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Matters of principle

A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: from confessing sins to liberating

consciences James F. Keenan

CONTINUUM, 248PP, £16.99 ■Tablet Bookshop price £15.30

tradition, but its current state is worrying. From being monolithic and magisterial, guiding the daily lives of the faithful in the minutest detail, in less than half a century it has turned into a field of bitter controversy, with increasingly separate camps disagreeing over the most basic principles. In what is, as far as I know, the first such treatment of this subject in English, James F. Keenan has bravely attempted to write the recent history of moral theology. His work deserves at least to make us confront the current situation squarely. Some would say that history should not


be written by interested parties, but those who write recent histories of their own subject, especially with an underlying message, may fairly appeal to the evangelists for precedent. Keenan guides us courteously and knowledgeably through the changes of the last century, beginning in the age of the neo-scholastic manuals that arose as textbooks for confessors and were classical, ahistorical and deductive, with an idea of natural law that owed as much to the eighteenth century as to Aquinas. The manuals appeared to see nothing new under the sun, despite the appalling events of the Second World War and the enormous development in human biology and medicine. Nevertheless, as Keenan admits, they laid the foundations for modern bioethics. They did, however, become increasingly dominated by canon law and the lesser pronouncements of the Holy See. Change began with the discovery of

history. Keenan’s idea of liberating consciences is inspired by Odon Lottin,

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oral theology is one of the great achievements of the Catholic

the role of norms and absolute prohibitions, and raising such important questions as the relationship between being and values and how freedom relates to truth. Keenan explains the move away from

who wanted Christians to become mature and self-governing. So is his view of moral theology as undergoing continual progress. “Retrieval” came next: first, of Scripture, by the Jesuit biblical scholar turned moral theologian Franz Tillmann and, secondly, of ascetical theology by Gérard Gilleman. The Redemptorist Bernhard Häring’s

personal encounter with Nazism broadened his vision of the subject, synthesising its normative and developmental aspects through the idea of freedom in Christ. Keenan sees moral truth as moving from being embodied in ahistorical propositions about the avoidance of sin to being realised in the lives of Christians trying to grow in charity.

Although Vatican II endorsed both

revision and retrieval, it failed to discuss the issue that became the litmus test for the principles of succeeding moralists: the question of artificial birth control. The story of the events that led to Humanae Vitae is fascinating: how Josef Fuchs, appointed to the commission because he was safely conservative, changed his mind, while John Ford from Weston (Keenan’s own university) was boycotted by his students after he successfully lobbied Paul VI to reject the commission’s report and reiterate the teaching of Pius XI. The result was the emergence of two

tracks, characterised by Keenan according to Bernard Lonergan’s distinction between classicist and historical reasoning. The “neo-manualists”, such as Ford, Gerard Kelly and philosophers like Germain Grisez, continue to argue in the classicist mode: that is, from principles, accepting Magisterial teaching and such concepts as intrinsically evil acts. The revisionists see moral truth realised in life from adequately formed consciences. In the middle of this came John Paul II’s

encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which tried to integrate Scripture, virtue and law, condemning proportionalism, reiterating

preoccupation with objective acts to a consideration of intention and circumstances and the rediscovery of casuistry. He also describes new foundations for a theological anthropology and a more dynamic view of nature and experience than eighteenth-century essentialism. Heed must now be paid, Keenan suggests, to a global discourse involving distinctively South American, Asian and African approaches. Keenan advocates virtue as the most appropriate avenue for a return to Scripture and points out how current scandals have caused ethicists to criticise leadership, practices and structures within the Church as well as outside it. Keenan’s work provokes many questions, both as moral theology and as history. His preference for truth evolving based on conscience makes me wonder just how much we can make conscience so central to morality and a source of moral truth without losing the connection between morally good action and the natural good in the real universe outside our mind. Keenan’s typically American confidence in the progress of truth raises the question of the linearity of history. He himself shows just how often Aquinas is invoked even by radical theologians, often over the heads of those who later misrepresented him. But the fate of Aquinas’ ideas and those of other past innovators argues against the assumption that everything new is better. It is particularly apposite to recall

Newman’s criteria for distinguishing development from corruption and to lament that they have not been more widely or rigorously applied. I am not at all sure that virtue really is the best bridge between Scripture and ethics, unless it is interpreted Thomistically, that is, as linked with grace, in order to avoid a Pelagian or even Gnostic construct, in which goodness is defined through the lives and choices of elite groups and their leaders. As history, Keenan’s work has weaknesses. He shows little understanding of why a pope from the Communist Second World might have reservations about liberation theology in the Third. One might have wished for more on the Dominican tradition, especially on conscience, and those of us who accept the authority of the current teaching of the Magisterium without regarding ourselves as neo-manualists will look in vain for clearer reasons for the author’s apparently dissenting position. Nevertheless, this work deserves to be read. It certainly throws down the gauntlet to those who disagree with its trajectory and perspective (and there will be not a few) to produce their own assessment of a century that saw more change in moral theology than probably any other. Michael Cullinan

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