Scholastic’s Bookshelf, Part III

Resuming my “recommended reading” series on (mostly) pre-Vatican II works in philosophy and theology – the earlier installments are here and here – we come now to ethics and moral theology. Readers of chapter 5 of Aquinas, chapter 4 of The Last Superstition, and the first half of my recent article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” will be familiar with the general moral theory underlying the Neo-Scholastics’ approach to these topics. The works described below all expand on that approach, some developing the theory in greater detail, some applying it to various specific moral issues, and some doing both. Naturally, the works in moral theology also incorporate theological considerations (Catholic ones, specifically). But they too should be of interest to non-Catholics sympathetic with Thomistic natural law theory, because they are all informed by a rigorously worked out philosophical ethics.

On these topics especially, one often hears the Neo-Scholastics dismissed – even, sad to say, by some with a reputation for theological conservatism – for their “manualism,” “legalism,” and committing of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.” In my view, none of these criticisms has any force. I explain in the works cited above why there is no “naturalistic fallacy” given a classical metaphysics. The possibility of such a “fallacy” arises only if we take for granted a modern mechanistic philosophy of nature, which, of course, the Neo-Scholastics did not. To reject their alternative classical metaphysics is one thing. But to allow that their metaphysics may well be valid while at the same time insisting that they are guilty of the alleged “fallacy” in question (as “new natural law” theorists appear to do) is simply muddleheaded.

The “legalism” charge is sometimes based on the suggestion that a law-oriented approach to ethics of the sort one finds in Scholastic manuals is a holdover from late medieval nominalism. (Apparently Moses was an Ockhamite – who knew?) The truth, I would say, is rather that there is bound to be a “legal” aspect to any workable system of ethics. If there are objective moral principles, we need to know how to apply them to concrete circumstances, and working this out carefully and systematically entails that casuistry will be a part of any serious moral theory. (It is certainly something the Neo-Scholastics’ critics inevitably engage in themselves when applying their own alternative systems – witness the three gargantuan volumes of “new natural law” pioneer Germain Grisez’s The Way of the Lord Jesus. “Manualism” indeed!)

There is also the fact that the priests for whom the old manuals were largely written needed guidance in the confessional, as did their penitents. And that means, inevitably, a way of telling mortal sin from venial sin – grave matter from light matter, sufficient knowledge from insufficient, sufficient consent from insufficient, in all the areas of human life where we find ourselves tempted. If you don’t like this, blame Catholic doctrine. But if you accept Catholic doctrine – as I do, and as many critics of the Neo-Scholastics do – then, it seems to me, you should not complain about “casuistry,” “legalism,” “manualism,” etc. Here the critics will say that the Neo-Scholastic ethics nevertheless encouraged “moral minimalism,” letting penitents and the faithful in general rest content so long as they stayed within the law. We should aim higher than merely fulfilling our strict moral obligations, the critics tell us. And so we should. But whatever might be true of angels, “new natural law” theorists, nouvelle théologie adepts, et al., we mere flesh-and-blood mortals, when striving to go beyond the moral minimum, find it helpful to know what the minimum is.

“Manualism” is also a bad thing, we are told, because the old Neo-Scholastic works merely repeated each other, peddled a closed system, and thereby stifled theological creativity. One problem with this charge is that it isn’t true; anyone who has actually read the work of the Neo-Scholastics knows that they disagreed about and debated all sorts of things. But it is true that their disagreements took place against a background of agreement on fundamentals. But so what? No one complains that the existence of textbooks of physics, geometry, or logic – which do rather “repeat each other” insofar as the basic material presented does not vary much from book to book – is evidence of a regrettable “manualism.” Nor do contemporary philosophers whine when textbooks on philosophy of mind (say) all tend to approach the subject from a naturalistic point of view (the occasional exception notwithstanding) and address more or less the same issues and arguments. One man’s unreflective prejudice is, apparently, another man’s “settled wisdom” – except that it’s only ever one side, it seems, that’s allowed to see itself the second way.

The thing is this, though: Ethics and theology either comprise objective bodies of knowledge or they do not. If they do – and it is hard to see how a Catholic could deny that they do – then “manualism” is as appropriate here as in other branches of knowledge. To insist otherwise is simply to beg the question against the Scholastic, who regards the classical metaphysical assumptions held in common by Platonists, Aristotelians, and Thomists and other Scholastics as a “perennial philosophy” whose basic tenets are rationally unavoidable, with the details rather than the big picture being what requires serious debate. Obviously, given the culture we live in, defending the big picture has its place too – here and here, for example – but so does working out the implications of the system from within, especially when the priest, the man in the pew, and the man in the street need answers to their moral and theological questions, not expressions of the theologian’s creativity. If you want creativity, take a pottery class. A good theologian is more concerned with rigor, systematic thinking, and fidelity to the deposit of faith, and these the old manuals possess in abundance. Nor will it do to complain (as is often done in certain Catholic circles) that the Neo-Scholastic system is “outdated” or that it fails to speak to “the needs of modern man.” What matters is whether the system is true – and the Neo-Scholastics gave arguments to show that it is, arguments their critics rarely bother to address.

I will end this mini rant by quoting the late Ralph McInerny, from a blurb he provided John Haldane’s Modern Writings on Thomism series of reprinted Scholastic works: “The phrase ‘Scholastic Manual’ has sometimes been used perjoratively. [Yet] some Scholastic Manuals deserve to be read before they are condemned. Indeed, some deserve to be praised.” Amen. And for good measure, here’s another blurb for the same series, from Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr: “Scepticism, philosophical psychology, metaphysical and moral realism, virtue ethics, etc., the standard topics in current Anglo-American philosophy, were all much debated by Thomistic and other Neo-Scholastic philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century: It is a great pleasure to see some of them brought back into the discussion.” Amen again.

