Lesson 1: The Place of Moral Theology

Lecture 1A

"When the Magisterium proposes 'in a definitive way' truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, no. 23). This course proceeds on the assumption that the exercise of Christian theology depends on the sacred deposit of faith, and that the Church is the guarantor of the faith handed on by the apostles. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the point explicitly: "The apostles entrusted the "Sacred deposit" of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church" (CCC no. 84).

In the first lesson, you will learn about the Church as Moral Teacher and about moral theology as a sacred science. Christ came so that we may know the truth about God and about the kind of life that leads to God. The Christian must learn to appreciate the value that revealed truth communicates to the world. In addition to imparting knowledge about God, divine revelation serves as an instrument of liberation from unsatisfactory accounts of human existence. Father Servais Pinckaers defines moral theology as "the branch of theology that studies human acts so as to direct them to a loving vision of God seen as our true complete happiness and our final end. This vision is attained by means of grace, the virtues, and the gifts, in the light of revelation and reason" (see The Sources of Christian Ethics, pp. 8-13).

The 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor describes moral theology in these terms: "as a scientific reflection on the Gospel as the gift and commandment of new life, a reflection on the life which 'professes the truth in love' (cf Eph 4: 15) and on the Church's life of holiness, in which there shines forth the truth about the good brought to its perfection."

The encyclical mentions as the theological coordinates that moral theology touches: (1) our sharing in the divine life as complete gift from the blessed Trinity, (2) creation and the reasoning creature's place in creation, (3) divine governance, (4) the old dispensation and the new law of grace revealed in the Incarnation, (5) the dynamics of Christian faith, hope, and love, (6) the special states of life within the Church, (7) the seven sacraments of the Christian Church.

Moral theology forms part of the sacra doctrina. It operates under the same "formal light" or ratio, viz., God as First Truth Speaking. This means that every authentic exercise in moral theology depends on divine revelation, which is the sole source of the seven truths listed in the preceding paragraph. At the very beginning of his Summa theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas explains: "The sacra doctrina is more theoretical than practical, since it is mainly concerned with the divine things which are, rather than with things men do; it deals with human acts only in so far as they prepare men for that achieved knowledge of God on which their eternal bliss reposes" (Summa theologiae Ia q. 1, a. 4). This text indicates the place that practical science, such as moral theology, holds within the overall communication of divine truth. It also points out that dogmatic theology and moral theology stand together but in an order that places the primacy on the revelation of truths about God.

Moral theology is not the same thing as philosophical ethics, even though historically there are those who argued that the practical sciences should be considered separately and eventually as purely secular studies. For instance, David Hume (1711-1776) popularized the view that "religion will be driven out by stronger secular convictions derived from natural regularities" Natural History of Religion (1757). Hume's prediction, however, has not come true.

The New Testament clearly affirms that the human person discovers God in knowledge and love, and that the goal of Christian existence is to achieve a consummation of that union. Theologians cite John 6: 45, "It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me." For example, the sixteenth-century scholastic commentator Thomas de Vio Cardinal Cajetan remarks (in his commentary on the Summa theologiae) that theology includes "all knowledge taught us by God's grace" In Iam Partem, q. 1.

By reason of its certitude and intrinsic worth as well as its ultimate purpose, moral theology ranks above all other sciences. But because something is better in itself does not imply that it is the best suited for us, so we require forms of rational investigation in order to probe the meaning of the sacra doctrina. Aquinas considers the person who contemplates the highest truth the only truly wise person: "That person who considers maturely and without qualification the first and final cause of the entire universe, namely God, is to be called supremely wise; hence wisdom appears in St Augustine as knowledge of divine things" (Summa theologiae Ia q. 1, a. 6).

The Christian is a privileged beneficiary of divine truth. Christian revelation gives the Church access to what God alone knows about himself and yet discloses for others to share. The Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Christus Dominus (2000) explains that because everything that Christ willed for his Church subsists in the Catholic Church, the members of the Church should adopt an attitude of profound humility and gratitude for the gift of truth that is communicated to them through the Church.

Reading Assignments

The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics, chap. 1.

Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et ratio

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Dominus Jesus


1) What is moral teleology? How is moral teleology defining for moral realism?

2) How is moral theology (or Christian ethics) different from philosophical ethics?

3) What are the sources of Christian revelation, and how do they shape our knowledge about moral truth?


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