A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences
By James F. Keenan, S.J.
Continuum, 248 pages, $29.95

The Second Vatican Council created an atmosphere of change that many imagined would sweep away traditional approaches and attitudes, renewing modern Catholicism by bringing it into accord with modern sensibilities. Then came Humanae Vitae , the 1968 encyclical prohibiting artificial means of birth control. Those who expected the Church to revise her traditional moral teachings were shocked and disappointed. A party of dissent emerged, and in recent decades strong voices, most tenured in theology departments at Catholic universities, have waged a campaign against what they perceive to be magisterial intransigence on a whole range of moral issues.

But the story of moral theology has not been only a tale of dissent. Over the past three decades an unwavering rejection of abortion has unified American Catholics across a wide spectrum of theological positions. Moreover, in debates about American foreign policy, Catholics have done a great deal to revitalize rigorous moral analysis. Various Catholic writers have also laid out economic and social visions that range from liberationist critiques of capitalism to neoconservative endorsements. Angry dissent, striking consensus, vigorous interventions into public debates”the history of modern Catholic moral theology needs to be part of any effort to understand the modern Catholic experience.

Unfortunately, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century offers little help in understanding that history. The main body of the book is made up of half-digested seminar notes and long bibliographical digressions that suggest wide reading but no sophisticated analysis. The book lacks historical context and fails to make connections to the larger theological trends of the twentieth century, and the author, Fr. James F. Keenan, S.J., remains so thoroughly invested in the party of dissent that what little analysis he provides suffers from tendentious simplification and sometimes petty, petulant observations. The end result is a book that serves as an almost perfect illustration of the sad intellectual dead end to which the post“Vatican II liberal Catholic project has come.

Fr. Keenan gives his amorphous material the illusion of historical form and interpretation by way of the shallow clichés that have guided the standard liberal Catholic storyline for decades. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Catholic scene was dominated by bad guys wearing black hats. They wrote manuals that, with a lifeless spirit of narrow-mindedness, fixated on right and wrong and invested in an essentialist view of unchanging moral truth.

In the mid-twentieth century, however, good guys wearing white hats emerged, fighting for a vision of moral theology engaged with history, sensitive to experience, committed to the whole person, alive to the complexities and uncertainties of life, and solicitous of a proper freedom of conscience. The Second Vatican Council vindicated their efforts”but the dark forces of repression have launched a counterattack. The essentialists, traumatized by modernity and retreating to a reassuring world of clear rights and wrongs, have gained control of the magisterium, threatening to send the Church back to the dark ages of mindless, mechanical obedience to unaccountable authority. And thus, in our day, heroic moral theologians must stand up against domineering Vatican authorities, defending scholarly integrity and freedom of conscience.

I wish I were painting a caricature, but I’m afraid Fr. Keenan inhabits a world of caricature. He enthuses about the “democratization of moral decision-making,” which he juxtaposes to “the ever-encroaching Vatican dictates.” The good guys and gals engage in the empowering project of “searching for truth-to-be-realized in the lives of Christians,” while “hierarchical leaders” remain outdated. The bad guys are “thinking of truth as propositional,” not because bishops or moral theologians who advise them have any reasons for imagining that the Church has a truth-to-be-taught (which would seem to be an obvious component of any Christian view of moral formation) but because, as Keenan says in a dismissive comment, “this is what they had learned from their manualist teachers in seminary days.”

The intellectual emptiness of Keenan’s approach is perhaps most evident in his discussion of Veritatis Splendor (1993), the most important official treatment of fundamental issues in moral theology since the Second Vatican Council. In this encyclical John Paul II was concerned to clarify the Church’s commitment to the objectivity and universality of moral truth. Because we live in an era acutely aware of differences in historical and individual circumstances, it is tempting to think that moral truth must vary according to context as well as remain plastic enough to suit individual consciences. Against this tendency, John Paul II emphasized that there are some actions which the Church deems wrong in all contexts and circumstances: homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and so forth. To use the technical language of the encyclical, they are intrinsece malum , or “intrinsically evil.”

With the notion of intrinsic evil, John Paul II made a largely formal point. We should introduce historical nuance to our moral analysis, weigh individual circumstances, and recognize the central importance of conscience. But no matter how we parse the moral life, at certain points the authority of truth supervenes. In other words, in some instances our moral deliberations come to an end, and we are faced with a simple choice between right and wrong. This doesn’t deny the complexities of the moral life, but it does draw attention to the objectivity of moral reality. One can have endless compassion for the young woman who feels forced by her circumstances to have an abortion, but one also knows that her action is nonetheless intrinsically and disastrously wrong.

