The Living Tradition of Catholic Moral Theology

Charles E. Curran
Notre Dame University Press, 1992

Richard W. Kropf

This book gathers ten essays by America's most talked about moral theologian, all of them but one already appearing in a scattering of publications within the past three years. Although they cover a great variety of topics, ranging (alphabetically) from academic freedom to war (and of course including Curran's nemesis, sexuality) the same theme themes keep repeating themselves. This is because it is not so much the specific topics but rather the whole philosophical and theological underpinnings of Catholic moral or ethical ethical thinking that are being examined here.

This is made rather clear from the start in his short introduction where the theme of "historical consciousness" is highlighted as the key to the whole book. It is this awareness of the development within Catholic thinking down through the ages that makes it a truly "living tradition" rather than just a dead body of moral doctrines.

This same theme carries over directly into the first chapter, the hitherto unpublished essay on "Tensions Within the Roman Catholic Church Today", which has been written specially by Curran as an introduction to the rest. The tensions are primarily three: between past and present, between the universal and the particular, and between authority and freedom. Aggravated by structural changes in society and the corresponding need for structural change in the Church, by resistence to that change, and by the breakdown of Catholic reliance on a single neoscholastic approach to theology, these tensions have lead to a real dichotomy within the church and among its leaders.

On the one hand there are those who believe that Vatican II, while probably necessary, was a very mixed blessing and probably went too far in some aspects. Curran rather shrewdly points out that the leading spokesmen of this group, theologians like Cardinals de Lubac, Ratzinger, Von Balthasar (and by implication the present Pope who greatly favored them) were formed primarily in the Augustinian tradition of the "two cities" that of God versus the world. The other group, typlified by thinkers like Rahner, Schillebeeckx, and Kung (and Curran) are those who feel that Vatican II was, or should be, only the beginning of change, and who are the true heirs of Aquinas, who founded his thought on the goodness of creation and sought to always theologize in dialogue with the real world.

The second essay on "Sexual Ethics in the Roman Catholic Tradition" makes this difference abundantly clear. Here Curran reviews the history of Catholic thought on these matters from its early espousal of a natural law approach borrowed from the Stoic philosophers but also laboring under the burdens of platonic dualism, patriarchal biases, legalistic thinking, and authoritarian interventionism. The irony that Curran keeps underlining is the contradiction between all this rigidity and the willingness to be in dialogue with the world and its experience in almost every other area.

This dialogue is particularly highlighted by the three chapters (interrupted by an essay on our debt to the veteran moralist Richard McCormick, S.J. and another on the teaching function of the Church in moral matters) on the social teachings of the Church. Even here Curran can trace an evolution from a somewhat classical neoscholastic approach in the early social encyclicals to a much broader range of input from scripture, theology, history, sociology, etc. The U.S. bishops are especially commended for their even more explicitly dialogic approach. In his essay (chapter) on "Providence and Responsibility" Curran again underlines the true meaning of the "natural law" approach long favored by Catholicism. Ours is not an extrinsist or volutaristic morality. We do not believe that something good because it is commanded but that it is commanded because it is intrinsically good. But is creation is good, then it must also follow that divine providence is not something extrinsic to the world but involves the exercise of human responsibility in the development of creation. So here again, all openness and dialogue that is inherent to the natural law approach (before it got sidetracked by a crude biologism and wedded to a classicist and anti-evolutionary view of human nature) only goes to underline the present dichotomy in Catholic thinking. And it is this same dichotomy, that goes a long way to explaining the impasse that has erupted over academic freedom in the universities which once were the Church's main contribution to Christianity's dialogue with the world.

Finally, this same sense of responsibility would also seem explain (in his last chapter on "Military Force and the New World Order") the reluctance of Catholic thought to abandon the theory of a just war, no matter how many times it has been misused in the past.

Clearly, this is not a book of easy answers. It is meant to provoke dialogue and hard thought. I appreciate in particular Curran's efforts to reinstate a correct notion of "natural Law" into the living tradition of Catholic moral theology. The irony is that Curran has been forced to make his contributions from outside the official Catholic pale. At least Notre Dame University Press with this volume has made some reparation for this lamentable injustice.

Reviewed by RICHARD W. KROPF (Spring 1992?)

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