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A marvelous exponent of the living tradittion

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Jesuit Fr. Richard A. McCormick, who died at age 77 Feb. 12 from double pneumonia after having suffered a severe stroke in June, was a giant and dominating figure in Catholic moral theology in the United States and the world in the last half of the 20th century.

He received his doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1957 and then taught for 17 years at Jesuit theologates in the Midwest. He held chaired professorships at the Kennedy Institute of Georgetown University and, from 1986, at the University of Notre Dame.

McCormick’s greatest contribution to moral theology was his authorship of the “Notes on Moral Theology” published in Theological Studies from 1965 to 1984. Here the Jesuit author acutely analyzed and perceptively criticized the periodical literature in moral theology in all the modern European languages while at the same time charting a future course for Catholic moral theology. These “Notes” became must reading for theologians throughout the world. His knowledge of moral theology was breathtaking in both its breadth and depth. After he retired from writing the “Notes” in 1985, Theological Studies was unable to find any one person to continue this work.

McCormick specialized in the area of bioethics and served on many national and professional committees and boards in this area. His writings on bioethics went beyond the confines of Catholic moral theology and exerted a major influence on the theory and practice of bioethics in this country and abroad. These writings serve as a model of how a theologian can and should participate in public dialogue in our pluralistic society.

McCormick never wrote a synthesis of moral theology or even a monograph on a particular subject. He was the master of the theological essay in which he incisively and skillfully homed in on the nub of the issue and proposed judicious solutions to many of the complex moral problems facing our world today. In his more popular essays he frequently developed 10 key points that needed to be considered.

McCormick disagreed with hierarchical and papal Catholic teaching on issues such as contraception, sterilization, divorce, homosexuality and the principle of double effect. On the other hand, he defended a very early beginning of truly individual life in the fetus and steadfastly opposed active euthanasia while defending the withdrawal of artificial feeding and hydration when a truly relational quality of life was missing.

Living tradition

Yes, McCormick dissented from and disagreed with some teachings of the hierarchical magisterium. Yet he deeply appreciated the Catholic theological and ethical traditions and was a marvelous exponent of the need for a living tradition. He frequently cited Jaroslav Pelikan’s statement that tradition is not the dead faith of the living, but the living faith of the dead.

Tradition by definition needs to be a living tradition. In the light of the Catholic self-understanding, the church is called to understand, live, appropriate and bear witness to the word and work of Jesus in the light of changing historical and cultural circumstances of time and place.

A truly Catholic approach has always recognized an important role for reason in the ongoing development of tradition. Think of the development in the very early centuries of our understanding of the Trinity and of Jesus based on reason’s understanding of nature and person. Catholic moral theology has made reason most important as illustrated in its natural law theory that is so identified with Catholic moral theology. Richard McCormick appreciated this tradition and appropriated the best of it in his own work.

McCormick was trained in pre-Vatican II moral theology. Although he later disagreed with some of its approaches and conclusions, he learned in his early theological training the skills of a good casuist. Ever since the 17th century, the members of the Society of Jesus have been leaders in Catholic moral theology and in developing a casuistic approach that attempts to resolve complex moral issues. The Jesuits were the first “worldly” religious community bound by traditional religious vows but active in the world and providing guidance for people in their daily lives.

The good casuist perceptively analyzes the situation, recognizes what is important and what is not, judiciously sees the ramifications of the issue, accurately compares the case with similar cases and carefully crafts a solution. Richard McCormick mastered the skills of a good casuist and later used such perceptive analysis and critical discernment to deal with the post-Vatican II renewal of moral theology. The title of his 1989 book of essays indicates such an approach at work -- The Critical Calling: Reflections on Moral Dilemmas Since Vatican II.

One who works with a living tradition must be steeped in the knowledge of that tradition, but also, in the words of Vatican II, open to the signs of the times. Proponents of a living tradition avoid the danger of simply repeating the formulations of the past or of jettisoning the past for the fads of the present.

Richard McCormick’s teaching and writing exhibit to an eminent degree the characteristics of one who works out of the living tradition of Catholic moral theology -- respectful, dialogical, open, critical, modest, objective and simultaneously creative and conserving.

