During my three-week hiatus from the blog for vacation, I did a lot of thinking about picking up fresh as we enter the final days of summer, and specifically how to keep Morality Monday an invigorating entry. During the first week of vacation my wife and I rented a houseboat on a canal on the outskirts of Amsterdam, a cozy town called Sloten whose visual center is a working wooden windmill. Although we would take the tram every day into Amsterdam’s jumping Central City, our evenings were quiet for reading and nibbling on local Dutch cheeses. In those pleasant circumstances—where the sun did not set till after 10 PM—I had opportunity to think without a daily deadline. Regarding the Monday stream, for more than a year now I have used Monday’s post to describe the twentieth century’s development in Catholic moral teaching and methodology, centered around the post-World War II challenges to the Catholic way of life and the debates on contemporary morality theology surrounding Vatican II.
Since the Council, the academic discipline of Catholic moral theology has developed organically in multiple directions. The “classical” school or model—the system in place since the Council of Trent in the late 1500’s--continues to hold that the backbone of moral theology is a clearly defined body of propositions derived from the Sacred Scriptures and the authority of the Magisterium or teaching Church. Classical moral theology is conceived of as timeless, unchanging, and immune from history, though in truth it is formulated in the thirteenth century scholastic language of St. Thomas Aquinas, a format he himself inherited from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived four centuries before Christ. Official Catholic literature and texts follow this model, and it is the format of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
However, the classical model is not the only fashion in which Catholic moralists work, and the majority incorporate other working systems in discussing the human conduct of the faithful. The Catechism itself acknowledges what might be called an evangelical morality, a lifestyle in which the personal message and actions of Jesus become the North Star of constancy, as unpredictable as that might be in the doing. (‘Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”) In the latest issue of Commonweal (buried under a month of general household mail delivered Saturday) Massimo Faggioli describes the conversion to an adult moral/virtue life in terms of collective outbursts of enthusiasm and energy that respond to the temper of the times. Hence the resurgence of a simple but intense penitential and devotional life that burst into the thirteenth century with Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman. For want of a better word, I will refer to this as “evangelical morality,” shaped by spiritual intensity as much as propositional standards.
There is no denying that in the study of moral theology one is never immune from the historical moment, as an individual and as part of a culture. The classical Catholic moral structure has never been comfortable about acknowledging outside changeable elements. But, like it or not, personal and institutional moral thinking is a constant grappling with the elements. This morning, for example, who of us will not give the sad weekend events of Charlottesville personal reflection and judgment? And how will each of us behaviorally respond as baptized members of the Body of Christ?
Sound morality is always mindful of Plato’s sense of “politics,” i.e., how we live together and arrange ourselves in the public forum. The challenge to Christian preaching and moral persuasion—again, personally and institutionally--is engagement in the market square with all people of hungry hearts and good intentions. Gaillardetz and Hahnenberg in A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium (2015) cite the importance of the Church’s listening to worthy insight from individuals and cultures who by the Catechism’s own definition, have been created with an innate sense of the supernatural and the natural good. Open Doors suggests that previous concentrated efforts at evangelization have approached the task from a position of superiority, entering the public forum with answers to contemporary dilemmas that in some cases can at best be charitably called educated guesses. In terms of morality, some of our classical assertions are based upon Church authority as much as history, science, and human experience.
In other words, there are Catholic moralists at work right now who are listening to and assessing the personal data of a variety of populations to determine the best public proclamation of virtue from the Gospel and the Church. In my own school days (the early 1970’s) moral professors were introducing a model of morality that acquired an unfortunate handle, “liberation theology,” a tag that led many Catholics to associate this methodology with socialism and communism. Liberation Theology and its attendant moral system emerged from Central and South American regions with wide disparities between rich and poor, or “third world” circumstances. Liberation theologians interpreted the Bible and sacramental life as a drama of “deliverance” from oppression and injustice. The Catholic Church officially raised many concerns about such a style of theologizing, but lo and behold, many of the insights of Liberation theologians continue to influence the Church at large, notably the moral dictate of “preferential option for the poor.” Pope Francis incorporated these concerns into his Laudato Si of 2015.
Liberation theology is but one example of the continuing quest to understand God’s Revelation and to act upon it concretely (orthodoxy and orthopraxis, in moral shop talk). For our purposes here, I am concluding that the best format for weekly discussion of Catholic morality might be to use the text of the Catechism itself as a springboard for exploration of both the bedrock principles taught in Catholic textbooks and the new challenges and understandings that the Catechism, for many reasons, cannot fully address. This would not be a repeat of “Catechism Thursday;” rather, here we would jump ahead to Section Three of the Catechism, specifically paragraph 1691 and the many that follow.
The Catechism uses the format of the Ten Commandments in its organizational style, and it includes subjects such as the virtues and the formation of conscience in its moral treatment. I have given up trying to find a solitary moral textbook to recommend. In this new Monday format, I will have opportunity to do more targeted research to provide you with readings and links for your own interests and professional development.
The only fly in the ointment is that next Monday is the eclipse, and I plan to witness the event in totality from the campus of Clemson University. I will attempt to get next Monday’s post on the board before leaving. Having just found a pair of safe viewing glasses on-line in Germany, of all places, I am going to South Carolina next week. And speaking of morality, Amazon just emailed me to tell me it has refunded the full cost of our previously purchased eclipse glasses, having determined that the product was not safe for the eyes.