Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis / Edition 1

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The Catholic tradition has always tried to explain its theology in a coherent and systematic way, but the great changes and tensions existing within Catholic moral theology today have made it difficult to develop systematic approaches to what was once called fundamental moral theology. Now a leading scholar active in this field for forty years offers a synthesis of Catholic moral theology set in the context of the broader Catholic tradition and the significant developments that have occurred since the Second Vatican Council.

Charles E. Curran's succinct, coherent account of his wide-ranging work in Catholic moral theology points out agreements, disagreements, and changes in significant aspects of the Catholic moral tradition. His systematic approach explores major topics in a logical development: the ecclesiological foundation and stance of moral theology; the person as moral subject and agent; virtues, principles and norms; conscience and decision making; and the role of the church as a teacher of morality.

Curran's work condenses and organizes a large amount of material to show that the Catholic theological tradition is in dialogue with contemporary life and thought while remaining conscious of its rich history. Of great interest to theologians for its broad synthetic scope, this book is also a thorough introduction to the Catholic moral tradition for students and interested readers, including non-Catholics.

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Editorial Reviews

John T. Noonan
The breadth of Curran's comprehensive synthesis is striking...One can disagree with what Curran says while respecting the candor, courage and conscientiousness that move him.
NY Times Book Review
A personal synthesis which begins with a discussion of how the Catholic understanding of the church gives shape and direction to Catholic moral life and to reflection on it, then develops a perspective of moral theology; considers the best model for understanding the moral life; deals with persons and the virtues of persons; addresses the values and principles that guide actions; and outlines the author's theory of conscience and decision making. Paper edition, (unseen) $19.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780878407170
  • Publisher: Georgetown University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Series: Moral Traditions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 255
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles E. Curran is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University. He has served as president of three national societies: the American Theological Society, the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the Society of Christian Ethics. Curran has written or edited more than forty books, including T he Origins of Moral Theology in the United States (Georgetown University Press, 1997).

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Ecclesial Context

Catholic moral theology in the past has paid little or no explicit attention to the church and its influence on the discipline. Two central strands of Catholic moral theology illustrate this lack of attention. On the one hand, the manuals of moral theology, which practically became identified with the whole discipline of moral theology during their existence from the late sixteenth century to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), aimed at preparing confessors (and indirectly penitents) for the sacrament of penance. Sins, according to the Council of Trent (1545), had to be confessed according to number and species, and all the faithful were obliged to confess their mortal sins at least once a year. These very practical manuals dealt with the narrow question raised by the practice of the sacrament of penance of what constituted sinful acts and the degree of sinfulness. Such manuals presumed but never explicitly developed the broader context of the church for moral life and moral theology.

    A second and more theoretical strand of Catholic moral theology has been identified with the approach of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) whose Summa theologiae became the textbook for theology in the sixteenth century. Pope Leo XIII's imposition of Thomism in the late nineteenth century as the Catholic philosophy and theology insured the hegemony of the Thomistic method until Vatican II. Both the religious culture of the time in which Aquinas wrote and his philosophical bent called for a universal ethic, and his treatment of moral theology pays no explicitattention to the church.

    However, since moral theology deals with the systematic study of moral life and actions within the Christian community, this discipline must recognize the primary context of the church community. It is with the church, therefore, that we must begin. This chapter will discuss the nature of the church, in particular, its characteristic catholicity and how that affects the moral life of Christians. It also seeks to understand some possible problems and contemporary challenges connected with this catholicity.


What is the church in Catholic understanding? It is the community within which the triune God comes to people, and in which people respond to God's gracious gift. Vatican II describes the church as the sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all humankind. Through the Spirit, the church continues in time and space the salvific work of the risen Jesus and the one he called Abba. In response the people of God, the church, give praise and thanks for the triune God's salvific work and live out their new lives as children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus. The church community is called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. An early name for the community of the disciples of Jesus was "The Way."

    The members of the church are truly the community of Jesus' disciples. Discipleship is a word often used to describe the life of members of the church. Vatican II's Constitution on the Church insists that all members of the church are called to holiness. Jesus called each and every disciple to be perfect even as the heavenly Father is perfect. All Christians in whatever state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love. Christian moral life thus arises within the context of the church, the community called to nurture and foster the life of discipleship.

    The ecclesial or church dimension of the Christian moral life has not been explicitly developed in the two main approaches to Catholic moral theology. The moral dimension of the church has also been ignored in systematic treatments of the church in Catholic theology. Modern theologies of the church developed in the light of the controversies following the Reformation and stressed aspects that differ from Protestant approaches, for example, the Petrine office in the church and the structural elements in Roman Catholicism. Subsequent developments especially in the context of the dialogue of Vatican II put these aspects into a wider and broader framework. But even contemporary and reforming theologies of the church do not develop the moral life of the disciples of Jesus.

