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The Shifting Landscape of Moral Theology

Richard M. Gula | Spring 2009

How has the Catholic approach to moral theology developed over recent decades? I
n this special feature, Richard Gula gives an overview.
What s changed since we were taught moral theology, and who s responsible for it? Ca
n you give us the highlights of the landscape of moral theology today? These ques
tions, or some variation of them, are frequently asked by participants in sabbat
ical programs and study weeks. This article aims to serve as a primer for the pe
rplexed inquirerers. I have organized the major changes in moral theology accord
ing to four shifts: the historical, the personal, the virtuous, and the spiritua
A brief survey article like this cannot do justice to the richness of the Cathol
ic moral tradition or catch the nuances of different schools of thought that wou
ld contribute to a better understanding of the developments and tensions in mora
l theology today. The four shifts that structure this article, however, are pres
ented by way of enhancing a rich tradition. In that light, they should be seen n
ot so much as innovations but more as changes in focus and emphases of aspects a
lready rooted in the tradition.

Shifting toward the historical

Perhaps the greatest shift in the landscape of moral theology is what Bernard Lo
nergan characterized as the shift in mentality from the classicist worldview to
historical consciousness. This shift has caused seismic tremors throughout the t
heological landscape with the highest magnitude registering on the tectonic plat
e of historical consciousness. Doing moral theology today is something like what
Linus of the Peanuts comic strip had to face in dealing with the new math. In h
is frustration, he exclaims, How can I do new math with an old math mind! Linus has i
exactly right. The issue is his consciousness or worldview. Something like the old
math/new math has occurred in moral theology, too.
The classicist view as represented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rati
onalist, neo-scholastic manuals of moral theology deduced moral conclusions from
fixed, abstract essences expressed by universal principles. By contrast, the hi
storical worldview houses attention to experience, inductive reasoning, and seei
ng everything as part of a dynamic whole that we grasp a little at a time from o
ur limited perspective. The shift towards the historical cautions us about makin
g claims that the Church has taught, x, y, or z with exactly the same meaning th
at we would have for it today. For example, is it possible that what was once mo
rally acceptable (slavery) is now regarded as a moral evil, whereas what was onc
e declared intrinsically evil (usury) is no longer so? How can that ever be? The
notion of intrinsic evil is a key concept of Catholic moral theology. An historic
al understanding of when and how this concept was developed, how it has been use
d in different eras, and of its assumptions about human action raise questions a
bout its meaning and usefulness in contemporary moral arguments.
History has a way of deflating moral claims that soar too high or inflating thos
e that fly too low. For the historically minded, what bears a date is dated. Wha
t we thought morally evil in one era may prove to be beneficent in another (e.g.
, religious freedom), and what we once thought love demanded may not translate i
nto the most beneficent act in another era (e.g., capital punishment). Classicis
m emphasizes the unchanging and permanent. It rejects in principle the possibili
ty that we only know from a limited viewpoint. By contrast, historical conscious
ness recognizes both permanence and development. Minimally, it accepts these fea
tures of knowledge: all knowledge is historically grounded; what we know is in s
ome way informed by our social location; we grow in our understanding of the tru
th; our grasp of truth and our expressions of what we grasp are affected by all
the limitations that come with being historically conditioned.
The shift towards the historical underpins the way moral theology today speaks o
f the unfinished character of the moral life and the ambiguity of moral choices.
Some today feel considerable discomfort with this shift, for it strikes them as
becoming subject to the arbitrariness of relativism. But the shift to historica
l consciousness does not leave us with the dangers of the hopeless relativism ab
out which both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have warned us. Lonergan clearly di
stinguishes between a relativist way of constructing truth and the historically
minded way of recognizing truth.
This distinction between construction and recognition is the key to the developm
ent of moral teaching. Values are real. The essential first step is to experienc
e objective values as they reveal themselves, not as we wish they were. Moral ju
dgments can be true or false because they are rooted in our experience and under
standing of these values. Since we discover moral value and gain insight into wh
at it means to be human slowly and partially, we sometimes must reformulate our
moral norms or even revise our positions. Yet the historicist worldview does not
leave us wandering aimlessly with nothing reliable to give us direction. Discov
ering moral value and naming it does not mean that we have a complete grasp of i
t. What we can recognize gives a foothold in our journey. The great gift of hist
orical consciousness is that the truth we recognize along the way is less like a
comfort station and more like a launching pad sending us on to new discoveries.

