"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Friday, June 29, 2012

What's Catholic about Catholic Moral Theology?

Happy Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul! In honor of this great solemnity, I thought I'd write a little about a question that's been on my mind lately: What's Catholic about Catholic moral theology? For the last few weeks (ok, more like months), I've been spending my little work time reading (i.e. skimming) all the "Notes on Moral Theology" from the Journal Theological Studies. I began with 1950 and have now made my way up to 1973. It's been a fascinating little window into the minds of moral theologians of this time period.

The writers of these "Notes" were all Jesuits, but from 1950 to 1973, there is quite a variation in the way they viewed the field of moral theology. And, in particular, one perception that underwent a noteworthy change was the role to be played by the Magisterium in making moral judgments.

In his 1963 "Notes," Fr. Gerald Kelly wrote: "It seems to me that no theological textbook is properly orientated unless it makes clear from the beginning that the first argument of Catholic theology is the teaching of the magisterium. This is especially important today,when people have so much "freedom" to think and when they are so definitely inclined to accept only what they see and agree with. The place of doctrinal authority in Catholic life, and perhaps particularly as regards moral questions, needs both stress and explanation. No approach to moral theology, whether new or old, is satisfactory unless it makes clear the function of the magisterium in moral matters."

Thus began Kelly's discussion of several "new approaches" in Catholic moral theology, and one concern in particular, which was how natural law fit into the picture. Kelly then asserted, "If anything is clear in the practice of the Church, it is that it has the power to interpret the natural law." Moreover, Kelly wrote, "the guidance of the Church is a practical, or moral, necessity for obtaining an adequate knowledge of the natural law. And the Church (i.e., the magisterium) makes use of the various theological fontes in developing and formulating its teaching.This problem of the moral necessity of the magisterium is of the greatest
importance today." 

It may come as no surprise that the reason Kelly thought this question was of great importance was because of the debates surrounding contraception. This was one of the hottest topics of debate throughout the 60s. Kelly wanted to emphasize that in affirming the position against contraception, the magisterium was interpreting natural law. 

With the 1968 release of Humanae vitae by Pope Paul VI, the magisterium affirmed Kelly's conviction that it had the power to interpret natural law. Despite the majority conclusion of the official Papal Commission established to investigate the contraception issue, the pope reaffirmed earlier papal statements opposing contraception. Some suggest that he was unduly guided by members of the minority whose main preoccupation was the unchanging nature of tradition in the face of what many considered a case of the development of doctrine (a la John Henry Newman) relative to the experience of the faithful.

Regardless, the release of Humanae vitae unleashed the topic of magisterial authority more broadly among theologians. Many theologians, knowing the majority position of the papal commission, had optimistically been expecting a change in favor of contraception. The blow of the encyclical brought on a debate about dissent in the Church. And of course, this was a timely topic for the 60s, expressing what Philip Gleason has named "the contagion of liberty." All institutions were coming under scrutiny at this time, and Catholics were no more hesitant about questioning the authority of the Church than of their country.

Five years after Kelly, in his December 1968, "Notes on Moral Theology," Richard McCormick devoted a section to the topic "Morality and the Magisterium." McCormick quoted John Cardinal Heenan as saying, "The decline of the magisterium is one of the most significant developments in the postconciliar Church." Among the reasons discussed for this decline was the surprising way in which Vatican II appeared to overturn some longstanding authoritatively expressed magisterial positions. Moreover, the sense of cultural pluralism in the Church seemed to call for less partiality toward one theological tradition.

This also occasioned debates about the meaning of "infallibility," with one suggestion that the faithful have a grave duty of submitting to decisions, even of the ordinary noninfallible magisterium. The opposing side agreed with this in principle, but argued that there may be some exceptions, particularly where conscience prevents an acceptance of the magisterium's reasoning. In this case, theologians would have full academic freedom, as well as a responsibility to voice their arguments...and unfortunately, this would likely be done publicly, as this is how theology is advanced.

