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Pope Francis sketches vision for future of moral theology

March 24, 2023

On March 23, Pope Francis received participants in a conference organized by the Alphonsian Academy (Alphonsianum), two months after he raised the institute of moral theology to the dignity of a pontifical institute.

Delivering his address in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace (photographs), the Pope thanked the Alphonsianum—named after St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist order and doctor of the Church—for the “formative service that you offer to the Church in the field of moral theology” as its 75th anniversary approaches.

“The Second Vatican Council affirms that moral theology, nourished by Sacred Scripture, must help the faithful to understand the greatness of their vocation to bring Christ’s charity to the world,” the Pope began. “Every theological-moral proposal ultimately has this foundation: it is the love of God that is our guide, the guide of our personal choices and our existential journey. Consequently, moral theologians, missionaries and confessors are called to enter into a living relationship with the People of God, taking on especially the cry of the least, to understand their real difficulties, to look at existence from their point of view and to offer them answers that reflect the light of the Father’s eternal love.”

The Pope continued with a personal anecdote:

Faithful to the Alphonsian tradition, you seek to offer a proposal of Christian life which, while respecting the demands of theological reflection, is not, however, a cold morality, a desk morality, I would say a “casuistry” morality. I say this from experience, because unfortunately I studied a “casuistry” morality at that time. Just think that we were forbidden to read Häring’s first book, The Law of Christ: “He is a heretic, he cannot be read!”. And I studied with that morality: “Mortal sin if two candles are missing on the altar, venial if only one is missing” ... Thank God this has passed, it was a cold morality of the desk.

(Father Bernard Häring, a controversial moral theologian, taught at the Alphonsianum for nearly four decades.)

Pope Francis then discussed conscience.

“In the complex and rapid change of epoch in which we are living, only people endowed with a mature conscience will be able to exercise, in society, a healthy evangelical protagonism at the service of their brothers,” he said. Citing Father Häring’s Free and Faithful in Christ, the Pope said that “the word that it [conscience] speaks is not its own, but comes from the very Word of the Creator, who became flesh to be with men.”

“And it is at his school, at the school of the Incarnate Word, that each one learns to dialogue with others, cultivating the aspiration for a universal fraternity, rooted in the recognition of the inviolable dignity of every person,” the Pope commented.

Turning to bioethics, the Pope said:

In this complex field, I invite you to cultivate the patience of listening and discussion, as St. Alphonsus recommends for conflict situations. Don’t be afraid to listen. It will be fundamental for the search for common solutions that recognize and guarantee respect for the sacredness of every life, in every condition. A decisive enrichment will then come to this hearing from the adoption of transdisciplinary research methods which enable us to approach new challenges with greater competence and critical capacity, in the light of the Gospel and human experience. Only in this way will it be possible to elaborate, in the bioethical field, reasonable and solid arguments, rooted in faith, suitable for adult and responsible consciences and capable of inspiring socio-political debate.

Warning against “the extreme dynamics of polarization,” the Pope advised, “Apply instead the principle, always indicated by St. Alphonsus, of the via media [middle way], which is not a diplomatic equilibrium, no, the middle way is creative, it is born from creativity, and it creates.”

Stating that “the bioethical proposal must be attentive to the real tragedies of people, who often find themselves confused in the face of life’s moral dilemmas,” the Pope called on his hearers to “make the fruits of your work accessible by using the ‘language of the people’ and by elaborating viable and humanizing proposals for moral life.”

Turning to the theme of social morality—“the environmental crisis, the ecological transition, war, a financial system capable of conditioning people’s lives to the point of creating new slaves, the challenge of building brotherhood among individuals and peoples”—Pope Francis said that “there is a need for solid reflection today,” and that “these themes must stimulate us to research and dialogue.”

Describing “the human race, renewed in Christ” and “destined to grow as God’s family” as the goal of moral theology, the Pope added:

Let us therefore seek to enter with humility and wisdom into the complex fabric of the society in which we live, in order to know its dynamics well and to propose to the men and women of our time adequate paths of maturation in this direction. And I speak of walking, adequate paths, not mathematical solutions, adequate paths.

Problems are solved by walking ecclesially as the people of God. And walk with people in the moral state they are in. Walk with them and look for a way to solve their problems, but walk, not sitting like doctors who condemn without worrying with their fingers raised.

In recent years we have faced grave moral questions such as migration and pedophilia; today we see the urgency to add more, such as profits concentrated in the hands of a few and the division of global powers. Let us also accept these challenges with confidence, ready to “give an account of the hope that is in us.” (1 Pet. 3:14)

In conclusion, the Church expects the Pontifical Alphonsian Academy to be able to reconcile scientific rigor and closeness to the holy faithful People of God, to give concrete answers to real problems, to accompany and formulate human moral proposals, attentive to the saving Truth and to the good of persons.


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  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Mar. 24, 2023 9:04 PM ET USA

    Certainly not all casuistry is per se evil. As I remember, Haering's Law of Christ was not the problem. His Free and Faithful was. I don't see that the "Incarnate Word’s school" is a dialogue for universal fraternity. Isn't it about accepting Him, conversion, forgiveness of sin and spreading the Gospel? "Do not think that I have come to brin peace bring peace to the earth I have not come to bring peace, but a sword, the Lord says. Matt 10:34-36 What does a "healthy evangelical protagonism"mean?

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Mar. 24, 2023 8:58 PM ET USA

    Francis and his handlers are not stupid. The Holy Father is on a quest to undermine the traditional moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Especially those defended and guarded under the pontificate of Saint John Paul II. That is why he harks back 60 years ago to disinter Bernard Häring from the grave and throw his outmoded scholarship in the faces of moral theologians educated in both the more recent teaching of Veritatis Splendor and the Catholic tradition of moral theology. Such a disgrace for a Pope.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 24, 2023 7:17 PM ET USA

    Bingo! Stunted from an early age. Our psychological commenters can say more, but it has been clear from the beginning of his pontificate that he has a deep history of traumas. His type of anger and insult are found in people with a history of unresolved resentments. Here is one of them: "'He is a heretic, he cannot be read!'. And I studied with that morality..." My advice would be to grow up, get professional help, put conscience and morality in their proper Catholic perspective, learn to love.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Mar. 24, 2023 1:11 PM ET USA

    An address void of precision that we've come to respect in the writing of Mirus and Lawler. This word salad throwing together such a mixture of theological, political, psychological, ecological mumbo jumbo is worthy of our Vice President. Pope Francis is patently incapable of organized thought, though perhaps by design in order to impress with deliberate confusion. So sad to see the papacy to fail in such a breath taking manner.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 24, 2023 11:11 AM ET USA

    Quote: "In recent years we have faced grave moral questions such as migration and pedophilia..." - this, among so many other statements, makes me seriously wonder about Francis' cognitive abilities.