FREE Catholic Classes
Moral theology is a branch of theology, the science of God and Divine things. The distinction between natural and supernatural theology rests on a solid foundation. Natural theology is the science of God Himself, in as far as the human mind can by its own efforts reach a definite conclusion about God and His nature : it is always designated by the adjective natural. Theology, without any further modification, is invariably understood to mean supernatural theology, that is, the science of God and Divine things, in as far as it is based on supernatural Revelation. Its subject-matter embraces not only God and His essence, but also His actions and His works of salvation and the guidance by which we are led to God, our supernatural end. Consequently, it extends much farther than natural theology ; for, though the latter informs us of God's essence and attributes, yet it can tell us nothing about His free works of salvation. The knowledge of all these truths is necessary for every man, at least in its broad outlines, and is acquired by Christian faith. But this is not yet a science. The science of theology demands that the knowledge won through faith, be deepened, expanded, and strengthened, so that the articles of faith be understood and defended by their reasons and be, together with their conclusions, arranged systematically.
Help Now >
The entire field of theology proper is divided into dogmatic and moral theology, which differ in subject-matter and in method. Dogmatic theology has as its end the scientific discussion and establishment of the doctrines of faith, moral theology of the moral precepts. The precepts of Christian morals are also part of the doctrines of faith, for they were announced or confirmed by Divine Revelation. The subject-matter of dogmatic theology is those doctrines which serve to enrich the knowledge necessary or convenient for man, whose destination is supernatural. Moral theology, on the other hand, is limited to those doctrines which discuss the relations of man and his free actions to God and his supernatural end, and propose the means instituted by God for the attainment of that end. Consequently, dogmatic and moral theology are two closely related parts of universal theology. Inasmuch as a considerable number of individual doctrines may be claimed by either discipline, no sharp line of demarcation can be drawn between the subject-matter of dogma and morals. In actual practice, however, a division and limitation must be made in accordance with practical needs. Of a similar nature is the relation between moral theology and ethics. The subject-matter of natural morals or ethics, as contained in the Decalogue, has been included in positive, Divine Revelation, and hence has passed into moral theology. Nevertheless, the argumentative processes differ in the two sciences, and for this reason a large portion of the matter is disregarded in moral theology and referred to ethics. For instance, the refutation of the false systems of the modern ethicists is generally treated under ethics, especially because these systems are refuted by arguments drawn not so much from faith, as from reason. Only in as far as moral theology requires a defence of revealed doctrines, does it concern itself with false systems. However, it must discuss the various requirements of the natural law, not only because this law has been confirmed and defined by positive revelation, but also because every violation of it entails a disturbance of the supernatural moral order, the treatment of which is an essential part of moral theology.
The field of moral theology, its contents, and the boundaries which separate it from kindred subjects, may be briefly indicated as follows: moral theology includes everything relating to man's free actions and the last, or supreme, end to be attained through them, as far as we know the same by Divine Revelation; in other words, it includes the supernatural end, the rule, or norm, of the moral order, human actions as such, their harmony or disharmony with the laws of the moral order, their consequences, the Divine aids for their right performance. A detailed treatment of these subjects may be found in the second part of St. Thomas's "Summa theologica", a work still unrivalled as a treatise of moral theology.
The position of moral theology in universal theology is briefly sketched by St. Thomas in the "Summa theol.", I, Q. i, a. 7 and Q. ii in the proemium and in the prologus of I-II; likewise by Fr. Suàrez in the proemium of his commentaries on the I-II of St. Thomas. The subject-matter of the entire second part of the "Summa theol." is, man as a free agent. "Man was made after the image of God, by his intellect, his free will, and a certain power to act of his own accord. Hence, after we have spoken of the pattern, viz. of God, and of those things which proceeded from His Divine power according to His will, we must now turn our attention to His image, that is, man, inasmuch as he also is the principle or his actions in virtue of his free will and his power over his own actions." He includes all this in theology, not only because it is viewed as the object of positive Divine Revelation (I, Q. i, a. 3), but also because God always is the principal object, for "theology treats all things in their relation to God, either in as far as they are God Himself or are directed towards God as their origin or last end" (I, Q. i, a. 7). "Since it is the chief aim of theology to communicate the knowledge of God, not only as He is in Himself but also as the beginning and end of all things and particularly of rational creatures . . ., we shall speak first of God, secondly of the tendency of the rational creature towards God ", etc. (I, Q. ii, proem.). These words point out the scope and the subject-matter of the moral part of theology. Francisco Suárez, who pregnantly calls this tendency of the creatures towards God "the return of the creatures to God ", shows that there is no contradiction in designating man created after the image of God, endowed with reason and free will and exercising these faculties, as the object of moral theology, and God as the object of entire theology. "If we are asked to name the proximate object of moral theology, we shall undoubtedly say that it is man as a free agent, who seeks his happiness by his free actions; but if we are asked in what respect this object must be treated chiefly, we shall answer that this must be done with respect to God as his last end."
