Article 3

Stefano Fontana


The issue of commencement involves clarifying what a discipline may be founded on, what may be its origin, and from whence it may have begun. This is the basic issue, since “a small mistake at the beginning becomes a huge mistake at the conclusion”[1]. In the beginning there must also be the origin, which means the ultimate justification of the beginning as such. Taken all on its own, the beginning is naught but a fact indicating that something has begun. The issue of commencement means asking ourselves what is the origin of a beginning, what founds and explains that beginning and renders it legitimate. Each and every discipline is faced with such a problem.

This problem of commencement arises in different manners for philosophy and for other disciplines, including theology. Philosophy alone – and metaphysics in particular – is self-founding, while all the others, including theology, begin from assumptions which, remaining well within their own ambit, they are not able to demonstrate. In the case of theology, this assumption consists in faith in the revelation of God.

Moral theology, therefore, has two sources, and hence two commencements. The first is dogma in its contents and moral requirements. The revealed truths set by the Church in the deposit of faith also contain both natural and supernatural moral prescriptions, precepts and counsels[2]. In addition to said precepts and counsels, however, Catholic dogma also includes formal and epistemic requirements of the logic of morals, and, as a result, suited to it are not just any type of philosophical morals, but only that corresponding to correct practical reason, to the logic of natural morals. Catholic dogma does not permit a pluralism of ethical views.

Moral theology’s second commencement/origin is natural ethics, the use of practical reason in its correct relationship with theoretical reason[3]. This commencement is independent from the other one since natural reason has its own autonomy at its specific level, and since philosophy is knowledge able to found itself, demonstrating the truthfulness of its own beginning. Nonetheless, it is not disconnected insofar as it falls under the same God, Creator and Savior.

These two commencements are complementary and clarify one another. Natural morals discovers itself and its own natural conclusions when examining the requirements revealed by dogma, thereby becoming moral theology. These requirements are humanly confirmed in their ethical indications, and at the same time temper natural reason, consolidating and uplifting the results. Therefore complementarity, but according to the ultimate priority of revelation over natural morals. Two additional observations render this evident. The first is that revelation has also taught the laws of natural morals, considering that natural reason alone may encounter uncertainties as far as they are concerned[4]. The second is that human nature is weakened by sin, and, without the purifying and uplifting assistance of the grace of revelation, it runs the risk of losing its way.

Insofar as descriptive and not normative, the human sciences cannot constitute any beginning for moral theology. They may be of assistance (not essential) later on, but constitute no source for legitimacy or grounds at the moment of commencement. Morals may not issue forth from the conduct or behavior registered by the social sciences insofar as morals guide conduct and do not depend on it.. If this is the guide, it must already be present beforehand and independently from conduct or behavior.

Nor can there be any commencement dependent on scientific knowledge in general, because science is hypothetical-deductive knowledge, and hence neither absolute nor universal.  Not absolute because its conclusions depend on the initial hypothesis; not universal because its conclusions only apply within the specific ambit circumscribed by the initial hypothesis. Morals belong to philosophy or theology, and not to science.

Nor can commencement be the existential or historical situation of the moral subject. Hence, neither a narrative philosophy nor a narrative theology. In fact, existential situations are variable, but ethics pursues behavioral norms valid semper et ad semper, at all times, in all circumstances, and for all.

Philosophical commencement can stem from thinking conscience (the ‘I think), and we would have rationalist morals, or else from the knowledge of the finalist order of being, and we would have realist morals. The first type, however, remains unfounded insofar as merely posited by the subject in question by virtue of an act of his will that is independent and hence arbitrary. What is posited without reasons cannot be considered founded.  Morals, as we understand it, is therefore founded only on knowledge of the finalist order of being. Note well, ‘finalist’ order, and not just order, because purpose is what gives sense to order. There could be an order with no purpose, but in such a case it would be a senseless order, as is the case of the deterministic order that cannot found morals at all.

This means that the commencement of morals is the knowledge of a world of essences; morals is “essentialist”[5]. The foundation of the criteria for good and evil is the knowledge of the finalist essence of the things upon which the realist doctrine of natural law is founded. The priority of essence over existence is proper to classical and Christian philosophy, and just the contrary is the fruit of modernity.

This approach is no longer accepted in the transformation of Catholic moral theology, either as a whole or in its particular aspects. The refusal of metaphysics can but posit morals in an historical perspective.  The knowledge of essences is considered abstract, rigid, and, except in an applicative sense, unable to enhance the life situation in which the subject-agent must operate.  It is also thought that said life situation is known by the human sciences which then become the constituent elements of commencement. Beginning from a variable situation means to argue that the moral norm is also and always known through subjective conscience, and hence is always ‘posited’ in part, and not only ‘discovered’ or ‘found’. Conscience therefore also plays a role in the foundation of morals, and not just their application. A sort of rationalism therefore becomes ever present in the new moral theology. For all these reasons the moral norm becomes subject to change and to evolution in time.

The new Catholic moral theology is therefore clearly at odds with the framework of classical and Christian moral theology. Among the reasons for the “collapse of moral theology”, Benedict XVI included the abandonment of the doctrine of natural law[6] and the reduction of morals to biblical morals. Abandoning the doctrine of natural law means abandoning metaphysics, and rejecting essentialist ethics, replacing it with existential ethics.

Stefano Fontana



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[1] Thomas Aquinas, L’ente e l’essenza, in Opuscoli filosofici, Città Nuova, Rome 1989, pg. 39.

[2] Cf. M. Konrad, Precetti e consigli. Studi sull’etica di San Tommaso d’Aquino a confronto con Lutero e Kant, Lateran University Press, Vatican City 2005.

[3] Cf. J. Pieper, La realtà e il bene, Morcelliana, Brescia 2011.

[4] Cf. S. Cecotti, La teologia della legge antica e della legge nuova, in AA.VV., Il senso della legge e le leggi senza senso, (a cura di S. Fontana), Fede & Cultura, Verona 2019, pgs. 39-72.

[5] S. Th., I-II, q. 18, a. 5, ad. 1 – good is being according to nature, evil is against nature

[6] Phrase from the Nota of the Pope Emeritus on the Church and sexual abuse, April 2019. Cf. also S. M. Lanzetta, Un  collasso della teologia morale  alla radice della crisi, “Fides Catholica” , XVI (2019) 1, pgs. 5-16.

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Stefano Fontana

Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận