This recent entry in the Georgetown University Press Moral Traditions series provides Curran, one of the leading moral theologians in the United States for the last half-century, an opportunity to do something he has long planned: cover the entire history of American Catholic writing on moral theology. Though necessarily (in a book of this length and breadth) rather general, and, as Curran himself notes, often covering the same ground as his previous books, this is still a useful one-volume reference and will work well as a text for advanced undergraduates and graduate courses.
The work falls into two parts: a more or less chronological survey of general developments in European and American Catholic moral theology from Trent to the later 20th century (chapters 1-6) and a thematic assessment of the American field in the post-Vatican II era (chapters 7-10). Because the field was far less complex prior to the mid-20th century (both with far fewer writers, and with only a single ‘public’ to address—that is, future confessors in seminary training), Curran gives only 34 pages to the 19th century and 47 to the pre-Vatican II 20th century (in two chapters, one concentrating on sexual and medical ethics, the other on social ethics.) Pointing out the tremendous importance of moral theology for the training of priests, especially in the 19th century when severe shortages compelled early ordination after a full course in moral theology but often before doctrine had been taught, Curran concentrates on the manualist tradition in the U.S. In the early 20th century he sees faltering progress towards a more academic and scholarly approach to the subject.
Chapters 4-6 describe the transformed situation in the United States following Vatican II as the field expanded and changed dramatically in response to both social-historical and theological pressures. Curran stresses three shifts. The shift from the seminary to the academy meant a greatly increased number of moral theologians, as well as a new diversity: women, laypeople, and racial minorities reoriented the conversation significantly. The need to research and publish, along with three new ‘publics’ (the familiar triad of church, academy, and society), has meant that no one can now be an expert in all aspects of moral theology. Finally, the rise in ecumenical dialogue after Vatican II has had a particularly transformative effect on moral theology; Catholic moral theologians routinely write from a general Christian perspective and must therefore have expertise in all the relevant literature, further raising the bar. In this section Curran also devotes extensive space to Humanae vitae and the subsequent debates among moral theologians over academic freedom and dissent, a battle in which he himself was, of course, the key player.
The second half of the book goes into greater detail on post-Vatican II developments in fundamental moral theology, sexuality and marriage, bioethics, and social ethics. These chapters primarily consist of Curran’s descriptions of major players and their debates over variously hotly contended issues, often under the rubric of two groups: ‘revisionists’ (where Curran himself, along with Richard McCormick, is the central figure, but many others receive significant attention), and various conservative/traditionalist/’Romanist’ approaches (where Germain Grisez and his ‘new natural law’ proposals receive great attention, along with many others.) The exception is the chapter on social ethics, where Curran divides moral theologians instead into progressives, neoconservatives, and radicals.
The book is essentially an internal intellectual history of Curran’s own discipline, not a full critical assessment of that discipline within its American setting or a social history. This is particularly true of the chapters dealing with the post-Vatican II era, which is somewhat ironic considering that Curran (correctly) proposes the move from classicism to historical consciousness as a key characteristic of moral theology in the last fifty years. There is much discussion of the intricacies of debates and Curran clearly delineates schools and influences within the discipline, as well as the relationship of certain positions to various Roman Catholic traditions. However, there is very little assessment of these scholars as actors in a specifically American, late-20th and early-21st century context, particularly in the later thematic chapters. For example, the embrace of psychology by many moral and pastoral theologians is mentioned, but deserves extensive analysis in the context of the more general American appropriation of psychology in the post-1945 period. The discussion of Catholic neoconservatism would have been improved by reference to Patrick Allitt’s work on the Catholic role in the rise of the conservative movement generally. And though Leslie Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception appears in the bibliography, it is not cited in the notes to the relevant chapters; Curran discusses the reaction to Humanae vitae mostly as a matter of scholarly argument, without much description of the social forces that contributed to the desire of revisionists to dissent in the first place.
Curran’s work could also have benefited from a more thorough edit; the prose is sometimes clunky, but more seriously, it is sometimes hard to tell Curran’s judgments of historical actors from his simple summaries of their opinions. And beginners might have appreciated earlier and clearer explanations of what natural law and personalism are, exactly; these concepts, so important for the writers Curran describes, are defined only piecemeal and long after their first introduction in the text.
However, within its limits the book has many strengths, first among them its birds-eye view of two centuries. I also appreciated his assessment of institutional factors as causes, the story of moral theology’s professionalization as it migrated to the academy, the helpful and clear discussion of pre-Vatican II figures, and the perceptive analysis of the different characteristics and methods of manualist theology when dealing with personal/sexual and social ethics. Though Curran’s personal preferences are of course evident, he is relatively fair-minded in his assessments of his more conservative peers, especially Grisez. Finally, the index is very good and, best of all, there is an extensive and extremely handy bibliography.