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.