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Roman Catholic Contemporary Tradition Of Moral Theology Theology Religion Essay

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An Introduction to Moral Theology was originally written in December of 1990 by William E. May. It was published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. in 1991, just prior to the Encyclical Letter of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, which was published in 1994. Later in 1994, May published his revised edition most likely to incorporate and respond to the clarifications provided by Veritatis Splendor. With the second edition, published in 2003, he further expanded his work and provides a very clear and thorough analysis of Christian moral theology.

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May maintains a strong emphasis on the Christian moral principles purported by Germain Grisez and his companion moral theologians John Finnis and Joseph Boyle. May maintains fidelity to the Roman Catholic Magisterium and offers a strong foundation that stems from his own expertise including his knowledge of bioethics.

William May is definitely main-stream and possesses a sound and loyal adherence to the post Vatican II reconnection with Aquinian moral principles. If there is a criticism of May’s book, it is that he possesses such a deep and profound understanding of the evolution of modern moral theology, including the myriad of revisionist authors and their various schools of thought, that he is capable and somewhat prone to lose a novice in the complexity. His book may better serve the graduate student who possesses a core understanding of moral theology, rather than the neophyte or liberal arts undergraduate.

May demonstrates repeated loyalty to the theories and teachings of Germain Grisez and often defends them in combination with John Finnis and Joseph Boyle. May, Grisez, Finnis and Boyle have also collaborated in publishing other works. May also brings other authors and theologians into his comparative analysis including: Martin Rhonheimer, Joseph Fuchs, Richard Gula, Charles Curran and Timothy O’Connell among many others. May fearlessly pits their views on moral theology against Aquinas’ Summa , Veritatis Splendor and the documents from Vatican II, especially when sorting out the complex definitions of natural law. Although fearless in his quest for fidelity to Roman Catholic tradition and the Magisterium, he is both thorough and contextually compassionate to the opposing ideas presented by the revisionists and proportionalists, pointing out their positive contributions as well as their serious theological flaws. May is not timid and he quickly rejects their infidelity to the foundational underpinnings of Roman Catholic theology while simultaneously attempting to understand why they have chosen a contrary stance to Aquinas, Veritatis Splendor, or similar post Vatican II magisterial interpretations.

Human Dignity and Free Human Action

In May’s first edition, he listed two kinds of human dignity stating, “According to Catholic tradition, as found in Aquinas and in the teachings of Vatican Council II, there is a twofold dignity proper to human beings: one is intrinsic and an endowment or gift; the other is also intrinsic, but is an achievement or acquisition.” [1] Referring to Dignitatis Humane, which was published in 1965, but more notably, citing Veritatis Splendor, May is motivated to add a third kind of human dignity in his revision that he calls,

[A] purely gratuitous gift from God himself, who gives this to us when, through baptism, we are ‘re-generated’ as God’s very own children and given the vocation to become holy, even as the heavenly Father is holy, and to be co-workers with Christ, his collaborators in redeeming the world. This dignity is a treasure entrusted to us, and we can lose it by freely choosing to do what is gravely evil. [2]

In keeping with his recognized mainstream Roman Catholic theology, May incorporates John Paul II’s renewed focus on moral absolutes, together with the theological virtues presented in Veritatis Splendor, and inculcates this vision into in his two revisions. May was already a proponent of Aquinas and he spends a great deal of time, devoting an entire section of his book on natural law in Aquinas as developed in the Summa Theologiae. He contrasts Aquinas with Ulpian’s definitions of natural law and then focuses on Aquinas’ teaching of natural law in the Summa Contra Gentiles. His Revised Edition adds a section on natural law from Vatican II and then in his Second Edition he also adds sections to his book to include the theology of John Paul II as well as Martin Rhonheimer. May’s theology is strong on moral responsibility and their resulting norms. One example is how he interweaves the teaching on natural law from Aquinas with the theology expressed by Grisez, Boyle and Finnis; concluding, “It is the natural law which is perfected, fulfilled, [and] completed by the evangelical law of love, of a more-than-human kind of love, the love that God himself has for us. [When we are] concerned with our life as moral persons in Christ, we shall seek to know how the evangelical law of love fulfills and completes the natural law.” [3]

