James F. Keenan S.J.
This article surveys all the contributions in ethics on these pages over the past eighty
years and is divided into four historical parts: the first three years; the years from
1943 to 1964; the years Richard McCormick wrote from 1964 to 1984; and the years
beyond McCormick. It surveys a period from neo-Scholastic manualism at the eve of
World War II to the contemporary era, where methods for attaining moral objectivity
are complex. This survey notes shifts in theological method, the movement of the
center from the personal to the social, the transition from an exclusively clerical
authorship to a much broader array of authors, and a shift in readership from priest
confessors to professional theologians.
The concept of moral discernment is often used to describe the inspired decisionmaking of a conscientious Christian, but Pope Francis uses it relationally in terms of accompaniment and often enough, more broadly than an individual’s choice. Rather, he suggests that bishops and their local churches ought to morally discern how they should settle issues addressing contemporary pastoral challenges. This article argues that in its history, moral discernment was a social practice used in a variety of relational ways to determine a pathway for living out the summons of the gospel.
This article names the three most urgent issues today in ethics: first, climate crisis and its impact on the poor and marginalized; second, the tragic banality of contemporary political leadership; and third, racism and antiblackness. Examining this last injustice reveals our failure in moral agency, for the first two crises derive from the incapacity of the American conscience, which has never acknowledged how racist and privileged our conscience has become. While arguing for conversion, the article also offers ways for imagining a more responsible expression of moral agency to rectify each present moral failure.
The papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia has prompted questions about the way it develops doctrine, prioritizes the Gospel value of mercy, and calls for an accompaniment of and a respect for the discerning consciences of those in “irregular situations.” In their response to these questions, bishops and theologians in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Belgium, South Africa,