In this installment of our series on the role of the Catholic Moral Theologian in Church and Society, we hear from Alexandre Martins, M.I. of Brazil.

The Role of the Catholic Moral Theologian in Church and Society

 I invite you, reader, to think about the role of the catholic moral theologian in the Catholic Church and Society from two perspectives. The first is the Latin American perspective, which arises out of a part of the world that suffers because of social injustice and inequalities. This perspective gives us a space where the theological thinking is developed. The second is the perspective of the poor who are the ones that suffer due to social injustice and inequalities that exist in Latin America. My thesis is that catholic moral theologians should come to understand their role in church and society from the perspective of those who live in situations of vulnerability and poverty and the theologian should assume a role of advocacy towards liberation. That makes the principle of preferential option for poor a central and essential concept in which the moral theologians will defend the poor, give them voice, and promote life. However, that cannot be a conception which is far from one specific context. In other words, the moral theologian cannot understand their role from the poor’s perspective if they remain distant from where the poor live. Hence, I present this text from a concrete context that is Latin America and assert that the catholic moral theologian should go to meet the poor and dialogue with them in their reality. Dialogue and the preferential option for the poor are in heart of the role of catholic moral theologian in church and society.

Moral issues are not disconnected from a concrete reality. When we think about moral issues, we always think about concrete problems that are present in our ordinary lives. There are no moral issues that exist only as an abstract question. They always involve human beings and their practice in society. This statement is valid with issues of quotidian life when we reflect about virtue ethics, for example, and to ethical dilemmas, such as bioethical issues. The role of the catholic moral theologian is to think through these issues in dialogue with the reality where they are happening. The Catholic moral tradition is the basis that the moral theologian brings to this dialogue in order to shed light upon the moral issues. This dialogue should be broad and involve people, especially those who usually do not have a voice, context, and theoretical basis that shape the ethos of their social group. The moral theologian has the task to promote this dialogue in order to empower people to be agents of their own decisions and their lives.

Moral situations have specific contexts. No previous answers to possible moral questions that have arisen from a different contexts but similar situations should be applied in blanket fashion for another situation without attention to its own context. If something like that happens, there is oppression. This does not mean that rules and principles are not necessary. But it is necessary to make a distinction between the real and the ideal because there are no ideal solutions that can address all the problems of a contingent and imperfect existence. The dynamic and historic nature of human life requires us to be open to dialogue in order to find ways that meet dilemmas of a historical period in a specific context. Therefore, the moral theologian should promote this dialogue and does not want to find answers alone or repeat old formulas to new problems. The Second Vatican Council demonstrates this when it invites us to discern the “signs of the times.” According to Drew Christiansen, it is a “sociohistorical method” to understand reality and realize what we need to do to promote life.

I would like to remember the way Pope Paul VI presented dialogue as a method of Christian apostolate that is rooted in four characteristics: clarity, meekness, confidence, and prudence. According to him, these characteristics are important to an authentic dialogue. He presented that in his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964) and I am impressed with how this teaching is still actual and urgent for our current times.

Clarity is the beginning of an authentic dialogue because interlocutors should understand each other. “Clarity before all else; the dialogue demands that what is said should be intelligible” (no. 81). This requires a special attention to the language to ensure that all can understand it. In addition to following this precept,  the moral theologian must also help the poor to learn the specific language  of the ethical issues more complex.

Meekness is a virtue that provides us humility to learn from others, especially from those we might think do not have anything to offer. Many people that have a high level of education think that the poor do not have anything to offer and that they are only passive receptors of the dominant culture. Moral theologians must be open to learn from the poor and recognize their power in history. In the political and social arena, sometimes there are hard and aggressive debates because this arena is a place of different interests. Meekness leads us to become more patient and calm as we handle these moments of tension that sometimes happen in a true dialogue. Paul VI said that meekness “is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines towards generosity” (no. 81).

Confidence is necessary to help people who are engaged in a dialogue to believe each other and establish a relation of friendship. “Confidence not only in the power of one’s own words, but also in the good will of both parties to the dialogue. Hence dialogue promotes intimacy and friendship on both sides” (no. 81)

Prudence is the last characteristic that the Pope affirmed as a requirement for dialogue. Prudence is a virtue that makes us careful when it is necessary to act. Prudence is the virtue of discernment of our posture and actions. We need to be prudent in the political arena. Paul VI said: “the prudence of a teacher who is most careful to make allowances for the psychological and moral circumstances of his hearer, particularly if he is a child, unprepared, suspicious or hostile. The person who speaks is always at pains to learn the sensitivities of his audience, and if reason demands it, he adapts himself and the manner of his presentation to the susceptibilities and the degree of intelligence of his hearers” (no. 81).

Dialogue engages people in a way that is charitable and guides them to achieve the truth in a collective construction. “In a dialogue conducted with this kind of foresight, truth is wedded to charity and understanding to love” (no. 82).

The Latin America context requires a moral theologian who is open to dialogue and that dialogue happens among the poor and from the poor to the whole society. In other words, moral theologians cannot know what the moral issues are if they are far from these issues. If they do not hear the voices of those who are suffering and living in a situation of vulnerability, they never will pay attention to the signs of the times and never will meet the reality of people that Jon Sobrino calls of the crucified people. Therefore, the role of catholic moral theologians is to promote this dialogue and, at the same time, use dialogue as a method. In addition, the preferential option for the poor is a principle that calls them join with the poor in their reality. Far from the poor and their reality, theological discourse will be vague and with a serious risk to be oppressive.

The preferential option for the poor guides moral theologians to understand the historic reality from below together with the poor and in light of the Gospel. Together with the poor, in light of the Gospel, we struggle against all forms of human exploitation and oppression. The option for the poor is a commitment to the poor in history against injustice. It is a style of life that is supported by a spirituality of God’s love and solidarity with the least ones. As Gustavo Gutierrez says “Solidarity of the poor and protest against the inhuman situation of poverty in which they live.”

The preferential option for the poor is not merely a concept, but a lifestyle. One who tries to approach it conceptually usually does not understand what that option means since staying at the level of a concept fails to lift the reality of the poor, and does not recognize that the poor have something to offer. Option for the poor is not meant to view the poor as passive people that wait for liberation, but rather it is a principle that wants to make the poor agents and protagonists of history. The role of moral theologians is to empower the poor to be agents of their decisions and protagonist of their history in a spirit of solidarity that encourage us to find answers together in a dialogic way. According to Gustavo Gutierrez, option for the poor is a lifestyle because it means commitment in three dimensions together: “the pastoral level, perhaps the most visible; the theological level, as a point of view for doing theology; and, as the basis of all this, the spiritual level, pertaining to the following of Jesus.”  In addition, this commitment recognizes the presence and force of the poor in history. True transformation comes from below through actions in which all can participate.

Finally, the role of the Catholic moral theologian in church and society is to engage in the reality of the poor and vulnerable ones to promote liberation and life dialogically. Among the poor, the moral theologian tries to understand the sufferings and moral dilemmas of the poor and with them seeks answers and ways of liberation.


 Alexandre A. Martins, M.I.