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Moral Theology and Church Responses to Sexual Abuse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Norbert J. Rigali S.J.
University of San Diego
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In the many published reports of the sexual abuse of children by priests in past years there is discernible a common pattern in the inadequate responses of Church authorities to the allegations and evidence of sexual abuse. Since judgment of conscience and moral decision flow from moral discernment, which in turn is based on moral perception, inadequate moral perception renders faulty an entire moral-response process. The moral perception underlying the decisions of Church authorities bearing responsibility in the sexual abuse scandal is seen to be, unfortunately, consonant with the moral perception cultivated in the moral theology in which they were educated.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2007


1 The 27 February 2004 report is on the John Jay College website: (accessed 14 September 2007).

2 Bono, Agostino, “John Jay College Will Conduct Major Clergy Sex Abuse Study,” The Catholic Standard and Times, 24 November 2005, p. 4.Google Scholar

3 Noldin, H., Schmitt, A., and Heinzel, G., Summa Theologiae Moralis, 30th ed., 3 vols. (Innsbruck: Felizian. Rauch, 1952), 1:1.Google Scholar See also, e.g., Hürth, F. and Abellán, P.M., De Principiis, De Virtutibus et Praeceptis: Notae ad praelectiones theologiae moralis. Ad usum privatum auditorum (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 1948), 7Google Scholar: “the theological science of deliberate human acts inasmuch as they are in relation to the ultimate supernatural end to be obtained through the means of salvation”; Jone, Heribert, Moral Theology, 15th ed., trans. Adelman, Urban (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956), 1Google Scholar: “the scientific exposition of human conduct so far as it is directed by reason and faith to the attainment of our supernatural end.” Like other seminary textbooks generally, the moral theology manuals were in Latin. The extremely widely-used Jone compendium appeared originally in German in 1930 and was subsequently translated into many other languages and published in numerous editions of those languages. The translation of Latin text here and elsewhere in this article is my own.

4 McCormick, Richard A., “Moral Theology 1940–1989: An Overview,” in The Historical Development of Fundamental Moral Theology in the United States. Readings in Moral Theology 11, ed. Curran, Charles E. and McCormick, Richard A. (New York: Paulist, 1999), 47.Google Scholar

5 See, e.g., Häring, Bernard, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, 3 vols., trans. Kaiser, Edwin (Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 19631967), I, 333.Google Scholar

6 On the obsoleteness of moral theology see Rigali, Norbert J., “New Horizons in Moral Theology,” in New Horizons in Theology, ed. Tilley, Terrence W. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 4055.Google Scholar

7 Sullivan, Robert, “Faith in Their Father?Time 159/10 (3 March 2002): 5455.Google ScholarPubMed

8 Ripley, Amanda, “In Plain Sight,” Time 159/16 (22 April 2002): 4445.Google Scholar

9 Spohn, William C., Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2003), 92.Google Scholar

10 On 7 June 1985 the National Catholic Reporter published a lengthy report on cases of child abuse by priests in the United States. The report was bipartite: Jones, Arthur, “Legal Actions against Pedophile Priests Grow As Frustrated and Angry Parents Seek Remedies” (46)Google Scholar and Berry, Jason, “Pedophile Priest: Study in Inept Church Response” (6, 1921).Google Scholar Chief researcher for both parts of the report was Berry, Jason, who subsequently expanded and updated it at book-length (Lead Us Not into Temptation [New York: Doubleday, 1992]).Google Scholar

11 Pilarczyk, Daniel, “Painful Pastoral Question: Sexual Abuse of Minors,” Origins 22 (1992): 177–78.Google Scholar

12 Statement by Bishop Donald Wuerl, Diocese of Pittsburgh, 26 February 2004.

13 Statement of Bishop Michael Jarrell on Charges of Sexual Abuse, Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, n.d. (announcing the 27 February 2004 release of the John Jay College statistical study), (accessed 30 May 2007).

14 Report to the People of God: Clergy Sexual Abuse Archdiocese of Los Angeles 1930–2003, 17 February 2004, page i. The report is found at (accessed 16 September 2007).

15 Deposition of Cardinal Bernard Law, Suffolk County Superior Court, Massachusetts, 8 May 2002. (accessed 30 May 2007).

16 Deposition of Cardinal Bernard Law, Suffolk County Superior Court, Massachusetts, 5 June 2002. (accessed 30 May 2007).

17 When the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1969, the word pedophilia was not in its lexicon. Nor was it listed in the revision of the mid-1970s. Only in the third edition, from the early 1990s, did the term finally appear (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969; 2nd college ed., 1976; 3rd ed., 1992). And until the mid-1980s the subject of child abuse was not part of the required training of mental health professionals in the United States; not one question in the national qualifying examinations dealt with the topic (Quinn, John R., “Scandals in the Church: Reflections at Paschaltide,” America 168/12 [10 April 1993]: 5).Google Scholar With regard to child molestation and other compulsive sexual behavior, the late 1970s were still a time when there was insufficient documentation to support the concept of sexual compulsiveness as an addiction and when networks of help programs were not yet available (Carnes, Patrick, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction [Minneapolis: CompCare Publishers, 1983], iGoogle Scholar).

18 Merkelbach, Benedict H., Summa Theologiae Moralis: Ad Mentem D. Thomae et Ad Normam Iuris Novi, 3 vols. (Bruges, Belgium: Desclée de Brouwer, 1954), 1:1112.Google Scholar

19 After the publication of the Code of Canon Law in 1917 some manuals of moral theology note their relation to the code on the title page or even, as in the previous note, as part of the title itself: Summa of Moral Theology: According to the Mind of St. Thomas and to the Norm of the New Code.

