Lesson 1a: Subject: Place, Content, Method
Moral Theology is part of Sacred Theology and cannot be understood apart from it. Some popularly see casuistic and canonical emphases as the classic expression of Catholic Moral Theology, but the history of the subject demonstrates that the Church survived 15 centuries without Moral Theology being a separate discipline at all. (For a history of Moral Theology cf. NCE 9:1117-1123). Less scholarly, but perhaps more popular, distortions sometimes categorize Catholic moral teaching as a series of bans, prohibitions, largely external negative directives that appear external to the human agent. Because such distortions and slogans are so extensive, it is quite necessary to define properly the correct scope and nature of Moral Theology.
Consider the terms: Moral and Theology. The material object (the subject matter) is 'morality' -- that is, human conduct or human behavior. There are many natural or human sciences that study rational ethics. There is a long history and no shortage of ethical theories emanating from different and differing schools of philosophy (cf. G. Dalcourt, "Ethics, History of," NCE 5:573-578) all of which focus on the study of human conduct, arguing for or against ethical standards of human conduct.
Obviously, many human and social sciences also focus their study and concentration on human conduct and human behavior; e.g., economics, psychology, anthropology, medicine, sociology, etc. Many of these sciences and studies provide the basis for standards in these areas. Almost every profession has elaborated some code of ethics, some accepted and recognizable standards of behavior within that profession or area.
Thus, the material object (human conduct; human acts) is a subject matter that is neither unique nor exclusive to Moral Theology; all of the above natural, human or social sciences also study human conduct.
It is, rather, the formal object (point of view from which we consider the matter) of Moral Theology that distinguishes it from the natural or human sciences above. The matter for study remains the same (human conduct), but the point of view from which we study it (theology) is quite different. This point might seem simple and little more than a necessary division of labor and a conventional definition of terms; it is, however, crucial. Many disputes in Catholic Moral Theology (especially printed growth industries called 'dissent') are really not disputes in theology but rather a forgetfulness about the true nature of Sacred Theology.
Thus, we must recall throughout that the 'theos' in theology refers to God. This is why the sacred sources come first in theology -- precisely because they are sacred: i.e. Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. The material object of our study remains the same (human conduct; human acts); but the point of view from which we study this matter is the point of view of the Sacred Sources.
As theology, Moral Theology has the same medium of knowledge (Divine Revelation) and the same first principles (articles of the faith) as does all Sacred Doctrine (sacra doctrina) along with noted Doctors (Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus) and reason inspired by faith. But it is important to notice and to insist that the 'sacred sources' come first and have first place. An ancient maxim from the Middle Ages held that 'theology' teaches God (Deum docet), is taught by God (a Deo docetur), and leads to God (ad Deum ducit). This is correct and should not be confused with any science that teaches man, is taught by man, and leads to man, or, teaches reason, is taught by reason, and leads to the reasonable only.
No one should ignore nor neglect the place and importance of rational ('reasonable') ethics; but that true science should not be confused with Sacred Theology either.
A dry but competent definition of 'Moral Theology' can be found in J.M. Ramirez, "Moral Theology" NCE 9:1109-1117. That article correctly defines the nature and object of Moral Theology as well as the relation of Moral Theology to the other parts of theology.
Since our course title is that of the Moral Magisterium of John Paul II, we can focus on the definition of 'Moral Theology' provided by Pope John Paul II is his moral masterpiece, Veritatis Splendor (8/6/93) (hereafter cited as VS):
" . . . in the specific form of the theological science called 'Moral Theology', a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason. Moral Theology is a reflection concerned with 'morality', with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them; in this sense it is accessible to all people. But is it also 'theology', in as much as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are found in the One who 'alone is good' and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life." (VS, n 29)
This encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, is the foundational text of this course. Thus, a copy of it is required reading in its entirety and it can only be read intelligently with a copy of the Bible and the Documents of Vatican II alongside.
Theology -- knowledge derived from faith and scientifically elaborated by reason -- admits of at least two functions: one cognitive -- things to be known pertaining to faith; and, one directive -- things to be done pertaining to morals. Believing rightly and acting rightly came, in time, to be called Dogmatic and Moral Theology. But they are always integrally connected since ORTHOPRAXY (correct practice) always rests on ORTHODOXY (correct doctrine) -- the truth of salvation and the way of salvation are one: "I am the way and the truth and the life" (Jn.14:6).
As above and throughout, the privileged place and interrelation of the Sacred Sources of Sacred Theology deserve careful review and study. When presented with a wealth of questions and opinions, we will take as our methodological rule a norm proposed by the International Theological Commission (10/11/72):
"The unity of Christian morality is based on unchanging principles contained in the Scriptures, clarified byTradition, presented to each generation by the Magisterium."
In Sacred Theology (including, of course, Moral Theology), we look first to the sacred sources. Why? Because Sacred Scripture is revealed by God, Sacred Tradition is guided by the Holy Spirit and the Church (Magisterium) is endowed by Jesus Christ with a charism to teach in his name. There is more than human wisdom here. When we say 'yes' to these sacred sources, we give the assent of soul to what is revealed by God, guided by the Holy Spirit and taught in and with the authority of Jesus.
The place and import of these three sacred sources, their relation and interrelation, is compactly and authoritatively explained in the dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum (nn.7-10) of Vatican Council II. This is the basis and foundation of all revealed religion, and our Catholic Faith is, of course, a religion of Revelation -- full Revelation: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church (Magisterium), whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. "This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed" (DV, n.10).
Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church are so linked and joined together "that one cannot stand without the others" -- each and together, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (DV, n.10)
The very beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) has a compact but nuanced presentation of God's Revelation and the Transmission of that Divine Revelation (cf. CCC ##50-141). An explicit mention of morality and the Magisterium is found in CCC ##2030-2040. For a more extended and reliable exposition of these sources of revelation confer parts 3,4, & 5 of A. Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 99-260. Another document of the pontificate of John Paul II that brings great precision and sound direction to these starting points in Catholic Theology is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's "Instruction On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" (Donum Veritatis (5/24/90), nn.1-42).