James T. BRETZKE, S.J., A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004. pp. 248. $26.95 pb. ISBN 0-8146-5158-5.
Reviewed by Tobias WINRIGHT, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO 63108 and Matthew ABRAMOWSKI, Walsh University, North Canton, OH 44720

We used this book by James T. Bretzke, S.J., who is associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco, this past spring semester for our M.A. level Christian Moral Life course in the Lay Ecclesial Ministry program at Walsh University. Though throughout this book he is in conversation with the work of numerous moral theologians ranging from Richard McCormick, S.J., and Josef Fuchs to Hans Urs von Balthasar and Stanley Hauerwas, Bretzke’s aim is to provide a methodology for people who are not professional moral theologians so they are able to navigate their way through the real life ethical issues encountered in a morally complex world. While emphasizing that complexity and ambiguity largely mark the concrete ethical issues Christians face in daily life, Bretzke’s work is clear, concise, and coherent, enabling readers to live out their vocation as the faithful pilgrim people of God.

The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, a works cited section, a handy glossary to help navigate through some terminology that may be unfamiliar to many Catholics today, and an index. In addition, sprinkled occasionally in the text are visually helpful diagrams, graphs, and charts. It can undoubtedly benefit both undergraduate and graduate students as well as perhaps serve as a useful tool in adult faith formation programs in parishes. Not only is it an informative text, it actually equips its readers to do a bit of moral theology themselves.

In the first chapter, Bretzke maps out the moral methodology he is seeking to develop. As a Jesuit moral theologian who draws from an ecumenical toolbox, he builds on the work of the influential Protestant ethicist, James Gustafson, and establishes a hybrid model consisting of four different sectors (Scripture, Tradition, Rational Reflection on the Normatively Human, and Human Experience) that overlap and interact with one another. Bretzke also provides five pertinent questions to bring to each of the sources of moral wisdom when drawing on them for doing moral theology (e.g., what do we use from this or that sector, and why?). Moreover, he claims that our basic stance or organizing concept for interpreting how we approach and answer these source content questions is the “definitive revelation of God for us,” Jesus Christ (34). Here he also contrasts a personalist paradigm (concrete, historical, relational) with a physicalist paradigm (abstract, timeless, static) for doing moral theology, noting the shortcomings of each while nevertheless committing himself more to the personalist approach.

The second chapter examines the rational claim axis, mapping out the way that the Human Experience sector and the Rational Reflection on the Normatively Human sector overlap and interact. Here Bretzke seeks to help the reader understand natural law theories, the debate over the distinctiveness of Christian ethics, levels of moral norms, and the question about intrinsically evil acts. With regard to the debate over the existence and meaning of intrinsically evil acts, Bretzke attempts to resolve it “by a more careful investigation into the precise meanings of the terms that stand behind the claim or counter-claim that there are actions that are always and everywhere wrong regardless of the moral agents’ own intentions and the circumstances in which they find themselves” (70). He argues that the expression refers to acts that ought never be done because they fundamentally contradict human flourishing, but he adds that “whether this or that particular concrete act qualifies as being intrinsically evil depends at least in part on a presumptive analysis of intention and circumstances along with the action itself” that are already factored into our moral evaluation of the act (73). Bretzke expresses his hope that Pope John Paul II would regard his analysis as in sync with what Veritatis splendor was attempting to convey through this term; however, this may be wishful thinking.

The third chapter then examines the sacred claim axis, exploring the way that the Scripture and Tradition sectors overlap and interact. Here Bretzke creatively includes a multi-strand double-helix model for showing how human experience and interpretation of scripture intersect. Moreover, he explains the three Cs of Scripture and ethics—core, context, and coherence—that guide how the Bible should inform Christian response to an ethical issue.

The fourth chapter shows how the two aforementioned axes come together in conscience. Bretzke stresses the primacy of conscience: “When I begin my courses and workshops in moral theology, I tell my students that everything the Church has to say on this subject can be summed up in one key sentence: always follow your formed and informed conscience” (109). Here he details clearly how Christians should form, inform, employ and follow their consciences through a morally complex world as faithful disciples.

In the fifth chapter, Bretzke offers the six Cs of moral discourse (the criteria of comprehensiveness, comprehensibility, coherence, consistency, credibility, being convincing, and being Christian) to help Christians journey toward a broader common ground in contemporary moral debates such as abortion. Also, he again builds on the work of Gustafson and outlines four basic kinds of moral discourse (prophetic, narrative, ethical, and policy), noting each with their strengths and weaknesses, so that the reader will be more sensitive and aware of the modes of moral discourse operative in a given argument or by a particular author.

In the sixth chapter Bretzke considers casuistry in a pastorally sensitive manner—what he calls “casuistry with a human face.” Throughout the book, Bretzke draws on his own teaching and pastoral experiences with real life ethical issues characterized by complexity and ambiguity. Here he gives eight starting questions to help Christians navigate toward a concrete and pastorally helpful response when examining and dealing with cases, and he illustrates these questions’ applicability with regard to a sample case about a husband and wife who have just had a Downs Syndrome baby with a closed esophagus, and who have approached the reader for assistance in coming to a moral decision about what to do. These eight questions (e.g., what are the presuppositions I and others bring to this case?) are a strong point in the book as Bretzke bridges theory and practice by applying the moral methodology to a practical case and providing questions that can serve as a paradigm of how to navigate through ethical cases for anyone engaged in ministry. Employing the methodology and questions that Bretzke provides, our class proceeded to address several other ethical issues with accompanying case studies in another book used nicely in tandem with Bretzke’s, Facing Ethical Issues: Dimensions of Character, Choices, and Community, by Patrick T. McCormick and Russell B. Connors, Jr. (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).

Bretzke concludes the book with a chapter that addresses the reality of sin and moral failure. For living in the face of that reality he sketches a spirituality for living faithfully and virtuously in a morally complex world. In this book, Bretzke is both realistic about the world we live in and faithful to what is central to Christianity as revealed by Jesus Christ. His work is a leaven to empower believers at many different levels of their pilgrim journey to be able to navigate through the complexity and ambiguity of a morally complex world as faithful disciples.


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