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.

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.

COMING UP: From the wilderness to the Promised Land: Learn your faith in the SJV Lay Division

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One of the famous episodes in the Old Testament is the wandering of Israel in the wilderness. The descendants of Abraham, whom God promised land to come to his descendants, wander for 40 years before they enter that land. A time of great miracles, to be certain – the manna in the wilderness, the rock that gushed forth water. But also a time of hardship and death – many battles that were lost, plagues that come up on the people. All of which is why the wilderness is associated with a time of great testing in the Scriptures.

We may seem like we are in our own wilderness today, aimlessly wandering without a sense of where life is going. Know that we, too, at the Lay Division of the Seminary, particularly our Biblical and Catechetical School instructors, intimately felt this great testing this past academic year. For the first time ever, we had classes online, by sheer force of circumstance in a world of coronavirus restrictions. In many ways, we felt our own desert wondering – unable to see students in person, unable to have normal interactions with students, lecturing to a little dot on a computer screen, seeing black screens with everybody muted, with no idea if students were smiling, laughing, crying, sleeping, or whatever else may be! This was, in many respects, wandering in the wilderness institutionally. Thankfully, the one thing that we can say for certain is that all of our lives fall under God’s infinitely wise, lovingly providential hand. It’s not merely cliché to say that God will bring good out of evil, but a true statement. And so we trust. God knows, and God takes care of all those who are faithful. And God works all things for good for those who trust in Him.

This upcoming academic year will be the start of a slow reintegration of our classes into parishes. However, we will still keep an online presence, with half of our classes returning to in-person locations throughout the Archdiocese of Denver and half remaining online. Certainly one of the positives about teaching classes online, and perhaps the good that God will bring for us institutionally out of our wilderness of this past year, is that it allows for expansion to reach potential students who otherwise aren’t capable of attending our in-person classes. Given that, taking a class with us will never be easier! It doesn’t matter what part of Colorado you live in — you can take a class online with us!

If you’ve never heard of who we are, then let me briefly introduce our institution: we are the Lay Division at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary for the Archdiocese of Denver. This makes our seminary unique: not just the formation of future clerics, but also a division dedicated to the formation of the laity. Our mission is to put people in contact and communion with Jesus, who alone leads us to the heart of the Father in the Spirit. We do this through various offerings which study God’s call to each and every person to have a personal relationship with him in the Church that he established with the Precious Blood of Jesus. Our two flagship programs are the Denver Catholic Biblical School, a four year study of the Sacred Scriptures, and the Denver Catholic Catechetical School, a two year study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We also offer various other programs of study – year long “Enrichment Courses” in different topics of the faith, short courses throughout the year, lecture series throughout the liturgical seasons, and day-long workshops. Wherever you’re at in your faith, we have something for everybody!

Classes for this upcoming year begin on Monday, Sept. 13. Visit to see all of the options for classes, locations/online times, information sessions, and to register. Make the choice to study with us to learn your faith and come to know and love Jesus Christ!