A Council at Trent: Catholic Ethicists and the World Church
Roman Catholics know that our church is universal–catholic with a small “c”, embracing people of every race, region, color, and tongue. Most of the time, however, that knowledge is abstract, and even undermined by immediate evidence, rather like the knowledge that the earth is round. Many Catholics see the church in people who look and sound more or less like they do. Even if they are fortunate to live in a big city or a border town, they are presented with only slightly more evidence of the global scope of Catholicism.
On rare occasions, however, the catholicity of the church reveals itself not merely abstractly, but with vivid immediacy–rather like the roundness of the earth must have manifested itself to the first astronauts orbiting the globe. That’s the best analogy I can think of for my experience right now, at a conference on “Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church,” entitled “In the Currents of History: from Trent to the Future.” It is the brainchild of the indefatigable James Keenan, S.J. a professor of moral theology at Boston College.
Catholic moralists from over seventy countries are gathering in the city of Trent, the same city in which the Council held 450 years ago decisively shaped the outline of our discipline by creating the field of moral theology for seminary training of future confessors. Since the Second Vatican Council, that field has expanded tremendously in both participants and scope. It now includes not only priests, but also women religious and lay men and women. (More than a few babies and toddlers attended the conference with their moral theologian moms or dads.) And the concerns which animate the field are not merely the sins of individuals, but broad patterns of collective action and policies affecting the common good.
The topics of the more than sixty concurrent sessions (held in four languages) were not imposed from on high, but emerged inductively from the interests of the work of moralists around the globe. Scholars submitted paper topics which were then painstakingly arranged by the organizers in sessions designed to create fruitful conversation. In a session on “Doing Ethics in Wartime,” for example, Vimal Tirimanna from Sri Lanka looked at the role of the media in a context of violence and political upheaval, Elias Opongo from Kenya took on the topic of Conflict Dynamics and the Ethics of NGO Peacebuilding in Northern Uganda, and Anthony Egan from South Africa considered the boundaries between violent and nonviolent resistance in conflicts in his country.
As befits a conference held in the city that hosted the Council of Trent, the past of moral theology was not ignored, or denigrated, but was drawn upon creatively to address emerging problems. The session on casuistry, in which I participated, offers a good example. I went first, talking about how we ought not leave behind the casuistical tradition embodied in the confessors’ manual, but should reframe and reinvigorate it by uniting it with virtue ethics. My two co-panelists showed the usefulness of casuistical categories by addressing questions that the great manualists of the past could not have even conceived. Victoria Holderied-Milis of Belgium applied the casuistry of truth-telling and lying in internet chat rooms, in which many participants assume false identities or avatars. Dominador Bombongan from the Philippines argued that the casuistry was a moral method appropriate for teaching the Facebook generation, who were attracted first to the drama of concrete and particular situations. Once he got past his initial puzzlement about the internet, Alphonsus Ligouri would doubtless have been fascinated with their discussion.
In the Catholic moral tradition, particular cases can also be of universal importance and concern. I was surprised at how many moralists from around the globe, including India and Japan, had heard of the Phoenix abortion case and were interested in discussing how it would be handled in their own countries. Most interesting to me was the fact that the Italians I talked to were the most flummoxed by Bishop Olmsted’s handling of the situation. I got the distinct impression that many Italian bishops would not have dealt so ruthlessly and publicly with a nun confronted with such an anguishing case, even if they did not agree with her judgment that the procedure in question was a permissible indirect abortion, rather than an impermissible direct abortion.
The conference in Trent was the second global gathering of moral theologians; the first took place in Padua four years ago. At present, there are no plans for a third conference, due to the enormous time and expense involved in staging a meeting for over seven hundred people and subsidizing the travel expenses of those from developing countries.
But if any financially blessed Catholics happen to have a spare million dollars around, and a vocation to assist our church in global moral discernment, I have a good idea of how you might put your money to good use.