How to Be Good

Pope John Paul II’s legacy requires and deserves critically appreciative rumination for many generations to come. Charles Curran’s book is the first, and unexpectedly timely, systematic English treatment of John Paul’s moral theology. This comprehensive volume examines the pope’s use of Scripture and previous magisterial teaching, his Christology and eschatology, and his views on substantive moral matters ranging from human life issues, marriage, sex and family, to social ethics. The book focuses mainly on John Paul’s fourteen encyclicals, since these compose the late pope’s most authoritative moral teaching. Curran avoids miring himself in secondary literature on John Paul’s ethics, which contributes to the book’s accessibility, but also has the unfortunate effect of leaving some of Curran’s analyses underdeveloped and insulated from rebuttals.

Curran rightly notes that the key concern and unifying theme of John Paul’s ethics is the truth about the human person, disclosed in and by Jesus Christ. This truth is the basis of morality. John Paul stresses the person’s incomparable and unique dignity, which is grounded not in human qualities or achievements, but in God’s love, and is realized when one makes a free gift of oneself. The person is social by nature; therefore John Paul stresses the virtue of solidarity, a commitment to cultivate the common good.

Notwithstanding John Paul’s relational view of the person, his ethics tends to favor a legal model, Curran argues, which emphasizes principles, duty, and obedience. According to Curran, a legal ethical model “cannot deal adequately with the concrete realities of each individual called in a unique way to respond to the gift of God and the needs of others in our complex world.” Curran characterizes John Paul’s approach as classicist, tending “to see reality in terms of the static, the immutable, the eternal, and the unchanging.” For example, Laborem exercens moves from a general account of work that is ostensibly applicable to people in different fields of work, to specific conclusions like the primacy of labor over capital.

More vexing to Curran is how John Paul’s method plays out in his sexual ethics. Curran offers several valid criticisms of John Paul’s sexual ethics. He also trots out the tired and misleading charge of physicalism, which Curran defines as identifying “the human moral act with the physical or the biological structure of the act.” In this reading, physicalism leads to the position that it is wrong to interfere with the physical act of marital sexual intercourse. This charge obscures more fundamental areas of disagreement between John Paul and so-called revisionist Catholic theologians, and Curran discusses it in isolation from John Paul’s theology of the body. It exemplifies what Curran takes to be the insufficiently dynamic character of John Paul’s moral theology.

Curran argues that John Paul’s encyclicals exhibit some inconsistency concerning human capacities to know the truth. Encyclicals that deal primarily with matters of faith (for example, Redemptor hominis) stress Christ as the truth about the human person almost to the exclusion of human sources of truth. These writings are also more negative in their assessment of the world. Yet encyclicals that treat social matters (for example, Centesimus annus) recognize “a human truth that all, including non-Christians, share.” John Paul says that there can be some knowledge of truth without direct or explicit appeal to Christ, and affirms the Catholic tradition’s teaching that sin does not completely destroy our created human desire for and capacities to discover the truth.

Yet his encyclicals neglect natural law. Catholic natural-law teaching maintains that all persons of good will—irrespective of religious belief—can arrive at some moral truth by using human reason to reflect on creation and experience. John Paul’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor draws heavily on natural law, but his other encyclicals scarcely mention, let alone develop, it. This general neglect of natural law excludes human sources of moral wisdom, and this Curran rightly decries. Yet Curran also faults John Paul’s selective use of natural law for being insufficiently chastened by a sense of the limits of human reason: its historical and cultural conditioning, its distortion by sin.

Why does Curran criticize John Paul’s moral teaching for both underplaying and overestimating human sources of truth? Because Curran sees both tendencies in light of the role John Paul gives the church in moral teaching, particularly the teaching of specific moral norms. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the church teaches the truth about the human person. Taken together, the pope’s encyclicals do acknowledge different types and levels of truth—truths of faith, moral truths, truths of the church’s social teaching. But, according to Curran, the encyclicals nevertheless give the impression that these types of truth “all fall under the same general understanding of truth and its certitude precisely because they are all proposed by the church as authentic teaching due to the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” Different types of truth admit different degrees of certitude. Pointing to the historical development of church doctrine, and to changes in the church’s moral and social teaching, Curran insists the church has to learn the truth before it can teach it. The pope’s ethics is insufficiently attentive to experience and other sources of moral wisdom, exhibits too little historical consciousness, and grants too much certitude to noninfallible magisterial teaching. Indeed, Curran’s main criticism of John Paul’s moral theology is its “failure to emphasize and at times even to recognize the Catholic approach as a living tradition.”

Curran deftly maps the moral theology that underlies Pope John Paul II’s moral teachings. His criticism and appreciation are expressed graciously. He clearly favors John Paul’s social teaching over his sexual ethics, and in this Curran has plenty of company. Other commentators will and should differ in their analysis and evaluation. Diverse perspectives are inevitable given the complexity and richness of John Paul’s moral teaching and the long-standing controversy surrounding some aspects of it. In any case, respect for the church’s tradition as a source of moral insight means avoiding the urge to rush to judgment, be it dismissive or valorizing. And in advancing this task, Curran’s book is a welcome and valuable contribution.

Published in the 2005-12-16 issue: 

Darlene Fozard Weaver is an assistant professor of theology at Villanova University, where she teaches Christian ethics. She is the author of Self Love and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press).

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