Reframing Catholic Theological Ethics

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Joseph A. Selling
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Joseph Selling, professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Leuven, sets out in Reframing Catholic Theological Ethics to navigate a new vision for theological ethics. The fundamental thesis for Selling is that the tradition of moral theology within the Roman Catholic Church has focused too narrowly on human acts, and in particular, on acts that have been artificially separated from any context. Selling proposes an alternative approach in which moral judgment is based not merely on individual behaviors, but on what he calls throughout the book the “moral event,” composed of behaviors, but also intention, ends, means chosen, circumstances, and so on. For Selling, ethics should be about right intentions, with attention given to limiting circumstances, which finally leads to the appropriate selection of action to be performed.

One of the primary themes of the book is that Catholicism’s focus on acts (or the moral object) is a result of the way that moral theology developed as a discipline at least initially geared to the hearing of confessions. Because priests normally hear “what happened” and not so much about the details, circumstances, and intentions, it made a certain logical sense to begin to worry about moral acts as the primary focus. Selling argues that during the Counter Reformation, which called for a renewed and also systematic approach to the training of priests, the tradition of moral theology manuals took this focus to an extreme. The result was moral theology that was almost entirely about acts. Even after the renewal called for at Vatican II, Selling notes that moral theologians in the Catholic tradition were slow to move to an emphasis on virtue rather than acts. However, he sees an important resource in the Catholic tradition that yields a wider view of moral judgment.

Selling argues that St. Thomas Aquinas, who lays out a very intricate theory of morality in his Summa Theologiae, has a vision of ethics that is primarily focused on interior dispositions and the pursuit of ends, and in which physical actions are of secondary importance. To build his case, Selling turns in chapter 3 to a very sustained conversation of q. 1-21 of Aquinas’s Prima Secundae. One of the strengths of this section is that Selling is attentive to the way in which moral terminology has developed since Aquinas’s time, and that a great many of the distinctions made by Aquinas have been lost in the intervening centuries with the deployment of Aquinas as an authority. In particular, Selling notes that often those moral theologians relying on Aquinas zero in on sections of the Summa which deal with law (Ia IIae q. 90-97), but ignore earlier and more substantive treatments on passions, virtue, and grace. For Selling’s purposes, Aquinas is a model to be recovered and on which to build, because Aquinas shows that the role of intention, will, reason, conscience, and circumstances all play a role in moral evaluation.

In a certain sense, Reframing Catholic Theological Ethics is written to point the field of moral theology/theological ethics away from its polarization between an act-only moral evaluation or moral relativism. His solution—to provide a view of ethics where the end is primary, the circumstances are secondary, and the specific action is tertiary—has some advantages, especially in the way it puts an emphasis on virtue. Rather than the Aristotelian mean between extremes, Selling argues that virtue ethics is really an admixture of complementary inclinations. For example, bravery and cowardice are often seen as contradictory, but for Selling, the virtue of courage is not a third option midway between extremes, but rather the right combination of bravery and cowardice. A key concern of the book is to show that in the moral life, in order to promote human dignity and the common good, what is needed is not a list of commandments or rules, but a formation of character that can make choosing right actions more natural. In this regard, one can see Aquinas’s emphasis on virtues and dispositions shining through.

The focus on character and virtue is, of course, laudable. But, without at least a few examples, it becomes challenging to see what precisely Selling has in mind. He not only avoids discussing particular actions—because they must always be seen as circumstantiated, as specific to social, historical, and political contexts—but he also clearly argues that the point of ethics is not so much conclusions as method. It seems enough for Selling to emphasize that the moral life, and indeed every moral event, is about commitment to a set of affairs that is well intentioned and appropriately chosen.

Selling notes that this vision doesn’t allow for, and in some senses is not in accord with, a list of norms. However, he states at multiple points throughout the book that he doesn’t want to say that normative claims have no place in ethics. He does refer to murder, torture, adultery, and cheating as norms that must be upheld, but it seems difficult to discern how one might apply the vision he argues for. Selling believes that a foundation can be laid not through discussion of actions per se, but of situations one may face and the virtues that would be necessary to resolve conflicts, for example. In some ways, this critique is one that all revisionist approaches to moral theology share. But Selling seems well aware of this challenge, and confident his strategy will prove effective. He is keenly aware that this approach to make a new foundation for ethics is only a first attempt. Readers with a background in Catholic ethics will no doubt appreciate the concerns of Reframing Catholic Ethics, and will find its suggestions thought-provoking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Luke Arrendondo is a Ph.D. student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph A. Selling is Emeritus Professor of Theological Ethics at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.



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