As already noted, May is not shy about identifying and attacking the revisionist theologians and pitting them against Veritatis Splendor and the teachings of the Magisterium. He reviews and sheds light upon the writings of a myriad of the post-Vatican II revisionists including: Louis Janssens, Josef Fuchs, Richard Gula, Richard McCormick, Timothy E. O’Connell, Franz Böckle, Charles E. Curran, Bernard Häring, Franz Scholz, Peter Knauer, and Bruno Schüller. May defends moral absolutes using strong and carefully documented arguments as they are described in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor by John Paul II. He ultimately concludes,

Revisionists, in their arguments based on the “wholeness” or “totality” of the human act, focus on the agent’s “remote” or “ulterior” end or “further intention,” i.e., on the good that the agent hopes to realize by choosing to do x here and now, or the evil that the agent hopes to avoid by choosing to do x here and now. But they fail to take seriously – indeed, they even ignore – the moral significance of the x that is chosen to realize this end and the fact that the agent freely wills this x as a chosen means, for it is the “proximate” end of his will act and the “present intention” that shapes his moral being. Revisionists are thus led to redescribe human actions in terms of their hoped-for results. […] Secondly, it falsely redescribes actions in terms of their anticipated results and by doing so fails to reveal and at times even conceals what moral agents are in fact choosing and doing [emphasis added]. [4]

On Human Action and Virtue

May provides a solid and clear understanding of human action and free choice. May’s first edition (1991) is virtually void of a discussion on the virtues. He does mention virtues and vices in his section, The Basic Understanding of Law in the Summa Theologiae, but his goal is targeted towards a discussion of goods and habits within Eternal Law and Natural Law. His revised (1994) and second (2003) editions add a section dedicated to the virtues. He reflects on Grisez, Aquinas and their discussion of virtue, but less as an instruction on the virtues and more as a response to Veritatis Splendor’s emphasis on the virtues and their importance and effect on free human action and formation of conscience in the moral life. May has a brief discussion on the Cardinal Virtues and specifically side-steps the Theological Virtues stating,

I will not here consider his [Aquinas’] teaching on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and his teaching that, with charity, God infuses supernatural moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, etc. These aspects of his teaching are well set forth by Romanus Cessario in The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics and Virtue or the Examined Life. An excellent brief account of Thomas’s teaching on the virtues can be found in T. C. O’Brien’s article on virtue in the New Catholic Encyclopedia. [5]

Turning then to the Cardinal Virtues, May first reflects on Aquinas’ discussion of appetites and how they contribute to the formation of the Cardinal Virtues. May states,

This text prepares the way for Aquinas’s division of the moral virtues perfecting the appetites into the classical “cardinal” virtues, namely, those of prudence (perfecting one’s practical reason), justice (perfecting the appetite of the will), temperance (perfecting the concupiscible appetite), and fortitude (perfecting the irascible appetite). [6]

In coincidence with and in defense of Germain Grisez, May sees a relationship between moral virtues and moral principles. He finds that a virtue is akin to a good habit, citing fairness and justice, and asserting that one’s personality is affected by each of the commitments and moral norms practiced by that person. May states,

Some today oppose a “virtue-based ethics” to a “normative” or “principle-based ethics.” This debate is in my opinion misplaced. The following passage from Grisez indicates the proper relationship between virtues and moral principles: “What,” he asks, “is the connection … between moral principles and virtues? Do we have two distinct, perhaps even competing, approaches to morality – an ethics of moral truth versus an ethics of virtue? Not at all. Take the Golden Rule. One who consistently chooses fairly and works consistently to carry out such choices is a fair person – a person, that is, with the virtue of fairness or justice. A virtue is nothing other than an aspect of the personality of a person integrated through commitments and other choices made in accord with relevant moral norms derived from the relevant modes of responsibility. In other words: living by the standard of fairness makes a person fair. [7]

This assertion of May also coincides with Veritatis Splendor and how John Paul II views human acts as moral acts and how they express the morality of the individual person. John Paul II states,

Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits. [8]

Natural Law, Central to May’s Moral Theology

William May dedicates his longest chapter (chapter 3, of 55 pages) of his second edition (2003) on natural law. He concentrates on several areas of natural law, including the teachings of Aquinas, Ulpian’s definition, the Summa Contra Gentiles, Vatican II, the teaching of John Paul II, and the theology of Germain Grisez, John Finnis and Joseph Boyle. He also discusses areas of agreement between Rhonheimer and Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle and then turns to areas of disagreement between them and Rhonheimer. Finally he reviews the relationship between natural law and virtue.