Two good examples of the historically conscious approach to moral theology are f
ound in John T. Noonan, Jr. s distinguished study Church That Can and Cannot Chang
e: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching (University of Notre Dame Press, 2
005), and in the comprehensive work of Charles E. Curran Catholic Moral Theology
in the United States (Georgetown University Press, 2008). Noonan s book meticulou
sly documents the development of teaching on slavery, usury, religious freedom,
and divorce. From developments in these areas we learn how we have taught one th
ing in the past and teach another thing today. Noonan shows that change in moral
teaching is necessary if we are to fulfill the rule of faith that does not chan
ge: the twofold love of God and neighbor. Curran s work is a virtual compendium of
those who have shaped moral theology and the issues that have been shaped by hi
storical consciousness not only in fundamental moral theology, but also in sexua
lity, bioethics, and social ethics. Both books together offer a judicious reflec
tion on the fallibility of the church in teaching on moral matters, on the impor
tance of change, and on how experience, empathy, analogy, and inductive reasonin
g have become tools of the development of moral doctrine.

Shifting toward the personal

Of morality s two points of reference actions and persons more often than not, we asso
ciate morality with actions: What is the right thing to do? This should come as no
great surprise once we look in the rearview mirror and see where moral theology
has been. Shifting from action to the person is not abandoning our interest in
right action, but it is prioritizing the personal context that gives meaning to
the action.
Moral theology has its roots in the emergence and subsequent practice of private
confession in the sacrament of penance. Penitential Books, dating back to the f
ifth century, were created as handbooks to assist those who heard confessions. T
hese handbooks enumerated sins with their corresponding penances. Even when mora
l theology became a separate discipline after the Council of Trent (1545-1563),
its manuals were designed to train priests as confessors to parse sins. The act-
centered, sin-oriented, seminary-controlled character of moral theology remained
until the renewal encouraged by the Second Vatican Council.
In the years immediately following the council, moral theology was no longer tau
ght by the manuals, but it was still dominated by an interest in analyzing actio
ns and solving problems by means of the objective principles of natural law. The
first generation of post-conciliar moral theologians, such as Bernard Haring, J
osef Fuchs, Bruno Schuller, and Louis Janssens in Europe, and Richard McCormick
and Charles Curran in the United States, were largely concerned with clarifying
the rightness and wrongness of actions and solving moral problems. But they were
beginning to make this analysis in a personalistic, rather than legalistic, con