    The situation is paradoxical. Catholic theology stresses the importance of the visible community of the church, but existing systematic theologies of moral life and of the church fail to develop the ecclesial context or me moral life. At best, the teaching role of the church is emphasized in the discussion of various acts in moral theology (e.g., birth control, distributive justice issues) where church teaching authority has taken a position.

    The ecclesial aspect of Catholic moral life needs to be developed in depth. God wills to make human beings holy and to save them, not as isolated individuals without any bond or link among themselves, but as a people who acknowledge and serve God in holiness. God chose the Israelites as God's own people. The church is the new Israel with whom God keeps covenant, but contemporary Catholic theology also recognizes the enduring reality of the first covenant. The messianic people of God, the church, are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation ... who at times past were not a people but now are the people of God (1 Pet 2:9-10)."

    Most Americans tend to think of the church as a voluntary society in which like-minded individuals come together to sustain, nurture, and develop their spiritual lives. But this understanding is not the Catholic understanding and betrays individualistic presuppositions. We are not saved as individuals who then come together to deepen our spiritual lives within the community of the church. The saving love of God comes to us in and through the church. The church is the way in which God has chosen to come to us with God's saving love. We are saved by belonging to the people of God. Such is the way Catholics believe God comes to us; we find God's saving love in and through belonging to the people of God.

    One good illustration of this understanding of the church as the community in which God wants to encounter human beings comes from the continued practice of infant baptism. Many pastoral and practical problems arise from the practice of infant baptism, but this practice reminds us that we are not individuals first saved by God in the depths of our own hearts who only then form a community of like-minded individuals. The church is not a voluntary society like the Elks or the Lions. One does not belong to the church because one admires the pastor or the preacher or the choir or the people. One belongs to the church, the community of disciples, because it is the way that God has chosen to enter into saving love with us.

    At times in its history the Catholic tradition so stressed the communitarian aspect of the church that it did not give enough importance to the individual and the individual's experience of God's saving gift. Partly in response to such deficiencies in Catholic practice, the Protestant Reformation put more emphasis on the individual's relationship to God and downplayed the role of the church. Over time the Catholic Church has attempted to recognize more fully the importance and role of the individual person within the community, but even today Catholics often criticize their church for not giving enough importance to the needs and rights of individuals. However, a truly Catholic ecclesiology can never reduce the church to a voluntary society in the sense that individuals join the group merely to nurture and sustain their Christian life. The church is the way God has chosen for us, not the means we voluntarily embrace to help ourselves as individuals.


The theory and practice of the church will thus greatly affect and shape the moral life of its members. The Roman Catholic Church calls itself catholic. The very word elucidates the reality of the church. Catholic (with a small c) means universal and all-inclusive. The Catholic Church is Catholic with a large C and catholic with a small c. Large C Catholic Church refers to the totality of its Catholicity including its origins and unique history as the Roman Catholic Church and its difference from other churches. Catholic with a small c refers to the broader catholicity that the Roman Catholic Church shares with many other churches. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed professes belief in the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Ecumenical discussions within the World Council of Churches (to which the Roman Catholic Church does not belong) have emphasized the need for the church to be catholic in this sense.

    The catholicity (small c) of the church involves four important characteristics for our understanding of the church and how it shapes the moral life of its members. In these four areas the Roman Catholic Church is not necessarily different from other small c catholic churches. These aspects can thus serve as the basis for ecumenical discussion. They spell out the church's basic catholicity—its universality and all-inclusiveness.

Inclusive in Membership. First, the Catholic Church is an inclusive community open to all and appealing to all. In the early centuries, the church's openness to gentiles was a very significant development (Acts 10). Indeed, the ideal of catholicity is the meaning of Galatians 3:28—there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female in Christ Jesus. The church catholic goes beyond ethnic, racial, gender, political, and economic differences. It thus differs from any and every community whose unity is based on human bonds.

    The church catholic is all-embracing. Some religious groups restrict membership to the spiritually elite and perfect. But the church catholic recognizes that its members are also sinners. The Catholic tradition has distinguished two kinds of sin—mortal and venial sin. Mortal sin, from the Latin word for death, involves spiritual death and separation from God (thus meriting eternal punishment). Venial sin comes from the Latin word for pardon and refers to sin that does not destroy one's relationship to God and which can therefore be more readily pardoned and forgiven. No one in the world is perfect; venial sin exists in all. But the Catholic tradition recognizes that even people in mortal sin still belong to the church. Yes, boundaries exist but the church catholic is inclusive and recognizes that among its members, all of whom are sinful, are some who have even broken their relationship with God.