In the 1960s, change did not come that easily to McCormick as illustrated in his reaction to the discussion over artificial contraception in Roman Catholicism in the 1960s. He began (like practically everybody else at the time) by strongly defending the existing teaching of the hierarchical magisterium. When Humanae Vitae appeared in July of 1968, he did not immediately react to the encyclical. In his “Notes on Moral Theology” in March 1969, he concluded somewhat modestly that the intrinsic immorality of every contraceptive act remains a teaching that is subject to solid and probable doubt. He did not go so far as to say that the teaching is erroneous or that artificial contraception can be good sometimes. His agonizing over this particular question occasioned some physical problems, and he ended up in the hospital after finishing the “Notes.”

As time went on, McCormick recognized more explicitly the need for public dissent on some moral issues and for a different understanding of the way in which the papal and hierarchical magisterium goes about their teaching functions. He developed a theory of proportionalism to deal with the thorny question of absolute norms in moral theology -- one can directly do nonmoral evil as a means (never as an end) if there is a proportionate reason.

A conservative critic in 1981 lamented that the early Richard McCormick criticized the revisionist approaches in moral theology, but then he changed and became a leader in Catholic revisionist moral theology. McCormick clearly recognized the development and changes in his own thinking, but he always saw an underlying continuity based on his understanding of the living tradition of Catholic moral theology.

Church as people of God

McCormick took to heart the Vatican II teaching on the church as the people of God. As a result, he saw the problems with the older way of understanding the role of the hierarchical teaching office and its function. The teaching-learning process in the church involves multiple competencies including the pope and bishops, the scholarly work of theologians and the thinking, living and witness of all the faithful. McCormick’s call for a renewed theory and practice of the hierarchical teaching office included the following points: Recognize noninfallible teaching for what it is -- fallible; admit past mistakes in hierarchical teaching; recognize the processive nature of the search for truth in the church and the need for wide consultation. He especially objected to the Vatican’s continued use of a particular type of neoscholastic natural law method and its failure to recognize the legitimate pluralism in Catholic moral theology today.

For the last two decades, McCormick has lamented what he so aptly called “the chill factor” in Catholic moral theology resulting from the “defensive negativity” of the Vatican to contemporary developments. From his studies he was convinced that public dissent from noninfallible church teaching was at times justified and necessary. The very tradition itself and the contemporary needs of the church called for such recognition, but the Vatican refused to budge. “[W]hen criticism is squelched and power enlists theology for its own purposes, the entire church suffers … ” (Critical Calling, p. 127).

McCormick, who knew the history of Catholic moral theology inside and out and greatly appreciated the need for the living tradition in Catholic theology, bristled and felt insulted when bishops or others accused him of disloyalty or forbade him to speak in certain places. But he also used his prestige and leadership in Catholic moral theology to support and encourage younger colleagues in the light of the restorationist tendencies of the Vatican and its resulting “chill factor.” In the middle ’80s he gathered together 40 or more like-minded theologians at Notre Dame on an annual basis to encourage and strengthen them in their search for a renewed and truly traditional Catholic moral theology.

In the last few years he was not able to do the groundbreaking research that characterized his earlier work, but he continued to write significant essays defending the revision of Catholic moral theology.

Leader of like-minded colleagues

McCormick was the oldest and the leader of many like-minded colleagues. His younger colleagues deeply appreciated his masterful writings, his concern for and genuine interest in supporting their work, and his caring and thoughtful personality.

He was a person of deep faith that quietly but effectively influenced all he did. He knew that living the Christian life was more important than theologizing about it.

I never once heard him complain about his lot after his severe stroke in June. In a number of phone conversations, he repeatedly praised the care and concern of his caretakers at the Jesuit infirmary outside Detroit.

Even in the infirmary he was primarily concerned about others. He told me that the nurses and nurses aides were underpaid and he was going to ask the provincial superior to do something about it. Richard McCormick, the master teacher of moral theology, also taught us all by his life and example.

I must close with my own personal thanks to Dick who was my co-editor on 11 volumes, a colleague, a strong supporter in my struggles and a good friend. I have many consoling personal memories of my friendship with Dick, but let me share one with you that is so typical of Dick’s upbeat spirit, his incisive mind, his pithy verbalization and his sense of humor.

A few months ago, still paralyzed on the left side from the stroke and obviously weakened from his illness, he left a short message in a somewhat halting voice on my answering machine. “Hi, Charlie. It’s Dick. I am fine; well, actually I am supine. But I am still kicking -- I guess this is true for many of us in the church today.”

Fr. Charles E. Curran is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, Dallas. He delivered the homily at the funeral Mass for Fr. Richard McCormick.

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000