Schools of Thought in Contemporary Moral Theology

Michael F. Hull

The Second Vatican Council did not address issues of fundamental moral theology per se. Although Gaudium et spes is replete with teaching on man’s condition, vocation, dignity, family, and political life, teaching that cannot be understood apart from moral truth, only one paragraph in Optatum totius makes a specific reference to moral theology (n. 16). Perhaps it is best to begin by noting two periods in post-Vatican II moral thinking. The first is the period from the close of the Council in 1965 until the promulgation of John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor in 1993. The second period, in which we find ourselves, began with Vertitatis splendor and continues into the third millennium. In the first period, orthodox moral theologians had as their primary focus a defense of traditional Catholic moral thinking a propos to a rebuttal of the onslaught of consequentialism (or proportionalism) among moralists. This became most poignant with the dissent that arose after Paul VI’s restatement of the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control in Humanae vitae (1968). In the second period, when Verititas splendor had definitively reputed the revisionists, the traditionalists turned their attention to foundational explorations and explanations of natural law.

From Vatican II to Veritatis Splendor

The close of the Council coincided with the publication of Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Fletcher’s ethical theory was simple, if not simplistic: that the only moral absolute is [Christian] "love," that one must act for "the greatest amount of neighbor welfare for the largest number of neighbors possible." In the long run, Fletcher’s theory is hardly more than an invalid baptism of utilitarianism vis-à-vis Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. Fletcher’s situation ethics or strict consequentialism did not gain much ground among Catholic moralists, but it did facilitate the idea among some Catholic moralists that the traditional thinking about natural law and moral absolutes necessitated reevaluation. Peter Knauer, Bruno Schüller, Joseph Fuchs, Louis Janssens, and Richard McCormick (among others) opted for a mixed form of consequentialsim, which is based on a (mis)understanding of the principle of double effect, wherein they fail to distinguish one morally acceptable action with two effects from a supposed morally neutral action that is made good or evil by its effects. In essence, their theories come to a terminus all-too-like Fletcher’s, namely, that the only universal norm to be followed is that a greater good for a greater number is to be preferred. And all-too-like Fletcher, we are constrained for principles to determine the most loving action or the greatest good. Though such thinkers prefer to be called "proportionalists," they share with consequentialists an identical problem: the replacement of a metaphysical or deontological foundation in moral theory—known either by reason or revelation—with a teleology wherein the ends justify the means—insofar as the ends are the primary consideration for moral action. In Catholic circles, such proportionalists are often referred to as "revisionists," because of their efforts to revise traditional moral theology along proportionalist terms; that is, they maintain that, though there may be some practical absolutes, there are no absolute absolutes—other than the absolute that the proportion of good over evil ends is the only moral absolute. Prior to Veritatis splendor, there was an impasse in Catholic moral reflection as the "traditionalists" sought to defend, although not for the same reasons, a natural law theory against the revisionists. Some reasserted the time-honored and right-reasoned Aristotelian-Thomistic moral understanding of the natural law; others opted for a renewed understanding of natural law (as we see below).

Not surprisingly, a similar script was being played-out simultaneously in the secular ethics academy. There an impasse had arisen between those ethicists who held for the primacy of good consequences as the primary means of ethical guidance and those who held for intuited duties as the primary means. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971 was the much lauded flash-in-the-pan that seemed to resolve this stalemate. However, it soon became apparent that teleology (utilitarianism) and deontology (metaphysics) make strange bedfellows and that never the twain shall meet. It was only with Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory in 1981 that the quandary was challenged at its root. After describing the chaos that should ensue in an imaginary world wherein mankind lost his fundamental understanding of natural science, MacIntyre goes on to say that "the hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world I described . . . we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, or morality." MacIntyre then sets out to recover morality in terms of virtue. As Russell Hittinger points out: "MacIntyre proposed that the problem should be seen in the light of two alternatives: either the way of Nietzsche or the way of Aristotle." MacIntyre’s After Virtue thus gave rise to a recovery of virtue ethics in the ethical academy. And it would seem that the "recoverists," as Hittinger calls them, are on their way to restoring comprehension in ethical thinking along the lines of natural law and right reason. Thus, analogous courses are being chartered in secular ethics and moral theology as reason turns to the reality of nature for counsel. But moral theology has the edge, because her understanding of reality is aided by divine revelation and the magisterium, especially Veritatis splendor.

After Veritatis Splendor

Veritatis splendor was a watershed in Catholic moral theology. It is only in terms of Veritatis splendor that we may begin to speak of "schools of moral theology" in accord with the magisterium since Vatican II, because the encyclical clearly articulated that consequetialist, proportionalist, and teleological theories confuse the true telos, or ultimate end of man, which is union with God wherein man finds happiness (nn. 71-83). Moreover, the means to that end is obedience to the natural law of God known by reason and augmented by divine revelation (nn. 28-53). St. Paul speaks of that law as "written on our hearts" (Rom 2:12-16); and it is to the revelation of God in His creation that we must turn to answer the question posed to our Lord: "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" (Matt 19:16; cf. Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30).

