Some current tasks for moral theology

Ángel Rodríguez Luño -February 9, 2016-Reading time: 10 minutes
Man jumping a puddle.

What is the role of moral theology in the Church and in the world today? In these pages I am not going to give a complete picture to answer this question. I would like to focus only on a few more fundamental questions, taking into account the concerns expressed by Pope Francis. What are the most urgent tasks?

To answer this question, perhaps we must first ask ourselves what state our world is in. Without needing to review the different diagnoses that have been proposed, it can be affirmed that an attitude of indifference or disinterest towards truth is widespread. Behind the pretense of truth there has been a struggle for power (Foucault), and the search for goodness, truth and beauty has been replaced by spontaneous action. Some authors have described our society as a liquid society (Bauman); others prefer to call it a performance society (Byung-Chul Han). All these diagnoses point to the end of the disciplinary society, based on the existence of an authority. Now, on the other hand, acting has priority, and there is no good or evil other than that which each one - or the majority - decides. Thus Nietzsche's maxim is fulfilled, for whom salvation is not to be found in knowledge, but in creation. Creation of a language and, from it, of a morality: terms such as "interruption of pregnancy", "dignified death" or "couple relationships" configure the contours of the new morality, in which it is man's will that decides what is good for him and what is not.

Against this backdrop, when the very foundations of a rational discourse on the good have disappeared, what can moral theology do? What can we expect?

In the first place, it is urgent to remember that God exists and is an active God who is committed to the world. There is a statement by Romano Guardini, written seventy years ago in The Twilight of the Modern Age, which today seems to be true: "The merely profane world does not exist; however, when a stubborn will manages to elaborate something to some extent similar to this type of world, this construction does not work"; what happens then: "Without the religious element, life becomes something like an engine without lubricant: it heats up. At every instant something burns" (III.5). The Burnout Society is precisely the title of one of the best-selling books of thought in the last year. In short, a society contrary to the truth of man and his freedom is not satisfactory. Nor can a situation of blindness be satisfactory for the human being. Pope Francis recently reminded us: "There are no systems that completely annul openness to the good, to truth and to beauty, nor the capacity for reaction that God continues to encourage from the depths of human hearts. I ask every person in this world not to forget that dignity which no one has the right to take away" (Laudato Si', 205). One of the tasks open to moral theology, then, is to remind each person of his or her dignity. This requires that he or she find his or her place in the life of the Church - and in the life of the faithful.

The mission of moral theology

In the minds of many, the idea of morality as an authoritative instance - often perceived as authoritarian - that points out what is permitted and what is not, what is sinful and what is not, is still present. This conception tends to contrast authority and freedom, or law and freedom, and to place morality in the first member of these binomials. Its task would consist only in pointing out the (negative) limits of human action.

Now, is this an adequate conception of moral theology? Perhaps a critique of this style could - and should - be launched against certain moral theologies that had fallen into the extreme of a meticulous and dispersed casuistry, and did not offer an organic and positive vision of human action. However, it seems to me totally unfair to make the same criticism now, after the renewal that has taken place. In recent decades, numerous treatises have come to light that present the moral message of Christ as an eminently positive and organic proposal. The attempts have been varied, as varied have been the approaches in which the Christian life has been understood: as a filial life, as the following of Christ, as a walk in the light of Love, as a response to the call to be saints, etc. In all these cases, morality is no longer presented as a list of prohibitions, but as an invitation: a proposal of life that aims at human happiness, on earth and in Heaven.
Thus understood, the task of moral theology is to remind the women and men of today that God has a plan for each one of us. That God has loved us and has called us uniquely-since before the creation of the world (cf. Eph 1:4)-to be happy by living in fullness our own human condition redeemed by Christ. Such a presentation encounters challenges, of which I will point out a few below.

Rediscovering the beauty of Christ

Pope Francis has echoed an old accusation by reminding Christians that they cannot habitually have a "funeral face," that it would not be right to live a Christianity "of Lent without Easter" (Evangelii Gaudium, 6, 10). It is the old temptation of the elder son in the parable, which consists in living a sad, dull faith, and which deep down looks with envy at the immoral behavior of those who lead a life far from God - or, at least, far from the Church. A faith that sees in God a master for whom one must work as a servant, hoping for a just reward in the end. A faith that sees in God's will a limitation of one's freedom (cf. Lk 15:25ff.).