Kevin Flannery, who reviewed May’s 1994 revision for The Thomist, agrees and comments, “The core of the book is chapter two in which May discusses the natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas and its development by Grisez, Finnis and Boyle. Anyone interested in a quick, accurate introduction to natural law theory as understood in its central tradition could do no better than to read these 63 pages.” [9]

May’s incorporation of Rhonheimer’s position on natural law did not come until the second edition was published in 2003. The core of his use of Rhonheimer supports Grisez et al. noting that as held by Aquinas, natural law is a work of practical reason. He opposes the moralists that deny moral absolutes and accepts that natural reason naturally apprehends the goods that are to be pursued and done. As May states, “Rhonheimer agrees with Grisez et al. in holding that according to Aquinas – and reality – our knowledge of the truths of natural law is not derived from metaphysics or anthropology or any speculative knowledge. With them, he opposes those who maintain the opposite, explicitly acknowledging his debt to Grisez on this matter.” [10]

Rhonheimer disagrees with Grisez et al. in three major areas stated succinctly by May as, “(a) the distinction between the perceptive-practical and descriptive-reflexive levels of practical reason; (b) the relationship between natural law and virtue; and (c) the movement from the first or common principles of natural law to its ‘proximate’ or ‘immediate conclusions.” [11]

May also notes additional disagreement of Rhonheimer with Grisez et al. and indicates that this is his own opinion as well, noting that Rhonheimer does not show how proximate conclusions are found to be true in light of prior principles. May states,

Rhonheimer does not, however, explicitly show how the primary principles of natural law serve as premises in the light of which one can show the truth of the “proximate and immediate” conclusions. In this, he seems to follow Aquinas himself. As we have seen, Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle argue – correctly in my opinion – that one must show clearly how the so-called “proximate conclusions” are shown to be true in the light of prior principles. [12]

In his revised editions, May includes a concise section on the teaching of John Paul II and most importantly as it is expressed in Veritatis Splendor. May demonstrates that one of John Paul II’s main points is that, in order to respect the dignity of our neighbor, one must refrain from destroying or damaging the goods of our neighbor and even, “cherish the real goods perfective in him.” [13]

In addition and in agreement with Aquinas who states, “Hence it is clear that the goodness of the human will depends much more upon eternal law than upon human reason” [14] , May emphasizes the core of John Paul II’s thoughts on natural law stating, “The highest law is God’s divine, eternal law. The natural law is our human, intelligent participation in this eternal law, which we can come to know through the exercise of our practical reasoning.” [15] May then directs his reader to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 1950-1960) for further clarity on eternal and natural law. Here, is where the passage referring to Leo XIII, Libertas praestantissimum, 579, is encountered in the Catechism that states,

The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin… But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted. [16]

According to May’s convincing and methodical presentations, John Paul II, the Second Vatican Council, Grisez et al., Aquinas, and May himself all agree, “natural law that is perfected, fulfilled, and completed by the evangelical law of love, of a more-than-human kind of love, the love that God himself has for us.” [17]

Moral Absolutes and the Battle with the Revisionists

May contested the revisionists long before the appearance of Veritatis Splendor and the re-centering of Catholic moral theology on the precepts of Aquinas. In his 1980 compilation of essays entitled Principles of Catholic Moral Life [18] May, together with William Cardinal Baum, compiled a series of essays that were unequivocally Thomistic and criticized the proportionalist and consequentialist thinking that had developed in several theological circles. In May’s own contribution to the volume, he provided an essay entitled, The natural law and Objective Morality: A Thomistic Perspective. He states, “Today [circa 1979] a significant number of Roman Catholic moral theologians find it necessary to dissent from authoritative teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on moral questions. The Magisterium of the Church teaches that some specifiable sorts of human acts are wicked and contrary to the principles of the natural law.” [19]

