Church's Second Millenium Often Contradicts the First

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1993 | Go to article overview

Church's Second Millenium Often Contradicts the First


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


OXFORD, England - To help assess how Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, promulgated at the Vatican Oct. 5, might be received by the theologians who toil in the fields of moral theology, a look at how the discipline came into being is in order.

One of the great surprises for history-minded theological students is that what happened in the first millennium is so often contradicted in the second millennium. For example general confession gave way to private absolution. A different praxis evolved, and therefore a different theory (or theology) to cope with it.

More fundamentally the very idea of a theologian changed. Bishops like Augustine or Hilary were the theologians of the first millennium. A few laypeople like Tertullian or Origen nudged their way in. But when one says "the fathers," speaking of the first millennium, one means bishops.

Theologians, as a distinct breed, as the intellectuals of the church, belong to the second millennium. That's when the word magisterium entered the church's vocabulary. At first it meant simply teaching,' the sort of teaching that went on in the great medieval universities of Paris, Bologna and Oxford. This "magisterial" teaching was done, not surprisingly, by magistri or qualified teachers.

But there was no specialization in the modem sense among medieval theologians. It would have made little sense to ask whether St Thomas Aquinas was a "moral" theologian. He was a theologian simpliciter as he would have said, just a theologian.' There was so far no specialization. Yet already there was a shift: from the teaching of bishops to that of professional or full-time theologians. The university "teachers" (or magistri) were mostly Franciscans, Dominicans or Augustinians - the three branches of friars who, unlike Benedictines and other monks, eagerly embraced urban life in the new universities.

This university magisterium did not exclude the episcopal or pontifical magisterium. But it changed its nature. The papal primacy became the court of appeal in theological disputes, the final arbiter.

At the Council of Trent (1545-63) theologians were represented in their own right, and not just as experts.' Their opinions counted. Their magisterium flowed into the conciliar magisterium. Among the most important theologians were two members of the newly founded Society of Jesus, Diego Laynez and Alfonso Salmeron.

The Jesuits invented specialization in theology: It seemed like common sense. But experts concentrating on moral theology, and on nothing else, were likely to forget the basics of Christian life and lose themselves in the maze of casuistry.

This was the charge leveled by Blaise Pascal, the greatest Christian thinker of the 17th century, against Jesuit casuistry. In his Lettres Provinciales he mocked the theory of "probabilism" as loophole-seeking laxity. He was able to contrast this with Jansenist rigor.

Casuistry, however, recovered and survived because it was needed for confessional practice. …

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