    If the church were the home of only the perfect, it would have a different moral ethos and a very different moral tone. One of the perennial problems in the church catholic comes precisely from this tension between its need to include sinners and the call to follow Jesus. Before Vatican II Catholics generally accepted a two-tiered division in the church between the ordinary Catholic who lived in the world and obeyed the ten commandments and those who sought perfection and followed the evangelical counsels. In this view, one who wanted to be perfect left the world and entered religion—a life based on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But Vatican II insisted that all Christians are called to holiness, not only priests, sisters, or monks. The tension, however, remains between the call to holiness and the recognition that sinners belong to the church. The danger always persists that the church catholic will fail to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth; however, its characteristic of being open to all, including sinners, is intimately linked to the catholic understanding of the church as the way in which God offers salvation to human persons.

Inclusive in its Concerns. A second characteristic of the church catholic is that its faith and moral life are inclusive and touch all aspects of reality in the world. The church catholic does not withdraw from the world but lives in the world and is directly involved with it. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World makes this point clear in its opening words: "The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts."

    Thus the church catholic has traditionally been distinguished from communities called sects. According to the now classic discussion of Ernst Troeltsch, the sect proposes a radical and perfectionist ethic, tends to have a small and limited membership, and does not become directly involved in the world but tends to withdraw from the world. Many traditional Christian sects make themselves different by insisting on the literal interpretation of the sayings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, they will take no oaths. Since living in the world makes it impossible to live out this radical ethic of Jesus, sectarians generally withdraw from the world. The church, on the other hand, accepts that its members are saints and sinners living in and trying to change the world. In Troeltsch's discussion, one sees clearly the difference between models of the church and sect and how different characteristics cohere within a systematic understanding of each model. The Catholic Church, according to Troeltsch and many others, best illustrates the church model although mainstream Protestant churches exemplify the same model.

    The church catholic also differs from an interpretation of the church and Christian community recently proposed by Stanley Hauerwas and the late John Howard Yoder. In general Hauerwas and Yoder are not strict sectarians. However, in their approach the church is primarily concerned with its own internal moral life and not directly and immediately concerned with the world. The church's witness and example can and should have some effect on the world. Hauerwas begins by considering that there cannot and should not be a universal ethic. Moral identity is tradition-dependent. Consequently, his moral theology is directed at the church community itself. Such an approach has appealing aspects but it is not the approach of the church catholic. The U.S. Catholic bishops' 1986 pastoral letter on the economy exemplifies the catholic approach. The letter addresses two different audiences—church members and the broader public, so that the bishops can specifically add their voice to the public debate about the direction of the U.S. economy. Church members and all human beings are called to work for a just economy.

Inclusive of Other Realities. A third characteristic of the church catholic, along with its universality and all-inclusiveness, is its recognition that church members also belong to other communities, institutions, and groupings. In the past the church had a tendency to absorb these other institutions in a subordinate relationship. Think, for example, of the relationship between church and state. In the post-Constantinian era the church recognized the state as a separate reality with its own ends and means, but insisted that the state serve the higher reality of the church. One sees here the danger and temptation of subsuming the church's universality and all-inclusiveness to a hierarchical ordering.

    In the twentieth century, the relationship that prevails between church and state illustrates that the Catholic Church now recognizes the proper domain of other institutions and no longer makes them directly subordinate to the church. Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty clearly sets out the proper relationship of the church and state, recognizing the legitimate and independent role of each but also avoiding the total separation between them that would privatize the church and religion. The church, through its members who are both Christians and citizens, can and should work for justice in society and the state. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World devotes a section to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs: "If by the autonomy of earthly affairs is meant the gradual discovery, exploitation, and ordering of the laws and values of matter and society, then the demand for autonomy is perfectly in order: it is at once the claim of modernity and the desire of the Creator." The last sentence is fascinating. The emphasis on rightful autonomy has obviously come to the fore with modernity and that has not always been the case. Yet this autonomy is now understood to express the desire of the Creator.

    The pastoral constitution also says that methodological research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with faith because the things of this world and the things of faith both derive from the same God. The footnote to this section of the constitution refers to a book on Galileo. It is the only footnote in the document that does not come from Scripture, a father or doctor of the church, a recognized theologian in the church, or a document of the magisterium. The claim that faith and reason cannot contradict one another has been emphasized in Catholic tradition since the rise of scholasticism in the middle ages although in practice the Catholic Church has not always lived up to that axiom. The next chapter will develop the role of reason as a source of moral wisdom and knowledge for the Christian.

