Theological Notebook: Sullivan on Moral Development and Magisterial Definitions in Morality
Huh. I'm just going through a part of my interviews last year with Sullivan where he's talking about Judge John Noonan's book A Church That Can And Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. I didn't really think of it at the time, but I actually heard the material of that book in its developmental stage as the (first?) Erasmus Lectures at Notre Dame. Here it's part of an interesting point Sullivan was raising about the Magisterium's (the Teaching Authority of the Catholic Church) ability and caution regarding making moral pronouncements. So it's kind of strange, it seems to me now, to see two educational experiences of mine coming together in this conversation with Sullivan. My raw account of this section goes:
Sullivan says that his understanding of the question of authoritative teaching and morality is that what might be called “revealed teaching” in morality is influenced by our process of reasoning and our experience. In other words, if you take the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” how do we know what that means? Does it mean you cannot kill an animal for food? Or is there no possible justification for killing a human person, as in self-defence or the like? So our understanding has something to do with this being a revealed precept. Some people translate that line as “Thou shalt not murder.” But how do you get from “Thou shalt not kill” to “Thou shalt not commit murder” except by reasoning: on asking “What it is reasonable to understand that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ means?” Through long reflection on that commandment, the Church has come to understand that it forbids the direct taking of innocent human life.
Those specifications are the product of reasoning, and the product of experience. At the present time in the Catholic Church, it seems to Sullivan, we are moving toward a further specification of a traditional understanding that the person who has committed murder may be murdered, that is, executed. That is now under question or largely denied. Why? Because of further reflection and further experience with the consequences of prior understandings. In other words, even the interpretation of basic, revealed moral precepts, like the Ten Commandments, are possible of further understanding. Eventually, some might argue, a specific understanding of such a Commandment can still be called “revealed.” This is a debatable point.
To what extent is it pure revelation anymore? Our moral reasoning is, to a considerable extent, the product of a development of human culture. For example, on the use of torture to get a human being to confess, you can see that the attitude of a great many people is different than what it used to be. The Church itself had in the past allowed and authorized such use of torture with regard to getting people to confess to heresy on the grounds that heresy was like an infection which infect other people and threaten to undermine the stability of society itself. These questions of the concrete determination of what the Moral Law requires involve, Sullivan thinks, to some extent, the development of human culture, which is kind of a further, ongoing humanization of the human species. [My emphasis: I liked his phrasing there.] In other words, we are now sensitive to things people used to take for granted. One of the most obvious examples is slavery. Judge John Noonan just issued a book on the development of the Church’s position on certain moral issues. Part of his book, A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, goes through the history of the Church’s attitude toward slavery. It seems to Sullivan that if you go through that history, you have to conclude that there has been in human culture a growing sensitivity to the demands of human dignity and of human freedom. For most of our history, until very recently, really, there was not a great sensitivity to the inherent injustice of one human person owning another person.
So in any case, the question of magisterial teaching authority on moral issues is very complicated, and raises what Sullivan thinks is the very tricky question of at what point it can be said that the Church’s position on a moral issue is now infallible or could be taught infallibly?