Personification of the Faculty of Theology, Křižovnické Square, Prague (Wikimedia Commons)

Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC), a network of over 1,400 moral theologians from around the world, held its third global conference in Sarajevo in late July. The brainchild of my Boston College colleague James Keenan, SJ, CTEWC has also organized numerous regional conferences in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America since its inception in 2002. Its mission includes helping Catholic ethicists “to appreciate the challenge of pluralism; to dialogue from and beyond local culture; and, to interconnect within a world church not dominated solely by a northern paradigm.” It certainly succeeded in doing that.

But it also provided an apt occasion to reflect on the changing vocation of a Catholic moralist, at least for me. I thought it significant that the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae passed without much explicit attention during the conference. Nonetheless the milestone was tacitly signaled by the presence of Charles Curran. Having organized the resistance to the encyclical as a young professor, Curran took the stage in Sarajevo a half century later as an elder statesman to give his keynote. He seemed to be passing the torch.

I listened with great interest as Curran and other senior figures reminisced about the developments that have occurred in the field over the past few decades. As the days passed, it became clearer to me that many of those are irreversible. This claim is not progressive wishful thinking; many of them are taken for granted across the theological spectrum, among those who support as well as those who oppose Humanae vitae. Yet these changes bring a new set of challenges for the emerging generation of Catholic moralists, many of whom were present in Sarajevo. In fact, almost a third of the participants in the conference were junior scholars or doctoral students from around the world.


We are not training our students to be good confessors, but instead teaching them to be good and well-informed people.

Immediately after the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was a very specialized and closed discipline. It was a subject taught by priests to future priests in seminary to prepare them to hear confessions. For that reason, the idea of women, or lay people more generally, engaging in the discipline would have seemed preposterous. Why train people to do what is canonically impossible for them to do? And if they can’t do it, they certainly shouldn’t be teaching it.

Fifty years later, lay men and women work collaboratively with priests and religious in the field. One third of the 421 participants in Sarajevo were women; of these, about 80 percent were lay women. The split was fifty-fifty among the male participants—half lay men and half ordained priests. In other words, most of the moralists attending CTEWC were laypeople.

But what, exactly, is the role of lay moralists? While many of us are professors, not everyone teaches seminarians; instead, many of us teach undergraduates, including those who are not even Catholic. A few of us work in institutions that are not Catholic. We are not training our students to be good confessors, but instead teaching them to be good and well-informed people.

Furthermore, we don’t fit neatly within the structure and style of magisterial authority that supported and sorted older forms of Catholic moral theology. Fifty years ago, priests and seminarians consulted a tight band of “approved authors” who offered reliable answers to disputed questions. While they might differ on particulars, Dominicans, Jesuits, and Redemptorists all operated within the same basic neo-Thomistic framework.

That unity of topic and method doesn’t hold today. The conference featured two fascinating “poster sessions,” where ethicists from around the world exhibited their approaches. Some worked out of a feminist framework; Dr. Nontando Hadebe (Zimbabwe/South Africa) offered a poster titled “Women Rising Up for Justice.” Others operated from a more traditional virtue-theory approach, albeit one inculturated in a particular social context; Kochuthresia Puliappallil, OSS, (India) posted a display with the title “Virtues: The Bridge Builder.” Some drew mainly on Catholic sources, while others took a broader approach. For example, Egypt’s Nader Michel, SJ, presented a poster whose topic was “Anthropology as a Forum for Interreligious Dialogue: A Study of Some Bioethical Topics in Islam and Catholicism.”

Whereas the role of moralists on the eve of Humanae vitae was to provide authoritative answers, now their task seems to be to raise new and compelling questions. Presenters at CTEWC not only examined enduring problems (such as the meaning of death and dying) through new lenses; they also highlighted moral challenges that never appeared in the manuals, such as human trafficking, immigration justice, and climate change.

This emphasis on global questions and particular perspectives is a healthy corrective to the constraints of the manualist framework. As Pope Francis recently (and controversially) remarked: “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all the questions. I always think of new questions, and there are always new questions coming forward.” At the same time, it is not yet clear how our field will organize and prioritize these diverse methods, perspectives, and questions so that they do not devolve into a cacophony. It is no longer possible to identify any one “method” or school in Catholic ethical thought. How, then, will we speak with one another, rather than past one another?

For a while, this question troubled me greatly. I finally realized, however, that while there was no overarching conceptual structure, there was a notable overlap in concern. Three commitments ran through the presentations, as diverse as they were: (1) the goodness of God’s creation, and our responsibility to care for it; (2) the dignity of every human being, especially the vulnerable and the marginalized; and (3) the demands of solidarity within and across various human communities. These commitments will be the touchstone of the conversation. We have disputes, of course, about what these commitments mean in particular cases. Nonetheless, they point to the possibility of developing a truly common theological conversation.


Social and cultural analyses have now become the focus of attention, rather than constituting the background that contextualizes particular actions.

