Development of Moral Teaching

A CHURCH THAT CAN AND CANNOT CHANGE: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, by John T. Noonan, Jr., University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, cloth, 297 pages, HB $30.00

This is an important book. It argues strongly that, just as the Church revised dogmatic teaching over the years as it saw authentic development in some dogmas, so it has revised its practice (and thus its teaching) over the years as it has seen authentic development in the attitude of Catholics and Catholic theologians towards moral matters. The book deals with this in four areas: slavery, religious freedom, usury, and divorce.

Concerning slavery, the book shows that slavery was practiced everywhere in the known world when Catholicism began. Early Catholics and early Catholic writers accepted it as a necessary part of life, at least for fallen man, and justified it in the case, for example, of captives taken in war, or criminals sentenced to slavery. Catholic theologians, either from reading or from experience, were aware of the horrible things that often happened to slaves, or that even regularly happened to them. Yet not one of the theologians said that slavery was intrinsically evil. They said that it was unnatural but not that a human being could never own another human being, that it was against the dignity of a human being as such.

Popes owned slaves, religious orders owned slaves. No doubt they treated them better than other slave-owners did. Catholic writers described the pathetic life of slaves; recommended manumission by slave-owners; taught that slaves should be catechized and, if they were willing, be baptized; asked that they be allowed to hear Mass and to marry; and that, in the case of a man and wife being slaves, they not be separated from one another or from their children. Treatment such as this was sometimes commanded by the Church. Unfortunately such treatment was only rarely found, while the horror of the practice continued unabated in most parts of the world. And no one said that slavery was intrinsically evil. Not one Catholic pope, bishop, or theologian.

There were Catholics who were outstanding in their fight for the slaves, heroes of exceptional charity, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, and St. Peter Claver. Bartolomé was a Dominican priest who had been given slaves in the West Indies. His Dominican confessor refused to forgiven his sins until he had ceased to be a slave-owner. Bartolomé then devoted his life to fighting slavery. But he did not say that it was intrinsically evil. He even recommended substituting African slaves for those in the American colonies because the latter were unable to bear slavery’s hardships. St. Peter Claver devoted his life to looking after thousands of slaves transported from Africa to Cartagena, a Caribbean port in Colombia. What he did to help them was to follow a life almost impossible for a human being. Yet he never said that slavery was intrinsically evil. And he asked for a few African slaves who could act as interpreters for the good work he was doing for the slaves obtained from the many African tribes he was looking after.

It was only about 1800 A.D. that some people in the world claimed that no person should ever be enslaved. And the chief call as this time to exterminate slavery came not from Catholics but from other Christians, in England. Even in 1840 the meeting of American Catholic bishops in Baltimore declined to state that slavery is intrinsically evil. And the first declaration of the Church that it is intrinsically evil came from the Second Vatican Council and from the Splendor Veritatis encyclical of Pope John Paul II. John Paul also, on a visit to Africa, apologized for the part that Catholics had played in the trading in slaves or using slaves all those centuries.

We can thus see that Catholic teaching on slavery changed from allowing it to exist for centuries (though often with strong objection to many of its aspects) to declaring it intrinsically evil. What happened was that Catholics and Catholic theologians, through the continuous practice of slavery, came gradually to realize that it is intrinsically evil. The truth is that for centuries they really did not think that it was. This is the reason that many theologian saints, even Saint Thomas Aquinas, were able to be canonized.

The book next examines the question of religious freedom in the same way as it has examined the question of slavery, although it finds not that a practice that was allowed was finally declared to be unallowable but rather that a practice that was unallowable came to be allowed.

It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Church taught that every person has a right to religious freedom. Before that, it had argued, of course, that every Catholic, or every person wishing to become a Catholic, had such a freedom. But this freedom was denied to others because, it was said, it was in favour of persons practicing error. Archbishop Lefevbre refused to accept the new position.

The book also shows that the same transition occurred in the matter of usury, which was forbidden absolutely in the early days of the Church but which gradually, and finally in the sixteenth century, became permissible. This change was due in part to changing economic practices but even more to a changing interpretation of a few words of Jesus, just as a changing interpretation of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon concerning Onesimus could be very significant in showing the intrinsic evil of slavery.

The fourth practice to be examined is the matter of divorce, not the modern practice of annulments we might think of immediately, but divorce connected with the Pauline Privilege and the Petrine Privilege. From the beginning of the Church, divorce was completely outlawed, but some rare complicated problems seem to have been solved by dissolving the marriages even of non-Catholics without their knowledge, which persons, of course, are often thought not to be under the jurisdiction of the Church.

However, Cardinal Dulles (in First Things, October 2005), though he has great respect for Judge Noonan, argues that his thesis concerning slavery is unconvincing. The Cardinal distinguishes between “absolute bondage” and “attenuating forms of servitude” which, “linked to collective life in a fallen world and to the painful aspects of human labor, cannot be eliminated except by degrees . . . . More or less moderate forms of subjection and servitude will always accompany the human condition . . . . The goal of full and uninhibited freedom, however, is an eschatological ideal never fully available within history.”

The Cardinal has similar objections to the other matters Judge Noonan deals with. He speaks of a nuancing, rather than a reversal, of the earlier teaching, and concludes that the Judge “fails to establish that the Church has reversed her teaching in any of the four areas he examines.”

Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B.
The Academy of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom
Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada

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