Five Questions with James T. Bretzke on Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms

Publication Year: 2013


John J. Fitzgerald: What was your inspiration for this project?

James T. Bretzke, S.J.: Like another book of mine (Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary, 3rd edition, Liturgical Press, 1997, 2013) the original inspiration for this book was pedagogical—i.e., I began to collect various moral terms in the tradition that I wished my students to master, as well as to have more readily available as a reference resource. Years ago, while teaching at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome I became acquainted with the 1955 work of (later Cardinal) Pietro Palazzini et al., translated and published in English on the eve of Vatican II as Dictionary of Moral Theology (London: Burns & Oates, 1962). It was a large encyclopedic work and quite comprehensive for its day. It remains useful as a historical resource, but it is long out of print, and the developments of Vatican II (1962-1965) as well as the many other changes both within and outside of the Church made the work no longer reliable as a contemporary reference work in Roman Catholic moral theology. Other ecumenical or Protestant dictionaries of Christian ethics did exist in English, but these really did not include a good deal of the Roman Catholic moral tradition that students, priests, pastoral ministers, or the Catholic laity would find helpful or accessible. So I continued to work on my own “glossary” of Roman Catholic moral terms and included a short form of this as an appendix in my A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology (Liturgical Press, 2004).

In the academic year of 2011-12 I was granted a regular sabbatical, and shortly after that sabbatical commenced, I was contacted by Richard Brown, the editor of Georgetown University Press. They were planning a series of short vade mecum type reference works for students on “terms” in various theological disciplines. They had already published one in bioethics and approached me to do a similar work for moral theological terms. I agreed that this was both a worthy and do-able project, and so I shelved the other project I had intended to do on my sabbatical and undertook the completion of this project instead, since I had long become convinced of its need and ability to fill what had long been a gaping hole in the reference section of the discipline of moral theology.

How did you decide what topics (and thinkers) to include and exclude?

The original project envisioned by Georgetown Press aimed at a relatively brief work giving short and simple definitions of basic moral terms such as “casuistry” and “intrinsic evil.” I initially shared that vision as well, but as my research and writing progressed I gradually became convinced that a limited project such as that ultimately would not adequately meet the real needs of a handbook or dictionary of Roman Catholic moral terms. I entered into dialogue with the editors of Georgetown Press, and they agreed to a larger scope (which actually was expanded two more times before eventual publication). I compiled an initial list of projected terms to include and circulated that among some established colleagues in the profession. As might be anticipated, no one recommended omitting any of my terms, but did suggest a few others to include.

As I began to do the writing and to include cross-references this list grew even larger. At one point I had probably nearly a thousand project entries, and it became clear to me that the list would have to be shortened if I hoped to complete the manuscript within the word-count and time-line stipulated in my contract. I had to jettison the tempting idea of having my work serve as a de facto “history” of the development of moral theology, and so I did not include many historical authors or themes, or if I did so, I kept these entries relatively brief. As a further “exclusion” principle I decided to omit most (but not all) Protestant authors, reasoning that these individuals could be found easily enough in other reference works. I also initially decided to exclude all living Catholic authors, unless a particular author’s work had occasioned some important developments in interaction with the Holy See. Thus, I decided to include someone like Charles Curran. As the manuscript progressed some of the referees strongly encouraged inclusion of other living authors as well, and I agreed to this amplification—especially since the editors also agreed to expand yet again the word-count limit of my manuscript.

After publication, were there any items you wished you had included but didn’t?

The final manuscript was submitted in August 2012—well before Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation the following February. The galley proofs were being set just a few weeks after the election of Pope Francis, and so the editors asked me for a brief entry on the new pontiff, which I did supply. However, so much has happened since with this pontificate that will continue to impact the development of moral theology and pastoral practice that I should like to have been able to include. Looking back I see now that I have no stand-alone entry for “Mercy” and certainly if I were composing the Handbook today that is one term that would demand a fairly involved entry. While there is an entry for “Synod of Bishops,” the events of the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the forthcoming October 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family would merit additional entries and amplification of existing cross-references (e.g., in terms of sacraments, divorce, dissolution of marriage).

Why should the general public be interested in this work?

While my book would not normally be read from cover to cover by anyone other than a scholarly reviewer, I do believe the individual entries cover a wide area of life in both the Church and the world today, and I think most any educated person interested in ethics or theology would find profit in consulting my Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms for clarification or elucidation on many of these terms. As I indicated above, this book cannot serve as a “history” of the development of moral theology, but many entries will give a brief history of the term if this is appropriate. I think one of the “take-aways” of my book would be the awareness that both in the past as well as in the present the Church’s teachings on moral matters is far more nuanced and complex than is readily assumed. In this sense knowledge leads to greater pastoral precision and compassion in what Pope Francis does call for in the ministry of healing in the Church and world today.

What is the one question that you wish someone would ask you about your work, and how would you answer?

Probably the one question that no one entry treats sufficiently is how moral theology has both remained the same and has changed in the last two thousand years. Semper idem (always the same) was the episcopal motto of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the ultra-conservative who ran from 1959 to 1966 the “Sant’Uffizio” or “Holy Office,” whose formal title was Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). He fiercely resisted many of the changes of Vatican II and was instrumental in keeping Pope Paul VI from changing the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control in the latter’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae vitae (which has the longest entry in my book!). There is a deeply entrenched misconception in the minds of many that morality and especially the natural law is unchangeable just as mathematics and the laws of nature are immutable. History shows us clearly enough, though, that the opposite is true. One aspect of the human nature is that we are historical beings who can live only in time and space. This means that so many of the key factors of our earthly existence are in a state of continual change, and thus to remain “constant” in our ethical principles requires that we engage in an ongoing discernment of the “signs of the times”—always taking care to differentiate these from giving into the more tempting Zeitgeist of spirit of the age. Semper idem though only provides a false answer and therefore an unreliable guide to navigating our morally complex world in a responsible and prudent manner.

James T. Bretzke

About James T. Bretzke

Rev. James T. Bretzke, S.J., S.T.D., is Professor of Moral Theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He both did his doctorate in moral theology and taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome where he also served as a consultant to several Vatican offices. Beside Boston College he has also taught in Jesuit institutions in Seoul, Korea and Manila, Philippines, as well as in Berkeley and San Francisco. Fr. Bretzke has authored over 90 scholarly articles and reviews and seven books, is a frequent “go-to” person for the local, national, and international media on local, national on Church matters.

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John J. Fitzgerald

About John J. Fitzgerald

John J. Fitzgerald is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University, New York. His areas of interest include fundamental moral theology, health care ethics, comparative ethics, and law and religion. He is currently working on his first book, The Seductiveness of Virtue: Abraham Joshua Heschel and John Paul II on Morality and Personal Fulfillment (T&T Clark), and co-editing another manuscript, Treating the Person: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the Body in Medicine.

John J. Fitzgerald

John J. Fitzgerald

John J. Fitzgerald is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University, New York. His areas of interest include fundamental moral theology, health care ethics, comparative ethics, and law and religion. He is currently working on his first book, The Seductiveness of Virtue: Abraham Joshua Heschel and John Paul II on Morality and Personal Fulfillment (T&T Clark), and co-editing another manuscript, Treating the Person: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the Body in Medicine.

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