Volume > Issue > Moral Theology Really Renewed

Moral Theology Really Renewed

The Way of the Lord Jesus: Volume One, Christian Moral Principles

By Germain Grisez

Publisher: Franciscan Herald Press

Pages: 971

Price: $35

Review Author: Edward J. Bayer

The Rev. Edward J. Bayer is Director of Continuing Education at the Pope John XXIII Center in St. Louis.

As most Roman Catholic priests over 50, and many younger, will remember, theology was care­fully divided up, at least in recent centuries, into dogmatic, moral, and ascetical. Dogmatic theology dealt with the basic facts of salvation history, with other facts implied by that history and gradually and corporately accepted by the Church, and with interesting, more or less helpful, but unofficial speculations of theologians as to what might be further implied by the Church’s teaching. Moral theology described and expanded upon what the Church had taught about how people ought and ought not to live, with a strong emphasis on the “ought not.” It consisted mostly of rules, often very detailed ones, morally wise but occasionally needlessly rigid or even relaxed. Ascetical theology treated “the spiritual life”: the processes, practices, and products of a life of prayer, self-denial, submis­sion to the will of God, etc.

In those days, it was always a pleasant, though unexpected experience for a student to find tucked away in a lecture and in at least a few manuals on dogmatic theology some obiter dictum labeled pro vita — “for living.” It would explain what the Real Presence or the Immaculate Con­ception or divine circuminsession within the Trinity could tell one about one’s self, one’s relation to God, and how to make day-to-day decisions in har­mony with both. Mostly, however, dogmatic, mor­al, and ascetical theologies kept their distance from one another.

By the time the Second Vatican Council had assembled, many theologians were calling for an end to this artificial separation of moral teaching from elements fundamental to dogmatic and ascet­ical theology. The Council asked for even more:

Theological subjects should be renewed through a more vivid contact with the Mystery of Christ and the history of sal­vation. Special care should be given to the perfecting of moral theology. Its sci­entific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of Holy Scripture and should throw light upon the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world (Optatum Totius, “On Priestly Formation,” no. 16).

Germain Grisez, the moral theologian, has sought to answer this call of the Council and has more than adequately succeeded. Indeed, this first and foundational volume of four proposed for his series not only takes light from “dogmatic” and “ascetical” theology, but itself throws much light upon them. Not only the seminarian, college stu­dent of theology, or advanced student in religious studies, but also any reasonably well educated reader will — if he perseveres through any one sec­tion, usually not more than four or five pages — be amazed at what it offers, not only regarding ethical decision-making, but a so regarding the Lord, His Christ, and the Spirit, as well as the teaching mis­sion, sacramental life, and corporate cohesiveness of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the reader will find almost every page revealing something about himself. Anyone struggling to live in the Spirit — be he “charismatic” in the more or in the less contemporary use of the term — will realize that a brother in the Spirit is writing.

Solidly and without apology, Grisez recog­nizes that the Spirit does not speak in any individ­ual theologian who in isolated self-sufficiency chooses to attack the corporate moral convictions of the Church Catholic and the ordained pastor-bishops over whom she has prayed. Nor does he recognize that any group or school or even whole generation of theologians can claim a “magisterium” (teaching authority) alternative to that of the episcopate united ultimately under the one bishop who holds the place of Peter.

At the same time, he understands — and helps the reader do the same — that every teaching state­ment of a past pope or even council of bishops was not necessarily intended to commit the Church to a moral teaching which cannot be further clarified — indeed, in some cases, revoked. The reader should be prepared then, for Grisez’s challenging certain standard moral positions, long presumed, perhaps, to be the Church’s lasting doctrine, but under critical light, not clearly such.

Thus Grisez proposes the total rejection of capital punishment, and of directly aiming to kill even enemy soldiers as a means of defending one’s country.

In spite of this belief, Grisez is not a total pac­ifist. While he is highly critical of any use, or threat to use, nuclear weapons, he does defend just war theory, though on different grounds than one usually hears. “As for war, although very restrict­ed, it still can be justified if the war is defensive and the killing involved is incidental to just self-de­fense, not chosen for its utility as a means to an end.”

In other words, one does not directly aim to kill enemy soldiers but intends only to defend one­self, though such a defense may cause the death of an attacker.

Concerning the death penalty, Grisez writes:

Christian teaching has not insisted upon capital punishment, but has defended the licitness of such killing. This defense, I believe, does not constitute teaching in­fallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium.

These and other challenges to standard moral positions made by Grisez are not simply the result of incoherent and isolated enthusiasms for causes dear to the heart of ideological partisans. Grisez’s challenges come rather from his effort to see through to the foundations of moral analysis.

On the one hand, at this level he abandons, for example, the Principle of Totality, namely, that one may actually directly intend and do a physical evil (e.g., deprive one’s body of an arm, leg, or re­productive organ) if there is no other way to pro­vide for one’s overall welfare. Indeed, he passes over the principle in silence. Here, the reviewer must admit the silence is a problem. For the Principle of Totality is explicitly appealed to by the Magisterium (e.g., by Pius XII). I believe that Grisez must acknowledge that fact and deal with it forthrightly.

On the other hand, however, Grisez deals quite explicitly with another standard principle, that of Double Effect, but in a most nonstandard way. It would seem that, given his interpretation of this principle, one could ethically “take the life” of a fetus if that act would have the immediate effect of relieving the mother of a fetal presence which is lethal to her. As in the case of capital punishment, so also here many thoroughly orthodox Catholic moralists (e.g., Marcellino Zalba) might arrive at similar, though not necessarily identical conclu­sions, though on different grounds. The reviewer would agree with them, though, pace Grisez, I can see no way to justify directly attacking the embryo or fetus in its own body (if indeed Grisez is defend­ing such an attack — which is not at all clear).

Also, I am not entirely satisfied that Grisez is doing any more than explaining away past magis­terial statements allowing for capital punishment. I do not mean, however, that these points of past Church teaching are not challengeable for an ortho­dox Catholic who, like Grisez, has no delusions of personal magisterial grandeur. A fortiori moral po­sitions and even principles of St. Thomas Aquinas are open to question, and Grisez does not hesitate to critique, with moderation and obvious affection, that saintly Catholic and always relevant genius. Out of the tradition represented by Aquinas, however, and, even more, out of the Scriptures and the charismed and constant doctrine of the Church, Grisez attacks the proportionalist theories much in vogue today which allegedly in effect countermand the clear pastoral teaching of the Second Vatican Council and of popes prior, contemporary, and subsequent to it. Grisez’s critique of proportional­ist dissent is, in this reviewer’s opinion, germane, indeed devastating.

Get this book. Read it — slowly. Go back to it again and again.


©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

Letter to the Editor: November 1993

Freedom For Whom?... Quibbling... Personhood Always Incomplete... Truly Lost... A Haywagon for Vanauken... Ticket-Thinkers... Catholic Higher Education...

Religion & Race in the South

In 1986 the Alabama legislature voted to observe the third Monday of each year in commemoration of both General Lee and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Linguistic Minefield

Is inclusive language a reality of current English, or merely a contrivance?