Academic journal article Theological Studies

Fundamental Moral Theology: Tradition

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Fundamental Moral Theology: Tradition

Article excerpt

THE NOTE ON FUNDAMENTAL MORAL THEOLOGY has attended to, among other topics, its own history. (1) In recent years, attention to its tradition has been growing even more so.

Charles Curran's Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History illustrates the breadth and depth of that interest. At the outset, Curran comments on the problematic of moral theology: "Moral theology has always experienced the tension between a more practical and pastoral approach, associated especially with the sacrament of penance, and a more theoretical and academic approach, associated with the university world. This tension continues to exist in contemporary Catholic moral theology." (2) Unlike previous attempts to reduce the identity of moral theology to a much narrower field of inquiry (usually the penitential approach), (3) Curran sees both the pastoral and academic approaches as constitutive of moral theological investigations.

In studying the 19th century, Curran focuses on four notable figures: Francis Kenrick, Thomas Borquillon, Aloysius Sabetti, and John Baptist Hogan. Kenrick, founder of Philadelphia's St. Charles Seminary, wrote the first U.S. manual of theology, and his broad command of theology was matched by his own ecclesiastical authority as bishop of Philadelphia. Sabetti, a Jesuit from Naples who taught at Woodstock College in Maryland, saw 13 editions of his own manual, with another 20 appearing after his death. Borquillon, a Belgian diocesan priest, was Catholic University of America's first moral theologian; a progressive, he denounced manualism and befriended and influenced the liberal wing of the American hierarchy. Hogan, a Sulpician, was president of St. John's Seminary in Boston. Though he rarely published, when he did, he endorsed historical criticism. The foursome highlight not only the differences of seminary-versus-university education, or the mission of diocesan-versus-religious clergy, but also the broadly-conflicted theological and methodological differences that have been embedded in the nature of moral theology.

For the first half of the 20th century, Curran distinguishes between moral theology and social ethics. For the former, he again introduces us to many of the major teachers: the Dominicans Charles Callan and John McHugh; Jesuits Gerald Kelly and John Ford; and Redemptorist Francis Connell. These moralists move along the spectrum from pastoral to academic theology. From the world of social ethics we meet the diocesan priest John Ryan, the Sulpician John Cronin, and Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

Curran's History later takes an in-depth look at Vatican II, Humanae vitae, and subsequent developments in fundamental moral, medical, social, and sexual ethics. We see not only the themes and the debates but above all the architects, innovators, and detractors who animated those discussions.

The development of moral theology depends, then, on a number of factors: the contemporary concerns of the world and the church; the disposition of the seminary and the university to sustain inquiry; and the possibility of journals to engage and extend critical discussion. But above all there has to be a person, a theologian, whose formation, vision, and competency concretely restrains or provokes the development of moral theology. Curran's History acquaints us with those figures. Like his History, this survey of recent fundamental moral theology highlights a renewed appreciation of the moral tradition per se. While readers might be alarmed at possible tendencies toward restorationism, we will see instead a very modest, but fairly widespread, interest in the writings of earlier theologians. Today's moral theologians seem fascinated with the thought and logic of earlier members of our guild. Not only do they engage the complexity of these earlier writers, but they find the turn to the tradition itself liberating, because inevitably today's scholars use the tradition precisely to move beyond it. …

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