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.