Wednesday, January 27, 2010
I, too, join those who look forward to discussing Fr. Jim Keenan’s new book, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century—From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences. Perhaps we at the Mirror of Justice may discuss his book after we have discussed Sister Margaret Farley’s Just Love. I am confident that the Keenan book will provide an abundance of grist for our dialogue as we consider his thoughts on moral theology. I am not sure that I would agree with the promotional material’s statement that moral theology has been replaced by the term “theological ethics” especially when one considers the continuing impact and vitality of Veritatis Splendor. After all, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which specifically exhorted Catholic scholars to exert special care to renew moral theology, cannot be misplaced, forgotten, or abandoned as John Paul II reminded us.
And what is this moral theology? We might consider as a beginning to answering the question that it is the consideration by the human person through the gift of right reason of the path (1) to pursue in one’s life toward the absolute truth who is God and (2) to perfect one’s life in accord with His desires for each person. The study of moral theology is, therefore, the avenue travelled by those who claim to be true in discipleship to Jesus Christ. It is the individual and communal reflective examination and appropriation of the moral teachings constitutive of the deposit of faith—the doctrine that guides us in living in right relation with God and with our neighbor, whoever the latter may be. It is, moreover, a proper exercise of authentic human freedom to be open to and cherish the wisdom of God which is essential for discerning right from wrong, truth from falsehood and for charting that course to do what is in accord with teachings that help us to do good and to avoid sin and sinful tendencies.
In this enterprise of moral theology it is vital to recall that not all interpretations of the morality permeating the deposit of faith are sound moral teachings. This becomes evident as the problems with consequentialism and proportionalism surface. So, in order to avoid such problems, it is typically useful to consider how does one exercise right reason to go about charting the course of doing that which is good and avoiding that which is sinful? Again we might return to the Second Vatican Council and one of the fundamental questions it raised: quid est homo? (What is man, what is the human person?) By entertaining this question we encounter another one: what is the meaning of human life including its destiny? Well, for Catholics, it is union with God, but to achieve this union, seeking and living the moral life that essential to the dignity and nature of the human person are essential. But here we must take stock of the fact that the Church’s moral teachings remind us that if we consciously persist in our sins without seeking reconciliation with God and neighbor, the quest for the moral life will fail not because of God’s desire but because of the human will.
Of course, human freedom and the exercise of the well-formed conscience are also vital to the salvation promised to those who pursue the moral life and the truth about human existence who is God. Here it must be recalled that freedom is not the absolute, subjective desire which the individual wishes but the freedom to choose consciously what God asks, i.e., union with Him. This line of thought seems to be absent from the Keenan book’s promotional statement, but it may well be in the book. Looking at some of the chapter headings, I do wonder if the sense of truth who is God is replaced with the contemporary substitute for truth which often manifests itself in a phrase such as “contemporary standards”? If contemporary standards are the touchstone for defining what is moral or ethical, then the truth about our human nature and destiny may well be displaced by a subjective conscience who knows not God but only the self. If this be the case, we ought to ponder the counsel of John Paul II that “this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.” Christian freedom cannot be based on the autonomy of the isolated self; rather, it must incorporate the other who is God. Therefore, the Christian moralist must eschew the ethical order that has its sole base in human origin and the views endorsed by the surrounding or popular culture and endorse the one that is committed to the path of salvation—the path which surely begins but does not end in this world.
The final point for this posting follows: the Christian moralist, like any Christian, must be a person of prayer. What prayer might be appropriate to the Christian as he or she engages in the dialogue about Fr. Keenan’s book? Perhaps this one: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner. It is a prayer that reminds the person who he or she is and where he or she is going as one travels the road to God.