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Catholic moral theology is a major category of doctrine in the Catholic Church, equivalent to a religious ethics. Moral theology encompasses Catholic social teaching, Catholic medical ethics, sexual ethics, and various doctrines on individual moral virtue and moral theory. It can be distinguished as dealing with "how one is to act", in contrast to dogmatic theology which proposes "what one is to believe".


Sources of Catholic moral theology include both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and philosophical ethics such as natural law that are seen as compatible with Catholic doctrine. Moral theology was mostly undifferentiated from theology in general during the patristic era, and is found in the homilies, letters and commentaries on Scripture of the early Church fathers.

Examples of Catholic moral theologians include St. Alphonsus Liguori (author of Theologia Moralis), Bartolomé Medina (originator of Probabilism), Dominic Prümmer (Compensationism), Bernhard Häring (Dialogical Ethics), Servais Pinckaers (Nouvelle théologie), Germain Grisez and John Finnis (New Natural Law).

Moral theology tends to be advanced most authoritatively through official statements of doctrine, such as papal encyclicals, which are based on the dogmatic pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils (e.g., Vatican II), Sacred Scriptures, and Sacred Tradition. In addition, moral theologians publish their own works and write in a variety of journals devoted in whole, or in part to moral theology. These scholarly journals are helpful in making the theology of the Church more clear and accessible to others, and serve as a forum in which scholarly discussion of understanding and application of issues occurs. However, these journals per se do not add or remove anything from Catholic teaching.

The curriculum for formation of priests commonly includes required and elective courses in Catholic moral theology.


Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, moral theology developed in precision and scope through scholasticism. Much of the Catholic Church's current moral theology, especially regarding natural law, is based in the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, which is regarded as one of the best treatises of Catholic moral theology.[1]

Baroque period and Reformation

Although many theologians found inspiration in Aquinas from his death onwards, moral theology did not become its own separate field of scholarship until after the council of Trent at the dawn of the baroque period and the reformation, one of the wishes of the council fathers was to set out the more rigorous training of priests which would lead to the genesis of seminaries. Through the renewal of learning in the Church specialisation would begin to take root in the curriculum, with theology becoming fragmented into different 'fields' such as dogmatic, moral, spiritual theology and so on. This would lead to the birth of the genre of the 'Manual'.

Birth of manualism

Manualism designates an approach to Christian ethics, especially in Catholic moral theology,[2][3][4][5][6][7][8], associated with Alphonsus Liguori[9][10] and the tradition of "moral manuals" (instruction manuals teaching explicitly right and wrong)[11][12][13][14] which came from him.[15]

Alphonsus Liguori

The manualist tradition has an ambivalent relationship with scholasticism.[16][17][13][18] David Bentley Hart[12] among others[10][13][18] state that much of contemporary Thomism has more manualism than Aquinas himself.

The manualist tradition is related to casuistry – Reasoning by extrapolation.[14]

Manualism is associated with the theology surrounding artificial birth control.[19]

The first manual of moral theology was written by the Jesuit, Juan Azor in three volumes, his Institutionum Moralium published in the 17th century. Although claiming patrimony to Aquinas, nominalism was most prolific at the time among the intellectual elite which seems to have influenced Azor's outlook in his work, instead of focusing on the beatitudes and virtues in the moral life as Aquinas in his Summa, nominalism emphasises the obligatory and legal nature of God's commands as a result of the arbitrary will of God and a person's conscience before the law, many would follow Azor's model with few modifications and this outlook would influence the whole manualist tradition of moral theology which would become less dominant after Vatican II, during this period it became more common for alternative approaches or attempts to return to a biblical, patristic or scholastic approach before the influence of nominalism and outgrowth of casuistry which was characteristic of the tridentine period.


Contemporary Catholic moral theology is developed by acts of the Magisterium, by the Pope, other bishops, and by the works of lay Catholic moral theologians, which include magisterial teachings, as well as (in some matters) theological opinions.


