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  • Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History
  • Brian Johnstone C.Ss.R.
Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History. By Charles E. Curran. [Moral Traditions Series.] (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 2008. Pp. xiv, 353. $59.95 clothbound, ISBN 978-1-589-01195-3; $26.95 paperback, ISBN 978-1-589-01196-0.)

This work is a valuable contribution to the study of moral theology; it is the first comprehensive narrative of the origins and development of the discipline in the United States. The author does not claim to write as a neutral observer, but presents his work as that of a participant-observer. He acknowledges the difficulties that such an undertaking involves; he must record the opinions of moral theologians, including his own, while at the same time explaining his own personal views. The solution he has adopted is to present the positions he has taken in the third person, as the views of Charles E. Curran, while elucidating his own views in the first person. He frankly admits the tensions that this entails, while leaving the judgment on the success of the approach to the reader. This method had the advantage of enabling the author to state clearly both what he said and what he meant. Since his writings have been the subject of much debate and perhaps also misunderstanding, this provides useful clarification. Nevertheless, the other authors whose positions he records do not have a similar opportunity to explain and clarify what they meant, and this creates an imbalance. For example, it may be anticipated that the account of the moral theory of Germain Grisez would not be considered adequate by that author. However, Curran takes care to present the ideas of others clearly and objectively, including those with which he disagrees. This makes the book both a useful record and, at the same time, a kind of compendium of moral theologians; one can look up the different authors so as to find a succinct statement of their positions.

Physicalism is treated at length, but the term remains ambiguous. It is sometimes taken to mean that the moral law is derived directly from or even identified with the physical structure of the act, or with the biological law. The centrality of the person is, as Curran shows, generally accepted, but the history of the concept is unclear. My research suggests that “the person ‘integrally and adequately considered’” (p. 105) has its roots in Suarezian ethics. The author notes correctly that Grisez adopted “Hume’s law,” according to [End Page 634] which ought cannot be derived from is. However, there is no mention of the historical background to this theory nor of its rejection by some notable contemporary philosophers. Theologians need to study more philosophy. However, with its comprehensive account of the contributions of twentieth-century moralists, this work provides a place to start. It is necessary reading for all moralists.

Brian Johnstone C.Ss.R.
The Catholic University of America


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pp. 634-635
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