At the service of a mature Catholic moral theology

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Pope Francis’ speech to the participants in the Redemptorists Chapter

(from the Alphonsian Academy blog)

“You are lending a service to a mature, serious, Catholic moral theology. And with an impressive level, a very high academic level.” These words, pronounced by Pope Francis in his off-the-cuff address to the participants in the General Chapter of the Redemptorists last October 1, I believe make not only the teaching staff of the Alphonsian Academy proud, but everyone, in the pews of this great academic institution, has had and has the joy of being formed.

The words of the pontiff, however, in addition to sounding flattering, grasp in depth the peculiarity of the theological-moral approach that, since 1949 (the year of its foundation), the Academy offers its students, in obedience to the style of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, and, at the same time, propose further ideas to direct the reflection and teaching of theological ethics.

A “mature” moral theology

The maturity of theological reflection is not measured solely on the basis of the results produced in terms of books, articles or academic courses. In the pope’s indication, it is clear that a moral theology is mature that is intertwined with pastoral praxis: “Masters of morality,” Francis says, “but also teachers of morality in the catechism of children, in the confessional…”. 

We remember well the merciless diagnosis that the pontiff himself reserved for moral theology in Amoris Laetitia – “a  cold morality, desk in dealing with the most delicate themes” – hoping for a conversion aimed at a “pastoral discernment charged with merciful love” (AL, 312); just as the warning expressed in Evangelii Gaudium not  to make confessionals “places of torture” (EG,  44).

Therefore, a moral theology capable of abandoning the “comfort zones” to go on a “mission” is truly mature, proclaiming Christ’s message of love and redemption to the little ones and the least. Moreover, it is from the interweaving of rigorous study and benign pastoral care that Alphonsian morality develops. Of the holy bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths, one of his principal biographers recounts: “Having ascertained Alphonsus’ will of God’s will, he came alive and took courage; and making to Jesus Christ a total sacrifice of the City of Naples, he offered to take his days into proquoi, and tugurij, and die in those surrounded by Villani, and by Pastors”.[1]

Even today, precisely from this interweaving, the academic proposal of the Alphonsian is born, and only by intensifying this relationship between the study of morality and life, theological ethics will be able to definitively forget that rigid and deductive style which, for a long time, risked sullowing this discipline.

A “serious” moral theology

The speeches and the magisterium of Francis had accustomed us to a very particular insistence on the theme of mercy. In the discourse of October 1, however, what has primacy in moral teaching is the discernment between good and evil: “May people understand what is good and what is evil, let them then know that God’s mercy covers everything”. 

The pope’s call is for a clear moral teaching, which does not yield to “manganchism” – being broad-handed – and which clearly reiterates the precepts of the Decalogue. In a particular way, the pontiff pays attention to those “forgotten” norms – the reference is to the eighth commandment – in order to denounce that “immorality of thought” that today makes it almost natural to oppress the poor, destroy the environment, create unjust economic systems.

The seriousness of Alphonsian moral proposal finds its root here. In a climate strongly marked by disputes between “rigid” moral systems and “lassi” moral systems, Alphonsus elaborates a proposal that rejects both the exasperated objectivism of the rigorists and the sinister subjectivism of the lax, proposing a reconciliation between norm and conscience that, while privileging the latter as the “proximate and formal rule” of morality, does not neglect the law of God at all. This circularity, even today, continues to be the keystone of the Academy’s moral proposal.

A “Catholic” moral theology

The reference to the adjective “Catholic” certainly does not refer to a confessional ethic. Far from it. We are well convinced that the pope understands the term in its etymological meaning as “universal” and pushes towards a moral theology capable of reaching everyone. For this reason he recalls as the fundamental task of the moral theologian that of being a “formator of consciences”. Already in Amoris Laetitia this invitation had resounded with a certain peremptoriness: “We are called to form consciences, not to claim to replace them” (AL, 37).

We believe that this is precisely the focal point of the teaching of moral theology of the Alphonsian Academy. It has always given the moral conscience a privileged place in its courses, placing itself not only on the speculative side, but also on that of diakonía with regard to the consciences of the faithful. The Alphonsian moral proposal, in fact, calls, first of all, for a renewed trust in the role of conscience and in the reciprocity of consciences on the journey towards truth. 

Emblematic, in this regard, can be the words of those who have dedicated much of their studies to reflection on moral conscience, occupying, for some years, also the role of guide of our institute. In fact, Father Sabatino Majorano writes in an article: “I believe it is essential to recover, at all levels, trust in conscience. Without it it is not possible to construct a proposal and a moral pedagogy that reflect and build the dignity of the person. Moreover, this is also the way to constructively develop moral dialogue with contemporary culture”.[2]

Maturity, seriousness, catholicity: a path already trodden by the Alphonsian Academy, but to be continued to follow in order to render a noble service not only to contemporary theological thought, but also and above all to all those who, in daily life, seek, as best as possible, to respond to their vocation to bear fruits of charity for the life of the world (cf. OT,16).

Roberto Massaro

Former student of the Alphonsian Academy;

Professor of Moral Theology at the Faculty of Theologyof Puglia


[1] A. Tannoia, Of the life and institute of the Venerable Servant of God Alfonso M. Liguori, Bishop of St. Agatha de’ Goti and founder of the Congregation of Missionary Priests of the Most Holy Redeemer, vol. 1, Materdomini 1982, 66.

[2] S. Majorano Hotels, ‘The formation of consciousness in a highly pluralist context’, in Borders 2011, 112.

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