Situation Ethics in an Ecumenical Perspective

The Christian of the Future
by Karl Rahner

Situation Ethics in an Ecumenical Perspective

It may sometimes happen that a fundamental difference of opinion on matters of principle may persist in theory, and retain real importance, while the circumstances of life and action change so much that the difference of opinion is of less moment for life and action than it previously was. It is possible, for example, that the fundamental Catholic theoretical doctrine of the primacy may continue to exist as ground for division between Christian denominations but that at the same time the historical situation will impose on the Catholic Church, with the quiet inevitability of an inescapable environment, an actual practice of the primacy to which non-Catholics themselves will scarcely be able to raise objection. Change in the historical situation may give to an enduring theoretical doctrine a mode of real existence and features which can render pointless the effective objections to it, which were directed against the actual reality rather than the abstract proposition. If on one or both sides in the dispute about a doctrine or an "idea" the historical imaginative model, the "imagery" people use to make the idea clear to themselves, remains unchanged, the ecumenical dialogue advances less far than it would if the new "imagery" of the old idea in dispute were candidly taken for granted. I consider that in ecumenical discussion in the future more regard should be shown for this simple fact.

What we are proposing to deal with here may perhaps serve as an example of what we have just said. There does perhaps exist a radical situation ethics which, because it derives from a purely secular existentialism, is rejected by all Christians as moral libertinism. We are not concerned with it here. But there also exists perhaps an attitude to general moral norms, universal in scope and specific in content, which will be affirmed by many Protestants as constituting the specifically evangelical freedom of the Christian man, whereas the Catholic will regard it as an unacceptable variety of situation ethics. The names given to the attitude in question by one side or another do not matter. The Protestant will regard specific norms, in the moral sphere, even in the form in which they appear in scripture, rather as a sort of sign-post pointing out the way to meet and endure the ever new situations of the personal life of faith, with a critical attitude towards oneself and one’s hidden sinfulness. He will mistrust or reject, however, specific moral maxims which, by their universality and eternally permanent character, claim to bind men in every situation without exception, on the sole condition that the universal norm, expressing an essence, is relevant to the particular human being in this or that definite situation, precisely because of the presence there of what the maxim in question designates and applies to. The Protestant will not tend to a state in which he is enabled by grace to fulfill the law from within, to accomplish the law by the spirit of love and in that way to be free of it. He will rather tend to a state in which he is freed from the obligation of the content of the various moral norms and precepts themselves because he can grasp the saving forgiveness of God even as a sinner and while remaining one. The Catholic, on the contrary, will say that there do exist universal moral precepts explicative of an essence, binding in their universality always and everywhere. He will also reject a situation ethics given a Christian interpretation, as being the denial of a genuine philosophy of essential natures and even more as being unbiblical. He will of course recognize an ethics founded on the philosophical analysis of man in his concrete existence, providing it acknowledges calls from God which apply to the individual not merely in a situation presumed each time to be utterly unique, but in a situation to the constitution of which the universal essence also contributes. But he will not admit that the uniqueness of the moral and Christian human being stands outside a structure of specific universal moral principles founded on essences. He will admit and acknowledge that even the sinner can find his way to God through the grace of God. But he will interpret this turning to God as God’s gift, in which God gives man the fundamental capacity and unconditional willingness to fulfill God’s commandments and does not justify him without regard to an at least inchoatively active will to obey the law.

Our intention here is not to settle this controversy on the meaning and function of specific moral precepts as between a Catholic universal ethics based on essential natures and a situation ethics given a Protestant interpretation. Too many questions would be involved. There would, of course, be preliminary questions, for example the ontological and epistemological question of the relation between universal and individual. There would be questions of biblical theology about the nature of Christian freedom, the relation between law and Gospel, the meaning of the law for those justified by faith. There would be questions of systematic theology, for example those concerning the nature of justification, the validity, and knowledge, of the natural law within Christian morality, the possibility and recognition of an individual call coming directly from God to the conscience in a concrete situation, and the question of the relation of such: a call to universal moral principles, as well as many other questions with which the ecumenical dialogue will have to concern itself.

