Friday, January 8, 2010


N.B This is a talk I delivered to seminary formators and theology professors at San Carlos Seminary in October 2009



Before anything else, I would like to start with a disclaimer. I lay no claim to being a theologian of any stature, by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, I am a perpetual student of theology, who, by necessity, happens to have been teaching moral theology subjects over the past 18 years, among other things.

My talk today will have to be based, neither on something patently original, nor on some fruit of a lifetime work of research, but on good old experience that teaching this subject for those many years, has led me to, and also on a reasoned reflection on that experience that could hopefully resonate with yours. I also speak from the point of view of one who, for more than the years I have been teaching theology, has been involved both directly and indirectly with formation work for young seminarians, students of theology, and young male and female professed religious, either as teacher or counselor – and – in these recent years, also as therapist.

Secondly, I would like to make an admission. Having earned my humble degree in Moral Theology back in the day when the current called “revisionism” was at its height, I was among those who at least thought that revisionist theologians’ writings were welcome news for moral theology that was called to task by Vatican II in these now famous words:

“Special care should be given to the perfecting of Moral Theology. Its scientific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of holy scripture and should throw light upon the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world” (OT 16).

The buzz, then, during our theology days, was all about fundamental option. The pole of human experience, in contraposition to the pole of the data of revelation and the handed-down tradition, epitomized, at least initially, and modeled for many, many years, by the positive approach adopted by the great Redemptorist moral theologian Bernard Haring (1966), was what students then felt so much at home in. In answer to the renewal called for by Vatican II, said approach produced a moral theology that was person-centered, rather than act-centered. It paved the way towards approaching moral obligation from the point of view of a call and saw moral behavior as a corresponding response, rather than mere obedience to categorical and unbending laws. That call, furthermore, was always understood in the context of a community instead of something that was directed only to individuals, and it opens positively with the teachings on grace rather than sin, on the paths that led to salvation, rather than what would occasion damnation. It was focused on the “exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ” primarily, and only secondarily, on “their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world.”

It all unfolded as a response to the clarion call for openness to the modern world that was the watchword of Vatican II.

Such openness translated to moral theology teachers’ capacity or difficulty, to engage in dialogue with the “signs of the times.” Following Gaudium et Spes, the “dialogical nature of moral theology” meant more than the above-mentioned “call-response” character (or simply put, the “responsive character) of Moral Theology that capitalized on that “exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ,” on the one hand, and the loving response of man to that sublime call from above, on the other. It also was taken to mean, dialoguing and interfacing with human sciences, with culture, with the world, and everything that the developing, changing world, could offer.

But as we know very well, more than just “fresh air” entered the windows of the Church, flung open by the Second Vatican Council. On all fronts, be it from the sociological, philosophical, psychological, cultural, anthropological, and scientific realms, changes proved to be problematic for many traditional disciplines that were taken, prior to all this, as monolithic and not open to challenge.

At this point, apart from a disclaimer and the admission that I just made, I also would like to make a confession. After teaching moral theology for 18 years, you would think I would find it easier as the years go by. No … and this is the point of the confession … I find it more and more difficult every year. This is the core and crux of this talk. Let me explain why.

But this leads me to the structure of this talk. Following the time-tested methodology handed down to us in teaching Catholic Social Doctrine, that is, a three-tier approach called See-Judge-Act method (CCE 1988, #7), I divide this talk into two main parts that roughly correspond to the 1st and 3rd tiers of said methodology. I leave out the second part, as I do not want to belabor what obviously we are all familiar with as seminary professors.



I would like to quote William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” …

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

I don’t know about your own experiences, but as an educator, I am faced almost daily with a cross-section of what so many authors seem to be ranting about these days. They talk about the culture – both in the Church and in the world, the culture of postmodernity, the pros and cons of globalization, the state in which those who claim to be Catholics and behave as such, and those who claim to be Catholics but who behave more like Protestants. They approach the “things that fall apart” from the philosophical viewpoint; from the point of view of cultural anthropology. Name it, they have it, including the culture and status of those who knock at the doors of our seminaries, asking to become priests.

This first major part, therefore, will have to ramify into several sub-parts. I hope not to bore you, but I do need to tell you why I confessed I find it harder and harder to teach Moral Theology.

Confusion and Controversy

I think that Neuhaus (2006) epitomizes what I would like to say in the title of his book “Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth.” I would not like to mince words here. There is confusion, not so much in the Church of our times, as among those who lay claim to membership in the Church. There is controversy. There is polarization. In a “just off the press” book that I have been awaiting since it was announced, Cardinal Francis George (2009) of Chicago alludes to this when he makes a critique of both liberal and conservative Catholicism. Suggesting that the American political culture has influenced many, Catholics now align themselves with either liberals or conservatives. “Liberals,” he says, “often function as chaplains of the status quo, taking their cues from the prevailing secular mindset, while conservatives often end up in a sectarian dead-end, clinging to a narrow and triumphalistic version of Catholic identity sealed off from the surrounding culture” (Allen, 2009).

