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What true development in moral theology looks like

The development of doctrine never reverses course in an opposite direction, contending that while we used to believe “x,” we now believe “y.”

(Image: Edward Howell/Unsplash.com)

Faith does not depend upon our own reasonings and feelings. It responds to the revelation of God, which exceeds all of our own capacities. On our own, we could not know God and could have no certainty of supernatural realities. This includes our happiness, which is not found in the realization of any earthly good; it is found in God himself, transcending every finite thing, including our own selves. Faith draws us to salvation by opening our minds and our whole being to God and his will for us, enabling us to partake even of the divine nature.

Today, however, we often hear that the Church’s teachings are unpopular. Rather than conforming to the will of our maker, we would like to think that we know better. We seek our fulfillment in ourselves and not only excuse our sins, but even affirm them as good. If we rely on our own opinions, however, we do not have faith, as we are left merely with our own thoughts and directions.

How do Christians respond to this limited vision of life? If we oppose it, we are seen as bigots, and are left more and more isolated from the flow of culture. If we affirm the world’s values, we lose our countercultural witness of the transcendent good, turning away from the mission of evangelization that God has given the Church.

As an attempted solution, a false development of doctrine has been proposed in which the Church’s timeless teaching could be altered, if not in doctrinal expression, at least through the permission of conscience. Because people cannot accept the Church’s teaching on sexuality, this position contends that we allow them to decide for themselves what is right and wrong in each circumstance.

To accept this kind of thinking only leaves people on the way of death and obscures the invitation into the way of life. In contrast, St. Paul tells his disciple Timothy, rather, to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).

Popular opinion and receptivity don’t form the basis of doctrine. Undoubtedly, the Church faces a difficult, though necessary task in sharing the good news of human sexuality to an increasingly hostile audience.

Father Benedict Ashley (1915-2013), a Dominican friar and theologian, models the way forward for moral theology, unafraid to engage science and culture, while also remaining faithful to the truth of Christ. Within a newly released collection of powerful essays, The Dialogue between Tradition and History: Essays on the Foundations of Catholic Moral Theology (NCBC, 2022), he calls for moral theology to “be (1) rooted in the concrete moral teaching and example of Christ as found in the Scriptures read in light of Tradition; (2) scholarly and critical, yet conformed to the teaching of the Magisterium as normative; (3) consistently teleological, free of voluntarism and legalism; (4) free of the idealistic dichotomy between the transcendental and the categorical; (5) not merely a theology of decision making but also one transformation by the virtues; (6) critically assimilative of the great resources of modern history and the sciences; and finally (7) especially sensitive to the problem of the ‘morality gap’ between subjective and objective morality” (104).

This approach does not back down from the truth, even as it looks for a deeper engagement with modern culture.

Rather than caving before this morality gap, St. John Paul II uncovered how the subjective dimensions of human sexuality find their objective fulfillment precisely in the order of human nature, which reflects its Creator. His Theology of the Body demonstrates what a true development of doctrine looks like. Although the Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, John Paul helped the Church to see the “why.” Rather than simply repeating the prohibition, he unveiled the true meaning of sexuality within the sacrificial gift of self, at once unitive and fruitful.

John Paul shows us that the way forward does not entail a choice between conforming to culture and following the Church’s teaching but entails unlocking the deepest dimensions of human freedom, accessible only in truth and charity.

The development of doctrine never reverses course in an opposite direction, contending that while we used to believe “x,” we now believe “y.” It accepts the reality of truth, both from our reflection on the natural law and our obedience to divine revelation, growing in understanding, drawing out more deeply its implications, making connections to other elements of the truth and helping the faithful to live its freeing demands more completely.

Watering down the truth or avoiding it will not lead anyone to life. Only in accepting the truth of God’s creation and revelation can we come to a true realization of our freedom and happiness.


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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 41 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor for the Augustine Institute. He is author of Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press) and the editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

19 Comments

  1. Reinforcing Ashley’s seven points are the seven points offered by St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his “Development of Christian Doctrine”:

    “I venture to set down seven notes of varying cogency, independence, and applicability to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows [summarizing]:

    “There is no corruption if it retains: one and the same TYPE, the same PRINCIPLES, the same ORGANIZATION; if its beginnings ANTICIPATE its subsequent phases, its later phenomena PROTECT and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and REVIVAL, and a vigorous ACTION from first to last…”.

  2. enjoyed the article, but this needs to be represented as a witness to the Beloved and His Saving Revelation and Truth… “On our own, we could not know God and could have no certainty of supernatural realities”.

