GULA, Richard M.

Reason Informed by Faith, Foundations of Catholic Morality

Paulist Press, 1989.

1. General.

This well-written and skilfully presented book can give the uncritical reader the impression of an objective and reasoned study; one which shows how the progress marked by major trends in current moral thinking is in an essential line of continuity with the best of our Catholic past (especially St. Thomas). The book, however, does not stand up to any rigorous analysis, especially in the light of what is implied in its title.

The title is quite misleading. In the author's analysis of Catholic morality, Faith is not the norm, principle or guide, which "informs" Reason. It is Experience, not Reason, that is really offered as the governing principle for the development of moral theology. "Morality Informed by Experience", would be a more accurate title.

While the tone is of one who wishes to present a fair and balanced "overview of the present state of the discipline" of moral theology, in practice the morality offered is subjective, individualist, experiential and proportionalist.

The author writes with great self-assurance, especially in claiming (or taking for granted) that the progressive school of theology he embraces is much more strictly rational than what went before, or to the present alternatives (cfr. 47; 136; 154ss; 210-211; 224-225; 235-236, etc.). Yet his own "experiential" approach is to the detriment of rationality.

2. Confusion of terminology.

His book can confuse the average reader all the more because of the way he uses terms. He claims that his approach is personalist and community-based (when it rather is individualist); is consonant with the natural law (which he voids by holding human nature to be in constant evolution); is not relativistic or subjectivistic — see, e.g. pp. 293-294 — (when, throughout, he denies any universally valid norms, and leaves each one basically on his or her own in coming to moral judgments). For his ultimate subjectivism, see also 305-306.

3. The "rationality" of autonomous ethics.

He presentes "autonomous ethics" (with main exponents being Joseph Fuchs, Bruno Schuller, Charles Curran, Richard McCormick), as a reaction against making moral theology excessively dependent on faith, and a movement towards grounding it more on natural law. This runs througout the book. The "new" morality is not only more "personalistic" and "experiential", but also more based on reason; and therefore in the true tradition of e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas. The impression is created that the autonomous ethics theologians base their positions on deeply reasoned arguments (which is precisely what one so often finds lacking in them), whereas the traditionalists — as also represented in most magisterial documents — simply appeal to faith, and not to reason, to justify an outdated position. This he dismisses as the "faith-ethics" position, represented in particular by Joseph Ratzinger and Philip Delhaye (48).

He repeatedly gives the impression that the major positions he sustains find support in St. Thomas Aquinas (on Natural Law — 223ss; on rationalism v. voluntarism — pp. 256ss; on the difference between formal and material norms — 292ss; on proportionalism (a "form of teleology": 303), where he presents Fuchs, Janssens, R. McCormick and Bruno Schuller as users, like Thomas, of the teleological method, in opposition to the deontoligical method (301-302ss).

The pre-conciliar approach to law in the Church was voluntaristic; we have now passed over to a more rationalistic approach, more in keeping with the true spirit of justice as presented by St. Thomas (Ch. 17).

In the chapter "Natural Law Today", he seeks to apply the distinction "order of nature" /"order of reason" to magisterial documents. Casti connubii, Humanae Vitae, the Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics, are all examples of the approach "making the order of nature superior to the order of reason in sexual matters" (232).

All of this can blind the unthinking reader to the fact that it is reason itself which teaches what is the right and wrong use of the sexual faculty. His accusation is that the traditional physicalist view allowed biological structures, and not true personalist values, to determine sexual morality (231ss; cf. 63-64). Though he claims to identify his personalism with the order of reason, his position makes any rational analysis of human sexuality — body and spirit — impossible.

4. "Experiential wisdom".

