Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory

An Introduction

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Bernard G. Prusak
  • Mahwah, NJ: 
    Paulist Press
    , March
     2016.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780809149780.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Reflecting on the painting on the cover of his Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction, Bernard Prusak states: “What work of philosophy couldn’t use a burst of artistic vitality?” (xi). Such a comment displays the accessible and relaxed nature of the work as a whole. For an introductory text on an expansive and well-trodden topic, Prusak’s seems to be both an example of the Catholic moral philosophical tradition and a commentary on it. Indeed, throughout the work Prusak interweaves ethical controversies, the history of development in Catholic thought, and the modern conversations around these topics - all the while bringing his readers back to the questions of what this book is about (i.e. ‘what’s at stake’) and to whom it is addressed. About the second point especially, Prusak is clear from the beginning: “this book is addressed, primarily, to persons within the Catholic tradition,” whether this is by being a student at a Catholic school, being a person of Catholic heritage, or being someone who actively identifies as Catholic (3; emphasis his).

Knowing his intended audience helps in understanding the often conversational, rather than didactic, tone of the book. Prusak is writing towards a conversation in morality (a term he uses interchangeably with ‘ethics’). Though he knows full well the limitations of much of his readership in terms of their background knowledge (this is, after all, a book intended for undergraduate use), Prusak will ultimately presuppose that he and his reader share a basic tradition. It is in light of this presupposition that his addition to the literature on Catholic moral thinking can be truly appreciated.

Using a case-based approach to moral philosophy, Prusak aims to generate discussion on some common themes (such as abortion and just war theory, chapters one and four respectively) while presenting the historical basis for the Catholic moral tradition (covering both casuistry and Thomistic thought, chapters two and three). His creativity as well as his concern for practical, modern issues appears with sections on the ethics of meat-eating  (chapter five) and on the moral implications of a market in human kidneys (chapter six). Throughout, Prusak does not hesitate to offer his own opinions on these matters and this too speaks to his concern to generate discussion. Indeed, a fair number of Prusak’s positions - his revisionist approach to just war theory and his critique of “new natural law” thinking to name the most glaring examples - will have detractors (as well as defenders) within the Catholic intellectual community. Again, however, for Prusak, spurring such conversation seems largely the point.

Given his tendency to present controversies unsettled even within the Catholic tradition, it would be understandable for some teachers to be wary of using Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory as an introductory text. Moreover, though he does draw steadily from the “standards” of the tradition (Aquinas and Augustine especially), Prusak makes far more use of contemporary Catholic periodicals; in particular he cites articles in Commonweal, First Things, and America magazines. For a course more focused on historical thinkers, a teacher may wish to look elsewhere for a textbook. For any teacher interested in presenting the Catholic moral tradition as a living one and in generating conversation among students, Prusak’s is a welcome contribution. Seminar style courses would benefit from the “Questions for Further Reflection” at the end of each chapter (these can be used profitably as paper topics as well). Overall, Prusak’s introduction to Catholic moral philosophy is more of an invitation to further engagement with ethical thinking - and one with a certain “burst of artistic vitality” at that.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent S. Gordon is a seminarian at St. Vincent de Paul Reigional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bernard Prusak is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He was educated at Williams College; Exeter College, Oxford University; and Boston University, where he took his Ph.D. in philosophy. He then taught humanities and social sciences for three years in the Core Curriculum at Boston University and for seven years in the Center for Liberal Education at Villanova University, from which he moved to King's in fall of 2012.

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