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This work lucidly and attractively draws together the main elements in the renewal of Catholic ethics which has been taking place during the past thirty years. It provides an excellent guide to the field as well as a persuasive account and defence of a distinctive Catholic approach to morality.

Petroc Willey, STL, PhD, Dean of Graduate Research, Maryvale Institute

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Review by Tim Matthews

A life-line

In this book Father Bristow, an Opus Dei priest who teaches Christian ethics at the Maryvale Institute, throws a lifeline to all of us in danger of sinking in the quick-sands of relativism.

In clear, lucid language he presents an account of Catholic moral thought as presented by Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the great encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae.

He first lays out the fundamental principles of ethics, then examines areas of controversy brought about by moral revisionism. He then examines biblical ethics, tackling questions such as the issues of gender, bio-ethics and marriage.

Why, he asks, does the Church find such infertile ground for its teaching in the West?

Much of the general answer revolves around the issue of freedom, which for many stands alone as the value constituting their end and purpose and is conceived as a moral autonomy, giving them the right to define 'the meaning and mysteries of life'.

The author pays tribute throughout the book to the thought of Pope John Paul II,

Outstanding for its convincing response to modern relativism, based on his incisive account of human action and the resulting principle many times repeated that freedom cannot be separated from truth.

In the separation between freedom, truth and goodness, Wojtyla saw the reasons for moral relativism and the source of many of the personal and social crises of the present time. All the moral problems can be traced in one way or another to this separation . . . Our task then is to explain the principles of Christian ethics . . . clarifying as much as possible the confusion they have fallen into in some quarters and the reasons for it. The basic principles depend on moral truth, or natural law, which, as will become clear, depends on, and is embedded in, practical reason which contains and reflects the self-evident forms of human good which lead, via intermediate principles, to moral norms..

Relativism, which characterises contemporary society, makes every man in his own church and means that, in the end, morality becomes a matter of opinion. It considers all religion to be a myth, a position which goes against the whole history of Christian and Greek thought. This a challenges to the Church, a spur to the renewal of moral theology. Without truth, the principle of contradiction goes by the board, but in Christian ethics reason furnishes us with basic moral principles which are universally applicable.

(Here, significantly, one of the final chapters in the book is entitled Humanae Vitae: A Test Case for Christian Ethics, the sub-headings of which help illustrate the story:

The truth of the person and conjugal love

The personalist argument against contraception

Is the Church's doctrine unrealistic?

The role of continence and self mastery

Why is Natural Family Planning permitted?).


Evangelisation, Bristow concludes, is as old as the Gospel, but contemporary experience teaches that it is in the countries of long Christian tradition that a new catechesis in the Faith and moral principles is required.

While John Paul II clearly links the new evangelization to the proclamation of Faith he also applies it in a special way to morality. He speaks of peoples and communities once rich in faith and Christian life that have become de-christianized, through loss of faith, or its apparent irrelevance for them, and also a decline and obscuring of the moral sense. This comes about through a loss of awareness of the originality of Christian morality and an eclipse of fundamental principles and ethical values themselves. The new evangelization will show its authenticity by proclaiming the truth of faith, "and even more so in presenting the foundations and content of Christian morality", not only "by the word proclaimed but also by the word lived, through a life of holiness." This message, he says, must be "new in its ardour, methods and expression . . ."

What Christian ethics and faith give to rational ethics, or rather to reason itself, is the confidence that there is an underlying truth that is permanent.

[CF News]1591.25

The following link provides the original review which is reproduced with permission.

http://www.cfnews.org.uk/CF_News_1591.htm#25

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Dr Pravin Thevathasan's home page


Review by Pravin Thevathasan


The aim of this splendid work is to synthesize traditional Catholic moral teaching with the teachings of the second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and especially with the personalism of Pope John Paul. It thus takes into account the Thomistic roots of natural law, virtue ethics and the final good of the person without ignoring the post-Enlightenment concerns for the human subject. The author rightly believes that this updating of moral thinking is required in order to combat today's questions with regard to autonomy, sexual ethics and bioethics. As such, it is a work of great value for all healthcare workers.

The author is surely correct in believing that current moral thinking requires this updating: without a sound anthropology, Christian teaching would not be able to sufficiently deal with issues of sexual ethics, gender, marriage, homosexuality and bio-ethical issues in general. There is a vital need to explain the content of moral thinking, not merely to proclaim it. Christian moral teaching has a compelling attractiveness that enables us to grow as human persons: authentic freedom does not constrain us. In contrast, a secular understanding of freedom imprisons us in our own subjectivism and leads to relativism.


A personalistic understanding of the human person maintains that man is an end in himself and never a means to an end. Compare this to the widespread Utilitarian ethic found in so much ethical thinking at present. The human person is in, a certain sense, sovereign. However, this does not mean that autonomy is an absolute principle. Indeed we are obliged to follow objectives that do not threaten the common good. A person has no right to an assisted suicide, for instance. This is an entirely false understanding of moral autonomy.


The author contents that there is a need to look at the human person both subjectively and objectively. Pope John Paul's discourse on the theology of the body was a systematic attempt at teaching the theological meaning and purpose of the body as an integral part of the image of God. It gives a foundation for our understanding of the sanctity of human life and of the body: embryonic human life cannot be destroyed for purposes of presumed medical benefits to the wider community, for instance.
From the sixties, the secular world has adopted the ultimately lethal slogan: "
a free society is a civilized society." At the same time, Catholic ethics has sought to re-present its own tradition of natural law, freedom and the sources of morality. Natural law needed to be freed from physicalist and biologistic interpretations without in any way compromising traditional Catholic norms.

The voluntarism that goes back to the thirteenth century and which gives precedence to the human will over the intellect has led to the moral relativism of our times both outside and inside the Church. The author's critique of proportionalism and consequentialism is excellent. He notes that dissent within the church often represents a compromise with moral relativism.

In this work, the author has proved his case: an authentic renewal of Catholic moral thinking requires a hermeneutic of continuity with the past. The consequentialism to be found in so many Catholic writings are a rupture with the past. In striking contrast, here we have a person centred approach to Thomistic ethics that does not in any way fall into the error of relativism.

Pravin Thevathasan

Secretary, Worcester Branch CMA (UK)


This review first appeared in the Feb 2010 issue of the Catholic Medical Quarterly and is reproduced with permission.


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This version: 8th November 2010

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