In a recent, highly public dustup, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, raised the question of heresy because of his disgust with calls for greater Eucharistic inclusivity for people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender, or divorced and remarried. His unnamed target was Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, whose article in America Bishop Paprocki cited. Cardinal McElroy responded by repeating his objection to the traditional moral teaching that all sexual sin is objectively mortal sin. That was the trigger for the heresy charge.
The principle itself—that all sexual sin is mortal sin—would not seem shocking to American Catholics who attended parochial schools in the 1950s. “Mortal” signified the rupture of the soul’s relationship to God, and its eternal damnation if its sins were left unrepented before death. As it happens, not a month after encountering this exchange, I discovered the same declaration on page 260 of the book under review, James Keenan’s A History of Catholic Theological Ethics: “All sins of impurity of whatever kind or species are of themselves mortal.” The source for this (endnote 98, p. 384) was unclear, so I looked it up where someone of my generation would have encountered it: in the Baltimore Catechism. And here it is, from Baltimore Catechism #3: Fr. Connell’s Confraternity Edition, intended for those who had been confirmed or were in high school, authorized in 1949 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. This edition was a revision of the original Baltimore Catechism made by Professor Francis Connell of the Catholic University of America, copyrighted and published by Benzinger Bros. in 1949 and 1952. (Baltimore Catechism #3 was one of four age-appropriate levels in the revision, according to the Wikipedia article on the catechism.) I cite from the free site archive.org:
Question 256. What does the sixth commandment forbid?
The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks, and actions, whether alone or with others.
(c) Immodesty is any deliberate thought, word, or action that tends toward impurity.
(d) When there is full deliberation in any sin of impurity it is a mortal sin. Immodesty may be either a mortal or venial sin depending on the greater or less danger of impurity to which it tends, the degree of scandal, and the intention of the sinner.
Fr. Connell’s parsing of the gravity of sins against the sixth commandment relaxes the absolutism of the original quotation. But the principle itself is reaffirmed: any fully deliberate sin of impurity is mortal.
I begin this way not in order to skewer, once again, the pedagogical shortcomings of preconciliar catechesis. The Baltimore Catechism is an easy target that did its share of harm, though this reviewer thinks it had its redeeming side as well. I begin with it because it offers a direct way into A History of Catholic Theological Ethics. James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor of Theology, director of the Jesuit Institute, and vice provost of global engagement at Boston College. He is the prolific author and editor of more than two dozen books, dozens of essays and chapters in books, editor of two academic series, and the founder of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church. That last distinction has been the focus of his energies in recent years, and the place where this sprawling survey reaches its conclusion. The book is a recapitulation of his three and a half decades of remarkably productive and creative service to the Church and to the theological academy. It reveals his commitment to historical consciousness, to interdisciplinarity, to pastoral practice, to bioethics and issues related to sexuality and gender, and to a global inclusivity.
Despite its ambitious scale, the book sits rather easily with the reader for at least three reasons. First is its relaxed and discursive style. We hear the voice of a writer who is patently a teacher, supportive and encouraging rather than domineering and overweening. He explains at the outset how the book grew out of thirty-three years of teaching: “I am welcoming you into my classroom.” He is a charitable analyst, even of texts whose obsessions with spiritual control and intimidation may irritate many readers. The eighty pages of endnotes tell you how much reading and study went into the assurance of that voice. Fully one third of those endnote pages are from the eighth and last chapter of the book, on “Moral Agency for a Global Theological Ethics”—an indication of the author’s energy and attention for the past dozen years and more.