Can the Catholic Church change moral theology? Examples please

Maybe that is a major topic of this forum. I generally don’t review this forum, as I do others.

But, what I’m writing about here, an apparent change in moral theology, is something that some other members of this forum can illustrate.

What I’m referring to is an example given in Charles Rice’s book “50 Questions on the Natural Law: What it is & why we need it” Rice is a professor of law at Notre Dame U.

On the one side of the argument he pits St. Thomas Aquinas who provided a defense of capital punishment, in his Summa Contra Gentiles. On the other side he pits St. John Paul II who says in Evangelium Vita [the gospel of life] that the death penalty is rarely justified, if ever, as a means of controlling the prisoner.

So, this is monk versus pope, saint versus saint. One saint trumping another, 7 or 8 centuries later.

It seems like our understanding does change with time. JPII is not negating Aquinas so much as saying the circumstances surrounding our penal systems and the use or need for capital punishment have changed since Aquinas’ time.

Slavery comes to mind as well. Accepted in St. Paul’s time, unconscionable today.

But I would like to think we that are also with time moving toward compassion and away from a more barbaric past, and our understanding of applied moral theology should reflect this.

I’ll give it a shot. My understanding is that capital punishment is acceptable if no other reasonable means of preventing the person from doing further serious harm to society or others exists. So centuries ago it is not unreasonable to deduce such a situation would come to pass much more frequently than it does today as organization and infrastructure were much less advanced, since today however the case is that we can handle such people without resorting to capital punishment we are morally obligated to avoid it.

This also contains some useful information on this:

It’s monk versus Pope and Pope wins.

Since the death penalty and its application is a matter of prudential judgement and is not intrinsically evil or good, it is not necessary for one or the other to “win”, because they are both correct in applying Catholic moral principles to the question.

It has been argued that the Catholic Church has changed its position on capital punishment, burning heretics alive at the stake, slavery, torture to extract confessions, women wearing headcovering in Church, women serving at the altar, guitar and other profane music during Mass, clapping and talking in Church, dancing during Mass, and abstaining from meat on Fridays.

And it has been tirelessly pointed out that many of those examples you give are discipline, not doctrine, and therefore the field of moral theology need not apply. Red herring alert!

Is it a red herring to advocate burning of heretics at the stake or to enslave young African women? I don’t see why this would be a red herring. Also, I don’t see why capital punishment is a red herring.
The thread concerned the changes in moral theology and I tried to give some examples that have been argued by others. Can you explain why this would be a red herring?

You listed *several *examples. Doubling your list by adding matters of discipline is disingenuous at best.

The way I read the comment the poster was setting it up as both men established Church teachings on this matter and if that is the case the man in the chair of St. Peter wins. One said X and then another said Y about the death penalty so Catholic moral theology must have changed" would be underlying argument that I saw in the comment. I actually hold your view above that both men are right because neither is changing the moral theology of the Church. I believe St. John Paul the Great was speaking specifically about using the death penalty as a means of controlling the prisoner (as in it’s either execute him or let him go/place him in a prison that really can’t be guaranteed to keep him in it) which isn’t necessary now in the West due to our ability to house prisoners humanely and safely for life.

Curcumstances have changed, not the teaching.

burning heretics alive at the stake,

To a Christian nation, people attempting to lead other souls to Hell are worse than murderers. They are given numerous chances to repent and to stop preaching, ETA: which is the main problem for which they are convicted. end edit


Again, different circumstances.

torture to extract confessions,

So the criminal could die in a state of grace.

women wearing headcovering in Church,


women serving at the altar,


guitar and other profane music during Mass,


clapping and talking in Church,


dancing during Mass,

Discipline (and in accord with previous practice if carried out properly, which is *not *to have lightly-clad women sinuously meandering down the aisle)

and abstaining from meat on Fridays.


So there are circumstances under which the white male European colonial slavemaster can morally enslave young African women and young American Indian women? Can you tell us why circumstances should determine the morality of enslaving these innocent young women of color?

