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Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” film will likely finish its amazing run in the box office by earning nearly one billion dollars at the box office. 

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Credit: Unsplash.

But why has a historical biopic garnered the interest usually reserved for movies based on comic books, video games, and Barbies? 

In part, “Oppenheimer” latched onto the cultural zeitgeist — especially given new conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, profound worries about the use of nuclear weapons have been raised to a more central place in US and global public consciousness. 

Though there has been intense Catholic discussion and scholarship focused on the creation and use of nuclear weapons—even before the first such weapons were used by U.S. President Harry Truman, in an attempt to coerce the unconditional surrender of Japan during WWII—the white-hot debate in the Church during the Cold War has cooled in recent decades. 

But  that’s changed. There is a rise in public awareness about the existential danger and inherent assaults on human dignity that such weapons bring with them — President Joseph Biden recently claimed that we are now closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.

In that context, a revived Catholic debate has emerged. 

An authentically Catholic discussion is a dialogue involving the present and the past — good Catholic moral reasoning always takes up the arguments of earlier generations. 

For example, when Truman was invited to Oxford to get an honorary degree, the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe refused to attend, just in case “God’s patience suddenly ends.” 

Hyper-concerned with resisting an ethic focused purely on the consequences of human actions—one that would justify “murder” as a way of producing a good end—Anscombe defended the view that certain actions are intrinsically evil and therefore always wrong. Aiming at the death of innocent people with nuclear weapons, she insisted, was one of them.

She was not the only traditional and orthodox Catholic moralist to hold that view. 

Far from it. 

David Cloutier, professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, told The Pillar that Catholic thinkers like Germain Grisez and John Finnis, for example, “were demonstrably as rigorous on nuclear deterrence as they were on contraception and abortion.” 

Those thinkers had a share of critics — from Richard McCormick who identified with the Catholic left, to George Weigel on the Catholic right, there have been serious Catholic minds who claim that use of nuclear weapons is not intrinsically evil.

Michael Baxter, a longtime professor of moral theology at Notre Dame who now teaches at Regis University in Denver, told The Pillar that even the U.S. bishops have adopted positions on nuclear warfare that took a conditional approach.

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Catholic bishops drafted and promulgated the 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” which did not condemn the use of nuclear weapons. 

Instead, noted Baxter, the document gave “conditional approval to constructing and deploying nuclear weapons'' and thus affirmed the deterrence strategy that lay at the heart of American policy and thus “did not really affect any real change in the way Catholics participated in the military.” Indeed, the deterrence strategy—in order for it to work—required certain soldiers to form the deeply immoral intention to slaughter millions of innocent people if so ordered.


Implications for contemporary Catholic moral theology

Baxter told The Pillar that he believes debate over nuclear weapons offer an essential insight into the contemporary state of Catholic moral theology. 

For the U.S. bishops of 1983, a nuclear deterrence strategy was justified, he said, by “means of proportionalist reasoning — that is, by identifying what moral theologians call the ‘values’ and ‘disvalues’ entailed in a given action, weighing them against each other, and making the appropriate judgment.” 

That line of reasoning concludes that it can be permissible to perform an evil act if it is done to avert an even greater evil. In the case of nuclear weapons, deterrence strategy can be justified in order to avert the greater evil of the actual use of nuclear weapons. 

While such a strategy does not reflect the ideal situation, the moralists who make room for it argue that is the best that can be done in a tragic, non-ideal situation which prioritizes “reality” over abstract principles.

But resisting that view were Catholic moralists who argued that intending to take the lives of the innocent, which is necessary for an effective deterrence strategy, constitutes an evil for which there is no moral justification. 

Arguing from the principles of traditional Catholic moral theology, they held that certain acts are intrinsically evil — that is, evil in themselves, evil in their object, such that no motive, however noble, and no circumstance, however dire, can justify carrying out such acts. 

That was the position supported by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor. The text criticized proportionalist reasoning when it is used to undercut the absolute moral prohibitions of the natural and divine law which all must follow as part of what Vatican II called a universal call to holiness. 

Baxter told The Pillar that — in the Veritatis splendor approach — while proportionate reasoning can be used about matters that do not involve intrinsically evil acts—such as deciding on a particular job, or purchasing a property, or deciding who to vote for—“it must be used very carefully so as not to participate in or cooperate formally with evil.” 