'Live Lessons' with Zoom on Catholic Online SchoolProfessor Connolly: Monday-Friday @ 9am (PDT) / 12pm (EDT)
Deacon Frederick Bartels: Tuesday-Friday @ 10am (PDT) / 1pm (EDT)
LIVE Lessons Curriculum
A detailed account of the wide range of moral theology may be found in the analytical index of Pars Secunda of St. Thomas's "Summa theologica". We must confine ourselves to a brief summary. The first question treats of man's last end, eternal happiness, Its nature and possession. Then follows an examination of human acts in themselves and their various subdivisions, of voluntary and involuntary acts, of the moral uprightness or malice of both interior and exterior acts and their consequences; the passions in general and in particular; the habits or permanent qualities of the human soul, and the general questions about virtues, vices, and sins. Under this last title, while enquiring into the causes of sin, the author embodies the doctrine on original sin and its consequences. This portion might, however, be with equal right assigned to dogmatic theology in the stricter meaning of the word. Although St. Thomas regards sin chiefly as a transgression of the law, and in particular of the "lex æterna" (Q. ii, a. 6), still he places the chapters on the laws after the section on sin ; because sin, a free human act like any other human act, is first discussed from the standpoint of its subjective principles, viz. knowledge, will, and the tendency of the will; only after this are the human actions viewed with regard to their objective or exterior principles, and the exterior principle, by which human actions are judged not merely as human, but as moral actions, either morally good or morally bad, is the law. Since morality is conceived by him as supernatural morality, which exceeds the nature and the faculties of man, Divine grace, the other exterior principle of man's morally good actions, is discussed after the law. In the exordium to Q. xc, St. Thomas states his division briefly as follows: "The exterior principle which moves us to good actions is God ; He instructs us by His law and aids us with His grace. Hence we shall speak first of the law, secondly of grace. "
The following volume is wholly devoted to the special questions, in the order given by St. Thomas in the prologue: "After a cursory glance at the virtues, vices, and the moral principles in general, it is incumbent on us to consider the various points in detail. Moral discussions, if satisfied with generalities, are of little value, because actions touch particular, individual things. When there is question of morals, we may consider individual actions in two ways: one, by examining the matter, i.e., by discussing the different virtues and vices; another, by inquiring into the various avocations of individuals and their states of life." St. Thomas then goes on to discuss the whole range of moral theology from both these standpoints. First, he closely scrutinizes the various virtues, keeping in view the Divine aids, and the sins and vices opposed to the respective virtues. He examines first the three Divine virtues which are wholly supernatural and embrace the vast field of charity and its actual practice; then he passes to the cardinal virtues with their auxiliary and allied virtues. The volume concludes with a discussion of the particular states of life in the Church of God, including those which suppose an extraordinary, Divine guidance. This last part, therefore, discusses subjects which specifically belong to mystical or ascetical theology, such as prophecy and extraordinary modes of prayer, but above all the active and the contemplative life, Christian perfection, and the religious state in the Church. The contents of a modern work on moral theology, as, for instance, that of Slater (London, 1909), are: Human acts, conscience, law, sin, the virtues of faith, hope, charity; the precepts of the Decalogue, including a special treatise on justice ; the commandments of the Church ; duties attached to particular states or offices; the sacraments, in so far as their administration and reception are a means of moral reform and rectitude; ecclesiastical laws and penalties, only in so far as they affect conscience ; these laws forming properly the subject-matter of canon law, in so far as they govern and regulate the Church as an organization, Its membership, ministry, the relations between hierarchy, clergy, religious orders, laity, or of spiritual and temporal authority.
