Included in the reputable Moral Traditions Series edited by James F. Keenan, S.J., this is an opportune book by the prolific Catholic moral theologian, Fr. Charles Curran, who is currently the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University and its Perkins School of Theology. In this volume, which was published a few months prior to the death of Pope John Paul II, Curran offers an overview and critical appraisal of the moral theology underlying the pope’s moral teachings. Although he was forbidden to teach at the Catholic University of America during the initial part of the pontificate of John Paul II, in this book Curran fairly explores and evaluates the moral theology of the late pope, judiciously explicating points of agreement as well as ongoing areas of disagreement.
After a brief Introduction, the first three chapters focus on methodology (“Theological Presuppositions,” “Theological Methodology,” and “Ethical Foundations and Method”), the subsequent three chapters deal with substantive areas (“Conscience, Human Acts, and Human Life,” “Marriage, Sexuality, Gender, and Family,” and “Social Teaching”), and a short Afterward concludes the book. Curran concentrates his attention primarily on the fourteen encyclicals of the pope, ranging from Redemptor hominis in 1979 to Ecclesia de eucharistia in 2003, regardless of whether they directly deal with moral teachings.
To be sure, as in many of his other publications, Curran is at his best when he identifies discontinuities, tensions, and inconsistencies that surface in the writings and statements he analyzes. In a number of places among the chapters he highlights, for example, the way that some encyclicals exhibit a more positive assessment of the human condition, human reason, and human sources of truth, while other encyclicals have a more negative estimation of these, and instead are more explicitly theological in emphasizing the necessity of faith and of the truth revealed in Christ and by the church. The social encyclicals (Laborem exercens, Sollicitudo rei socialis and Centesimus annus) tend to belong to the former, whereas Evangelium vitae and Veritatis splendor, which deal more with moral theology and issues of personal morality, lean more toward the latter direction. Of course, Curran recognizes that some of these incongruities may be due to the occasional nature of these encyclicals, which may have different targeted audiences; however, he expects more consistency from authoritative documents that spring from the same Catholic tradition.
Throughout the volume, Curran expresses disagreement with the pope’s understanding of truth and his claim to have “the certitude of truth too quickly and too readily” (250). Accordingly, Curran criticizes the pope’s more univocal concept of truth which neglects the lessons of history where over the centuries, as John T. Noonan has amply demonstrated, the church has modified its teaching on issues such as slavery, usury, religious freedom, human rights, democracy, torture, and the death penalty. For Curran, the church needs to be learner as much as teacher. Related to this point, Curran finds fault with John Paul II’s emphasis on unchanging principles, criteria and directives that are then applied in different historical and cultural circumstances, which is thus a move away from the more inductive and historically conscious methodology of Paul VI’s 1971 letter, Octogesima adveniens. Other areas with which Curran, not surprisingly, takes issue are John Paul II’s understanding of natural law, including the problem of physicalism especially with regard to teaching concerning sexuality, his legal model of conscience, his view of intrinsically evil acts, his selective use of scripture and conciliar documents that are most in accord with his own presuppositions and approach, his Christology from above, and, interestingly, his failure to accept the understanding of political freedom found in the Declaration on Religious Freedom. In short, Curran’s main objection to John Paul II’s moral theology is his “failure to emphasize and at times even to recognize the Catholic approach as a living tradition” (253).
Nevertheless, Curran exercises care in his word selection when criticizing the pope’s position. Indeed, he often uses words such as “tends,” “somewhat,” “overly,” “sketchy,” “not in-depth,” “not systematic”—words that may indicate that the issue is more a matter of degree or emphasis. This pattern surfaces especially in his treatment of the pope’s theology and understanding of the body and human sexuality, which “is not developed in a systematic and complete way” (167).
Moreover, in these pages Curran also identifies areas of agreement. For instance, Curran sides with the pope to a good extent in his concern about the way that the modern world absolutizes freedom over truth. Similarly, Curran regards John Paul II’s communitarian personalism as an important corrective to today’s emphasis on autonomous individualism. Also, Curran approves of the pope’s eschatology, which for the most part adopts a realistic culture-transforming model that is grounded on the theological realities of creation, sin, Incarnation, and redemption as having already occurred while the fullness of the reign of God is still not yet. The pope’s teaching on the continuing presence and power of sin, which is manifest also in sinful structures and social sin, likewise receives Curran’s endorsement. In the Afterword, Curran observes that his appraisal of John Paul II’s moral teaching is “much more positive about his social teaching than about its other aspects” (248). In Curran’s view, the pope’s social teaching avoids some of the methodological problems he has identified. In addition, the social teaching exhibits a more positive moral theological method, especially with its anthropological basis for the teaching (human dignity and solidarity) and its balanced eschatology. Plus Curran agrees with some of the particular positions taken in the social teaching on economics and the political order.
Stylistically, this book’s prose is on its face rather plain-featured. While each chapter helpfully brims with references to the relevant lines from the major documents that were issued during the pontificate of John Paul II, there is noticeable repetition and a number of paragraphs consisting of two or three strung together quotes.
In addition, though no book can cover everything, something said in the Afterword about the future of moral theology, perhaps about the impact of the moral teachings of John Paul II on the current or next generation of moral theologians, would have been interesting.
Appropriate for graduate seminars on method in moral theology and on the moral theology of Pope John Paul II, this volume will be read especially by fellow theologians seeking further insight not only into the moral theology of the pope but also into that of an eminent Catholic moral theologian, Charles Curran. From the perspective of his own approach to Catholic moral theology, with a historically conscious, inductive methodology and a responsibility-relationality ethic, Curran offers a valuable analysis of the moral theology of John Paul II.