Classes in moral theology fifty years ago were essentially classes in “sin-spotting.” Commonly written in Latin to convey the purported timelessness of their analysis, they trained seminarians to identify, classify, and evaluate the wide range of actions that could conceivably be committed and confessed by an individual penitent. More timely questions of social justice and solidarity were raised, if at all, in entirely different classes on Catholic social teaching. In other words, personal ethics and social ethics proceeded down parallel tracks. After Vatican II, however, the two lines slowly began to converge. John Paul II, for example, broadened his moral analysis of the acts of abortion and euthanasia to examine their social context in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae.

It became clear in Sarajevo that many Catholic ethicists have taken things a step further. One might say that they have “flipped” the ethical classroom. Social and cultural analyses have now become the focus of attention, rather than constituting the background that contextualizes particular actions. Moreover, individual actions themselves are increasingly evaluated by the degree to which they participate in or resist structures of sin or oppression.

Some readers might object that this evolution in method is confined to progressives. Yet is it really? I was struck by the number of conservative moralists and pundits who celebrated the anniversary of Humanae vitae by emphasizing the prophetic nature of Pope Paul VI’s cultural critique of societies dominated by a contraceptive mentality. Many touched only lightly, if at all, on the encyclical’s neo-Scholastic analysis of the sexual act or even Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Moreover, both progressives and conservatives have approached the latest waves of church scandals not by focusing on the individual perpetrators of sexual abuse, but instead by asking hard (and despairing) questions about the clerical culture that enabled and protected them.

Yet individual people do still have to make particular moral decisions. While they may have over-emphasized questions of sexual morality, the manuals took seriously the ethics of ordinary life—and the ordinary burdens of moral discernment. One challenge facing contemporary Catholic ethics, in my view, is to find a way to incorporate this tradition of casuistry into a more complex map of the moral universe. There are some helpful starting points. In the past few decades, many Catholic moralists have turned their attention to virtue theory, which is interested in the way in which performing particular acts can build up or erode an individual’s moral character. Attending to the relationship between individual actions and structures of social sin is also important. Nonetheless, we need to guard against restricting our interest in the morality of individual actions to questions of complicity in those structures. That would be to indulge in another type of unhelpful reductionism.


The word “Catholic” means universal. Fifty years ago, the “universality” in Catholic ethics meant absorption into the Roman way of viewing things. Promising seminarians or young priests from around the globe would be brought to Rome to study, where they would be immersed in the manualist tradition so that they could apply its framework to problems they encountered back home. Catholicity—universality—moved deductively; it meant applying a general Roman framework to particular cases and cultures.

The CTEWC conference, however, modeled a very different and more inductive understanding of universality. The organizers worked hard to solicit contributions from a wide variety of particular Catholic communities. In his introductory remarks, Andrea Vicini, SJ, an incoming co-chair of CTEWC, recounted some powerful statistics. Over 60 percent of the participants were from the Global South. Fifty-two participants (fifteen women) came from Africa, representing sixteen countries. Seventy-nine participants (sixteen women) were from sixteen countries in Asia. Central America, the Caribbean, and South America sent seventy-three participants from seventeen countries. North Americans constituted less than a quarter of the participants.

In the context of CTEWC, universality becomes a goal, rather than an artificial presupposition of the discussion. Many of the papers focused on climate change, drawing normative insights from ethical analysis of particular situations. For example, Scaria Kanniyakonil gave a paper that was equal parts ethnography, liturgy, and ethics: “The Climate Change and the People in Kuttanad, India: An Eco-theological Response from the Syro-Malabar Church in India.” Annah Theresa Nyadombo, HOLMC (Zimbabwe) reflected on “The Climate Crisis and Its Impact on the Marginalized.”

The risk of this understanding of universality, of course, is that it becomes a permanently elusive dream rather than an engaging work-in-progress. To put the question bluntly: How do we ensure that papers at future conferences of CTEWC have more in common than those delivered at the famously fissiparous meetings of the American Academy of Religion?

The conference itself suggests one important response: focus on inputs rather than outputs—on what future scholars read, rather than what and how they write. While coming from very different cultural contexts, the participants deployed a common frame of reference born of deep familiarity with the magisterial documents of Catholic social teaching, particularly Laudato si’. What about common secondary sources? An ongoing task of CTEWC has been to support a book series in which specific topics are examined by Catholic scholars from around the globe. Recent titles include Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics, edited by Linda Hogan and A. E. Orobator, SJ; Just Sustainability, edited by Christiana Zenner (Peppard) and Andrea Vicini, SJ; and Living With(out) Borders, edited by Agnes M. Brazal and María Teresa Dávila.

Pope Francis wrote a letter to the conference participants that was read in the opening session. Noting that Sarajevo is a “city of bridges,” he urged the conference participants “to build bridges, not walls” with each other—and by implication, with both the past and the future of Catholic moral thought. Traversing these bridges, of course, is not an end in itself. In faithfulness to the “God who acts in history,” the pope maintained that our task as moralists is “not to judge but rather to offer new paths, accompany journeys, bind hurts and shore up weakness.” The great moral theologians of the past might quibble a bit about what Francis meant by “judging.” But I think they would readily accept the goal of bringing weak and sinful human beings to embrace both God’s justice and God’s mercy.

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the October 5, 2018 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.