Project Canterbury

The Priests’ Convention

Philadelphia, April 29-30, 1924

From The American Church Monthly, June, 1924, Vol. XV, No. 4.

Edited by Selden Peabody Delany, D.D.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

The Study of Moral Theology

"HOW is that going to help us to hear confessions?" So speaks many a young catholic studying for Holy Orders, when face to face with algebra, or biology, or ancient history, or any of the less "churchy" things in his curriculum. It may be that he looks forward to moral theology as just what he wants, a nice little system to tell him exactly what to do and say in the confessional. Well, moral theology will help him there, but any study that makes of it merely a manual for confessors is lamentably feeble. It is a big business, moral theology. It may be taken strictly as concerned with what is obligatory on pain of sin; but none of the works on the subject stick to that limitation. The whole Christian life is theologically moral. It is no scheme of exact rewards and penalties, no pure morality in which each man gets just what he deserves. Just think how much comes into Christian life independently of any of our doing and deserving: original sin, grace, infant baptism, justification by faith in the merits of Christ, temptations of the devil, absolution and forgiveness, communication of Christ's glorified humanity, heaven—the whole universe of forces natural and supernatural, in which our getting what is coming to us, what we purely deserve, is simply insignificant among the vast operations of God for our salvation. Christian morality is overwhelmingly a theological morality, a morality with God as standard, God as prime mover every time, and God as the end toward which it all is moving. Whenever, and however, a priest tries to influence anybody for Christian living, whether in the confessional, or teaching Sunday school or Confirmation class, or talking things over "as man to man," in all he is or ought to be applying principles of moral theology.

"We ought to decide every case on its own merits." So speaks the dear but tiresome soul who doesn't want to study his moral theology, but thinks he can get along nicely by taking every act as an unrelated unit, going by impulsive feelings every time, and never by general principles. No government would last a day that decided cases in the off-hand, sentimental, haphazard, unreasoned way, [327/328] that seems to satisfy the mushy moralizer who won't learn laws. The Christian life has a certain inherent reasonableness and consistency that is reflected in far-reaching principles, in corollaries also and regular applications of those principles, and even in recognized exceptions to those principles. When you treat a case in an exceptional way, you want to know that it is exceptional, and you want to know what law it is an exception to. That is why moral theology is a science, and why it needs to be studied scientifically.

It has already been studied scientifically. The most adequately systematic text-books one can get nowadays are the Roman Catholic Moral Theologies, such as Liguori, Lehmkuhl, Gury, Tanquerey, and in English, Slater and Koch-Preuss. Suppose one gets Slater and reads it through: he will then have some idea of the scope and contents of moral theology so far as it has been wrought into a complete system. Much of the material will be quite familiar, for we have been living more or less in moral theology all our lives, and such a text book will not do much more than systematize the familiar material. That is as it should be: first a lot of experience, and then a scientific system. It is not altogether our system. A lot of the teaching in it depends on various decisions of Sacred Congregations, condemned propositions, and other authorities which are legally less than nothing, perhaps, to us. Conditions are different in many ways, and we certainly must not be content to take our moral theology straight and complete from Slater or any of them. We must deviate from them at many points. But I am sure that it is a good thing to have something to deviate from, rather than trying to make up, each man for himself, a new moral theology out of whole cloth. And in having recourse to Roman authorities we are at any rate dealing with experts and masters of the science, however we may reject the legal authority that weighs so much with them.

A few Anglican writers have made systematic treatises: Skinner, Elmendorf, and Bishop Webb do cover the ground in outline; they are all out of print. Hall & Hallock have just published such a book. Other writings take various phases of the subject under consideration, and they may better be mentioned each in connection with its own specialty.

[329] What is the ground to be covered in an adequate study of moral theology? I think it should include history of morals, fundamental ethical theory, the Christian law and sin, the Christian character and spiritual life. This last, the spiritual life, merges into so-called ascetical and mystical theology, but it cannot be kept out of the morality of ordinary Christian life. The contents of the study will bear further scrutiny.

1. History of morals. I know of nothing more dreary than history of moral theories, but I do not mean that when I suggest history of morals. There is unfailing interest in tracing the ordinary morals of ordinary people through the ages. We should begin with the very earliest, crudest modifying of instinct by social control, then take the great ages of custom-morality, the break-up of custom and the reconstruction of morality on a more free and conscientious basis. We might then get at the morality of the Semites, Greeks, and Romans; the progress of morality among the Jews, the general moral teaching of Christ and the early Christians, and so on down to the present, comparing the mediaeval with the Renaissance mind, the Puritan and the Cavalier, the landed gentry and the industrial workers. History of theory may well go along with that, but should not swamp it. General histories and special works on the culture of special periods will count for most here, and the Latin systematic moral theologies will be of no use whatever.

