In a relatively short book the authors present an excellent primer for Christian ethics. They provide the reader not only with introductory material on each of their chapter topics but with sources specific to some of the more important contemporary moral issues. They situate each reading in its historical context and offer biography and background on each author. Grounded strongly in the anthropology of Vatican II, the book is sufficiently rigorous yet not off-putting to the novice reader.
Chapter One offers readings on the moral person. Avoiding the highly technical language sometimes found in morals texts the authors situate being good and doing right in a personalist communal context. Their starting point erodes appropriately the perception that morality is a singular sport, so long a dominant perspective at least in Catholic ethics. While the book is sensitive to the metaphysical roots of “person” as Aquinas interpreted the concept, and includes a selection from his work; readings that reflect a more contemporary understanding of the term, specifically that of Vatican II, are presented.
The Sources of Christian Ethics: bible, tradition, reason, and experience, are treated in Chapter Two. Contemporary issues such as women’s experience and the meeting of science and ethics are included, as is a key article by Walter Brueggmann on biblical authority. The authors caution readers not to embrace a modern relativism too quickly.
Underlining the emphasis on the essential social component of ethics, “Interpretations of Love and Justice” provides the topic for Chapter Three. Following the “Biblical Foundations” section are two perspectives, one represented by a classic essay from Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” and other by three interesting contemporary pieces. Notable among the selected readings is the excellent and the exquisitely real article by Christine Gudorf on parenting, sacrifice, and the mutuality of love.
Subsequent chapters offer background and readings on selected issues: marriage, family, and sexuality; public life and violence; stewardship and the environment; and the “at the margins” life issues of abortion and euthanasia. The authors remind readers that it is inappropriate to retroproject a modern understand of love and marriage onto the culture and mores of people who lived in biblical times or later. Among the authors’ selections are such “classic” pieces as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” the American bishops’ “Pastoral on the Economy,” and an excerpt from Gaudium et spes.
In most instances the authors’ selection of readings is well balanced. Biblical, traditional, and contemporary takes on the issues are included, allowing readers to confront and to ponder very disparate views on a variety of topics and to see the historical roots of Christian thinking as it applies to them. In the final chapter, for example, a reading on the consistent ethic of life is followed by excellent feminist selections representing both sides of the abortion question. Beverly Harrison’s piece argues strongly for the woman’s right to choose, which Sydney Callahan’s offering presents a “pro-life” feminist argument. Both promise to stimulate the juices of lively discussion on a hot-button issue. To pick a small bone about the content of this final chapter, this reviewer would have liked to see a more balanced treatment of euthanasia. Only one reading, which represents a traditionally conservative perspective, is presented. An additional selection offering the opposing view would have added to the discussion of this topic. Nevertheless this is a minor negative blip on the screen of a rather good book.
While a brief anthology cannot hope to include every relevant reading, Doing Right and Being Good could have been made better and more useful by the inclusion in each chapter of a “Further Reading” section on a each topic. This omission is perhaps the only major flaw in an otherwise very useful book. Even though the book has a distinct and recognizable Catholic tone, it can be recommended heartily as a introductory text to a broader audience of Christian ethics. It ought to promote significant thought and lively discussion.