An Introduction to Catholic Ethics Since Vatican II
I do like this book, but I must say at the outset that the title—An Introduction to Catholic Ethics Since Vatican II—is seriously misleading. One expects from the title an overview of various schools of thought, major authors, dominant themes, and contentious issues in the broad landscape of Catholic moral theology over the past fifty years. In reality, it is a primer in virtue ethics aimed at an undergraduate audience in moral theology courses offered at Catholic colleges. Author Andrew Kim is presenting his own framework, not providing an overview and assessment of the thought of others. A thorough treatment of what the title promises would likely have to be three or four times as long as the less than 200 pages provided by this book. My suggested title for this book would be The Virtues of Virtue Ethics: An Introduction.
Even though the name Servais Pinckaers appears in only two footnotes, his influence clearly shaped the direction of this book. Kim has been persuaded, through his graduate studies—directed by William Mattison at the Catholic University of America—that the neo-Thomist approach of Pinckaers is the best model for Catholic moral theology on offer today.
This book has four main parts: (1) it discusses the foundations of Catholic ethics, focusing on the insufficiency of relativism as a worldview, and the alternative provided by the Catholic tradition’s synthesis of natural law and biblical revelation; (2) it is a primer in virtue ethics, covering the cardinal virtues, the infused virtues of grace, and the unity of the virtues in the human soul; (3) it turns to the topics of justice, the principles of Catholic social teaching, and the just war theory; (4) it covers topics in bioethics, including the dignity of the human person, contraception, abortion, surrogate motherhood, and euthanasia. As a brief introduction to such a wide variety of topics, this book cannot possibly treat all of the issues and arguments at a level that specialists would find satisfying, but for the general reader it is an engaging tour that will hopefully provoke a desire to continue reading in these areas of lively conversation in the contemporary world.
I have two substantive critiques of the book. First, it seems to lack an awareness of the importance of the doctrine of sin. An understanding of growth in virtue ought to arise in concert with a deep understanding of why people are not virtuous. Personally, I find Søren Kierkegaard, Eric Voegelin, and René Girard to be most helpful in that regard; perhaps one could turn to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s anthropology, Bernard Lonergan’s notion of bias, or Walker Percy’s “lost in the cosmos” image instead. None of those names is in the Index of this book. Even though the author does draw on C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man and The Screwtape Letters are not in the Bibliography. The author seems to be content with a fairly superficial critique of “modern relativism” without being curious about exploring, in a deeper way, the existential roots of the modern malaise. Second, the emphasis on virtue ethics is not followed consistently throughout the book. The section on abortion, for example, is fairly conventional in employing syllogisms and objecting to abortion as a failure to respect the inherent dignity of all human beings, beginning at conception. But the author does not argue, as the reader would expect, that our contemporary culture of legalized abortion has developed as a fruit of our failure to develop individual and communal virtues, and as a consequence of particular vices. He could have taken what Pinckaers says about “freedom of indifference” versus “freedom for excellence” and used that as a framework for his discussion of abortion and other particular ethical questions, but he does not go down that path.
Two minor aspects of the book are puzzling: the repeated odd spelling of the name “Feurbach,” and the statement that the sun appears to move across the sky because the earth “rotates around the sun” once every 24 hours. The author should have said “rotates around its own axis.” That the author would make such an elementary mistake is odd; that it would have survived the editorial process at a major university press is downright perplexing. These relatively minor concerns aside, I do recommend that this book be considered as an undergraduate text or for general readers interested in virtue ethics.
Charles K. Bellinger is associate profesor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.
Add New Comment
Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.