After a refreshing Christmas break, it is time to get back to business here on Monday. I reviewed the last several Monday posts on morality and found that the content and regularity had taken some hits due to conflicts with my counseling work at Catholic Charities. Now that I have a long break it is time to get back to our historical narrative, which left off with Bernard Haring, The Law of Christ, and the opening of Vatican II.
Vatican II proved to be of two minds on the future direction of moral theology. Moral historian James Keenan (see home page) cites the two Council documents that treat of the matter. Optatam Totius, (literally, “desired reform of the whole”) or the Decree on Priestly Training, provides the framework for the renewal of seminaries, and in para. 16 it comments specifically on 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.” As it stands, the document states that the manualist tradition needed “perfecting,” and it draws from Haring’s Biblically-based methodology perfected over the previous decade. The inclusion of the phrase “scientific exposition” opens the door to the strong possibility that much about moral teaching remained to be discovered, and in a fashion that withstands professional scrutiny and testing. Optatam Totius is some distance from the case-study manualist tradition then still in force.
That said, the influence of Optatam Totius on the direction of moral theology was dwarfed by the much more famous constitution Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”}. A long debated and much anticipated statement of the place of the Church in the modern world, GS provided a philosophical overview somewhat lacking in the above cited document, and in doing so laid the foundations for a major overhaul of the academic and pastoral considerations of moral theology.
Two portions of GS bear special attention. The first is its teaching on the dignity of human conscience, where it states: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” (para. 16) Keenan refers to the full text on conscience as “the emblematic expression of the hopeful expectations that were raised by Haring and affirmed by Vatican II.” (p. 97) The role of personal conscience—its formation and freedom—would henceforth become one of the highly visible issues separating revisionists and traditionalists in Catholic moral debate. In fact, para 16 of GS lies at the heart of the present-day dispute between Pope Francis and his critics in the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia of March, 2016, specifically on the practice of exercising conscience in the confessional in matters of sexual morality, among others.
The second critical point in GS in terms of moral theology is the document’s focus on the human being as a social being, and in our discussion here, a human being who finds meaning in relationships, most notably the marital union. Revisionist Catholic thinkers such as Haring did not invent the potentialities of human relations. All of us collegians read Martin Buber’s I and Thou in the 1960’s, or at least we took a shot at it. (That work was published in 1923.) In GS, the Church was attempting to bring renewed hope to sacred institutions such as marriage, and in doing so it was faced with a very contemporary situation of Church teaching, namely the explicit statement of Pope Pius XI that artificial birth control was gravely sinful. Pius XI’s Casti Connubii (1930) prohibited artificial contraception (barrier methods; “the pill” had not yet been invented in 1930 but was later considered to fall under the same prohibition.)
In reviewing both documents CC and GS, I was struck by the fact that Pius XI’s teaching was not insensitive to modern needs and thoughts. For example, in a major departure from St. Augustine’s austere marital teaching, Casti Connubii acknowledges that married couples may engage in sexual intercourse when there is near certainty that conception cannot occur for multiple factors, such as age, infertility, or time of the menstrual cycle. The “rhythm method” of family planning is attributed to Pius though Rome had taken a benign approach to that method since the 1850’s.
Similarly, Gaudium et Spes, despite its groundbreaking work in formulating a new theological understanding of marriage, contains a general moral outline that Pius XI could probably have endorsed. The main point of controversy in GS is a line in para. 50 that, to the best of my knowledge, has never before appeared in a Church document: “Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation.” The document goes on to speak of the sacrament as a “unifying” life in which the joys and comforts of conjugal love cherish and support this unity for the good of the couple and their offspring. Multiple Church documents throughout history, in fact, warn of the absence of meeting sexual needs in marriage, in terms of leading to infidelity. When I teach my diocese’s sexuality course, I remind my students that the ecstasy of sex in a sacramental marriage is an encounter with God akin to the other six sacraments, a foretaste of the eschatological joy of heaven. Needless to say, this is a new thought for many married students. (I am always reminded then of the Gospel text, “And from that day forward they dared not ask him any more questions.”)
As a graduate student shortly after the Council, I was taught in my major seminary that the two ends of marriage were unitive and procreative, and that given the GS statements on freedom of conscience and the ends of marriage, matters of the number of children and the means of family planning rested ultimately with the couple and the counsel of the confessor. This is not to say that there was agreement on this point, even among my seminary professors, nor especially among parish priests. Shopping for confessors was a factor of Catholic life in the late 1960’s.
Pope John XXIII understood that the pharmaceutical advances of the late 1950’s, coupled with the revisionist theological thinking on marital life that would later appear in full flower in Gaudium et Spes, would make some kind of statement on contraception necessary—one way or the other. Even before Vatican II he established a commission to study the contraceptive question. After his death in 1963, his successor Pope Paul VI continued the commission and indeed added lay persons, including married couples, to the board. However, Pope Paul simultaneously pulled discussion of the contraception issue off the Council’s agenda, not wishing to see the matter debated publicly.
