In my last column I looked, albeit briefly, at the state of authority in the Church in the light of a new book, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity (OUP). This week I want to at least glance at Lisa Sowle Cahill’s paper on developments in moral theology, with particular focus on America. Those of us who look at these things at pew-point may rarely have a chance to examine the currents of change that are still in the making. This book gives us the opportunity.
Repetitively, I fear, I must start with Humanae Vitae. In part this is because it was the occasion of the first mass refusal by a majority of the Church to accept without questioning a grave statement of established moral teaching. But more relevantly here, it encapsulated the tension between two models of morality.
The papal commission, which had reviewed the contraception question, had studied the natural law approach which largely relied on looking at biological structures to guide us on God’s will. The proposal was that the sexual act, viewed in the light of biology, was perverted (in a technical sense) when its procreative structure was artificially denied. Analogous reasoning was used for condemning homosexual activity, or mutilation or telling lies (a violation of the faculty of speech).
But the evidence given at the commission suggested that the traditional status of contraception as intrinsically evil was at variance with the experience of married life. Indeed, it was claimed that in many ordinary situations the absolute prohibition was damaging to the expression of love in the relationship rather than buttressing it. Even the moral theologians who argued that the prohibition should be maintained had to agree that it could not be demonstrated solely through reason.
When Humanae Vitae appeared it did not abandon the structural approach, but harmonised it with a personalist approach. The reason for the prohibition, it appeared, was that the completeness of married love was damaged by contraception – and so essentially that, beyond making the expression of marriage intrinsically sinful, it nullified it as an act of love.
If this seems an over-simple description of a very important idea, then take the opportunity to study it at rather more length in Pope John Paul’s 129 lectures on the theology of the body.
But Pope Paul VI had introduced the importance of personalism. It led some theologians quickly to the idea that, without any prejudice to its fundamental procreative nature, the ends of marriage as a relationship of persons might well be better served by the judicious use of artificial contraception, in a similar way to natural contraception. Thus, in this approach, natural law was accepted, even emphasised, but could not invariably be played as the moral ace of trumps.
But the idea that high moral imperatives had to be interpreted in the light of their contexts is difficult to contain and has, in the eyes of some theologians, given respectability to what, with raised eyebrow, we used to call situation ethics. If this sounds a foreign and unacceptable idea it might be useful to consider some examples.
If mutilation is intrinsically evil than kidney donation between two living people is intrinsically evil. If taking your own life, even for a good purpose, is evil why do we not condemn Captain Oates? In the case of an ectopic pregnancy extracting the foetus from the fallopian tube is abortion, but removing the tube carrying the foetus may be fine. If you save your daughter from rape by lying to the would-be rapist, do you break the moral law? If you shoot your wounded friend at his request before he is captured and tortured by the enemy are you practising euthanasia? In fact, two of these examples are currently accepted as virtuous.
Lest you think I have needed outlandish examples to test the principles, you may want to add the case of the serodiscordant HIV married couple, who remain emphatically forbidden to use a barrier to the virus (HV, para 11).
So moral theologians have often attempted to think outside the traditional box to find consistent approaches to morality. One of the best known of these is proportionalism in which the whole human act, rather than its constituent parts, is considered. Cahill, with some reservations, approves this approach, but John Paul II emphatically doesn’t. Another is virtue ethics, which, in a sense, transcends moral argument by focusing on the truly moral life. It is an approach which Cahill and I (for what that’s worth) find very appealing. It’s not an easy idea to oppose.
There are theologians who think that moral laws can only be judged in their context, and so are necessarily relative to the culture in which they are considered. (Could stamping on the Jews have been truly moral in the context of the 13th century?) Others argue that much morality can only be seen within a theological tradition. For instance, human rights are without meaning if we are the mere results of material evolution – a point with which I think most of us would agree.
Those who are concerned about a sea of relativism will take heart from theologians of repute who not only believe the ruling of Humanae Vitae to be infallible, but may claim that no supporting argument is needed since its truth is clear to anyone who cares to look.
Space does not allow me to discuss the moral approach of American youth, with which Cahill concludes. But it does suggest that our explorations of morality have far from ended. Come and have your own three ha’pence on Secondsightblog.net.