In the face of this temptation, one of the most certain truths of Christianity stands out: that we are not servants, but children, "and if children, then heirs; heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:17). The Pope constantly reminds us that "with Jesus Christ joy is always born and reborn" (Evangelii Gaudium, 1), because in him we recognize a God who loves us unconditionally, who never tires of forgiving us and welcoming us into his paternal embrace, and who "feels responsible, that is, he desires our good and wants to see us happy, filled with joy and serene" (Misericordiae vultus, 9).
It is the task of moral theology to present in an organic way this invitation of God, which touches every aspect of human life. St. John Paul II loved to recall that teaching of the Council: "The mystery of man is only clarified in the mystery of the Word Incarnate," to the point that Christ "fully reveals man to man himself and reveals to him the sublimity of his vocation" (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, who illumines the problems and concerns of mankind. His mystery is for us both a call and a response, and in this way he is the Way to the Father. It is a way that is as demanding as it is attractive. On it man discovers the splendor of the truth about himself and about what matters most to him: life and death, marriage and friendship, work and suffering.

Awakening consciences

With all that has been said, a fundamental question remains to be asked: how to awaken a sense of God in a world that seems indifferent to the suffering of others?
The witness of Christians is undoubtedly an important part of the answer: "By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:35). Along with this, it is necessary to awaken the ignored presence of God that is found in the heart of every woman and every man. There is a desire for God-which we must help to recognize-in the search for happiness, fulfillment and lasting love, as the encyclical Spe Salvi recalled.

And there is also a real presence of God in the moral conscience. It is well known what Blessed J.H. Newman wrote in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: "Conscience is the messenger of him who, both in the world of nature and in the world of grace, through a veil speaks to us, instructs us and governs us. Conscience is the first of Christ's vicars" (n. 5). Conscience is the light, the spark that God has placed in man to attain happiness on the path of truth and goodness. In a world centered on the individual, but at the same time thirsty for happiness and with a certain nostalgia for the absolute, the path of conscience is another that moral theology is called to explore.

Pope Francis has recently done so on the basis of ecological awareness. The problem of the environment is morally relevant for the contemporary world, it is on everyone's mind, and in it we do recognize a space for truth and goodness. From the concern for the environment, and the unpostponable need for a real care of Creation, the Pope points out a fundamental complement to environmental ecology: human ecology. This implies "something very deep: the necessary relationship of the life of human beings with the moral law written in their own nature, which is necessary to create a more dignified environment. Benedict XVI said that there is an 'ecology of man' because 'man also possesses a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will'" (Laudato si', 155).

Conscience is precisely the place where this truth about oneself and about the world, about what is good to do and how to behave in relation to one's environment and to others, is made manifest to each person. "In the depths of his conscience, man discovers a law which he does not give himself, but which he must obey and whose voice resounds, when necessary, in the ears of his heart" (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

The cry of conscience can be capable of awakening a sleeping and indifferent world, as long as we do not want to neutralize it by conceiving it as the redoubt of subjectivity, which in reality it is not, because conscience also stirs. Indeed, "the dignity of conscience always derives from truth: in the case of right conscience, it is a matter of objective truth, accepted by man; in the case of erroneous conscience, it is a matter of what man, erring, considers subjectively true" (Veritatis splendor, 63).

The path of Mercy

At this point, it is possible to return to what we saw before. In fact, the real answer to this cry of conscience is Jesus Christ. The evil that a man has committed can be great, the evil in the world can become unbearable: the twentieth century has witnessed this. However, we Christians know that this is not the last word. God has spoken. As St. John Paul II wrote in his last book: "The limit imposed on evil, whose cause and victim happens to be man, is ultimately Divine Mercy" (Memory and Identity, 73).

Pope Francis now reminds us of this with particular urgency, encouraging us to rediscover God's unconditional love for man in order to place it at the forefront of the Church's mission. Mercy is the principal manifestation of God's omnipotence, and it must also be the first message of the Bride of Christ, to such an extent that, as he writes in the Bull of Convocation of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy: "The credibility of the Church passes through the path of merciful and compassionate love" (n. 10).

