A Moral BreatherRead Now
Looking back on recent Morality Monday posts, I think it might be time for something of a “reset” before I get bogged down in a late medieval morass of philosophical distinctions. In short, I am asking myself, “What am I doing on Mondays that might be of some help to those readers’ kind enough and patient enough to look in?” To date, I have been trying to provide a historical framework to assist any Catholic adult—particularly catechist/educators—cope with the trying challenge of both discerning what God calls us to be, how to talk about this discernment within our churches, and how to communicate when teaching from an authoritative position in the Church.
I learned this year that my home diocese is drawing a curtain on the course program in which I have taught, in its various formats, since 1978. Starting in August our catechists and school teachers will receive theological formation on-line through the massive program developed by the Archdiocese of Chicago. There is much good to be said for this change, in terms of quality of content and ease of access for the students; also, in our diocese, responsibility for ministerial faith formation training has been transferred to the Office of Schools, which brings much-needed professional organization to the process currently in place. I do wonder about the omission of the “human factor”—though at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I take my state-required psychology courses on-line. Of more practical concern to me is that as of August 1 my contracting work with the diocese comes to an end. I never thought in this line of work I would lose place to technology!
Recently I finished teaching course 211, “Catechesis and Human Sexuality,” and as I said good-bye to the principal I joked that “I can take these outlines home now and burn them!” Although I still have five “play-dates” left on my calendar through the late spring, none involve morality and/or human sexuality, at least directly. There are no subjects in the theological agenda harder to teach, and to be frank, I am glad to be out from under the responsibility.
One may ask, why is the teaching of moral theology harder than other areas of theology? Isn’t everything right there in the Catechism? That is essentially the “classicist” position of moral theology I have referred to in many earlier posts. As I teach under the bishop’s mandate, I have the obligation to provide the authoritative Church teachings, and specifically the sources. Technology is a big plus here, for after each course I email the course outline to participants with hyperlinks to all pertinent Magisterial documents, be they specific Catechism paragraphs, papal encyclicals, Vatican II documents, professional commentary, etc. I am also very clear that, whatever one may think privately, a catechist or teacher must represent the Church. If this becomes a matter of continuing or pervasive tension, honesty dictates that one steps out of the position. I never reached that point, nor do I feel that way now, though as I said earlier the job is never easy.
That said, when I am teaching a course (or writing, for that matter) I am in face to face engagement with thoughtful human beings—the men and women of good will referred to throughout Vatican II documents. Many are practicing Catholics, some are not. Some are Christians of other faith families, others have no affiliation but work for the Church because their professional skills are needed for the educational mission. Their own catechetical histories are incredibly diverse. From questions I receive in class, I deduce that many Catholics have no knowledge of a birth control teaching, for example, until they try to use diocesan medical insurance to fill a contraceptive prescription. Seriously. I hear complaints about that. Many of the Catholics I teach are very loyal and dedicated to their local parish, in its religious, communal, and humanitarian dimensions.
I send an email to my students a few days before the course to give them directions to the hosting parish (last Saturday was easy—everybody knows where Cocoa Beach is) but I also invite them to send me an email with issues and/or topics related to the course that they would want me to address. In other words, I put out the word that while we have a curriculum to cover, I believe the educational process is a dialogue, too. I enjoy a cluster of the Socrates-minded. For example, one student on Saturday asked me to parallel Israel’s history with “what was going on outside of Israel,” a great question, and fortunately one that I had anticipated in the outline and the bibliography. (Father Boadt to the rescue.)
A catechist/teacher/preacher only becomes effective by listening to such questions and addressing them as worthy inquests. In the teaching of moral theology, though, a teacher is more likely to encounter intellectual and emotional questions because the subject matter can be highly personal. One example may suffice: the issue of infertility. The official Catholic teaching was most recently formulated in this 1987 document (written by then Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI) and I incorporate this document into my presentation, privately aware that there may be some participants in the room who have conceived children in this way. Overall, the students seem to respect the logic of it—I never had an awkward moment on this issue in terms of anger with the Church. But they do respond to it. If I can sum up their observations over time, the sense seems to be that couples who spend as much as six figures to bear children are doing what they understand the Church wants them to do. If there is one parcel of catechetics that has been successfully passed along to today’s Church, it is the relationship of the sacrament of marriage and children.
