Tradition and Church Reform

Perspectives on Catholic Moral Teaching

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Charles E. Curran
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , February
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Tradition and Church Reform: Perspectives on Catholic Moral Teaching attempts to bring together the author’s independently published articles and essays, modify them, and fit them into three topical sections. And, in no small way, the distinguished Charles E. Curran accomplishes this goal. In addition, a few questions are raised along the way.

Part 1, “Social Perspectives,” is a disciplined and insightful feast of information related to the basic aspects of Catholic social tradition, its sources, theory of politics, methodology, message, and relevance for nonbelievers (3). Only two weaknesses emerge as one takes in this breath-taking, panoramic view. When describing how Protestants moved from a hostile position toward human rights to a leadership role in the struggle to secure them, Curran seems to contradict himself by saying Protestantism never really saw itself in total opposition to the Enlightenment as did Roman Catholicism (99). But one wonders why the explanation of that Protestant journey fails to recognize in any way Martin Luther’s refusal in 1541 to go against his conscience at the Diet of Worms. Surely many, if not most, Protestants consider it a to be a signature event in their journey toward taking a leadership role in the struggle for human rights.

Part 2, “Bioethical and Sexual Perspectives,” is only one-third the size of Part 1. Nevertheless, in addition to astute views on the history of Catholic moral teaching in bioethics and a narrative of the significance of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, it also contains a thorough analysis and critique of Pope John Paul II’s teaching on sexuality and marriage. Curran is particularly insightful when he notes there is no such thing as a neutral, value-free interpreter of scripture. Likewise, he is equally insightful when he applies that principle of hermeneutics to Pope John Paul II’s interpretation of the first account of creation, for it is there that the Pope interprets Genesis 1 in light of his own academic interests in philosophical ethics and metaphysics. Finally, Curran is absolutely on target when he writes that most biblical commentators today would not see such a metaphysics in Genesis 1, and that we all must be careful about the presuppositions we bring to our understanding of scripture (173). Again one wonders what biases the author himself brings to the role of critical appraiser of such matters.

“Reform at Vatican II and Afterward” is the third and final section of Tradition and Church Reform. It begins with an understatement: “Vatican II is synonymous with reform in the Catholic Church” (189). Yet, evidently, Pope John XXIII had no clear idea of the reform ahead of him, even as he called for the council to meet. The Pope was, however, open to others and to the Spirit, and he changed his mind on the basis of what he heard as he listened to them. In that way, the Pope was a true pilgrim Christian in a pilgrim church. He was, and is, a role model because he was open to change (197ff).

The language used to describe the spirituality of Pope John XXIII, coupled with a conversation about holiness and how Vatican II turned the entire focus of moral theology away from sin and sinfulness to the truth that all Christians are called to holiness in their daily lives, reads like a passage from John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1738), or one from Phoebe Palmer’s The Way of Holiness (1843). Unfortunately, as Curran notes, the canonization of saints, the holiness associated with Catholic priests’ retreat from the world, and the hierarchical and patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church itself have not allowed the call for holiness in daily life to take hold in the community (205).

Central to the strength of the book’s narrative and success is its utilization of historical consciousness. The online Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness defines that term as individual and collective understandings of the past, the cognitive and cultural factors which shape those understandings, as well as the relations of historical understandings to those of the present and the future. It seems clear the book draws evidence from this field of study in order to shape the reader’s understanding of Roman Catholic tradition, reform, and of course, perspectives on Catholic moral teaching. In addition, the use of historical consciousness seems especially evident in the final chapter, where descriptions of Pope Francis’s personality, priorities, and lifestyle merge into a confluent stream of illustrations to demonstrate that he is—without a doubt—a reformer. Hence, only two questions remain. Will Pope Francis change the disputed moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church (277)? And why didn’t I read this book sooner?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claude Oliver, Jr. is Visiting Lecturer at Indiana University-East.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles E. Curran, a Catholic priest and distinguished moral theologian, teaches at Southern Methodist University. He has served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (and first winner of its John Courtney Murray Award) as well as of the Society of Christian Ethics and the American Theological Society. He has published over fifty books, including Loyal Dissent, The Development of Moral Theology, The Social Mission of the U.S. Church, and Catholic Moral Theology in the United States.


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