One circumstance must not be overlooked. Moral theology considers free human actions only in their relation to the supreme order, and to the last and highest end, not in their relation to the proximate ends which man may and must pursue, as for instance political, social, economical. Economics, politics, social science are separate fields of science, not subdivisions of moral science. Nevertheless, these special sciences must also be guided by morals, and must subordinate their specific principles to those of moral theology, at least so far as not to clash with the latter. Man is one being, and all his actions must finally lead him to his last and highest end. Therefore, various proximate ends must not turn him from this end, but must be made subservient to it and its attainment. Hence moral theology surveys all the individual relations of man and passes judgment on political, economical, social questions, not with regard to their bearings on politics and economy, but with regard to their influence upon a moral life. This is also the reason why there is hardly another science that touches other spheres so closely as does moral theology, and why its sphere is more extensive than that of any other. This is true inasmuch as moral theology has the eminently practical scope of instructing and forming spiritual directors and confessors, who must be familiar with human conditions in their relation to the moral law, and advise persons in every state and situation.
The manner in which moral theology treats its subject-matter, must be, as in theology generally, chiefly positive, that is, drawing from Revelation and theological sources. Starting from this positive foundation, reason also comes into play quite extensively, especially since the whole subject-matter of natural ethics has been raised to the level of supernatural morals. It is true reason must be illumined by supernatural faith, but when illumined its duty is to explain, prove, and defend most of the principles of moral theology.
From what has been said it is manifest that the chief source of moral theology is Sacred Scripture and Tradition together with the teachings of the Church. however, the following points must be observed regarding the Old Testament. Not all precepts contained in it are universally valid, as many belong to the ritual and special law of the Jews. These statutes never obliged the non- Jewish world and have simply been abrogated by the New Covenant, so that now the ritual observances proper are illicit. The Decalogue, however, with the sole change in the law enjoining the celebration of the Sabbath, has passed Into the New Covenant a positive Divine confirmation of the natural law, and now constitutes the principal subject matter of Christian morality. Moreover, we must remember that the Old Covenant did not stand on the high moral level to which Christ elevated the New Covenant. Jesus Himself mentions things which were permitted to the Jews "on account of the hardness of their hearts", but against which He applied again the law at first imposed by God. Hence, not everything that was tolerated in the Old Testament and its writings, is tolerated now; on the contrary, many of the usages approved and established there would be counter to Christian perfection as counselled by Christ. With these limitations the writings of the Old Testament are sources of moral theology, containing examples of and exhortations to heroic virtues, from which the Christian moralist, following in the footsteps of Christ and His Apostles, may well draw superb models of sanctity.
Apart from Sacred Scripture , the Church recognizes also Tradition as a source of revealed truths, and hence of Christian morals. It has assumed a concrete shape chiefly in the writings of the Fathers. Furthermore, the decisions of the Church must be regarded as a source, since they are based on the Bible and Tradition, they are the proximate source of moral theology, because they contain the final judgment about the meaning of Sacred Scripture as well as the teachings of the Fathers. These include the long list of condemned propositions, which must be considered as danger signals along the boundary between lawful and illicit, not only when the condemnation has been pronounced by virtue of the highest Apostolic authority, but also when the congregation instituted by the pope has issued a general, doctrinal decision in questions bearing on morals. What Pius IX wrote concerning the meetings of scholars in Munich in the year 1863 may also be applied here: "Since there is question of that subjection which binds all Catholics in conscience who desire to advance the interests of the Church by devoting themselves to the speculative sciences ; let the members of this assembly recall that it is not sufficient for Catholic scholars to accept and esteem the above-mentioned dogmas, but that they are also obliged to submit to the decisions of the papal congregations as well as to those teachings which are, by the constant and universal consent of Catholics, so held as theological truths and certain conclusions that the opposite opinion even when not heretical, still deserves some theological censure." If this is true of the dogmatic doctrines in the strict sense of the word, we might say that it is still more true of moral questions, because for them not only absolute and infallibility certain, but also morally certain decisions must be accounted as obligatory norms.