I acknowledge their sincere questions as legitimate ones to pursue. I explain the place of conscience and the role of personal advice in the confessional. I explain the difference between “grave moral matter” and the full embrace of a mortal sin. I talk about a hierarchy of moral teachings. I am clear that any Catholic couple who has attempted, successfully or not, to bear children through medical intervention is not excommunicated; to the contrary, a child is always a blessing. Sometimes I bring up the little-known fact that Pope John Paul I, weeks before his election in 1978, refused to condemn the parents of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby born that July, observing that “they just wanted to have a baby.”
If you are a regular reader of the Monday stream, you are familiar with Bernard Haring, Josef Fuchs, and the “historical” approach to moral theology, which in part emphasizes an inevitable tension between the ideal and the possible in a particular circumstance. The Eight Beatitudes—those open-ended calls to perfection—are the paradigm of all moral judgment and action. All Church moral teaching stands at the service of the Gospel. Pope Francis’ method of teaching moral theology, as in his Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia, draws heavily from revealed Scripture. The moral theology teacher takes his or her students into these unfamiliar waters; Pope Francis has been severely criticized for steering the Bark of Peter into Biblical understandings that, at the least,
The Catholic educator and the Catholic minister carry an accountability for more than just the status quo of the Church, including its moral operations. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes understood that God’s grace is given to all, that our questioners, even our enemies, serve us with their insights. “The Church is not unaware of how much it has profited from the history and development of humankind,” and “also recognizes that it has benefited and is still benefiting from the opposition of its enemies and persecutors.” (GS, 44) One can take the dim view, I suppose, that all questions and criticisms of Church practice are fruit of the poisonous tree of modernity or the corruption of society. I have chosen not to adopt this stance because the Gospels themselves do not. Next Sunday’s (Ascension) Gospel from Matthew commands “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” I have never left a classroom after an engaging course with thoughtful, critical students without becoming a better man myself, because a listening evangelization has brought me in touch with their grace, their Spirit.
In the unfolding development of moral theology in the Vatican II era, a common theme among theologians of the time was “conversion,” specifically their own reactions to the classical/manualist tradition of their training and the emerging re-visioning of the Church in the language of the Council document and analyses of the times. In this blog thread, I have described the processes of two moralists of the times: Bernard Haring, profoundly affected by his World War II experiences, turned his attention from a legally based manualist moral approach to a Gospel-centered morality of virtue and deeds. Last week we examined the role of the classical moralist John Ford who, in the heat of debate over natural law and contraception, decided to remain faithful to the classical view of nature espoused by Pope Paul VI and became a major force behind the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
It cannot be denied that Josef Fuchs (1912-2005) came to his conversion moment with exquisite timing. The German Father Fuchs was not only a student of the classicalist tradition of moral theology, he was considered one of its eminent teachers. As a professor at the Gregorian Institute in Rome, Fuchs’ De Castitate et Ordine Sexuali became the standard seminary text on sexual morality, with editions appearing as late as 1963. His conservative credentials were so unquestioned that Pope Paul VI appointed Fuchs to the special commission studying the birth control issue through the mid-1960’s, as a counterbalance to the commission’s apparent trending toward a change in the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control.
Fuchs did not write an autobiography as Haring did, so it is hard to pinpoint precisely when his thinking began to shift, but historians of the era (see Robert McClory, for example) are in general agreement that his experience on the commission was something of an awakening to the struggles and realities of conjugal married life. Notably, he engaged with Americans Pat and Patricia Crowley, founders of the Cana and Pre-Cana concept for couples in the 1940’s as well as the Christian Family Movement after World War II (my own parents hosted CFM meetings in their home during the 1960’s). CFM was a precursor to RENEW and other small group faith sharing programs.