Robert Barron (2004) speaks of the same “great divide” and writes about the “terrible war of attrition between two extreme camps (with admittedly numerous shades in between): progressives overly in love with the culture and pushing myriad reforming agendas and conservatives trying to recover the form of Catholicism that predated the council.” “Some of these liberals,” according to Barron, “were so enamored of growth, play, and free development that they allowed John XXIII’s flourishing garden to become overgrown and untamed; while some of these traditionalists were so attached to an outmoded cultural expression of the Church’s life that they effectively killed off the plants in the garden, pressing their dead leaves between the pages of a book.”

This, for me, is problem number one. Given the very limited time allotted to the “scientific exposition” called for by Optatam Totius, the tendency is either to “go for the jugular,” as it were, and go directly to what traditional catholic doctrine teaches. In practice, this translates to what is easiest, what is most convenient to teach, what most readily lends itself to easy recall. This means being traditional, being neo-Scholastic, and going for the no nonsense approach of the neo-manuals. Introduction to Moral Theology may run the risk of becoming no more and no less than a glorified set of catechism lessons, that make for easy recall for the students, and easy grading on the part of teachers. They also avoid the convoluted issues being pushed by so-called “liberals” and they lend themselves to easy and simple codification, minus the need to go into the finer details of what are discussed in volume upon volume written by so many authors. Based to a large extent on an essentialist and static scholastic philosophy, the students’ capacity to fully grasp and appreciate what these books expound would depend a whole lot on their background on the same philosophical tradition. As it often happens, the course on moral theology becomes a review, or in some cases, an extension, of moral philosophy, or a lame commentary to the official Church documents on the raging issues at hand. Although I am not making any facetious conclusions, the element of danger in said approach lies on its facile identification with reason as the basic starting point of theologizing, and not faith. Apropos this, Servais Pinckaers’ reminder comes in handy:

“The theologian is not simply an intellectual, a scholar who chooses the texts of revelation and the life of the Church as object of study. The theologian is before all else a believer, well aware that for one who receives the Word of God with a docile mind, it becomes a source of light and life surpassing all human reason and communication” (Pinckaers, 1995, p. 294).

I don’t know about your experience, but from my end, in the many years I did seminary formation work, I did have to grapple (and I still do as teacher) with the glaring fact that most of those who knock at the doors of our seminaries, with the possible exception of some of the so-called adult vocations, know next to nothing about basic catechism. Given the mostly and, in some cases, purely academic orientation of our seminary curricula and formation programs, the possibility of seminarians being thrown into the sea of “scientific expositions” of heady philosophical and theological subjects, may compromise what Pinckaers also says that theology ought to do – “to work in the pure light of faith joined to reason, for the forming of Christian wisdom, which will be the fruit of the believing mind and will witness the truth of the Gospel to all people and all tenets.” “This,” he adds, “is what we may call authentic Christian humanism” (p. 296).

What, then, exactly, is the problem vis-à-vis the teaching of Moral Theology? Barron, Cardinal George, and Neuhaus are one in saying that falling into the trap of the bland “middle way,” the nondescript “middle ground,” what Barron refers to as “beige Catholicism” is not exactly the answer. It is not straddling the road that defines the way for us to go. Barron avers that

“there are extremists in the Church today, and there are moderates – and all of them are wreaking havoc. They are causing such distress precisely because they are ignoring, each in a particular way, the strangeness that lies at the heart of Christianity. It is my contention that the chief problem we face in the Church is not lack of loyalty to Rome, not insufficient concern for the poor, not ignorance or women’s concerns, not liturgical abuse, not theological imprecision, nor resurgent triumphalism – though each of these is, I think, cause for worry. No, the chief difficulty we face is lack of imagination, the inability to hold opposites in tension, the failure to be, boldly and unapologetically, bi-polar extremists” (Barron, 2004, p. 3).

Neuhaus (2006) argues in favor the good, old tradition of “sentire cum ecclesia.” By it, he means not falling in with those who tend to shore-up religious truth and draw clear battle lines with those who are at the opposite end of the spectrum, nor identifying with all those who believe that the pole of human culture, contemporary history, and current modes of thinking ought to be given the priority in moral reflection. Following Tillich, he makes a distinction between ‘Catholic substance,’ understood as the received tradition, and the ‘protestant principle,’ taken to mean simply the critique of that tradition. As regards the latter, he makes the following scathing remark:

“The Protestant principle, as we know by sad experience, is so protean and subject to variation that it results either in gutting the tradition or in creating new traditions around which further schisms are formed. Theology that is not in service to the ‘faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) will, in time, turn against the faith once delivered to the saints. Ideas that are not held accountable to the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth’ (1 Tim 3:15) will, in time, become the enemy of that truth” (p. 58).