The words of Pius IX just quoted, point to another source of theological doctrines, and hence of morals, viz., the universal teachings of the Catholic schools. For these are the channels by which the Catholic doctrines on faith and morals must be transmitted without error, and which have consequently the nature of a source. From the unanimous doctrine of the Catholic schools follows naturally the conviction of the universal Church. But since it is a dogmatic principle that the whole Church cannot err in matters of faith and morals, the consent of the various Catholic schools must offer the guarantee of infallibility in these questions.
FREE Catholic Classes Pick a class, you can learn anything
Moral theology, to be complete in every respect, must accomplish in moral questions what dogmatic theology does in questions pertaining to dogma. The latter has to explain clearly the truths of faith and prove them to be such; it must also, as far as possible, show their accordance with reason, defend them against objections, trace their connection with other truths, and, by means of theological argumentation, deduce further truths. Moral theology must follow the same processive questions of morals. -- It is evident that this cannot be done in all branches of moral theology in such a way as to exhaust the subject, except by a series of monographs. It would take volumes to sketch but the beauty and the harmony of God's dispositions, which transcend the natural law, but which God enacted in order to elevate man to a higher plane and to lead him to his supernatural end in a future life -- and yet all this is embraced in the subject of supernatural morals. Nor is moral theology confined to the exposition of those duties and virtues which cannot be shirked if man wishes to attain his last end; it includes all virtues, even those which mark the height of Christian perfection, and their practice, not only in the ordinary degree, but also in the ascetical and mystical life. Hence, it is entirely correct to designate asceticism and mysticism as parts of Christian moral theology, though ordinarily they are treated as distinct sciences.
The task of the moral theologian is by no means completed when he has explained the questions indicated. Moral theology, in more than one respect, is essentially a practical science. Its instructions must extend to moral character, moral behaviour, the completion and issue of moral aspirations, so that it can offer a definite norm for the complex situations of human life. For this purpose, it must examine the individual cases which arise and determine the limits and the gravity of the obligation in each. Particularly those whose office and position in the Church demand the cultivation of theological science, and who are called to be the teachers and counsellors, must find in it a practical guide. As jurisprudence must enable the future judge and lawyer to administer justice in individual cases, so must moral theology enable the spiritual director or confessor to decide matters of conscience in varied cases of everyday life; to weigh the violations of the natural law in the balance of Divine justice ; it must enable the spiritual guide to distinguish correctly and to advise others as to what is sin and what is not, what is counselled and what not, what is good and what is better; it must provide a scientific training for the shepherd of the flock, so that he can direct all to a life of duty and virtue, warn them against sin and danger, lead from good to better those who are endowed with necessary light and moral power, raise up and strengthen those who have fallen from the moral level. Many of these tasks are assigned to the collateral science of pastoral theology ; but this also treats a special part of the duties of moral theology, and falls, therefore, within the scope of moral theology in its widest sense. The purely theoretical and speculative treatment of the moral questions must be supplemented by casuistry. Whether this should be done separately, that is, whether the subject matter should be taken casuistically before or after its theoretical treatment, or whether the method should be at the same time both theoretical and casuistical, is unimportant for the matter itself; the practical feasibility will decide this point, while for written works on moral theology the special aim of the author will determine it. However, he who teaches or writes moral theology for the training of Catholic priests, would not do full justice to the end at which he must aim, if he did not unite the casuistical with the theoretical and speculative element.
What has been said so far, sufficiently outlines the concept of moral theology in its widest sense. Our next task is to follow up its actual formation and development.
Moral theology, correctly understood, means the science of supernaturally revealed morals. Hence, they cannot speak of moral theology who reject supernatural Revelation; the most they can do is to discourse on natural ethics. But to distinguish between moral theology and ethics is sooner or later to admit a science of ethics without God and religion. That this contains an essential contradiction, is plain to everyone who analyzes the ideas of moral rectitude and moral perversion, or the concept of an absolute duty which forces itself with unrelenting persistency on all who have attained the use of reason. Without God, an absolute duty is inconceivable, because there is nobody to impose obligation. I cannot oblige myself, because I cannot be my own superior; still less can I oblige the whole human race, and yet I feel myself obliged to many things, and cannot but feel myself absolutely obliged as man, and hence cannot but regard all those who share human nature with me as obliged likewise. It is plain then that this obligation must proceed from a higher being who is superior to all men, not only to those who live at present, but to all who have been and will be, nay, in a certain sense even to those who are merely possible, This superior being is the Lord of all, God. It is also plain that although this Supreme lawgiver can be known by natural reason, neither He nor His law can be sufficiently known without a revelation on His part. Hence if is that moral theology, the study of this Divine law is actually cultivated only by those who faithfully cling to a Divine Revelation, and by the sects which sever their connection with the Church, only as long as they retain the belief in a supernatural Revelation through Jesus Christ.
Wherever Protestantism has thrown this belief overboard, there the study of moral theology as a science has suffered shipwreck. Today it would be merely lost labour to look for an advancement of it on the part of a non-Catholic denomination. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were still men to be found who made an attempt at it. J. A. Dorner states in Herzog, "Real-Encyklopädie", IV, 364 sqq. (s. v. "Ethik"), that prominent Protestant writers upholding "theological morals " have grown very scarce since the eighteenth century. However, this is not quite correct. Of those who still cling to a positive Protestantism, we may name Martensen, who recently entered the lists with deep conviction for "Christian Ethics "; the same, though in his own peculiar manner, is done by Lemme in his "Christliche Ethik" (1905); both attribute to it a scope wider and objectively other than that of natural ethics. A few names from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may here suffice: Hugo Grotius (d. 1645), Pufendorf (d. 1694) and Christian Thomasius (d. 1728), all see the difference between theological and natural morals in that the former is also positive, i.e. Divinely revealed, but with the same subject matter as the latter. This last assertion could spring only from the Protestant view which has staked its all on the "fides fiducialis"; but it can hardly acknowledge a range of duties widened by Christ and Christianity. Other writers of a "theologia moralis" based on this "fides fiducialis", are Buddeus, Chr. A. Crusius, and Jerem. Fr. Reuss. A logical result of Kantianism was the denial of the very possibility of moral theology, since Kant had made autonomous reason the only source of obligation. On this point Dorner says (loc. cit.): "It is true that the autonomy and the autocracy of the moral being separates morals and religion"; he would have been nearer the mark, had he said: "they destroy all morals ". Generally speaking the modern Liberal Protestants hardly know any other than autonomous morals ; even when they do speak of "religious" morals, they find its last explanation in man, religion, and God or Divine Revelation being taken in their Modernistic sense, that is subjective notions of whose objective value we have no knowledge and no certainty.
This being the case, there remains only one question to be discussed: What has been the actual development and method of moral theology in the Church ? and here we must first of all remember that the Church is not an educational institution or a school for the advancement of the sciences. True, she esteems and promotes the sciences, especially theology, and scientific schools are founded by her; but this is not her only, or even her chief task. She is the authoritative institution, founded by Christ for the salvation of mankind ; she speaks with power and authority to the whole human race, to all nations, to all classes of society, to every age, communicates to them the doctrine of salvation unadulterated and. offers them her aids. It is her mission to urge upon educated and uneducated persons alike the acceptance of truth, without regard to its scientific study and establishment. After this has been accepted on faith, she also promotes and urges, according to times and circumstances, the scientific investigation of the truth, but she retains supervision over it and stands above all scientific aspirations and labours. As a result, we see the subject matter of moral theology, though laid down and positively communicated by the Church, treated differently by ecclesiastical writers according to the requirements of times and circumstances.
In the first years of the early Church, when the Divine seed, nourished by the blood of the martyrs, was seen to sprout in spite of the chilling frosts of persecution, when, to the amazement of the hostile world, it grew into a mighty tree of heavenly plantation, there was hardly leisure for the scientific study of Christian doctrine. Hence morals were at first treated in a popular, parenetic form. Throughout the Patristic period, hardly any other method for moral questions was in vogue, though this method might consist now in a concise exposition, now in a more detailed discussion of individual virtues and duties. One of the earliest works of Christian tradition, if not the earliest after the Sacred Scripture , the "Didache" or "Teaching of the Apostles", is chiefly of a moral-theological nature. It Is hardly more than a code of laws an enlarged decalogue, to which are added the principal duties arising from the Divine institution of the means of salvation and from the Apostolic institutions of a common worship -- in this respect valuable for dogmatic theology in its narrow sense. The "Pastor" of Hermas, composed a little later, is of a moral character, that is, it contains an ascetical exhortation to Christian morality and to serious penance if one should have relapsed into sin.
