Dei Verbum and the Collapse of Moral Theology

In a previous article, we discussed how the error of Limited Inerrancy was condemned by multiple popes as well as the original document on Revelation from Vatican II. Because Dei Verbum was vague on this point, it allowed liberal heretics to place themselves as authorities over the Word of God to pass judgement on its “errors” while pushing their feminist, Marxist, or other erroneous interpretations. In this article, we will discuss another related issue that the document helped to unleash: the collapse of moral theology.

At the time of the Council, moral theology was based firmly on a centuries-old tradition of natural law going back to Aquinas and Augustine before him. The scholastic moral tradition built upon this foundation, which reached its zenith in the figure of St. Alphonsus Liguori (d. 1787), doctor of moral theology. This tradition formed the interpretative hermeneutic to judge moral questions. It was so fundamental that Pius IX could declare that the consensus of the scholastics was a source of infallibility [1].

One of the central efforts of the Modernists was the assertion that their superior learning in linguistics and history allowed them to surpass the wisdom of the scholastics. It was true that the 19th century witnessed a great increase in linguistic knowledge as well as manuscript discoveries leading to new critical editions of ancient texts (J.P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, for example, first appeared in 1857). However, if the Modernists were successful in circumventing the scholastics, they could create a new hermeneutic of their own choosing, thereby imposing their own philosophy onto Scripture and Tradition, all the while maintaining that they were reviving an ancient understanding long forgotten. This led Pius IX to condemn this idea in the Syllabus of Errors:

[Condemned]: The method and principles according to which the ancient scholastic doctors treated theology are by no means suited to the necessity of our times and to the progress of the sciences. [2]

With this condemnation and the pontificates of Leo XIII and Pius X, the scholastics were exalted — particularly St. Thomas — and their detractors were silenced. Nevertheless, after the death of Pius X (1914), this same anti-scholastic “ressourcement” movement was permitted to spread. In 1935, Yves Congar wrote his essay, “The Deficiency of Theology,” in which he criticized the scholastic method in the way that the Syllabus had condemned [3]. Congar and his allies believed that secularization had been the result of relying too heavily on the scholastic method and ignoring the everyday lives of the faithful.

While it is true that every good movement has its excesses, the alternative solution given by Congar was to create a new hermeneutical key to the Tradition, different from the scholastics’. Their moral theology would be based on not the longstanding natural law tradition, but their own interpretation of Scripture. This was the beginning of the Nouvelle théologie movement, which continued to spread through to the pontificate of Pius XII. In 1950, this pontiff condemned the movement’s anti-scholastic bias with these words:

Everyone is aware that the terminology employed in the [scholastic] schools and even that used by the Teaching Authority of the Church itself is capable of being perfected and polished; and we know also that the Church itself has not always used the same terms in the same way. It is also manifest that the Church cannot be bound to every system of philosophy that has existed for a short space of time. Nevertheless, the things that have been composed through common effort by Catholic teachers over the course of the centuries to bring about some understanding of dogma are certainly not based on any such weak foundation. These things are based on principles and notions deduced from a true knowledge of created things. …

We may clothe our philosophy in a more convenient and richer dress, make it more vigorous with a more effective terminology, divest it of certain scholastic aids found less useful, prudently enrich it with the fruits of progress of the human mind. But never may we overthrow it, or contaminate it with false principles, or regard it as a great, but obsolete, relic. [4]

For this is what the Nouvelle théologie sought to do: overthrow the whole scholastic method as an “obsolete relic.” Notice that the Roman pontiff allows for the scholastic method to be polished and perfected. But the Nouvelle théologie wish not simply to add to the scholastic method, but to overthrow it and impose a new system of moral theology.

But as we know, the Nouvelle théologie thinkers were able to gain ground and take virtual control of the Second Vatican Council. The crucial aspect of the moral tradition was contained in the more general debate over Scripture and Tradition, with moral theology contained in the latter. The original schema on revelation left no room for doubt about the authority of Tradition:

Let no one, therefore, dare to consider Tradition to be of inferior worth or refuse it his faith. For although Holy Scripture, since it is inspired, provides a divine instrument for expressing and illustrating the truths of faith, still its meaning can be clearly and fully understood or even presented only by means of the apostolic Tradition. Indeed, Tradition and it alone is the way in which some revealed truths, particularly those concerned with the inspiration, canonicity and integrity of each and every sacred book, are clarified and become known to the Church. [5]

These words firmly held the Tradition as a source of Revelation. The consensus of the scholastics was understood to be so closely tied to revelation as to be an authoritative hermeneutic of the same.

But with the struggle of Dei Verbum to appease Protestants and provide new terms for “modern man,” the clear authority of Tradition was made vague and thus also the authority of the moral tradition. Decades later, Ratzinger would admit that at the time of Vatican II and immediately after:

Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against [the sexual revolution.] … Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation. In the Council’s struggle for a new understanding of Revelation, the natural law option was largely abandoned, and a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded. [6]

Dei Verbum failed to make clear that Tradition is also a source of revelation, to the point that even Paul VI could say in a general audience that “the whole of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum is an apologia of the Holy Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith” (March 26, 1969). Rather, as Ratzinger admits, a moral theology based on the Bible alone was called for.

Just like the Modernists before them, the Nouvelle théologie party attempted to abandon the scholastics in favor of going “back to the sources” for a moral system. But in so doing, they were rendered defenseless against the onslaught of secular debauchery. As Ratzinger admits, this led to “the realization that from the Bible alone morality could not be expressed systematically” [7]. As such, they ended up adopting modern philosophy as their hermeneutic instead of the scholastics. This led to the proliferation of a moral philosophy that justified the moral depravities of divorce, contraception, and abortion against the natural law.

Because of their alliance with the liberals at the Council against the Curia, the conservatives ended up marginalizing the scholastic tradition, which would have been their defense, as Ratzinger indicates, against the excess of the liberals.

Just as Paul VI had done with Humanae Vitae (1968) and his Credo (1968), John Paul II also attempted to save the Council from itself in Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998). But neither these efforts nor the Benedict pontificate was able match the rigor with which Pius X once drove the Modernists underground, because Pius refused to compromise with Modernism. And so the false moral theology unleashed by Dei Verbum and the abandonment of the scholastic moral tradition obtained through the seminaries and universities until the pontificate of Francis.

Here the collapse of moral theology has reached its climax, wherein heretical propositions in moral theology are being promoted by the pope and many other officials to whom he has given power. The foolish experiment in overcoming the wisdom of the scholastics at Vatican II has been shown to be a failure, and the Church now stands in desperate need to recover the wisdom that men scorned as an “obsolete relic.” This is our defense against the onslaught of secular morals and continued bombardment of our tradition from Vatican officials. As the Amazon Synod showed, these men have adopted modern ideologies as their hermeneutic. We must reject the imposition of an alien philosophy onto the faith and morals that our fathers professed. We must identify the root of the problem, then remain rooted instead within the tradition that the Church has recognized as sacred.

[1] Pius IX, Tuas Libenter (1863) Denzinger 1683

[2] Syllabus of Errors (1864), 13

[3] Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie – New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II (T&T Clark International: 2010), 31

[4] Humani Generis (1950), 16, 30. Emphasis mine.

[5] De Fontibus Revelationis, English translation by Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak (2012) (accessed November 16, 2019), articles 4, 5

[6] Benedict XVI, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” translated by Anian Christoph Wimmer (National Catholic Register: 2019). Accessed November 23, 2019. Emphasis mine.

[7] Ibid.

Image: Newtown Graffiti via Flickr (cropped).

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