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.