Charles E. CURRAN and Lisa A. FULLAM, Editors. Ethics and Spirituality: Readings in Moral Theology, Volume 17. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014. pp 275. $29.95. ISBN: 9780809148738. Reviewed by Eric W. HENDRY, Plano, TX 75026
Paulist Press has released the latest volume of the Readings in Moral Theology series, which features a healthy cross section of recently-published articles that call for a more systematic integration of the disciplines of spirituality and ethics. Each of the articles chosen by the editors represents a major shift away from the heavily sin-centered and canonically-focused approaches found in the penitentials that gradually came to shape and dominate much of Catholic moral teaching from the late-Middle Ages up to the Second Vatican Council.
The various selections have been thematically placed under three major headings: Part 1, “Reconnecting Ethics and Spirituality,” charts the historic nature of the separate disciplines of spirituality and ethics, with an eye toward the potential benefits of their convergence and integration for contemporary Christian understanding. In Part 2, “Reimagining the Tradition,” various authors attempt to articulate a more integrated spirituality and ethics, particularly from within the post-conciliar environment that expressed increasing interest in the formation of theconscience. Then in Part 3, “Refocusing Ethical Topics,” the editors offer readers several representative examples of how this integration with spirituality can potentially impact, affect, transform and renew a variety of contemporary moral issues e.g.: how we approach “justice” (Burghardt), “ecology” (Frohlich), the “body” (Griffith), the “common good” (Isasi-Díaz), and even “ministerial ethics” (Fullam).
While I’m inclined to think that many students may instinctively and even immediately gravitate toward the text’s third section – seeking immediate information on the more significant contemporary ethical issues – I am also inclined to think it is more likely that the articles from the very first section will prove to be more helpful for the overall formation of these same students of contemporary Christian ethics. Allow me to offer several reasons.
First, the authors of the articles in this first section – O’Keefe, Rigali, Gula, Spohn and Curran – have clearly articulated here (and elsewhere) that there is a substantial gap between the conciliar approach toward Christian ethics and formation of the conscience – and the reality of what is still currently promoted as Catholic moral teaching in average parish formation programs across the United States, primarily aimed at children and teenagers. When the majority of contemporary parish catechetical programs – even fifty years after Vatican II – still base much of their moral catechesis on acquiring the basic information contained in the Decalogue, and when diocesan formation staff only recommend catechetical texts that are in strict conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church – which makes use of the very same Decalogue as its rule and guide for “correct” moral information – we are still not dealing with a complete or even realistic approach toward the overall and holistic formation of the conscience. These authors articulate this very clearly and convincingly in their first five articles.
Second, this is where the genius of a collection such as this comes in play. If an overall goal of the Readings in Moral Theology series is to acquaint a reader with the great breadth and depth of material that has recently been published on particular topics of moral or ethical interest – then I would suggest that this is one of the better volumes in this entire series.
Third, in the first section of this volume, the authors actually detail how the pre-conciliar church and academy approached Catholic moral theology, and how, just prior to and following the Second Vatican Council, these approaches began to shift under the prolific writings of theologians like Bernard Häring. In the decades since, moral theology has gradually developed into a discipline of Christian ethics – where morality and spirituality converge in both character and virtue – and a primary focal point becomes the imitation of Jesus Christ by each of his contemporary disciples. In light of this, the sin-centered, canon law-related, seminary-dominated rules that were formulated for ordained confessors who were reliant upon penitentials for guiding souls in the reception of the Sacrament of Penance– gradually has been replaced by a fresh-yet-still-developing science of our life in Christ, the holistic formation of one’s conscience, and the universal call to pursue holiness and perfect charity toward others. So, these first five articles attend to the rather dramatic paradigm shift that is still developing and being articulated by contemporary theologians – as exemplified in the articles presented throughout the rest of this particular volume.
Curran and Fullam have collected a very healthy cross section of essays and articles that will help acquaint students with this gradual but dramatic paradigm shift and new perspectives of what it means to develop the discipline of contemporary Christian ethics. I can foresee this text being used across a broad spectrum of university and seminary courses (Christian ethics, ascetical-mystical spirituality, sacramental theology, spiritual anthropology, etc.), as a very readable primer on the contemporary integration of spirituality and ethics; it will also serve as a solid supplemental text that presents students with an introduction to contemporary applications of these new approaches and developments.
I highly recommend this very helpful volume.