As we said at the beginning, we must pass over this whole knot of fundamental theoretical questions and direct our attention to changes in the concrete situation which affect every kind of Christian morality. They do not, of course, reduce the above-mentioned controversy to insignificance but considerably lessen its importance in practice. What I have in mind is this. The real situation in which the Christian of today has to make his moral decisions is in any case such that in very many and very important instances, the decision can no longer be the simple and obvious application of the principles concerning essences, even if he respects these as absolutely and universally valid. Even on this basis the Catholic nowadays is himself very often, and in the most important questions, in a situation which in practice resembles the one assumed to be always and necessarily present by those who advocate a Christian situation ethics.

Of course Catholic moral theology has always known that there are concrete moral situations in which the application of universal principles leads to no certain, generally accepted and theoretically unambiguous results. This is shown by its treatises on casuistry, its many Quaestiones disputatae and the principles it has elaborated for the indirect solution of cases of conscience by Probabilism etc. Moreover, it is aware that there are also many disputed theoretical questions and opinions, so that not even all general maxims meet with agreement from all moral theologians. This simple fact shows that for Catholic moral theology it cannot cause any difficulty in principle to assert that there are cases of moral decision in which moral theology based on universal essences, and therefore the Church’s magisterium, are not in a position to offer the Christian unmistakable precepts in the concrete case. Whether such instances are more or less frequent at any particular place or time makes no difference to the fact, which is taken so much as a matter of course, that traditional moral theology is scarcely really aware of the problem of principle which is in fact raised by it.

What is decisive in the present connection, however, is that the number of such cases has increased in a way that we might almost say involved a change of kind. As a result, the scope for freedom and responsibility which the moral principles of the Church and of Catholic moral theology, based on essences, must concede to the moral conscience of the individual (even if they did not in fact wish to do so) has become considerably greater. Even for the Catholic the road from the general principles of Christian ethics to concrete decision has become considerably longer than formerly, even when he is determined unconditionally to respect all those principles, and for a good part of the way, in the last decisive stages of the formation of the concrete moral imperative, he is therefore inevitably left by the Church’s teaching and pastoral authority more than formerly to his own conscience, to form the concrete decision independently on his own responsibility. The confessional in particular will therefore be concerned more than formerly with fundamental formation of the conscience, which will then be committed to its own responsibility for the actual decision. It will not be so much a source of information about what here and now is the only correct and legitimate course of action. When here and there in draft decrees of the Council stress was laid on this role of conscience as irreplaceable even in practice, anxious voices could be heard in the aula, pointing out in alarm that in earlier days the Church used to lay down clear and unmistakable norms, whereas now even at the Council appeal was being made to the individual conscience, so running the risk of slipping down into an arbitrary, subjective situation ethics. Those who gave these anxious warnings obviously could not see that today, even if all genuinely universal principles are preserved and observed, the scope for the solitary conscientious decision has inevitably become greater. They did not realize that this fact cannot be met by attempting an even subtler casuistry, which after all would only supply more complicated general norms, but only by forming the conscience. Then the expansion of the field of personal responsibility will be met by a growth of stronger Christian readiness to assume responsibility and greater moral earnestness, even, and especially, where the conscience can receive from the Church and the written Gospel no immediately applicable prescription for the concrete decision.

