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After Words

Can morality change? An unprecedented international conference examines ethics in the Church

By David DeCosse

David DeCosse
David DeCosse is Director of Campus Ethics Programs at SCU.
Photo: Charles Barry

History is palpable in Padua—from the tense drama of Giotto’s frescoes in the city’s Scrovegni Chapel to the cavernous, centuries-old churches that provide cool rest for body and soul in the Italian summer heat. This resplendent past was the scene last July of an event pointing toward the future: the unprecedented gathering of 400 Roman Catholic scholars at a first-ever conference called Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church. Four Santa Clara University scholars— Paul Crowley, S.J., Teresia Hinga, visiting scholar Thomas Reese, S.J., and this writer—were among those present.

History—in the plain sense that things change—has posed hard questions for a Catholic ethicist long concerned with establishing timeless truths of right and wrong. These questions hovered over the conference. Can morality change? Can the Catholic ban on artificial contraception change? For centuries the Catholic Church morally justified slavery, but now it regards slavery as intrinsically evil. What was once considered the evil of usury is now accepted as the common practice of credit.

Amid such ongoing questions in Catholic ethics, the vindicated spirit of Galileo was palpably present—an unspoken inspiration to conference participants. The opening session of the conference took place in the great hall of the University of Padua, where Galileo lectured to students in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In 1992, the Vatican formally expressed regret for its condemnation of Galileo’s sun-centric solar system. Could a similar vindication some day await the Catholic ethicists now at odds with the Vatican over what the meaning of morality is to be?

But history—understood as the significance for theological ethics of human experience itself—also presented an opportunity to those gathered in Padua. This was evident in the conference’s approach to the theme of “identity.”

What, for instance, is the identity of the contemporary Catholic ethicist? And what difference might that identity make for the actual content of Catholic ethics? In the recent past, Catholic ethicists (or, in the older parlance, “moral theologians”) were by and large celibate male priests. But today, there are an increasing number of women—married and single, from rich and poor countries—working as theological ethicists. Many of these women were present at the conference. And their work has made clear that sustained theological attention to the actual experience of women will require that the Catholic Church face the great contemporary issues of social justice like global poverty and AIDS with a deeper awareness of the gender inequalities that are such central factors in perpetuating these injustices.

In the recent past, too, most Catholic ethicists worked or were trained in European or North American seminary redoubts. But scholars came to Padua from Latin America, Africa, India, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, North America, and beyond. Take the experience of the young Indonesian Jesuit Fr. Haryat Moko, with whom I shared a delightful lunch. He teaches philosophical ethics to Islamic students at an Islamic university in his country. There is often a moment early in his course, he said, when some of his Islamic students will say, “Yes, all of this ethics and philosophy may be fine. But why do we need it? We have the Koran.” Father Moko uses such occasions to underline the importance of reason and argument, thereby inviting his students to a deeper fusion of their Islamic convictions and critical thought. The grassroots work by Father Moko and like-minded Catholic ethicists will certainly affect how the Church engages with Islam in the years ahead.

As for Galileo, he was a scientist who, against the Church’s then-misguided faith, proposed physical data and numerical proof that in time led to a change in the Church’s thinking. But the Catholic ethicist, even the scientifically inclined one, has no such tools of certitude to guide the way into the future. Moreover, the changed social location of Catholic ethicists does not in itself guarantee the accuracy of future insight into moral truth. Here the Catholic ethicist must rely on the decisive test: whether an ethical claim comports with the truth of Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and neighbor.

Of course, this test is aided by insights drawn from Scripture, popes and Church councils, Catholic tradition, philosophy, and the sciences. But, in the end, the claim must also be measured by the inescapable datum of the personal experience of Christian love.

—David DeCosse is Director of Campus Ethics Programs at SCU.

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