Reason, for him, "includes observation and research, intuition, affection, common sense, and an aesthetic sense..." (224). Note, for instance, his phrase: "We are not subjected in a fated way to the inner finality of nature. We discover what natural law requires by reason reflecting on what is given in human experience to lead to authentic human life..." (228). Her the three words, "natural law", "requires" and "reason", have clearly all been emptied of significance, the operative word being "experience". So one understands the basic principle he has laid down: "The proximate norm of morality is authentic human existence" (224). Cf. p. 235: "The work of reason is to discover moral value in the experience of the reality of being human". On p.239, he presents the "Source of Moral norms", within the order of reason, as "Human Experience"... (cf. p. 73; McCormick, p.275). "moral norms are derived from the experience of value"; "they express experiential wisdom" (284).

So it is not in reason or in Revelation, but basically in "experience" (which at times he qualifies as "community experience"), that moral norms find their rationale and source. "Because moral norms take seriously the repetitive aspects of human experience, they provide a reliable point of reference and direction for moral living" (284). Yet, in the end, the view he offers of such norms is wholly subjectivist (e.g. 285).

He speaks on p. 295 of the dangers of a "creeping legalism", in the traditional concept of moral absolutes. He seems oblivious of the "creeping subjectivism" of the approach he proposes which makes it useless as a guide to moral thinking, formation,or counselling. In fact the thrust of the approach of the book (by a Seminary professor) is that the pastoral function of the moralist is "not so much providing answers to moral questions as encouraging the process of arriving at a moral decision" (136).

He claims to show that the Encyclicals, etc. on the Church's social teaching are examples of ethical teaching which uses the "order of reason approach to natural law"; and so they show greater flexibility and have greater respect for "experience", in contrast to physicalist teaching on sexual ethics.

He insists that in the Church's ongoing "learning-teaching process", with its necessary expressions of dissent, "the point of reference... must be the world" (207).

While accepting that God's Will must be "mediated" for us, he says that only "our personal religious experience of God...can test the authenticity of the mediation" (262).

5. A "Personalist" analysis — conditioned by history.

"The human person is the most appropriate point of departure for elaborating on the meaning of morality in general and... for dealing with specific moral questions" (63). But his relativism, his ignoring of Revelation, and his practical rejection of Natural Law (see below) make it impossible for him to clarify his "point of departure": i.e. who or what is the human person. He says "in personalist morality the human person adequately considered is the criterion for discovering whether an act is morally right" (64). But the analysis offered of the human person "adequately considered" (66ss), is terribly inadequate. 1 Following Janssens, he gives these fundamental dimensions: man is a "relational being", an "embodied subject", one "fundamentally equal to others but uniquely original" and an "historical being"(67). The application of the criterion means that an action is morally right if it is beneficial to the person considered adequately — in the first three dimensions. "For Janssens this is an objective criterion since it is based on the constant dimensions of being human". But he then blandly adds: "But since it is a criterion about the human person as an historical being,it requires a regular review of the possibilities we have available to promote the human person so that we can determine whether they truly do so. Janssens recognizes that the application of this criterion is not easy" (73). (Good for Janssens!). As is obvious, "historicity" dominates the moral criterion and pulverizes its "objectivity"[1].

The "new" view of theology rejects unchanging principles and essences, and accepts that constantly changing historical situations make truth and certainty very relative things: cf. pp. 30ss. He praises magisterial documents in which he sees "historical consciousness" (noticeable in the field of social teaching) and criticizes those that lack it (noticeable above all in the field of sexual ethics)

6. Values, feeling, imagination and heart.

Moral knowledge is not "conceptual"; it is "evaluative knowledge", "felt knowledge", that comes from the heart (85). It is "the self-involving knowledge which makes deciding and acting on behalf of what we value truly our own. Without this knowledge we act merely by hearsay, by what we are told is right, rather than on the basis of what we have discovered to be valuable"(87). cf. p. 109: "Only then ["when we have reached evaluative knowledge"] is mortal sin possible".

"Only a small part of the moral life is influenced by the specific, conscious instruction which the church provides on moral issues. A considerably large part is influenced by the church's effect on the imagination". So, he concludes, the task of pastoral ministry — in teaching, etc. — is "to retell and reenact] the stories of faith in order to fashion a Christian imagination" ... "By allowing our imaginations to be transformed by these stories, we discover the truly redemptive responses to life" (200). On p. 296ss, he returns to the importance of "the imaginative process to deepen the meaning of accepted (moral) norms and to test the adequacy of their formulations". Cf. also pp. 71-72.