On, then, to the recommendations. Let us consider first some introductory works on ethics:

Celestine N. Bittle, Man and Morals

Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason, Second edition

Thomas J. Higgins, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics

John A. Oesterle, Ethics: The Introduction to Moral Science

Henri Renard, The Philosophy of Morality

Renard and Oesterle, which are brief, emphasize moral theory; the other three, which are longer, develop the theory and then apply it to various specific moral issues. Fagothey, the best of those three, is also the one book among those just listed which is still in print. It is elementary, but clear as a bell and systematic, and provides a very solid overview of the structure of classical natural law theory and how it deals with various concrete moral topics (though because it was written half a century ago, it does not address all the currently “hot” topics in applied ethics or all the objections contemporary philosophers might raise – see some of the recommendations at the end of this post for that). Poor Higgins you’ll have to read in a brown wrapper, since he seems to be the favorite whipping boy of “new natural law” writers who would like to consign the Neo-Scholastics to the memory hole. But his book too provides a useful, if elementary, overview. For depth, though, you’ll want to get hold of:

Michael Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Volume I: General Ethics

Michael Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Volume II: Special Ethics

Cronin’s two giant volumes comprise, for my money, the best of the old English-language Neo-Scholastic manuals in ethics. As the subtitles imply, the first volume concerns what is today generally referred to as moral theory, while the second concerns applied ethics. If you could own only a single Neo-Scholastic manual, this big boy is the one to get. It has long been out of print, but affordable copies are available online, and it looks from Amazon that it is also available from at least one of the on-demand reprint publishers (though keep in mind that these outfits vary in the quality of their reprints).

Next we have some introductory books on moral theology:

Francis J. Connell, Outlines of Moral Theology

Heribert Jone, Moral Theology

Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology

H. E. Cardinal Roberti, ed., Dictionary of Moral Theology

None of these is still in print, though the most recent reprinting of Jone was not too long ago. Jone and Prümmer are old standbys. Every Catholic moral theorist should own both, though Prümmer is harder to find a cheap copy of. For depth you’ll want to consult:

Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology (in five volumes)

Antony Koch and Arthur Preuss, A Handbook of Moral Theology (in five volumes)

John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, Moral Theology: A Complete Course (in two volumes)

I think McHugh and Callan is probably the best of these; certainly it is absolutely packed with information, and you can’t do better if you want a solid grasp of the overall theoretical structure, terminology, and characteristic doctrines of traditional moral theology. But you will have to shop around for it. The Davis volumes, also very useful, are easier to come by and have (mostly) been reprinted now by one of the reprint publishers. Koch-Preuss is a bit tougher to track down – and for some reason, only the first three volumes of it have been reprinted recently.

Among the old moral theology manuals, though, special mention must be made of the most recent of them:

John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume I: Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology

John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume II: Marriage Questions

The second volume of Ford and Kelly’s outstanding set appeared in 1963. The two volumes do not present a complete treatment of moral theology, but volume 1 treats a number of special topics in depth (such as the various psychological issues underlying questions of culpability, and the debate over the direction of moral theology that would come to a head with Vatican II); and volume 2 comprises by far the best and most thorough treatment of sexual morality (at least in English) that I know of. The books are also very sensitive to ordinary human weakness – Ford was an expert in the treatment of alcoholism, for example – without making of it an excuse for sin; anyone who thinks the manualists were insufficiently “pastoral” has not read Ford and Kelly. As it happens, they also defend a more “lenient” position on at least one issue – the removal of a damaged uterus where no immediate danger to the life of the mother is present – that was an open question at the time they wrote but has since been settled by the Church in a less “lenient” direction (the Church has as of 1993 officially forbidden such removal). But on several still-open questions they provide an excellent, fair-minded analysis of the alternative positions Catholics loyal to the Magisterium of the Church might defend.

The Ford and Kelly volumes too are out of print, though used copies should not be too hard to track down. Someone should reprint them immediately – especially volume 2, since there is (in my view) so little first-rate material currently available on the subject.

Also worth mentioning are some important volumes on questions of political philosophy written from a traditional Catholic natural law theory point of view:

John Eppstein, The Catholic Tradition of the Law of Nations

Johannes Messner, Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Modern World

Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought

John K. Ryan, Modern War and Basic Ethics

Eppstein and Ryan are especially important in-depth treatments of just war theory (a topic also given briefer but significant treatment in some of the volumes mentioned above, such as Fagothey, Cronin, and McHugh and Callan).

Finally, let me recommend some recent works written from a classical natural law position similar to that of the Neo-Scholastic writers. By far the most important are:

David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach

David S. Oderberg, Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach

The Oderberg volumes are the fullest recent defense of a traditional natural law position against the sorts of objections that might be raised by contemporary analytic philosophers. The volume on applied ethics focuses on “life and death” topics – abortion, war, capital punishment, and the like.

Recent works on Aquinas’s ethics which eschew “new natural law” and other revisionist approaches include:

Ralph McInerny, Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas

D. Q. McInerny, A Course in Thomistic Ethics

Fulvio Di Blasi, God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Thomas Aquinas

There, I’ve now given you that most wonderful of gifts – a new excuse to spend enormous gobs of money on books. No need to thank me; just do the same for someone else some time.
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