True to his form as a pastor, first and foremost, and an intellectual heavyweight in his own right, Cardinal Francis George (2009), muddling through the raging debacle of the two warring camps in the Church of our times, argues in favor of what he terms “simply Catholicism,” meaning a clear sense of Catholic identity that is nevertheless open to the world (Allen, 2009). What is wrong with liberals and conservatives, he says in effect, is that both of them are focused too much on authority. Liberals are critical of authority. Conservatives may be less critical of authority, but are equally dependent on them. “Both of them are defining themselves vis-à-vis the bishops, rather than vis-à-vis Christ, who uses the bishops to govern the Church. It’s not a Christ-centered Church, as it’s supposed to be; it’s a bishop-centered Church” (Allen, 2009).

Anarchy Loosed Upon the World

The immediately foregoing refers to us who now are part of the power structure, whether we accept it or not, those who mould the minds of the future leaders in the Church that seems to be fraying at the edges, with leaders trying to shore up “catholic substance,” and those intermediate or the equivalent of middle managers – the pastors in the trenches – acting more like they are at the service of the “protestant principle,” by their silence and avoidance of the difficult issues that sorely divide the faithful, caught as they are in “confusion and controversy.”

Since July of this year, I have been working as Principal of a Catholic High School in US territory. The island is traditionally Catholic for as long as the Philippines have been Catholic predominantly. The official collective belief especially of the leadership, contrary to what I observe, is that the whole island and its people are staunchly Catholic. The leadership is gallantly waging a lonely battle against the worst that a postmodern, secular world offers, trying to shore up the “catholic substance” that we refer to above. But for all the press releases, the pastoral letters, and the high profile opposition to “catholic legislators” who make laws contrary to the catholic substance, the picture that emerges from the trenches is a patently different one. In contrast to the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric penned down by the theologically correct, but politically incorrect, representatives of those who, rightly or wrongly, are seen as belonging to the extreme right of the spectrum, the pastors in the front-line of battle, behave more like the sales reps of a bland, colorless, and flavorless spiritual presence, more at home with rituals than with being spokesmen for the received tradition of catholic teachings. They are, as far as I am concerned, the perfect examples of what Barron refers to as “beige Catholicism.” The leadership is surrounded by those who make maximum use of authority to put forward their brand of truth while the rest, wary of – and focused on the very same – authority, but uncomfortable about the way it is used, seems to defy authority, by not making use of their primary authority to teach and preach, in season and out of season.

The same, I presume, may well be happening in our seminary classrooms of our theological faculties. On the one hand, we have those who “teach by the book,” as it were, and those, on the other hand, who, focusing more on theories rather than teachings, give more importance to the environing culture rather than being evangelizers of the same culture, and end up being spokesmen of the “protestant principle,” and purveyors of “beige catholicism.” It seems to me that it was Cozzens (2000), who first spoke of “soft liberals” who don’t openly go against the official teachings of the Church, but who do not enthusiastically promote it either, preferring to remain on the level of well-placed subtle and not-so-subtle innuendoes against a great many of the Church’s official teachings.

A Frayed Fabric?

I would like to say a little more on the environment that is the context of all this confusion and controversy. Robinson (2004) attacks the same issue from the point of view of culture. Speaking largely about the Protestant mega-churches that dot the American religious landscape, vis-à-vis what American sociologists describe as the decline of “social capital” (p. 3) in American society, characterized by a “marked reduction in social connectedness and civic-mindedness,” Robinson (p. 6ss) describes two extreme heuristic models of the church that people join: the consumerist model, in which the “church becomes a commodity and its service consumer-driven, which becomes a meeting place, a social club, a business network, and a source of intellectual stimulation”; and the “churches that serve as the locus of moralism, the regulator of behavior.” In this latter type, “conformity and straightforward answers are primary.” Here, too, “the moral code becomes paramount and absolutism seats itself in the chair beside the pulpit, keeping careful watch over the flock, issuing warnings to steer clear of the world and its evils.”

The former, she says, become the “breeding ground of nominal Christians who are given the freedom in Christ to do as they please, to worship as they see fit, to live the good life of prosperity and happiness in the world, to take as their mantra, ‘God is good all the time. All the time God is good.’” She goes on to say that this “is the premodern church in which freedom and pragmatism become paramount; relativism lurks just beyond the stained-glass windows as the key to strong membership rests in giving the consumer what he or she demands. Entertainment and smorgasbord of programs and services are primary.” She thus speaks about Christianity as a “tale of two cities: the way of consumerism, which downplays moral choices and a common life of discipleship in favor of cultural acceptability, or the way of legalism, which makes morality authoritative, downplays individual discernment, and stresses a ‘countercultural’ attitude” (p.7).

