Preface: The Theological Ethics of Life, Synodality, and Untying Knots in Contemporary Moral Theology

The recently published volume on Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition and Practical Challenges by the Pontifical Academy for Life is the result of a workshop of scholars held in Rome during the Fall of 2021.[1] As implied by the title, the central theme is the Ethics of Life, a theme that was revisited in commemoration of St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). This volume, however, has occasioned some critical responses from Catholics who were concerned that it departs from the intervention of St. John Paul II’s 1993 moral encyclical Veritas Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), that it thereby embraces the proportionalism that this encyclical had rejected, and that it encourages a departure from other moral teachings of the Church, especially that of St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) regarding contraception.

As someone who participated in the workshop and published an essay in the volume, in this preface to the republication of my essay that follows below, I would like to sketch what I think is a more authentically ecclesial and, therefore, fruitful way of approaching the contributions it contains. That is, The Theological Ethics of Life should be read as a synodal dialogue between Catholics representing different perspectives and models, with a focus on revisiting the subject matter in a new historical context and working toward more pastorally effective ways of addressing some of the grave challenges facing Catholic moral theology and pastoral ministry. By synodal, I mean an approach grounded in a sense of participation in the community of disciples following Jesus, walking together in the service of the Gospel, in fraternity, joy, peace, hope, mercy and—as appropriate—parrhesia or boldness. By pastoral, I especially mean rooted in the logic of charity, which approaches others in a spirit of Christian friendship, looking to build up loving communion in God. Regarding the challenges facing Catholic moral theology, I think the volume should also be seen as an attempt at what Pope Francis speaks of as “untying knots,” in the sense of overcoming disagreements and obstacles that hinder the inherent fecundity of Catholic moral teaching from bearing the fruits of charity.

These significant “knots” regarding Catholic moral theology include at least the following. First, that the renewal of moral theology called for by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council has yet to be achieved. As these Fathers wisely indicated, such a renewal would be deeply grounded in Scripture and it would point us to our lofty calling in Christ to holiness. It would also be ordered to bearing the fruit of charity for the life of the world (see Optatam Totius: Decree on Priestly Training, no. 16), which implies that such renewal would lead to the living out of the Social Teaching of the Church. The second knot, which is inseparable from the first, is the failure to realize the pastoral renewal sought by the council, which would contextualize moral theology within a fundamental orientation to charity and social friendship.[2]

Third, the intervention of Veritatis Splendor in this renewal of moral theology has not been broadly received, neither in its continuity with the wise guidance of Optatam Totius, nor in its technical interventions regarding especially approaches to human action and natural law. A fourth obstacle concerns the teaching of Humanae Vitae regarding contraception, which is among the least well received of Magisterial teachings. A broader and more adequate reception of the truths at stake regarding Humanae Vitae presupposes, I would argue, a wider renewal of sexual ethics around a robust account of the virtue of conjugal chastity. It would also seem to include a resituating of sexual ethics within a more effective pastoral approach considering the complex and contested matters regarding which many are alienated from the Church. Such a renewed account of conjugal chastity, within a pastoral approach centered on charity as a kind of friendship, would imply, in my opinion, a departure from deficient approaches to sexual ethics that are too centered in the physical process of semination. To even approach such conversations, however, presupposes the adoption of a more synodal way of addressing the great challenges facing the Church, which is something our workshop sought to foster.

Fifth, the reception of St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae has been shaped by not just these first four unresolved challenges, but by the distorting influence of culture war politics in the United States. For many American Catholics, abortion has been the preeminent issue that guides our social and political engagement, relegating all other considerations to a subordinate role. For these Catholics, the preeminence of abortion is the touchstone of orthodox Catholicism, and anyone who questions this preeminence or highlights other concerns comes under immediate suspicion of representing the opposing side in the culture wars, with all that implies. It is not difficult to understand how many American Catholics came to affiliate with the conservative movement and Republican party in earlier decades (e.g., the 1990s), when so-called “postmodern” philosophical currents were influencing the political left towards moral relativism, and when an increasingly illiberal left seemed to pose the greatest threat to the common good. I shared this assessment at the time. In more recent years, however, the political and social right has been increasingly radicalized under the influence of so-called “postliberal,” radically antiliberal, “illiberal,” “Christian nationalist,” “integralist” and authoritarian currents. Such manifestations of the illiberal right now pose an imminent threat not just to constitutional democracy in America but to the postwar international order that the allied nations established after the Second World War. This frightening situation, which is exacerbated by the efforts of authoritarian states like Russia and China to overthrow the postwar international order, calls for an urgent rethinking of how Catholics, especially in the United States, approach the ethics of life.

In such a rethinking, it is helpful to recall that John Paul II certainly understood Evangelium Vitae within the broader vision of Catholic Social Teaching, since he had already published the first two of his three social encyclicals and given that he would soon oversee the publication of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2003). This Compendium locates Catholic efforts toward the common good—including the defense of vulnerable human lives—within the context of an “integral and solidary humanism” (Introduction). In contrast with an approach that focuses our social and political engagement on a small set of issues, “integral” specifies the comprehensive scope of an authentically Catholic (from the Greek kata and holos, concerning the whole) social vision. Similarly, “solidary”—as in solidarity—reflects the social dimension of human existence, while “humanism” means a love for all that is human. This Catholic social vision is lived out in a spirit of social friendship, through dialogue and with openness to all branches of knowledge; it presupposes a democratic political community (see chapter 8) and an international community along the lines of the one formed after the Second World War (chapter 9). The chasm between this vision and the one that follows from aligning with the conservative side of the culture wars in the United States is profound.

If we appreciate the synodal nature of the workshop that produced The Theological Ethics of Life, and the various contemporary obstacles to the flourishing of Catholic moral theology, we will recognize that the volume includes not just the “base text,” but an exchange of views grounded in it. Against those who would see the project as an attempt to ignore or overthrow Veritatis Splendor or Humanae Vitae, the volume includes an essay I was invited to contribute, with full knowledge that I have a long history of working to foster the reception of these encyclicals. This essay is included below and is republished with permission.[3] My hope is that this republication will encourage a more sympathetic and fruitful reception of The Theological Ethics of Life which seeks to foster a fruitful conversation about the broader challenges that confront contemporary Catholic moral theology as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of The Gospel of Life.

Dr. William F. Murphy, Jr.
Pontifical College Josephinum
Columbus, OH


[1] Etica teologica della vita. Scrittura, tradizione, sfide pratiche (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2022).

[2] See especially Msgr. Paul McPartlan’s Keynote Address to the Canon Law Society of America, “The Pastoral Magisterium of Pope Francis,” published in the CLSA Proceedings 82 (2000): 1-21.

[3] This essay was taken from “Etica teologica della vita. Scrittura, tradizione, sfide pratiche © 2022 – Amministrazione del Patrimonio della Santa Sede e © Libreria Editrice Vaticana.”

[Note: Some readers have reported that they are unable to access the document below. If you are also having difficulty, here is the direct link to the PDF file —ML]

Direct link to PDF file

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William F. Murphy Jr. is Professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, OH.

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