Charles E. CURRAN, The Development of Moral Theology: Five StrandsWashington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013, x + 306 pp., $29.95, pb.  ISBN: 978-1-62616-019-4. Reviewed by Patrick J. HAYES, Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, Brooklyn, NY


  Well known for his work in theological, social, and sexual ethics over nearly five decades, Curran here produces the latest in a growing set of studies on the history of moral theology.  He builds on earlier works such as Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History (2008), Catholic Social Teaching 1891-present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis (2002), and The Origins of Moral Theology in the United States: Three Different Approaches (1997), all published by Georgetown University Press as part of its “Moral Traditions and Moral Arguments” series.  The volume under examination here takes a much broader approach by recounting the strands of intellectual history that go back to the ancient Greeks and are re-considered in the Christian context.  Some might consider it a tour de force for all the ground it covers, but joining the “strands” under the heading “development” does not always illumine the subject.

Certainly the five themes Curran selects can be considered important for the story of how moral theology as a discipline has arisen, though the quantitative importance of each seems slightly imbalanced.  These are, first, how moral theologians have understood sin and reconciliation and how these are limned in the manualist tradition (30 pages).  Second, the role of St. Thomas Aquinas and to a lesser degree the Scholastic and neo-Scholastic traditions are taken up (42 pages).  Third, Curran suggests that the Catholic moral tradition on the natural law is actually a highly pluralistic one (75 pages).  Strand four discusses the growth of the papal teaching office (76 pages).  Lastly he calls attention to the role of the Second Vatican Council in affecting moral thought (28 pages).  A concluding chapter summarizing the import of the aforementioned strands for contemporary work in moral theology rounds out the book.

Ostensibly the book is designed for graduate-level readers, but it suffers from many problems, only some of which I will lay out here.  Among the most frustrating aspects of Curran’s book is a curious lack of methodological unity.  Tracking developments by way of the vague term “strands” hardly qualifies as a method, or even a hermeneutic.  While Curran foreswears any pretense to being a historian (though he has several books and articles to his credit employing historical data and using historical tropes), there is a disconcerting number of historical infelicities at work.  Some are just slipshod, as when he claims that Gregory the Great’s papacy lasted from 540 to 640 (he lived from about 540 to 604), or when he claims that in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs called for “a Catholic culture based on Thomistic philosophy”—an idea no one but a handful of Thomistic philosophers seriously subscribed to (my own book on this matter, incidentally, is erroneously cited).  There are other errors far more serious because they go to the ideas Curran is trying to convey. 

Three instances of note may be drawn from his chapters on Aquinas, natural law, and the papal teaching office.  First, Curran says that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “the manuals of moral theology remained exactly as they were and were not at all changed.”  They “showed no influence whatsoever from the theological aspects of the moral theology found in Aquinas” (61).  Building on these assertions, he draws on an early edition of Thomas Bouquillon’s Institutiones theologiae moralis fundamentalis to conclude that the Thomism of the golden period (Bouquillon’s phrase, viz., the 12th to 16th centuries) subsequently bottomed out until about 1830 when a revival began with Joseph Kleutgen.  Now what we have here is a contradiction.  Either the presence of Thomism in the manuals was more than negligible and so had merit, or Thomism was rejected and so was all but vanquished from the pages of the manuals.  You can’t have it both ways.

Further complications arise with Curran’s use of Bouquillon to box Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Alphonsus Liguori into a corner.  In 1899 Bouquillon lambasted manualists in the line of Liguori for insufficient treatment of humankind’s ultimate end or characterizing their examination of human acts as “jejune,” or simply omitting discussion on the virtues and vices.  “The manuals propose God’s law in a very superficial way while canon law is insisted upon” (62).  It is a wonder moral theology continued at all.  But this is hardly the case.  In fact, it is simply inaccurate to pronounce St. Alphonsus as one eminent in casuistry and the “prudential aspects of moral theology but not as a scientific moral theologian” (62).  One reason Curran sides with Bouquillon against the manualists is that in them the true thought of St. Thomas Aquinas is brought to heel and somehow the theological project is jeopardized in the process.  But that also is not the case and creates a false dichotomy.  In the manuals, both Aquinas and Liguori are often set side-by-side (and in the case of the Jesuit, Aloysius Sabetti, they are placed alongside Bouquillon, too!).  This is true of such manualists as the Dominican Merkelbach or the Franciscan Elbel.  It is certainly true of the manual of Joseph Aertnys and Cornelius Damen, two Redemptorists who were rigorous in their synthesis of Thomas and Alphonsus.  When Curran insists that “there can be no doubt that the manuals are not Thomistic in their approach to moral theology,” he is misleading the reader.  Many of the manuals of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century look to Thomas through the lens of Alphonsus, and they do not negate nor minimize either (see Raphael Gallagher, “The Systematization of Alphonsus’ Moral Theology Through the Manuals,” Studia Moralia 25:2 (1987): 247-277.)

