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The Living Tradition of Catholic Moral Theology.

This book gathers 10 essays by America's most talked-about moral theologian, all but one of which has been published within the past three years. They cover a great variety of topics, ranging from sexual morality through Catholic social teachings to academic freedom and, lastly, war.

Curran's hitherto unpublished lead essay on "Tensions Within the Roman Catholic Church Today" sets the tone of the collection. What emerges is more a broad reconsideration of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Catholic moral theology in the light of the emergence of "historical consciousness," with the various other topics serving as prime examples of this overall theme.

It is this awareness of the historical development of Catholic ethical thinking - its dependence upon multiple sources, be it faith and reason, scripture or tradition, and, increasingly in modern times, upon sociological and economic analysis - that makes it a living tradition and not just a dead body of moral absolutes.

That same historical process accounts for the tensions in Catholic thought. Particularly striking is the gap between the open ethics of the great social encyclicals and the refusal to dialogue with those whose lives are most directly involved in this area of human life. It is this dichotomy between performed ideas and contemporary human experience that largely explains the present ineffectiveness of the magisterium's traditional reliance on "natural law" as the foundation of much of its moral reasoning.

When we ignore up-to-date information drawn from the various sciences and the ever-growing wealth of human experience and rely instead on outworn preconceptions about "unchanging" human nature, the credibility of the natural-law approach, once the strong point of Catholic thinking, is undercut at its very root.

True, this natural-law approach, based on a creation-centered theology, sometimes has proved too optimistic and often has failed to give sufficient attention to the tragedy of sin and the challenges posed by the mystery of the redemption. But the appeals to reason and experience, as well as to faith, even when they sometimes seem to conflict, remain the heart of this living Catholic tradition.

One of the best examples of this latter tension can be seen in Curran's treatment, in the final essay, of the "Use of Force in the New World Order." As a realist in the mainstream of Catholic thought, Curran holds to the "just war theory," arguing that there are times when it is a moral obligation for a nation to use force in the name of justice - but only as a last resort.

Yet he admits that force alone can neither ensure justice nor win peace. At best, force can only remove obstacles. Much more than force of arms is required - he sees the gospel (as well as those who follow it literally) not only reminding us of that, but also of the necessity of admitting a plurality of outlooks within the Catholic fold.

Long considered by most to be an advocate of the distinctive New Testament-inspired morality of Bernard Haring, Curran seems to see himself more among the true Thomists who emphasize the goodness of creation and remain optimistic about the ability of faith and reason to operate in concert.

That contrasts with those who appeal to natural law yet are more in the Augustinian tradition of opposition between the "two cities" of God and the world, a view in recent centuries more typical of Protestantism and the various sects.

If that is true, the irony of Curran's situation is all the more underlined. Expelled from the Catholic University of America and shunned by other Catholic institutions, it now remains the privilege of Southern Methodist University to give refuge to one of the strongest contemporary advocates of what has always been the traditional Catholic approach.

Curran can at least take some satisfaction that Notre Dame University, even though it didn't dare hire him, through its publishing operation made some gesture of repatriation for this lamentable lapse.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Catholic Reporter
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kropf, Richard W.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 18, 1992
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