Diverse Voices in Modern US Moral Theology

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Charles E. Curran
Moral Traditions
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , November
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Charles Curran is a widely recognized scholar in the field of Roman Catholic Moral theology who has published numerous books over the last decades. Curran uses that expertise to write a lucid, engaging chronicle of American moral theology's evolution and transformation over the last seventy-five years. He does not try to produce a comprehensive narrative, but rather, focuses on certain figures that reveal the changing method, form, and academic location of key theologians from the turn of the 20th century upto the present. This review of Diverse Voices in Modern US Moral Theology provides a highlight of some of his profiles, but not all of them. 

Curran's narrative begins with John Ford, a Jesuit educated at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome who taught at Weston Jesuit School of Theology. For Curran, Ford is one of the last of theologians writing in the “manualists” style of moral theology. The manual style reflected the era prior to the Second Vatican Council—when moral theology was taught in Catholic seminaries—for the purpose of guiding priests in their task of administering the Sacrament of Penance, and prescribing appropriate penalties. In these manuals, appeals to the natural law and papal teaching were central. 

The second figure in Curran's book is Bernard Häring, a German Jesuit who taught primarily in Germany. Häring's three-volume work, The Law of Christ (Newman Press, 1961),was translated into several languages. Instead of using the traditional “manual” method of rooting moral commandments in neo-Scholastic traditions, Häring rooted ethics in Christology, and the relationship between Christ and believer made most fully present in the sacraments of the church. Curran also notes that Häring rejects the “classicist” notion of moral truths as fixed and abstract, bringing to moral theology a sense of historical consciousness and the awareness that individuals and moral judgments are rooted in particular times and places. Curran notes that Häring's second trilogy, Free and Faithful in Christ (1979-1981), moved further in this methodological direction than Häring's earlier work had gone. 

Moving from Europe to the United States, Curran looks at the work of Richard McCormick, an American Jesuit who taught in Germany, but eventually ended up teaching at the University of Notre Dame. Curran notes, as he did with Häring, that notions of historicism became increasingly prominent in Catholic moral theology. Hence, notions of “timeless truths” came under increasing scrutiny; hence, McCormick argued that the logic of Humanae Vitae (America—the Jesuit Review, 1993) is reliant on a physical and biological description of the sexual act, but says little about the persons or the intentions who engage in that act. McCormick's focus on individuals helps shift the discourse away from earlier notions of ethics, which were based on abstract concepts of moral truth. 

From McCormick, Curran moves on to chapters on Natural Law theologian Germain Grisez, and the Thomist thinker Romanus Cessario, a Dominican and professor at Saint John's Seminary in Boston. These chapters attempt to flush out the continuing debates, which remain ongoing on the content of the natural law and its role in Catholic moral theology, especially in relation to other sources of revelation. 

Curran then turns to theologians who are not priests trained in Rome. He explores the work of Yale Divinity School (YDS) Professor Margaret Farley, showing how her location in a university setting forced her to engage secular philosophy and feminism in a way those within Vatican educational institutions. Farley was a nun, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, who wrote her dissertation under the direction of the Protestant ethicist James M. Gufstason. She spent her entire career at Yale, addressing both Protestant and Catholic audiences as part of a religious studies department and a Divinity School—where Catholic scholars rather than Catholic candidates for the priesthood trained. Rooted in a commitment to the discernment of agents, her major ethical book Just Love (Continuum, 2008) breaks with Catholic teaching by declaring that freely-chosen, committed same-sex relationships can be ethical according to Christian traditions informed by justice and love. 

Curran's final two chapters represent a move away from what had before been a racially un-diverse narrative. He explores the work of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, pioneer of mujerista theology—a theology rooted in the everyday struggles of Hispanic women in the United States as they fight oppression and injustice from both within the Hispanic community as well as outside of it. Diaz emigrated from Cuba as a political refugee and did her doctorate under Beverly Harrison, a Protestant, feminist ethicist at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Isasi-Diaz came to see her theology as growing out of a praxis of struggle for justice by Hispanic women. Rather than beginning with scripture or natural law, as older manualist theologians had done, she begins with the experience of Hispanic women. In her theology, Isasi-Diaz focuses on liberty, faith community, and justice as primary goals. 

Curran then treats the work of Bryan Massingale, a black Catholic priest and ethicist who now teaches at Fordham University in New York City. This chapter explores what it means to do Catholic ethics while aware of the injustices and concerns that affect the African-American Community. Curran notes that Massingale remains active in ministry despite being a part of two highly ranked academic faculties, perhaps a return to the older model of the scholar-priest. Curran notes the ways in which Massingale points to the Catholic Moral theology that ignores the problem of racism, while also showing how Massingale, breaking out of the narrower world of Catholic scholarship, engages with the work of largely Protestant Black Liberation theologians. 

Later chapters deal with the New Wineskins movement of younger Catholic moral theologians who attempt to work across the divides of liberalism and conservatism. This chapter consists largely of a gatherings of pre-tenured theologians. Curran then examines the work of James Keenan to conclude his book. While Diverse Voices in Modern Moral US Theology’s choice of theologians might be questioned, and its narrative could have been slightly different if other contributors were chosen, it is unfortunate that he did not include Catholic authors working on new directions in Catholic sexual ethics, authors such as Mary Hunt, or Mark Jordan, or James Allison. However, Curran makes no claims to provide a complete narrative of the history of American moral theology, and the voices he chooses are reasonably diverse on many levels. He shows how moral theology has moved from being primarily taught in seminaries to its teachings in Catholic liberal arts colleges and universities, and has gone from a largely clerical discipline taught by men to discipline that now involves both men and women, lay and ordained. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Health Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles E. Curran is Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University and has published more than fifty books on moral theology.


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