Friday, 11 July 2008

The problem with contemporary moral theology

Since Cath News have picked up an article from Online Opinion which I've commented on, I thought I'd repeat my commentary here.

The original article by Peter Sellick, called Why Christians do not believe in morality, to me highlights the reasons why Catholics and others (including priests) feel so free to disregard teaching on morals. Essentially it argues that Christianity isn't a moral code, it is a process of being transformed, or 'deified'. This is of course true in a sense. The issue is how this occurs!

Mr Sellick argues that it is largely something that happens to us, rather than being something we do:

"I have said before that Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics, unlike Islam. Rather, it is a practice that transforms the individual by situating him in the story of God. It is this transformation that produces the moral life which we know we could not live if left by ourselves.

Another way of saying this is that Christianity is primarily a relationship with the living Christ, it is not just imitation on our own terms. At the Eucharist believers eat and drink the body and blood of their saviour so that he literally is in the believer. There is an indwelling of God in us and us in God that has led to some writers talking about our becoming godlike. [ie all we have to do is frequent the sacraments]

So Christians do not have to be obsessed with morality, we may leave that to the pietists and the puritans, that is not what we are about. For we know that any attempt at purity that relies on our own efforts is delusion. What we do know is that if we attend the Eucharist and listen to the Word we will be transformed, almost without our knowing, into persons who can lead a good life without having to think too much about it. [If only it were so easy!]

This is because the gospel forms our desires. We find that greed and the exercise of power have disappeared from our repertoire and we look forward to becoming people of peace, not people who are for peace but a people who are by their nature peaceable."

I'd have to say this article is a pretty good summation of the moral theology I've been taught over the last two semesters (though in my course it was dressed up a bit to give it the appearance of Thomism courtesy of Fr Pinckaers OP, interposed with a few dollops of JPII's theology of the body).

But it is, in my view, deeply problematic. My comment was:

"This article is a good summary of contemporary theology on Christian ethics. The trouble is, it is an approach that is demonstrably inadequate - just look at the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church. It leads to the loss of the sense of any objective morality, and the sense that the Church is just lecturing people.

It founders I think on one basic issue: namely, men are not like angels, gifted with infused concrete knowledge. We need to learn!

The solution I think lies in a better balance. The subjective transformation of the Christian through grace (the sacraments and word of God) needs to be supplemented with two other things.

First, the practice of the virtues, which in classical philosophy (and Christianity up until the advent of nominalism in the fourteenth century) were the stuff of the 'good' life. The active cultivation of the virtues is both a prerequisite for grace to transform us, and a result of grace.

And secondly, we need to be taught the concrete norms of the natural law and Revelation. The non-Christian can instinctively grasp the natural law when it is pointed out, and can admire the virtues. St Paul and the Early Church Fathers would argue though that they can't achieve mastery of them without grace. This point I think, is the distinctive contribution of Christianity.

Recovery of a firm sense of the existence of an objective natural law, and of the importance of the virtues won't necessarily lead to everyone becoming Christians. They are after all, in the main, found in virtually every religion and moral code to some extent. But it could provide a useful anchor for our society."

Mr Sellick has of course replied that he doesn't believe in the natural law. And therein lies the problem!

I'd have to say that the comments in the forum are not really worth reading - lots of frothing at the mouth from secularists in the main. Still, this is an important issue, and it is always handy to have useful summaries of what we are up against!

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