In the decades after Veritatis splendor, despite some dissent in academic circles, most Catholic moralists expected that much of the debate over moral frameworks within the formal structures of the Church had been settled. 

But that perceived consensus was blown up over the past year or so, especially as many argued that the Pontifical Academy for Life had moved in the direction of what Bishop Robert Barron worried was an “old but stubborn foe”: proportionalism. 

Barron quoted the president of the PAL, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who said: “Personally, I would not practice suicide assistance, but I understand that legal mediation may be the greatest good concretely possible under the conditions we find ourselves in.”

When Paglia said that, Catholics — and especially moral theologians — took notice.

It might be that the archbishop was speaking about using proportionate reasoning to assess the practical problems of assessing the best laws possible, given political and other circumstances, something permitted even by the magisterial teaching of St. John Paul II, when it comes to seeking to protect babies and mothers in the context of abortion. 

But many moral theologians have argued that the views being articulated and pushed by Archbishop Paglia go beyond complex policy debates, and speak to the very methodology of moral theology itself. 

In an edited volume published by the PAL last year, Paglia celebrated in the introduction a “paradigm shift” in moral theology, one which dismissed older approaches as a “handbook of formulas” that could not adequately capture the “existential aspects that are most relevant to the dramatic nature of the human condition and addressed from the perspective of an anthropology that is appropriate to the cultural mediation of faith in today’s world.” 

Coverage from America magazine noted that such a shift was related to challenges, from several thinkers in the book, to Catholic teaching on contraception, assisted reproduction, and end-of-life issues. 

The Pillar reported at that time that “a growing body of Vatican officials and Roman academics” are convinced that publication and support of the book was part of a strategic campaign to raise moral questions, in advance of the bishops’ synod, which begins Oct 5. 

Intriguingly, Pope Francis also announced that the day before the synod, on Oct. 4, he will release a new encyclical—what some are calling Laudato Si’ 2—which will address “new” issues not addressed by the first document

Since the publication of the PAL’s book in July 2022, there have been several interventions surrounding moral theology which are consistent with this kind of campaign. 

Few directly used the phrase “proportionate reasoning,” but references to ideas like the primacy of conscience, preferring the concrete over the abstract, probalism, grave matter, graduality, and the like all seem to be pushing in a direction that signals — to some observers — something like a campaign. 

Cloutier told The Pillar that he thinks that debates about moral theology’s terms aren’t all that instructive, because they aren’t being used in a clear way. 

The moral theology debates of the 1970s and 1980s saw “plenty of moral theologians who thought the Church was wrong about contraception” he said. “A lot of work was put into developing theories—and theories that to a significant degree drew on and developed existing moral theology—within which it ‘made sense’ to evaluate particular acts differently.” 

Today, Cloutier said, theology often lacks that kind of clarity.  

In the debate over conscience, for instance, Cloutier said that “no one I know of is suggesting that conscience cannot err – and so, if that’s true, an appeal to conscience cannot decide the truth of the matter on a particular moral question.” 

A Catholic could seriously and sincerely find that the right thing to do is pursue a same-sex relationship or participate in nuclear deterrence, he said, by way of example. 

But Cloutier notes that “the fact that they so find doesn’t justify the choice – indeed, the whole idea of seriousness and sincerity means that they have reasons for judging that way. They don’t appeal to conscience; they appeal to reasons. And the reasons are in most cases not ‘for me,’ but would apply to anyone faced with a similar set of circumstances. The appeal to conscience doesn’t resolve the truth of the matter but can only open discussions about what the truth is.” 

Julie Hanlon Rubio, the Shea-Heusaman Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, is also confused about the emerging debate about the appeal to conscience. 

A scholar who has focused on social ethics, Rubio told The Pillar that she is one of many Catholic moral theologians who have “spent a lot of energy helping people understand that social and structural sin implicates us in profound ways.” 

When thinking about racism, sexism, clericalism, colonialism, it becomes clear to Rubio and other scholars of social ethics that “we sin way more than we think we do!” 

On the other hand, when it comes to sexual and bioethics, she said “we're still focusing on freedom of conscience.” 

Rubio and Cloutier are joined by Princeton professor Robert George, who told The Pillar that conscience understood “as self-will” is “as alien to Catholic thought as an idea could possibly be.” 