Shifting the axis

One of the great contributions of this first generation of revisionists was to s
hift the axis of the moral life away from the law-obligation model that focused
on individual acts and toward the personal, relational-responsibility model that
gave centrality to the person. The theological foundation of this shift was to
conceive the moral life as a response to God s initiative of love. These early rev
isionists believed that moral imperatives (the oughts of moral behavior) do not co
me from some externally imposed rules. The ought in This is what I ought to do comes
from being in relationship to another ultimately to God, mediated primarily throu
gh Jesus but also in and through all the relationships that make up our lives.
Call-response is the structure they proposed for the moral life. It reclaims the
exitus-reditus motif and structure of St. Thomas that got lost in the neo-schol
astic seminary manuals. First there is love, God calls; then there is response,
the moral life. This relational structure makes God s loving us the first step in
moral living. It is not what we do but what God first does for us (grace) that i
s the bedrock upon which to build a moral life. The primary referents of moralit
y are God s relation to us and ours to God. God s call coming in and through every e
ncounter is the invitation to love God not only in our worship but also in the w
ay we love one another and care for the earth. This theological structure calls
us to live out this grace by developing our gifts that lead to our personal flou
rishing and, by moving out of ourselves, to promoting the well-being of others a
nd of the earth. The sign of living by grace is the quality of our relationships
. Do our actions build up or tear down the life-giving dynamics within the netwo
rk of relationships that make up human life?
Within this relational model of the moral life, to take God s call seriously is to
take the human person seriously, since we are made in the image of God who beca
me incarnate in a personal way in the humanity of Jesus. Creation, incarnation,
and redemption are the great mysteries of faith that give a special value to the
human person as the immanent criterion for determining right behavior.
The shift toward the personal was endorsed by Vatican II when Gaudium et spes id
entified the person and his or her acts as a legitimate source of objective mora
lity (#51). This personalist criterion has been explained most comprehensively b
y Louis Janssens of Louvain in his notion of the human person adequately consider
ed. This criterion contrasts with the approach of natural-law reasoning that dete
rmined right and wrong behavior on the basis of the finality of bodily structure
s and functions taken independently of the totality of the person. Janssens move
d away from using an isolated dimension of the person as the objective criterion
to favor a more holistic anthropology. For him the person is adequately conside
red when taken not just in the bodily features but also as an historical subject
who stands in relation to the world, to other persons, to social structures, an
d to God, and who is fundamentally equal with all other persons but also uniquel
y original. From this perspective, the finality of impersonal physical structure
s could not take precedence over personal acts considered holistically.
Louis Janssens took into account multiple dimensions of the person when formulat
ing the personalist criterion: an action is morally right when it benefits the p
erson adequately considered in himself or herself (i.e., as a unique, embodied s
ubject) and in his or her relations (i.e., to others, to social structures, to t
he larger world, and to God). The paradigm of right behavior is behavior that se
rves the dignity of the person adequately considered. Wrong behavior violates th
e dignity of the person. Much of the work of the revisionist era went into drawi
ng out the implications of this criterion for all areas of the moral life.
Shifting toward the person as the basis of objective morality stimulated conside
rable discussion of moral method, especially in trying to work out the implicati
ons of accepting the limitations of human finitude. A love ethic calls us to lov
e everyone, yet because of finitude, we cannot act beneficently toward everyone
equally. When we accept the fact that we live in a finite world, we realize that
every choice will cost us something. We can t have everything; life is full of tr
ade-offs. When we choose to act toward one value, we inevitably say, No, not yet,
to others. Finitude makes us face the fact that every action has about it aspect
s that enhance and aspects that hinder the full flourishing of persons. To live
