Meghan Bowen

What is Moral Theology?

What is moral theology? Or, more precisely, what is it that moral theologians do? For some throughout the Church, there is the sense that moral theologians tell believers what they are not supposed to do, that the moral theologian is a kind of keeper of the rules and regulations. I begin here by immediately questioning this over-reliance on law and obligation, the effect of the deontological approach on our perception of what the good life is meant to be. Servais Pinckaers argues that it was a mistake in Christian theology to emphasize law and obligation rather than development of the Christian in the likeness of God and the practice of the virtues. The approach he suggests is a return to the earlier moral theology that advocated a greater concern with the freedom of the human person to choose to follow the good.

Increasingly over the last few decades, we see the reclamation of the place of the virtues as foundational for the good life. Accompanying this turn is a continued resistance to the simplistic development of universal rules in favour of a development of the ability to discern properly the correct action to take. The recent document from the International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law, calls into question the very possibility of an unchanging, universal law. Instead, the good life is cast as the ability to judge well the appropriate response to a particular situation. Work by such leading moral theologians such as Jean Porter and Martin Rohnheimer further develop such assertions.

The proposed paper will present an extended reflection on the nature of moral theology and its purpose within the life of the Church. Following the Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, the good life is a life spent in pursuit of virtues with the goal of becoming ever more like God. The moral theologian, I contend, is one who not only helps to articulate how the good life may be discerned in a given context, but who also helps to form believers so that they too may perform this discernment themselves.