PADUA, Italy – More than 400 Catholic moral theologians from 63 countries gathered in Padua July 8-12 for the first international conference on Catholic ethics.
Jesuit Father James Keenan, a professor at Boston College, organized the gathering as an opportunity for the scholars to share the major ethical concerns they face and to exchange ideas on how to deal with the concerns.
"Among theologians, we are the most practical," Father Keenan told Catholic News Service. "We look at the principles of Catholic moral tradition and how they apply to everyday life."
Because moral theology deals with everyday concerns, it has to be able to address the questions and quandaries posed by different people in different parts of the world, he said. A moral theologian in North America or Europe cannot possibly understand all of an African's or Asian's concerns and all of their resources for addressing them, he added.
In the past, Father Keenan said, moral theology was concerned mainly with sexual ethics, "but today the concerns are sexual and social, charity and justice, individual behavior and the economy."
Father Enrico Chiavacci, a moral theologian from Florence, Italy, told Vatican Radio one of the most important questions on the meeting's agenda was "moral discernment."
"Discernment is very important, but only if it is truly discernment, that is, if it is arises from people who truly have faith and truly want to be faithful to the Gospel," he said.
While acknowledging the existence of objective moral truths, he said, different cultures and philosophies have different approaches to applying those truths systematically to concrete situations, but in the past Catholic moral theology was dominated by Western methods of deduction.
The conference opened with a panel discussion on how moral theologians or "theological ethicists" can respond to the world's needs.
Antonio Papisca, who holds the UNESCO chair in human rights at the University of Padua, spoke of the need for "humanly sustainable forms of governance" to deal with corruption, ongoing warfare, indifference to the plight of the poor, "dehumanizing biotechnologies" and destruction of the environment.
International human rights laws, he said, flow from a recognition of human dignity and are meant to protect human dignity, which leads to respect for human life and, therefore, peace.
The death penalty, war, abortion, euthanasia and human cloning are violations of respect for human life and chip away at human rights, Papisca said.
He called on Catholic moral theologians to educate people to recognize the inconsistencies in their laws when they allow the fundamental human right to life to be set aside in order to satisfy a supposed need to protect society or an individual's privacy.
Dr. Henk ten Have, director of the division of ethics of science and technology at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, encouraged the moral theologians to work together internationally, recognizing that most new ethical questions cross borders.
"Technological progress, new knowledge and its application, new diagnostics, preventive and therapeutic interventions have significantly changed medicine and the life sciences ... giving rise to bioethical dilemmas both in highly developed and less developed countries," said ten Have, who also teaches medical ethics at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Netherlands.
In addition, inequality and injustice create ethical problems, for example, "if an effective medication for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis is available in some countries," while the poor in other countries die of the diseases, he said.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops