The Decline and Fall of Catholic Moral Theology

The Catholic Church has a moral teaching. Everybody knows this, and it is on account of her moral teaching that people who do not wish to believe that the Catholic Church is the true religion, and who do not wish to believe that they have a duty to belong to her, are driven to invent the most extraordinary arguments in the moral order so they can writhe out of their obligations. They will say black is white, white is black, up is down, and down is up before they admit that they themselves are sinners in need of repentance.

Unfortunately, this is also just what many modern, nominally Catholic moralists have done.

The Second Vatican Council in one of its documents[1] calls for a renewal of moral theology. It seems unlikely that professional moral theologians are unable to read, but most of them seem to have read this as calling for “a new moral theology.” While Googling the subject the other day, I discovered that there is a book by one James F. Keenan called A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences. What does he think the point of confessing sins was (and is)?

The moral theologians who wrote before Vatican II were dazzlingly clear. It is possible that these works appear brighter than they actually were because of the darkness of so much of the postconciliar literature. But the literature of this aspect of theology, prior to Vatican II, was vast  —  and not only vast, but clear, informative, and edifying. The works were written not to edify, primarily, but to direct the confessor in hearing confessions. The point was for the seminarian or priest, or anybody else, for that matter, to know clearly what is right and what is wrong, in itself and in the various circumstances of life, in light of Revelation.

Since Vatican II, much of this tradition has been condemned as “manualist” and therefore bad. The manuals were set out as textbooks and were meant for the purposes of study and consultation; they were arranged in such a way that the student could commit the principles to memory.

The most famous of moral theologians — not counting St. Thomas Aquinas, a large section of whose Summa concerns moral theology — is St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787). He set out to annotate the Medulla of Busembaum and ended up writing an entire magnum opus himself. He found a mean between the extremes of rigorism and laxism. St. Alphonsus cites thousands of authors from his own time or before it. He seems to have read everything ever written on the subject, and the composition of the work took him fifteen years. Subsequent Catholic moral theologians have been accused of merely echoing or translating him. While a few may have done this, it can hardly be said of all.

Some other important Catholic moralists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (prior to the Council) are Archbishop Kenrick; Fr. Thomas Slater, S.J.; Henry Davis; Callan; and McHugh; Vermeersch; Jone; and Prümmer. None of these authors is infallible, but all are of considerable weight, and I would hazard that they are all considerably clearer and more useful than much of what has been written since the Council.

I just mentioned Prümmer. He has an extensive bibliography at the beginning of his three-volume Latin work Manuale theologiae moralis. This bibliography covers a huge number of authors and works on this subject, all by sound Catholic theologians, over a period of centuries. It does not include all the authors I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but it includes St. Thomas, St. Alphonsus, Gury, Vermeersch, Slater, the Salmanticenses, the Roman Catechism, Vasquez, Tournely, Tanquerey (who is better known for a work of ascetical theology called The Spiritual Life), Soto, Suarez, Scotus, the Summa Confessorum, St. Raymund of Peñafort, Lugo (Francis), Lugo (John), Lehmkuhl, Lacroix, Laymann, St. Francis de Sales (“qui in suis operibus asceticis utilissima tradidit pro praxi confessariorum,” “who has handed down in his ascetical works things most useful for the praxis of confessors”), Escobar y Mendoza, Cajetan, Melchior Cano, Bañez, Benedict XIV, Alexander Natalis, and St. Albertus Magnus. I need not multiply names. But I think I can safely recommend them.

I would like to contrast these authors with those on another bibliography I have found, of works of moral theology (including also “fundamental Christian ethics” by Catholic and nominally Catholic authors). This bibliography (that of James Bretzke), by contrast, contains only modern authors. Compare these names with those on Prümmer’s list. What makes this contrast so stark is the strange morality of many of the authors on this list, compared with the evidently Catholic morality of all the authors on the other one.

Who is on Bretzke’s list? Joseph Selling, for a start, whom I had never heard of before. What does Joseph Selling have to say?

Selling has written something called “Is Lived Experience a Source of Morality?” (INTAMS Review 20 [2014]: 217-225). About this he (or whoever wrote the summary) tells us:

Focusing on the essential role of experience in the analysis of moral agency Selling proposes revising the traditional moral paradigm of ethical analysis that starts with the ‘act’ and its ‘object’ which are largely abstracted from the critical context of the agent, circumstances, intention, and motivation.

So Selling wishes to revise the traditional moral paradigm of object, end, and circumstance and replace it with circumstance (“the critical context of the agent” is a circumstance, if indeed it is not a paraphrase for all the circumstances taken together), circumstance again (under the heading “circumstances”), end (he uses the word “intention” = finis operantis = “end” in traditional Catholic morality), and motivation (which presumably means something slightly different from the “end” as such — i.e. the circumstance “why”). So the traditional paradigm of object, end, and circumstance is, for Selling, to be replaced with circumstance, circumstance, end, and circumstance. (Or possibly circumstance, circumstance, end, and end, supposing “intention” and “motivation” to be synonymous with each other.) What is missing? Why, the act itself: the object. So morality is to be entirely divorced from what the act or omission is! This is the consequence of trying to remove the category of malum in se or intrinsice malum — “bad in itself,” “intrinsically evil.” If you deny that any act at all is intrinsically evil, then you are reduced to saying only the end or one or more of the circumstances can make something evil — which makes it very easy to justify anything.