There exists a long series of occasional writings bearing on moral theology, from the first period of the Christian era; their purpose was either to recommend a certain virtue, or to exhort the faithful in general for certain times and circumstances. Thus, from Tertullian (d. about 240) we have: "De spectaculis", "De idololatria", "De corona militis", "De patientia", "De oratione", "De poenitentia", "Ad uxorem", not to take into consideration the works which he wrote after his defection to Montanism and which are indeed of interest for the history of Christian morals, but cannot serve as guides in it. Of Origen (d. 254) we still possess two minor works which bear on our question, viz., "Demartyrio", parenetic in character, and "De oratione", moral and dogmatic in content; the latter meets the objections which are advanced or rather reiterated even today against the efficacy of prayer. Occasional writings and monographs are offered to us in the precious works of St. Cyprian (d. 258); among the former must be numbered: "De mortalitate" and "De martyrio", in a certain sense also "De lapsis", though it bears rather a disciplinary and judicial character ; to the latter class belong: "De habitu virginum", "De oratione", "De opere et eleemosynis", "De bono patientiæ", and "De zelo et livore". A clearer title to be classed among moral-theological books seems to belong to an earlier work, the "Pædagogus" of Clement of Alexandria (d. about 217). It is a detailed account of a genuine Christian's daily life, in which ordinary and everyday actions are measured by the standard of supernatural morality. The same author touches upon Christian morals also in his other works, particularly in the "Stromata"; but this work is principally written from the apologetic standpoint, since it was intended to vindicate the entire Christian doctrine, both faith and morals, against pagan and Jewish philosophies.
In subsequent years, when the persecutions ceased, and patristic literature began to flourish, we find not only exegetical writings and apologies written to defend Christian doctrine against various heresies, but also numerous moral-theological works, principally sermons, homilies, and monographs. First of these are the orations of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 391), of St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395), of St. John Chrysostom (d. 406), of St. Augustine (d. 430), and above all the "Catecheses" of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386). Of St. John Chrysostom we have "De sacerdotio"; of St. Augustine, "Confessiones", "Soliloquia", "De cathechizandis rudibus", "De patientia", "De continentia", "De bono coniugali", "De adulterinis coniugiis", "De sancta virginitate", "De bono viduitatis", "De mendacio", "De cura pro mortuis gerenda", so that the titles alone suffice to give an intimation of the wealth of subjects discussed with no less unction than originality and depth of thought. A separate treatment of the supernatural morality of Christians was attempted by St. Ambrose (d. 397) in his books "De officiis", a work which, imitating Cicero's "De officiis", forms a Christian counterpart of the pagan's purely natural discussions. A work of an entirely different stamp and of larger proportions is the "Expositio in Job, seu moralium lib. XXV", of Gregory the Great (d. 604). It is not a systematic arrangement of the various Christian duties, but a collection of moral instructions and exhortations based on the Book of Job; Alzog (Handbuch der Patrologie, 92) calls it a "fairly complete repertory of morals ". More systematic is his work "De cura pastorali" which was intended primarily for the pastor and which is considered even today a classical work in pastoral theology .
Having broadly outlined the general progress of moral theology during the Patristic era proper, we must supplement it by detailing the development of a very special branch of moral theology and its practical application. For moral theology must necessarily assume a peculiar form when its purpose is restricted to the administration of the Sacrament of Penance. The chief result to be attained was a clear notion of the various sins and their species, of their relative grievousness and importance, and of the penance to be imposed for them. In order to ensure uniform procedure, it was necessary for ecclesiastical superiors to lay down more detailed directions; this they did either of their own accord or in answer to inquiries. Writings of this kind are the pastoral or canonical letters of St. Cyprian, St. Peter of Alexandria, St. Basil of Cappadocia, and St. Gregory of Nyssa ; the decretals and synodal letters of a number of popes, as Siricius, Innocent, Celestine, Leo I , etc.; canons of several oecumenical councils. These decrees were collected at an early date and used by the bishops and priests as a norm in distinguishing sins and in imposing ecclesiastical penance for them.
