A journal of academic theology

March 2002 editorial

Theological Studies has long enjoyed a distinguished reputation for its coverage of contemporary moral theology. Our annual March feature, “Notes on Moral Theology,” has helped keep theologians informed of ethical reflection on a wide variety of topics. In this present issue we include a lengthy overview of moral theology as it is being articulated throughout Latin America. This completes our recent surveys of Christian ethics in various continents: Europe (1998), Asia (2000), and Africa (2001). From the vast lands extending from Mexico to Argentina several features of this month’s survey are notable. One is the strong contribution now being made by women moral theologians in those countries. Another is its strong link to the notion of solidarity. From my own personal observation across the United States and Canada, I have regrettably discovered that many libraries in universities and divinity schools still do not subscribe to some of the major Latin American journals of theology nor do their acquisition lists include many monographs published in the southern part of our hemisphere. This reflects our continuing parochial and Eurocentric focus.

Sadly the international theological community has lost yet another giant in Catholic ethical thought. Since our last issue, on December 19, 2001, the beloved professor emeritus of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Louis Janssens, departed this life at the age of 93. Still mentally alert and in contact with his colleagues and former students up to the end, he maintained a passionate interest in Catholic moral theology. For theologians of my generation, he, along with the late Bernard Hring and Richard McCormick, was a role model for his dedication to thorough research, reflective discernment, and forthright dialogue with the papal and episcopal magisterium.

Janssens was born in the Flemish region of Belgium on July 23, 1908. He entered the seminary of Mechelen-Brussels in 1928 and was ordained in 1934. He matriculated as a doctoral student in the Faculty of Theology at Louvain in 1933, and completed his doctorate in 1937. His original area of specialization was patristics; his dissertation was entitled: La filiation divine par grâce d’apres saint Cyrille d’Alexandrie.

With this solid foundation in Christology and soteriology, he subsequently enrolled for post-doctoral studies, at the urging of Cardinal Jozef Ernest van Roey, who recommended that he study various political theories describing the relationship between persons and society. In 1939 he published the results of his research as Personne et socit: Thories actuelles et essai doctrinal. His specialization moved more toward moral theology as he studied rival social doctrines in which the human person is defined in a positive way and taken as the point of departure for all societal relations. According to one of his protgs, Professor Jan Jans, his originality was rooted in the way he combined the insights of both French and German strains of personalistic thought. He blended systems from philosophers such as Max Scheler, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Jacques Maritain, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Mounier.

After teaching at the Mechelen seminary from 1939 to 1942 during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, he became a full-time professor at Leuven in 1942. There he lectured first in dogmatic theology and from 1945 until his retirement in 1978 he concentrated on moral theology. He collaborated also with the Faculty of Medicine until 1974 where his association with M.D.s helped shape his understanding of medical-moral issues. He was in dialogue with the traditional theology of the manual tradition and the theology of Thomas Aquinas. However, he read St. Thomas not through the lens of neo-Scholasticism but directly from the original texts. Janssenss personalist theology drew him ineluctably into themes related to the Church in the modern world. He contributed especially to a enrichment of the Catholic teaching on marriage, the family, and human sexuality. Basing his thought on historical studies, he articulated a personalist theology of marriage and situated the regulation of fertility and the use of chemical contraceptives in a wider ethical context as early as 1958 and 1963. His views on this were even featured in Time.

Although not an official peritus at Vatican II he contributed to the formulation of the councils Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Cardinal Leon Suenens enlisted his help in the sketching and reworking of various drafts of what eventually became Gaudium et spes. He was also a major influence on the formulation of Vatican IIs Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae. According to Jerome Hamer and Bishop Emiel-Josef de Smedt of Bruges, Janssens was the author of the so-called Document of Fribourg which was a crucial version of the preliminary text. One of its phrases, The intangible dignity of the human person determines the positive content of tolerance, effectively echoes the thrust of Janssenss thought in one of his books translated into English as Freedom of Conscience and Religious Freedom (1966). According to his late Flemish colleague, Piet Fransen, S.J., Janssens was also the originator of the concept of fundamental option, the term widely used in todays moral theology.

For his 80th birthday, a Festschrift entitled Personalist Morals was edited and published in 1988 by Professor Joseph Selling, the American professor of ethics who was then chairperson of the Department of Moral Theology at Leuven. More recently, Dr. Dolores L. Christie, Executive Secretary of the Catholic Theological Society of America, published a comprehensive study: Adequately Considered: An American Perspective on Louis Janssens Personalist Morals (1990).

Janssenss legacy will live on not merely in his numerous books and articles but in the memory of his tireless encouragement and support he offered to so many professors, bishops, and students from a wide spectrum of nations.

Finally, Theological Studies welcomes a new editorial consultant to its roster, Dr. Maureen A. Tilley, University of Dayton.

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