Catholic Moral Theology Today: What Divides Us?
For some time now, younger Catholic moral theologians have been discussing how the issues of concern to them are different from those of the immediate post-Vatican II generation that dominated the theological discourse for many years (this discussion has gone on long enough that many of those younger Catholic moral theologians are beginning to move out of that category…). Debates about absolute moral norms, proportionate reason, and magisterial authority, while important, do not really define these younger theologians.
Bill Portier, in his article “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics” (Communio 31 (2004): 35-66), provides some of the historical context for this shift. He argues that as Catholics emerged from the religious and ethnic subcultures that characterized American Catholicism up until the 1960s, they experienced for the first time the religious voluntarism characteristic of a pluralist society. In other words, for the first time one’s Catholic faith had to be consciously chosen rather than assumed. In response to this sociological change, many young adults Catholics are adopting what he describes as “evangelical Catholicism,” which is characterized by a conscious effort to adopt Catholicism as a communal identity.
The Catholic moral theologian David McCarthy, responding to Portier in an article of his own (“Shifting Settings From Subculture to Pluralism: Catholic Moral Theology in an Evangelical Key,” Communio 31 (2004): 85-110), provides an interpretation of how this sociological shift has impacted moral theology. Earlier moral theologians, such as Charles Curran, Richard McCormick, and Germain Grisez, had been deeply formed in their faith by the Catholic subculture, and in many cases through priestly formation. According to McCarthy, these theologians experienced the subculture as something to be escaped in order for Catholics to be publicly relevant, which is expressed in the strong emphasis on reason and natural law in both the new natural law theory and proportionalism.
Younger Catholic moral theologians, on the other hand, take for granted their place in the public sphere, and instead experience anxiety about the absence of a clear Catholic identity. Not experiencing the public formational experiences of older generations, younger Catholics experience the privatization of faith as a constant temptation. Therefore many younger Catholic moral theologians are less focused on providing explanations for the public relevance of Catholic morality, but rather on establishing the communal bases necessary for the living of that morality.
In 2002, a group of these theologians gathered for the first New Wine, New Wineskins conference at the University of Notre Dame. One of the purposes of this gathering was to provide a type of formation in an ecclesial vocation, related to but distinct from professional life in the university. Part of this ecclesial vocation was a commitment to avoid the acrimonious debates characteristic of earlier generations that had in many ways harmed the church. Instead, without minimizing disagreement, theologians would seek to understand and dialogue with one another in a spirit of charity. I believe that even many younger moral theologians not associated with New Wineskins have adopted this commitment, and this blog is one example of this.
Even as a self-identified “evangelical Catholic” and someone who has taken part in the New Wineskins gatherings, I have often wondered if the newness of these younger generations has been overplayed. The issues that divided older generations have not simply gone away. For example, in the past few weeks the writers on this blog have devoted significant attention to the issue of “intrinsic evils” in relation to voting. The current discussion of this issue only makes sense in light of the earlier generations’ debates, even if today the concept of “intrinsic evil’ is also being used (or misused) as a marker of Catholic identity in the political realm.
Also, although I certainly subscribe to the commitment to charitable dialogue, I wonder if it would also be helpful to reflect on the real fissures among younger Catholic moral theologians. In his article “The New Divide: Romantic versus Classical Orthodoxy” (Modern Theology 26 (2010): 26-38), John Milbank provides a typology of contemporary Catholic (and Anglo-Catholic) theology that in many ways corresponds with my own thoughts on moral theology.
As the title of the article indicates, Milbank’s primary distinction is between those he dubs the “romantic orthodox” and the “classical orthodox.” The classical orthodox are particularly devoted to the thought of Thomas Aquinas (Milbank humorously calls them “neo-neo-Thomists”) and give a prominent place to the role of objective reason in theology. So-called “ressourcement Thomism” would be a leading example of this type. Within moral theology, there are many younger moral theologians doing careful work analyzing Aquinas’s thought on human action, the virtues, and so forth that could easily be grouped here. My personal sense is that, in contrast to earlier generations of Thomists, these theologians turn to Thomism precisely as a tradition that provides certainty amidst pluralism, although I doubt they would describe it that way.
Romantic orthodoxy, on the other hand, is characterized by the belief that reason, at least as understood in modern times, is insufficient, and must be embedded in tradition, symbol, feeling, etc. (Milbank’s treatment of these two approaches is much more developed and well worth the read). Adherents of this type within moral theology tend to have a focus on ecclesial community and practices as a starting point for ethical reflection. Theologians influenced by Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy or by the work of Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas would fit into this type, as would those connected with the journal Communio, edited by David L. Schindler.
Although not mentioned in his title, Milbank also mentions a third group, the “neo-Rahnerians,” which he sees as a continuation of earlier liberal theology. A characteristic feature of this approach is “cultural mediation,” the expression of theological concepts in non-theological terms, or the recognition of apparently non-theological phenomena as fundamentally theological realities. In moral theology the term “neo-Rahnerian” is hardly adequate, since I assume most younger moral theologians are only indirectly influenced by Rahner, yet the type itself seems real enough. Milbank assumes that this type is on the decline, but in the work of younger moral theologians this type remains robust. Moral theologians who fit this type tend to be less focused on theoretical questions and more on concrete issues of justice. They are interested in the public relevance of the distinctively Catholic ethic. I would also include here younger theologians influenced by liberation theologies of various kinds, tackling moral theology from feminist, Hispanic, African-American, and Asian perspectives, for example.
After looking at these three types and their differences, it is also important to look at one striking thing they all have in common: they are all quite uncomfortable with mainstream American society, although for different reasons. Although highly engaged with public life, the neo-Rahnerians are engaged precisely because they see the poor and marginalized being oppressed or neglected by our dominant public institutions. The romantic orthodox tend to see Americans as formed by communities ambivalent, if not hostile, to the Christian way of life. And the classical orthodox, precisely because of their grounding of morality in objective reason, see American culture’s departure from traditional Christian norms as demonically irrational. I think this shared dis-ease is characteristic of the sociological reality described by Portier and McCarthy, as Catholics navigate their distinctiveness from the surrounding culture. How we understand this distinctiveness and what it means for our relationship with the broader society is perhaps the primary question of our time.
Obviously these typologies cannot serve as a precise classification system, and divisions exist within each type. For example, moral theologians who could plausibly be placed among the classical orthodox have for the past few years debated what Aquinas means by the “object” of human action, and the romantic orthodox differ in their use of postmodern theory (One is more likely to find citations of Žižek and Agamben in Modern Theology than in Communio!). And someone might object that theology, and even moral theology, today is too eclectic and fragmented for typologies to be of any use. Moral theology certainly is eclectic and fragmented, but I believe that typologies can help us discern where the primary fissures between us lie. The use of typologies also does not necessarily imply an “us vs. them” mentality. In fact, the identification of where our deepest divisions are can help promote deeper understanding of one another.
So I write this post as an invitation to charitable dialogue. Is a typology of contemporary moral theology useful? Are these types adopted from Milbank adequate, or are there better ways to think about things? What are the primary fissures that divide us, and what should we do about it?