According to May, the root cause of the revisionists rejection of moral absolutes stems from the Majority Report which was a document dated, “(27 May 1966) of the ‘majority theologians’ of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth, in which they sought to explain why, if contraceptive intercourse is morally good, nevertheless various other masturbatory acts between spouses are not.” [20] May, referring to Documentum Syntheticum, (in Hoyt, p. 72), further highlights the notions of the revisionist theologians of the Majority Report that state, “Infertile conjugal acts constitute a totality with fertile acts and have a single moral specification [namely, the fostering of love responsibly toward generous fecundity].” [21] May points out that the theologians of the Majority Report say,

that the moral “object” of their act – is ‘the fostering of love responsibly toward a generous fecundity.'[They define] this [as] obviously something good, not bad. … Revisionists, … claim that the specific moral absolutes defended in the Catholic tradition and affirmed by the magisterium isolate partial aspects of human acts and, on the basis of such isolated aspects, render decisive moral judgments about them. Their claim is that reason, objectivity, and truth require that an action be evaluated as right or wrong only as a totality that includes all the circumstances and motivations, considered in relation to all the ‘premoral’ (but morally relevant) goods and bads involved in that totality. [22]

May then goes on to show that from this line of thinking the revisionist theologians including those he names: Franz Böckle, Charles E. Curran, Josef Fuchs, Bernard Häring, Louis Janssens, Richard McCormick, Timothy E. O’Connell, Richard Gula, Franz Scholz, and Bruno Schüller, develop the theories of proportionate good, the preference principle, and the denial of moral absolutes. Another group of theologians sometimes called the minority report theologians including Germain Girsez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and others, including William May himself, hold fast to the teachings of Aquinas, and defend moral absolutes. In the 2003 second edition of his book, May also points out that in their understanding of the object of a human act, the minority report theologians coincide with both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. May clearly states,

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With this understanding of the “object” of a human act in mind, it is easy to grasp John Paul II’s conclusion, namely, that “One must reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species – its ‘object’ – the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts, apart from consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned” [no. 79; cf. no. 82]. [23]

May clearly points out that in Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II refutes the teleologisms of consequentialism and proportionalism declaring that they, “are not faithful to the Church’s teaching when they believe that they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law'(cf. no. 75).” [24]

Morality and Sin

May focuses on three major areas in his discussion of sin: “(1) the core meaning of sin, (2) the distinction between mortal and venial sin and the basis of this distinction, and (3) the effect of sin on our moral life.” [25]

In his discussion on the core meaning of sin, he turns first to scripture, starting with the Old Testament. According to May, “The Old Testament consistently regards sin as a wicked rebellion against the Lord.” [26] Here he reflects on the words to describe sin such as unfaithfulness, adultery, foolishness, and abomination. Referring to Sirach, May states, “The consistent teaching of the Old Testament is that sin is rooted in human freedom and consists in an abuse of God’s gift of free choice.” [27] He then turns to David and Psalm 51 and highlights what he calls a beautiful summary of sin in the Old Testament with the passage,

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions (pesha’). Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity (‘awon), and cleanse me from my sin (hatta’ t)! For I know my transgressions (pesha’), and my sin (hatta’t) is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned (hatta’), and done that which is evil (ra’) in thy sight (Ps 51: 1-4). [28]

This is the source for the words used by the priest during Mass, when standing at the side of the altar, he washes his hands, saying quietly, “Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” [29]

Turning to the New Testament, May finds words to describe sin like harmatia and harmatma (freely chosen deeds or to choose to miss-the-mark), anomia (lawlessness), adikia (injustice), and skotos (dimmed eyesight or blindness). For May, these words “show that sin is an opposition to the truth of God, to Jesus Christ – who is the way, the truth, and the life – to one’s fellowmen, and to the truth of being a human person.” [30]

The third area that May discusses in his section on sin is Catholic moral tradition. He reflects on aspects of St. Augustine and Aquinas as well as Gaudium et Spes, and Dignitatis Humanae. He also considers some of the active theologians and their contrary views, including Keane, Curran, Häring, McCormick, and others. True to May’s orthodox view of divine law, he understands that God directs all of creation with charity and wisdom. In this context he concludes,

[T]he highest norm of human life is the divine law – eternal, objective, and universal – whereby God orders, directs, and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. […] Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine providence, he can come to perceive ever more increasingly the unchanging truth (Dignitatis humanae, no. 3; cf. Gaudium et spes, nos. 16-17). [31]