    One might recollect this Witness:

    First Vatican Council (1869-1870) is the first paragraph of Dei Filius, 2. In the Latin text this paragraph is in fact a single sentence. It is especially the first clause that interests people. There we find this statement (to which I have added a period):

    Eadem sancta mater Ecclesia tenet et docet, Deum, rerum omnium principium et finem, naturali humanæ rationis lumine e rebus creatis certo cognosci posse.

    [The same holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the principle and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason from created things.]

    Huic divinæ revelationi tribuendum quidem est, ut ea, quæ in rebus divinis humanæ rationi per se impervia non sunt, in præsenti quoque generis humani conditione ab omnibus expedite, firma certitudine et nullo admixto errore cognosci possint.

    [It is indeed from this divine revelation that those divine things that are not of themselves inaccessible to human reason can, even in the present condition of the human race, be known by all easily, with firm certitude, and with no admixture of error.]

    Blessing of the Lord with Saint Louis and Saint Joseph Calasanz

  3. A good exhortation, basically consistent with Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity. Impression given by virtually all the defenses for orthodoxy is that all is reducible to one reality. Whether we place faith in the irreducible, unchanging nature of the Word revealed to man through the Person Jesus Christ. That he and he alone reveals the Father, whose truth because he is God is perfect, and not subject to change in its nature reflexive of his unchangeable nature.
    This unchangeable nature of the divinity is the premise challenged by Cardinal Walter Kasper, adopted by Francis – and repeatedly praised by Francis as a theology made on his [Kasper’s] knees – during the first Synod on the Family 2014.
    “In his speech, Pope Francis not only failed to establish the truth facing the confusion of the synodal document but harshly criticized those Synodal Fathers with ‘closed hearts’ who hide ‘behind the Church’s teachings’ sitting ‘in the chair of Moses’ to judge wounded families with ‘superiority and superficiality’.
    It is not difficult to see that this criticism is addressed to those in the Synod who defended the Church’s traditional doctrine regarding adultery” (A Confused, Upside Down Synodal Church in The Am Soc for the Defense of Trad, Family, and Property 2015).
    Whether such a radical premise can be formally and definitively pronounced to the Church is more than questionable. Indeed, in agreement with Feser and Chapp on this issue, it does not appear a viable possibility. Although the immense damage is achieved, implemented by repeated suggestion, and by transformation of the Church, inclusive of its Magisterial office [bishops mere facilitators, the pontiff a distanced, abject onlooker] into an ongoing debate session directed by a like minded pontifical appointed relator.

    • Well expressed as always Father, especially noting how Francis concurs with Kasper’s process theology, which presumes the fallibility of God, an attitude of mind directly opposed to what I call Ed’s law: It is impossible for God to be a fool, and it is impossible for us to not be fools from time to time. It’s called sin. And it is impossible, in our foolishness, to not spend hundreds of hours of our lives trying to convince ourselves we are not fools.

      The Orwellian mind of Francis calls the love of God to have not abandoned us to a capricious understanding of how we ought to order our lives together and providing an innate intuition of right and wrong an “ideology,” while he simultaneously embraces the silly sophistries of relativism as some expression of a “New Gospel message,” as though there could be such a thing.

      The Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that an enhanced understanding of morality is more demanding yet magnanimous and never constricting to a purity of heart and soul. Even lust violates the prohibition against adultery. Everyone was able to understand Our Lord because He did not provide a revolutionary idea, but a self-evident idea, an idea that echoes what is inscribed in our hearts from the beginning, from eternity. Yet the ever-cloudy moody thought of Francis dismisses the natural expressions of self-evident principles, gifts to our divinely endowed human nature, from Scripture and Tradition, defined and reaffirmed over centuries in creative ways, as “rigidity” and “ideology.” Instead he invokes contemporary greeting card sentimentalities that allows him to abuse the very idea of mercy as exclusive to guilt avoidance, with no concern of how disregarded sinfulness continues unrelenting victimization.

  4. My thinking is that any consideration of the development of moral reasoning should never be independent from an understanding of who man is. We simply cannot treat morality as a “stand-alone” object worthy of study. The problem with our understanding of moral theology is that we have an inadequate anthropology i.e. man has lost a sense of who he is. In fact, man is so lost in his understanding of himself that he has now resorted to fundamentally attempting to redefine who man is. I would say that any attempt for man to understand himself will always be deficient if it eschews any reference to who God is. Again, it is NOT moral theology that is in need of development but man needs to come to terms with who he is and who he is not.