An intellectually honest person can argue that John Paul II was mistaken about the moral life. A case can be made that there are no clear, universally constraining moral truths but just guidelines, ideals, and good intentions that invariably produce different judgments of right and wrong in different historical and cultural contexts. A half century ago, the Protestant ethicist Joseph Fletcher made an influential argument of this sort. Many secular philosophers have made other arguments that end up ruling out the notion of intrinsic evil. Some seek to show that moral truths are plural and often in conflict, others that moral truths are necessary fictions. These arguments may be flawed and their conclusions false, but they are serious.

Fr. Keenan’s approach, however, offers nothing remotely serious. “Intrinsic evil,” he writes, echoing his mentor, Josef Fuchs, and summing up what he takes to be the significance of Veritatis Splendor , “is the emblem of the classical, deductive mode of moral reasoning that expresses the negativity of the moral manuals. Intrinsic evil represents that geometric, theoretical form of moral logic that resides in the manuals and their teachers, and not in the experimental, pretheoretical reasoning of the ordinary, morally obliged lay person.” It’s hard to imagine a more jejune assessment of a fundamental moral concept.

Banalities that juxtapose universal moral truths with history or objectivity with experience are so dominant in Keenan’s history that the results become comical. Because he wants the Church to change its teaching on sexual matters, for example, Keenan appeals to a great cloud of recent scholarly witnesses, and with these footnotes he claims to show that the Church has no settled, coherent, or consistent moral teaching on masturbation, homosexuality, abortion, or contraception. “These historical investigations,” he writes, “have served as correctives and repudiate the manualists’ general claim regarding the unchangeability of moral truth.”

Does Keenan really mean what he writes? Is the sanctity of innocent life a changeable moral truth? Was abortion at one time morally acceptable, has only now become morally wrong, and perhaps may in the future become acceptable again? It’s not surprising that the magisterium of the Catholic Church has distanced itself from the moral solipsism latent in the moral theology represented by Fr. Keenan. When one rules out unchangeable moral truth, one is left with changeable truth, a wax nose to be endlessly reshaped.

A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century is also marred by a tendency toward progressive triumphalism, which has become shrill, uncharitable, and increasingly self-enclosed in recent decades. Keenan reluctantly notes that an influential body of moral theology has developed since Vatican II that reaffirms and defends the classical notion of moral truth, an approach exemplified in Veritatis Splendor . But Keenan then makes the observation that “those who advise magisterial authority participate less frequently in professional conferences of moral theologians, at which most moral theologians present their research for scientific critique.” The insinuation is close to the surface: Those who disagree with Fr. Keenan and his preferred approach to moral theology are intellectual lightweights afraid of “scientific critique.”

Even the heroes of revisionist Catholic moral theology get rhetorically spanked for their less-than-perfect compliance to the latest standards of progressive thought. Bernard Häring was one of the most important and transformative figures of the mid-twentieth century, and The Law of Christ , his multivolume reformulation of the basic concepts and structure of Catholic moral theology, was widely influential, encouraging a shift from a legalist concern about culpability to a much broader vision of the moral life as a full response to the call of Christ. Keenan champions this expanded vision, as have many others, including John Paul II, who began Veritatis Splendor with a long scriptural meditation on the all-encompassing vocation of Christian discipleship.

But Keenan cannot resist pointing out that, in The Law of Christ , Häring “spends some thirty pages on sins against chastity.” Of this suspicious attention, Keenan writes: “We cannot but wonder as to how much social control the clergy’s teaching had over the sexual lives of its lay members that such a plethora of concerns is examined.” One can only sigh over the pettiness of the observation, one of the many intrusions of progressive tut-tutting that will make any historically minded reader wince at the anachronism of importing the latest progressive sensibilities into a discussion of the writings of important Catholic moral theologians educated in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The Catholic Church is big, and I have no doubt that dissent will remain an ongoing part of the Catholic experience. To a greater or lesser extent, it always has. And yet, the particular intellectual tradition of dissent that goes by the name of liberal Catholic theology, a tradition that at mid-century had intellectually sophisticated and spiritually serious representatives, seems to have run its course.

Like the old manualists who ruled the roost one hundred years ago, folks such as Fr. Keenan dominate the professional societies, and they do their best to control academic appointments. In a moment of candor, however, as Keenan, a longtime teacher of seminarians, ruefully observes, the young, up-and-coming priests look elsewhere.

He shouldn’t be surprised. As A History of Catholic Moral Theology indicates, in this new century, the tradition of moral theology he represents has little to offer other than petulant reiterations of ideas that have calcified into brittle, shallow, and irritated gestures passed off as serious thought.

R.R. Reno is a senior editor at First Things .

Articles by R. R. Reno

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