Conscience rightly understood, George explained, demands that we do what is right and not to what is wrong no matter how we feel about it, and even if we have to overcome powerful desires in order to comply with conscience’s dictates. 

Indeed, the Church teaches that a sound Catholic understanding of conscience conceives the first duty to be the forming of conscience rightly—that is to say, the forming of conscience in line with the demands of faith and reason. 

“The Church,” George told The Pillar, “proposes her moral teachings precisely to form consciences correctly.”

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Debate, and the state of Catholic moral theology 

After Pope St. John Paul II promulgated Veritatis splendor in 1993, the proportionalist methodology in moral theology largely dropped out of use. 

But it is now clear that debate over the approach never really went away. 

Indeed, a 2002 article in the Journal of Religious Ethics  — “Where have all the proportionalists gone?” — argued that theologians who favored proportionalism basically went underground after Veritatis splendor, and found other less explicit and direct methods for expressing their central arguments.

For her part, Rubio told The Pillar that as she sees it, critics of Veritatis splendor made it clear that there are some absolute moral norms, but not very many — and that “a more pastoral approach to ethics with room for development will carry the day.” 

But some strong defenders of Veritatis splendor are not upset that proportionalism and other revisionist approaches aimed at changing the Church’s teaching on intrinsic evils and exceptionless moral norms are making a comeback. 

Baxter, one such strong defender, said that it is “a good thing that more life is being breathed into these debates in moral theology” because they have never really been settled in the first place. 

Moreover, many revisionists claimed — and still claim — that “they never really held the positions criticized” or that magisterial teaching has never really been “received” by the faithful, he said. 

Baxter added that these new developments in moral theology are ripe the kind of debate some call “dialogue”—though he prefers the traditional term disputatio, i.e., disputation. 

Indeed, the practice of disputation, which Baxter said emerged as a crucial aspect of Church life in the patristic age, and was further developed in medieval times, is precisely the kind of methodology that Cloutier said was common in the 1970s and 80s in Catholic moral theology. 

Unfortunately, “the field” in today’s Catholic moral theology is so fractured and dysfunctional that it is unclear not only if such a disputatio could take place, but whether there are institutions left that could facilitate it, Baxter said. 

Baxter pointed out that theologians holding competing views don’t spend enough time talking to each other.

Instead, theologians with competing views “have remained cloistered in their own enclaves, forming rival theology departments, rival academic journals, rival professional journals, and rival institutions at large.”

Jason King, professor of moral theology and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Mary’s in Texas, was for several years editor of the Journal of Moral Theology, one of the few journals that would publish articles from multiple perspectives on hotly disputed matters. 

King told The Pillar that while he was able to get rival positions on the page at the journal, he very rarely got them to engage with each other. 

That experience is evidence of a field, he said, which “is growing increasingly siloed,”  and has institutional structures and cultural dynamics which “seem to reward extremism.” 

King sees a fundamental divide among moral theologians, over a false choice in what their discipline is ultimately about: ending suffering or articulating truth. 

He also noted that when divergent schools of thought are isolated from each other, it becomes easier for them to be co-opted by American political categories, by the market, and by other cultural forces. 

“Being siloed,” said King, “means you end up being focused on just one part of the tradition and not checked by the rest of it.”

Rubio also noted that most work among moral theologians focuses on applied ethics — work that is directly adjacent to political and ideological concerns. 

That focus has seen “division” become the primary marker of Catholic moral theology today, she said, while questions of fundamental moral theology, those less directly connected to political and ideological concerns, receive less attention.

Jana Bennett, professor of moral theology and chair of the department of religious studies at the University of Dayton, told The Pillar that she agrees about the radically divided discipline. 

But Bennett said that in her view, something even more fundamental has been lost: discussion of moral issues has lost its explicit and proper attention to God. 

Several moralists told The Pillar that that phenomenon is more prominent among theologians working in universities than those teaching in seminaries.  

Those theologians added that an intentional and explicit sense that theologians on different sides of debates are brothers and sisters in Christ — that they are united in an ultimate end and destiny toward union with God— could help ease the problem of division. 

But the divides in academic moral theology — and the broader world of academic ethics — are sharp. So sharp, in fact, that it is unclear whether a return to robust debate is even a realistic hope.


The role of Pope Francis

Could honoring the authority of the Holy Father be a unifying force among moral theologians?

Maybe. But there are two reasons that seems unlikely. 