The Centre Unable to Hold

The all too common tendency for people caught in between two diametrically opposed factions is to go the middle way, go moderate, or to straddle the theological road of nondescript indifference. But as Yeats words may suggest to us, “the centre cannot hold.” A bland type of callous indifference simply will not do. This is not what we hear Cardinal George is saying. He speaks of “simply Catholicism” which according to Allen (2009) refers to a clear sense of Catholic identity that is nevertheless open to the world. This, too, is not what we hear Barron (2004) say. In the face of this seeming impasse, he recognizes that some will opt for “popular but dangerous extremism” while some others will adopt a “prudent but uninspiring moderation.” Choosing the former, he says, will lead the Church towards “a divisive and explosive future,” while opting for the latter might make us all “destined to become more and more irrelevant, going out not with a bang, but with a whimper” (p. 4). Taking common cause with Tillich and Chesterton, who both believed that moderation was a pagan and not a Christian virtue, Barron says that,

“to stand blandly in the middle is to miss the thrill and the romance of Christianity, to overlook the strange event which stands at the heart of the Church and which separates it from any mythology or philosophy that preceded it. It is to overlook the Incarnation” (p.6). Barron is concerned that “the poetry of the Incarnation is not much in evidence in the weary debates today between liberals, moderates, and conservatives” (p. 8).

Much like George who makes a call for “simply Catholicism,” Barron speaks of authentic Christians who “must be, at one and the same time and with unabashed fervor, radically liberal and radically conservative, passionately left-wing, and passionately right-wing, excessively optimistic and excessively pessimistic.” “The authentic Christian wants, not the optimist alone, and not the pessimist alone, and by no means some monstrous blend of the two. No, she wants the optimist at full volume and the pessimist at full volume. Is this madness? No, it is, I would argue, the bi-polar extremism that has always characterized Christianity at its best” (p.10).

Barron makes a case against teachers, nuns, and priests of his generation who were and are, unduly concerned about making Catholicism “as non-threatening, accessible, culturally appealing as possible.” Capitulating to the prevailing culture, they seem to be focused on translating “uniquely catholic doctrine, practice and style into forms acceptable to the environing culture, always downplaying whatever might be construed as ‘odd’ or ‘supernatural.’ Thus, the Biblical and theological tended to be replaced by the political, the sociological, and above all, the psychological” (p.17). Apropos this, there is a lot to be said about a culture that, throwing all its eggs in the basket of an exclusively therapeutic mind-set, looks at life’s goal, not in terms of a “good life,” but in terms of “better living,” looking at psycho-analytic therapeutic processes as the panacea to the world’s ills, which Rieff refers to wryly as the “triumph of the therapeutic” (Rieff, 1987).

But so far, the SEEING that we have been doing up till now, in this first part, would have us look mostly at the moral theology professors – the “teachers, nuns, and priests” that Barron speaks about. But what about the recipients of our gallant teaching? What about those on the other side of the cathedra from which we pontificate? I would now like to take a look at the students that Divine Providence sends us.

Innocence Drowned

I said in passing above how the candidates for seminary formation that come to us tend to have little catechetical background. But that is an understatement. Whilst the sweeping statements that may come from me are for the most part debatable, and that there are variations from place to place, the 18 years that I have been in formation and teaching work have convinced me that we do witness the law of diminishing returns in many senses in terms of quality and the level of preparation of our candidates – on all aspects and levels of human maturity. Many come from broken families, blended families, and from a multiplicity of what people so often refer to as dysfunctional families, never mind if most people really do not know what that means. With the exception of a select few who are fortunate enough to come from expensive, private, and elitist schools, you and I know only too well, that most come from a background that leaves much to be desired in terms of readiness to tackle the fineries of what ought to be a solid liberal education that the Church documents have enshrined for centuries after Trent. Typically, the screening and admission capitalize a whole lot on IQ and on some kind of personality assessment. I have not heard of any seminary who has a tool to measure the applicant’s catechetical IQ, or the stage and level of their personal faith, or their grasp of, understanding, and living out of the catholic tradition. In many cases, from a poorly understood and even more poorly lived out catholic life and practice, seminarians are plunged directly into the finer nuances of philosophical and theological discussions that all remain in the province of theory.

I agree with Weigel (2002), who, apropos this issue, wrote:

“Many seminary faculty are trained in graduate schools of theology, and bring the critical approach to theology they acquired there to their seminary teaching. The result, unfortunately, is that too many seminarians are taught to deconstruct the Catholic tradition before they have even learned what the tradition is … The first thing that candidates for the priesthood must learn is the Church’s doctrinal, moral, liturgical, and spiritual tradition. Only after they have learned the tradition can they fruitfully engage it critically. If a seminarian’s theology program does not begin with learning the Catholic tradition, the result will be intellectual chaos and moral confusion – and yet another generation of boring sermons” (p. 167).

The possibility, therefore, of seminarians’ merely going through the motions of a fine, scientific, and systematic – if purely academic – exercise of the theological enterprise, leading to what Newman (1870) refers to as mere “notional” as opposed to “real” assent, is not at all far-fetched. Limited thus to the mind acquiescing to general ideas, concepts, and abstraction, notional assent does not lead to decisive action, for the simple reason that the heart and the imagination are not sufficiently engaged. The soul is not fired up and is never compelled to act. It is interesting to note that Newman himself says that no one really dies for an idea, but people do give their lives for friends, for family, and for homeland. Could this be the reason behind the lackluster and bland commitment of many of us to the splendor of truth in the midst of so much confusion and controversy?

