Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae

MORAL THEOLOGY AFTER HUMANAE VITAE: FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES IN MORAL THEOLOGY AND SEXUAL ETHICS. By D. Vincent Twomey, SVD (Four Courts Press, c/o International Specialized Book Services, 920 N.E. 58th Avenue, Suite 300, Portland, OR 97213, 2010), 218 pp. HB $45.00.

There are basically two explanations for the tepid reception of Humanae Vitae. We can blame either the Church who gave it birth, or the culture into which it was born. Twomey points his finger at the latter. He explains that the rejection of Paul VI’s teaching was due to a “cultural context characterized by an anti-theological view of reality in conflict with the encyclical’s vision of faith” (193). Ultimately, it is only faith in Christ that opens our eyes to the authority of the Magisterium, and prompts our obedience to its teaching. To reject Humanae Vitae is ultimately to question the Church’s divine authority to teach on moral issues.

Twomey argues persuasively that our wounded reason needs this teaching authority to “discover and recover the truth about the moral order, and to criticize any contemporary culture to the degree that it has become blind to what is objectively right and wrong” (75). In effect, he wants to reconnect our practical reason to the universal principles of the natural law, expressed in the Decalogue, that guide our concrete decisions and actions. Yet, he is not a deontologist. He stresses that our decisions and actions are always carried out, within a specific community, that influences and molds are affections and emotional responses to various situations. This renders the “measure” of those decisions and actions both universal and distinctly personal. “Natural law (the Tao), and primordial conscience, are two terms that approach this measure from two different perspectives” (40). The interpersonal quality of this “primordial conscience,” which Twomey has elaborated elsewhere as anamnesis, continues to be a focal point of Benedict XVI’s moral teaching. We need both internal and external points of reference to know and do what is right. Individual conscience is necessary but not enough. We need an external, divine authority precisely on account of our social nature: we need the Church, and we need her Magisterium.

Twomey’s analysis is most incisive when he expounds the way in which we build upon this “primordial conscience.” Most significantly, though, they have been largely ignored until recently; the passions play a major role in learning to live according to the “measure.” To develop a theory of the passions, Twomey turns to C. S. Lewis, whose treatment has several parallels with those of Blessed John Henry Newman (who deeply influenced Pope Benedict XVI), and Saint Thomas Aquinas (cf. The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion by Nicholas E. Lombardo, O.P.). Twomey uses the elegant analogy of learning to play a sport, or a musical instrument. We rely on accepted practices to acquire these skills, which in turn are preserved, and passed on by institutions (i.e., communities). The analogy is so useful that even Twomey underestimates its power, saying that in the final analysis it “collapses altogether, since the source and ultimate goal of human excellence is not human but divine” (102, italics mine).

Twomey offers an exceptional analysis of the current moral crisis. There are only two areas I wish he had developed further. First, although he rightly recalls Vatican II’s caution against tendencies to substitute a dynamic and more evolutionary concept of nature for a static one, recent Vatican pronouncements suggest that the “dynamic” notion of human nature should be taken seriously (cf. pars. 55, 64, and 69 of the International Theological Commission’s document on the natural law). Second, Twomey often refers to dissident Catholic scholars obliquely as “some theologians,” rather than giving names. Gentleman that he is, I am sure his motivation was tact and courtesy toward wayward intellectuals, though he opens himself to the criticism of sweeping generalization. More importantly, he misses an opportunity to bring these theologians out of the woodwork. Concrete examples of who said what would protect many well-meaning Catholics from the specious claims of not-so-well-meaning theologians.

Msgr. Daniel B. Gallagher
The Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome

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