How to Do Moral Theology Today

In his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis emphasizes that “what we are experiencing is not simply an epoch of changes, but an epochal change.” By drawing this distinction, the Pontifex is trying to stress that we face challenges that question our core convictions. Values and presuppositions that were once taken for granted are not evident anymore; we now live in a society where the “throwaway culture” dominates. Confronted by such seismic shifts, Christians cannot simply continue living as if nothing were happening, but are instead called to let themselves be “challenged by the questions of the day and to approach them with the virtues of discernment, parrhesía, and hypomoné.” Most of all, our contemporary situation requires the realization that, as Christians, “we are no longer the only ones who create culture, nor are we in the forefront of those most listened to.” “We are no longer living in a Christian world,” continues Francis, “because faith . . . is no longer an evident presupposition of social life; indeed, faith is often rejected, derided, marginalized, and ridiculed.”

A profound conversion is needed if the Church and all the faithful want to be able to announce the Gospel in today's world. How should the current situation and Francis's call for a “mission-oriented” Church shape the work of theology? What contribution can scholars give amidst this situation? The Pope tells us that theologians need to avoid treating doctrine as a rigid system or as an ideology that continually changes with the changing of seasons. Doctrine, insists Francis, is a “dynamic reality that is renewed every generation while remaining faithful to its foundation—the face, body, and name of the Risen Christ.” How should theologians embody such a vision? Is it possible to contribute to the ongoing, faithful renewal of the Church's teachings without falling prey to the current polarizing forces that are at work in our society? How do we free ourselves from the risk of using theology to affirm our presuppositions and preferences? Is common theological work possible amidst all the disagreements?

These are critical and very complex questions that are impossible to answer fully here. As a start, though, I will reflect on the place that has shaped my way of thinking about these matters, namely, New Wine New Wineskins (NWNW). I do so not only for autobiographical reasons and professional duties—I sit on NWNW’s Board of Directors—but also because I take NWNW to be a paradigmatic example of how to do theology today.

NWNW gathers young Catholic moral theologians who are at the beginning of their careers. As an association, it began in 2002 in order to establish a place of fellowship, genuine conversation, and shared research in the field of moral theology. Above all, the association's past and present members share the sense that doing theology is a vocation. NWNW has allowed all of us to find a community as we find ways to be of service to the Church and the world. No one can confront today's challenges and crises alone, and the ongoing discernment about how to better announce the Gospel and its implications today is best done in the company of others.

Each summer, usually at Moreau Seminary at the University of Notre Dame, we meet, present research on their area of expertise, and dialogue about the most pressing issues that we confront in the Church, the academy, and society. In addition to more formal presentations of our academic research, we purposefully prioritize creating an intimate atmosphere that allows people to really share their insights, questions, and concerns. At NWNW, we have the same disagreements and tough issues that all theologians need to face. But something that makes our association unique is that we face these disagreements and tough issues in a context where others are regarded as fellow companions, rather than as adversaries. We try to approach our differences with openness and charity, never letting our disagreements overshadow our common ecclesial belonging.

In an attempt to constantly learn from the best the field has to offer as we explore new paths for reflection, we also start every symposium with a dialogue with an established scholar who has, in one way or another, shaped the field of moral theology. We always involve the entire membership in the decision about whom to invite, and this year our scholar is Boston College's Stephen Pope. Stephen Pope’s interests are wide-ranging, and he has written on a range of topics, from Christian ethics and evolutionary theory; to charity and natural law in Thomas Aquinas; to the Catholic social teaching tradition; to forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation.

Of the ten books he has written or edited, two of them—The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love and Human Evolution and Christian Ethics—examine the relationship between scientific accounts of evolution and Christian morality. These books have been especially influential in the field of moral theology. The former examines scientific accounts of evolution in light of one of the deep insights of the Catholic moral tradition, an insight associated with Augustine and Aquinas: the idea that love has a proper ordering and that this ordering has a basis in human nature. In The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love, Pope argues that these scientific accounts of evolution can shed light on our understanding of the biological basis of kin preference, reciprocal care, the limits of love, and so on. In the other book, Human Evolution and Christian Ethics, Pope continues this engagement with evolution, arguing not only for the importance of engaging these accounts, rather than ignoring them, but also for their compatibility with Christian faith and morality. In this and other ways, Pope’s work exemplifies what Pope Francis calls for from theologians: a willingness to be challenged by and open to the questions of the day, attentiveness to the kerygma and the tradition in formulating our answers, and an approach to doctrine in which doctrine is not just received, but also continually renewed to enter more deeply in the truth of the Gospel.

Over the years, we have purposefully invited scholars with different formations, perspectives, and theological sensibilities. We have done so because we are committed to establishing a space where rigorous engagement with ideologically diverse points of view is possible. The worst thing that can happen to moral theology, and to the Church as a whole, is for scholars to entrench into silos of like-minded people who perceive those who disagree with them as outsiders not worth engaging. Sadly, this is a temptation that runs across the ideological spectrum and risks corrupting life in the academy and beyond. We need gatherings of  people who are worried about these divisions, who are committed to dialogue about them, and who continue to participate in venues that help discover and forge a joint enterprise.

Amidst the epochal change Francis describes, theologians need to go back to the heart of the kerygma to help Christians become “joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shines forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, §19). No one can do this alone. In today’s climate, the temptation to turn theological work into a dry, ideological enterprise is strong. Belonging to networks of friendships that remind theologians of their personal and ecclesial vocation is what allows them to face new challenges with courage and creativity. That is why a place like NWNW is essential, for it exemplifies a way of doing theology that frees its members from isolation, sustains them in their ongoing journey of faith, and consequently allows original theological thinking to emerge. The point is not to create a unified school of thought but to enable people with different opinions to dialogue with each other in a spirit of charity, because we are sure that it is by journeying together that we will enter more deeply into the truth.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This year’s New Wine New Wineskins Symposium is happening at the University of Notre Dame’s Moreau Seminary on July 30-August 2, 2020. Moral theologians at the beginning of their careers (ABD, contingent faculty, and pre-tenure) are invited to send proposals for papers. The deadline for submissions is February 29, 2020. To submit an abstract and learn more about the symposium, please visit:

Featured Image: Luis Egidio Meléndez, Still Life with Melon Figs Apples Wineskin and Picnic Hamper in a Landscape, 1751; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Alessandro Rovati

Alessandro Rovati is Assistant Professor and Chair of Theology at Belmont Abbey College. He sits on the Board of Directors of New Wine, New Wineskins.

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