a right moral life we need to discern through the exercise of prudence the best
of what is possible in a morally ambiguous world where we cannot do everything t
hat is good.
These revisionist personalists showed that an adequate account of actions must i
nclude consideration of the agent and the context. The holistic consideration of
action raised questions about using the notion of intrinsic evil to describe an
action in itself (sexual acts provide a fertile field of examples), and it ques
tioned the possibility of formulating concrete negative moral absolutes (is cont
raception always wrong?). The holistic view also focused moral reflection on the
proper relation of means to ends within circumstances (illustrated well in the
just-war theory). The drive toward being inclusive of the totality of the action
aimed to give proper place to each aspect of moral action without absolutizing
any one of them.
This expanded way of evaluating actions brought to light dimensions of moral age
ncy and resources for moral knowledge that had been obscured by act-centered eth
ics. For example, moral theology began to pay more attention to the experience o
f persons across cultures and genders. This fit very well with the shift to the
historical. Valuing experience opened dialogue with the sciences, which sheds li
ght on how we are equal but unique. For example, genetic science helps us to und
erstand the influence of biological givens on a person s predispositions. This has
had a significant influence on the way we understand heterosexuality and homose
xuality, for instance. Moral theology is also benefiting from research in the co
gnitive and social sciences on the dynamics of moral development. These sciences
are helping us understand better the processes of transmitting moral values by
bringing greater clarity to how emotions, the imagination, the community, and ro
le models help to form character all important aspects of the recent shift to virt
ue ethics.
Learning from experience has been one of the hallmarks of the contribution of a
very active group of women reflecting on the moral life: Margaret Farley, Lisa C
ahill, Anne Patrick, Christine Gudorf, Jean Porter, Cristina Traina, Cathleen Ka
veny, and others. Women were not involved in moral theology prior to the Second
Vatican Council. The full effect of taking moral reflection out of the hands of
men, primarily clerics, and involving women in moral reflection is still ahead o
f us. But feminist reflection in moral theology has already taught us that we do
not properly understand what it means to be human without giving full attention
to the personal and social experience of women.
A good representation of the personalist turn in moral theology as focused by fe
minist thought can be found in the reassessment of the natural-law tradition by
Cristina Traina in Feminist Ethics and Natural Law: The End of the Anathemas (Ge
orgetown University Press, 1999). Her work introduces some new emphases to revit
alize natural law. The patriarchal model of the person that dominated the neo-sc
holastic manuals emphasized left brain features: isolating the individual from t
he context, rationality, breaking down the whole into parts, working with formul
as, and being objective. The feminist contribution, by contrast, emphasizes righ
t brain features: seeing things whole and interdependently, being attentive to c
ontext, trusting intuition and imagination as sources of knowing, appealing to e
motion, being subjective, and inviting dialogue.
Feminist ethics helps us to see details of the moral self that have been neglect
ed by an overly rational use of natural law and an overly restrictive understand
ing of the person. From a feminist perspective, to be human is to be mutual as w
ell as autonomous, relational as well as equal. Feminists help us to appreciate
that, while affective knowing unaided by critical reflection can lead to moral c
haos, reflection without affect leads nowhere. Distance and detachment do not al
ways help us see clearly. The feminist value of embodiment helps us to see how e
motions, intuition, and somatic reactions can bridge the gap between what is goi
ng on and how we respond to it.
While there is a diversity of feminist thought, minimally it seems safe to say t
hat feminist ethics promotes relationality, equality, mutuality, and embodiment
as important components of human well-being. We must take these values into acco
unt along with nonlinear ways of knowing if we are to understand better what it
means to be a moral person. Incorporating feminist insights regarding human well
-being into moral reflection fits well into virtue ethics, the next shift in the
landscape of moral theology.