20 The original German edition of Häring's The Law of Christ (Das Gesetz Christi) was published in 1954 and went through three printings in its first year. It appeared in French the following year and soon afterward was rendered into thirteen other languages. The first of the three volumes in English appeared shortly after the beginning of Vatican II, in 1963, and the other two volumes soon followed.

21 Decree on the Training of Priests (Optatam totius), art. 16, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Flannery, Austin (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1975), 720.Google Scholar

22 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), art. ll, in Vatican Council II, 363.

23 Noldin, , Schmitt, , and Heinzel, , Summa Theologiae Moralis, 1:42.Google Scholar

24 Ibid., 1:41.

25 Ibid., 1:274–75.

26 Jone, , Moral Theology, 46.Google Scholar See also, e.g., Génicot, Eduardus, Theologiae Moralis Institutiones, 4th ed., 2 vols. (Louvain, Belgium: Polleunis & Ceuterick, 1902), 1:136Google Scholar: “a free transgression of divine law”; Noldin, , Schmitt, , and Heinzel, , Summa Theologiae Moralis, 1:262Google Scholar: “a free transgression of the law of God”; Sabetti, Aloysius and Barrett, Timothy, Compendium Theologiae Moralis, 27th ed. (New York: Frederick Pustet, 1919)Google Scholar: “a free transgression of any law binding in conscience.”

27 Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964).Google Scholar

28 For a masterful discussion of the legalism underlying moral theology, see Curran, Charles E., The Origins of Moral Theology in the United States: Three Different Approaches (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1997).Google Scholar Although this work is concerned mainly with the origins of moral theology in the United States, it places these origins into their context by first discussing the European beginnings and development of moral theology.

29 Merkelbach, , Summa Theologiae Moralis, 1:351.Google Scholar

30 Sabetti, and Barrett, , Compendium Theologiae Moralis, 127.Google Scholar The reference added in the text is Summa theologiae I–II, q. 71, a. 6.

31 Schoonenberg, Piet, “Sin and Guilt,” in Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. Rahner, Karl (New York: Seabury, 1975), 1581.Google Scholar

32 Noldin, , Schmitt, , and Heinzel, , Summa Theologiae Moralis: Complementum: De Castitate, 34th ed. (Innsbruck: Felizian Rauch, 1952).Google Scholar

33 Häring, , The Law of Christ, 3:268–86.Google Scholar

34 For a journalistic account of the commission's work from beginning to end, see McClory, Robert, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission and How “Humanae Vitae” Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church (New York: Crossroad, 1995).Google Scholar It is believed, according to McClory (41), that the pope had an additional reason for establishing the commission: the following year the World Health Organization was to hold its first conference on world population problems, and the pope wanted to be prepared for what might result from the conference.

35 Ibid., 58.

36 For the list of commission members, see ibid., 188–90.

37 For a theological study of the process that ended in the creation of Humanae vitae, see Rigali, Norbert J., “On the Humanae Vitae Process: Ethics of Teaching Morality,” Louvain Studies 23 (1998): 321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 At the 1980 Synod of Bishops Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco proposed that the Holy See initiate a dialogue between the hierarchy and theologians to bring about “a meeting of minds” and an end to “an impasse which is so harmful to the church” (Quinn, John R., “‘New Context’ for Contraception Teaching,” Origins 10 [1980]: 266Google Scholar), but the proposal was not accepted. See also the synod intervention of Archbishop of Cincinnati Joseph Bernardin, “Sexuality and Church Teaching,” ibid., 260–62.

39 In the 1960s the term battered child syndrome became part of the American lexicon (Random House Webster's College Dictionary [New York: Random House, 1997], 113). Prior to the 1970s the term child abuse designated only physical mistreatment, whereas now it refers to physical, emotional, or sexual mistreatment of a child (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, [accessed 14 September 2007]).

40 Bernard Häring, for example, after having participated as a peritus at Vatican II, chose not to revise his earlier comprehensive study of moral theology, The Law of Christ, but instead to rethink moral theology around the main theme of creative freedom and fidelity in Christ and solidarity (Free and Faithful in Christ: Moral Theology for Clergy and Laity, 3 vols. [New York: Seabury Press, 1978–1981], 1:6). In his theology Charles Curran accomplished the transformation by replacing moral theology's deontological ethical model of understanding the Christian life with a “relationality-responsibility model” (Curran, Charles E., Moral Theology: A Continuing Journey [Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982], 4447Google Scholar). The relationality-responsibility model was an adaptation of the responsibility model proposed by Niebuhr, H. Richard (The Responsible Self [New York: Harper & Row, 1963]Google Scholar).

41 Jone, , Moral Theology, 146.Google Scholar When one considers that mortal sin is understood as an act by which a person is forever estranged from God and damned to everlasting punishment, ethical extremism appears blended here with theological extremism.

42 Among recent contributions are Farley, Margaret A., Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2006)Google Scholar; Lawler, Michael G. and Salzman, Todd A., “Quaestio Disputata. Catholic Sexual Ethics: Complementarity and the Truly Human,” Theological Studies 67 (September 2006): 625–52.Google Scholar

43 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Preamble. The charter was approved by the U.S. bishops at their semiannual meeting in June 2002 and is at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, (accessed 16 September 2007).

44 Ibid., Article 5.

45 Ibid., note to Article 1.

46 Ibid., Preamble.

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