Moral theology

From New World Encyclopedia

Moral theology or Christian ethics is an Ethics developed from and within the contexts and history of Christianity. While Ethics as a philosophical discipline relies upon the authority of reason, moral theology or Christian ethics is established upon the authority of revelation as well as that of reason.

Catholic moral theology is a major category of doctrine in the Roman Catholic church, equivalent to a religious ethics. Moral theology encompasses Roman Catholic social teaching, Catholic medical ethics, sexual ethics, and various doctrines on individual moral virtue and moral theory. It can be distinguished as dealing with "how one is to act," in contrast to dogmatic theology which proposes "what one is to believe." Sources of Catholic moral theology include both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and philosophical ethics such as natural law that are seen as compatible with Catholic doctrine. Moral theology was mostly undifferentiated from theology in general during the patristic era, and is found in the homilies, letters and commentaries on Scripture of the early Church fathers. During the Middle Ages, moral theology developed in precision and scope through scholasticism.

Contemporary Catholic moral theology is developed by both church officials and moral theologians, who are scholars who may be less directly accountable to the Catholic church hierarchy (e.g., Charles Curran, Richard A. McCormick). Moral theology tends to be advanced most authoritatively through official statements of doctrine, such as papal encyclicals and the major works of Vatican II. In addition, moral theologians publish their own works and write in a variety of journals devoted in whole or part to moral theology. These journals are helpful to make the theology of the church more clear and accessible to the laity. However, these journals do not add or remove anything from the Catholic teaching, but rather serve as a forum in which scholarly discussion of unsettled issues occurs.

St. Thomas Aquinas is considered one of the greatest contributors to Catholic moral theology. His Summa Theologica gives an account of moral theology using the virtues as a framework, situated within a systematic theology of creation and return to God.

Christian ethics or Moral theology

Christian ethics developed while early Christians were subjects of the Roman Empire. From the time Nero blamed Christians for setting Rome ablaze (64 C.E.) until Galarius (311 C.E.), persecution against Christians erupted periodically. Consequently, early Christian ethics included discussions of how believers should relate to Roman authority and to the empire.

Under the Emperor Constantine I (312-337), Christianity became the religion of the state. While some scholars debate whether Constantine's conversion to Christianity was authentic or simply a matter of political expediency, Constantine's decree made the empire safe for Christian practice and belief. Consequently, issues of Christian doctrine, ethics and church practice were debated openly. By the time of Theodosius I (379-395), Christianity had become the normative religion of the empire. With Christianity now in power, ethical concerns broaden and included discussions of the proper role of the state.

Saint Augustine incorporated Plato's philosophy, and later, after the Islamic transmission of his works, Aquinas worked Aristotelian philosophy into a Christian framework.

Christian ethics in general have tended to stress the need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness because of human weakness. With divine assistance, the Christian is called to become increasingly virtuous in both thought and deed. Conversely, the Christian is also called to abstain from vice. There are several different schema of vice and virtue. Aquinas adopted the four cardinal virtues of Plato, (justice, courage, temperance, prudence) and added to them the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love (from St.Paul, First Corinthians 13). Other schema include the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven virtues. For more see Christian philosophy.

Early Church

Paul teaches (Rom., ii, 24 ff) that God has written his moral law in the hearts of all men, even of those outside the influence of Christian revelation; this law manifests itself in the conscience of every man and is the norm according to which the whole human race will be judged on the day of reckoning.

The New Testament generally asserts that all morality flows from the Great Commandment to love God with all one's heart, mind, strength, and soul, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. In reaffirming this Great Commandment, Jesus Christ was reaffirming the teaching of the Torah.

Ecclesiastical writers, as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo all wrote on ethics from a distinctly Christian point of view. Interestingly, they made use of philosophical and ethical principles laid down by Greek (Pagan) philosophers.

The Church fathers had little occasion to treat moral questions from a purely philosophical standpoint and independently of Christian Revelation; but, in the explanation of Catholic doctrine their discussions naturally led to philosophical investigations. This is particularly true of Augustine, who proceeded to develop his thought thoroughly along philosophical lines and sought to establish firmly most of the truths of Christian morality. The eternal law (lex aeterna), the original type and source of all temporal laws, natural law, conscience, the ultimate end of man, cardinal virtues, sin, marriage, etc., were treated by him in the clearest and most penetrating manner.


A sharper line of separation between philosophy and theology, and in particular between ethics and moral theology, was first met with in the works of the great Schoolmen of the Middle Ages, especially of Albertus Magnus (1193–1280), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Bonaventure(1221-1274), and Duns Scotus (1274–1308). Philosophy and, by means of it, theology drew heavily on the works of Aristotle, which had been preserved by Arabic scholars, and had been elucidated and incorporated into Christian philosophy by the detailed and profound commentaries of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.

The same is particularly true of ethics. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentaries on the political and ethical writings of Aristotle, his Summa contra Gentiles, and his Quaestiones disputatae, treated nearly the whole range of ethics in a purely philosophical manner, so that even to the present day his words are an inexhaustible source from which ethics draws its supply. Catholic philosophers and theologians have continued to build upon the foundations laid by Aquinas. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas locates ethics within the context of theology. The question of beatiudo, perfect happiness in the possession of God, is posited as the goal of human life. Thomas also argues that human beings, by reflecting on the inclinations of human nature, discover natural law, which is "man's participation in the divine law."[1]

In the sixteenth century, philosophers made ethical questions the subjects of careful investigation. Examples include the theologians Francisco de Vitoria, Dominicus Soto, Luis de Molina, Francisco Suarez, Leonardus Lessius, and Juan de Lugo. Among topics they discussed were the ethics of action in case of doubt, leading to the doctrine of probabilism. Since the sixteenth century, special chairs of ethics (moral philosophy) have been erected in many Catholic universities. The larger, purely philosophical works on ethics, however do not appear until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as an example of which we may instance the production of Ign. Schwarz, "Instituitiones juris universalis naturae et gentium" (1743).

Protestant Ethics

Far different from Catholic ethical methods were those adopted for the most part by Protestants. With the rejection of the Church's teaching authority, each individual became on principle his own supreme teacher and arbiter in matters appertaining to faith and morals. The Reformers held fast to the Bible as the infallible source of revelation, but as to what belongs or does not belong to it, whether, and how far, it is inspired, and what is its meaning—all this was left to the final decision of the individual.

Philipp Melanchthon, in his "Elementa philosophiae moralis," still clung to the Aristotelean philosophy; so, too, did Hugo Grotius, in his work, "De jure belli et pacis." But Cumberland and his follower, Samuel Pufendorf, moreover, assumed, with Descartes, that the ultimate ground for every distinction between good and evil lay in the free determination of God's will, a view which renders the philosophical treatment of ethics fundamentally impossible.

In the twentieth century, some Christian philosophers, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer questioned the value of ethical reasoning in moral philosophy. In this school of thought, ethics, with its focus on distinguishing right from wrong, tends to produce behavior that is simply not wrong, whereas the Christian life should instead be marked by the highest form of right. Rather than ethical reasoning, they stress the importance of meditation on and relationship with God.


  1. Part of the Second Part (Prima Secundæ Partis), The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 21, 2007.

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