    The individual Christian is a member of the church but also lives and labors in the world—with family, friends, and co-workers in the midst of cultural, political, and economic institutions. Whereas Christian faith should permeate life in all these spheres, relationships, and institutions, such institutions have their own structures and meanings that are not derived directly from faith. The Christian thus belongs to many institutions and groups that have a rightful autonomy from the church. Once again the catholic nature of the church is completely unsympathetic to a sectarian view of the world as an evil opposed to the church and the Gospel. The church catholic recognizes that it exists in the world among many other institutions and further that it must be in dialogue with these realities and even learn from them.

    This understanding of catholicity also imbues the nature and role of theology in general and of moral theology in particular. Catholic theology serves three different publics—the church, the academy, and the larger world. Different emphases can be given to these different audiences, but Catholic theology is related to all. Theology is aware of and learns from other academic disciplines. Likewise, the notion that theology is in dialogue with the world is well illustrated in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The church catholic and its theology are not isolated from the academy and the world.

    A sharply debated question within Roman Catholicism in the last decades is ultimately connected with the notion of catholicity: Is there a unique moral content for the Christian that differs from the moral content of other persons living in the world? The question does not concern individual vocations or functions in the church but life in the world. All admit that Christian intentionality and motivation are quite different. Many non-Christians love their enemies, forgive others, and work for social justice as Christians are called to do. Moreover, the older, natural law Catholic approach claims no unique status for its teaching other than the human nature and reason common to all humankind. Ever since Pacem in terris in 1963, papal social encyclicals have been addressed not only to Catholics but to all persons of good will. Thus all admit that the moral obligations of Christians and others in the world have much in common. I defend the thesis that in principle, in any given situation Christians and non-Christians can come to the same decision, but this discussion lies beyond the purpose of this book.

Inclusive of Different Levels. A fourth characteristic of the church catholic with its emphasis on universality and inclusiveness concerns the various embodiments of the church. The church catholic is obviously universal, but it is also very much local.

    Without doubt, the Roman Catholic Church has often overemphasized the universal aspect of the church at the expense of the local church. The growing importance of the role of the papacy in the church, abetted by the First Vatican Council's definition of papal infallibility and discussion limited only to the papal role in the church, continued until Vatican II. This council then tried to overcome the one-sided development of the papacy and the universal church by spelling out the role of the college of bishops and the importance of the local or residential bishop. All bishops, with the bishop of Rome as their head, form the college of bishops which has "supreme and full authority over the universal church." The local bishop is not merely a delegate of the pope but exercises a proper, ordinary, and immediate power over his diocese. Vatican II also recognized that the local church is not simply a portion or branch office of the church, but that the ecclesial body of Christ is truly present in each local eucharistic community. The term "local community" remains somewhat ambiguous and can refer to the church in a particular nation, a particular diocese, or even a particular parish. Today the Catholic Church recognizes that the church exists on the universal, regional, national, diocesan, and local levels, but gives much greater emphasis to the local eucharistic community.

    Although Vatican II offered a well-rounded understanding of the different levels of church, the new code of canon law (1983) has failed to give enough importance and independence to regional and national churches. Catholic ecclesiology and canon law need to better incorporate the principle of subsidiarity into their understanding of the church. This principle plays an important role in Catholic social ethics. According to this principle, the higher level should help the lower level do all that it can and only take for itself that which cannot be done properly on the lower level.

    Finally, recent discussions about inculturation call for the church to be more truly incarnated in the local culture. In the past, a false universalism too readily identified the church with western culture. This process of inculturation will have significant ramifications for moral theology.


Roman Catholic ecclesiology shares the foregoing characteristics with all churches that accept the mark of catholicity. There are, however, two important ecclesial characteristics that are distinctive of Roman Catholicism—the emphasis on mediation and the hierarchical structure and organization of the church.

Mediation. The Roman Catholic emphasis on mediation is somewhat connected with the church's catholicity, but it is also the most distinctive aspect of Roman Catholic theology and self-understanding. Sometimes the word "sacramentality" or the term "analogical imagination" is used to describe the same basic reality. Mediation refers to the fact that the divine is mediated in and through the human and the natural. All creation shows forth the work of the Creator and gives us a glimpse of the Creator. The created, the natural, and the human are not evil but basically good and contain within themselves a reflection of their Creator.

    The Catholic understanding of the church illustrates the reality and importance of human mediation. As in Jesus the divine became incarnate in the human, so too in the church, the divine works in and through the human. The church is not primarily an invisible reality involving a relationship between God and the saved. Nor is the external aspect of the church merely a coat or a garment to cover over the divine element. The divine aspect and the human, the invisible and the visible, are united. The church is a visible community with visible structures that mediate God's loving presence in our world. Many other churches do not attach as much significance to the human or visible and structural aspects of the church as perhaps they should. However, the problem in the Catholic tradition is a tendency to identify the human church too closely with Jesus.