He attaches special importance to the liturgy for this task; but thinks the liturgical reform has so far failed. A main reason is its present "excessive reliance on verbal forms of communicating the mystery of divine love". Non-verbal artistic forms — dance, drama, etc. — "can make a strong appeal to the moral imagination". A second reason is its "sex-exclusive" male language and structure (201).

See below, no. 15, on the "imaginative shock" of Jesus' "Radical sayings".

7. Natural Law.

From Chs. 15 through 19, he relativises and in effect destroys the concept of the natural law. However, having rejected the reality, he then continues to use the term, so as to give apparent rational authority to his support of dissent on specific points, his criticism of obedience, etc.

"The natural law is central to Roman catholic moral theology". The advantage of using it is that Church can present its teachings to all men, independently of belief; but in this he sees a corresponding disadvantage because it leads "to handing Christian morality over to moral philosophy wherein religious beliefs do not really make a difference for moral claims" (220).

He draws a contrast between the order of nature, "focused on the physical and biological structures given in nature as the source of morality", and the order of reason, "focused on the human capacity to discover in experience what befits human well-being". Affirming that "St. Thomas accepted both", he claims that vacillation — as to which of the two offers the right foundation for moral teaching — "has caused great confusion in Catholic moral thought" (223-224).

In effect he says that traditional Catholic morality has, especially in sexual matters, put the order of nature ("physicalism") over the order of reason (which, according to his presentation, might also be called "Personalism": 226, par 2; end of 232-223). Physicalism looks on nature "as a finished product prescribing God's moral will and commanding a fixed moral response" (228). "The modern worldview of contemporary morality" rejects this; "rather, it looks on nature as evolving" (ib). At the same time as he thus destroys any objective notion of the natural law, he also destroys the instrument — reason — by which we can know it. This, I think, is the really dangerous thread that runs especially through his presentation: claiming to have "reason" on his side, while in fact his reference point is not reason at all, but "experience"; "evolution", etc.

Logically, since human nature is in evolution, any "specific moral conclusions based on natural law... must necessarily be open to revision since more of the meaning of being human is yet to be discovered" (235-236). "Since "nature" is constantly changing... change, revision, and development would be constitutive of the natural moral law" (240). He insists that this is the view of "contemporary theology", which in consequence recognizes "the provisional character of moral knowledge". At this stage it is perfectly clear that the term "natural law", as he uses it, is emptied of any real content.

After two chapters in which he apparently accepts "nature" and "natural law" (conditioned, however, by their changing and evolutionary character) his basic hostility to the concept of "nature" appears quite clearly on p. 245. He describes "Gaudium et Spes" as "a landmark document for the shift from "nature" to "person" in an official Church document"... It is an elementary philosophical error to oppose, as he does, "nature" and "person"; and to think that to focus on one, is necessarily to deemphasizethe other.2 He calmly adds the "non sequitur" that the "shift" from nature to person "acknowledges ... what all persons have incommon"...

8. Freedom.

While he speaks o the dangers of determinism, he would seem to over-stress the limitations on our freedom which "the behavioral sciences have clearly shown". Freedom means "to express oneself within one's own limits and according to one's own predispositions" (76). "The more we are able to become aware of ourselves and possess ourselves, including all the determining influences, the more we will experience ourselves as responsible for what we do and who we become" (77).[2]

We need "commitment to our own integrity and identity... resist[ing] those strong determining forces which are constantly... fighting to make us someone else" (81). I show more freedom in doing what I want, than in doing what I ought... (82).

9. The Church and the Magisterium.

While he lists "church" (written throughout in low case) among the sources of moral guidance, the Chapter on the "Church and moral Life" presents a protestant image of the Church: Jesus present in the believing and acting community (199ss).

