Linda Hogan Book Review: Applied Ethics in a World Church

There is more to the Catholic Church than sex abuse scandals.

imageAlthough that is a rather obvious point, in contemporary Ireland, it’s a fact that could quite easily get overlooked. Of course Catholics and other concerned citizens are right to criticise the Catholic Church and its failings in the Irish context. But a recent book edited by Prof. Linda Hogan, Applied Ethics in a World Church: the Padua Conference (Orbis, 2008), is a timely reminder not only of the global scope of Catholicism, but also of a spirit of critical enquiry that is informing new ethical developments among Catholic theologians.

Prof. Hogan is Head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. Her edited volume is based on a conference that drew more than 400 Catholic moral theologians to Padua, Italy in 2006, to participate in what she calls ‘the first international, cross-cultural conversation on theological ethics’ (p.1). The book, which has won the prestigious Catholic Book Award from the Catholic Press Association of the USA and Canada, features 30 chapters by a genuinely international panel of scholars.

This is a book of applied ethics. This means that the theologians who crafted the chapters are firmly rooted in ‘real world’ concerns and the ethical challenges of our highly unequal, globalised economic, political and social systems.

Hogan introduces the volume by identifying key challenges in the contemporary world. This sets the stage for Catholic thought to contribute to wider debates. To that end, the book is divided into seven parts:

  • Globalisation, Justice & Environment
  • Gender
  • War & Peace
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Bioethics and Social Justice
  • Sexuality & Marriage
  • Challenges to Method in Moral Theology

Although I also work in the Irish School of Ecumenics, I am a social scientist – not a theologian. That means I read these chapters as a social scientist that is quite interested in theology, and has the pleasure of working in a multidisciplinary school with theologians.

The chapters are short, as is often the case in edited volumes, providing a tempting taste of what readers might find if they were to investigate the work of the individual scholars. This might leave some readers thirsting for more depth.

On the other hand, each chapter serves as a succinct overview of a particular ethical challenge that is useful for those wanting a broad overview of the diversity of Catholic thought on a variety of topics. They are clearly written so that someone without theological training – like myself or other interested laypeople – can grasp the main arguments and ideas.

For me the most interesting chapters are those that critique current official Catholic teaching on a particular issue, and then offer suggestions and resources for pushing Catholic theology in different directions. Hogan points out that the ability of theologians to do this is also part of a long Catholic tradition. She writes of the Padua conference,

‘Not only were the ethical challenges parsed and analysed, but the discussions also focused on the role of the church’s moral tradition, both as a voice of protest and prophetic insight.’

A voice of protest and prophetic insight. Some of my favourite examples of this in the book are:

Johan Verstraeten’s chapter, ‘A Ringing Endorsement of Capitalism? The Influence of the Neo-Liberal Agenda on Official Catholic Social Teaching.’

He critiques the influence accorded to a US-based lay pressure group with links to the American Enterprise Institute. He sees the undue prominence of this group as part of a wider problem in which the Catholic Church has grown too enamoured of market capitalism, and has subordinated achieving substantial economic justice to ‘a discourse on love and solidarity defined as social love’ (p. 54).

Emmanuel Katongole’s chapter, ‘AIDS, Africa and the Age of Miraculous Medicine: Naming the Silences.’

Katongole argues that policies that attempt to eradicate AIDS in Africa solely through medication are fundamentally flawed – and not just because in many cases the continent lacks the infrastructure and resources to distribute the drugs. He also recounts how ‘biological individualism’ has undermined Africans’ more holistic understanding of health, claiming

‘Christian theology and ethics need to recover the positive aspects of African culture as a way to resist the biological individualism inherent within modern medicine. … Christian theology and ethics must give visible accounts of this holistic sense of well-being or flourishing. Doing so will not only reconnect discussions about HIV/AIDS in Africa with the story of God; it will also reinvigorate discussions about the meaning and value of human life, friendship, marriage sexuality, fidelity and chastity within the church and its vision for God’s new creation.’ (p. 142)

Michael J. Hartwig’s chapter, ‘The Use of Sociological Studies to Confirm or Critique Roman Catholic Sexual Ethics.’

Hartwig presents data about child development, family health and function, and personality development. The data provides evidence that there are not significant differences between the health of steady homosexual and heterosexual relationships, or the health of children raised by homosexual couples and those raised by heterosexual couples. Calling on the Catholic tradition of using ‘reason’ to inform theology, he says that the Church,

‘cannot claim that their teachings are confirmed or supported by the natural sciences. But to insist that the teachings remain valid without support of the natural sciences would, of course, consist in a betrayal of catholic moral methodology that relies on human reason as part of what grounds authority’ (p. 257-258).

This book has plenty of material to provoke discussion at all levels of the Catholic Church, as well as within different branches of Christianity and perhaps even other religions. It showcases the kind of Catholic perspectives that may not be grabbing the headlines today, but could contribute constructively to a range of global debates.

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