    The church carries out its mission and function primarily through the sacraments which again illustrate the reality of mediation. As Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy affirms, the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. The eucharist is the heart and center of the liturgy and the place where the church most fully expresses its true reality. But the eucharist is primarily a meal. The solemn or celebratory meal is the primary way in which human families and friends gather to celebrate their love and make themselves present to one another. They share food, converse, remember the past, tell stories, and sustain one another in love and friendship. So the liturgy takes this fundamental human way of family and friends coming together in love to remember, to sustain, and to nurture one another and makes it the sign of the reality of God's presence among them. Jesus is present to us in and through the celebratory meal. Each eucharistic celebration recalls the many meals Jesus shared with his own disciples and the final meal that came to be known as the Last Supper. The other sacraments also illustrate how the divine is mediated through natural and created things. Baptism is conferred with water—the natural significance and meaning of water (life-sustaining, refreshing, cleansing) merging with the historical and salvific (Noah's Ark, the Israelites passing through the Red Sea). Oil is used in the sacraments to anoint certain ministers in the church and to symbolize the healing love of Jesus for the sick.

    The Catholic tradition, especially in its Thomistic philosophical expression, insisted that reason can prove the existence of God by going from the natural and the created world to the divine. Analogy or mediation forms the basis for claiming that one can reason from the order of the universe back to the all-knowing orderer whom we call God. The shadow of God is present in all creation, and we can see something of God in all that is. God not only tells us something about creation and the human, but creation and the human tell us something about God. Catholicism in the past gave great importance to natural theology or theodicy as an understanding of God based totally on human reason. Today some people question this emphasis on proving God's existence strictly from reason, but natural theology's existence and role in Catholic tradition exemplifies the Catholic insistence on mediation.

    Karl Barth once claimed that his major problem with Roman Catholicism was its and. Catholics believe in Scripture and tradition, faith and reason, grace and works, Jesus and the church, Mary and the saints. I disagree with Barth's conclusion, but he is correct in pointing to the distinctive Catholic emphasis on mediation, which is the reason for the and in all these pairs.

    This emphasis on mediation has important ramifications for moral life and moral theology. A very important manifestation of mediation is the Catholic understanding of grace and works. Some Protestants have spoken about grace only, but the Catholic tradition recognizes the importance of the human response. The conjunction between grace and works serves as the whole basis for the importance of the moral life and for theoretical and systematic reflection on it.

    The Catholic tradition recognizes the role of the church and the disciples of Jesus in mediating the mission and work of the risen Jesus in time and space. This work involves not only the internal life of the church but also activity in the broader human community. According to the 1971 international synod of bishops, action on behalf of justice and the transformation of the world are a necessary element of preaching the Gospel—that is, of the church's mission to redeem the human race and liberate it from every oppressive situation. Thus the Christian and the church continue through their actions the redeeming work of Jesus.

    The importance of works and the role of human response in the reality of grace are also illustrated in the sacrament of penance. By our sins we offend God and need the mercy and forgiveness of the loving parent and the community. The sacrament of penance thus shows the great importance and significance of human actions—contrition and absolution coalescing in forgiveness.

    The Roman Catholic insistence on mediation strongly grounds the basic goodness of the natural world and human reason and experience. Whatever is created is good and can even tell us something about God. Another example of the Catholic and is the insistence on both faith and reason and the assertion that there can be no conflict between the two. Thus, human reason and all that is created constitute important sources of Christian moral wisdom and knowledge. Catholic moral theology is not sectarian; it shares this much with other human approaches to ethics.

    Andrew M. Greeley maintains, on the basis of his sociological studies, that Catholics have a distinctive imagination different from the Protestant imagination. This perduring Catholic imagination is grounded in what he calls the analogical imagination and what I have called mediation. Greeley has designed surveys that demonstrate the existence and importance of the Catholic imagination with its emphasis on the sacramental presence of God in all things and on a communitarian understanding of the human person. This Catholic imagination helps to explain why Catholics like being Catholic and remain in the Catholic Church despite problems with church leadership and disagreements with some official church teachings. Thus, Greeley's sociological findings support the distinctive Catholic emphasis on mediation developed here.