May then goes on to unfold a clear and articulate discussion of mortal sin and venial sin. He uses many sources including encyclical and magisterial pronouncements, scripture, council teachings, and especially observations from John Paul II. Within this context, he carefully considers and then clearly rejects the fundamental option theories. Finally, at the end of his chapter on sin, May refers his readers directly to the Catechism of the Catholic Church where he clearly embraces its definitions of sin, including mortal and venial sin, which states,

God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all (Rom 11:32). Sin is an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law (St. Augustine, Faust 22: PL 42, 418). It is an offense against God. It rises up against God in a disobedience contrary to the obedience of Christ. Sin is an act contrary to reason. It wounds man’s nature and injures human solidarity. The root of all sins lies in man’s heart. The kinds and the gravity of sins are determined principally by their objects. To choose deliberately-that is, both knowing it and willing it-something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death. Venial sin constitutes a moral disorder that is reparable by charity, which it allows to subsist in us. The repetition of sins-even venial ones-engenders vices, among which are the capital sins. [32]

In his latest (2003) revised edition of An Introduction to Moral Theology, May includes an appendix to his book, Christian Moral Life and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He refers his readers to the Catechism and this appendix often, pointing out that the prime source for most definitions within moral theology are best sought there.

In his review of May’s book in the New Oxford Review’s, Justin Gullekson agrees with the observations above regarding May’s mainstream Roman Catholic position on sin and states,

Sin and moral absolutes: These topics are taken up [by May] with gusto. The pastor, director of religious education or unsettled lay person will find May’s extensive treatment of these matters helpful, especially because he identifies certain theological positions with their corresponding expositors. This book battles the mess people make of their lives when they have been acting according to the false subjective norms of free choice (“if it feels O.K., do it”) and so-called conscience (“if it’s not a sin for you, it’s no sin”). [33]

Jesus Christ, Our Moral Foundation

May points out that Jesus Christ is central and foundational in Christian morality. He supports this with sections from Gaudium et Spes, Veritatis Splendor, scripture (especially from Paul’s letters), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As he often does throughout his book, May then turns to articulated positions from Germain Grisez. He points to Grisez’s threefold understanding of how Jesus divinizes humanity, producing union with God. The first is, “our union with him in divine life as children of God, [the second is] the bodily union between Jesus and his faithful, the members of his Church [and the third is] unity between Christ and the Christian in human acts.” [34]

The sacraments, and especially the Eucharist within the Mass and Baptism are central to one’s union with Christ and humanity’s sharing in His sanctifying grace. The Mass is fully a participation in Christ’s act of salvation and Baptism is the bestowal of one’s vocation to not only be within God’s family and a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, but also to assume a greater responsibility to live a moral life as a member of His Mystical Body.

In alignment with Aquinas, Veritatis Splendor, and Grisez, May turns to a discussion of the beatitudes, and how they provide, “modes of Christian response [to] specify ways of acting that mark a person whose will, enlivened by the love of God poured into his or her heart, is inwardly disposed to act with confidence …” [35]

May turns again to Grisez. Here he enfolds the gifts of the Holy Spirit as found in Isaiah with the beatitudes producing eight “modes of Christian response” [36] as follows,

1. To expect and accept all good, including the good fruits of one’s work, as God’s gift – […]

2. To accept one’s limited role in the Body of Christ and fulfill it – […]

3. To put aside or avoid everything which is not necessary or useful in the fulfillment of one’s personal vocation – […]

4. To endure fearlessly whatever is necessary or useful for the fulfillment of one’s personal vocation – […]

5. To be merciful according to the universal and perfect measure of mercy which God has revealed in Jesus – […]

6. To strive to conform one’s whole self to living faith, and purge anything which does not meet this standard – […]

7. To respond to evil with good, not with resistance, much less with destructive action – […]

8. To do no evil that good might come of it, but suffer evil together with Jesus in cooperation with God’s redeeming love -. [37]

By digesting the beatitudes in this way, using Grisez’s thoughts, May demonstrates how, in essence, the beatitudes are actually moral foundational norms or virtues for humanity provided directly by Christ.

The Church, Teacher of the

 



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