But what does mercy consist in, how is it lived and what is its relationship to truth and justice? These are questions that cannot be put off, because they have practical consequences for the ordinary pastoral care of the Church. In any case, it is worth noting that, even though we human beings can pose conflicts between Mercy and Truth, between Mercy and Justice, we cannot forget that in God they are identified. It would be a mistake to fall into the banal anthropomorphism that assumes contradictions that cannot exist in God. Nevertheless, the question remains open: in the life of the Church, what does it mean concretely to walk this "path of merciful and compassionate love"? To this question, as to the previous ones, moral theology must give an answer.

Certainly, part of it is already to be found in the call to reject indifference, and in the attitudes of com-passion, openness and welcome that Pope Francis has so often pointed out - in words and in countless gestures. However, the one who welcomes the repentant sinner is not at the goal, but at the beginning of the journey. The divine model, as revealed in the history of salvation, is different. It is enough to think of the story of the Exodus, which the Church rereads every year during Lent: welcome and forgiveness continue in a journey of accompaniment. Again and again the Lord forgives his people, welcomes their desire for renewal and reminds them of their deepest vocation and of the path that leads them to live as his beloved children. It is the story of the faithful, compassionate and merciful God. Precisely one of the names for mercy in the Old Testament, hesed, has much to do with divine faithfulness.

The same idea is found in the New Testament. Jesus welcomes sinners and the sick, forgives their sins, cares for their ailments, and then allows them, like Bartimaeus, to follow him on the way (cf. Mk 10:52). "Go and sin no more," he says to the adulteress after forgiving her (Jn 8:11). Thus, mercy is to welcome, and mercy is also to accompany, that is, to give more and more space to the light of Christ in souls, to help souls to "walk in the truth" (cf. 2 and 3Jn). It could be said that forgiveness is the gateway to the renewed life that Christ offers to each one; the beginning, so often repeated in the existence of a person, of the life according to the Spirit that Christ gave.

From sentiment to virtuous attitude

To understand that there is no contradiction between mercy and truth, it would be necessary to distinguish mercy as a mere sentiment from mercy as a virtuous attitude of charity. In my pastoral experience, it has always happened to me that, when I was confronted with someone who expressed to me his or her state of inner suffering, a spontaneous feeling of compassion and an intense desire to say or do something to alleviate the pain of others would arise in me. But when you want to move from that initial feeling to action that helps and tries to solve the problem, it becomes necessary to apply intelligence, and then you have to ask yourself: what are the causes of that sad situation, what could be the remedies? My experience of 40 years as a priest is that I have never managed to fix anything by relying on false data or by hiding the reality. It is as if we were to say to a person who presents himself with a deep and very bad-looking wound: "Don't worry, it is nothing, it is not necessary to proceed to a painful disinfection, it will heal by itself". This kindly lightness is usually paid for dearly.

Disinfection is sometimes annoying. That is why sometimes the message of Christ is also costly. It means making difficult decisions, and coping with painful situations. We must not forget that the life of Jesus passes through the tree of the Cross, which, as the Fathers pointed out, is the counterpart of the tree that witnessed the first sin. Thus, mercy, which has in Christ's sacrifice its highest manifestation, is also an open door to humility. It requires learning to let oneself be loved by God, and to recognize that one's existence is not only a task to be carried out, but above all a gift to be received.

Perhaps this is precisely the most difficult part for today's world, so marked by superficial conceit and childish self-sufficiency. It is something that Pope Francis seems to keep very much in mind: "It is not easy to develop this healthy humility and happy sobriety if we become autonomous, if we exclude God from our life and our self takes his place, if we believe that it is our own subjectivity that determines what is right or what is wrong" (Laudato si', 224). To encounter mercy is also to let ourselves be encountered by it; to let ourselves be surprised and led by the same One who says to us, "Come and follow me." This requires an attitude of humility and openness, which means no longer wanting to determine what is right and what is wrong, but rather to let Good, Truth and Beauty determine our actions.

All this demands of moral theology an effort to propose ever anew the path of forgiveness and discipleship, so that the light of Christ shines ever more brightly in the conscience and life of Christians. Thus, what began as a perhaps unexpected encounter with the Father's embrace will culminate in the life of a child who is moved only by love.

The authorÁngel Rodríguez Luño 

Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome)

La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.
Banner advertising
Banner advertising