Moral Theology is a field of study emphasized in the Roman Catholic Church that is defined similarly to religious ethics. It includes Catholic teachings on social issues ranging from marriage to sexuality to medicine, among other topics. As such, Moral Theology has long played an important and often controversial role in the church and culture.
In Roman Catholic teachings, Moral Theology is often based on statements of faith within the Catholic Church or statements by Popes of past and present. The Vatican II statement also serves as a common reference point for Catholic leaders who makes authoritative statements regarding Moral Theology. The Bible accepted by the Catholic Church (the 66 books accepted by the Protestant Church plus the Deuterocanonical Books) also serves as authoritative work upon which statements of Moral Theology are made.
The early history of the Church made little distinction between Moral Theology and other forms of Christian teaching. It was in the Middle Ages that Scholasticism developed and formed a more formal field called Moral Theology and the teachings included within it. In addition to Scripture, tradition, and the teachings of the Popes, natural law was often used as a point of evidence in statements of Moral Theology. The idea of a moral law was also strongly emphasized during this time period, serving as one of the lines of evidence used to prove God's existence.
St. Thomas Aquinas was one writer during this period who developed the concept of Moral Theology. He spoke in his influential Summa Theologica of the importance of both Natural and Moral Theology, as well as how Moral Theology was to be viewed from God's perspective.
To be clear, statements made today within the Catholic Church regarding moral law do not add or take away from the Church's teachings, but rather seek to interpret and apply Catholic teachings to social and ethical issues. A common example is the issue of the preborn child. In Catholic teachings, the use of Scripture, tradition, and other means are used to support the traditional view that humans are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27) and are designed on purpose and for a purpose in the world (Jeremiah 1:1-8). As a result, speaking up for and protecting the lives of the unborn has been an important application of Moral Theology.
In general, Moral Theology seeks to provide practical ways for Roman Catholics to live according to the morals of God. These include freedom; love; law; responsibility; generosity; treatment of other people, animal life, and the environment; and care for those in need.
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