James F. KEENAN, ed. Catholic Theological Ethics, Past, Present, and Future. Edited by John Chryssavgis. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. pp. 368. $32.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-8232-3885-9.
Reviewed by Lindsey ESBENSEN, Notre Dame, IN 46556

In the sixteenth century theological ethics became a specific discipline within theology during the Council of Trent. Fittingly, Trento, Italy, served as the backdrop for the gathering of 600 theological ethicists from 75 countries in July 2010 as they discussed the challenges faced by and the future of theological ethics. Catholic Theological Ethics: Past, Present, and Future is a compilation of the papers presented at the Trento Conference. Keenan provides an interesting collection of essays that will invigorate all those involved in any aspect of Catholic theological ethics, whether in their academic or ministerial roles.

The book begins with an examination of ethics and interreligious dialogue from a Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim perspective. Each ethicist reminds us that mere secular approaches to the challenges we face in today’s world inevitably fall short, lacking of a sense of transcendence, solidarity, and a specifically theological understanding of the beginning and end of all creation. These essays highlight the importance of a dynamic interaction among peoples of faith in the uncharted waters of today’s globalized world.

The second, third, and fourth parts of the book examine theological ethics in the past, present, and future. Each essay in the compilation addresses the broad range of interests within moral theology from the past to the future. The theological ethicists presenting these works seek to direct our attention to the complexities of the particular topic addressed, and all remain true to the Catholic moral tradition from the past to the present. Given that the conference from which this book stems was concerned with theological ethics in a global context, many of the essays focus on non-European and non-Western issues in social ethics. A truly catholic, universal, approach to global ethics necessitates and is strengthened by such an inclusion of sources from throughout the world. The perspectives of women and theological ethicists from the “third world” or developing countries are particularly evident throughout this compilation.

Although the purpose of the Trento Conference, and therefore the subsequent book, is to provide an examination of theological ethics in a global context, one cannot help but notice the sometimes narrow focus on a particular issue in social ethics throughout the majority of the essays. This is not to say that such an examination of specific topics detracts from the overall theme of the book. The essays from diverse perspectives and backgrounds allow the reader to experience various aspects of theological ethics that can contribute to the growth of our own moral theological endeavors. The scope of this book is extremely broad, covering practically every topic in theological ethics: from an examination of the historical backdrop for the Council of Trent to the current crisis in the Catholic Church; from the influence of traditional African religion on theological ethics to the lack of health resources for women globally (with particular emphasis on India); and from four new ways of looking at marriage to the importance of citizenship in global terms. Perhaps the book’s most poignant reminder for theological ethicists, however, comes from Reinhard Cardinal Marx who states, “We moral theologians have become in many ways specialists for individual topics, with the risk that we lose sight of the search for a holistic concept or … a vision for a better world, for a good life” (275). All of the issues for social ethics, medical ethics, environmental ethics, etc. require a specifically and distinctively theological foundation. The gathering of theologians at the Trento Conference provides the perfect backdrop to address and discuss the theological foundations for the most consequential challenges faced in our world.

As is the case with most any conference, the papers presented are not intended to offer final arguments and fully nuanced solutions to the challenges faced within the theological ethics. The papers in this collection show us the many avenues, and challenges, that are opened to us as theological ethicists. The essays are invitations to further development and research. Most of all, as our world becomes increasingly globalized, theological ethicists are encouraged to engage in sustained interaction, dialogue, and collaboration in our efforts to ensure that Catholic theological ethics will have continued and universal relevance for the present challenges throughout our world. Taken together, this collection of essays demonstrates the vitality and richness of the Catholic moral theological tradition and the impact Catholic theological ethicists can have as our world seeks to find a moral compass in troubled times.


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