Balthasar’s experimental faith-ethic: The Nine Propositions in the aftermath of Vatican II
Orton, Christopher Charles
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This thesis locates, introduces and interprets Hans Urs von Balthasar’s short text Nine Propositions on Christian Ethics (1974). The text is commended to the contemporary reader as a substantial Catholic contribution to the discipline of Christian ethics or moral theology. It is particularly interesting in its theological treatment of biblical and moral law. The first chapter identifies some of the factors pressing on the discipline of Catholic moral theology in the decade before Balthasar’s text. First, the 1960s saw the popular rejection by clergy and laity of the neo-Scholastic manuals of moral theology. Second, Vatican II instructed theologians to integrate moral and ascetical theology and endorsed the emerging ‘Christological shift’ in moral theology. Third, Paul VI rejected the official report of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth (1966) in his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae. This latter controversy disrupted attempts by moral theologians to reach a consensus in their interpretation of the council. The chapter also provides an interpretation of the teaching of the council on moral theology grounded in detailed exegesis of key conciliar texts. It concludes by discussing Josef Fuchs’ influential interpretation of the council which attempts to reconcile the Christological shift in moral theology with natural law. Fuchs’ work remains an influential interpretation of the council for English language moral theologians. The second chapter provides the fullest English language account of the formation and early years of the International Theological Commission (ITC). The ITC entered into the debate regarding the future of Catholic moral theology from its first meeting in 1969, culminating in a discussion of moral theology in 1974 for which Balthasar prepared his Nine Propositions. From 1972 it is clear that Balthasar diverged from the majority view of the ITC regarding the future direction of postconciliar moral theology and tabled the Nine Propositions at the 1974 assembly in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the commission to take a different approach. The chapter also offers a detailed interpretation of Hegel’s eighteenth century text The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate (SCF) in order to cast light on the structure of Balthasar’s argument in the Nine Propositions, including his treatment of law in all its forms. The final two chapters offer a detailed interpretation of the Nine Propositions, Balthasar’s extended experiment in faith-ethics. These chapters explain the unfamiliar format of the text and detail Balthasar’s attempt to fulfil the council’s instruction that moral theology should be perfected. They also develop the interpretive insights into Balthasar’s argument generated by our close study of Hegel’s SCF. Balthasar’s proposal clearly conforms to the council’s desire that the Mystery of Christ be placed at the centre of the discipline. His proposal also gives a theological account of the fulfilment of Old Testament law in the life of Christ. This account challenges any absolutisation of the moral law in contemporary Christian ethics and adds significance to Balthasar’s treatment of the divine gift of personhood and of individual missions. The thesis concludes by commending Balthasar for his attempt to reconcile the various schools in postconciliar Catholic moral theology.