Moral Theology out of Western Europe

Article excerpt

LAST YEAR at a meeting of regular contributors to the "Notes in Current Moral Theology" a discussion developed about the need for these notes to have a more international scope, and we were delegated to make a first foray into that arena by focusing on moral theology published in Western Europe (basically Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) over the past five years.

After reviewing more than two hundred books and essays, we recognize that we have hardly done justice to the depth of those works. We are surprised, however, by an emerging consensus: the moral theology coming out of Western Europe is basically continuing on the original agenda established by those who promoted an autonomous ethics in the context of faith, but with one important modification. Writers today understand autonomy in two different ways. As opposed to theonomy or heteronomy, contemporary writers insist on the basic insight of an autonomous ethics in the context of faith, that is, of a responsible human self-determination. As a basic telos, however, autonomy is an inadequate expression for the end of the human subject. Almost every major contributor insists on the need to talk of the realization of a subject as relational. A profound interest in the person whose subjectivity is constituted by solidarity with others (neighbor, God, and nature) is both the anthropological given and the moral task. These writers bring forward, then, the mandate from Vatican II that called for a moral theology to "throw light upon the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world" (Optatam totius no. 16). The striking turn to the self-realizing subject in solidarity with others is a deeply christological turn that writers out of Western Europe well recognize. Whereas earlier exponents of this autonomous ethics were motivated by the ecclesiological debates about the role of the magisterium in moral matters, more recent exponents go beyond church polemics to retrieve the christological foundations of the moral life.(1) Here, in understanding Christ as incarnate, through his life, death, and Resurrection, they stress both the historical development of the moral truth being realized in the moral subject and the influence that faith has on history.

Our investigation begins with a study of the reception of Veritatis splendor. From there, we turn to a renewed understanding of nature and the relationship between natural law and salvation history. We then consider conscience, virtue, and normative reasoning. We conclude with an illustration of fundamental moral theology applied practically to bioethics.


The reception of the encyclical in Germany serves as an indication of the wide range of theological sentiment that greeted it throughout Europe. There was general applause from the bishops. The well-respected president of the German Bishop's Conference, Karl Lehmann, saw the letter as setting the boundaries of discourse over fundamental moral themes and urged theologians to clarify their positions in light of it, while at the same time making sure "to shed light on, deepen, and further develop" the teaching of the Church. Josef Spital, Bishop of Trier, saw it as "a prophetic sign" in a time where moral truths are easily dismissed if they prove uncomfortable or inconvenient to follow. Reinhard Lettmann, Bishop of Hildesheim, identified the central concern of the encyclical as the need to assert the existence of absolute and universally valid moral norms to anyone, inside or outside of the Church, who might have doubted them.

Johannes Grundel questioned whether the positions that were criticized "were correctly understood" but nevertheless acknowledged Rome's willingness to dialogue in an area as contentious as moral theology. Similarly, Bruno Schuller had "the impression that criticisms of moral theologians were rooted in misunderstandings. …