Shifting toward virtue

The sun has set over the horizon of the act-centered ethics of the first generat
ion of revisionists. Their search for an appropriate method for an act-centered
ethics made moral action more hospitable to the personal context of action. By e
xpanding the way actions are to be evaluated, they highlighted how making a deci
sion is more than judging between competing values. It is also responding to God s
call by creating a self, shaping a community, and embodying a vision of life all
concerns of virtue ethics. As a result, the first generation of revisionists pav
ed the way for moving the spotlight from behavior to the person s character and vi
The sun is now rising over a new generation of Catholic moralists, such as James
Keenan, Ed Vacek, William Spohn, Paul Wadell, Lisa Cahill, Margaret Farley, Jea
n Porter, Lisa Fullam, and others who are completing the discussion about right
actions by focusing on the dispositions, affections, perspectives, and habits of
the person who acts. Whereas the first generation of revisionists focused large
ly on the rightness or wrongness of actions, this new generation of virtue ethic
ists focuses primarily on the goodness and badness of the person. Are we strivin
g to answer God s call by discovering what is right (goodness), or are we failing
to strive and so rejecting the call of God (badness)? Goodness-badness is the mo
re basic language of morality since it defines our relation to God. Since the Ch
ristian moral life is fundamentally an orientation of the self, the real moral t
ruth of our actions lies in the sort of persons we are becoming in our striving
(or not) to answer God s call.
When virtue ethics shifts the attention from acting to being, it does not do awa
y with moral theology s interest in action. Moral problems will not go away. Probl
ems confront us with decisions to make and actions to take. But far more profoun
dly, they force us to be in a certain way. After we have pulled the plug or drop
ped the bomb, what happens to the decision-maker? Virtue ethics takes seriously
the proposition that who we are affects what we do, and what we do affects who w
e become.
The shift toward virtue further develops the shift toward the person by focusing
on the depth and quality of the person who is acting. Character is the term used
in virtue ethics to express moral identity. We see this side of ethics demonstra
ted most graphically, for example, by Thomas More as portrayed by Robert Bolt in
A Man for All Seasons. When explaining to his daughter why he cannot sign the A
ct of Succession, More says, When a man takes an oath, Meg, he s holding his own se
lf in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands.) And if he opens his finger
s then he needn t hope to find himself again. This scene emphasizes how our choices t
o act involve not only self-knowledge but also some degree of self-determination
. Moral choices express our identity. We act in character or out of character. A
ction follows from character and in turn reinforces or diminishes it. In additio
n to Thomas More, we experience character-shaping behavior in a profound way in
the Amish who know only forgiveness and not revenge toward the shooter of their
school children, and we see it in a conscientious objector, a corporate whistleb
lower, or a politico-religious agent of change, from Jesus to Mohandas Gandhi to
Rosa Parks. They act the way they do because to act otherwise would betray thei
r moral identity.
Character helps explain not merely why we act in a certain way now, but also why
we can be counted on to act that way in the future. We recognize character by c
ertain traits, or virtues. Virtues are both the inclination to act in a certain wa
y so that the action is virtually second nature to us, and they are the ability to
act that way. For example, a person who is hospitable, friendly, courageous, or
prudent has the ability to make judgments that will bring these virtues to life
seemingly effortlessly.
In contrast to the act-centered approach that asks, What is the right thing to do
? virtue ethics asks, From what inner place are you doing it? Just doing the right
thing is not enough to be virtuous. The action must spring from the right place
within us to carry its virtuous quality. Playing with our children out of guilt
for having neglected them is not the same as playing with them out of love for w
ho they are. The difference comes from emotionally charged dispositions that def
ine our moral character. Virtuous actions express more than the rules that give
a reason for them. They express the inner reality of the person emotion, motivatio
n, desires, habits, and commitments. These inner realities are at the level of t
he heart in the biblical sense of the word. This is where virtues have their home
(vices also), as stable dispositions to do good (or evil). These inner realities
of the self put the stamp of personal identity on our actions.
One of the great contributions of the shift toward virtue is that it restores th
e moral quality of everyday living. If we restrict the meaning of morality to de
termining right actions, then we can easily get the impression that we enter the
realm of morality only when we face hard choices. A problem-oriented ethics mov
es in the episodic realm of a controversial case that comes along now and then.
In such an understanding of morality, we don t think of ourselves as being involve
d in the moral life apart from those times when we are searching for the right t
hing to do by appealing to universal principles.
For virtue ethics, by contrast, there is no moral free zone. The moral life goes
on continually. We don t step in and out of it with the occasional tough choice.
Virtue ethics reminds us that the continuous, ordinary, uneventful actions of th
e day are the place where the moral life happens. Morality does not lie in the o
ccasional, dramatic decisions that we sometimes have to make, but in the charact
er that we are forming by living from day to day and doing things over and over.
How we behave in the tough times is born out of the habits we form in the day-t
o-day course of our lives. We are, after all, what we do habitually.
From the point of view of virtue ethics, one of the finest treatments of the mor
al life is Paul J. Wadell s Happiness and the Christian Moral Life (Rowman & Littl
efield, 2008). Drawing upon the insights of Aristotle and Aquinas, Wadell shows
that the heart of the moral life is not about rules and obligations, but about g
rowing into a way of life designed to help us become good people whose character
enables us to think and choose wisely. The virtues provide us with the skills a
nd dispositions that make this possible.
Wadell s vision of the virtuous life sees every purposeful action we do as having
an effect not only on the world but also on who we are becoming. The way we live
from day to day creates moral momentum. If we treat another with respect, chanc
es are we will become respectful. If we feel that we have to correct everyone s mi
stakes every time we see them, chances are we will become control freaks. Charac
ter is always a work in progress. No one is finished. We are all on the way to b
ecoming a fuller realization of the kind of person we are practicing to become.
Virtue ethics fits well with the shift to historical consciousness for it respec
ts the dynamics of history by taking change and development seriously. We acquir
e virtues little by little through practice over time. Moreover, since we exerci
se virtue in changing circumstances, virtues take different shapes according to
what the situation demands. Prudence is the central virtue that mediates all oth
ers. As both a moral and an intellectual virtue, prudence is our ability to perc
eive the distinctive features of the situation, determine their moral relevance,
and decide the best way to respond when we know that we can t do everything that
is good. In the end, virtues link us to action out of the internal, self-directi
ng commitment we make to the value at stake, whether or not that value is prescr
ibed by a rule and whether or not anyone is watching to make sure we act rightly
. After all, the test of how virtuous we really are is how we act when no one is
watching to supervise us, or how we act when we face the unexpected and have no
time to rehearse our part.