First, Pope Francis’ stated views and teachings are far more traditional than some believe.

Cloutier pointed out, for instance that Francis has been extremely clear on some fronts: about the grave evil of abortion, the importance accepting one’s sexed body as part of God’s creative plan, and, in Amoris laetitia, that he supports the full teaching of Humane vitae

For many revisionists, even if those positions are nuanced or qualified, they are simply non-starters. Some hold foundational commitments to women’s bodily autonomy, to the approach to gender the pope calls “ideology,” and to the view that contraception is an essential and obvious good. 

In many ways, those commitments make Pope Francis’ views anathema. 

A second reason that an appeal to Pope Francis is unlikely to be unifying comes from a very different place: genuine confusion — and even disagreement — over how the pontiff wants to nuance the views and teaching mentioned above. 

Baxter told The Pillar that “sometimes” Francis’ comments “are flatly contradicting Veritatis Splendor, especially when he suggests the primacy of pastoral care over doctrine.” 

In emailed comments, he told The Pillar:

“[I]n a remarkable twist in the history of Catholicism—though certainly not the only one—many authorities in the Vatican and seemingly the pope are now promoting more flexibility as regards communion for the divorced and remarried, gay relationships and marriage, and even euthanasia—on what amounts to a proportionalist grounds.” 

“At the same time, the pope and the Holy See have declared that the use and even the possession of nuclear weapons is to be morally forbidden. Here the question arises: on what grounds? If it is ‘forbidden on proportionalist grounds, due to the likelihood of igniting a nuclear war or an accident, then it is a matter of prudential judgment and Catholics in good conscience could say that their judgment is different from that of the Holy See. This is how pro-war Catholics justified their stance in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, even as the pope decried an invasion.” 

“But if [nuclear warfare] is forbidden because it is always evil to intend to take the lives of the innocent, then why does this principle not apply in all cases of euthanasia?  And why should the Church not adhere to the traditional view on sex, gender, marriage, and so on?”

Fr. Thomas Berg, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph Seminary in New York, is less confident than Baxter in making such a clear judgment. 

Berg told The Pillar that he is “not sure, in the end” where Pope Francis comes down on some critical moral issues. 

The pope, said Berg, “is sympathetic to the teaching of revisionist moral theologians that afford an enormous role to conscience” and “has promoted the caring accompaniment of individuals and the pastoral discernment of situations.” 

But Berg noted that the Church already has a rich patrimony of pastoral moral teaching and that there is a way of embracing that teaching along with an adequate understanding of the principle of graduality which, he said, is in full harmony with the Church’s patrimony of proper pastoral accompaniment. 

But, significantly, “it must be an accompaniment that does not divorce pastoral discernment from true moral doctrine. Pastoral accompaniment in charity is inseparable from true moral teaching: it’s always been about and remains the challenge of speaking the truth in love.”

Cloutier is more confident, but in quite a different direction from Baxter. 

In an email to The Pillar, Cloutier said that assessing the pontiff “comes down to a question of whether we are talking about pastoral approaches to practical challenges or about developing new teachings. Much of the language used by the Holy Father about ‘accompaniment’ and ‘dialogue’ and ‘inclusion’ can mean either thing.”

Francis, said Cloutier, “is entirely right about these things, as he describes them so vividly in Evangelii gaudium. And indeed, the heroic discipleship depicted in Veritatis Splendor inspires us, but also leave us wondering what to do about what Amoris calls ‘imperfect situations’ or how to manage the triage in the ‘field hospital.’” 

Cloutier said that Catholics desperately need a Church which both lovingly responds to pastoral challenges and offers a clear call to heroic discipleship because the Gospels clearly insist on both things.

He thinks that Francis’ teaching is not ambiguous but that holding both things together can be “frustrating to those conservatives who don’t like the paradoxical character of Jesus’ characterizations of discipleship as both rigorous and compassionate.”

What does it mean that three serious and faithful Catholic moral theologians can come to such different conclusions about Pope Francis?

Most likely, if Pope Francis is going to be a unifying figure on these matters, he is going to need to be far more clear. 

George put it succinctly: “The Holy Father would serve the Church best at this time by providing a certain trumpet. He seems entirely capable of being clear when he wants to be. We, the faithful entrusted by Jesus to his pastoral care, need him to be clear more often. We need the people he appoints to high ecclesiastical offices to be clear, too.”

