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Church's second millenium often contradicts the first.

OXFORD, England - To help assess how Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, promulgated at the Vatican Oct. 5, might be received by the theologians who toil in the fields of moral theology, a look at how the discipline came into being is in order.

One of the great surprises for history-minded theological students is that what happened in the first millennium is so often contradicted in the second millennium. For example general confession gave way to private absolution. A different praxis evolved, and therefore a different theory (or theology) to cope with it.

More fundamentally the very idea of a theologian changed. Bishops like Augustine or Hilary were the theologians of the first millennium. A few laypeople like Tertullian or Origen nudged their way in. But when one says "the fathers," speaking of the first millennium, one means bishops.

Theologians, as a distinct breed, as the intellectuals of the church, belong to the second millennium. That's when the word magisterium entered the church's vocabulary. At first it meant simply teaching,' the sort of teaching that went on in the great medieval universities of Paris, Bologna and Oxford. This "magisterial" teaching was done, not surprisingly, by magistri or qualified teachers.

But there was no specialization in the modem sense among medieval theologians. It would have made little sense to ask whether St Thomas Aquinas was a "moral" theologian. He was a theologian simpliciter as he would have said, just a theologian.' There was so far no specialization. Yet already there was a shift: from the teaching of bishops to that of professional or full-time theologians. The university "teachers" (or magistri) were mostly Franciscans, Dominicans or Augustinians - the three branches of friars who, unlike Benedictines and other monks, eagerly embraced urban life in the new universities.

This university magisterium did not exclude the episcopal or pontifical magisterium. But it changed its nature. The papal primacy became the court of appeal in theological disputes, the final arbiter.

At the Council of Trent (1545-63) theologians were represented in their own right, and not just as experts.' Their opinions counted. Their magisterium flowed into the conciliar magisterium. Among the most important theologians were two members of the newly founded Society of Jesus, Diego Laynez and Alfonso Salmeron.

The Jesuits invented specialization in theology: It seemed like common sense. But experts concentrating on moral theology, and on nothing else, were likely to forget the basics of Christian life and lose themselves in the maze of casuistry.

This was the charge leveled by Blaise Pascal, the greatest Christian thinker of the 17th century, against Jesuit casuistry. In his Lettres Provinciales he mocked the theory of "probabilism" as loophole-seeking laxity. He was able to contrast this with Jansenist rigor.

Casuistry, however, recovered and survived because it was needed for confessional practice. The confessor should not lay unnecessary burdens on people's backs. St. Alphonsus Liguori founded the Redemptorists who became specialists in moral theology.

The encyclical Veritatis Splendor was first announced by Pope John Paul in 1987 on the 200th anniversary of Alphonsus' death.

But the father of moral theology" would have been amazed to find John Paul reducing "casuistry" to deciding in doubtful cases" - and therefore having no place once one is dealing with the "intrinsically evil."

Casuistry has a much broader meaning than that, seeking enlightenment where there is a clash of duties, for example, or where a lesser evil" cannot be avoided.

In the period before Vatican II - when bishops now over 60 studied their moral theology - the discipline was in sad decline, and its professors did not enjoy great prestige. The foundations of moral theology" were either neglected or it was supposed that the topic was treated in philosophy.

The textbooks, invariably written in Latin, reflected the confusion between canon law and moral theology. Arguments about what to do were settled by the responsa from Roman congregations.

For example: How far apart should the hands of the priest be when saying Dominus vobiscum"? Answer: 12 inches. Everything was codified, docketed, labeled. Under the heading woman" you were advised to look up "scandal." Everyone knew reform was needed. Casuistry had become a sterile moralism in which the avoidance of sin was what mattered and the love and mercy of God seemed to have no place.

British Jesuit Cyril Charles Martindale said he learned more about Christian morality from the novels of Graham Greene than from all the textbooks.

What was chiefly needed was to restore to moral theology its setting in scripture and authentic tradition. One of the pioneers in this renewal was German man Redemptorist Bernard Haring whose seminal Law of Christ appeared in 1954.

When the Vatican Council in its decree on revelation, Dei Verbum, declared that "scripture is the soul of theology," it included moral theology in its scope.

The task for moral theologians was essentially one of articulation. How were they to relate gospel values and natural law? Should the emphasis in morality fall on the virtues or the commandments? What sort of morality emerged from the beatitudes? These questions were handled, and handled rather well, in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The French representative on the editorial team, Jean Honore, archbishop of Tours, described their "puzzlement" as they worked on the "foundations of morality" on hearing that Pope John Paul II was preparing an encyclical on the same subject. It is hard to find anyone who truthfully wanted this encyclical. Haring himself, now well in his 80s and speaking through a voice box, consoles himself with the thought that he will soon be with the church in heaven where he won't have to put up with what happens in the church on earth.
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Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 15, 1993
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