  5. The foundation set by Ashley is his first point, that moral theology is to “be (1) rooted in the concrete [!] moral teaching and example of Christ…”

    The novelty today is not Staudt’s concern over “watering down the truth,” but FIRST, the wedge placed between the “concrete…example of Christ” and the “concrete” circumstances of people today; and SECOND, to then interject a split between formal moral theology, which remains intact, and its application through autonomous “pastoral” discernment in today’s concrete cases (the cryptic dichotomy–“realities are more important than ideas”–proposed as a new “principle” of evangelization in Evangelii Gaudium, 2013).

    • But Holmes! He’s been watering down the truth since day one. Admonishing at the Synod those ‘who hide behind the Church’s teachings’, while saying the bishops have ‘closed hearts’, referencing their judgment of ‘wounded families. Elementary Watson. That’s been his game all along, to the cognoscenti [presumably the rare few] not double speak watering down, rather upholding settled doctrine, whilst making the case for mercifully setting doctrine aside. Watson: Clever those Argentinians. Holmes: Clever indeed. Professor Moriarty himself would be impressed. Now that we’re on the subject of professors, the young Bergoglio SJ studied under Josef Fuchs SJ at the Gregorianna. Watson: I’ve heard. Isn’t he the Jesuit who wrote the groundbreaking, though controversial Natural Law? Something about the Creator Word as juxtaposed to the soteriological love of the Redeemer. Precisely my dear Watson. A thesis by which we may adhere to acknowledgment of the natural law of the Creator Word, say in condemnation of adultery, whilst setting it aside in favor of a soteriological merciful love of the Redeemer. Watson: But Holmes! isn’t that tantamount to a form of Nestorianism? Two separate identities in one person. Holmes: At times Watson, you’re not to my surprise, awesome.

      • Yea verily, perhaps you miss my point? Or not?

        Not that they still support the Natural Law, etc., but that the ruse is to never formally deny such things (heresy is explicit denial, not indirect signaling…), while replacing them with detached “pastoral” options. Sidestepping the truth is different from watering it down directly. Give some credit for Jesuitical cleverness—about which, St. John Paul II, again, had this to say, now explicitly (!) part of the Magisterium, in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor:

        “A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid and general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision [‘decision,’ no longer a moral judgment!] about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept [thou shalt not!]” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 56).

        As in the Arthur Conan Doyle murder mystery, Holmes identifies the villain as a friend of the victim by the fact the watchdog, instead of barking, did not bark.

  6. The quest for moral theology would be the desire to seek and know Jesus Christ!

    John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

    Hebrews 6:1-Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, …

    1 Corinthians 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,

    Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    John 3:16-17 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

    Ecclesiastes 12:13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

    The church is the bride of Christ, let us honour Him by highly regarding His word and walk.

    • I like your last sentence. Let us indeed honour him by regarding his Word. This means all his teachings, warnings and all the words he used when talking about the establishment of his Church. Some seem to disregard the assurances Jesus gave.

      • Dear Mal:

        The Holy Spirit is working within you. It brings me joy to see a man of God speaking and revelling in His precepts.
        Continue, reading, studying, meditating and praying upon His word.

        Let us remember Papa in our prayers

        God bless you and keep you,

        Brian

    • So you interpret these Scriptual passages to support the notion of a God Who is a schizophrenic idiot Who changes His mind, consistent with the process theology of Francis?

      • Edward, whatever are you speaking of? I have nothing but the highest esteem for the immutable God of all creation! Papa is a different kettle of fish though!

        Explain if you would be so kind! Otherwise, I seem to have overestimated your grasp of theology, in which case, please accept my apologies.

        Brian

        • Your praise of the commentary of MAL who is an unbridled acolyte for the anti-Catholic theology of Francis, who indisputably rejects immutable truth, led me to believe you share the same sentiments. If I’m wrong, I apologize.

          • Dear Edward:

            Thank you for your response. What perplexing lives we live. 🙂

            Mal has been an unabashed supporter of Papa as some of us are aware. Since early on in Papa’s ministry i went from supporter to critic. Whoever is See of Rome, ultimately God is in control.

            Many would agree that the Catholic Church has lost her way. She is not alone unfortunately. God wants those who love and fear Him to rebuke the current holder of the office put this See out of the church. Is this too strong a statement? All the same, scripture enjoins us to pray for leaders.

            I commend Mal because his reflection upon matters of the Holy Spirit. When a man has a change of heart we are to celebrate and offer encouragement. I don’t pretend to know Mal’s heart, but I want him as a brother in Christ.

            Your gracious apology is accepted. You are my brother in Christ. Off topic, I made a response to you which is awaiting moderation. The feelings that are expressed here, are carried over to the other thread.

            The moderator wields a lot of clout!

            Yours in Christ,

            Brian

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