Sources of Christian Ethics

* The following review was a part of an interview with Dr. Murphy, the rest of which will be included in the next issue of the Review, due out in the first week of May.  We are grateful to her for sharing her learning and insights with us.  -ed.

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Written by Servais Pinckaers

(Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 489 pages.

Reviewed by Patricia Murphy

Dr. Patricia Murphy is a graduate of the Christianity and Culture Program at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.  Her Boston College doctoral dissertation in Theology explored Aquinas’ teaching on the vice of acedia, or “sloth,” concluding that for Aquinas, acedia means “flight from God as friend.”

Dr. Murphy has taught SAS courses in the foundations of moral theology, in bioethics and in human sexuality and marriage since 2004.  Her students include seminarians, men in the diaconate formation program and their wives, and lay women and men in the Institute of Theology. She speaks regularly in the areas of bioethics and sexuality and marriage before a variety of audiences and is the author of Catholic Marriage: An Intimate Community of Life and Love (Novalis, 2011).an intimate

“The world can be pretty confused about right and wrong today, especially on the ‘hot button’ ethics issues,” she says.  “But teaching ethics at St. Augustine’s makes me hopeful for our Church and for society.  The students are hungry for answers that satisfy, for truths that liberate and lead to authentic happiness.  The goal is to help them deepen their understanding of their faith as an encounter with Christ and form them for their vocations of sharing the ‘very Good News’ – which includes the wise and clear moral vision of Christ’s Church.”

“It’s a great privilege and joy – and very humbling — to be involved in our students’ intellectual and spiritual journeys in this time of ‘new evangelization.’”

To what books do you primarily owe your professional inspiration? Would you recommend them to general Catholic readers?

My doctoral work was in the area of Aquinas’ ethics. I am more convinced than ever that this work provides a wonderful foundation for addressing the many and varied questions of applied ethics today (whether in the area of marriage and sexual ethics or bioethics). So no one would ever be wasting time by working through even just a few questions in Aquinas’ own “introductory textbook” for his students, his Summa Theologica!

One book that has been particularly inspiring in my intellectual (and personal) journey is Fr. Servais Pinckaer’s The Sources of Christian Ethics. Fr. Pinckaers, O.P was a professor of moral theology at the University of Fribourg. He devoted much of his scholarly life to heeding the call of Vatican II for a “renewed” moral theology.

Various documents during and after the Council indicated that moral theology should be : more deeply nourished by Scripture and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church; more closely connected to dogmatic theology, especially to the doctrines of the Trinity, Christ, and the sacraments; and it should be better grounded both scientifically and philosophically.

The Sources of Christian Ethics is an English translation of the original Les sources de la morale chretienne. That text is the fruit of Fr. Pinckaers’ many years of teaching ethics in Europe. The enormous appeal of this work is that – as the title indicates – it takes the reader behind the now tiresome (and outdated!) polemics in moral theology (i.e. left” vs. “right” – or “liberal” vs. “progressive”) and reintroduces him or her to the primary sources for Christian moral reflection.

Responding to the call for true “renewal” in moral theology, Fr. Pinckaers focuses first on the Gospel sources of moral teaching, especially the “Sermon on the Mount,” and then on the distinctive understanding of “life in Christ” presented by St. Paul. There is also much discussion of the moral vision of the Fathers of the Church (in the Patristic period) and then of Aquinas’s moral vision, in the period of “high scholasticism.”

The Sources of Christian Ethics also examines what happened “after Aquinas”: at its high point, moral theology integrated both spirituality and theology, with a focus on the question of happiness. As Pinckaers carefully explains, however, with the advent of the philosophical school of nominalism and its focus on “singulars”, this wonderful “synthesis” was lost. Gradually, the focus of moral teaching moved to sin and prohibitions. Tragically, the question of happiness and the role of grace in the moral life seemed to drop out of view for a time .

In The Sources of Christian Ethics we also find a profound and thought-provoking analysis of the meaning of true human freedom – and its relation to reason or the “natural law.” This should be required reading for all students of moral theology today!

Overall, I think readers of Sources will be inspired by Fr. Pinckaer’s analysis. By showing us key aspect of our moral tradition at its best, we are encouraged to take the time to acquaint ourselves with the most important sources of the Church’s moral wisdom; and by demonstrating how and when moral theology “got off track” for a time, we can better appreciate what ought to be retrieved if we are to propose a moral vision which can respond to the needs of a “new evangelization” today.

I have often used this text in class and it seems to resonate with students. At its core, The Sources of Christian Ethics shows us that moral theology can never be separated from its biblical sources, especially from a personal encounter with Christ; and it convincingly makes the case that if we are to engage the hearts and minds of the 21st century, moral theology must also incorporate the spiritual and intellectual riches offered by the greatest figures in our tradition.

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