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Posted April 6, 2004

Book: A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology
Author: James T. Bretzke
Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, pp. 248

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

“A Morally Complex World” covers the methodology of moral theology; basic concepts such as conscience and moral agency; natural law and moral norms; how the Bible can be used in Christian ethics; how to dialogue on contested ethical issues; how to consider sin and moral failure; and how to mediate moral principles and moral teaching in a pastorally sensitive manner in concrete life situations.

An Excerpt from the Book:

I suspect that what we really need is a recovery of sin — not in the sense that we further its practice, but that we regain the awareness that sin is something that struggles to exert its sovereignty over us. As British Church historian Norman Tanner puts it, a weakness of our contemporary society, “fueled by the media and consumer advertising, is that people are cajoled into believing that they can, and therefore to some extent should, do everything. [This] . . . .has led to a too great emphasis on attaining perfection by personal striving; people all too easily give up completely if they cannot achieve everything — an all or nothing mentality that especially in recent years has had a sad consequence upon Catholics lapsing unnecessarily from the practice of their religion.” One side effect of this effort to avoid confronting real sin and failure in our lives is to look at the world in such a way as to divide it into two classes of good and bad. Of course, we locate ourselves firmly in the former, while placing in the latter all those with we have difficulty. “The neo-Nazis, the racists, the anti-feminists, the polluters of the environment, they are all he unworthies. We are O.K. because we are not like them (at least not like the particular group that happens to be centre-stage at the time) and would never dream of having such base instincts.”

While Tanner suggests as a remedy a return to a medieval conception of sin, I think we need to go back even earlier — right to the time of Jesus and Paul, who remind us that “God saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” If w can really believe this message, then we will be in a better position to recover the true relation of sin and grace, and find true liberation from sin. We will achieve this not by somehow remaking ourselves into clones of the Immaculate Conception, but by accepting the freely given offer of true life which we must live out in the process of the original meaning of confession, namely, first an awareness and then praise of God’s love and mercy, which then gives us the strength to admit our sins and failings. This admission though is never the last word, just the next word. After this confession we are energized by this grace to take up the lifelong process of conversion.

Table of Contents:

1. Mapping a moral methodology

2. The natural law and moral norms: moving along the rational claim axis

3. Scripture and ethics: moving along the sacred claim axis

4. The sanctuary of conscience: where the axes intersect

5. Modes of moral discourse: navigating towards a common ground

6. Navigating in the morally complex world: casuistry with a human face

7. Sin and failure in a morally complex world