Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The teaching of Christian Ethics

Several of us have been discussing the teaching of Christian Ethics in a Catholic context over the past several days. In particular, I would like to thank our two Michaels, i.e., Perry and Scaperlanda, for providing spirited catalysts to these exchanges. As I mentioned previously, I do not share Michael P.’s enthusiasm for Sr. Margaret Farley’s take on important issues of the day. Like Michael P., I realize she is “dissenting,” but I do not see how her positions or arguments in support thereof are “compelling.” I would like to offer readers some insight into the position I stake and the ground on which I rely.

Like Sr. Farley, I, too, have taught Christian Ethics, but unlike her, I did not teach at a prestigious Ivy League university but a Pontifical university in Rome, which carried certain responsibilities for me regarding the content of my classes and the nature of my publications. Unlike Sr. Farley who held a prestigious endowed professorship in Christian ethics, I simply was an Ordinary Professor of a Pontifical faculty, meaning that I held the rank of full professor in an ecclesiastical faculty with the approval not only of the university and my religious order, the Society of Jesus, but also of the Congregation for Catholic Education. Considering my rights and responsibilities that I have freely accepted in my capacity as an Ordinary Professor, I am obliged to conduct myself, my teaching, my research, and my writing in accordance with norms of the Church. One of the most pertinent sources would be Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (1993)—the Splendor of Truth, [HERE].

It is relevant to note that John Paul prefaced his writing of this encyclical noting that circumstances existed, which demonstrate “the lack of harmony between the traditional response of the Church and certain theological positions, encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology, with regard to questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself.” John Paul was also concerned about challenges to “the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the Church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone.” He concluded that it was necessary to write an Encyclical with the aim of treating “more fully and more deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology” that were and are “being undermined by certain present day tendencies.” (NN. 4-5)

It was his intention to identify clearly “certain aspects of doctrine which are of crucial importance in facing what is certainly a genuine crisis, since the difficulties which it engenders have most serious implications for the moral life of the faithful and for communion in the Church.” John Paul specified that these “certain aspects” include areas contested by some who teach “Christian ethics”, e.g., abortion, marriage, and bioethical matters including research destructive of human life. (NN. 4, 13, 47-49, 80) The Pope’s further objective was to assist those entrusted with teaching moral theology and Christian ethics “with regard to which new tendencies and theories have developed.” John Paul emphasized the role of the Magisterium, fidelity to Jesus Christ, and continuity with the Church’s tradition, which are needed to help everyone in his “journey towards truth and freedom.” (N. 27, italics mine)

John Paul realized that certain tendencies had evolved in contemporary moral theology influenced by “the currents of subjectivism and individualism” that relied on “novel interpretations of the relationship of freedom to the moral law, human nature and conscience, and propose novel criteria for the moral evaluation of acts.” (N. 34) He also understood that these tendencies either minimized or denied the relation between an individual’s freedom and the truth taught by God and knowable by the human person. This discussion introduces the problem of an exaggerated and erroneous autonomy in which some moral theologians and ethicists have made an improper distinction between an ethical order based exclusively on human resources and limited to the material world and the order of God’s salvation. As the Pope asserted, “autonomy conceived in this way also involves the denial of a specific doctrinal competence on the part of the Church and her Magisterium with regard to particular moral norms which deal with the so-called ‘human good’.” (N.37)

For John Paul II, it became necessary for the Church’s Magisterium to intervene in the sphere of faith and in the sphere of actions that bear moral concerns. It is the duty of all Catholics to be mindful of this (for we are all called to the task of salvation and evangelization), but it is the special responsibility of those who teach Christian ethics and moral theology. (N. 110) The person who exercises his or her life in a manner that conflicts with the Church, its Magisterium, and its teaching authority on these matters separates one’s self from right relation in the ecclesial communion. When this occurs, the Church has an obligation to warn the faithful of “the presence of possible errors, even merely implicit ones, when their consciences fail to acknowledge the correctness and the truth of the moral norms which the Magisterium teaches.” (Id.) The teacher of Christian ethics and moral theology has an obligation to teach with and in assent to the Magisterium’s teachings in the realms of dogma and morality in cooperation with the “hierarchical Magisterium.” (Id.)

As a man of the times, John Paul understood the importance and relevance of behavioral sciences in assisting the Church in its teaching responsibilities. However, he also understood the limitations of investigations that relied solely on the approach of behavioral science. As he indicated, “the relevance of the behavioral sciences for moral theology must always be measured against the primordial question: What is good or evil? What must be done to have eternal life?” (N. 111, italics are those of John Paul II) Should the teacher of Christian ethics and moral theology forget this, he or she has failed to comply with one’s professional and ecclesial responsibilities.

John Paul concludes his letter with these important points:

Teaching moral doctrine involves the conscious acceptance of these intellectual, spiritual and pastoral responsibilities. Moral theologians, who have accepted the charge of teaching the Church's doctrine, thus have a grave duty to train the faithful to make this moral discernment, to be committed to the true good and to have confident recourse to God’s grace. While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for a process: indeed, it is in no way established by following the rules and deliberative procedures typical of a democracy. Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the People of God. Opposition to the teaching of the Church’s Pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts. When this happens, the Church’s Pastors have the duty to act in conformity with their apostolic mission, insisting that the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must always be respected. “Never forgetting that he too is a member of the People of God, the theologian must be respectful of them, and be committed to offering them a teaching which in no way does harm to the doctrine of the faith”.  (N. 113, italics are those of John Paul II)

I, for one, labor to be faithful to the Splendor of Truth and the need to keep together the questions, on the one hand, that address good and evil and those, on the other hand, that have to do with eternal life.     RJA sj


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