Several friends have asked me questions about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent essay on “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” which has led to a few conversations about various aspects of the document. Since these issues may be of interest to others, I have decided to share some of what I said more widely.
Some of these questions—which I will address in future posts—concern controversial issues that I want to research and polish more carefully before sharing. The first, however, which I will address in this post, concerns a relatively non-controversial question about what Benedict said about the natural law: “Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation.”
A friend commented:
I agree that, in a sense, Greek philosophy provided a foundation for Catholic moral theology, but Benedict seems to be suggesting that Scripture just played a secondary role of providing a sort of support if things went sideways or if Greek philosophy needed further justification, as if Catholic moral theology is synonymous with non-Scriptural “natural law.” Or am I misunderstanding?
On its surface, Benedict’s statement is puzzling. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas devoted only one article (Ia-IIae 91.2) and one question (Ia-IIae 94) to the natural law. His moral theology is primarily developed (in the IIa-IIae) as a theory of virtues, organized around the three theological virtues (questions 1-46) and four cardinal virtue (questions 47-170). His account of natural law is also built on an account of human nature and moral psychology developed in the Ia-IIae, questions 1-89. Within this account, questions 55-89 are an in-depth discussion of virtue, vice, and sin.
Even where the treatise on law itself is concerned, Aquinas devoted significantly more space (questions 98-108 of the Ia-IIae) to the scriptural accounts of the Old and New Law, found in the Old and New Testaments, than he did to explicit discussion of the natural law.
On the surface, then, it would appear that even Aquinas, the most systematic of Catholic theologians, promoted a moral theology which gave more attention to Sacred Scripture than to the natural law.
However, putting it this way would involve some misunderstanding of Aquinas himself. He argued (Ia-IIae 94.3) that all acts of virtue are required by the natural law. His moral theory is an account of how human beings should act which is based on a systematic understanding of human nature. From that understanding of human nature, Aquinas discussed the virtues (habits of thought and action) which perfect that nature, and the opposite vices which corrupt it. In developing this account of human nature and human action, Aquinas often cited Scripture to settle various questions. Indeed, in the very first question of the Summa, he wrote:
It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.
So Aquinas certainly took Sacred Scripture very seriously, but he also interpreted within a systematic understanding God’s nature and of human nature. (And he drew on a lot of Greek philosophy, as well.) His moral theory was deeply formed by what we can know naturally, and by what God reveals. And, interpreted correctly, both general revelation in creation and special revelation in the Sacred Scripture point to the same conclusions.
Given the prominence of Aquinas in pre-conciliar Catholic moral theology, and his importance for Catholic accounts of natural law, it seems very unlikely that Benedict meant to dismiss this kind of approach to moral theology, or base the natural law solely on Greek philosophy.
So what was Benedict criticizing? In order to understand his argument, I think it’s helpful to look at his next paragraph:
I still remember how the Jesuit faculty in Frankfurt trained a highly gifted young Father (Bruno Schüller) with the purpose of developing a morality based entirely on Scripture. Father Schüller’s beautiful dissertation shows a first step towards building a morality based on Scripture. Father Schüller was then sent to America for further studies and came back with the realization that from the Bible alone morality could not be expressed systematically. He then attempted a more pragmatic moral theology, without being able to provide an answer to the crisis of morality.
From this, it seems clear that the problem the Pope Emeritus is focusing on is the attempt to offer a “Biblical” morality apart from the kind of systematic account of human nature that Aquinas developed in the Summa.
And this, I think, is an entirely legitimate concern. Consider the problems created by trying to talk about the meaning of the Great Commandments in a contemporary setting. It’s certainly true that, rightly understood, all of the commandments may be reduced to the commands to love God and love neighbor. But much of the contemporary moral confusion, particularly in the area of sexual ethics, stems from confusion about the nature of love.
Under the influence of Freudian theories, which understand “love” as a complication of the sexual instinct—which is itself understood entirely in terms of a desire for one’s own pleasure—it becomes difficult for many people, including many Christians, to understand what Christians have always believed and taught about sexual ethics. I’ve spent a lot of time debating about what the Bible says about sexuality, and a great deal of the confusion I see in stems from trying to understand the specific rules without being able to place them in an adequate systematic framework. Or perhaps more accurately, trying to make sense of the rules from within an inadequate framework, informed too much by the categories of the surrounding culture
Scripture itself often requires interpretation (see, for example, Acts 8:31), and that interpretation must be guided by a systematic understanding of God, His plan in Creation, human nature, the fall, sin, redemption, and sanctification. It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s criticism of post-Conciliar “biblical” moral theology is that, at least in the forms he was criticising, it tried to pick out Bible verses to support a “pragmatic” understanding of how to live, without the systematic theological background which animated pre-Conciliar moral theology.