We get a hint that something was a stir from historian James F. Keenan (see home page). Keenan reports that in 1964, at an annual meeting of Jesuit moralists, the topic of the birth control pill as an agent to regularize the menstrual cycle came under debate. The last person to speak was the moralist Richard McCormick. Keenan quotes another historian, John Mahoney: “[McCormick] said, ‘I hear Joe Fuchs is reconsidering his understanding of the morality of birth control.’ Mahoney reports that there was an audible ‘collective intake of breath.’ Then, one after another, the Jesuits said, ‘Can we talk about church teaching on birth control?’ Joseph Fuchs change gave his brother Jesuits the permission to examine a topic that previously was off limits.” [John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (1989), 2007 interview]
Fuchs himself resigned his teaching position at the Gregorian University in 1965 and asked the University to discontinue publishing De Casitate. Keenan, a later graduate student of Fuchs, asked about the experience of his work on the papal commission and his change of heart on moral methodology. “Listening to the testimony of married couples who testified to the commission, Fuchs grew in his understanding of the complexity of moral decisions about the responsible regulation of births and the right exercise of parenthood. Whereas earlier he believed that the way to apply church teachings was simply to obey them, now he realized that genuine application required adults to relate church teaching conscientiously to their personal responsibilities. From these couples, Fuchs learned the competency of a mature moral conscience.”
Keenan also recalls that Fuchs would advise his young moral theology graduate students to spend as much time hearing confessions as possible. “You should hear weekly confessions,” he urged me [Keenan]. “To be a good moral theologian, you must learn to listen to what the people of God are anxious about.” Fuchs, in that sense, was like Haring (and no doubt to Pope Francis today) in his contention that the baptized are intimately involved in the exercise of conscience, and his moral theologizing rests upon the premise that God grace enables Christians to make wise and prudent determinations in the circumstances of their lives.
Fuchs never wrote another book after his service on the commission, but he composed 70 essays published in various collections over the years. As he himself explained, he wrote in response to the positions—favorable or otherwise--of other scholars and churchmen, including the moral writings of Pope John Paul II. It is hard to summarize what would become Fuchs’ “system” without a wide reading of his essays, but it is clear that the thrust of his thought encouraged many theologians, priests, and bishops (particularly those on the commission) to entertain their own doubts and engage in important reconsiderations of the pastoral needs of the faithful.
A Collision of OutlooksRead Now
In the post Vatican II era when moral thinking and philosophizing divided along the classical/neo-manualist trend and the historical trend, there are two men of the first school worthy of consideration, given that their work has had significant influence before and after the Council. They are the Jesuit moralists Gerald Kelly (1902-1964) and John Ford (1902-1989). Both men served the Church with distinction and were widely respected by their peers, though Ford’s career suffered after the Humanae Vitae encyclical of 1968, for reasons which I will explain below.
Both men edited (1941-1954) the famous “Notes in Moral Theology” in the Catholic quarterly Theological Studies, a regular summary of moral theology writing and publishing. I am happy to say that “Notes” thrives to this day. As James Keenan (see home page) writes, “They were ardent defenders of the classical nature of the moral law. For instance, in a 1958 lecture on natural law, Ford taught ‘Given a principle of natural law, firmly established, e.g., parricide is immoral, it is valid for all men, at all times, in all places, and if the proposition is stated with sufficient precision, in all circumstances. There are no exempt days, no exempt territory. There is no such thing as a moral holiday where natural law is concerned.’” (p. 115)
I linger here for a second because the preceding paragraph from Keenan/Ford is as good a summary of the classical/moral approach to moral theology as you are likely to find anywhere. This is the language of law, of geometric logic, timeless and certainly ahistorical. It presupposes a knowledge base in the operations of all humans, an instinct of right and wrong, accessible with or without baptism. It is a system of morality that some Catholics wish was taught from pulpits, classrooms, and seminaries, because it is clear and despite its inflexibility, it gave comfort that in a crazy world there was one tried and true pillar of moral truth. Keenan adds the proviso that underwriting the entire moral system of classicists was absolute truth in the teaching Magisterium of the Church.