Vatican II adjourned in 1965 with something of a two-track agenda on matters of moral theology. On the one hand, the Council reaffirmed adherence to teaching formulations in sexual matters derived from the scholastic and manualist traditions. On the other hand, the Council encouraged a new methodology involving Biblical sources, dignity of conscience, and a primacy of personal and social holiness. Traditionalists held the high ground of clarity and history; revisionists the high ground of Bible and human dignity. The science of Catholic moral theology has reflected this bipolar nature for half a century; but in 1968 the stresses of this divide became painfully visible for even the most casual Catholic to behold.
I went back over recent entries on the Monday Morality stream, and discovered—with more than a little embarrassment—that there aren’t very many. In fact, the last full Monday entry was a month ago. In my defense, Monday has become something of “an orphan day” now that I work at the clinic. I have to be out of here by noon at the latest. Normally I do the bulk of a blog text by 11:30 or thereabouts, then proceed to work out and lunch, and finish any touch-ups for the text before the posting process. Mondays are different, so I have to give some thought to this arrangement, but I will not give up the morality blog, as this area of Catholic life does provoke interest, and Pope Francis’ writings on morality certainly command attention.
“Moving forward by way of review” as one of my teachers used to say, the last full posts centered around the work of Bernard Haring, the German theologian whose 1954 The Law of Christ established a new template for moralists to interpret Scripture and Church Tradition. I have been listening to Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters on Audible and it occurred to me that twentieth century scholars of many Christian Churches, including Roman Catholicism, were (and still are) catching up with that revolution of thought called the Enlightenment. In 1600 Catholics and the multiple Protestant churches could agree on one thing, that in the end this was God’s universe in every sense of the word. By the end of that century Galileo had redesigned the “heavens,” Sir Isaac Newton established empirical scientific law as root principle of reality, and Rene Descartes established that reality begins in the subjective mind; “I think, therefore I am.”
The Enlightenment played havoc with organized religion, but all the churches of the sixteenth century had diminished themselves in doctrinal wars that eventually became military; the death count from “the Religious Wars” stood in the millions before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Doubt in the entire religious enterprise was understandable at the time. Catholicism resisted aspects of the Enlightenment for a long time—the United States practices of democratic government and freedom of conscience in religious belief were still being defended by bishops in Vatican II.
By 1962, the first session of the Council, practicing Catholics enjoyed freedom of conscience only to the extent that they could personally choose to follow the teachings of the Church, or not. There was no hierarchy of moral severity nor (officially) room for debate upon the seriousness of sins, aside from the mortal/venial polarity. If opening day at Yankee Stadium fell upon a meatless Friday, you had better hope that some of the vendors were peddling brook trout, as eating meat on Friday was designated a mortal sin. In fairness, Catholicism was following a well-established principle of all societies, establishing marks of distinction and rites of membership. One could argue that collective abstinence fell into the same category as the celebration of major feasts, such as the Ascension, when Catholics broke from the civil calendar to collectively celebrate a day of religious significance.
One way to get a handle on moral theology is to think of the Church’s moral teaching as its statement of identity, as in “this is how we wish to be known to the world.” When early pagan observers of Christianity commented on the way that followers of Jesus loved one another, they were responding to an evident and observable moral behavior, and they were the richer for it, to the point that many joined. The quest of moral theology remains the pursuit of behaviors and choices that identify the believer and the assembly as members of the apostolic community established in the works and deeds of Jesus.
Of course, the practice of living and teaching moral theology is a bit more complicated than I just laid it out, which is why discussion of contemporary Catholic moral teaching always looks and sounds like the third day at Gettysburg. Here are several challenges and conditions that the Church faces in its definition and teaching of morality: (1) It is not always clear exactly what Jesus would say or do in the new circumstances of history, such as nuclear arms or global warming. (2) The Church, as authentic interpreter of the Scriptures, is influenced by the time in which it lives and its own limitations of knowledge and virtue. (3) The Church Fathers, notably Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, differed in philosophical understanding and rationale of evil, sin, and grace.
(4) The manuals of morality promulgated by the Church after the Council of Trent adopted a legal or casuistic description of sin as opposed to a mystical one. (5) The wide definition of mortal sin—particularly in matters of sexual nature—tends to belittle the seriousness of true alienation of God. (6) Traditional moral theology has skated too close to physicalism; e.g., why are barrier and pharmaceutical contraceptives mortally sinful but periodic abstinence is not, when the intent of all these methods is the same? (7) Is there room for individual human spiritual judgment in matters of sin and guilt? (8) Is the matter of psychology and spirituality given sufficient play in consideration of sin and virtue? (9) Does the Church need to address the ongoing historical reality that official pronouncements regarding sin have come from an exclusively male experience?
There is one more point I will address at greater length down the road: the trend in my lifetime at least to equate adherence to specific sexual teachings with loyalty to the entire Catholic Church? Matters of sexuality seem to have become the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy when in fact the Catechism itself cites many categories of human failure. Why the preoccupation with sexual matters?
These are the questions that keep theologians up at night—and that will occupy our reflections on the post Vatican II era in weeks to come.