McCormick concluded his discussion by writing: "[T]o say that authentic moral teaching generates per
se a duty of assent all too easily allows dissent to be confused with disloyalty and act. The result of this communal experience becomes the source of a new understanding and a fuller unfolding of basic human and Christian values. Dissent—honorable, respectful, responsible—is not so much a personal right (there are implied concessions of excessive juridicism in this type of talk); rather it is only the possible outcome of a respectful and docile personal reflection on noninfallible teaching. Such reflection is the very condition of progress in understanding in the Church. Dissent, therefore, as a possible outcome of this reflection, must be viewed as a part of  that total approach whereby we learn. If it is seen as a challenge to papal authority or
as disloyalty, we have by implication ruled personal reflection out of court and compromised our own growth in understanding."

In a 1973 article, Charles Curran engaged in dialogue with Roger Mehl's book comparing Catholic and Protestant Ethics. One of Mehl's distinctions between Catholic and Protestant ethics was "Authoritarianism," i.e. the role played by the magisterium in ethical inquiry.

Describing Pius XII's Humani Generis as an attempt to reassert papal teaching authority as a means of controlling theological speculation, Curran summarized the position such: "If the pope goes out of his way to
deliberately speak on a controverted subject, the subject can no longer be regarded as a matter for free debate among theologians." Curran suggested, however, that Vatican II paved the way for dissent from authoritative, noninfallible magisterial teachings by purposely not restating this aspect of Humani Generis. Curran also wrote that the pluralism of Catholic views on contraception prevent it from being said that the magisterium's position is "the Roman Catholic position," as though there is no other possible position.

In other words, it seems as though Curran's response to Mehl on this case is to point out that "Authoritarianism" is not a point of contrast between Catholic and Protestant ethics. Rather, because of the possibility of dissent, and the pluralism of opinions of Catholic moral theologians, the role of the magisterium does not in any way distinguish Catholic ethics from Protestant ethics. Such an authoritative, noninfallible magisterial teaching is simply one opinion among others. If Catholic ethics seems unique in this case, it is because it may entertain the magisterium's opinion on a particular topic or at least has to acknowledge that it exists. But of course, the writings of the magisterium could also serve as a resource for non-Catholics as well. The emphasis is not on the authoritative nature of the teaching, but rather on the noninfallible nature of the teaching, and this means that "authoritative" really means something like "kinda important."

Interestingly, this recognition of a plurality of opinions was exactly one of the critiques of Sr. Margaret Farley's book made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The CDF writes: 

"The author does not present a correct understanding of the role of the Church’s Magisterium as the teaching authority of the Bishops united with the Successor of Peter, which guides the Church’s ever deeper understanding of the Word of God as found in Holy Scripture and handed on faithfully in the Church’s living tradition. In addressing various moral issues, Sr. Farley either ignores the constant teaching of the Magisterium or, where it is occasionally mentioned, treats it as one opinion among others. Such an attitude is in no way justified, even within the ecumenical perspective that she wishes to promote."


The CDF was concerned about particular topics wherein Farley disagreed with Church teachings. They quoted sections from her text that contradicted Church teachings on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage, and divorce/remarriage.

The response to the Farley episode was predictably dramatic as picked up by the secular press, e.g. the NY Times headline "Sister Margaret Farley Denounced by Vatican". But even among Catholics, there was an outrage that the CDF would dare to comment on Farley's book (which was meant to be academic, not catechetical), and a passionate response in her defense ensued, with people pointing out the merits of the book and The Catholic Theological Society of America making a statement about their concerns, noting that they viewed Farley's purpose as raising and exploring questions of concern to the faithful. Moreover, they worried about the role of theology as presented by the CDF in this Notification:

