It has been more than forty years since the Second Vatican Council called for a thorough renewal of Catholic moral theology. Lamenting that moral theology, in its almost exclusive focus on sin, had become both sterile and burdensome, the Council sought to revive this haggard discipline by reconnecting it with the more foundational resources of Christianity, particularly Scripture. In the often cited paragraph from the Council’s Decree on the Training of Priests, the bishops envisioned a moral theology that was rooted in Scripture, centered on Christ, and linked to the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Nonetheless, although Catholic moralists have surely broadened the scope of their field beyond a careful dissection of sins, few have grappled seriously with the Council’s invitation to give sustained attention to the moral significance of the Scripture, particularly the teaching and example of Jesus.
In Jesus and Virtue Ethics, Daniel Harrington, S.J. and James Keenan, S.J., renowned scholars in their respective fields, aim to reverse this unfortunate neglect by (as their subtitle suggests) seeking to “build bridges” between New Testament studies and moral theology. Each chapter is structured as a conversation between the two disciplines on a particular topic. Working with one or more of the synoptic gospels, Harrington explores what the scriptures might say on a particular topic and Keenan addresses the same subject from the resources of Catholic moral theology. In doing so, each brings forward the best from their respective traditions and from the most recent scholarship in their fields.
The book opens with an overview of the history of Catholic moral theology, focusing especially on how Catholic morality, from the sixth to the twentieth century, was intimately linked with the confessional. The purpose of the early penitentials and later manuals was to aid priests in administering the sacrament by helping them assess the seriousness of an array of sins. Though designed to address an important pastoral development—the more regular confessing of one’s sins to a priest—the singular focus on sin had the unfortunate effect of separating moral theology from the overall aim of the Christian life: helping one grow in Christ and advance in holiness. Consequently, Catholic moral theology became increasingly juridical, individualistic, and, in its emphasis on sins to avoid, minimalistic. Any talk of imitating Christ, the importance of the sacraments, or virtues to embody was hidden away in spiritual or ascetical theology, and relegated to an elite seeking to grow in the goodness of God.
There are numerous ways to forge connections between the gospels and moral theology, but Harrington and Keenan embrace virtue ethics because the three questions central to virtue ethics (Who are we? Who ought we to become? How do we get there?) resonate well with biblical ethics and draw moral theology into conversation with spirituality, liturgy, ecclesiology, and pastoral theology. In the first part of the book, Harrington and Keenan argue that the kingdom of God is the horizon, goal, or telos of Jesus’ ethical teachings. The advantage of this starting point is that it lifts up the centrality of God’s grace in the Christian moral life, takes the moral teaching of Jesus (particularly in the Sermon on the Mount) seriously, and envisions the Christian moral life as an ongoing and unfolding journey. Far from a rigid or static portrayal of the moral life, Harrington and Keenan present the Christian moral life as an adventure in discipleship that is begun in baptism, sustained through the Eucharist, and fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Too, that the virtues are never fully possessed by any person makes the moral life a journey of ongoing conversion and transformation, a point easily recognized in the gospels’ portrayal of the disciples.
The strengths of this book are abundant. Particularly impressive is the authors’ explication of mercy, a reconciling spirit, and hope as quintessential Christian virtues. Too, their analysis of love underscores that the Christian moral life is best understood not in terms of what one can achieve through his or her agency alone, but as one’s ongoing response to the love of God. It is precisely this account of love that enables them to describe sin as “not bothering to love,” an insight that is both biblically and morally astute.
In the final chapters of the book the authors apply their method to specific moral issues: marriage and divorce, celibacy, homosexuality, and abortion, and finally environmental concerns. These are diverse and complicated matters and if there is any regret about the book it is that these subjects could not be treated at greater length. But that is a minor complaint. Jesus and Virtue Ethics is an engaging and important book that accomplishes what the Second Vatican Council hoped for when it ended in 1965. Both moving and challenging, it is an ideal text for the classroom, for adult education or discussion groups, or for anyone wanting to experience precisely what Vatican II envisioned.