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Ethical change in the Catholic Church

In just a little more than three years as the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis appears to have disrupted what many thought was a straight and unchangeable course of moral teaching in the Catholic Church. Some of the more conservative members of the church are worried that the fundamentals of that teaching are being ignored, or worse, thrown overboard. Francis’s call for a ‘poorer’ church and a world that cares about the environment displays a significant turn in Catholic politics. But it is his frequent comments about personal and sexual morality that seem to upset people the most. Instead of talking about rules and behaviours, he has very clearly shifted the emphasis to people who find themselves in difficult situations.

While some are worried about these changes, others, like myself, are delighted that the reforms in moral theology called for in Vatican II are finally being allowed to take place. The last two documents of that council, Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae (1965), specifically avoided appeal to ‘natural law’ as a source for moral insight, something that both Humanae vitae (1968) and Veritatis splendor (1995) attempted to reinstate. Both conciliar documents put forth respect for the human person and human dignity as the fundamental norm of morality. Although the Decree on Priestly Training, Optatam totius (1965), specifically called for more input from scripture in teaching moral theology, hardly any hierarchical document issued under the last two pontificates made any attempt to carry out this recommendation.

Pope Francis recognizes that pre-conciliar moral theology was much too tied up with sins and the laws that were supposedly broken when a sin is committed. He has called attention to the spirit of the laws rather than the sometimes crushing letter of a law being imposed on persons who may not have the opportunity to live up to perfect standards. He appeals to the mercy that God shows to all of us and entreats us all to show mercy to each other. He is continuously looking for new visions to help define ethical living rather than new restrictions on human creativity.

In addressing the contemporary world, the area to which Francis is responding is actually at the level of ethics: how does one talk about morality in the first place? Pre-Vatican II (textbook) morality was about identifying sins that needed to be confessed in the sacrament of penance. It was developed by priest-confessors who taught future priest-confessors how to distinguish what constituted a sin. Their ethical method started with making a judgment about what they heard the penitent confess: what they did or failed to do. The process then moved on to considering any circumstances that might mitigate the guilt of the person, not necessarily the gravity of the sin itself. Finally, they might ask the penitent why they ever considered doing or omitting what they did: what were they attempting to accomplish? In schematic form:

action  →  circumstances  →  intention

Canonization 2014-The Canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II by Aleteia Image Department. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The type of ethics that Francis is using first asks what people are attempting to accomplish. He recognizes that people don’t do anything if they are not motivated, so unearthing one’s motivation is of primary importance. When motivations are concretized, they are expressed as intentions. The next thing to consider is all of the circumstances within which persons find themselves. What is possible and what is not? What are the available tools or mechanisms at hand to accomplish one’s goals? Finally, it is only in light of all these factors that one can choose which course of action might be the most appropriate. In schematic form:

intention   →  circumstances  →  action

The change that has taken place in the way that Francis approaches moral issues is a change in ethical reflection. It is not simply substituting one set of rules for another. It consists in recognizing that why we do what we do is just as important as the course of action upon which we finally decide.

Textbook morality listed laws and rules that had to be followed without ever explaining where they came from or why they might be important. Addressing people’s motivations and encouraging them to think about what they are attempting to accomplish puts moral issues into an entirely new light. Whereas behaviours are addressed by laws, motivations and intentions are addressed by virtue and character ethics. The most pertinent question is: what kind of persons are we attempting to become and how can we build a community that encourages persons to adopt virtuous attitudes and motivations?

The task that the church now faces is reforming the way that it tries to teach people to deal with moral issues. Simply issuing condemnations or invoking a law is an inadequate way to deal with the complexity of people’s lives and the decisions that need to be made.

Featured image credit: The Vatican by Jeroen Bennink. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments


    Wrong. The author constructs a strawman argument pointing out some of the supposed procedural defects of the Moral Theological Manuals. These manuals where written for pedagogical motives for 1st cycle Theology students. It is only a problem if you assume that they studied nothing else. They would have had a good dose of dogmatic, mystical, and sacramental, theology as well. They also would have followed the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas.

    St. Thomas distinguished between the order of intention and the order of execution. The questioning in the confessional often excavates moving from external to internal acts. There is nothing wrong with that procedure. It just depend on what point of view one is using at the time.

    None the less, no matter what smoke and mirrors the modernist uses to distract the reader, the end does not justify the mean. It just does not matter what your intention is if the act you do is evil.

    His problems are metaphysical. There is just not enough space in a comment box to respond to all of his affirmation and I have more urgent things to do.

  2. Aidan O'Donnell

    I am not a theology student. I know nothing about dogmatic, mystical or sacramental theology, and I have never opened a Moral Theological Manual in my life. This troubles me not a whit.

    However, I know of at least one priest who could be regularly selfish, cruel, and obnoxious without putting one finger wrong with respect to the “rules” of the Church.

    Like the author of this article, I am delighted that Pope Francis is challenging that. He is acknowledging that human behaviour and motivation are a lot more complicated than the church has been lately insisting.

    And, what with him being, y’know, the Pope, his statements, and behavioural example, are gradually undoing the enormous harm that some elements of the church recently did, while hiding behind the rule book.

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