Notes on Moral Theology: Fundamental Moral Theology at the Beginning of the New Millennium: Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Keenan, James F. | Theological Studies, March 2004 | Go to article overview
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Notes on Moral Theology: Fundamental Moral Theology at the Beginning of the New Millennium: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Keenan, James F., Theological Studies

IN THIS CONTRIBUTION to the "Notes on Moral Theology," I examine writings over the past three years in areas related to fundamental moral theology. Not surprisingly, the new millennium prompted moral theologians to look ahead, but as they did they also looked back especially at the contributions of a number of moral theologians. These two perspectives serve to frame this article.


Looking back, one finds not surprisingly several worthy and hopeful reflections on moral theology over the past century or since Vatican II. (1) More frequently one finds indebtedness expressed to those who pioneered moral theology to a new position within the Church. For instance, with the death of Louis Janssens on December 19, 2001, Louvain Studies published several articles in the spring of 2002. Roger Burggraeve writes touchingly about Janssens's "personalist calling" and his "ethics for concrete people." (2) Joseph Selling provides a strong argument for the lasting impact of Janssens's work for fundamental moral theology. (3)

More frequently, the tributes occur in the form of Festschriften and recently there have been several. For instance, a new one has recently appeared celebrating the life and work of Enda McDonagh. (4) With contributions from Garret Fitzgerald, the former Irish Prime Minister, Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winning poet, and Imogen Stuart, the sculptor, among others, this collection highlights the extensive range of interlocutors that the great Irish moral theologian has engaged.

Charles Curran reflects on McDonagh's theology of morality and notes how the Irish theologian has entered into the life of the Church, its priestly, prophetic and wisdom roles, its liturgy, its Eucharist, and its prayer. Curran also notes that McDonagh has been at pains to avoid an "either/or" theology of contrasts, but rather embraces a "both/and" approach to theology. Thus to appreciate "the tragic and transformative sense of history," McDonagh couples Gaudium et spes with luctus et angor. Yet McDonagh invites his colleagues to theologize with him at the fringe and to include the marginalized who are so often ignored. (5)

McDonagh's social location certainly differs from that of 50 years ago when moral theologians advised bishops. But, as McDonagh writes from the fringe even during his "retirement," (6) his colleague Kevin Kelly reflects on the characteristics of a theology of retirement noting "a greater sense of the preciousness of time (kairos)," a greater disposition to the pastoral and to the ambiguous, as well as a greater readiness to take risks. Kelly includes in his observations a remarkable comment from McDonagh that conveys the humility and honesty of one retired on the fringe. Having been invited by another to discover his inner self, McDonagh responded: "When I look within myself, I can never find an inner self. All I can find is a cluster of relationships." (7)

Besides McDonagh, Charles Curran has also been saluted in a recent Festschrift. (8) Like McDonagh, Curran has long considered the ecclesial context of moral theology. (9) In this collection of tributes to him, each author focuses on recent innovations in moral theology and locates and critiques Curran's specific contributions to that particular innovation.

Examining Curran's revisionist "creative fidelity," Bryan Massingale argues that in the new millennium moral theologians must move beyond revision, toward offering the Church a faithful or radical reconstruction of the tradition. He explains:

'Reconstruction' emphasizes the need for a more fundamental or 'radical' (in the sense of radix or 'root') rethinking and rearticulation of the demands of faith than that conveyed by the term 'revision.' 'Reconstruction,' moreover, conveys the belief that there are certain aspects of the Catholic ethical tradition that, in the name of Christ, one should not hold in 'fidelity' no matter how 'creatively.

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Notes on Moral Theology: Fundamental Moral Theology at the Beginning of the New Millennium: Looking Back, Looking Forward


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