The patchwork approach to moral theology

There is a fairly common methodological error in the approach of many commentators to important questions in moral theology. I’m referring mainly to apologists, bloggers, and discussion group posters, many of whom, unfortunately, put themselves forward as if they were teachers of the Catholic Faith. They have not bothered to study theology. And yet they have decided to teach it nonetheless. (No one ventures to teach medicine or astrophysics or law without first studying those subjects at length. But in theology, many persons feel free to teach without first having learned.)

Their error of methodology is essentially that they have none. When addressing a question of moral theology, they present an ad hoc interpretation of a brief passage from a single magisterial document. Often they ignore other portions of the same document, passages which contradict their interpretation. Then they find another passage from a magisterial document on the same subject, and offer another ad hoc interpretation. By ad hoc interpretation, what I mean is that they interpret the passage in isolation from the teachings of Tradition and Scripture, and in isolation from the rest of the teachings of the Magisterium. As a result, they often misunderstand the passage that they cite.

They offer one incorrect interpretation, then another, then another — at which point they cannot reconcile these disparate ideas without drawing very foolish conclusion, one after another. Their set of interpretations are a patchwork of misinterpretation, joined together by a series of absurd conclusions. And then they offer the result to the faithful as if it were the teaching of the Church.

Worse still are their errors of omission. They do not consider looking in Sacred Scripture for passages that might help answer the moral question at issue. They do not consider looking at the writings of various Saints, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church. They ignore numerous magisterial documents with relevant and authoritative teachings on the subject. And so, the conclusions they draw are often in direct conflict with the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

This approach is entirely lacking in any method of moral theology. They simply look for a few relevant quotes from magisterial documents and give an off-the-cuff interpretation as to what they think those isolated passages mean. In this way, they omit from their consideration the definitive teachings of the Magisterium on the basic principles involved in the same question. They do not use any basic principles.

Sometimes, to my utter astonishment, they invent entirely new basic principles based on their patchwork of isolated misinterpretations and incorrect conclusions. The new basic principles that they invent are directly contrary to definitive teachings of the Magisterium on the same subject. They apparently have not read those other magisterial documents. If they bother to even consult more than one or two documents, they are making an Herculean effort.

By ignoring the basic principles of moral theology taught by the Magisterium, they are essentially treating the teachings of the Magisterium on ethics as if these were mere rulings, as if there were no way to determine the morality of any act from the basic principles of morality taught by the Magisterium.

So if they cannot find an explicit statement in a magisterial document in answer to a particular moral question, they conclude that no such teaching exists. The error here is to reject every implicit teaching of the Magisterium, as if the Magisterium has no implicit teachings. An implicit teaching is a truth on faith or morals, which is not explicitly stated, but which is implied by what is stated.

The Magisterium teaches that ‘A’ and ‘B’ are true. Reason attests that conclusion ‘C’ necessarily follows from ‘A’ and ‘B’. Therefore, ‘C’ is an implicit teaching of the Magisterium. But these foolish commentators reject ‘C’ as mere empty speculation. Tradition and Scripture also have implicit teachings, which they also ignore or reject.

How can we believe that ‘C’ is true, when our own reason could be mistaken? In this life, we cannot have absolute certitude about truth. Even the dogmas taught infallibly by the Magisterium might be misunderstood or misinterpreted or misapplied. We cannot have absolute certitude until we have the Beatific Vision of God. But this does not imply that what is not absolutely certain is to be rejected.

The Catholic Faith is based on faith and reason, not on faith alone. The recent trend toward ‘fideism’ (faith-ism) in which the believer only believes what the Magisterium explicitly teaches, and rejects anything implied by reason from the things of faith, is a disturbing trend and a serious error. It is usually accompanied by a lack of respect for speculative theology and a distain for the usefulness of philosophy as the handmaiden of theology.

It used to be the case in moral theology that all moral questions were addressed by the method of the three fonts of morality: intention, moral object, circumstances. Certain further principles were also applied, such as the principle of double effect and the principle of cooperation with evil. A methodology based on these basic ideas allowed the moral analysis of any act to have a firm foundation. This approach was based on the common opinion of moral theologians.

But Veritatis Splendor, the encyclical of Pope John Paul II on morality, changed this approach. Veritatis Splendor takes this common approach of moral theologians and teaches it as the doctrine of the Church. Veritatis Splendor is an example of the development of doctrine in which an idea becomes a theological opinion (as it was at the time of Aquinas), then the most common and well-established opinion, and finally it becomes a doctrine of the Magisterium.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Catechism and the USCCB Catechism also teach this same doctrine, concerning the three fonts of morality as the basis for the morality of all knowingly chosen acts. At this time — not at the time of Saint Aquinas, not at the time of Saint Alphonsus Liguori perhaps not even in the years prior to Veritatis Splendor — but at the present time, the three fonts of morality are the doctrine of the Church, not merely a common theological opinion.

I would go so far as to say that these basic principles of ethics taught by the Church, at the present time, fall under the infallibility of the Universal Magisterium. But in any case, it is doctrine, not opinion.

Therefore, it is a grave error when various apologists, bloggers, and anonymous posters present themselves as if they were teaching the teachings of the Church on grave matters of morality — and yet they ignore the basic principles of ethics taught by Veritatis Splendor. They are ignoring the doctrine of the Church on the very matters about which they pronounce judgment.

This error is also found among certain moral theologians, who have decided to abandon the three fonts of morality and the concept of intrinsically evil, in order to find a new basis for ethics that will allow them to approve of all the acts that sinful secular society says are good, but which the Magisterium teaches are evil.

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