Reviews Page 2
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
Review by Tim Matthews
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
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
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.
The following link provides the original review which is reproduced with permission.
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.
Secretary, Worcester Branch CMA (UK)
This review first appeared in the Feb 2010 issue of the Catholic Medical
Quarterly and is reproduced with permission.
Reviews Page 1
This version: 8th November 2010