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Fundamental Moral Theology

One of the foremost challenges facing today’s Catholics is how to evaluate the reliability of what is written on the subject of moral issues.
by Rev. Bernard J. O’Connor | Source:

Book Title: Fundamental Moral Theology (Théologie morale fondamentale)
Author: Abbé Jean-Pascal Perrenx
Publisher : Pierre Téqui (Paris, France, 2007)
ISBN : 978-2-7403-1369-5
Reviewer :  Rev. Bernard J. O’Connor, Official of Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches

       There is prevalent concern that many theological studies tend more to reflect the opinions of their authors than to offer a   presentation of the Church’s teaching on themes which are often seeped in controversy.  The net result is frequently one of confusion.  We are left to ask: what should the informed Catholic trust when confronted by a theological text which purports to be authoritative?
       Yet another aspect of the dilemma is that it highlights the split between those experts who seek to corroborate the positions of the Church’s magisterium and those who interpret intellectual integrity as necessitating an analysis of what are considered to be deficiencies in those positions.  And so the role of the theologian, rather than being that of supporting the Church’s stance on specific questions (e.g. responsibility and sexual morality, the nature of marital fidelity, and the doctrinal dimensions of economy and commerce), instead becomes that of declaring what the particular theologian insists should be the Church’s approach to these and other moral matters.

       It is against this backdrop that I am pleased to review Abbé Jean-Pascal Perrenx’ Fundamental Moral Theology (Théologie Morale Fondamentale), in anticipation of its availability to an English-language audience.  And while the current edition is in French, this fact should not deter those with even with a rudimentary knowledge of French from examining the first of a very important several-volume series. This introductory work assesses, for instance: what constitutes human acts, conscience, virtue in relationship to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, sin, law and grace.  The overall focus is upon ‘Beatitude’ (‘blessedness’) and, as the name implies, such pertains to how the believer ought respond to the Divine mandate to live according to actual holiness.

       Perennx’ words are refreshingly concise, clear and unambiguous, and they synthesize a vast range of sources: scripture, Patristics, commentary by Doctors of the Church (notably St. Alphonsus), in addition to Conciliar documents and those of pertinent Pontifical Academies.  He further draws from the extensive teaching of Pope John Paul II.  

       The readership may well be assured of ‘Rev.’ Perennx’ professional competence.  He holds a medical degree with a specialization in radiology and several years experience in the hospital setting.  He also has been awarded a Doctorate in Theology by Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.  His numerous publications have been lauded by Vatican officials, among them the future Pope Benedict XVI. 

      Abbé Perrenx’ text comprises 245 pages, subdivided into two principal sections.  The first sets the parameters for our understanding of what is meant by Moral Theology; while the second introduces us to beatitude as the fulfillment of the purpose for which we exist.  What is immediately apparent is that authentic theological discourse reiterates what Pope John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Letter, Patres Ecclesiae:  “the glory of man consists entirely in his relation to God.” To deny or ignore that essential component of human identity becomes so tantamount to the degradation of this identity as to equate with its self-induced destruction (Perrenx, p. 244).

       From the onset, our author reminds us that theology, guided by faith, yields a scientific elaboration upon the ‘intelligence’ of God and His works (p. 37).  What this implies, contrary to the perspective of contemporary secular humanism, is that God is knowable and chooses to be known.  He does not conceal Himself in isolation or seclusion, but reveals Himself in His explicit acts.  God is therefore approachable and intelligible.  And rather than being synonymous with His creatures (e.g. the view of pantheism and a tendency in Hinduism), He pervades that creation.  Hence, creation is inherently reliable as an ‘indicator’ of God.  Creation is neither illusory (e.g. as taught by Buddhism) nor contradictory to God and His design.  We thus deduce that faith and reason are not opposed, but affirm that God may be considered in Himself, and His creatures in their relationship with Him (p. 39).  

       How man behaves due to the combined influence of revelation and of reason defines the scope of Moral Theology (pp. 44-45).  Moral Theology, then, provides us with the intellectual tools by which to evaluate whether or not our attitude and behavior comport with the Christ of the Gospel, and Who continues to manifest Himself throughout Tradition.  But knowledge alone is not the exclusive aim of Moral Theology.  Moral Theology assesses “the direction of our acts (p. 50).”  Simply stated, Moral Theology responds to the question: do we live with God and for God or is the presence of God banished from our everyday reality and decisionmaking?

       Abbé Perrenx discusses how the content and method of theology per se permit that it be classified as scientific (pp.54-59).  Moreover, Moral Theology is multi-disciplinary, notably in association with philosophy and with such branches of theology as systematics/dogmatics, spirituality, and canon law (pp. 60-69).  And in an era when society appears inundated with movements which demand a ‘sola scriptura’ or bible-alone norm for Christian belief, Perrenx analyzes the serious shortcomings of this fundamentalist outlook (pp. 75-100).  For example, the witness of the Saints and the role of both liturgy and of the ‘sensus fidei’ are also indispensable (pp. 101-108).

       At this juncture, the author examines the significance of the Magisterium.  But although formal reference to the term is relatively recent (a 1835 encyclical of Gregory XVI), Perrenx reminds us that the Magisterium still remains necessary.  He next probes, with characteristic balance and exactitude, the complex subject of infallibility, and of what requires believers’ assent and what does not.  His evaluation of what constitutes admissible dissent is particularly useful at a time when, under the guise of scholarship and academic freedom, most every disagreement with official Church teaching is presumed to be valid.  Perrenx argues that such a mindset cannot be legitimate ( pp. 106-150).  Similarly, he explains limitations in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘new’ theology of morality.  And he concludes the book’s first segment with an affirmation that Moral Theology might well be designated as the “science of charity. (pp. 151-159)”  In doing so, he virtually anticipates the rationale of Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.    

       The text’s second section aptly explores the crucial problem confronting humanity individually and collectively: from where we have come and to where we are going.  After pondering Abbé Perrenx’ comments on beatitude in this context, I remember someone’s having once stated that the dilemma facing mankind is not from what our species has descended, but to what it might yet descend.  Our choices are neither incidental nor marginal.  For there is a real sense in which each relates to the unfolding of our destiny.  Those choices are able to reinforce that destiny or, regrettably, they may impede our realization of it.

      Human action entails more than a scenario composed of immediate ends.  To be fully human instead involves our quest to be increasingly conscious of the “ultimate end” to which our actions are oriented (pp. 168-170).  This ultimate end, supernatural and gratuitous, signifies that our very existence is “a communication of the goodness of God” (p. 176).  In Christ, mankind becomes open to the Father.  But also in Christ, mankind comes to a profound awareness of what it means to be human (pp. 180-188).  Perrenx says that Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrate how human nature embodies in itself what is primarily needed for this ultimate end to be attained.  We participate in the holiness of God by our yearning to love God in and for Himself (p. 189).  Hence, our happiness is likewise grounded in God (p. 195), as are the elements and traits of that happiness (p. 196-205).  They converge in the Beatific Vision (pp. 206-211).  

       The remainder of Abbé Perrenx’ book (pp. 212-243) concentrates upon the strengths and defects of various schools which have emerged with reference to how beatitude should be addressed.  But what they assert in common is that is is “difficult to become truly human.”  Believers must be willing to “pay the price” (p. 245). 

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