As you may have surmised, the Brew Master was away for spring break until yesterday, a seven-day cruise through the Caribbean. I don’t post my travels beforehand, for reasons of internet safety and property security. And while you might not believe this, I did have the opportunity to read and reflect on the ship’s many comfortable hideaways for readers and thinkers, including one spot with continuous coffee service.
Before I left last weekend, I had indicated on this stream that I would attempt to sort out the various directions of moral theology in the late twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries. I took this project with me last week and discovered that sorting out the streams of moral thinking was going to be a bigger challenge than I realized, because there are so many of them, and a lot of things have changed and influenced Catholic thought in the past half-century.
Although U.S. Catholic theologians were aware of “social sin” such as racism and poverty in the 1960’s, and gradually the Viet Nam War, the “systems” under which they worked, the neo-classicist and the revisionist, were both heavily indebted to European thinking—traditional Roman or progressive Western European. In a sense, both were “bourgeois” in that they addressed themselves to middle class people in generally democratic nations regarding life within the Church, such as sexual ethics, and the Church’s reach (or overreach, as some argued) in its claims to moral teaching authority.
The first stirrings of a new systematic approach to moral thinking and acting actually emerged in Central and South America. At Vatican II many Latin American bishops articulated concerns not just about the poverty of their people, but about the pervasive injustices of economic and governmental structures. Some of this language found its way into the texts of the Council, but with a bourgeois twist: an encouraging of first world churches like dioceses in the U.S. to send more priests as missionaries, and the reestablishment of the permanent diaconate for priest-less regions of the world. In other words, the majority of Council fathers viewed the sufferings of the Americas as a spiritual or priestly problem alone and missed the greater cultural struggle of the region.
Since 1955 the Latin American Bishops Conference bishops (CELAM) had gathered regularly in a regional conference to discuss the common pastoral and societal needs of their countries, most of which were “third world” (and many still are.) No English text of the history of CELAM has been produced as of this date, but the period of 1955-1980 would make compelling if disturbing reading. Two thinkers who would have great influence upon CELAM and the identity of the Latin American Church in its approach to moral thinking were Paulo Freire and Gustavo Gutierrez. If I had to order them, I would begin with the Brazilian Freire, an educator/philosopher with widespread influence through his writing and political action. Freire’s epic work is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (1968) where Freire writes: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” (See video of Freire here.)
Freire did not explicitly exercise ministry in the Church, but his works are the product of a Catholic country, and it is easy to see how his educational desire to open the eyes of the young to the harsh realities of the world around them inevitably impacted the life of the Church. However, it remained for Catholic moralists like Guttierez to bring this style of thought to Catholic moral practice, and the courage of bishops at CELAM, notably the Medellin Conference of 1968, to rework the pastoral life of Latin America. We will follow that next Monday.
Unfortunately, I have to go to work now—clinic Monday.
One of the major mile markers in the field of late 20th century moral theology was Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, issued August 6, 1993. The pope cuts to the core of the apple rather quickly. In his introduction, he explains to the official recipients of the encyclical, the bishops, the need for his document in uncharacteristically sharp analysis:
[Para. 4] “In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church's moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus, the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church's moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to "exhort consciences" and to "propose values", in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.
In particular, note should be taken of the lack of harmony between the traditional response of the Church and certain theological positions, encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology, with regard to questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself….”
The timing of the document is explained in para. 5: If this Encyclical, so long awaited, is being published only now, one of the reasons is that it seemed fitting for it to be preceded by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains a complete and systematic exposition of Christian moral teaching.” Wikipedia provides a decent summary of the encyclical itself. The chronology of the release of the 1993 Catechism preceding Veritatis Splendor is instructive. John Paul’s intention was not to reiterate or clarify the content of Catholic morality—which the Catechism had already done—but to defend the official role of the pope and bishops as the final arbiters of moral teaching in the hierarchy of the Church. Specifically, as quoted on para. 4, there is concern that various trends and theories in the field of Catholic morality, including seminary curriculums, were undermining the eternal essence of truth. It was no longer a matter of individual teachings, as with contraception and Humanae Vitae, but an “overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine….” John Paul understood the Church’s teaching mission to include the ultimate defense of human life and freedom, and he believed that a breakdown in this Magisterial role would result in loss of comprehension of truth itself.
John Keenan writes that Veritatis Splendor is the best example of “neo-moralist theology,” (p. 128) given its adherence to the ahistorical scholastic or propositional method of moral presentation and an absence of consideration of the roles of the lives and experiences of the faithful or the goodwill contributions of moral thinkers. By contrast, Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia devotes considerable treatment to the existential challenges faced by families in the present day and a willingness to incorporate them into the Church’s mission.
The response to Veritatis Splendor was mixed, as one might imagine. There was a sizeable number of bishops and Catholics in general who welcomed a strong push of the reset button after thirty years of upheaval after the Council. In my own recollection of 1993, I seem to recall that much more attention was paid to the release and implementation of the Catechism, which many expected would bring a clarity and calm to admittedly diverse styles and theories of catechetics.