Remarking on ecclesiastical officials, George may have had in mind the recent appointment of Argentine theologian Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández as new prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position which has been sometimes been considered the “doctrinal watchdog” for the Church. 

By many accounts, Fernández seems prepared to engage this role: warning both progressive and traditionalist groups that if they veer from the doctrine of the Holy Father they are on the road to heresy and schism. 

But in a wide-ranging interview with The Pillar, while he called the document “powerfully solid,” he said that the rules set by Veritatis Splendor have dramatically limited the development of theology. 

The archbishop even blamed the document for a decline of theologians of “stature” during the last few decades. 

He also said that “perhaps a text will be needed that, collecting everything valuable from Veritatis splendor, has another style, another tone, which at the same time allows for encouraging the growth of Catholic theology, as Pope Francis asks of me.”

Given the issues under discussion, a shift in theological methodology at the Vatican — a shift away from the emphasis on intrinsically evil acts and exceptionless moral norms—will certainly provoke even more criticism from many Catholic moralists. 

Many such moralists insist that, contrary to what Fernández suggested, the limits set up in magisterial documents actually provoke new and creative theological ideas and energies in the Church. 

Significantly, Fernández said that he will use his new position to “welcome these debates and frame them in the secure doctrine of the Church, thus avoiding for the faithful some of the more aggressive, confusing, and even scandalous media debates.”

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Could the debate be an honest one? 

It is one thing to have an honest and open debate in which magisterial positions and traditional teachings of the Church are considered legitimate options. 

But many moralists, especially in a university context influenced by ideologies and assumptions currently dominant in the secular academy, know that the Catholic position is rarely regarded as legitimate. Especially when it comes to abortion, sex and gender, and contraception, those with views at odds with the Church very often use power to shut down debate.

With that in mind, a key question presents itself: is it even possible to have open and honest debate about these matters? One that can penetrate an ideological shield currently protecting particular agendas from the critical scrutiny such debates would bring with them?

Robert George is not hopeful. 

He told The Pillar that “the motivation for blurring and trying to undermine the Church’s firm and constant teachings is 100% driven by the desire to conform Catholic teaching on sexuality, marriage, and abortion to secular progressive ideology—to what the late Robert Bellah labeled ‘expressive individualism.’” 

“Proportionalism as a methodology of moral analysis and decision-making would never have been introduced into Catholic theological debates were it not for the sexual revolution that began in earnest in the late 1940s and came to flower in the 1960s and early 70s, and the desire of many Catholic elites to get on board with the revolution. Traditional approaches to ethical deliberation could not be made to produce the desired results. So a new approach had to be brought into the discussion,” George added.

Jason King agrees that debates are not likely to happen—not because there is a sinister agenda in place, but because the major players — as he sees them — aren’t engaging principles of fundamental moral theology in the first place. 

Scholars focused on social and applied ethics are siloed off, and have fundamentally different concerns, methodologies, and moral languages, King said. 

King’s view is that many such scholars hold their beliefs sincerely, but that the dominant ideologies in different communities  are driving the divisions. Especially when it is through such communities that their members have the primary sense of identity and belonging.   

Rubio, too, rejected the idea that there is an intentionally dishonest and agenda-driven campaign to pursue a particular ideological agenda with regard to certain issues, saying that she wishes theologians would focus on having the conversations their discipline needs to have. 

But Berg took a different view.

Berg told The Pillar that “tensions within Catholic moral theology have always centered on the rejection of Catholic sexual teaching.”  

“The teaching of Humanae vitae was the snapping point for many moral theologians who were angling for approaches that would eliminate the category of intrinsically disordered actions altogether—and in the area of sexual morality, would introduce a new teaching to the effect that not all sexual activity outside of marriage is objectively gravely disordered,” he said. 

Berg noted that revisionist moral theologians have “always tailored their approaches to the moral evaluation of such sexual matters to attain just such an objective.” 

Indeed, theologians working to consistently apply a revisionist analysis across the board—to abortion, contraception, euthanasia, sex and gender, racism, nuclear weapons/deterrence, sexual violence, etc.—are exceedingly rare. 

But what about the Pope Francis objection — or the “field hospital” objection – as some might call it? 