Shifting toward the spiritual

Lying behind judgments of the rightness of actions and the goodness of persons i
s an unexpressed vision of the good life, or of what life is ultimately all abou
t. This is a matter of spirituality. We may affirm the same moral principles, fo
llow the same moral method, but differ in our moral judgment because we have a d
ifferent outlook on life, different assumptions about what promotes human well-b
eing, different priorities of value, different depths of passion and zeal for sh
ared values, and a different vision of where life ultimately ought to be headed.
These all reflect differences in spirituality influencing our moral judgments.
The spiritual and the moral converge in character and virtue. This shift is sign
ificant for it reverses nearly four hundred years of practice. The longstanding
functional relationship between moral theology and the sacrament of penance that
underlay the moral manuals confined moral thinking to determining where sin sta
rts and stops and to educating consciences to resolve conflicts of obligation ac
cording to the objective principles of natural law. As such, these manuals hardl
y pass as theology but were more properly works in moral philosophy. The challen
ge to the moral life put forth by the manuals was less about one s commitment to a
personal God and to the imitation of Christ and more about a Stoic correctness
in discovering the appropriate principle governing each situation and assessing
its binding force in a given circumstance.
Safe and sound as these manuals were, growth in faith was relegated to another s
et of manuals, those in ascetical theology, or what we today call spirituality.
That has changed. While not abandoning natural law or the necessary preparation
of seminarians for their ministry as confessors, Vatican II endorsed and encoura
ged efforts to enlarge the scope of moral theology beyond its preoccupation with
sin as governed by principles of natural law. Since Vatican II, moral theology
has become declericalized so that it is no longer a discipline for confessors bu
t a critical understanding of faith for Christian living. The primary reference
text for morality is no longer a manual of principles but the gospel, which prov
ides the master narrative (the paschal mystery of Christ) that governs the way w
e make sense of life and fulfill it.
The shift toward the spiritual was already occurring prior to the Council in the
pioneering work of Gerard Gilleman, Fritz Tillman, and Bernard Haring, whose Th
e Law of Christ first appeared in German in the 1950s. It is the well-known work
proposing the call-response model of morality adopted by the first wave of revi
sionists immediately after the Council. For Haring, spirituality and the moral l
ife were inseparably intertwined. It is no wonder that his model contributed to
reconstructing moral theology from the perspective of the experience of God and
the implications of our convictions about God.
The new generation of moral theologians retrieving virtue ethics stands on the s
houlders of these giants from earlier years to reconnect morality and spirituali
ty. While differing somewhat in particulars, their work shares the common convic
tion that spirituality is the wellspring of the moral life. Their thesis is that
morality without spirituality is rootless, and spirituality without morality is
fruitless. Spirituality is our lived experience of faith. Its starting point is
our experience of God. Its goal is union with God. Morality shares this startin
g point and goal. Our experience of God s love evokes moral responsibility as our
grateful response to that love. So whether we experience God and how we experien
ce God will exert a great influence on the content and quality of the moral life
. The gospel criterion by their fruits you will know them is the test for showing
the integration of morality with the experience of God.
The shift toward the spiritual underscores God as the ultimate object of our loy
alty, and the beliefs we hold about the mystery of God are foundational to the m
oral life. For example, our convictions about God as Trinity, a community of per
sons bound together by love, can be a rich resource for social ethics in its sea
rch for the implications of the sacred and social nature of being made in the im
age of a triune God. The mystery of God as Creator can be the starting point for
appreciating the intrinsic dignity of the person, for claiming global solidarit
y and a common morality, and for assuming a shared commitment to care for the en
vironment. The mystery of the Holy Spirit can be explored as the energy for mora
l living and the inner guide to the exercise of prudence in moral discernment. T
he mystery of God incarnate makes Jesus of Nazareth the norm of the moral life,
discipleship the vocation of the Christian, and the imitation of Christ the way
of expressing what life is ultimately all about.
In short, shifting toward the spiritual makes the moral life theocentric through
and through, with Jesus as the key to understanding what loyalty to God looks l
ike. Consider, for example, the position of the Golden Rule in the Sermon on the
Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. While this rule may be shared by other great
religions, in the Christian tradition it bears a theocentric quality. In the Gos
pel of Matthew we read, Therefore, in everything do to others as you would have t
hem do to you. (Matt 7:12). The therefore connects what we should do to what God is
already doing. Therefore, we need to learn how to take after God. Christian mor
ality in this view becomes the matter of discerning the kind of life that best f
its what we believe about God revealed in Jesus. We call this living as a discip
le. By imitating Jesus, we show our loyalty to God.
That Jesus ought to be the guiding pattern for our lives is set forth in John 13
:34, Love one another as I have loved you. Moral theology s shifting to the spiritua
l is becoming an extended meditation on the as because as links who we ought to be a
nd how we ought to live to the paradigmatic life of Jesus the Christ. Living mor
ally is a matter of relishing this gift of God s goodness and love for us in the p
erson and action of Jesus of Nazareth. We live morally when we give freely in lo
ve what we have received freely in grace. In Jesus the Christ, Christians claim
to know something about what God wants a good human life to look like, and somet
hing about how we must live in order to achieve it. So the Christian moral imper
ative is not simply, Be good! or Be human! The Christian imperative is Be good, or be
human in the way Jesus was.

