Moral Theology Update

THE CATHOLIC CITIZEN: DEBATING THE ISSUES OF JUSTICE. Proceedings from the 26 th Annual Conference of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, 2803. Edited by Kenneth D. Whitehead (St. Augustine’s Press, Box 2285, South Bend, Ind., 2004), 248 pp. PB $17.00.

“Notes on Moral Theology” originated as a feature of Theological Studies intended to help priests stay abreast of the latest developments in Catholic moral theology. Alas, under the long editorship of the late Richard McCormick, S.J., and his successors, “Notes” became a venue for giving vent to revisionist rather than Catholic moral theology. Such a turn of events was unfortunate because, as Whitehead’s book shows, there are plenty of moral issues today demanding the engagement of priests and laity. Happily—in contrast to “Notes”—Whitehead’s collection strives to think with the Church.

Abortion, capital punishment, divorce, embryo adoption, the needs of “non traditional” households and war and peace are the topics treated in these 16 essays, papers delivered at the 2003 annual conference of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (FCS). Founded in 1977 as a professional society of Catholic academics, FCS members work “to serve Christ better… by putting our abilities more fully at the service of the Catholic faith” (HPR’s editor, Fr. Baker, is a former President).

The essays in this collection bring readers up-to-date with developments in specific fields. Patrick Lee’s “Recent Developments in the Abortion Debate” notes six issues impacting the shape of the current discussion of abortion. He affords the lion’s share of his attention to two philosophical debates (new attempts to rationalize the separation of “human life” from “personhood” and rethreads of Judith J. Thompson’s 35-year old defense of abortion), giving short shrift to four others (including advances in sonography and embryology). William Saunders and Tadeusz Pacholczyk square off on the morality of “embryo adoption,” where a woman other than the genetic mother agrees to give birth to and possibly raise one of the estimated 400,000+ embryos produced by in vitro fertilization but now abandoned by their genetic parents and languishing in cryopreservation. Steven Long and E. Christian Brugger debate what Evangelium vitae actually teaches about capital punishment and how that teaching squares with the rest of the Catholic tradition on the death penalty. Four authors (including Gerald Bradley and Bill May) confront the argument advanced both by partisans of homosexual “marriage” as well as advocates of extending real marital benefits to homosexual “partnerships”: what does justice demand? “Justice,” of course, is defined in various ways today, often reduced to meaning, “what I want.” John Finnis’s keynote address tackles the question of justice, contrasting the real virtue rooted in natural law against various caricatures (such as John Rawls’s) amputated from any grounding in objective good. Christopher Wolfe shows how complex real justice decisions can be in the real world. Should States provide childcare benefits to children, irrespective of the kind of union which begat them and, if so, how then does one discourage illegitimacy?

Fr. John Coughlin addresses potential problems of Catholic lawyers and judges working amidst a culture of divorce. (He might also add: working in the midst of a growing tendency to tar practicing Catholics as inherently unqualified “extremists” for judicial appointments). John Hittinger, J. Brian Benestad and Michael Baxter all focus on various moral issues connected with war, peace, and military service, all germane topics given America’s recent military engagements in the post-9/11 world.

One can debate some perspectives on offer here. The reviewer, for example, thinks that the key recent developments on the abortion debate lie elsewhere than what Lee identifies. It would seem they lie in two contradictory trends: pro-lifers gained public sympathy in the debate over partial-birth abortion, but are losing ground in the stem cell “research” juggernaut. But these authors would invite lively discussion.

For Catholic clergy, especially those who finished seminary some time ago, this book updates them on issues in the public forum with a moral angle. They are also issues likely to be increasingly encountered in guiding consciences. For lay people wanting to know what scholars who strive to think with the Church are thinking, here’s a good overview. Recommended.

Dr. John M. Grondelski
Warsaw, Poland

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