Lesson 1a: The Revision of Moral Theology

Vatican II said in its Decree on the Training of Priests (Optatus Totius), 1965 n.16:

Special care should be given to the perfecting of moral theology. Its scientific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of Holy Scripture and should throw light on the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world.

Why was this necessary? In the Church before the rise of the universities in the thirteenth century Christian morality was always presented on a Scriptural basis. The actual precepts of morality in the Bible were commented on and illustrated by the various narratives, historical and fictional, by which the Bible illustrates these moral lessons. This was true of the Patristic Period (100 AD to about 500) when moral theology was generally expressed in homiletic or polemic form mainly by bishops. It continued to be true of the Monastic Period (about 600 to 1200) when moral theology tended to take the form of spiritual meditations on growth in holiness. In the High Middle Ages (1200-1300) in the newly founded universities, however, theology more and more took on the systematic form necessary for academic teaching. For such academic purposes the extensive work of the Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics on the classification of the virtues was found very helpful. Nevertheless the students of theology did not take up these systematic studies until they had first studied the Bible for three or four years. Hence the teacher could presuppose that his constant references to the Scriptures to ground moral theology were understood by the students. This type of systematization of biblical data on morals is brilliantly exemplified in the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae of St.Thomas Aquinas that closely follows Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics but with ample biblical references. Moreover in the Third Part Christ is shown to be the historical realization of all the virtues.

In the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance (1300-1600) universities became dominated by quarrels between the religious orders and by Nominalism which so exaggerated logical systematization that it took the pastoral life out of moral theology. Nominalism tended to reduce morality to a system of laws whose obligation depends not on whether actions are beneficial or harmful to human persons but on the power of the legislator to decree and enforce them. God came to be pictured after the likeness of the despotic kings who were at that time establishing centralized governments over the new nation-states in place of feudalism. In reaction to arid legalism outside the universities there arose an enthusiasm for personal mystical experience. The Bible began to be studied more, but less for its consistent teaching and more for its literary and inspirational qualities. Finally, this renewed emphasis on individual religious experience and personal conscience became so exaggerated as to produce the Reformation. This Protestant movement tended to by-pass the Sacred Moral Tradition of the Church as the context in which the Bible should be read, and to read the Bible, usually interpreted very literally, for its capacity to inspire individual faith in God's mercy to the individual. This could result in an enthusiastic pietism as in the Radical reformation, or in a pessimism about the possibility of progress in virtue and hence passive reliance on God's forgiveness as in Lutheranism, or in a moral rigorism as proof of one's election by God in Calvinism.

With the Catholic Reformation, the Council of Trent, and the foundation of seminaries for priestly education in the 1500's, though Nominalism had became obsolete, its voluntaristic or legalistic view of morality continued to have influence. This was partly due to the context of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants which led the Catholic Church to emphasize strict obedience to moral rules as authoritative without much tendency to show their source. But it was more importantly due to the new emphasis on more frequent confession and the seminary training of priests to hear confessions that occasioned the production of "manuals" of moral theology listing moral rules and classification of sins. This legalistic type of moral theology, because it reflected much pastoral experience dominated moral theology until Leo XIII revived the theology of St.Thomas Aquinas in 1880 after which moral theology began to be more and more centered on growth in the virtues culminating in the virtue of charity. Yet even now many Catholics retain the manuals' grim legalistic view of Christian morality. Thus when Vatican II called for a revision of moral theology on a more biblical basis, it was not asking an abandonment of Aquinas but a return to the sources of biblical, patristic, and monastic morality and spirituality which he synthesized.

Yet it is not so easy to take moral theology as it has developed over the centuries and as it preserves a rich fund of pastoral experience and systematic reflection and again reduce it to its rather remote biblical foundations. An example of this is the teaching of the Church against contraception and abortion that in fact are not explicitly condemned anywhere in the Bible! As regards abortion, of course, one might quote, "Thou shall not kill," but since the Bible does permit killing in war, in self defense, and capital punishment, and nowhere specifically says that the fetus is a human person, how can we base these Church teachings in Scripture?

Moreover, modern biblical criticism has made us more acutely aware than were scholars in the past that the books of the Bible were written over a very long period of time, by a variety of authors, and were often modified. Thus what they say is historically conditioned. What are we to think, for example, of the command of God in the Deuteronomy for the Israelites to kill their enemies, men, women, and children! Or how can we explain that Jesus forbade divorce and remarriage when the inspired law of Moses had permitted it and, after Jesus, St. Paul again permitted it in the case of a convert whose spouse refused conversion? From such cases people argue today that while the Bible forbade homosexual relations, today with knowledge that this orientation is not necessarily the fault of the couple, that the Church should permit same-sex marriages, etc. And if this is the case does the Bible really give us anything but a very general foundation, such as "do what is loving," for a system of morality?

Some theologians argue that since biblical moral teaching is time conditioned, to separate out what is timeless and still applicable in our day, it is necessary to resort to natural law reasoning. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas says that the Ten Commandments, although revealed by God to Moses, are also nothing more than precepts of the natural law and hence can be discovered by human reason without biblical revelation. Hence these modern theologians argue that moral theology is really nothing more than philosophical ethics and that it can, therefore, dispense with a biblical foundation.

These objections are serious but in the following lectures I will show that Vatican II was not mistaken in calling for a biblical foundation to moral theology and that these objections can be satisfactorily resolved.


For this Lesson 1 A read the following:

  1. Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). This reading explains the teaching of the Church on the Inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible and its relation to Sacred Tradition.

  2. The Pontifical Biblical Commission (with a foreword of recommendation by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," Origins, 23, n.29 (Jan. 6, 1994): 499-524. An evaluation of the various current methods of exegesis.


  1. Why is a revision of moral theology necessary today?

  2. Why must moral theology be based on the Bible?

  3. How is the foundation of moral theology in the Bible related to Sacred Tradition?

  4. What does it mean to say that Bible moral precepts are "historically conditioned?"

  5. What have been the historic stages of the development of Catholic moral theology?


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