But there is more to say about the students that we sometimes love to hate. They come from a culture and context that is hard to define. Like the word “dysfunctional” has been attached too often and too facetiously to families over the recent years, the word “postmodern” has also been liberally used and abused by both the experts and the plebeian folks alike, with little understanding about what exactly the word means in concrete.

But with your indulgence, I would like to use it this time, at the risk of being lumped together with those who bandy about the word to impress and to lend an air of scholarship to one’s talk. The concept has been analyzed ad nauseam, from the philosophical, sociological, and cultural points of view. But the best and neatest summary I came across with recently is that of Robinson (2004), who writes about the “contours of hopelessness” that characterize “the landscape of our lives,” that bear “the tattered imprint of modernity.” She discusses the sea change that has taken place with regard to our vision of life and knowledge of life on earth, with specific reference to time, space, and culture – and what she calls the “media moment” that acts as the principle of acceleration to all the changes that are happening. Simply put, time has become a factor of compression and of immediacy. Space, too, is shaped by the phenomenon of global contraction and expansion at one and the same time, and culture acts as the backdrop of diversity and plurality.

The compression of time, along with the contraction of space, which both do away with the concept of waiting, wear away the foundation of hope for many of us. “The changing face of time,” according to Robinson, “has led us to pursue the good life here and now in what we accomplish and accumulate. Fulfillment has become our byword” (p.91). The contraction of space, with a lot of help from technology, has made a vast array of human interactions in a disembodied manner. We have a thousand and one “friends” in Facebook, minus the emotional investment that ought to be part of what normally should be embodied relationships, that is situated in time and place. Culture, that is the binding element for centuries, has ceased to be monolithic. A vast array of cultures has taken its place. Christianity, that used to be seen as “countercultural” is now seen as just one of the many possible cultures that compete with each other for attention.

But the most important is what the media has become for all of us. The media moment has impinged on time, space, and culture of the contemporary world. “The speed, immediacy, closeness, vastness, diversity, and fluidity of our lives are driven and amplified by what we might refer to as the ‘media moment’” (p. 103). “Time, space, and culture, as accelerated by the media moment, converge to burden and weigh us down like leg irons, dragging us in the direction of hopelessness. It seems that God is not solving the problems of this world, and our human attempts to do so, time and again, prove to be futile” (p. 108).

I am sure you can relate to what I am trying to say. One of the things that I find frustrating is to see otherwise academically brilliant students who can rattle off the subject matter with ease, but who find nothing wrong or reprehensible with the popular lunchtime show “Wowowee.” The media moment has for all intents and purposes, co-opted them, and “media mediated” values have taken over virtue in some way. In the same vein, I am sometimes at a loss for what to say when fellow priests, and fellow educators, who can be outspoken against corrupt political figures in general, behave differently with regard to certain individual politicians, who, while remaining patently corrupt to everyone’s common knowledge, have been helpful in some way to them, or who have supported their charitable or apostolic activities in some tangible way. Their capacity for moral discernment, obviously, has been subverted or at least influenced, by matters that have to do more with heart, than with reason.



At this juncture, I would like to quote the rest of Yeat’s poem:

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The second coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze bland and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats penned the poem in 1920, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. He probably honestly believed the Second Coming was at hand. But that is not the point why I quoted this poem. I did so, because it epitomizes at least for me what I want to share with you today. The first part dealt with the reading of the signs of the times – the SEEING part – that made us catch a glimpse of what is going on at least as far as we who teach Moral Theology are concerned. It is filled with the equivalent of Robinson’s “contours of hopelessness,” a situation filled with shadows. According to commentators, Yeats was referring to the status of young people then, for whom “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

But he waxes prophetic and hopeful in the second part. He sees more than just a vision of the Sphinx arising from the ashes of reality as he perceived it. He sees new life, new hope, and a new beginning. He sees hope in the image of the “rough beast” with the head-intellect of a man, and the fierce emotions and body intelligence of a beast.

This gives me then, a perfect image of what we as Moral Theology teachers are perhaps called to in these times of confusion and controversy – called to integration, called to put together seemingly opposite poles that pose as some kind of impasse in our times. The siren songs of two seemingly irreconcilable poles beckon us one way or the other. The Scylla of extreme conservatism and the Charybdis of extreme liberalism lead many of us to espouse a bland and noncommittal stance of what appears as harmless moderation. But as I have been trying to suggest above, following the authors I have followed of late, such soul-less and spine-less straddling of the middle ground may be dangerous at worst, and useless at best.