It was precisely this type of slavery–chattel slavery–which the Church condemned.

In early Church history and before, much of slavery was related to debts or prisoners of war. People sold themselves or (sadly) family members as a result of debt–it was an exchange of future labor for current debt reduction. Among the Jews, debt and states of slavery were to be dissolved every 7 years. Prisoners of war… well, the other alternative was to kill them–they didn’t have POW camps back then.

Chattel slavery of the type you describe was Big Business. African tribes sold their POWs or kidnap victims to Moslem traders who sold them to traveling Europeans. And in fact, Christians today are still being kidnapped and sold into slavery by Moslems, as Islam accepts slavery.

I thought that history shows that Catholic priests held black slaves in the USA and that the colonial Spanish missionaries held American Indian slaves? This was done openly, and was anyone ever excommunicated for holding a black slave? Actually, weren’t some Spanish missionary clergy beatified in spite of reports that American Indians were mistreated?
The questions was to give examples where morality has changed. I would say that one example is torture.
Today all torture is said to be morally wrong.
In the past, torture was accepted, at least some forms of torture according to the circumstances.

The Church did not clearly condemn all forms of all slavery against all people all at once… it was gradual. So on the one hand, there were Catholics who had slaves who were not going against what had been previously stated. On the other hand, there were Catholics who did go against what had been clearly stated, just as today there are Catholics who do not always follow Church teaching.

The questions was to give examples where morality has changed. I would say that one example is torture.
Today all torture is said to be morally wrong.
In the past, torture was accepted, at least some forms of torture according to the circumstances.

I don’t know that much about torture, so can’t really answer your question here. But one if the things one learns is that the Church teaches general principles and it takes a long time before Church teaching sorts out the particulars. At a time when everyone seems to either have or be a slave, when the line between being a slave and being a seevant is not all that well-defined, when those now considered enslaved were at the time making an exchange for protection, etc., it was difficult to determine the boundaries of what was permissable and what was not.

So one could say Church teaching develops as a result of seeing more of what is not permissible. For example, it is clearly sinful to kill one’s slave. The early Christians were obviously not in a position to do much about the laws regarding that, and even later, Catholic monarchs didn’t have that much power or resources for enforcement so as to be able to prohibit all forms of slavery.

So it went little by little. The Church taught overtly from the beginning that slaves shoudl he treated as brothers, so those who mistreated their slaves would be sinning, bit the economies generally included slavery in a way that we are unfamiliar with now. Women particularly who did not have male relatives who would protect them were extremely vulnerable, so to bind themselves to a household was actually a great boon for them altho we regard the situation through the understanding of the type of slavery we had in the US and so any form of slavery is repugnant to us.

According to the New Catholic encyclopedia (green books) under the article on torture, Pope Innocent IV approved torture to extract confessions of those suspected of heresy, under certain restricted conditions. The papal bull Ad Extirpanda is often cited as the go ahead for methods used in the Spanish Inquisition. However, recent popes have come out strongly against torture.

Another example of changing morality was the issue of gambling.

The present Catechism approves gambling, but this was forbidden until after the Council of Trent. Check the somewhat lengthy argument at under gambling for details.

In that case, some theologians seem to have pencil-whipped the long-standing prohibitions and condemnations, referring the specific decisions to the local bishop for resolution. Well, who ever hears the local bishop sending out notices of what gambling is or is not allowed? The whole ball was not just dropped, but thrown away. According to the CCC, it’s a matter of individual judgment – which is an interesting spin all by itself. How often does anything like THAT happen that the Church says, use your discretion? Certainly not with abortion, contraception, adultery, etc.

What’s the difference between Canon Law and the CCC? Finding the answer to that will help you understand the error in your thinking.

I would frame this whole discussion thusly:

The answers to particular questions tend to be sharpened over time.

I think it would greatly help theoretical discussions of morality if we keep that line in mind.

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