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The Meaning Of Moral Theology
As the title of this book indicates, our topic is Catholic morality. And since the reflections that we shall pursue will seek to be systematic and intelligent, we will actually be involved in moral philosophy; or, since they will be the reflections of believers based on a fundamental religious commitment, in moral theology.
But to call this project a presentation of moral theology perhaps raises more questions than it answers. For both theology in general and moral theology in particular are understood in many different ways today. By some people they are not understood at all. So the starting point of thisbook must include some account of what we mean, and do not mean, by these terms. This, in turn, will lead to a clearer definition of the project of this book.
This is certainly not the place for a full-scale treatise on the science of theology. Whole books have been written on the subject. But perhaps a few brief remarks will be helpful.
Theologian Jean Daniélou has observed that Christians often confuse the two terms "religion" and "revelation:" Religion is the term we use to denote all those efforts of human beings to touch the transcendent, tocontact and appease the divinity. Revelation, on the other hand, indicates divine initiative, the actions by which God approaches and touches us. Thus understood, says Daniélou, Christianity is not so much a religion as a revelation. It proclaims not human searching but divine salvation, not human effort but divine gift. And it celebratesthat ongoing revelation-presence of God.
But if Christianity is essentially revelation, God's action and not ours, it is not solely revelation. There remains the need for human involvement, and in that sense Christianity is also, though subsequently, a religion. Indeed, inasmuch as revelation was humanly articulated from the beginning, and inasmuch as it must be humanly rearticulated as time goes on, the human contribution -- the religious component -- is utterly essential. And this for several reasons.
First, revelation was humanly articulated from the beginning. If we understand the primeval revelation of God to be Jesus himself, then we must take seriously the fact that Jesus came among us humanly. That means concretely, specifically, with all the particularities of time, place, and situation. Jesus was not "man" in some general and undifferentiated sense. Indeed, to give him only this vague and unspecified sort of humanity is to deny him any humanity at all. The flesh of human living exists only in concreteness and particularity; it exists only here or there, now or then, in this way or in that.
Thus, if we are truly to understand the Jesus of revelation, we must pursue the human task of understanding, in all its specificity, the cultural and personal situation in which he lived. And if we understand revelation to be the words of Scripture, then it is even more apparent that a human, cultural task of understanding will be required. Indeed, the whole science of biblical exegesis is premised on the fact that we can only understand the texts of Scripture if we understand the language in which they were written, the cultural and historical context, the philosophical and religious presuppositions of their human authors, the current literary conventions, the prevailing metaphors and symbol systems, and so on. If the Scriptures are God's revelation, still they are that revelation as humanly articulated. And thus the human task of discernment cannot be avoided.
Second, a human contribution is demanded by the need to humanly transmit and rearticulate revelation as time goes on. In either of the conceptions of revelation just mentioned, Jesus himself or the Scriptures, it is clear that we are dealing with a culture different from our own. And just as Jesus could not be "man" in some general and undifferentiated sense, just as the words of Scripture could not speak their truth in some unenculturated and universal language, so also we cannot share the Good News of revelation with our time and our place in that vague form. Rather, we must deal with the concreteness of the present as well as the concreteness of the past. Thus the believing human community stands forever charged with the duty of translating, the truth of revelation into new languages, new symbol systems, images, and metaphors.
Third, we human persons are "verbal animals." This means that, in a very profound sense, we do not understand things until we put them into words. It is not as if we have clear ideas and then, in a second operation, enflesh those ideas in words. Rather, it is in the process of communication that we come to understand. Thus the process ofrearticulation is itself central to the experience of God in our lives. The experience of revelation that is only expressed in someone else's language is not just a deprived experience, it is a radically ineffectual, even ephemeral experience. So articulation and rearticulation are not only a service to others, they are also functions essential to the self.
This task of translation, of reconstituting the inner meaning of revelation for successive audiences, belongs to theology. In fact, Christian theology can be defined as the science that seeks to understand and forever to rearticulate the life-giving Good News of God in Christ Jesus. And that is the definition that will be presupposed in this book. But if we accept that definition, several things follow.
First, it is obvious that theology is an essential function within the Church. For the Church to fulfill its mandate to "proclaim the good news to all creation" (Mk 16:15), it must continually restate that Good News. That is, it must "do" theology. Therefore, the ministry of theology and of the theologian is a service the Church cannot do without. St. Paul declared that "God has set up in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers" (1 Cor 12:28)... Principles for a Catholic Morality
. Copyright © by Timothy E. O'Connell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.