Why moral theology matters

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


Father Charles E. Curran, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., and Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, is surely the most widely published and respected Catholic moral theologian in the United States and probably in the world, now that some of the most distinguished Catholic moralists -- Bernard Häring, Josef Fuchs and Richard McCormick -- have passed from the scene.

Father Curran was the first recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award, conferred annually by the Catholic Theological Society of America, for his contributions to Catholic theology. He was elected president not only of that organization but also of the Society of Christian Ethics and the American Theological Society. In 2003 he received the Presidential Award from the College Theology Society for a lifetime of scholarly achievements in moral theology.

His latest book, Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History, has just been published by Georgetown University Press. It is the first monograph that lays out the entire story, beginning in the middle of the 19th century.

He informs us that he has always been interested in the history of Catholic moral theology, and has intended for some years to write a complete history of Catholic moral theology in the United States. Before the Second Vatican Council, Father Curran writes, Europe had been the "primary home" of Catholic theology, and European authors exerted a great influence in the United States.

He had already done some of the groundwork for his new book in his trilogy, Toward an American Catholic Moral Theology (1987), The Origins of Moral Theology in the United States: Three Different Approaches (1997) and The Historical Development of Fundamental Moral Theology in the United States (1999).

Other books of his have touched upon major issues of concern to Catholic moral theologians in the United States and elsewhere, such as The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis (1999), and Catholic Social Teaching, 1981–Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis (2002).

Father Curran points out that Catholic theology today is more conscious of the effect that biography and "social location" have on one’s own approach to theology. He notes that he had received his doctorate in Rome in 1961, slightly more than a year before the opening of Vatican II, and began soon thereafter teaching moral theology in the Rochester diocesan seminary.

"As a result," he writes, "I have personal familiarity with much that has occurred in Catholic moral theology in the United States, including the pre-Vatican II period." He also acknowledges that he has "personally known all the leading figures in Catholic moral theology since the 1950s," and he expresses gratitude for the "marvelous experience" of having been "a part of this ongoing tradition of ideas and community of people."

The chapter headings throughout the book are indicative of the breadth of his project. The first two chapters provide especially important background for Catholics born before 1950 -- which means Catholics already around the age of 60 and older.

The first chapter outlines in some detail the work of Catholic moralists in the 19th century, while the second focuses on the state of Catholic moral theology in the first half of the 20th century and just prior to Vatican II, a period marked by the initial debate about contraception (provoked in part by the development of "the pill") and the emergence of new questions in medical ethics.

However, Catholic moral theology at this time had a single-minded purpose: to prepare future priests for the task of hearing confessions. The laity were of little interest, apart from the fact that they were the ones confessing the sins.

"No theologian in the early twentieth century," Father Curran observes in his concluding section (where some readers might usefully begin), "could have foreseen the work of Vatican II." Because the council recognized the universal call to holiness, moral theology could no longer focus on "the minimal aspects of what acts are sinful and the degree of sinfulness."

Other chapters in the book focus on the setting of moral theology immediately after the council, the aftermath of the controversy over Pope Paul VI’s birth-control encyclical, Humanae Vitae (1968), and issues of sexuality and marriage, bioethics, and social ethics.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, the J. Donald Monan Professor of Theology at Boston College and an accomplished moralist in her own right, praises the "unparalleled scope and balance" of Father Curran’s book, describing it as "an invaluable guide for scholar and student alike, showing us why moral theology matters beyond academia."

To the discredit of Catholic higher education, Father Curran has never received an honorary degree from even one of its institutions.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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