2. Fundamental moral theory. Books entitled "Ethics," etc., abound. Mackenzie and Dewey and Tufts have written textbooks which are still good. What the Latins call moral philosophy (e. g. Rickaby) fits in here, and is a useful complement, for a Christian, to the more naturalistic treatment current in our university text-books. Without serious thought on the fundamental problems of moral theory people simply flounder; too many flirt with utilitarianism or intuitionism, without being wedded to either, and without having even seriously considered such a wedding.

3. The Christian law. This will take up a great proportion of the course. First of all we should have some conviction as to the place of law in morals generally; then we should stand somewhere on the question what sort of law is binding on us as Christians and catholics, but not Romans. The legalism of [329/330] Slater may anger us; very well, we should make up our minds whether we are altogether antinomian or not; we should not be content with merely feeling anti-legal. Under the Christian law we should at least consider the Decalogue, the ethical teaching of Christ, the precepts of the Church, and the counsels and permissions in relation to law. Sin may be studied here: have we any clear idea on what the gravity of a sin depends, or do we think all sins are equally grave? Do we make a sane distinction between venial and mortal sin, or do we call a sin mortal if it is one of the "seven deadly sins," no matter in what degree? There is in the regular moral theology books always a section on contracts and another on restitution. Pious minds are apt to raise a protest at these: they are very legal in their dress, but within the legalism is common justice between man and man, applied to meet real cases practically. At heart, recognizing the obligations attached to contracts, and to restitution in cases of unjust possession or damage, is simply "meaning business:" if we say that we ought to get off with a feeling of penitence, without keeping contracts and without making restitution, we simply do not "mean business." Again, under the Christian law should be included the obligations connected with the sacraments. Here again the protestant soul protests that this does not belong to morals. But surely it is a moral matter to administer and receive the sacraments rightly; and when once we get into this subject, some of the most interesting questions and cases are found right here. Particularly one should know what in general is required for the validity of a sacrament, and what further is required for its worthy administration and reception; what is necessary in the recipient to make him "capax," whether life, or sanity, or years of discretion, or serious intention to receive; what is to be done when an unbaptized person comes to confession; what questions should be asked of persons who wish to be married; what should be done in the case of persons remarried after divorce, who now seek the sacraments; and so on.

4. The Christian character. Here we can get away from our legalism and launch into waters which look placid but are deeply troubled. For here we meet the treacherous tides of psychology. It will be fascinating to study human nature "as is" [330/331] and in the "remaking." We find our skill and our slavery in our habits and when they are good they are virtues: when they are rightly related to God they are theological virtues. The virtue of justice will serve as heading for as much study of Christian social ethic as we can make. Books on psychology, especially those with ethical bearing, like Hocking's Human Nature and its Remaking and Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, works on psychology of religion (one wishes they did not devote themselves so disproportionately to evangelistic conversions, but would analyse the religion of ordinary folks), psychology of mysticism, psychology of the saints—all are to the purpose. Then there is the welter of books on social ethics—to name one or two would be too absurd.

5. Ascetical theology. Traditionally, ascetical theology is reckoned as something different from moral theology, but for all that it ought to be studied as an indispensable part of the science of Christian living. It is very practical in purpose; it aims to show what methods are successful in advancing in the spiritual life. In other words, it takes the word "ascetic" in its old etymological sense, which connotes athletic training—the learning of skill and strength by systematic exercise in the art to be learned. Now there may be a great gnashing of teeth at the very idea that the spiritual life has a technique, requires skill, and needs to be learned. We want to keep our prayer-life sweet, free, spontaneous, childlike, and that is right, of course. Our emotions are involved in our religion, and the emotions cannot live on technique; they must be spontaneous or they cease to be. But for all that, religion is an affair of social relations—social relations with God primarily. And to have anything like satisfactory social relations we must have not only friendly feeling, but some skill in expressing that feeling. Friendship requires self-discipline, friendship with God no less than friendship with man. Prayer as ordinarily understood has its difficulties of performance; we all have awkwardnesses and unspeakable fatigue and frustration in praying. But it has its art and its methods which help us to overcome these difficulties. Fortunately nowadays all sorts of serious religious leaders are becoming "methodists" in this matter, and those who shudder at the name of ascetical [331/332] theology drink in eagerly such methodical aids as McNeile's Self-training in Prayer and Fosdick's Meaning of Prayer. I shall mention only one other matter in ascetical theology—meditation. If ascetical theology did nothing else than enable us to compare notes with more advanced learners in prayer and in meditation, it would still be indispensable. Meditation in particular is hard to learn—so many priests say they simply cannot do it. But anybody can learn it, and it makes an immense difference in the day's work. Many books deal with it: I always speak a word for S. Francis de Sales' Devout Life. Systematic treatises on ascetical theology as a whole are not numerous: there are Scaramelli and Devine in English (Roman) and some in French which are very valuable (the French call it Spiritualité,) it is hoped that a thorough work on it will soon be forthcoming from one of our American priests; but really all devotional theology is of this kind, if only it is systematic and methodical. And devotional theology is something we need tremendously, even for the most rigorous exercise of the power of the keys in sacramental confession, as Kirk urges so well.

