From The Moral Archives
I have to cut my desk time early today as I am shortly on my way to the Chancery. No, I'm not in any trouble that I know of. Actually, my "handler" in our catechist training program, Mike, retired a few weeks ago. For nine years I drove him crazy with my idiosyncrasies of content and paperwork. Today I meet his successor to explain that not everything he has heard about me is true.
I didn't have an opportunity to bake something fresh, so I am dipping into my archives. In about two weeks we will be addressing moral theology on a weekly basis, with the aid of a new text, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century by James F. Keenan. I reviewed a similar work in 2010, Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History by Father Charles Curran. No one went through an American Catholic seminary after the Council without exposure to Father Curran and his method. As I note in the review, he eventually was forced to give up his teaching position at Catholic University and has been teaching at Southern Methodist University for decades. I had some criticism of his method. However, I think it is fair to say that Pope Francis is in the process of reassessing the way that moralists do their work, notably in his encyclical Laudato Si, in a fashion that redeems some the best thinking of the twentieth century pioneers.
This is what I sounded like six years ago:
Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History
Charles E Curran
Here is a situation where the author's place in history demands equal attention to the subject of his book. Father Charles E Curran, a Rochester, New York priest, possesses for better or worse probably the highest visibility of any Catholic academic on the subject of moral theology in the United States. His enemies are many, but the fact is that the author did not invent "the new Catholic morality" (Bernard Haring and Josef Fuchs preceded the author by nearly a generation]; nor did Father Curran instigate the use of artificial contraception among Catholics in the United States (local priests and their parishioners addressed this in the privacy of confession long before the events of the late 1960s.) Father Curran’s claim to fame or infamy is the matter of his academic research, public visibility, and, at the end of the day, his fifty year crusade that papal teachings on moral issues in the Church be subjected to the same academic scrutiny as all disciplines of sacred theology.
So, there will be some who discard this book simply because of the name Curran. Whatever one thinks of the man’s theological approach, in fact, this book has many things to commend it. The first third of the work examines the state of moral theology in the United States prior to 1962, the convocation of Vatican II. Students of moral theology will recognize immediately that the primary sources of Catholic moral teaching were the "manuals," the Latin declination of moral acts by significance and consequence, written primarily for confessors. United States pastoral practice generally followed European lead, in part because of an absence of major seminaries in America. Curran makes the point on several occasions that only in recent decades, in fact, has moral theology moved out of seminary settings. Catholic University in Washington DC. was not established till the 1880’s. Early American moralists and/or commentators were generally native Europeans, such as Tanqueray, Bouquillon, and Francis Patrick Kenrick. It is worth noting that the papal condemnation of “Americanism”  was not related to specific issues of moral theology but to pastoral questions of enculturation.
Major shifts in American Catholic moral studies developed gradually after World War II, as American priests like the author himself studied in Europe and discovered a new theological gestalt, spurred by renewed scriptural, historical, liturgical, and psychological influences. Haring's classic work, “The Law of Christ”, is that type of postwar moral writing that attempted to bridge the legalities of the manuals with scriptural rebirth and renewal. This brings us into the second section of this work, which parallels the rise and fall of Father Curran, so to speak. I suspect that a large number of readers have a general outline of the controversy surrounding Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” in 1968, reaffirming the Catholic Church's long-standing prohibition of artificial contraception.
The author, situated as he was at Ground Zero for US reaction, the Catholic University of America itself, gave voice and face to wholesale academic and pastoral opposition to the Pope's teaching. Thus, for this critical juncture, the author is essentially writing about himself, proudly and a touch arrogantly at times. In fairness, Father Curran and his colleagues raised valid points about this and other moral teachings that still hobble Catholic morality. The author objected to the Church's overemphasis upon physicalism and narrow definition of natural law, the rather indiscriminate use of the term "grave matter", and the apparent absence of any recognition of sensus fidelium or moral sense of the faithful. Father Curran continued to address other defined moral teachings throughout the tenure of Pope Paul VI. John Paul II, however, had less tolerance for dissent and established fidelity to traditional moral teaching as a primary means of reestablishing church unity. Father Curran was discharged from Catholic University and relocated his moral teaching and research to Southern Methodist University, remaining a Catholic priest in good standing (a point frequently overlooked by his naysayers).
This second portion of the book also highlights the work of Father Richard McCormick, S.J., who for about two decades reviewed English-language writings in Catholic moral theology in the Jesuit journal “Theological Studies.” Not surprisingly, the author makes use of Father McCormick’s reviews, as well as the latter's own emerging theological ideology, as a primary source for the 1970 and 1980 material. This was an era when moral theology was still redefining itself after the birth control controversy and attempting to flesh out the implications of the Council's teachings on social justice.
Father McCormick's “Theological Notes" came to an end, however, as by the late 1980s new theologians emerged from graduate schools and universities, not seminaries, and the majority of professional moral theologians were no longer clerics, but lay men and women. Father Curran observes that moral theology has diversified in so many ways in the past generation that a project like "Theological Notes" is no longer possible. In his final segment, Father Curran attempts to at least sample the more recent theological controversies, such as matters of stem cell research, international relations and economics, medical care and availability, etc.
It is in this section that the author engages in overindulgence that has marred some of his other later works as well. Specifically, he pays particular attention to the subjective stance of the moralist: he is fond of teasing out the implications of moral theology undertaken by women, a plethora of minorities, members of economic substrata, and the like. This is a methodological concern that at some point will evolve into hopeless paralysis, and would put moral theology outside of the mission of Christian unity in my view. By the end of this work, the reader feels as if he has just witnessed the Big Bang, watching various strands of moral scholarship heading in infinite directions. I suspect this actually reflects Father Curran's personal sense as he looks back over the explosion that has become in fact moral theology in the United States over his lifetime.
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