He speaks of the church as the "bearer of moral tradition": bearer, rather than teacher... (202).

He acknowledges that the Magisterium is a "source of moral authority". However, omitting an exposition of the scriptural and ecclesiological ground for the special charism of the Magisterium,3  he immediately makes the validity of magisterial teaching depend on the proper observation of consultative processes (154).

He considers "the teaching aspects of three different groups within the church: the faithful, theologians and pastoral ministers, and the hierarchy" He makes an elementary confusion between catechesis and Magisterium in insisting that "the real teachers in the church are not the bishops but first the family and then the catechists" (202).

Theologians: he assigns them the role of interpreters of the "givens of the apostolic faith", including "the ongoing formulations of the magisterium". He insists the theologians, with their "somewhat independent role", must be allowed to carry on their critical function, "to test the given teaching... against scripture and tradition as well as to use critically the human sciences in order to keep the teaching sound and applicable to contemporary living" (204).

Pastoral ministers: "bring the teaching... into contact with the specific lives of the people". They "must communicate the substance of scripture and teaching of the church realistically", being aware "also of what the particular context of the people is demanding" (204-5: emphasis added).

Hierarchy: Having assigned to the theologians the mission of keeping the apostolic teaching sound, and of interpreting it,he says the responsibility of the hierarchy is to "affirm, protect and promote" this testimony of the apostles. He assigns to the Hierarchy alone the task of designating "certain interpretations of the apostolic faith as the official interpretations of the Catholic Church which are to guide pastoral practice. We speak of this as the function of the «authoritative magisterium»(205). Not only is there no mention whatever of the scriptural and ecclesiological basis to the function and charism of the Magisterium, but the impression has already been left that it is[3] the function of the theologians to provide interpretations, other than those that are strictly "authoritative", so as "to keep the teaching sound"...

Whenever speaking of "dissent", "pluralism", etc. he always allows that authority must exist and be exercised, so as to avoid chaos (cf. 205; 216); but his presentation comes down clearly on the side of individual conscience.

10. Dissent.

Of the 18 pages making up the chapter, "The Church and the Moral Life", more than 12 are devoted to "The Church as a Community of Moral Deliberation" (206-217; and of these, 8 pages to "Dissent", with a strong apologia for "loyal" and "responsible" dissent (207ss).

He inaccurately equates the conditional assent, permitted by the manuals, with dissent (208).

211: He invokes the tradition of probabilism to sustain his argument that a dissenting position can be responsible if "supported by a considerable number of «experts» in the field...However, determining who are the true experts in the field can be difficult to do, especially for the non-specialist". This precisely ignores the point that the Magisterium is the only «specialist» with the charism to determine who is a true expert. It of course also ignores that probabilism has its application as between views that the Church accepts or has not condemned.

On the same page, he passes over the third criterion for responsible dissent laid down by the US Catholic Bishops in 1968,which he had mentioned on p. 208: "the dissent must be such as not to give scandal".

"The aim of dissent is to try to convince the magisterium that a present formulation of a teaching is inadequate or erroneous ... dissent can be a service to the church when it recognizes that teaching is incomplete and inaccurate as it stands". The aim of responsible dissent is that "the formulation of the substance of the teaching [bel revised..." If this is not done, and the church, as a result, continues "promoting a truly defective teaching", this can lead "to possible disillusionment for people that the church is a reliable teacher" (214:emphasis added).

Dissent has a responsibility "to protect the overall good of the church and the credibility of the magisterium" (213); as an example of the negative results that follow if this responsibility is not fulfilled, he instances how "the church's credibility on matters of sexuality is already severely damaged" (the reason for this apparently being a lack of adequate dissent...).

The seriousness with which the "responsible" dissenter sees his mission emerges well in these pages. The trouble is that the criterion for knowing when some aspect of accepted teaching is "inaccurate", "defective" or "erroneous", and in urgent need of "substantial" revision apparently lies in the hands of the dissenter himself. So, in effect, the dissenter's being a responsible and autonomous critic of the magisterium is a matter of self-designation.