In harmony with Jesus

If we are to be disciples today and live faithful to Jesus, then our actions oug
ht to resemble, rhyme with, or harmonize with the pattern we find in his story.
The call to discipleship and to the imitation of Christ is the call to let our i
maginations be stirred by his parables and actions. In what ways does our charac
ter harmonize with the good shepherd, the good Samaritan, or the merciful father
of the prodigal son? Are our actions analogous to those of forgiving the sinful
woman, having compassion on the crowds, washing the disciples feet, going the ex
tra mile, sacrificing self as at the crucifixion? The challenge before us now is
both to be faithful to Jesus back then, as mediated by the Gospels, and to be c
reative in our response to the challenges of life today.
This shifting toward the spiritual is developed quite extensively in William C.
Spohn s major work, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (Continuum, 1999). In thi
s work, Spohn shows how spirituality informs the moral life through nurturing af
fective dispositions that transform the believer s identity so as to take on the mi
nd of Christ, as the Pauline idiom has it. (Phil 2:5)
Three aspects of spirituality are at work in this process of sanctification. One i
s intentionally to engage in such spiritual practices as self-examination, frate
rnal correction, forgiveness, works of mercy, or the Eucharist. These practices
center one s life on God s love for us and our love for God. If practices do not lea
d to moral living, then one s spirituality is like an incomplete sentence. It lack
s a predicate. Spiritual practices ought to open us to moral responsibilities, a
nd moral living ought to return us to our spiritual practices, where we give pra
ise and thanks to God. Such reciprocity affirms the inseparability of love of Go
d and neighbor.
Second, these practices nurture our love for God and others not through new idea
s or by way of argument, but by deepening the affections, those deep emotions th
at are the abiding dispositions inclining us to act in a certain way. The inhere
nt dynamics of the practice shape our lives with virtues that express what it me
ans to love God and neighbor. For example, the regular practice of forgiveness d
isposes the Christian to show mercy rather than to retaliate against wrongdoing.
Third, the practices and dispositions work together to transform the character o
f the believer with the virtues or patterns of behavior that were manifest in th
e life of Jesus. Take, for example, the practice of beginning each day with pray
er whether prayer with Scripture, praying for others, or praying in silence. Prayi
ng with Scripture may leave us open to unexpected ways of meeting God, as one mi
ght when praying with a parable. Praying with others may deepen our empathy and
ready us to meet others with affirmation rather than judgment. Out of the silenc
e may come an openness to listen and to learn. Spiritual practices like these ca
n be morally formative to the extent that they help us to see and judge all thin
gs in relation to our experience of God and our commitment to care about what Go
d cares about.
This transformation of discipleship happens by participating in the community of
the church. Believers learn these spiritual practices in the community of faith
through its teaching, worship, and witness in serving the world. The wisdom and
traditions of the community guide the practices of its members not only toward
personal growth in the Spirit but ultimately toward bringing the whole world clo
ser to living in justice and peace under the reign of God. But there is no guara
ntee that this transformation will happen through spiritual practices. Many pers
onal and cultural forces are at work to compete with the influence of these prac
tices to shape moral character. While spiritual practices may not be the sole de
termining factor shaping our moral life, they do carry a rich potential for mora
l formation personally and communally.
This then is the shape of the landscape of moral theology today. We have shifted
toward the historical to appreciate the dynamic unfolding of the world, of mora
l truth, and of our limited grasp of it anywhere along the way. In shifting to t
he personal, we have enlarged the context for understanding moral action and hav
e made the person holistically considered the reference point for objective mora
lity. The shift to virtue makes character matter. What we do comes out of who we
are. By turning to virtue we enlarge morality to a way of life beyond occasiona
l episodes of hard cases. The shift to the spiritual brings morality and spiritu
ality back together in a critical dialogical relationship with one another. The
moral life is the public face of our spirituality and acts back upon our spiritu
ality to test the authenticity of our experience of God and our convictions abou
t the way life ought to be lived. As Christians, our character and action ought
to be the dynamic expression of our experience of being loved by God. By living
morally, we express in love our gratitude for being loved.
The Rev. Richard M. Gula, SS, is Professor of Moral Theology at the Franciscan S
chool of Theology/Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.