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  • The Divine Comedy and Four Lessons in the Catholic Moral Vision
  • Ryan N. S. Topping (bio)

Nobody likes a moralist. It is right that Christians have moved beyond moralism if by this we mean the habit of reducing faith to sheer obedience. Moralism is always a diluting of religion, a simplification. It is the faith of Pelagius and Kant, not of Augustine and Bossuet. To fall into the habit of moralizing is to separate what belongs together, in this case, love for the good from love for the beautiful. It is an ancient truism that the virtuous person not only does the good, but delights in doing it ("Catechism of the Catholic Church," 1770) (hereafter CCC). Christians rightly point out that love is at the center of ethics and to love someone is to do them good. How do we know what is good? When philosophers and preachers in the mid-twentieth century proclaimed that we had moved beyond moralism, it was not always clear where they hoped we would land. Remember that when the rich young man asked Jesus how he might obtain eternal life, Christ pointed him to the Ten Commandments. The Gospels certainly deepen our understanding of law, but they do not abrogate it. There is no Christian morality apart from law (CCC, 2055).

As in the recent revelations of clerical abuse of minors, the consequences [End Page 39] of liberating ourselves from law can be terrifying. In 2010, in the face of gross misconduct, the Irish government initiated two separate judicial reviews to determine the extent and causes of corruption among the Catholic hierarchy. The Murphy Commission, in particular, investigated the bishops' handling of allegations of sexual misconduct among priests in the Diocese of Dublin from 1975-2004, which has led to the resignation of several auxiliary bishops of Dublin. Any breach of trust by clergy is occasion for scandal, sorrow, and restitution. But what has caused outrage in the case of Ireland and several other jurisdictions is the way that bishops failed to discipline clergy even when allegations were substantiated. Often offending priests were simply shuffled from one parish to another.

In the case of the Diocese of Dublin, Justice Murphy has pointed to how disregard for canon law among bishops and clergy sheltered repeat offenders and exposed the vulnerable. The report notes how in Dublin "the Church authorities failed to implement most of their own canon law rules on dealing with clerical child-sexual abuse." Not that Church law was inadequate. "The Commission is satisfied that Church law demanded severe penalties for clerics who abused children. In Dublin, from the 1970s onwards, this was ignored."

It is not the case, in other words, of the law being under or over specified; laws were simply not heeded. Observing what has now become shamefully plain, the report links the neglect of justice to the disrespect of law within the Church more generally: "Canon law, as an instrument of Church governance, declined hugely during Vatican II and in the decades after it." 1 In countering what may have been an excessive legalism within pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic piety, pastors and theologians from the 1960s on swung wildly in the opposite direction. Some among our leaders did not serve well when they replaced moralism with vague appeals to love and therapeutic approaches to inner healing that disregard the fact of sin and the requirements of justice.

Fruit grows only amidst the shade of leaves; so also love requires the protective wrapping of justice if it is to blossom. St. Augustine [End Page 40] famously said, "Love . . . and then do what you will" (Commentary on the Epistle of John 10.7.1). If God is love, why not just leave it at that and let each to his own way? After all, the primacy of charity is what distinguishes Christ's teaching from that of the Pharisees. Augustine was right to say what he did. But if we wish to mouth his words, then we must also think his thoughts. We must relearn also what he knew about the moral life and the relation between law and love. In short, the problem with appeal to love as an...


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