Possible Problems of Mediation. The Catholic emphasis on mediation with its acceptance of basic human goodness is replete with problems that have not always been avoided in the past. The primary danger comes from the tendency to identify the divine with the human. This error has occurred especially in ecclesiology. Too often the church was seen as only divine or as fully embodying the reign of God. The church was thought to be perfect, holy, and without spot. Vatican II recognized that the danger of triumphalism is a practical illustration of the harm inherent in this error. It therefore emphasized the pilgrim nature of the church—the notion that the church itself is continually growing and developing to overcome its own sinfulness. In the light of the teaching of Vatican II, the church is no longer identified as the reign of God but as a sign or sacrament of the reign of God. The problem of too closely relating the church to Jesus also comes from seeing the church exclusively in the light of carrying on the mission of Jesus. The church is the body of Christ but also the people of God—fallible and weak but sustained, nourished, and guided by the Holy Spirit in its pilgrim existence.

    A related danger or problem comes from a poor understanding of mediation which tends to absolutize or give too much importance to the second element or the aspect after the and. Thus in understanding Jesus and the church, the church has at times seemed to be more important than Jesus. Likewise in the phrase "Scripture and tradition," tradition can seem to have an independent value apart from Scripture. And in morality Catholics have at times emphasized human works at the expense of grace. But this interpretation is Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism—the heresy that claims we save ourselves by our own works and not by the grace of God. Invariably, even today, Protestants and Catholics give different answers to the question of how the Christian is saved. Protestants usually respond by saying we are saved by faith, while Catholics often say that we are saved by obeying God's law or keeping the commandments. This popular testimony shows how at times the Catholic tradition has overstressed works at the expense of grace.

Hierarchical Structure. A second unique characteristic of Roman Catholicism involves the hierarchical nature of the church. Ecclesiology in the Roman Catholic Church includes the role of pope and bishops in the church. As mentioned, Vatican II tried to overcome the one-sided emphasis on the papacy in the pre-Vatican II church by insisting on the collegiality of bishops with the pope in governing the whole church and by emphasizing the bishop's role as a proper and immediate shepherd in his own diocese. The hierarchical nature of the church also has significant ramifications for moral theology because of the authoritative nature of church teaching. Catholic teaching recognizes the role of the magisterium (more accurately, the hierarchical magisterium) or teaching office of pope and bishops. The teaching authority and role of pope and bishops is usually described as referring to matters of both faith and morals. The papal magisterium has issued authoritative teachings in many areas of personal and social morality. A 1962 textbook in medical ethics, for example, refers to the authoritative teaching of Pope Plus XII on almost forty different issues.

    However, within the church, one cannot reserve the role of teaching and formation to those who hold hierarchical offices. Vatican II has insisted that the church is primarily the people of God. Through baptism all Christians share in the threefold office of Jesus as priest, teacher, and ruler. Thus, through baptismal commitment everyone in the church is called to teach and share the good news of faith and its implications for life with others. Such an understanding affects the way in which the whole church goes about its moral teaching and learning. Before Vatican II a distinction was often made between the teaching church and the learning church. The teaching church was the hierarchical magisterium and the learning church was everyone else. Truth trickled down from the teaching church to the learning church. However, this distinction can no longer be maintained in the light of the role of the whole people of God. In addition the Catholic Church has long recognized the role that theologians play in the church. Perhaps the most heated discussions within the Catholic Church in the last two decades have centered about the exact relationship between the hierarchical teaching office, the experience of the people of God, and the role of theologians. Our final chapter will discuss this question in great detail.


In theory the Roman Catholic Church is truly catholic in the sense of being universal, inclusive, and in dialogue with all others. The practice of the Catholic Church well illustrates this approach. The Catholic Church borrowed some of its structural aspects from the institutions of the Roman Empire. For example, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), the greatest figure in the history of Catholic theology, borrowed heavily from the works of Aristotle. Or—for an example closer to home—look at how the Catholic Church in the United States has structured its social mission. Education, social service, and care for the sick have always formed an important aspect of the church's mission. Now, however, Catholic higher education, health care, and social services are institutionalized in a way that is truly catholic. These institutions include in their governing bodies, their employees, and their clients both Catholics and non-Catholics. In addition such institutions could not survive in their present form without money from the government. Catholic Charities, for example, receives about two-thirds of its budget from government money.

    Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church in the United States has structured its social mission in another way which also shows the catholic influence. The Campaign for Human Development started by the U.S. Catholic bishops over twenty-five years ago recognizes that social change involves more than providing services for those in need. Structural change is absolutely necessary. This campaign helps finance and support community action programs in which members of local, pluralistic communities can come together, determine their needs, and work together for the structural changes that will fulfill these basic needs. Here the church supports community groups comprising people of all religions or none to help people help themselves. The direction and action of the group come from the people themselves and not from the church. The Catholic Church strives to be inclusive and universal in theory and in its work with all people of good will to obtain a greater justice in our world.