This is the objection is that, while Catholics should reason consistently across moral issues, not all issues are equally concerned with  pastoral care and accompaniment. Not all are equally connected to the idea that the Church’s primary response to those who are hurting is to be a field hospital. Shouldn’t those with the compassionate, pastoral sense of Christ treat different issues differently? Someone with gender dysphoria suffering from severe mental health issues doesn’t need lectures about the created order. They need the Church to care for them and walk with them. That makes issues of sex and gender quite different from, say, concerns over nuclear weapons.

But Baxter told The Pillar that many see moral issues of sex and gender as categorically different from the debate over nuclear weapons because they view nuclear weapons from a policy perspective rather than a pastoral perspective. But a moment’s reflection reveals that nuclear weapons bring with them deeply pastoral issues, concerning the lives of those who carry out U.S. policy and those who are impacted by it, Baxter said. 

He was quick to note that challenging people working on nuclear bases or in nuclear defense industries does not mean pointing fingers. 

“What we need to do,” Baxter said, “is accompany people, befriend them, share with them what we believe, urge them to embrace the fullness of life that comes with knowing Christ. If we in the Church were to take this pastoral approach with consistency, we would be a people who do not take the lives of our unborn children, or of our enfeebled parents, or of innocent in war; who are faithful to our spouses and diligent in raising our children; who do not underpay or mistreat our workers; who care for our common home; who show an active and ceaseless concern for the poor and the immigrant and the least among us; and who do all this out of the well spring of a vital encounter with Christ in faith and the sacrament life of the Church.”

Cloutier agreed with Baxter that pastoral questions—those concerned with the context in which the truth of the moral principle to be enacted—are just as relevant for abortion and contraception as they are for nuclear weapons. The problem, he said, is that theologians don’t often agree on the truth of the moral principle in the first place, and thus it does no good to argue over pastoral care. 

Indeed, the debate over pastoral care may hide a more fundamental debate. Cloutier expressed frustration with those who seem to “play games” with regard to what the debate is actually about. 

Ambiguity on that point, he says, “stokes divisions in the Church” and “gives people good reasons to be suspicious.” 

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‘Hope’ in the midst of profound challenges 

Nearly every moral theologian who spoke with The Pillar said that Catholic moral theology is in a pivotal moment because of the clear necessity to have open dialogue and clear debates with regard to our differences.

Baxter, Rubio, Archbishop Fernandez, Cloutier, and others made explicit and even desperate calls for new efforts to make it happen.

Cloutier was direct on that front, urging Catholic moral theologians to “be adult Christians and come out and have the arguments about what needs changing and why. The argument is not about definitions of ‘grave matter’ in sexual ethics; it’s about whether same-sex relationships are consistent with Christian discipleship or not. If they are, say why; if not, say why.” 

According to Cloutier, theologians should avoid “hedged language that could be interpreted either as pastoral or as actual development” and instead go right after the central issues in the debate, as clearly and as honestly as they can. 

What might that look like? 

Baxter thinks that a next step—especially since many of the revisionists’ arguments have now found a home with some folks in the institutional Church in ways that they didn’t before—could be a kind of classic formal debate — a disputatio — within the formal structures of the Church itself. 

He suggested that perhaps Cardinal Robert McElroy, who prioritizes a pastoral lens, and Bishop Barron, who has lamented a new rise of proportionalism, should undertake a formal disputation on the issues — especially as two leaders recently elevated by Pope Francis. 

“We would all benefit from this kind of disputed question, out in public,” Baxter said. 

“We need to join together in a ‘conspiracy,’ as John Courtney Murray put it, in the sense that ‘conspire’ means, quite simply, breathing together. Otherwise our fate as Catholics is to remain hopelessly divided into politically partisan groups, controlled by worldly powers that tear asunder the Body of Christ.”

Cloutier also sounded a note of hope, saying that “Catholicism is the long slog” and can turn in ways that reveal a “God of surprises.” 

In an email to The Pillar, he wrote:

“No one could have predicted Vatican II theology after Pius XII condemned the nouvelle theologie in Humani generis – much less than Communio figures like Wojtyla and Ratzinger would be in the papacy for 35 years. How does Leo’s encyclical against ‘Americanism’ look in relation to Dignitatis humanae? And this is only the more recent, ‘cleaner’ part of the history – St. Athanasius went through a lot of ups and downs with Arianism!” 

Catholics can live in hope, Cloutier said, if they can avoid the extraordinary power of “the tyranny of the present.”