6. Mystical theology. A few years ago there was quite a little outburst of mysticism: in fact it looked as if it would be rather a fad. It does not seem so just now: I hope we shall never "take up" mysticism as we did Mah Jongg. But it is well to have an idea of what realms of spiritual experience lie ahead of us and lie open to us if we wish to adventure there, even though we insist that mystical experience is not "necessary to salvation" and not in our line. Here again we have an English translation of Scaramelli, and Devine 's Mystical Theology, representing the systematic Roman method, and on the other hand modern studies such as Von Hügel, Rufus Jones, and Evelyn Underhill have produced.

There you should have what I think is a fair covering of the ground, perhaps more subject-matter than ought to be included in moral theology strictly. If you have noticed the sort of books referred to, you have seen what a hodge-podge of literature comes into a modern moral theology bibliography: S. James rubbing shoulders with William James, Slater with Stalker, Dewey with Scaramelli, and so on. As usual, it falls to the Anglican bee to sip honey from many kinds of flowers and try as [332/333] well as he may to get it all incorporated into a well-shaped honey-comb. So far, we are better at collecting than at organizing; we get miscellaneous materials, but we have not done so well when it comes to a real synthesis. There is great work ahead of us in the critical assimilation of this conglomeration, which certainly cannot be accepted, all of it, as it stands. The older systems need to be renovated in certain departments, particularly in the historical, philosophical, psychological, and sociological departments. Such a study will be truly original and constructive.

But we must beware of keeping our moral theology shut up either in the confessional or in the library. It must not be too bookish, for it is an out-door, open-air catholicism that is most needed. Moral theology gets nowhere unless it is being continually applied to cases. Slater has a book of Cases of Conscience giving many illustrative applications of Christian moral principles, in which a thief, Caius, and a priest Titius, and various stock characters get into complications that take some skill to resolve. There is always a conflict of laws or principles in the case, and the problem is to see which principle should prevail, in which domain the case predominantly lies. In following such a method, we may be intrigued into enjoying the ingenuity or even the names of Caius and Titius, and have that subtle casuistical feeling which is far from identical with the moral sense. Priests talking over tricky Chinese puzzles of morality do not always maintain the right tone. I do not believe that the center of interest or of importance in the study of cases lies in the moral or legal puzzles that occasionally crop up, but in the ups and downs of righteousness in ordinary people.

The more ordinary and typical a case is, the better it is for a study of concrete application of moral principles. The thousands of people who repent of and are redeemed from a habit of lying are worth much more, as cases to study, than the two or three who are puzzling over a queer situation in which they wonder whether it would be right to lie. The everlasting study of human characters and acts is needed to get and keep that contact with material reality without which moral theology would be just a lot of words in books. We must be as keen as we can be to apprehend the moral quality of acts in which the [333/334] real moral quality may be considerably veiled by external and incidental circumstances. Some of us are rather blunt in our sensitiveness to the moral beauty of a really fine act, or to the shabbiness of an act that is not quite fine. We ought to be keenly alive to the difference, and we may get more of that keenness if we get to noticing such things. The best of our modern fiction and drama has a worthy function in unveiling the inward beauty or the inward ugliness of actions and characters such as we meet every day—only we meet them with their veils on. Zona Gale's Birth occurs to me as notably such a book, and Meredith's Egoist; but here are far too many to speak of particularly. We must know our human nature if we are to deal with it helpfully: and then we must grow in wisdom to plan and guide thoughtfully, so far as we can, much of the most intimate lives of those to whom we are ministers of religion and even sometimes (God help us!) almost objects of religion. And this sensitiveness to moral values, and this thoughtfulness in moral guidance, make our moral wisdom.

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