Moral theology, as the name implies, is a branch of theology or of theological science. 

Moral theology in traditional outlines of the whole field of theology is part of systematic theology.  Systematic theology has two main parts, dogmatic theology and moral theology.  These two parts are complementary and related, with dogmatic theology having priority and conditioning moral theology. 

Dogmatic theology is concerned with creation’s exitus, its coming forth from God.  Dogmatic theology is about God and his works.  As such dogmatic theology is concerned with God and the nature of his created and recreated worlds.  The scope of dogmatic theology embraces the doctrine of God, the Trinity, creation, the nature of humanity (Christian anthropology), sin and the fall, the incarnation of and redemption of creation by Christ, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and eschatology.  Most simply, dogmatic theology is about God and the creation and redemption of the world.

Moral theology is primarily about the human response to God, the reditus or return of mankind to God.  Moral theology is always dependent upon and conditioned by what dogmatic theology teaches about God and his work.  Moral theology is dependent on dogmatic theology.  Moral theology is always secondary to the more fundamental and primary reality of God and his work.  How one understands God and his work always decisively shapes understanding of human being and human action. 

Moral theology in turn traditionally is divided into two main divisions:  fundamental moral theology and special moral theology.  Fundamental moral theology deals with such theoretical and basic matters as the nature of the moral agent, the nature and elements of moral acts, the objective and subjective norms that properly govern moral acts, virtue, and defective moral acts.  Some of the subjects of fundamental moral theology are themselves very broad and important:  conscience (a subjective norm governing the decisions of moral agents), law (an objective norm), virtues and moral character, and so forth. 

Special moral theology assumes the fundamental elements of moral theology as outlined by fundamental moral theology and then applies those fundamentals to particular (or ‘special’) moral issues or categories of moral problems.  If moral theology studies the human response to God’s creative and redemptive initiative (as outlined by dogmatic theology), then special moral theology categorizes broad areas of human life and being that involve and shape important human moral choices.  Perhaps the three most significant sets of such broad categories concern life and death issues; human sex, sexuality, and reproduction; and, issues concerning the relationship of individuals to larger human society. 

Again, each of these categories of special interest and issues is very broad and important.  Life and death issues include abortion, murder, suicide, capital punishment, war, and euthanasia and letting die. 

Human sex and sexuality include the bifurcated sexual nature of every human being as either male or female in a world of males and females; the physical, personal and social purposes and ends of sex, sexual desire, and sexual acts; the family; and normal and abnormal sexuality.

Issues concerning the relationship of individuals to larger human society include the social nature of human beings insofar as it reaches beyond the family; government and regime form; the economy and individual participation therein; politics, citizenship, and the duties of citizens; and cases in which social and political obligations or demands are in tension with the obligations, demands, and rights that adhere to individuals, families, and private organizations. 

Finally, it might be useful to note the distinction between morality and ethics.  The two terms are often treated as synonyms.  Nonetheless, a distinction between the two is appropriate.  ‘Ethics’ may be defined as the ideas of right and wrong within a particular community.  As the related word ‘ethos’ suggests, ethics express a group’s characteristic beliefs about behavior, virtue, the good, and law.  ‘Morality’, in contrast, is less a matter of the shared ethos of a particular group and more a matter of the particular person.  The distinction is expressed by saying, for example, that ‘John’s morality is a typical expression of the ethics of 21st century America.’

One thought on “A Brief Note on the Meaning and Scope of Moral Theology

  1. I tend to think about ethics more from an Aristotelian casuist point of view, combined with natural law and virtue ethics. While Abelard was wrong on motive alone determining the goodness or badness of an act, his moderation of some extreme Augustinian views on morality was a positive move. Refreshing, really.


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