Earlier he had cited "Humanae Vitae" as an example of non-infallible teaching in moral matters, going on to say that conscience nevertheless cannot simply ignore it. Yet his conclusion is that, in such cases, the "presumption" in favour of the Magisterium must yield to clear contrary evidence, which would also include "the person's subjective capacity... to measure up to the specific behavior prescribed by the teaching" (160).

11. Conscience.

He suggests that the Magisterium itself countenances two different criteria for relating law and morality: according to one, it is the natural law which is the norm for positive law; according to the other (based on par. 7 of Dignitatis Humanae), it is personal conscience (253-255).

He suggests that "rules" are opposed to freedom of conscience; and that accepting authority is a sign of an immature conscience (123-124).

Following John Glaser, he thinks that the Catholic who is sensitive to tradition, to authority, who confesses frequently, shows a warped conscience — a "Superego" (124ss.).

He follows T. O'Connell, "Principle for a Catholic Morality", in the distinction of Conscience/1/2/3... Conscience/3 (which O'C. holds is infallible), "is the only sure guide for action by a free and knowing person. Violating Concience/3 would be violating our integrity" (135).

He explicitly defends the right of a Catholic couple, in certain circumstances, to use artificial birth control (160).

12. Moral Norms.

His distinction of "formal" and "material" moral norms closely follows that of T. O'Connell (e.g. "Principles for a Catholic Morality", pp. 159ss.). Formal norms (O'Connell' "being-values" which are the only true moral value) are the only absolute norms; they exist however only as "fundamental values" [whose "specific expressions... inevitably belong to particular cultures and historical epochs" (287). Material norms ("doing-values" or premoral values) "relate to the sort of actions we ought to perform". Not being absolute, they are governed by the principle of proportionalism. A (negative) material norm as, for instance, "the proscription of contraception", ought" to be interpreted as containing the implied qualifier... 'unless there is a proportionate reason'..." (290-291).

"The lack of proportionate reason is precisely what makes acting contrary to a specific material norm... morally wrong"(292). From this it follows that if the proportionate reason exists, then it is not wrong to e.g. commit adultery, practice contraception or abortion, to lie..., etc. He approvingly quotes Edward Vacek (as speaking for, i.a., Josef Fuchs, Louis Janssens, Richard McCormick) that "one can never be theoretically certain that a given act is always wrong" (293). So, one can never be sure that, not only adultery, but, say, bestiality, is always and in all circumstances wrong... In fact, at the start of the chapter (283), he had allowed that absolute norms do exist, but had warned against the danger of making all moral norms absolute.The danger seems to have been quite avoided.

He incorrectly states that if one accepts the principle of intrinsic or absolute evil, which "according to official Roman Catholic teaching" applies to many actions, it becomes "the sole criterion for judging the morality of an action" (302)

Affirming that Jesus does not "provide a moral system as such", he implies that his only specific moral command is love (285-286).

13. Sin and Fundamental Option.

Sin is "the failure to be fully responsible" (90). The concept of social sin predominates.4  I do not find the sins of pride, lust, or gluttony, mentioned.

He defines original sin as "the human condition of living in a world where we are influenced by more evil than that which we do ourselves" (100; 106). It "makes actual and social sin possible" (107).

A sin is mortal when "deliberately committed with the intention of making a personal affront to God" (114).

In his presentation on pp. 109-110, the 'serious matter' required as one of the conditions for mortal sin, loses all practical importance beside the other two conditions: full consent and sufficient reflection.

In his fundamental option presentation of mortal sin, an individual act of adultery (which is the example he gives) is not really mortal unless it reflects a general direction of infidelity in married life (111-112). Pastors, etc. formed in the principles he enunciates here would always answer "It depends",if asked by a person contemplating adultery, abortion, or homosexual conduct, whether this would be a mortal sin or not (cf. 112-113).

