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'I yearn for transformation' - The shifting trends of Catholic moral theology

Dr. Matthew Levering is a professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

His new book, “The Abuse of Conscience,” traces trends in moral theology during the 20th century, to argue against Catholic ethical frameworks centered on the conscience.

Levering spoke with theologian Charlie Camosy about his new book, and what it means for both academic theologians and practicing Catholics.

Full disclosure: I endorsed your new book and really enjoyed it. So there's that back to our exchange. But maybe I can begin by first asking you if you could tell us something about your personal story? What brought you to a project like this?

Existentially, this book was part of a process in which I realized that I believe in the reality of sin, reconciliation, and transformation, even if all too often what I experience is my own sinfulness, not the sanctification that I yearn for.

I yearn to be configured to God so as to share in God's life and to truly be charitable. I'm not giving up on real transformation; it is what Christ promises. Nor am I giving up on facing my own sinfulness — trusting in Christ, I will beg him anew for the grace of real transformation.

Because I want truly to be his friend in full, I yearn for transformation. I know that my sins, which harm myself and others, are not stepping-stones or excusable, but rather are real sins for which I need repentance and the redemptive mercy of Christ.

Ultimately, I am existentially interested in whether sacramental sanctification is a real thing — am I truly sanctified by the Eucharist, by regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, and so on? More radically, when I dig deep, can I credibly claim to have any virtues at all, or, when I'm under pressure or facing difficult personal situations, do my hoped-for virtues amount to nothing?

The main motivation for the book is my own sense that in order to be a radical Christ-follower, I need to be transformed.

When I started out to try to live intentionally as a Christian in my early twenties, I didn't realize how much I would be constantly falling short without noticing much improvement at all. So I can definitely understand how one arrives at positions such as the “fundamental option” rather than having to continually go to confession for failures and alienation, even though I do not find the “fundamental option” existentially or theologically satisfying.

[Editor’s note: “Fundamental option theory” is an approach to Catholic moral theology which says that each person makes a basic choice for or against God. Some theologians argue from this theory that because individual acts do not change our basic orientation, a person could commit serious sins without losing the state of grace. Pope St. John Paul II rejected that idea in Veritatis splendor, writing that “To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behaviour means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul.”]

In part, this project extends my previous work in moral theology, which includes books on natural law (specifically, “Biblical Natural Law: A Theocentric and Teleological Approach” and “Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue”) as well as books on charity and its opposed vices, on the virtues that prepare us for Christian dying, on the virtue of temperance as conceived Thomistically and biblically, and on the relationship of marriage and moral theology.

This project also extends my interest in what happened in the lead-up to Vatican II and its aftermath, which I've explored in various books but most fully in “An Introduction to Vatican II as an Ongoing Theological Event.”

I'm glad you started with Scripture. How does this set up the rest of your book?

The key to my book is found in the subtitle: “A Century of Catholic Moral Theology.”

My book is a study of the developments that characterized twentieth-century Catholic moral theology. The focus on diverse accounts of conscience serves this broader purpose.

The scriptural chapter is important because in the first half of the twentieth century, there were notable efforts to reform casuistic, conscience-centered (law- and obligation-centered) Catholic moral theology. Among these notable efforts were investigations of the place of conscience in biblical morality — including a brilliant treatment by Yves Congar, and helpful analyses by C. A. Pierce and Johannes Stelzenberger. They demonstrated that conscience does not have the central role in New Testament visions of life in Christ. It has a role, along with casuistry, but not the central role.

In this chapter on Scripture, I also pay some attention to the inflation of conscience's role — now with an entirely different notion of conscience in view — that one finds in the classical liberal work of George Tyrrell.

Much of your book is historical analysis about how different figures thought about conscience. Why was it important to do this analysis?

The second chapter of the book reviews moral manuals from 1900 to 1960 and tries to show how they were conscience-centered.  I undertake this task in light of the preconciliar reform effort launched in part by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who deplored the conscience-centered manuals.

While the moral manuals were not nearly as bad as the caricatures of them would suggest, they were undeniably deficient. They cannot account for the main lines of the biblical portrait of life in Christ.

The book's third chapter explores the Thomistic critique of the moral manuals. This developing critique is of utmost importance: a superficial reading of the preconciliar Thomists does a real disservice to what was actually happening in moral theology in the early decades of the 20th century.

If readers have time only for one chapter, the fourth chapter is most necessary.

The fourth chapter tells the previously largely untold tale of how Catholicism generated a new and equally conscience-centered moral theology (though now with a radically impoverished notion of conscience) that took over as the dominant strand of academic moral theology immediately after the Council.

This story begins with Heidegger and Jaspers, and with the existentialist ethics of Barth and Bonhoeffer, which is then developed by Karl Rahner and others into a Catholic form of Existentialist Ethics, integrating a historicized notion of human nature and a Tyrrellian view of conscience, among other things.

On this foundation, the new conscience-centered moral theology of Fuchs and Haering and their many heirs comes to be.

One the most important figures to write about conscience in recent years has been James Keenan, SJ. The title of his book on moral theology in the 20th century describes a movement from focus on  “confessing sins” to one on “liberating consciences.”

How does your take differ from Keenan’s?

Keenan and I agree about my book's central thesis, namely, conscience-centered moral theology dominated Catholicism, at least in the theological academy, for the entirety of the twentieth century. We also agree that there was a profound shift immediately after the Council, namely, the shift that Keenan describes as moving from “confessing sins” (the conscience-centered moral manuals) to “liberating consciences” (the new conscience-centered moral theology).

We disagree about whether this shift was and is a good thing.

I conceive of it as a disaster.

Just as the Church was moving to reform moral theology along more biblical and virtue-centered lines, a new conscience-centered moral theology with a mere biblical veneer took over.

My argument is that the Catholic Church needs to return conscience to its important, but not central, biblical place. When one reads the books of the great reform-minded preconciliar moral theologians--Gerard Gilleman, S.J., Fritz Tillmann, Emile Mersch, S.J., and many Thomists--this is what they were about to achieve (a path described beautifully by Pinckaers in The Sources of Christian Ethics). Their reform movement, however, was overtaken and waylaid by the new conscience-centered moral theology.

Although he writes occasionally about virtues, Keenan exemplifies the new conscience-centered moral theology.

Where do you think we go from here?

Can you use the contemporary debate over vaccine mandates, religious exemptions, and protecting consciences as a particular example?

The bottom line is whether, in the future, the Church will place front-and-center the radical call to holiness, Christ's reconciling work, discipleship, the transformative power of grace, the centrality of charity and prudence, the tremendous gravity of sin, the reality of human nature and God's eternal law for human flourishing, and the universal norms of natural law — with synderesis and conscience (and cases of conscience) having a role within this framework.

I just got my booster shot for the Pfizer Covid vaccine, so I do not have moral concerns about the vaccine.

Yet the Covid pandemic may be strengthening a cultural moment in which voicing opposing viewpoints from those held by the state and/or the dominant cultural and corporate institutions — whether on marriage, sexual ethics, the morality of scientific practices, the care of the poor, etc--is increasingly perilous.

The new conscience-centered morality, due to its diluted view of conscience, plays into the transformation of ethics into a power-struggle between personal and corporate subjectivity.

A retrieval of a theocentric, Christocentric path, in which human nature and human flourishing, beatitude, the virtues, and eternal and natural law all play a role alongside prayer and sacramental sanctification, is needed now more than ever, so that Christians may be a light to the world, configured by the Spirit to the cruciform love of Christ.

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