1. The Need for Conviction

My first proposal therefore has to do with conviction. Cardinal George of Chicago lays it down for us – “a clear sense of Catholic identity.” That clear sense of Catholic identity, mind you, comes before “openness to the world.” I believe this is a call to integrate solid doctrine from the received catholic tradition with a scientific approach that takes into consideration the need to dialogue with the world, with culture, and with human sciences. Any semblance of dabbling with what Neuhaus calls the “protestant principle” – what Cozzens (2000) refers to as “soft liberalism” – does not seem to serve the best interests of a “theology that is meant to be at the service of the Magisterium.” But such conviction precludes mere moderation. Navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of controversy, without such conviction and sure solid standpoint, will only increase the risk of the rudderless and direction-less fragile boat of our theologizing floundering on the shoals of irrelevance and lack of character.

Barron (2004) is even more specific when he refers to the “modern ethos” – the “secular religion” when he writes: “What does affect our bodies, what does mark the way we move and sleep and do business, what has profoundly written itself into our muscles and bones, is the modern ethos, the secular religion. And a beige, bland, attenuated Christianity is no match for such a powerful and focused counterculture” (p. 27).

2. A Lion Body with the Head of a Man: The Call to Work for Integration

We alluded briefly above to Newman’s real versus mere notional assent. I also referred above to the state our candidates for the seminary are in, and the approach that more often than not, the teaching of theology takes – more of a “sitting theology” rather than a “kneeling theology,” to use the famous words of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Optatam Totius’ call for a “scientific presentation” for the most part, has been taken too seriously by many of us. In many theological institutes, the academic, scholarly approach to moral theological reflection has captured the limelight. But in the process, the “obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world” has taken a back seat. We Moral Theology professors forgot that, like everyone else, our paramount goal is holiness as we seek to respond to the grace of God offered in the life of Christ, and that the topic of being good is related to being holy in the context of pastoral life.

I refer, of course, to the need for us to integrate moral theology with spirituality – the need for us to present the close connection between “becoming good and becoming holy” (O’Keefe, 1995). Very few of us would deny that close connection, but it is a fact that “very few of the introductions provide any sustained discussion of the link with spirituality” (p.2).

In concrete, this integration translates into giving a different focus to our teaching of morality, not anymore so much about the normative, principles, and duty – what Pinckaers (1995) calls a “morality of obligation,” as about character and virtue, or a “morality-of-happiness” approach (p.14-22). I am, therefore, making a pitch for virtue ethics. This is not to downplay the need for the normative morality of duties and principles, for virtue, duty, and principles are complementary aspects of the same morality. This is simply all about acknowledging that virtue ethics, following the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a “comprehensive approach to all of Christian life, not simply an exercise in character formation divorced from Christian faith and life” (Harrington & Keenan, 2002, p. xiv). This is also an acknowledgment of the recent resurgence of interest on virtue theory in the last three decades, owing to three factors: (1) the widespread perception that our society is in moral crisis, (2) the rise of historical consciousness, and (3) the failure of modern ethical theories to provide a complete picture of human moral experience, as Kotva (1996) discusses convincingly.

But my proposal and call to integration goes beyond the subject that we teach. It also seeks to address whom we teach – the need for us to foster personal integration on the part of the students we teach. And this is where my being a counselor-therapist comes in handy. Barron (2004) quotes William James, a philosopher and psychologist all rolled into one. One of his key insights, according to Barron, is that the knowing mind is not to be isolated from the will, the passions, the desires, and the movements of the body. Sometimes, knowledge comes in a flash of insight, but more usually it arrives as the result of a long and complex process involving attention, feeling, and above all, action (p.27). We are back to Newman’s concept of real assent. Psychologists have long maintained that there is a strong relationship between emotion and cognition. “Emotion is intimately connected with meaning, and no emotional change takes place without producing cognitive change” (Greenberg & Paivio, 1997, p.1). The famous religious educator Thomas Groome (2002) speaks of Christian faith in terms of doing, trusting, and knowing. He describes Christian life as following the way of the hands, the way of the heart, and the way of the mind. “Heart,” he says, “reminds us that Christian faith engages the human emotions; it has a deep feeling aspect to it. In everyday life, there are many issues and commitments about which Jesus would expect apprentices to be passionate. And don’t we know lots of Christians who seem a bit short on beliefs but are long on the right passions and actions, and vice versa” (p. 184).

Given the oftentimes too academic and too scholarly an approach to the teaching of moral theology in our seminaries, one wonders whether there is sufficient room given to the role of feelings in our classroom teaching. Principles, rules, duties and imperatives that are studied much like specimens on a Petri dish with a whole lot of objective and detached distance, can hardly arouse appropriate emotions that are needed to do a valid moral discernment on any given issue.

Neuhaus (2006) makes a case in point for that good, old principle called “sentire cum ecclesia.” You and I both know that this is as much about heart as mind. At bottom, this is all about love for Mother Church, before it is love for what she teaches.

