March 12, 2012
Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
Brian's previous articles
VATICAN II AND THE RENEWAL OF MORAL THEOLOGY
On 25th December, 1961 Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council for a date to be decided the following year and made the point that 'modern society is earmarked by a great material progress to which there is not a corresponding advance in the moral field. Hence there is a weakening in the aspiration toward the values of the spirit'. Far from finding this moral vacuum a cause for despondency, however, he was full of confidence in the future. In opening the Council on 11th October the next year, he said: 'The Council now beginning rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light. It is now only the dawn'.
Confronting the wasteland in the moral field, one important step Vatican II took was to call for a renewal of moral theology. This should be of interest to the increasing number of lay people undertaking the study of theology, including Christian ethics or moral theology.
In the first half of the 20th century, and for many centuries prior to that time, the context in which moral theology was for the most part studied and taught was that of training priests for the ministry of the confessional. This context dictated the practical concerns of moral theologians and delineated their questions. There was a strong emphasis on the law of God as authoritatively proposed by the Church and on Canon (Church) law. The so-called natural moral law tended to be understood as fixed and static and able to be 'read off' from unchanging human nature. The bible was used, if in fact it was used at all, as a source of texts taken out of context to prove a point. Since confessors needed to be able to assess the kinds of sin and the limits of it, sin was very much centre stage in the whole production.
And in this period, for many perhaps understandable sociological reasons, the magisterium of the Church was seen in a very paternalistic and authoritarian way. Once the Church had spoken, even without invoking infallibility, that was the end of the matter. Dissent was relatively unknown and much time and effort were expended in explaining and defending official Church teachings, for example, about contraception.
Against this background it is easy to see why the moral theology of the time has been characterised as unbiblical, un-ecumenical, casuistic, minimalist, 'domestic' in its concerns (social morality being virtually untreated), legalistic and sin-centred. Moral theology was effectively a discipline separated from the rest of theology, and in reality not strictly speaking theology at all.
The renewal of moral theology was explicitly called for by Vatican II in its Decree on Priestly Formation (Chapter 5) under the umbrella of the revision of ecclesiastical studies, but its directives had a much broader sweep than just preparation for the ministry of the confessional.
The main objective of this overall revision was that the whole of theology should be treated so as 'to unfold ever increasingly the mystery of Christ' (n.14). Further, 'special attention needs to be given to the development of moral theology. Its scientific character should be more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching. It should show the nobility of the Christian vocation of the faithful, and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world', as well as by contact with 'the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation' (n.16).
Over the last nearly 50 years Vatican II has inspired the move to overturn
all the above negative characteristics and changed the face of moral theology.
The broader dimensions of Christian life and living, inspired by the Gospel,
have led to less emphasis being placed on the older interpretation of natural
law, on casuistry and an excessive preoccupation with sin. Social issues, such
as responsibility for the environment and the equitable distribution of
community resources, are now given appropriate consideration. Ecumenical
dialogue with moral theologians of other traditions has led to an opening out
beyond the confines of a too-narrow parochialism.
Finally, Vatican II called upon the laity to become involved in the quest for moral truth in the world today. Expertise in a particular field gives one the edge over those less acquainted with that field, be they priests or advisors or counsellors. The Council acknowledged that the leaders of the Church cannot be expected to have answers to all the problems that arise, or even that such is their mission. Lay persons, individually and in common with others, must be prepared to assume their distinctive role with a sense of responsibility for their world, not only in the broader social arena, but also in other sectors of Christian life. The Council encourages lay persons to become competent in their own field, to respect the rules proper to each discipline, and to work with others with innovative courage in seeking answers to contemporary moral problems. If differences of opinion occur, as they frequently will, since no one is immune from the possibility of error, 'they should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good' (Gaudium et Spes, n.43).