The next several Monday posts will look closely at trends of moral thinking in the Catholic Church after Humanae Vitae in 1968, an encyclical which set the parameters of debate through the present day. The best summary of this era I have come across is A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (2010) by James F. Keenan, which is available on Kindle as well as hardcopy. Chapter 6, “The Neo-Manualists,” focuses specifically on the immediate years after Vatican II and describes the players and positions.
The term “Neo-Manualist” hearkens back to the classical moral theology of the Church from the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when moral theology was taught in propositions followed by interpretive case study. Moral Theology was nearly indistinguishable from Canon Law, certainly not the setting of philosophers. Recall that Father Bernard Haring in the 1940’s tried to beg off his order’s assignment to seek a doctorate in moral theology by volunteering to go to the missions. Haring, of course, did earn his doctorate and his The Law of Christ (1954) introduced a new method of moral theology that many of us instinctively apply today in our own thinking.
In his historical treatment of the post-Council era, Keenan highlights the writing of the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan who described the working philosophical differences of Catholic theologians of all disciples, including moral theology. The first position is “classical.” For Lonergan, the classicist holds that “the world is a finished product and truth has already been revealed, expressed, taught, 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 from the syllogism.” Change of a moral teaching is problematic, in this mindset, for it suggests that what was previously right is now declared wrong. (p. 111)
The second philosophical position is the “historical.” Keenan summarizes this stance as a “look at the world and at truth as constantly emerging.” Its proponents contend that “we are learning more, not only about the world, but about ourselves. As subject we are affected by history: we become hopefully the people we are called to become. What the world and humanity will be is not yet known, but rests on the horizons of our expectations and the decisions we make and realize. The moral law then looks to determine what at this period corresponds to the vision we ought to be shaping. It admits that the final word on the truth is outstanding but emerging.” (p. 113)
If you need to go back and read these two preceding paragraphs, I can’t say as I blame you. But if you get the philosophical difference in the two approaches to Catholic theology, many things will become clearer, and for starters, the final determination on the encyclical Humanae Vitae itself. Years after the event, the American theologian John Ford, one of three consulted by Pope Paul on the contraception question, told an audience that he put the question to the pope rather bluntly: “Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?” According to Ford, “Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said.” (p. 122) This account jells with other analyses I have read over the years, that one of Pope Paul’s greatest fears in changing the teaching of another pope was the damage that might befall the entire structure of the Church’s moral teaching, an excellent example of the classical approach to thought.
In the United States and other countries, the historical approach was well entrenched in academia and many seminaries. In practical terms, moral decision making became more a matter of conscience and personal circumstance than adherence to a timeless syllogism. Many Catholic moralists (and not a few Church historians) were not disturbed by the concept of an evolving morality, noting correctly that Church moral teaching had indeed changed with time on matters of slavery, the collecting of interest on loans, and rules of war. In fact, the possession and use of nuclear weapons was causing considerable discussion over the centuries old principles known as “just war theory.”
What was different in the later twentieth century was a lack of breathing room. I would guess that typically we carry both the classical and the historical approach to life in our mental spiritual operations. (The technical term for their interaction is synderesis, an ancient definition.) Keenan observes that through much of past five centuries—the classical manualist era—there was less of a “life and death struggle” (my phrase) over moral norms because (1) typically a Catholic layman did not have access to manuals, command of Latin, or training; (2) moral decision making was the province of the confessional; and (3) there was ultimately tolerance between the various schools of interpretation: the strict casuist Jesuits took issue with the more compassionate St. Alphonsus Ligouri and the Redemptorists. Arguments could be fierce but rarely was the good faith and conscience of a proponent called into question.
After Vatican II the classical position was more stringently upheld by Catholic authorities. For many Catholics, the authority of the pope was philosophically tantamount: something is eternally true because a pope stated it. This is not the true classical formulation. When Pope John Paul II spoke of the ordination of women, for example, he stated that he could not do such a thing because of the timeless principle involved that sacramentally only a man can serve as a true sign of Christ; he could not change the teaching even if he wanted to. This is more reflective of the classicist philosophy.
I may be getting ahead of myself here, but if you are wondering about the historical perspective and whether it influences the teaching Church, you might look at Amoris Laetitia (2016) of Pope Francis, which is a complex and more open ended reflection on the moral nature of love and the family. It is not a classically oriented document in the sense of Humanae Vitae. Little wonder that some churchmen are demanding more precision.
Catechetics and preaching over the balance of the twentieth century was hardly unaffected by the classical/historical dynamic, as we will see soon.