“Faithful assent is not a matter of standing to attention, clicking one’s heels, and saluting at the appearance of every document from Rome. Rather, it is a matter of thinking for myself so that I can think with the Church, the prior assumption being that the Church possesses a teaching charism and authority that warrants my assent. I think for myself not to come up with my own teaching but to make the Church’s teaching my own” (p.13).

The word sentire as you all know, has to do with its cognate English word “sentiment.” Cut and dried rules and prescriptions do not captivate the heart, but values perceived as such by persons of flesh and blood and feelings, pave the way for virtue, and virtue, done often and consistently enough, translates into character. Pastors who preach and teach in syntony with the Church which is what sentire cum ecclesia essentially is, are not just people who can rattle off said rules and prescriptions, but who are in love with the Church that upholds the values behind those same rules and prescriptions. If morality has to do more with being rather than with doing, with the focus on the person rather than the act, then character and virtue that make for a greater focus on the morality of happiness – teleological rather than deontological, if you will – ought to be given preference in our call to do moral theology.

The Need to Rethink Scientific Research Papers

I am sure that as teachers, many of you use the tradition, time-tested methods to foster learning. That invariably includes the so-called scientific research paper, or what we have always referred to as “term papers.” I don’t intend to denigrate nor do away with something that admittedly, really helps students synthesize, organize, and expound their newly acquired learning. But in my experience – my own and that of my students for these many years – term papers may not be all that helpful. For one, students everywhere are very creative in keeping a file of old term papers that they can recycle and rehash when needed. Second, term papers make the exercise exclusively focused on the academic, scholarly pole. The primary consideration is given to form, style, and content, but precious little room is left for the affective component of the personality.

And here is where my formation as a counselor-therapist kicks in. I bat for the institutionalization of what is referred to as “integration paper.” An integration paper is called as such, because it is meant to help students integrate the subject matter discussed in a term, via a research-based, scientific paper that synthesizes in a meaningful way, the subject matter, or a particular facet of the subject matter for the whole term. In this sense, then the integration paper is just like a term paper. But there is something more to the integration paper that is not a feature of the ordinary term paper. And this is where the word “integration” comes in as more important. It seeks to integrate one’s personal experience, aspects of one’s personal history, and the personal world of feelings, personal preferences and everything is related to the inner workings of the writer’s inner world vis-à-vis a particular aspect, topic, or area of the course.

In other words, it is called an “integration paper” because it seeks to incorporate in the paper a certain personal investment to the topic at hand. It challenges the writer to weave into the study, and include as essential part of the whole paper, snippets and clues and a close look into his own personal spirituality. Whilst the term paper almost exclusively capitalizes on form, content, and standard style, the integration paper opens itself to discussing how a particular academic topic impinges upon and challenges his own spirituality, his life of prayer, and his feelings for or against what he is writing about, including his own personal difficulties in understanding, accepting, or internalizing issues of doctrine and Church teachings.

The Need to Rethink the Concept of Teaching Moral Theology

The lectura or professorial reading of one’s subject is a traditional and time-tested method of teaching theology. I have no problems about the lecture per se. But I do consider the scholarly, classroom based lecture, as sorely inadequate, even if you add to the mix all the other classical approaches like the seminar, symposium, or congress. Here is where my training as counselor-therapist once more kicks in. In the world of pastoral counseling or clinical pastoral education, the concept of “supervision” is something that cannot be done away with. Call it mentoring, call it coaching, or call it clinical supervision, they all point to one and the same thing – the need for the fledgling and beginning counselor to process himself or be processed by someone else. Nowhere is this need for processing more needed as in the field of moral theology, where so many thorny and controversial issues are raging.

Whilst I submit that the generic pastoral exposure that is meant to complement the subject called pastoral theology is done in all of our theological faculties, what may be sorely lacking is that institutionalized, systematic, and organized mechanism for supervision, coaching, mentoring, or processing. Unfortunately, in many cases, even the field of pastoral theology is treated exactly the same way as the more academic and scholarly subject areas or treatises, and it is not uncommon for students to be asked a scientific paper at the end of the term. Something so eminently practical and something that is meant to be an experience of applied theology, becomes just one more academic and scholarly exercise. In the end, the original purpose for which pastoral theology subjects are offered, is defeated, and the same academic rigmarole falls into place.

Theology and ministry ought to have some common meeting point, and to my mind, the theology pole, given the training that most teachers received, leaves relatively little to be desired. But on the ministry pole, where theory and practice needs to be integrated, the CPE model of pastoral reflection on the so-called “critical incident” can give us a clue on how to proceed. There, a student explores his own emotional and cognitive response to a “critical incident” and then considers possibilities for pastoral response (Whitehead & Whitehead, 1995, p. xi).