However, as anyone who has watched thirty minutes of “Law and Order” knows, law per se is messy. I am not antinomian or anti-law; quite the contrary. But I think that the same problems which constantly challenge civilian lawyers also challenge classical Church moralists. Post-World War II moralists such as Bernard Haring understood this and introduced the historical method with its emphasis upon Scripture and conscience for both religious and technical purposes. Moralists of the classical tradition such as Kelly and Ford were certainly aware of trends away from the traditional, and I am sure worked congenially with colleagues of the Haring tradition, at least until the mid-1960’s. One reason is the shared mission of moralists to serve the Church.
The biggest mistake one can make in an assessment of classicists is to think of them as inflexible, hard-hearted absolutists in their pastoral approach. Ask yourself a question: when you are in potential or actual trouble, who do you turn to? A good lawyer, of course. Since one of the basic premises of law is that what is not expressly forbidden is permitted, a Catholic moralist in the pre-Council era worked to protect both of his “clients” so to speak, The Law of God and the People of God. Moreover, a weakness of all case law structure is the inability of the legislator to anticipate all possible future circumstances, and a traditional moralist would be called upon to apply a principle of existing law to new circumstances. Both Kelly and Ford agreed, for example, that the “rhythm method” of periodic abstinence was permissible precisely because it was not forbidden in papal teaching.
Gerald Kelly is something of the father of medical ethics, and his interpretation of the fifth commandment and its direct prohibition of murder became the groundwork for end-of-life decision making in use today. Though one cannot actively kill, natural law—in Kelly’s analysis—does not advocate excessive lifesaving, either. In 1950 he asked whether oxygen and intravenous feeding had to be used to preserve the life of a patient in a terminal coma: “I see no reason why even the most delicate professional standard should call for their use….Their use creates expense and nervous strain without conferring any real benefit.” (p. 115)
John Ford, a fixture at Weston Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, was a more complex and controversial figure, and present day historians detect a strain of historical sympathy in some of his work. He condemned in print obliteration bombing, in 1944, at the height of World War II (such acts as the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo). Later Ford would write that alcoholism is primarily a physical disability and not a moral one. (Ford himself was a recovering alcoholic, as his biography here details.) His friend and colleague Father Kelly died in 1964, at a time when Ford found himself at the center of one of the most significant moral theology battles of the twentieth century, the issue of artificial birth control. Ford’s work was much respected by Pope Paul VI, who brought him into the inner circle of advisors debating the possibility of changing Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii of 1930 prohibiting artificial birth control.
Ford’s influence on the pope here was significant, but he maintained his silence until twenty years later (1988). Speaking to an audience, Ford said that “when I said to Pope Paul, ‘Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?’ Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said. He reacted exactly as though I was calling him a traitor to his Catholic belief.” (p. 122) Ford, needless to say, defended the 1968 Church teaching Humanae Vitae. His peers at Weston distanced themselves from him and he fell out of favor with students. Ford gave up the classroom a year after the encyclical.
Keenan observes that Humanae Vitae was a “rejection of the revisionists’ [moral theologians’] innovative approach and the first significant papal endorsement of neo-manualism after Vatican II. HV was a blow to the historical theologians of the Bernard Haring era, and Ford was the public figure in the United States to wear the albatross. Nor was his position attacked only by the historical practitioners; the extreme right of the Church has called him to task (posthumously) for not advocating infallibility status to the birth control teaching.
Ford, in a way, was caught in a matrix in 1968: he could not bring his full analytical skill to reproductive morality as he had with, say, rules of war or judgments on alcoholism. For the Vatican had raised the ante on a reproductive issue to the level of the integrity of the entire Church teaching enterprise, and in doing so had made loyalty to HV a litmus test of Church orthodoxy. In his position, Ford could choose only loyalty to the full teaching of the Church or a denial of the Magisterium. Unfortunately, this choice has become institutionalized into the present century.
Post-Council WatershedRead Now
Vatican II was a watershed for Catholic Moral Theology, and we live today in the templates of moral thought that formed in this era. The first thing to note from the Council’s documents is that moral theology, in its classical, legal, and scholastic format, was brought in from the cold and incorporated into developments in other areas of Church through: the very nature of the Church (Ecclesiology), Sacred Scripture, Foundational Theology (the language of faith), Soteriology (the theology of salvation), Church history, Eschatology (the theology of time and destiny), and in particular, Christology (the nature and message of the Christ). In short, a Catholic moralist was bound to examine the genesis of a moral teaching—past, present, future, by the light of the broader wisdom of the Church.