The Catholic Church has many strengths in theory and in practice, and also some potential dangers. The primary danger arises from a temptation to conform the church too much to the Zeitgeist or world around it. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has not always avoided this danger. Often the church has aligned itself with those in power and with people of affluence and influence. Many, for example, have pointed to the church's failure to condemn the Holocaust for fear it would harm the church. In the United States the fear has always been that the church might too readily accommodate itself to the American ethos and culture.

    The basis for these temptations comes from the positive Catholic understanding that whatever God made is good. The church catholic must always be in dialogue with reality, willing and open to learn about God and human actions from all that exists in our world. But an inclusive church open to all and living in the world must not lose the dynamism and commitment that distinguish it as the disciples of Jesus. Specifically, the church must not be so conformed to the world that it forgets that God's goodness in the world is still confined by human finitude, sinfulness, and nonconformity to the fullness of God's reign.

    An old axiom of the spiritual life counsels the individual to act against the predominant vice or fault. In an analogous way the church catholic must confront the dangers inherent in catholicity. A number of important steps can help to alleviate such dangers.

    First, the universal call of all to holiness and the fullness of Christian life, which was so clearly taught at Vatican II, must become more central in the teaching and life of the church. This call serves as the primary antidote to the danger of a church that can too easily lose the flavor of its salt. All are called to be perfect even as the gracious God is perfect. Perfection or holiness does not mean that we must leave the world and our many obligations in the world, but faith should permeate all our relations and actions in daily life.

    Second, and intimately connected with the call to holiness, is the call for continual conversion. No one has fully responded to the gift of God; we all fall short. No one who meditates seriously on the Sermon on the Mount can ever say: "All these things I have kept since my youth." The call to continual conversion means that the individual Christian and the church must always be self-critical. We must continually be alert to the danger of too easily buying into the reigning Zeitgeist. The Roman Catholic Church has had a perennial difficulty in recognizing and acknowledging its own sin and failings. Recall our tendency to identify the church totally with the divine. However, recent emphasis on the pilgrim church provides an antidote; it underscores the need for the church to be constantly self-critical and always willing to confess its sins, ask for forgiveness, and strive to be a more faithful witness to the reign of God.

    Third, the church catholic must recognize and foster a prophetic element in the church. Prophecy has always played an important role in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible constantly upbraided the people of God for their infidelity and inveighed against their failure to hear the cry of the poor and the oppressed. The prophetic voice is always disturbing. Prophets are not the easiest people to live with, but the church must encourage the prophetic voice no matter how disturbing it might be. Without the prophet's voice and witness, the church will never hear the calls to holiness and continual conversion. However, as there are dangers and temptations for the church catholic, so also are there dangers and temptations for prophets. The prophet, too, must always be self-critical and quick to recognize temptations of delusion and self-righteousness. But the church catholic is always willing to encourage and listen to the prophetic voice no matter how painful or difficult it might be.

    Fourth, the church must recognize different vocations and callings within the church—and their close association with the prophetic function. The church catholic, has traditionally recognized that in this imperfect world justice and peace do not always lie together. Sometimes violence is the only way to insure that some measure of justice is achieved. Nations in this imperfect world cannot always be pacifist; however, individuals within the church can be and (thanks be to God) are sometimes called to be pacifists. How can both pacifism and just war (or its equivalent) be acceptable positions within the church? Yes, there is some overlap between them in that the just war theory clearly contains a presumption against violence. Ultimately, however, from a moral perspective, the two positions are contradictory. Nonetheless, from an ecclesial perspective the church catholic can and does recognize both positions as exemplified in hierarchical teachings. Nations cannot be pacifists today, and many individuals will accept some use of violence, but there are also pacifists in the church. Peace is an important value in human existence that is too often forgotten about or discarded. Pacifists are called by God to bear witness to this very significant value.

    The church catholic recognizes many important moral values that are not absolute but exist in relationship with many other values. Among them, however, certain values are so important that individuals are called to bear witness to these values for the sake of the church and the larger world. Such, in my judgment are those values included in the tradition of religious life as we have known it until now. The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience do not make monks or nuns better Christians than those who do not take these vows. More precisely, they are not called to a higher state of life or holiness but to bear witness to these important values.

    Many people, especially in the Protestant tradition, have understood monasticism as a flight from the world and religious communities as very similar to sects. However, such is not the case. Religious life serves the world. Humorously we can note that some of the best liqueurs in the world are named after monks, but more seriously, Thomas Cahill has recently pointed out the role the Irish monks played in preserving western civilization during the so-called Dark Ages. Thomas Merton, too, has shown that contemporary monasticism is not a flight from the world. Monks and religious strive to bear witness to the world concerning the significance of poverty, chastity, and obedience; they do not necessarily flee the world.