To be sure, traditionalists had been about their work prior to Veritatis splendor. Even so, their attention was often diverted to rebuttals of the revisionists in asserting the veracity of natural law, moral absolutes, and the importance of sound metaphysics in moral inquiry. These moral theologians took to heart that truth which would be later expressed so eloquently in John Paul II’s Fides et ratio: "moral theology requires a sound philosophical vision of human nature and society, as well as of the general principles of ethical decision making" (n. 68). It is to a philosophical view of human nature that we must turn in order to consider two schools of thought within contemporary Catholic moral discussion. For the sake of argument, we may distinguish the traditionalists by dividing them between "classicists"—those who hold for an "old" natural law theory, that is, those who base their understanding of the natural law on the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis—and the "neoclassicists"—those who hold for a "new" natural law theory, that is, those who ascribe much value to the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis, and often utilize terminology derived therefrom, but differ significantly from that synthesis on certain points of metaphysics and epistemology in terms of natural law. That both camps hold very much in common is acknowledged by all, inasmuch as both groups respect the natural law foundation of morality, divine revelation in Scripture and Tradition, and the authority of the magisterium. By all accounts, theirs is an "in house fight" as they seek to fulfill their vocations as theologians. At the risk of gross generalization, it behooves us to identify the members of each group. The former group is less easily identified because it has had as its focus a defense and amplification of the Aristotelian-Thomstic synthesis, rather than a digression therefrom. It includes such notable thinkers as Benedict Ashley, Romanus Cessario, Ralph McInerny, Servais Pinckaers, Jean Porter, Martin Rhonheimer, and Janet Smith (among others). The latter group is more easily identified. Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, William May, and Robert George have definitively moved from that synthesis to a new understanding of natural law. Again, that they have much in common is a given, but their differences are weighty.

The classical understanding of the natural law, from the second part of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, contends that the principles of the natural law are known to us by human nature. According to Thomas, good is to be done and evil avoided (S.T. I-II, q. 94, a. 2). A classical reading maintains that Thomas is saying that an ontological examination of human nature, by the speculative intellect, yields moral norms so that humans know what is right and wrong, insofar as they act in conformity with their nature in the order of creation. The neoclassical understanding of the natural law departs from this Thomisitic insight, at least as it is understood by classicists. Neoclassists hold that Thomas is saying something very different (or not saying enough) in that the principles of the natural law are known to us by human reason. Grisez contends that Thomas did not specify a first principle of practical reasoning from the work of the speculative intellect, but that of a more fundamental ability of the intellect to discern, by a process of reasoning toward some end, that which is morally good or evil. It is in reference to this point that Robert George sums up the problem: "If one accepts Grisez’s interpretation of Aquinas’s first principle of practical reason, then the idea of a normative natural order has no place in Aquinas’s ethics. If one rejects Grisez’s interpretation in favor of something like the neo-scholastic reading of Aquinas, an idea of what might be called a normative natural order is, indeed, required." Now this difference is certainly not just a matter of Thomistic interpretation. Grisez and those who agree with him maintain that if the neo-scholastic interpretation were the correct one in terms of Thomas’s own thinking, then Thomas’s thinking would simply be incorrect on this point. So the divergence between the two schools of thought is first over what and what not Thomas meant and, then, whether or not Thomas happens to be right about it. In either case, the neoclassicists seek to forge a different understanding of natural law, while the classicists maintain that the neo-scholastic reading of Thomas is correct and right.

With knowledge gleaned from Thomas, but hardly dependent on him, the neoclassicists seek to forge a new understanding of natural law. They maintain that one cannot affirm an "ought" from an "is"; in other words, human nature tells us what we are but does not directly show us what we are to do, at least without the proper use of reason. With the understanding that the first principle of practical reasoning is to do good and avoid evil, Grisez holds that reason leads us to certain self-evident goods to allow us to obey the first principle. "The general determinations of the first principle of practical reasoning are these basic precepts of natural law. They take the form: Such and such a basic human good is to be done and/or pursued, protected, and promoted." To this, George can add that "the most basic precepts of the natural law direct people to choose and act for intelligible ends and purposes." Thus, to articulate the basic principle of morality, Grisez says: "In voluntarily acting for human goods and avoiding what is opposed to them, one ought to choose and otherwise will those and only those possibilities whose willing is compatible with a will toward integral human fulfillment." In other words, the ought is derived from a reasoned end, rather than from human nature per se, resulting in an admixture of teleology and deontology. Jean Porter notes a salient criticism of Grisez’s thinking: "Grisez and Finnis share in the modern view that nature, understood in terms of whatever is pre- or non-rational, stands in contrast to reason. This is implied by their insistence that moral norms must be derived from reason alone: that is, from pure rational intuitions that are in no way dependent on empirical or metaphysical claims about the world."

In the end then, the differences between the classicists and the neoclassicists revolve to foundational questions of metaphysics and epistemology. An appeal to the Common Doctor is not the means by which they will come to agreement, even if a common interpretation of Thomas might serve as the point of departure. Rather, we have two philosophical views both of which lately make reference to Fides et ratio for the freedom of philosophical inquiry and both of which claim to find themselves in accord with Veritatis splendor. Without doubt, both schools are in constant dialogue, if not debate, with one another as good men and women seek the truth of the natural law and its imperatives for right living.


To conclude in terms of the "schools of moral theology" is to conclude in terms of great hopes for the future of Catholic moral reflection. Catholic moral theologians and philosophers are engaging one another and their counterparts in the secular ethics academy. A review of the literature demonstrates that this engagement is having profound effects on the moral reasoning of the faithful and those favorably disposed to serious moral deliberation. Despite the differences among the moralists, there is a spirit of common purpose that we should know the truth and that the truth should set us free (John 8:32). The earlier defenses of the Church’s teaching notwithstanding, Veritatis splendor is the standard around which we may rally as the campaign for a greater appreciation of right reason, a deeper understanding of the natural law, and a clearer articulation of moral absolutes carries itself into the third millennium of Christianity.