral theology [the manualist tradition] no longer promotes the patterns of discipleship, of that righteousness that comes from God’s justifying action and in loving response to his call to become ever more the image and likeness of his own mercy. All this was left out, or at least left to dogmatic or spiritual theology.” [p. 7]
During the reform council Vatican II [1962-1965] the bishops of the Church approved a decree on the training of seminarians for the priesthood, Optatam Totius, October 28, 1965. In paragraph 16 the document addresses a reform of moral theology: “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.” However, this reform has never been fully implemented, the result being that where the moral life of the Catholic is concerned, “sin and law [remain] the center of interest.” [p. 9] Of particular concern is the present tendency of many newly ordained priests to prosecute sinful acts in the confessional at the expense of emphasis upon Biblical renewal and the complexities of the human situation.
Kaminouchi, in his introductory chapter [pp. 8-9], lists six reasons why the manualist approach to the teaching and pastoral practice of morality is inadequate for the Church. First, it cultivates minimalism. “An ethics centered on sin does not teach people to do good, but to avoid evil and occasions of sin.” It is a far cry of the New Testament ethics of Jesus, whose beatitudes are open ended challenges to holiness. Second, “If the criterion of moral goodness lies in keeping the law, I can consider myself ‘good.’” This is the pharisaic complacency that Jesus decried during his ministry. Third, “Following the rules blindly creates personalities reluctant to think for ourselves.” Not only does the human conscience atrophy over time, but just as in civil law, circumstances inevitably arise for which no existing law has yet taken account.
Fourth, given that no human can meet the requirements of moral law perfectly, there is a permanent state of guilt which can lead to discouragement and even scrupulosity, on the one hand, or cynicism and loss of faith on the other. Fifth is an excessive individualism. “I have to worry first of all about saving my own soul. What others do is their problem.” Such an attitude is contrary to the unity of the Body of Christ. The moral life is a shared life in charity. And finally, sixth, “The preconciliar treatises on moral theology hardly mentioned God at all.” Kaminouchi calls this reality “the idolatry of the norm.” The goal of a healthy morality is precisely communion with God. Ideally, we meet the divine in the confessional as we do at the Communion banquet.
In our next post on An Introduction to Christian Ethics, we will look at the source of Christian morality, the life of Jesus as we know it from Scripture and his witnesses.