The transition from a pre-Vatican II Catholic moral theology of disembodied rules and distinctions to one that takes seriously human development in a messy world has spawned a number of introductory texts on the Catholic moral tradition. This book, featuring the work of several young scholars, tries one more time. It broadens the perspective that is often found in traditional morals texts. It gives insight into the thinking of the new generation of committed Catholics.
Part 1 considers the essential environment in which moral skill best grows: liturgy, Christ and Christian scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity. To include such material in a morals text ought compensate for a prevalent cafeteria approach to religious studies courses in many colleges and universities. Students who take moral theology often are not exposed to the theological assumptions that ground moral thinking in a Christian context.
Part 2 moves into more frankly “morals” material. One of the most cogent and successful contributions here is David Cloutier’s. He incorporates traditional methodological concepts such as subject, intention, end of the act; but he treats them in a way that will appeal to contemporary readers. Cloutier carefully defines human fulfillment in terms of developing personal identity. He offers telling answers to questions that might arise in the reader’s mind.
Part 3 considers specific issues, reprising key themes from earlier chapters. Several contemporary social issues are treated in refreshing ways. The first essay, on social justice, affirms correctly that Catholics generally do not see any connection between social justice and their Catholic faith. They pray, they worship, they try to be good people. But responsibility for more global issues is not central to their moral lives. The author, Kelly Johnson, suggests that “justice is a matter of facing horrors and refusing to look away.” Not an easy task.
Several of the essays, particularly those in Part 3, could—and perhaps should—stand alone to be read for their own sakes. Articles on peace, consumer culture, and at-home schooling pose some ideas well worth pondering. In a more lengthy review, one could address each article at length. In a short review, sadly, one is able only to skim the surface.
The strengths and weaknesses of the book? The most successful content of the book is that which treats “Gathered for the Journey.” It emphasizes the religious liturgical community, the gradual process of insight and virtue nurtured in such a setting, and the teleological nature of the Christian life. The book re-establishes the connections between a healthy spiritual life and moral activity. All the authors locate their particular topic in the broader context of communal and ecclesial connectedness, the power of grace, and the centrality of Jesus the Christ to all moral questions. Many of the essays offer a fresh look at some frankly over hashed issues.
From a “Moral Theology in a Catholic Perspective” the book seems to this reviewer as less successful. As a chronic and unreformed fundamental moral theologian I missed the clear methodology that has been one of distinguishing characteristics and strengths of the Catholic moral tradition. If the book is to be used as a basic moral theology text, exposition of methodology is still important. A good illustration is Therese Lysaught’s treatment of the Terri Schiavo case. Lysaught’s creative piece, while rightly placing forgiveness as the central moral consideration in this dilemma and others like it, offers the reader no methodological tools to resolve the biomedical questions that cases such as Schiavo present. If the reader is already schooled in methodology, this is a dynamite article. If not, and it is the student’s only exposure to the field of bioethics, it has serious omissions. This criticism assumes, of course, that the collection is for undergraduates.
The reviewer has some additional minor gripes with the book. Some of the frontal matter and summary sections, for example the discussion in the introduction to Part II about the authors’ decisions regarding the order of the chapters and the sometimes seemingly interminable rehash of content before and after the actual articles, tend to disengage the reader. Perhaps the undergraduate student needs this repetition for pedagogical purposes. Likewise, the small and dense print rendered the book difficult to read (is it the reviewer’s presbyterian eyes?). If the editors had taken a Slimfast approach to some of the collateral material the book might have been published in a larger, easier to read print. An addition of provocative questions at the end of each chapter would add to its value as a student text. Nevertheless, overall the articles are insightful and refreshing. The book offers a fresh look at moral theology.