The ascendancy of the so-called "penitential books" dated from the seventh century, when a change took place in the practice of ecclesiastical penance. Till then it had been a time-honoured law in the Church that the three capital crimes: apostasy, murder, and adultery, were to be atoned for by an accurately determined penance, which was public at least for public sins. This atonement, which consisted chiefly in severe fasts and public, humiliating practices, was accompanied by various religious ceremonies under the strict supervision of the Church ; it included four distinct stations or classes of penitents and at times lasted from fifteen to twenty years. At an early period, however, the capital sins mentioned above were divided into sections, according as the circumstances were either aggravating or attenuating;, and a correspondingly longer or shorter period of penance was set down for them. When in the course of centuries, entire nations, uncivilized and dominated by fierce passions, were received into the bosom of the Church, and when, as a result, heinous crimes began to multiply, many offences, akin to those mentioned above, were included among sins which were subject to canonical penances, while for others, especially for secret sins, the priest determined the penance, its duration and mode, by the canons. The seventh century brought with It a relaxation, not indeed in canonical penance, but in the ecclesiastical control; on the other hand, there was an increase in the number of crimes which demanded a fixed penance if discipline was to be maintained; besides, many hereditary rights of a particular nature, which had led to a certain mitigation of the universal norm of penance, had to be taken into consideration; substitutes and so-called redemptiones , which consisted in pecuniary donations to the poor or to public utilities, gradually gained entrance and vogue; all this necessitated the drawing up of comprehensive lists of the various crimes and of the penances to be imposed for them, so that a certain uniformity among confessors might be reached as to the treatment of penitents and the administration of the sacraments.
There appeared a number of "penitential books" Some of them, bearing the sanction of the Church, closely followed the ancient canonical decrees of the popes and the councils, and the approved statutes of St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others; others were merely private works, which, recommended by the renown of their authors, found a wide circulation, others again went too far in their decisions and hence constrained ecclesiastical superiors either to reprehend or condemn them. A more detailed account of these works will be found in another article.
These books were not written for a scientific, but for a practical juridical purpose. Nor do they mark an advance in the science of moral theology, but rather a standing-still, nay, even a decadence. Those centuries of migrations, of social and political upheavals, offered a soil little adapted for a successful cultivation of the sciences, and though in the ninth century a fresh attempt was made to raise scientific studies to a higher level, still the work of the subsequent centuries consisted rather in collecting and renewing treasures of former centuries than in adding to them. This is true of moral-theological questions, no less than of other scientific branches. From this stagnation theology in general and moral theology in particular rose again to new life towards the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century. A new current of healthy development was noticeable in moral theology and that in two directions: one in the new strength infused into the practice of the confessors, the other in renewed vigour given to the speculative portion.
With the gradual dying out of the public penances, the "penitential books" lost their importance more and more. The confessors grew less concerned about the exact measure of penances than about the essential object of the sacrament, which is the reconciliation of the sinner with God. Besides, the "penitential books" were by far too defective for teaching confessors how to judge about the various sins, their consequences and remedies. In order to meet this need, St. Raymond of Peñafort wrote towards the year 1235 the "Summa de poenitentia et matrimonio". Like his famous collection of decretals, it is a repertory of canons on various matters, i.e. important passages from the Fathers, councils, and papal decisions. More immediately adapted for actual use was the "Summa de casibus conscientiæ", which was written about 1317 by an unknown member of the Order of St. Francis at Asti in Upper Italy, and which is, therefore, known as "Summa Astensana" or "Summa Astensis". Its eight books cover the whole subject matter of moral theology and the canonical decrees, both indispensable for the pastor and confessor : Book I, the Divine commandments; II, virtues and vices; III, contracts and wills; IV-VI, sacraments, except matrimony; VII, ecclesiastical censures; VIII, matrimony. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries produced a number of similar summoe for
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.