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From legalism to love as the source of morality

By Charles E. Curran
Georgetown University Press, 272 pages, $19.95


For those who studied moral theology in a pre-Vatican II seminary, this book explains not only how Catholic moral teaching has changed in 50 years but why. Some of the changes will surprise some of us.

Moral theology in those days was almost exclusively a study of the manuals of casuistry, an encyclopedia for the confessor to help him determine the gravity of specific “sinful acts.” For Curran, its function is to focus our lives on “the fivefold Christian mysteries of creation, sin, incarnation, redemption and resurrection destiny.”

The Second Vatican Council was responsible for this, as for many other changes. Catholic tradition had long stressed universalism and essentialism. The nature of the individual human could be known by reflecting on the sameness of humans all over the world, a reflection that enabled reason to determine how individuals should act. Manuals of moral theology reflected this essentialist and universalist approach. By deduction from general principles, they determined the morality of specific acts.

What Vatican II did was to shift the emphasis from unchanging principles to historical consciousness, thereby giving more importance to the particular, the individual and the contingent, and also paying more attention to human subjectivity. Induction replaces deduction. Instead of striving for absolute certainty, we realize we only need reasonable probability for action.

In the logic of this position, the ongoing task of the church is to learn as well as teach moral truth. “We must begin with moral truth,” Curran writes, “which the hierarchical magisterium with the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, along with all the Christian faithful, including theologians, are striving to discover.” Indeed, Curran insists, “the need for the hierarchical magisterium to learn moral truth seems greater than its need to learn the truths of faith.” The latter are based on revelation; the former on reason and experience.

Until 1960, for example, official teaching was that spouses had to have the intention of procreating in every marital act. Pius XII changed that when he approved of the “rhythm” method. Similar changes have occurred as regards usury, slavery, torture, human rights and religious liberty.

Vatican II, with its stress on the church as the people of God, moved the emphasis from legalism to love as the operative motive in moral actions. Much of the current tension in the church results from the unequal application of this principle. Church structures, Curran says, have not changed.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, in basic continuity with the 1917 code, “still supports a juridical model of the church’s teaching authority in an institutional model of the church in which too much power is concentrated in the papacy. Until church structures and institutions change to reflect the church as a community of religious and moral discourse with a special role for the hierarchy, the existing tensions will persist and grow.”

Part of the problem, Curran says, is that the Catholic tradition has seldom reflected on power, connecting it to roles and often calling it authority. This suited the pyramidal concept of church that dominated up to the time of the council. “Protestant theologians often discussed power in the light of human sinfulness, but the Catholic natural law tradition downplayed and often underestimated the role of sin.

Instead, Catholics insisted on stability, harmony, rationality and hierarchy and overlooked the reality of power in social and political life.” Power is taken seriously by the theologies that have emerged since the council. Liberation theologies stress the need to empower the weak and transform unjust and oppressive structures. Feminists and black theologians similarly recognize the role of power.

The U.S. bishops’ Campaign for Human Development strongly supports community organizations that empower poor and marginalized persons to come together to change their situation and their relationship with the holders of power in society. The radical extension of human power in our times makes it essential to understand its potential for good or evil. “Nuclear power is sufficiently deadly to destroy entire continents, economic power has worldwide effects and what happens on Wall Street has repercussions all over the world,” Curran writes.

Modern technology accepts no boundaries, but we still have a moral responsibility for the use of power. Although human beings are superior to animal and plant life, “all of created reality and the environment and ecosystems in which we live are not simply means to be used by human beings. Creation and the environment have a value and meaning in themselves, and cannot be totally subordinated to human beings.”

This is not an easy book to read. Curran is a professional and is conscious of the importance of every modifier in scientific discourse. But his final summing up is simple. Both the church and each member need continual conversion. More important than individual actions is the attitude, the struggle for perfection, that ensures that “love of God, love of neighbor and love of self ultimately fit together.”

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999