Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Moral Theology or Casuistic Tradition

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Moral Theology or Casuistic Tradition

Article excerpt

This article begins with an autobiographical section reporting on the author's intellectual trajectory as an ambivalent and developing casuist. Smith then goes on to discuss characterizations of the Anglican moral theology tradition of casuistry and the forms of casuistry popular today in practical ethics. In Smith's view this moral theology tradition is committed to initiating and sustaining conversation among persons about the liberties and demands of a Christian life-and to provoking that conversation within our own souls. He maintains that the pastoral orientation and willingness to listen to custom and diverse sources of moral insight that is characteristic of Anglican moral theology should enable the church to maintain a vital ethic in many different cultures and traditions. Smith advocates the use of a modern form of casuistry by Anglican moralists; his own version is based in the theology of H. R. Niebuhr and the writings of Kenneth E. Kirk. The essay draws on earlier writings about casuistry and Kirk by the author.

For some reason I graduated from seminary thinking that the "moral theology" tradition was Episcopal Christian ethics. And I suspect that I was not alone among my peers. In my case there was no good excuse for this, as I had read F. D. Maurice as an undergraduate. Perhaps it was because the Anglo-Catholicism that supported the moral theology emphasis provided what I thought of as a rigorous philosophical and theological mooring in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. At any rate the moral theology tradition seemed to me to have a kind of prima facie intellectual credibility that other forms of Anglicanism lacked. That mattered, as I wanted to have intellectual credibility.

I attended a nondenominational seminary and while there wrote papers on Maurice and Hooker, but the dominant and most intellectually vital tradition was Protestant, especially the Niebuhrs and Barth. The same focus on a rich mainline intellectual tradition of Christian thought was central to my doctoral training. When I was fortunate to be hired by Indiana University's new Department of Religious Studies in 1967, 1 did not teach or write about a single Anglican writer for years, but my students then (and since) have had a pretty heavy dose of Augustine, Aquinas, and the Niebuhrs.

Two things happened, however, that altered my perspective. The first was an ongoing desire to relate my intellectual persona to the self that worshipped, pledged, and socialized with a university-town Episcopal parish. That was my form of the modem search for or discovery of identity and integrity. Somewhat to my amazement, I came to realize that the community within this parish was central to who I was. I knew that there was a "big picture" of diverse Anglicanism, but I knew only a little bit about one leg - or toenail - ofthat elephant. One thing that was clear to me was that there was an Anglican moral theology tradition, and if anything was really Anglican, that was. Perhaps I thought that strand in our tradition was most distinctively Anglican so I could use it to establish my own Anglican identity. Moreover, I had the impression that this strand in the tradition was not well known by many clergy of my generation.

The second thing that happened to me as a young (just tenured) scholar concerned my intellectual trajectory. My thesis became a book that was read by about six people, including my mother.1 But I found myself thrashing around looking for another intellectual focus in the decreasingly counter-cultural world of the early 1970s. I found it in the emerging field of bioethics, began to be involved with some Hastings Center projects, and wrote something that a few people actually read. At many interdisciplinary meetings I sat at a large seminar table with the elder senior leaders of the new bioethics, and found myself - and sometimes my faith - provoked and challenged. It was provocation and challenge that I loved, however, partly because I was one of the many humanists who spent his early years in college as a pre-med. …

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