    Today the calling or vocation to bear witness to particular virtues must be extended to all Christians. A significant number of Christians bear witness to voluntary poverty. The whole church cannot embrace such poverty, but the church as a whole and all Christians living in the world must guard against becoming entrapped by the allure of wealth. Today other Christians voluntarily make themselves one with the oppressed and powerless—a magnificent witness that serves the church and the world. We in the church must recognize and support this vocational witness that is not a flight from the world but an important witness for it. The church catholic must make room for and encourage such witness. Those who accept this call give their lives for the life of the world and prevent the church catholic from becoming too conformed to the world around us.


The morality of the Catholic Church is an inclusive and universal morality that seeks to affect the whole world. The Catholic Church is concerned about what happens to people everywhere and not just about what goes on within the church. Many reasons justify this catholic or universal social ethics. The belief in creation reminds us that we are brothers and sisters of all human beings since we recognize God as mother and father to us all. In Genesis the name given to the first human being is Adam which means "man" or, for us today, "human being." The first human being is not identified as belonging to a tribe or clan or race but simply as "human." The papal social encyclicals, beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1891, promulgate the Catholic understanding of morality. The popes propose a social teaching not only for Catholics and all Christians; Catholic social teaching is directed to all people of good will.

Postmodernism and Liberation Theologies. Universalism and inclusivism in morality and ethics have been strongly challenged in recent years. Postmodernism attacks the theory of universality in morality; in practice struggles for justice and equality by groups that have been marginalized and oppressed by the larger society also bring to light the dangers of universalism and essentialism.

    Postmodernism has disagreed with modernism's acceptance of the rational, objective, neutral, value-free, universalist perspective of the ideal knower. This understanding, which was intimately connected with the Enlightenment, has been the major and perhaps the only way of approaching knowledge and education in the modern western world. The ideal scientist is the person who has these characteristics and can therefore better understand and judge more objectively what is occurring.

    On both the theoretical and practical levels liberation theology in all its embodiments (e.g., South American, African-American, feminist) challenges this understanding of the ideal knower. There is no such thing as a neutral, objective, value-free, universalist perspective. Everyone comes to the scene with his or her own background, commitments, and history. We have often been reminded lately that history is not the objective science we once thought it was. History has always been written by the winners. If Native Americans were still the predominant group in this country, we would not accept as a historical fact the notion that Columbus discovered America.

    The universalism and essentialism connected with the Enlightenment have had disastrous effects on the needs and concerns of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. These people have either been forgotten or totally absorbed by the dominant ideology. Liberation theology in Latin America begins with the experience of the oppressed and the marginalized in society. But such an approach also recognizes that the Christian God is not a neutral, value-free observer. God is prejudiced. In our culture, and often for good reasons, prejudice is a pejorative term. However, the root meaning of the word is simply a prejudgment. The Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes that God is definitely on the side of the poor. Although others will oppress the poor, God will be their defender and supporter. The psalmist reminds us that God hears the cry of the poor. The prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible strongly support such an understanding of God's prejudice. Our God has a special love and concern for the poor and is neither neutral nor value-free.

    Feminist theology and ethics, especially as developed in this country, show how a universal and essentialist approach has distorted commonly held perceptions of reality. The claim to offer a universally valid, neutral, and objective approach to the role of women in society (and the church) was in reality the imposition of patriarchy by the dominant group in society. Women were assigned a subordinate, private, and generally passive role. Patriarchy has seriously affected the Catholic Church and its tradition. Feminist ethics begins with the experience and particularity of women. Most feminists in the beginning of this movement were white, middle and upper class American women. Some African-American women pointed out that their experience was quite different, and womanist theology and ethics emerged from this experience. Hispanic women, too, recognized that their experience was different from both the middle class white women and African-American women and began developing a mujerista theology and ethics. To their credit most feminist theologians and ethicists recognize the need for these varying approaches. Feminist theology and ethics in general are still too universal and continue to struggle to be accountable to the experiences of particular women in diverse cultures and situations.

    In theory, and in conjunction with feminism and other defenders of the marginalized, postmodernism insists on the particular and diverse, not the universal and the all-inclusive. Modernism's emphasis on the universal had provided a means to further subordinate and even eradicate the "other" who is not like us. Postmodernism deconstructs the self and glories in emphasizing the particular and the different. But as a result, postmodernism often has no place for the universal and even denies the possibility of a universal ethics or morality.


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Table of Contents

1 Ecclesial Context 1
2 Stance 30
3 Model 60
4 Person 87
5 Virtues 110
6 Principles 137
7 Conscience 172
8 Church Teaching 197
Afterword 235
Notes 240
Index 241
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