Catholic moralists themselves—who, with the bishops, were the targeted audience—responded strongly. Papal documents in the modern era do not generally single out offending individuals in any area of Catholic life. (The disciplining of errant Catholic teachers and writers is managed by the Sacred Congregation of the Faith, which does make names public if a particular writing is involved.) Thus, though in the normal language of an encyclical, the “certain theological positions” and faculties mentioned without reference by the pope in para. 4 cast a pall upon many career Catholic moralists. A common objection was the pope’s misunderstanding of what Catholic moralists were actually saying in their work. A few years before the encyclical I had the opportunity to meet the controversial Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung at Stetson University here in Central Florida. During the Q and A session, someone asked Kung his impressions of Pope John Paul II. Kung, who can be snarky, replied that the pope spent too much time in audiences with “boxers and starlets.” “I wish he would talk to his theologians once in a while.”
I think what Kung was trying to say, albeit harshly, is that the interaction of cathedral and university is not what it once was. In the middle ages the great European universities—notably the University of Paris—advised bishops, councils, and popes on the great issues of the day. Regrettably, the Vatican through much of my lifetime has taken a more adversarial stance toward the moral academic trends, and it seems to miss the truth that moral theologians are self-policing in the way that all reputable disciples are through peer review, revision, updating, etc. John Paul’s critique of “fundamental option” as a replacement for attention to the morality of individual acts is a continuation of an old debate in Catholic theology whether virtue causes good behavior or results from good behavior.
The immediate outcome of the two documents--Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism has been something of a divide in Catholic life between moral “hardliners” and “visionaries.” This is a caricature, I hasten to add. But in practice it is true that one sees in pastoral life the strict constructionists who follow the Catechism to the letter and those who hold to the old maxim in civil law, that it is impossible to legislate for every conceivable instance. There is also the issue of “loyalty to the Church” and the meaning of orthodoxy. Can one be “critically loyal,” as in the case of St. Paul who challenged St. Peter on the baptism of Gentiles?
That Pope Francis has adopted the more revisionist style of moral teaching has been a cause of considerable stress for those used to the style of Pope John Paul, but in truth what we have is a continuation of a dynamic dating back centuries: the Jesuit casuists versus the Redemptorist Probablists in the 1700’s—legal vs. pastoral approach to moral teaching—being one example. I will pick up on the particulars, including feminist and liberation influences in moral theology, the next time around, which will be in two weeks.
My home communications system was down on Monday and Tuesday. I hope to have this week's Morality post on line by Wednesday evening.
The immediate years after the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae were focused upon a primarily pastoral response: what could be done for troubled married couples within the existing categories of Church practice and pastoral sensitivities without irreparable harm to the teaching authority of the Church. By 1980 or thereabouts, the argument and the landscape of Catholic morality were beginning to change significantly.
James Keenan (see home page) points out that in the immediate years after Vatican II moral theology was divided into the neo-manualist school and the revisionist school. The neo-manualists were the successors of the scholastic thinkers who embraced the teaching of theology in propositional form, and the cataloguing of sinful acts in manuals for confessors. The revisionists, as the name suggests, looked to a discovery of new ways to define morality and virtue. Bernard Haring’s The Law of Christ (1954), with its emphasis on the New Testament teachings of Jesus, is often cited as the genesis of the age of the revisionists.
As the post-Council age progressed through the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) and through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it became clearer that reconciliation between these two groups (and others that continue to emerge) would be very difficult. As Keenan writes, the critical difference between them was the very nature of moral objectivity. For the neo-manualists, promulgated universal law was the source; for revisionists, a competent moral judgment.
The term “promulgated universal law” refers to the Magisterium of teaching authority of the Church. This authority is far reaching; the Catechism in paras. 2030-2043 specifies this authority; one would be hard pressed to find much “wiggle room” in terms of historical development or subjective input. No revisionist of my acquaintance has ever denied the authority of the Church as teacher of faith and morals; generally, disagreements rest upon specific points of methodology and definition.
For example, the Church has declared that all matters of sexuality are “of grave matter.” Any violation of the sixth or ninth commandment must be considered gravely (or mortally) sinful. Many moralists have countered that sexuality is the only area of human experience so designated, and that this teaching at least bears analysis in terms of the Church’s stated or implied historical preference for the virginal life. Such analysis is currently under way; Just Love (2006) by Sister Margaret Farley was both widely acclaimed and censured by the Vatican. I must say that the two reporters who summarized this censure for The New York Times in 2012 provided a better and more concise presentation of the revisionist/neo-manualist mindsets than anything I could write here. When I heard about the Vatican’s interest in the book, I read and reviewed it myself. As I note in the review, in some aspects her thinking was more Roman than the pope, as they say, in matters regarding the marriage bond.
Sister Farley’s scholarship brings another issue into the light. Vatican II had, in principle at least, called for greater involvement of the laity in the life of the Church, and this invitation included the sphere of theology. By the end of the twentieth century more laymen and women, and particularly women religious, had taken advanced degrees in moral theology and putting forth innovative thinking through published works. From the academic vantage point, Catholic moral theology was becoming a public venture, no longer exclusively under the provenance of pontifical universities or seminaries.
Because today is “clinic day” for me, I need to gallop to a halt here, but as I said, The New York Times link is particularly worthy of a look, and I will pick up next week.