Another article by Selling is described in this fashion:

Using the evolving Church teaching on the moral licitness of regulating fertility by married couples Selling outlines several differing modes of moral reasoning and analysis employed in the various teachings, and raises significant problems associated with an insufficiently nuanced understanding of terms such as “intrinsically evil/immoral.”

The Church’s moral teaching on the moral licitness of a particular moral object, we learn here, is “evolving”! At least, that is the plain meaning of the words as they stand. Do the words mean the Church’s teaching on whether it is morally licit to use contraception or not, which is what they appear to mean when we cut through the nonsense, or do they mean something else? It is true that many people do not know what “intrinsically evil” means; it means “bad in itself,” and that is all it means. The word “evil” is a thousand times stronger than the Latin word malus; but the problem is not “an insufficiently nuanced understanding,” but a total lack of knowledge of what the words mean.

We also learn from this bibliography that the Benedictine Philip Kaufmann has written something in a book called Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic. His chapter is about the moral theory of Probabilism. Probabilism is a moral system that lays down that in doubt, you can act on a solidly probable opinion, even though the opposite opinion is more probable, provided the less probable opinion is still solidly probable. I myself am a Probabilist — there is nothing wrong with Probabilism as such — but how is this going to be applied in a book called Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic? I would expect the principles to be abused.

Charles Curran, Bernard Häring, and Franz Böckle are named. Curran is perhaps the most famous moral theologian in the Church at the moment — a notorious “dissenter” from Humanae Vitae. He is still alive. Bernard Häring, by contrast, is not still alive but was another “dissenter” from the same document. We learn from the New York Times that Bernard Häring “emphasiz[ed] a moral theology of Christian love rather than the cataloguing of sins.” This reminds me of the subtitle of the History of Moral Theology above, with its false juxtaposition between confessing sins and liberating consciences, only here, it is a false juxtaposition between Christian love and confessing our sins. These people do not seem to understand that confessing sins might be connected to Christian love, or to the liberation of consciences. What do they think that sacrament is for?

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has said publicly of Häring that he was “the first to start looking for a new way to help moral theology flourish again.” Häring has defended both sterilization and contraception. I think it reasonable to be alarmed when the pope is singing the praises of heretics of this kind. Perhaps it is even more alarming than when we seem him committing idolatry.

I had borrowed a book by Franz Böckle from someone some time ago, but I never realized how bad he was until the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, mentioned him in his letter about sexual abuse. Böckle was going to oppose Pope John Paul II (quite what he intended to do, I do not know) if that pope ever stated that any act was intrinsically evil. Böckle never did so because he died before Veritatis Splendor was published.

Not everyone on Bretzke’s list is bad. His list needs to include these authors on it to give a representative sample of the current state of moral theology. It also includes some sound authors such as Germain Grisez, Romanus Cessario, Caffara (who added his name to the dubia of the four cardinals), and Alasdair MacIntyre. But are not the scales heavily weighed on the other side?

The critical moment was 1968, with the rejection of Humanae Vitae by so many “theologians.” The impression had been given that the subject of contraception was somehow open to discussion because of the Birth Control Commission set up by Pope John XXIII. If I might be so bold as to make this criticism, that Commission should never have been set up at all. Neither of the two popes just mentioned wanted this particular moral question to be raised at the time of the Council; nor was the Commission ever intended, as far as I know, to exercise any magisterial function. Such was, however, the impression given, particularly by the media. Be that as it may, the moral crisis in the Church for the last 60 years or so seems to me to be located precisely here, on this topic. The consequences of the world’s acceptance of this vice are exactly those laid out by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. And our moralists tried to justify this sin because they wanted to justify it. What other reason is possible? It is clear that contraception is wrong when one thinks seriously about it.

Actually, there is another possible reason for their justification of this sin — that is, that they tried to justify it because if you can justify contraception, you can justify various other sins — at least, you can justify all the sins that separate the unitive and procreative aspects of sexual intercourse. But if you can justify that, then it may be the case that your arguments will stretch to the justification of all other kinds of evil as well.

So there is a crisis in moral theology. We all knew there was a crisis in morals — we all know Catholics who openly live objectively immoral lives and say they see no contradiction between their conduct and their faith. But, without knowing it in most cases, they are only following theologians who have gone farther than themselves — who have tried to alter Catholic morals so that there can be a Catholic morality without morals. I repeat: this new morality — alien to the morals always held and taught in the Church of God — can, and does, justify anything, literally anything. Now, why would anybody want to do that?

[1] Optatam totius, 16. “Special care must be given to the perfecting of moral theology.”

Image: Mike Steele via Flickr.

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