"The Board is especially concerned with the understanding of the task of Catholic theology presented in the “Notification.” The “Notification” risks giving the impression that there can be no constructive role in the life of the Church for works of theology that 1) give voice to the experience and concerns of ordinary believers, 2) raise questions about the persuasiveness of certain official Catholic positions, and 3) offer alternative theological frameworks as potentially helpful contributions to the authentic development of doctrine. Such an understanding of the nature of theology inappropriately conflates the distinctive tasks of catechesis and theology. With regard to the subject matter of Professor Farley’s book, it is simply a matter of fact that faithful Catholics in every corner of the Church are raising ethical questions like those Professor Farley has addressed. In raising and exploring such questions with her customary sensitivity and judiciousness, Professor Farley has invited us to engage the Catholic tradition seriously and thoughtfully."
We see here echoes of Curran's comments on the role of the magisterium in theology. CTSA sees it as important not only to raise questions about the persuasiveness of official Catholic positions, but also to offer alternative theological frameworks as possibly contributing to the development of doctrine. Notice that the CTSA emphasizes the exploration of questions, rather than Farley's conclusions, which, tentative or no, sound like conclusions (not questions) in the excerpts in the CDF's Notification. If Farley had merely voiced questions and criticized magisterial arguments, there would not have been the need for a Notification. Moreover, the CDF's Notification documents in its first paragraph the overtures made to Farley regarding her work and the unsatisfactory nature of her responses to them, seemingly indicating that she was inflexible on her conclusions that were in conflict with official teachings.
Theologians do have an important role to play in the development of doctrine, and one way that they do this is by criticizing weak arguments put forward by others, whether bishops or lay theologians. But when asserting theological opinions that clearly contradict official church teaching, can they expect to be ignored by the magisterium? I'd like to emphasize that Farley has not been forbidden to teach, to write, or to publish. She has not been expelled from her religious order, nor has she been excommunicated. Her book has not been banned. The purpose of the Notification, it appears, was merely to inform the faithful that a dialogue with Farley had been attempted, and that the CDF thought it necessary to notify the faithful of several points within her book that are not in accord with official Church teaching.
So, what is Catholic about Catholic moral theology? If Catholic moral theology merely contains a great plurality of opinions and methods, if Catholic moral theologians reach many of the same conclusions as their Protestant counterparts and the secular society in which they live, if Catholic moral theologians regard the magisterium as just one opinion among many... is it really Catholic moral theology? 
Take away the pope, is it still Catholicism?
Take away the authority of the magisterium on theological teachings, is it still Catholic theology?
Of course, this blog post could have only been written by someone who grew up in religious pluralism. As William Portier describes in his Communio article entitled "Here Come the Evangelical Catholics," many younger Catholics who are passionate about their faith are not interested in fighting with the Church, but in identifying with it. The battle of attacking the hierarchy has been fought, and the papacy is still standing...and those who fought it have not been heartlessly eliminated; they are still in positions of prestige in both Catholic and non-Catholic institutions (Farley is at Yale). Theirs was a battle fitting for Catholics raised in what they came to regard as a restrictive, legalistic Catholic ghetto that greatly limited their freedom and their choices in theological inquiry. It was a predictable battle ensuing from a time of great change both in the Church (e.g. Vatican II's implementation) and in the U.S. (the contagion of freedom and challenge to authority, as well as the sexual revolution). The battle for us who are of a different generation is to find a way to be Catholic in the midst of a plurality of religious opinions, in the midst of an increasingly secular society. In this kind of battle, there is little place for the outright opposing of official Church teachings - challenging weaknesses in arguments, yes, raising questions, yes. 
But as for spending our time trying to undermine an institution that defines us as Catholic, no. 
There are enough Catholic scholars who have spent their careers trying to break free of the ghetto by embracing secular culture and translating this culture's conclusions (especially on sexual matters) into what they see as Catholic lingo. The new component to current theological dialogue must come from people interested in supporting the magisterium intellectually; thus the task is to find more convincing ways to argue for official church teachings, including the criticism of traditional arguments when necessary, but never forgetting that "authoritative" means "able to be trusted as accurate or true" and not simply "kinda important." One way in which we achieve this is by embodying those teachings, while simultaneously trying to be kind, friendly, and charitable towards those who disagree with official Church teachings. Yet we must also acknowledge the conflict.
Thus, applying Gerald Kelly's words from 1963, I say that "This problem of the moral necessity of the magisterium is of greatest importance today."
Viva il papa!!!


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