Spring 1969

Page 46

MORAL

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world without any loose ends, a world of clear and distinct essences, a world much more static and unhistorical than that which Aquinas had known, an essentialistic world which was to remain until the advent of existentialism. And it is within this neat, essentialistic world, the modern world, that the traditional moral theology, as it has come to the present, developed. In this tidy modern world every possible kind of human act was a clear and distinct essence, capable of being classified timelessly as absolutely good, evil or indifferent. Like the rest of reality, human actions were understood as universal essences, readily and completely accessible to the investigating eye of reason. The moral relevance of the circumstances or situation in which an action is done was not ignored, but each possible set of circumstances was itself considered mainly as a kind of accidental form or essence added to the substantial essence of the action itself. And moral theology developed as the science of deducing the relationship among all these moral essences. The moral realm, like all other reality, could be penetrated completely with Cartesian, mathematical certitude because it was constituted exclusively by Cartesian clear and distinct essences. For the rationalist world, what could not be known with certainty could not be really worth knowing. Completely forgotten was the warning of Aristotle at the beginning of his ethics that "precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike." THE DELUSION OF CERTITUDE

Not only moral theology but also theology in general, as Bernard Lonergan has pointed out, became instead of a quest for understanding, according to the classical formula of Anselm, a quest for certitude. Philosophy, of course, as handmaid of theology, underwent the same transformation. And it is out of this intellectual climate that there developed in the Church what Michael Novak has called nonhistorical orthodoxy, the kind of commitment of which John Courtney Murray gave an example when he said apropos of the minority report of the birth-control commission: "They transfen¡ed the problem of birth¡ control from moral grounds-not arguing about birth