But all this cannot take place if a mechanism for group or personal processing is not in place. Years ago, group sessions gathered to discuss on certain casus conscientiae were held religiously in seminary settings. Whilst I do not bat for the return of a basically casuistic approach to moral reflection, the equivalent idea might need to be set-up, precisely to give the possibility for students of moral theology to experience supervision, processing, or more specifically, for our purposes – Christian coaching. Collins (2001) offers us a glimpse as to what coaching might mean for us:

“Coaching is not counseling. It is not for those who need therapy to overcome disruptive painful influences from the past; coaches help people build vision and move toward the future. Coaching is not reactive looking back; it’s proactive looking ahead. It is not healing; it’s about growing. It focuses less on overcoming weaknesses and more on building skills and strengths. Usually coaching is less formal than the therapist-patient relationship and more of a partnership between two equals, one of whom has experiences, perspectives, or knowledge than can be useful to the other” (p.16).

Coaching, processing, supervision … “whatever term you prefer, all involve a relationship in which at least one person is further along in the journey of life and willing to guide others – often as a trusted role model” (p.17).



I would like to end as I began – with a quote from some favorite poetic lines.

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise.

In my end is my beginning.

(T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”)

I will be honest with you. There is real confusion and controversy in the Church that we love. In my daily Masses everywhere, I meet up with vociferous and hard-headed conservatives and battle-ready progressives who would blame you for not being faithful enough to Mother Church, or for being too caught up with stale and stagnant tradition. There are those who insist on kneeling during communion, and those who think that a good Mass ought to be something like Beyonce’s gig at the Fort. My recent personal experience where I am currently assigned, with both sides of the moral spectrum fighting tooth and nail for a hearing, is a case in point. As a human being, I grow weary. I grow faint. To say, with Ruddy (2006) that priests like us are tested in every way, is to resort to an understatement.

In the lowest moment of my life when I hit the dark and dreary basement of disappointment and some level of despair, a portion of which story I recount in one of my blogs, I quoted the same lines of T.S. Eliot above. It summarized for me, what in tears – alone in a big and lonely Rectory at Dundalk, Baltimore, MD, I had to grapple with – hope that I thought then, was “growing grey hairs” - to use the famous words of Manley-Hopkins (1986, p. 110) the Jesuit priest and poet.

When I was younger and idealistic, I entertained ambitious dreams. I dreamt of being sent for biblical studies, or liturgy, or something related to culture or literature. I never dreamt nor imagined myself teaching moral theology. But God who has been playing little jokes with me decided better. And now I think I know why.

I don’t envy those of my colleagues who teach dogma – cold, abstruse, convoluted, and a little too detached from daily life for me. But teaching Moral Theology I learned later, brought me face to face with the human nature that I thought I understood – the very same human nature prone to sin but open to grace that I possess, but still so poorly tame at least in a way that I expect for myself.

The contours of hopelessness are all around us … the utter failure of our Church in the Philippines to guide our people – the leaders and the led alike – towards a liberating type of governance and polity that safeguard the common good – the dismal record of our Church educated literati who have become vultures rather than eagles, and even a church that is rife with petty politics and intrigues with a very well-oiled machinery that fosters good old ambition even among ecclesiastics. Nine years ago, Cozzens (2000) shocked us with what I thought was a very dour and sour prognostication about us priests. Five years hence, his book that spoke about the changing face of the priesthood, happily, was balanced more than sufficiently by Acklin (2005) who spoke about the “unchanging heart of the priesthood.”

But still, we know deep inside our hearts, that we are tested in every way, as Ruddy (2006) puts it. But hope springs eternal. And we moral theology professors are in the front lines of this drive to instill hope to our people, not the dogmatists, not the liturgists, not the biblical scholars, and least of all the canonists. If there is anything that the rise in interest for virtue ethics tells us in these last two or three decades, it is this. Classical and traditionalist deontological approaches do not capture the postmodern imagination. We need to be dreamers who look at the telos, the end, the ultimate end for which God has created us. Call it eudaemonia, call it fullness of human flourishing, call it happiness, call it what you might … it all boils down to a call that we need to respond to. Barron (2004) bats for us priests becoming that which we already are: mystagogues, world transformers, and interpreters of tongues. We are called to be poets imbued with a lot of Christian imagination, not just bland and harmless moderates, but people fired with a lot of zeal to be “simply Catholics.”

Eliot is right on the need for us to be still. This is what you are doing these days. But Eliot is right on target, too, when tells that old men like us, meant to be explorers, are called to be still moving … through the dark cold and empty desolation – yes, but into another intensity, a deeper communion!

There are no better words to express that intensity and communion than those used by Barron:

“Therefore, let us leave liberal-conservative behind us. And let us leave behind us too that Catholicism which had allowed its distinctive colors to bleed into beige. And let us embrace the spicy, troublesome, fascinating, and culture-transforming person of Jesus Christ. And let the Church of Christ thereby shape the world” (2004, p.21).


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Fr. Vitaliano “Chito” Dimaranan, SDB, CAS, MTL, PhD

Father Duenas Memorial School

PO Box FD. Hagatna, Guam 96932

+1.671.482 8807