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Making Catholic moral theology make Catholic sense

That Catholic moral theology is still in trouble nine years after Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor has been painfully demonstrated by some of the commentary during the past seven months of crisis. When a prominent Jesuit theologian argues that the issue in the molestation of teenage boys by priests is not homosexuality but a distorted sense of  “power,” it seems clear that there’s a lot left to fix in the theologians’ guild.  A draft position paper circulated during the recent June meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, breathtaking in its woodenheaded inability to connect the dots between doctrinal dissent and the crises of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance, suggests that the fixing won’t come from within the current theological establishment.

A younger generation of Catholic moral theologians is coming to the fore, however. They are blessedly free of the resentments of theologians formed by the Humanae Vitae controversy. They read the history of moral theology with more nuance than their immediate theological elders. They have learned the tradition before engaging it critically. They take Veritatis Splendor seriously — unlike the previous theological generation, which tended to treat the encyclical like a term paper by an especially dense student.

One of these younger scholars is Dominican Michael Sherwin, a native of the Bay Area who now divides his time between the Dominican School of Theology in Berkeley and Fribourg University in Switzerland (where he has inherited the chair of moral theology previously held by Father Servais Pinckaers, perhaps the most eminent moral theologian in the Church today). At a Rome conference in February, Father Sherwin gave a masterful paper on four challenges for moral theology in the twenty-first century. With apologies for the inevitable simplifications, here’s what he proposed.

The first challenge is the challenge of recent history — meaning the history of the past half-millennium. The moral theology which dominated Catholic thinking after the Protestant Reformation was what Sherwin calls a “compression bandage.” It stopped the bleeding caused by that outbreak of Church-dividing dissent. But it didn’t heal the wound done to moral theology when late medieval theologians came to (mis)understand the moral life as a fierce contest of wills between my will and God’s will, rather than as a matter of growth in virtue. One crucial task for post-Vatican II moral theology must be to focus again on our “vocation to happiness in the life of grace,” made possible in us by the Holy Spirit.

The second challenge is the challenge of nature. Scientists are now thinking outside the box of materialism, acknowledging that reality is a “dynamic interaction between matter and spirit, between freedom and nature.” Moral theology ought to do the same. There is a relationship between the ways things are and the way things ought to be: between “is” and “ought.” There is something properly described as “human nature,” and we can “read” certain moral imperatives from it. Moreover, God’s love, experienced in our lives, has transforming effects on human nature. All of this is grist for the moral theologian’s mill.

The third challenge is what Father Sherwin calls the challenge of grace. Moral theologians must rediscover the place of Christian faith in their discipline. Theology is not religious studies; theology doesn’t take a neutral stance toward what it thinks about. Theology begins with faith in God’s revelation, and Christian theology begins with God’s revelation of himself, and of the true meaning of our lives, in Jesus Christ. Theologians must trust again: trust that God knows what makes for our genuine happiness (because sinning often seems like to road to happiness), and trust that Christ gives us the capacity to do what’s right, here and now.

Finally, there is the challenge of spirituality. Moral theology is not simply a profession; it is a vocation — for the Holy Spirit is at work in all genuine theology — and it is a vocation in the Church. That is why moral theology shouldn’t fear the magisterium, the teaching authority, of the Church, which is also a work of the Holy Spirit.

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All of which is very refreshing to hear from a young theologian, of whom the entire Church will hear much more in the years ahead.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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