See also


  1. ^ Lehmkuhl, Augustinus (1912). "Moral Theology" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  2. ^ The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics - Page 508 Gilbert Meilaender, William Werpehowski · 2007 FOUND INSIDE – PAGE 508 the manualists: 'no period is more important in the history of moral theology than the late 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries'. But he then added, 'this is perhaps less a criticism of M. than a reXection on our almost complete ...
  3. ^ Boersma, Hans (2012). "Nature and the Supernatural in la nouvelle théologie: The Recovery of a Sacramental Mindset". New Blackfriars. 93 (1043): 34–46. doi:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2011.01434.x. JSTOR 43251594.
  4. ^ Hart, David Bentley (2020). Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest. University of Notre Dame Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv19m638q.15. ISBN 978-0-268-10717-8. JSTOR j.ctv19m638q.[page needed]
  5. ^ Genilo, Eric Marcelo O. (2007). John Cuthbert Ford, SJ: Moral Theologian at the End of the Manualist Era. Georgetown University Press. ISBN 978-1-58901-181-6. JSTOR j.ctt2tt41x.[page needed]
  6. ^ Senz, Nicholas. "Shifting Away From Manualism: On Forming Consciences". Church Life Journal. Retrieved 2023-03-13.
  7. ^ Engelhardt, H. Tristram (November 2011). "Orthodox Christian Bioethics: Some Foundational Differences from Western Christian Bioethics". Studies in Christian Ethics. 24 (4): 487–499. doi:10.1177/0953946811415018. S2CID 147395651. the Counter-Reformation, the manualist tradition produced a wealth of reflections between
  8. ^ Wicks, Jared (1986). "Review of Foundational Theology. Jesus and the Church". Gregorianum. 67 (2): 374–376. JSTOR 23577203.
  9. ^ Haddorff, David W. "Relying on Aquinas, Prudently." (1998): 562-564. position of Alphonsus Liguori. It was not only Liguori's manualist method of applying...
  10. ^ a b KROM, MICHAEL P. "Review" (PDF). Journal of Moral Theology. manualist tradition's focus on the distinction between material and formal cooperation with evil as well as on the intention of those who so cooperate is at least implicit in our modes of argumentation.
    Flannery begins by showing the inadequacies of the approach to cooperation with evil found in St. Alphonsus Liguori and the subsequent manualist tradition. Most pointedly, Liguori uses Aquinas's theory of morally indifferent acts in order to clarify his own position on material cooperation and yet, as becomes even clearer in the later manualists, this ends up revealing the problems with his own analysis. In chapter 2, Flannery finds the answer to these problems by focusing on Aquinas's account of how circumstances factor into the morality of indifferent acts. Rather than focus on the intention of the cooperator, Aquinas looks at the broader issues of whether or not an action is consistent with reason, justice, and charity. Chapter 3 helps to clarify all of this via the issue of scandal: Alphonsus ignores all others affected by acts of cooperation as well as "how the actions performed relate to the ultimate end and order of the moral universe" (122).
  11. ^ Thomas Worcester (2017). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Jesuits. After the Council of Trent until the twentieth century, moral theology was shaped by the moral manuals used in seminaries to form future confessors. Manualist moral theology was concerned with avoidance of sin and obedience
  12. ^ a b Hart, David Bentley (2015-06-01). "Romans 8:19-22". First Things. Institute on Religion and Public Life (254): 72–74. In theological circles, the term "Thomism" (or "traditional Thomism" or "manualist Thomism" or "two-tier Thomism") typically refers not to the writings of Thomas himself, or even to any given scholar [...] who happens to study Thomas's thought, but to a particular faction of Baroque neoscholasticism, which began in the sixteenth century, principally with Domingo Banez, and which largely died out in the twentieth, principally with Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.
    This was the tradition that produced the infamous Thomist "manuals," and that a succession of Catholic scholars [...] assailed as an impoverished early modern distortion of the medieval synthesis,
  13. ^ a b c "A brief history of the Catholic Church's teaching on mercy and sin". America Magazine. 2022-12-15. Retrieved 2023-03-12. In fact, scholasticism and not manualism better conveys the tradition's long-term interests and purpose.
  14. ^ a b McDermott, John (2014). "The Collapse of the Manualist Tradition". Faith Magazine. Since manualist moralists sought to uphold universal norms even while exercising casuistry for difficult cases, it became fashionable to denounce casuistry and leave individual choices to the individual's informed conscience. For that, manuals were superfluous, especially once proportionalism was introduced into Catholic morality. Universal concepts no longer satisfied.
  15. ^ Atkinson, Gary M. "Cooperation with Evil: Thomistic Tools of Analysis." American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 95.2 (2021): 337-339.
  16. ^ Flanagan, Patrick (2013). "James F. Keenan, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences (New York: Continuum, 2010), pp. viii + 248, £17.99, ISBN 978-0-8264-2929-2 (pbk)". International Journal of Public Theology. 7 (2): 229–230. doi:10.1163/15697320-12341290. neo-scholastic Manualist tradition in the second chapter
  17. ^ Breckenridge, Robert L (March 1993). "Gallagher, John A., 'Time Past, Time Future: An Historical Study of Catholic Moral Theology' (Book Review)". Church History. 62 (1): 101. neo-Thomist manualist tradition
  18. ^ a b Curran, Charles (1995). "Thomas Joseph Bouquillon: Americanist, Neo-Scholastic, or Manualist?". Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America. His [ Thomas Bouquillon's] neo-scholastic adherence to Thomas Aquinas served as the ultimate basis for his criticism of the manuals.
  19. ^ Petri, Thomas. Aquinas and the Theology of the Body. CUA Press, 2016. |quote=... in response to the manualist tradition rather than to Aquinas’s ... successively shown the shift of manualist theology away from the work of ... of the manualist tradition that the birth control de- ...
  20. ^ Bernhard Häring, Free and faithful in Christ. Moral Theology for priests and laity, I/General Moral Theology. For freedom Christ has set us free (Gal 5,1), Slough 1978, focus on chapter 3
  21. ^ Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI). Introduction To Christianity, 2nd Edition (Communio Books) (Kindle Locations 304-306). Ignatius Press.

Further reading