NOTE: This is the first of many posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.
During the period prior to Vatican II, a certain legalism seemed to predominate, where strict adherence to the rules was encouraged while the motivation for obedience often was not clearly tied to the gospel message. Such was not the case in early Christian history, when the early Church Fathers and the fathers of the Monastic Period, when homiletics, polemics, and meditations drew from scripture for inspiration. Two factors contributed to the tendency toward legalism in the earlier part of the 20th century. First, the Nominalists of the Scholastic period (1100–1600) espoused a volunteerist morality, less about the goodness of an action but its adherence to the law imposed by God’s sovereign will—beneficial or not. By the time of the Reformation, much of the legalistic mindset of the Nominalists had imposed itself on Catholic thinking. In addition, because of the emphasis that Protestants put upon scripture, particularly with their doctrine sola scriptura, Catholics became more reserved in their reliance on Sacred Scripture as the guiding principle for their moral lives, focusing more on catechisms and readings of the lives of the saints to avoid the doctrinal conflicts that could result from literalistic personal interpretation. In Living the Truth in Love, Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., rightly warns against such fundamentalist readings.
Ashley also points out that some contemporary theologians consider the moral precepts of scripture to be so historically conditioned as to render any specific moral rules to be obsolete for us today. These theologians rely more on natural law and philosophical ethics with no scriptural foundation. Nonetheless, Vatican II stressed a return to the sources of Christian morality—scripture and tradition—noting in Dei Verbum that “[s]acred theology relies on the Written Word of God, taken together with sacred Tradition, as on a permanent foundation” (DV 24). Moral theology, a subset of sacred theology, must be grounded in revelation to provide the guidance necessary for Christians living in the relativistic secular culture of today’s western world.
i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 1—Lesson Two,” International Catholic University, 5 February 2010, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00301.htm.
ii. Raymond Brown, 101 Questions & Answers on the Bible, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 43–48.
iii. Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 8.
iv. Ibid., 10.
v. Ashley, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00301.htm.