More than one moralist who spoke with The Pillar said that if theologians can find a place to have vigorous and honest debate, many Catholics may find out that the disagreement is less dramatic than expected, and even areas of common ground may be discovered. 

Berg, for instance, believes that extended debate centered on the experiences of sex abuse survivors could lead to important shared conclusions about how to think about the relationship between objective truths about sexual morality and pastoral concerns for those working through their sexual identity. 

He told The Pillar that he believes similar debates could be fruitful, focused on people impacted by physician assisted suicide, child trafficking, and the exploitation of women on several fronts — wombs for rent, porn industry, abortion, intimate partner violence, among them. 

While Berg has a particular view in those debates, he also believes that genuine exchange across differences would come to the conclusion that the victims of violence, and similarly dramatic evils, are not served well by “an undue emphasis on ‘values in conflict,’ the intentions of the various stakeholders in light of obscure considerations, appeals to earnest ‘conscience decisions,’ or vague appeals to ‘discernment’ and ‘accompaniment’ and ‘welcoming.’” 

Victims are owed the Church’s clarity about the nature of the evil that has been done to them, Berg said.

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The future of Catholic moral theology

While some will disagree about Berg’s suggestions, they at least suggest a solid and interesting field on which to have the needed debates. 

But the question remains: can today’s field of Catholic moral theology—especially when it is dominated by the assumptions of the typical Western-style university—be a locus for such exchanges? 

George said that in his view, faithfully Catholic moral theologians in university systems, though present, are “scarcely to be found.” 

He said some departments in Catholic institutions—even in Catholic departments of theology—would never hire someone who boldly and publicly holds the full range of the Church’s positions on controversial matters. 

“To say that this is a tragedy is an understatement,” offered George. “It certainly bodes ill for the future.”

Jason King said that his research suggests there have “always been obstacles to academic positions in the U.S. Catholic academy” and that hiring is often a kind of “matching game” in which theologians with unpopular views in the academic community need to find schools open to — at least — debate on those subjects. 

He added that: “lots of Catholic schools will just give up on theology and a core curriculum—primarily for financial reasons—so there will be fewer of those jobs.” 

That phenomenon means that “lots of theology will gravitate to the seminaries” and that there will be “lots fewer moral theologians in the future, especially lay theologians.” 

Said King, “We need to build some bridges, either via people or institutions. I wish I knew how to do it.”   

Rubio told The Pillar that in her view, though academics hold back due to fear about being rejected for tenure or otherwise having their career options limited, universities “have been good for moral theology.” 

But she shares King’s concern that cutting theology from the core curriculum in many Catholic schools will mean far fewer jobs for theologians in university settings. 

In an email to The Pillar Rubio said that: “I see moral theology (and the rest of theology) returning more to seminaries. That's good for seminaries and, as someone who works for one, it's exciting to me. But there are losses, too, like interdisciplinarity, a diverse student body and faculty, academic freedom, etc.”

On that topic, Cloutier again warned about the “tyranny of the present” and reminded Catholics to not jump too hastily to too many hard conclusions about  the future of moral theology without taking a perspective which sees development over centuries rather than decades.

But while some are hoping for an authentic, diverse, and robust debate in Western-style universities which take the magisterial teaching of the Church seriously, there are two brute facts to face. The first is that in the overwhelming majority of the cases, the debates are not happening. The second is that the number of universities which have the kinds of academic departments where such debates might happen is shrinking, and is likely to shrink even more dramatically in the not-too-distant future.

Especially when one takes the long view Cloutier suggested, it certainly would not be unprecedented for the center of academic theology—due to the confluence of multiple forces and on the basis of multiple reasons—to move from one kind of institution to another. 

The move of theology during the 13th century from the monastery to the university, for instance, is an example of precisely that kind of shift. 

And theology might soon be shifting its primary locus again — which could lead to having debates which take the Church’s magisterial positions seriously.

Indeed, Berg told The Pillar that while he joins many others in noting the disturbing social and structural trends for theology in most university contexts, he is even focused on a more positive goal: locating the kinds of institutions which allow space for “a robust Catholic moral theology that can thrive today in full harmony with the Magisterium, but which also pursues the valid revisions requested by Vatican II.” 

Those places, said Berg, can currently be found in “the vast majority of Catholic seminaries.”

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