What is the origin of this extension of the field of freedom and responsibility left to the conscience of the individual ? The world in which we live, as history has made it. The world in which and in regard to which moral decisions have to be arrived at is no longer a world which remains unchanged during the short lifetime of the individual, but a world in movement planned and made by men. Formerly the facts were there by the nature of things, solid and manageable, and, simply as facts, were the expression of a divine order and therefore in themselves presented no moral problem. And what had to be done in their regard, how men were to act in them in order to do justice to them as constituting a moral situation, had already been practised and repeated innumerable times and its correctness tested, with the exception of a few rare cases of small consequence. People could deliberate whether or not they wanted to obey the norms which had already taken concrete form in fixed custom, but did not need in general to inquire what the immediately relevant maxims themselves were. The way from principle to imperative was mostly very short and clear. Today the world, the environment and the human milieu which the individual finds himself confronted with, has become fluid, because it is planned and made by man himself. Man is changing himself, his environment, his social milieu; he can manipulate himself; he can, and indeed must, think of birth-control; he can, and indeed must, shape by active planning, social orders of greater complexity. Way of life, profession, forms of recreation, possibilities of education are no longer in most cases inescapable facts determined by social and economic conditions, but have been transformed into questions and problems requiring moral decision. The society which dominates the individual is in a certain sense more powerful than ever, yet at the same time it permits domains of decision, and of private life without restriction, which formerly were not available to men. Thus, for example, human beings today are no longer supported, as regards the stability of marriage, by social and economic conditions, but must themselves maintain its stability by their own free decision. New and exacting matters of the greatest complexity, mobility and incalculability in their remote consequences for moral decision have come into existence for men with the management of technology and automation, the direction of human beings by mass-media, the planning of international relations, the adventure of space travel etc. There are not available for any of these things directly and immediately applicable principles of a kind which could serve at once as clear practical prescriptions. The way from general norm to clear concrete prescription has become long and difficult to discern. The official Church can and must of course see how it can cope with this unwieldy world. To the best of its ability the Church will seek for relevant Christian principles but will need time, and it would be pointless to resent this. The Church will endeavour to convey to men more clearly than ever before the great fundamental Christian motives. But as it does so, the Church cannot overlook the fact that the road from universal principle to concrete prescription is even longer than it ever was, and that in practice the Church, by official teaching and guidance, can accompany the individual to the end of this road much less often than formerly. Instead, however, and as the best substitute, the Church would need to give the individual Christian three things: a more living ardour of Christian inspiration as a basis of individual life; an absolute conviction that the moral responsibility of the individual is not at an end because he does not come in conflict with any concrete instruction of the official Church; an initiation into the holy art of finding the concrete prescription for his own decision in the personal call of God, in other words, the logic of concrete particular decision which of course does justice to universal regulative principles but cannot wholly be deduced from them solely by explicit casuistry.

With this new situation, Catholics and Protestants approach one another very considerably. The latter in fact are always inclined by their historical origins to protest against legalism and an over-simplified fixing of the content of direct norms of action, whereas the former defend the validity of general moral principles with specific content always and everywhere. The new situation does not of course simply put an end to the dispute over theory. But this becomes milder, first of all in practice, for the simple reason that now both parties are clearly faced with the same historical task. They have both to answer the question how the individual Christian in the concrete is to be equipped with the insight and strength which he needs to withstand a situation which sets him a moral problem but the correct solution of which can no longer in fact so directly be supplied him by the official Church. It may be noted in passing that the Protestant position described at the beginning has not ipso facto been proved correct. For the question which now urgently confronts all could, of course, even now receive two theoretically different solutions. Since only one could be correct, dispute would remain as to which it is. It is also possible that difficulties are now emerging from the present situation for the Protestant answer which were not previously noticed. Life in the concrete was then so simple and sociologically fixed that on the whole it imposed the objectively correct actions, even if the theory perhaps had its defects which were not noticed in practice. If, however, the Catholic now sees that despite, and in addition to, his ethics based on essential natures, he must develop an individual ethics of concrete moral decision which goes beyond mere casuistry, and if the Protestant ethical theorist perhaps realizes that in the new and dangerous situation he must perhaps be less carefree in simply leaving the Christian to his "conscience", then perhaps the new situation will bring about a new climate in which, even theoretically, people will be compelled more readily to think towards one another rather than away from one another, and in which people will understand one another more easily and even gradually unite.

I do not know whether the example was well chosen and illuminating. But it seems to me that in ecumenical discussion we ought to pay less heed to historical theological traditions and more to the real intellectual situation and its stress which is common to both sides at the present day. We ought to think ahead and sense the questions and their urgency, which the age and our non-Christian contemporaries set us both. This age, however (to keep to the example we have chosen), will not be content solely with a Catholic universal ethics of essence which in itself does not touch the moral difficulties of the present time, nor with a purely Protestant situation ethics which is always in danger of degenerating into an empty formal ethics of mere subjectivity of an existentialist kind. Probably the same holds good of many other questions with which the ecumenical dialogue is concerned.