Autonomous Ethics in 20th Century Moral Theology

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My presentation will focus on autonomous ethics in 20th century moral theology. My discussion mainly centres on the moral theology of the Roman Catholic church. The main source for my discussion is the book written in 1985 by j. Vincent McNamara entitled Faith and Ethics; recent Roman Catholicism. He examines in the book the search for the identity of Christian ethics from approximately 1940 until 1980.

Before I examine the autonomous movement we need to look at the history that led to its development in moral theology in the late nineteen sixties. It is important to keep in mind through my discussion that there are three essential questions that characterise most of the debates found in the development of moral theology. There are: The source of morality-is it biblical revelation or is it in the general human community? Norm/standard of moral living-found in Christ or man of philosophy? The source of moral obligation-will of God or human reason?

These issues are almost always central to most of the disagreements. I will be referring back to them later.

The first trend that McNamara examines is the movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century called neo-scholasticism. As the name suggests it took its inspiration from the scholastic movement of the middle-ages , a movement that concentrated a lot on systems and language, for example Aquinas, Anselm and Duns Scotus. The neo-scholastics set out to give a systematic account of Christian morality.

As I mentioned the neo-scholastic movement was based on the movement in the middle ages. Many of their ideas were influenced by Thomas Aquinas so it is natural to infer that their argumentation would be similar. Although McNamara feels that many of their ideas do not do justice to Aquinas’ thinking, so it is important to stress here that the ideas of the neo-scholastics were not exactly the same as those of Aquinas.

For the neo-scholastics the moral good can be identified if it leads us to ‘our last end’, or accords with the eternal law or accords with ‘right reason’. By eternal law I am referring to positive divine law found in old and new testament which is revelation and natural law which is reason. For the Neo-Scholastics reason found morality but this was affirmed by revelation. these ideas were incredibly influential and were what was taught to priests for many years.

But during the nineteen forties and fifties many grew dissatisfied with the ideas being presented. This gave birth to a renewal where the focus was more on biblical tradition. They wanted to achieve the gargantuan task of “finding one basic principle on which the whole structure of morality could be built”

There were three main ideas:

Firstly the idea of grace. This related to the idea that because of grace a human now had a new ‘esse’ and this new ‘esse’ demanded a greater moral commitment. Secondly the idea that because of the Christians special place he or she can use agape or charity as a basis for doing good things. Thirdly the idea of imitating Christ. This does not mean that we literally follow Jesus’ life but be like him and learn from his example giving us motivation.

The main criticism of this movement was it’s ’uncritical appeal to biblical morality.’

It was from the reaction to this movement that autonomous ethics began to emerge. This new movement focussed less on the Christian content, it was trying to show non-Christians that moral theology has merit beyond merely childish obedience. One of the main thinkers is Fuchs, in his writings he tries to stress that faith pervades all parts of a Christians moral life but ‘in such a way as to leave the content untouched and detachable.’ So it is entirely reasonable that Christians can dialogue with non-Christians about the world.

There are four main basic ideas in autonomous moral theological ethics: ‘that morality is not to be regarded as the command of God imposed on us in revelation.’ ‘that...
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