Second, with respect to Curran’s broad canvas on the history of natural law thinking (from Cicero to Benedict XVI), the chapter starts out promising in suggesting that there has been deep pluralism within the theological community over what constitutes natural law and how it can be applied to practical decisions.  However, Curran rushes through numerous authors who would support the thesis, but does not unpack their remarks to any great degree.  Granted this plurality in natural law theory, the most bizarre question emerges:  How in the first thousand years of its existence did the Church come to moral judgment on issues such as murder, theft, lying, and so forth, “when there was no well-developed theory that everyone agreed upon as the method to apply?” (126)  The simple truth is that the scriptures, early Christian tradition, and writings of the fathers sufficed to inform the Christian mind in doing what was right and avoiding what was evil—and many of their texts supplied ample consideration of this abstract concept we call natural law.

This patently obvious response to Curran’s rhetorical question is all the more frustrating because he spends so much time discussing the history of the Church’s leadership in his chapter on the teaching office of the pope.  For Curran the papal teaching office is connected to papal primacy, but precisely how can elude the reader.  Some of the data he uses to make the point is superfluous (do we really need to know that Aquinas quotes Pope Gregory I 374 times in the second part of the Summa Theologiae?).  Much of this chapter relays examples of how papal primacy surfaces over time, but Curran seems to delight in those instances where popes have behaved badly, putting themselves in a historical spotlight in a decidedly negative way, and undercutting their teaching authority.  I am not sure what the point of this “strand” is if it leads him to say that “there is no doubt that the popes in the first millennium did not play a primary teaching role in the Church with regard to what was later called ‘faith and morals’” (157).  Not incidentally, such statements violate a cardinal rule in history, namely, making “the data of the past conform too closely to the hermeneutical structures of the present” (see Dennis Billy, “Twelfth-Century Marital Love: The Meaning of Christian Pluralism (A Reaction to Josef Fuchs),” Studia Moralia 27:2 (1989): 797).

Other reviewers in this forum have called attention to the need for Curran to explain complex or nuanced terms in greater depth or to smooth out his rather “clunky” prose or remove repetition (see Catherine Osborne’s review of Curran’s Catholic Moral Theology in the United States [] and Dana Dillon’s review of his Catholic Social Teaching, 1891 to the Present []).  Unfortunately, he and his editors have not taken their advice in the writing and redaction of The Development of Moral Theology.  I am forced to join a growing chorus.  Some passages are unintelligible and other sentences fall into paragraphs with no apparent connection to adjoining ideas or have little to do with the chapter themes.  But the matter I find most problematic is the presence of story lines that do little to advance our knowledge.  It is poor history to say that nothing happened of any consequence during this period or that period.  By simply ignoring recent scholarship, one has not proven one’s thesis.  For instance, the much admired work of social historian Jean Delumeau on sin ([Sin and Fear: The Emergence of the Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990)]) or the massive thousand-page work of Jean-Pascal Gay on moral theology and the polemics of 1640-1700 should have found a place ([Morales en conflit: Théologie et polémique au Grand Siècle (1640-1700) (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2011)]).  We do get some choice nuggets on the development of moral theology in the Western academy in the twentieth century and Curran’s explanation of the debates over probabilism and probabiliorism, while not crystalline, are among those sections that delve beyond the surface.  Still, the overall execution of this study is not what one would hope from such an established scholar.