14. Proportionalism.

He follows J. Fuchs in rejecting the notion of "intrinsic evil", as ignoring the proper analysis of actions into their "pre-moral" elements: from which, he says,derives "the inevitable ambiguity of human actions" which "mean that all human actions contain some features which enhance our humanity and some features which restrict it" (268-269).

Criticising the Principle of Double Effect (in common with Fuchs, etc.), he rejects the idea of actions that can be "good in themselves"; he goes on to say: "we... inevitably... commit some premoral/ontic evil to achieve good" (271), where what he presumably should be saying is that, in doing good, we may commit or cause some (apparent or real) physical evil[4].

With the rest of the proportionalists, he concludes —though he avoids putting it into such words— that the end justifies the means, or that evil can be done so that good may be achieved. Once the principle is admitted, it becomes impossible to maintain any convincing moral stand not only against e.g. contraception, abortion or voluntary euthanasia, but also against compulsory euthanasia, eugenic infanticide, laws penalizing certain religious bodies because of their tenets (religious discrimination), racial discrimination, etc. His argument against a "utilitarian interpretation of proportionality" is quite arbitrary, with no rational support (272-273).

Applications of proportionalism: adultery is considered "disproportionate" as a means of protecting the value of sexuality (275).

His criterion for avoiding the danger of subjectivism inherent in proportionalism is reliance "on communal discernment... drawing upon the wisdom of past experience as it is embodied in the community's standards" (278).

He speaks of proportionalism as a means "for determining the objective morality of human actions" (283), whereas, since the criteria on which the theory ultimately rests are all relative, it is, at most, a means for determining the subjective morality of actions. It offers no criterion for an objective moral judgment.

He does not really rebut the objection that "Proportionalism does not allow for specific universal norms" (278-279).

15. Residual Points noted.

— Ch. 12 "Scripture in Moral Theology":

Apart from the all-important commandment to "love", Scripture really lays down no God-given moral norms for our conduct. The Ten Commandments are mentioned as an expression of God's Covenant, inviting our response; but the Commandments establish presumptions, rather than rules (172-173).

The parable of Jesus stir our hearts, while his "Radical sayings" have the value of causing an "imaginative shock" (therefore, he describes the saying about a lustful look being equivalent to adultery committed in the heart, as a "hyperbolic metaphor" (179).

Recourse to the Bible in the moral life is possible, but "very difficult". But it remains necessary as "the primary source for the stories and images which fashion a Christian imagination..." (181).

— Ch. 13 "Jesus and Discipleship":

Perhaps the only significant thing here is the brevity of the treatment of the Cross in the moral life: just a few lines, where its significance lies in how it "reveals the emptiness of all oppressive power" (196). Nowhere in the book, as far as I have noticed, is the idea of self-denial — as a key to Christian moral growth — presented.

— Chapter 17: "Law and Obedience":

Criticism of any practice of making positive laws binding under sin, or of taking guidelines or ideals for moral behaviour, and "reducing" them to laws. Without the exercise of discernment, obedience is mere legalism which is oppressive and devoid of real virtue (262-263).

— For him morality cannot mean "fitting into the divine plan"; if it did, "then human freedom and responsibility would not really matter in the moral life". Rather "God's will gives a general orientation for our lives, but the specifics are left to us... the will of God is not so fixed from the beginning that it excludes human involvement" (318-319). The essence, dignity and greatness of the ideal of Christian moral living — the free response of each one of us to a personal vocation coming from God, and a particular will of God for each one — seem to escape him totally here.


                                                                                                                  C.B. (1990)


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[1] He first mentions man's being an image of God, though this is a "theological foundation" rather than a "fundamental dimension" of the human person adequately considered. "To be an image of God is an imperative calling us to live out of the fullness of the gifts we have received by moving out of ourselves and into the world of our relationships" (66).

[2] A he also doe on p. 73, par. 2.

[3] He does so, in passing. on p. 156, yet continues to insist that a teaching can be accepted only if its arguments "convince".

[4] His concept of sin is reducible to selfishness and lack of solidarity.