As we have discussed a few times before, Vatican II did not of itself invent a “new Morality.” The list of Catholic theologians from all disciplines influential in the Council dates back several generations, including to the German moralist Bernard Haring. Collectively, with all Catholic disciplines brought into play in the Council’s deliberations through the theologian-advisors or periti of each bishop, the resulting debates and documents assumed a new style of teaching, away from the old orientations toward signal statements and anathemas or damnations, and more toward a Christ-centered narrative looking toward the future, addressed not just to the Church but to the world at large.
After the Council two distinct schools of moral theology took shape. This was probably inevitable, but Pope Paul’s issuing of Humanae Vitae in 1968 (the ban on artificial birth control) hastened the development of moralist schools as the document deeply impacted Catholics in a variety of ways. I am bringing back our old commentator James Keenan, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (2010, available on Kindle and other formats) to walk us through the post-Conciliar developments.
The two dispositions of moralists are referred to in theological literature as “the classicist” and the “historical.” It seems that the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan coined these trends in his general theological writings around 1967, and it is true that the divisions I will describe are probably in play in all branches of theology. If you grew up in my generation, the immediate post-World War II generation, the “classicist” world view of religion may come second nature. As Keenan writes, “for classicists, the world is a finished product and the truth has already been revealed, expressed, thought, and known. In order to be a truth, it must be universal and unchanging. Clarity is key. Its logic is deductive: we apply the principle to the situation and we derive an answer to the syllogism. The moral law is found, then, in that which is always true, never changes, and always applies.” (p. 111)
Keenan explains that in the classicist framework “As God is, so is God’s teaching.” God’s willed teachings have the same qualities of God. The Church is the guardian of the deposit of God’s truth; her leaders cannot change moral law because they cannot undermine God’s will. Difficulties with moral teachings—or public disputation by Church members—are seen as shortcomings or misunderstandings by baptized members. Moreover, any public dissent would be interpreted as undermining the essence of the Church as protector of God’s revelation.
Of course, the description above overlooks several key points that have troubled moralists—and Church thinkers in general---particularly in the twentieth century. There is no room in the classicist system for the individual conscience, nor the unfolding of history and new circumstances. Moreover, there is an almost intrinsic discomfort with any institution—even a Spirit-filled Church—making the claim that it speaks for God in every human circumstance, particularly in the light of past Church history as we understand it today.
There is some irony in the fact that the second school of morality, one that we typically think of as modern, should be named “historical.” But the history of the Church itself is a factor in the name, for the journey from Calvary to the present day reveals a Church that wrestled long and hard to discover the Revelation of God and put it into practice. Moreover, the exercise of the Church as teaching Mother continues to mature. In the nineteenth century, the British Catholic Lord Acton coined the famous “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and he famously opposed the idea of papal infallibility before the Council Vatican I in 1869, the council which declared the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Moral theologians of the “historical school” define the word history in its totality—past, present, future. Truth is discovered in history by historical persons. “Truth has its objectivity, but it is only gradually being grasped by us in our judgment over time, through experience and with maturity.” (p. 113) Historicists are more cautious and usually quite tentative about any truth-claim. Whereas the classicist worldview depends upon what is already known, historical-mindedness responds to the knower. Keenan wisely notes that no one is pure classicist or pure historian. The most “liberal” of moralists acknowledges that all baptized persons must be of “the mind of Jesus Christ” in their moral determinations and carefully weigh the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church. The most classicist of moralists recognize that the human experience (specific history) counts for something in the confessional and weighs in moral decision making.
Next week we will take a look at two American moral theologians of the classicist school here in the United States, the Jesuits Fathers John Ford (1902-1989) and Gerald Kelly (1902-1964). Their lives, writings, influences and experiences during the Council will make clearer some of the theoretical trends I have laid out today.