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The Moral Act

  • Norbert J. Rigali (a1)

From the manuals of the classicist period, moral theology inherited an understanding of the moral act that is rooted in the classical conception of the human being as a rational animal. However, the new personalist and relational anthropology characterizing contemporary theology requires a corresponding revised idea of the nature of the moral act. This revision, it appears, cannot be definitively achieved unless a holistic material understanding of the moral life first replaces the merely formal and empty concept of it in the manualist tradition. Fortunately, this replacement seems to be occurring. The areas of sexual morality and social consciousness are those that suffer the greatest distortion in ethics based on classicist anthropology and, similarly, admit the greatest revision when transferred into the context of contemporary theological anthropology.

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1 ST 1a2ae, q. 1, a. 1.

2 Hürth, F. and Abellán, P. M., De Principiis—De Virtutibus et Praeceptis (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 1948), I:159.

3 ST 1a2ae, q. 1, a. 3.

4 Noldin, H., Schmitt, A., and Heinzel, G., Summa Theologiae Moralis (30th ed.; Innsbruck: F. Rauch, 1952), I:66.

5 See Johann, Robert O., Building the Human (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), pp. 7679.

6 Surely among the many factors leading to this development are the publication of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's vision of the unity and interrelatedness of all reality, insights from depth psychology, and the influence of Martin Buber's personalism.

7 Monden, Louis S.J.,, Sin, Liberty and Law, tr. Donceel, Joseph S.J., (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), p. 31.

7 Ibid., p. 36.

9 O'Neill, Robert P. and Donovan, Michael A., Sexuality and Moral Responsibility (Washington, DC: Corpus Books, 1968), p. 57.

10 McCormick, Richard A. S.J.,, Notes on Moral Theology 1965 through 1980 (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981), p. 304.

11 Rigali, Norbert J., “Christ and Morality” in Readings in Moral Theology, No. 2: The Distinctiveness of Christian Ethics, ed. Curran, Charles E. and McCormick, R. A. S.J., (New York: Paulist, 1980), p. 114.

12 See Noldin, Schmitt, and Heinzel, I:38: The human being “is bound to live a life worthy of a son of God through the supernatural observance of the commandments of God so that through good works he might merit the reward of eternal life.” This statement is indicative of a moral theology in which “the moral life” is merely a formal, empty concept.

13 Bernard Häring devotes the first volume of his second compendium of moral theology, Free and Faithful in Christ (New York: Seabury, 1978), to presenting the Christian moral life as a life of creative freedom and fidelity in Christ. In Conscience: Development and Self-Transcendence (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1981), Walter E. Conn proposes that the moral life in general and, specifically, the Christian moral life are to be understood as the fulfillment of conscience as the drive toward self-transcendence through “a creativity that is at once sensitive, critical, responsible and loving” (p. 213 and passim).

14 Häring, , Free and Faithful in Christ, II (1979): 503, 560.

15 Ibid., pp. 562-63

16 Ibid., pp. 523-24.

17 Unfortunately, Humanae vitae itself exemplifies the failure of classicist moral theology to present a completely satisfactory understanding of the human act. Although the encyclical uses the terms, conjugal act (actus coniugais), act of marriage (coniugii actus), and conjugal intercourse (coniugalis congressio), in its key sentence regarding human regulation of conception it states that any use of matrimony (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain per se ordered to the procreation of human life (AAS 60 [1968], p. 488). Pope Paul VI, of course, inherited the practice of speaking about sexual intercourse between a married couple as a “use of matrimony.” Nevertheless, this classicist terminology is extremely inept and misleading. It is a depersonalizing reification that causes marriage to appear as if it were a thing to be used rather than as a shared commitment to be lived. The question of contraception cannot even be posed, much less answered, without distortion unless such terminology, inextricably linked to an anthropology of the rational animal, is transcended.

Moreover, there is inherent distortion and confusion in language that speaks about a need for a human act to remain open to some good or value. It is not human acts but persons who are obliged to remain, in and through their acts, open to goods and values. Hypostasizing human acts distorts the relations that constitute the essence of moral, personal reality. Thus, while, for the sake of dialogue, adopting here the language of hypostasized human acts, I must at the same time call attention to the incapacity of this language definitively even to pose, much less to answer, the moral question of contraception.

18 Häring, Bernard, Medicol Ethics, ed. Jean, Gabrielle L. (Notre Dame, IN: Fides, 1973), pp. 184–89;Free and Faithful in Christ, 11:564.

19 Häring, , Medical Ethics, p. 186.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., p. 187.

22 Ibid.

23 Häring, , Free and Faithful in Christ, II:564.

24 Häring, , Medical Ethics, p. 188.

25 Ibid.

26 Häring, , Free and Faithful in Christ, II:564.

27 Ibid., p. 563.

28 Ibid.

29 McCormick has defined what he calls “vintage Haring.” It is “characterized by obvious kindness and compassion, pastoral prudence, a shrewd sense of the direction of things, and a generous amount of haziness” (Notes on Moral Theology 1965 through 1980, p. 340).

30 Häring, , Free and Faithful in Christ, II:563–64.

31 Keane, Philip S. S.S., Sexual Morality: A Catholic Perspective (New York: Paulist, 1977), p. 87.

32 Ibid.

33 Curran, Charles E., Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue (Notre Dame, IN: Fides, 1972), p. 217.

34 Baum, Gregory, “Catholic Homosexuals,” Commonweal 99 (1974), 481.

35 Unfortunately, Baum's use of the term, “mutuality,” leaves him vulnerable to the charge that he sees human sexuality “simply as a vehicle of human intercommunication” and “fails to address the procreative or life-serving element of human sexuality” (Kosnik, Anthonyet al., Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought [New York: Paulist, 1977], p. 206). It is possible, however, that Baum does not understand “mutuality” in a narrow context and has in mind a relationship of love, fidelity, and responsibility that opens two persons more fully to society and the world, together with their responsibilities therein. Still, he does not tell us against what horizon, broad or narrow, we are to understand his words about a “friendship that enables the partners to grow and become more truly human.”

36 Rigali, Norbert J., “Faith and the Theologian,” The Priest 34 (1978), 14.

37 See Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Abbott, Walter M. S.J., (New York: Guild Press, 1966), no. 4, p. 202.

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