In Right or Wrong? Essays in Moral Theology, Patrick Hannon explores a number of moral issues that are of contemporary importance; topics include the sexual abuse scandals in the Church, Sharia law and the changing cultural context of Irish society, and the relationship between law and morality. Although a collection of previously published articles, the contents of the book fit together extremely well. Hannon guides the reader through complex problems with precision and clarity, and his style of writing captures the readers interest throughout.
Chapter 3 is particularly relevant at present. Hannon is critical of the ways in which theologians often find themselves grouped together in either one of two rather crudely constructed camps - someone is either a liberal or a conservative thinker. That classification is almost exclusively determined by ones stance on a very select number of moral matters: artificial contraception, homosexuality, abortion and divorce. As Hannon reminds us, there are risks in identifying individuals/groups in such blunt terms: "the tendency to classify in this fashion carries risks, not least the risk of laziness in analysing the state of the church and its faith today" (32). The Catholic Church finds herself in a time of unprecedented challenge at present. In light of the shame of child sexual and physical abuse, as well as increasing numbers of people leaving the Church (in the West at least), we are hearing calls for a more inclusive Church, a listening Church as well as a teaching Church.
But listening doesnt come easy to people who have learned to tune out the voice of the other on suspicion of difference of viewpoint or to dismiss the others question (or reply) on the basis of a tag. Yet listening is a prerequisite for understanding, at this point in the life of the Church perhaps more than ever - not to say for the love to which Christians are called and profess (37).
Chapter 4 deals with the child sexual abuse scandals in the Church. The author considers how a number of the "rules for the [abortion] debate" devised by Richard McCormick might be useful for the debates that are taking place in relation to sexual abuse. He also adds three further proposals of his own to those recommended by McCormick. There is much wisdom in what is proposed here, as well as practical ideas that could serve well the debate. Unfortunately, much of what Hannon recommends here is noticeably absent from public discussions on the matter.
The cultural and religious identity of Ireland has changed greatly in recent years, and in Chapter 8 Hannon explores a subject that will inevitably take on increased significance on this island in the coming years. Not too long ago, very few Irish people would have been familiar with the term Sharia law. However, the religious and cultural pluralism that is now a feature of our society brings with it challenges of both a practical and theoretical nature. The background for the chapter is found in the Archbishop of Canterburys lecture to the Royal Courts of Justice in London, in which he queried whether secular law in England might accommodate some aspects of Sharia law. Throughout the chapter, Hannon discusses this question of Sharia law in an extremely accessible way, generating interest in the topic that will surely lead many to further investigations. The chapter raises important theological, political and ethical questions that the Irish Church and State will have to cope with in the coming years. As Hannon notes, "Much will depend on leadership. Participation in the dialogues must present a special challenge to the leaders of what is still the majority church" (105). That dialogue, the author reminds us, must be inclusive; inclusive not just of the different faiths in Ireland, but inclusive of secularists also (107).
The context for Chapter 9 lies with the American elections, and how Catholics might be expected to vote when a candidate proclaims himself/herself to be pro-choice. Hannon gives a clear account of the US Bishops response to the matter. He notes how issues such as abortion, homosexuality, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia are all too often described as `religious matters. One consequence of this is that faith-identity can be easily confused with these rather select moral concerns. Also, descriptions such as prolife are regularly applied in a very narrow and inconsistent way, (usually understood to be a condemnation of abortion). Some pro-life campaigners see no contradiction in supporting the death penalty or the war in Iraq, for example. Thus, the author argues for the need to develop a "consistent ethic of life." In addition, he is critical of the "slogan wars" that tend to follow public debates on these matters, something which does little for open and critical discussion. This is an extremely interesting chapter that give an insight into some of the complexities of the public responsibilities of Catholics in increasingly pluralistic societies.
Chapter 10 - Aquinas, Morality and Law - provides a thorough analysis of Aquinas theory of natural law. St Thomass account is, of course, situated within his overall treatise on law, and one cannot appreciate fully what he says about natural law without consideration of its relationship to other `types of law. It may seem surprising to some that an essay on Aquinas found its way into the book, given the more contemporary feel to other chapters. But this essay is a timely reminder of the connection that ought to exist between morality and law. In light of the political and economic turbulence that Irish society has witnessed in recent times (not to mention the world more generally), we must return to an honest examination of the ways in which morality and law intersect. Aquinas himself was all too aware that, as one descends into particularity in ones law-making, one is likely to encounter increased disagreement and diversity of opinion. Hannon notes: "So in modern terms we should say that there is room for debate about the appropriateness of any particular item of lawmaking" (129).
This book contains several thought-provoking essays. The author presents complicated ethical issues in a way that captures the imagination of the reader, and the style of writing ensures that the material is always accessible. It is a book that would be of considerable benefit to the student and teacher of moral theology, but of interest also to anyone who is concerned about the moral challenges of Irish society and the world more generally.
- Suzanne Mulligan, Milltown Studies, No 65, Summer 2010
The influences in childhood often return in the senior years - what one priest called so nicely, the harvest years - and I often call to mind now some of the attitudes of my elders when I was young. My aunt Nora, for example, was a very religious woman of scrupulous honesty - if she gave you a birthday card by hand she would nonetheless affix a stamp so as not to defraud the Post Office of its rightful revenue.
One day, during the 1960s, a person from a Civil Rights organisation came to call on her, offering her a leaflet proclaiming Know Your Rights. Rights! Rights! my aunt cried. Its all Communism!
I scoffed at her at the time, to be sure: although her reaction was perfectly in line with much of traditional Catholicism, which was highly dubious about rights, since the provenance of the concept was the rabid and anti-clerical French Revolution.
It sometimes seems that doctrines and notions which are anathema to one generation flow seamlessly into acceptability in the next, and vice-versa: an American visiting a theatre in London recently was deeply shocked by what he beheld - an actor smoking on stage. And rights are now part and parcel of the entitlements we assume to be good, worthy and correct.
In this accessible book, the moral theologian Father Patrick Hannon (Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at Maynooth) discourses upon the important question of human rights - indeed it is a continuing theme in his book. He acknowledges that these human rights have become part of the Churchs thinking. John Paul II was a keen promoter of human rights, and he advanced the case for the unborn child, among other causes, under that heading.
Hannon defines a human right as something which is due to us by virtue solely of the fact that we are human beings. It does not, as other rights do, depend on our being citizens, or on having a domicile somewhere, or on being part of any particular community.
This is an admirable definition, and underlines the dignity of the person, which must be central to Christian thinking. But I am still baffled, sometimes, by the wide agenda of definitions which seem to apply to human rights - a sex-offender in Britain is currently suing the state for depriving him of his human rights by retaining his name on a sex offender register.
I also feel that if there are human rights, then there ought to be correlative human responsibilities. Fr Hannon indeed alludes to the point that in former times obligations and ordinances were more emphasised, and it seems to me they should not be put aside entirely.
A culture which consistently emphasises rights without any connection to responsibility tends to end up with a me, me, me attitude: we forget the JFK exhortation of not asking what you can get from your community, but asking what you can give.
And how does one enforce the right to dignity for the individual? Ive spent a convalescent period in an old peoples home, and although it was well run in every administrative sense, there was a complete loss of personal respect.
The answer is that you cannot enforce such rights, although the Americans have made a good start, I often feel, by addressing all older men as Sir and all older women (or any woman) as Maam. The re-introduction of respectful forms of address might do a lot for the dignity of the person.
Patrick Hannon ranges over a number of issues affecting Christian ethics, drawing on historical and contemporary scholarship. He is not a black-and-white person and doesnt give dogmatic answers - but, rather, gentle reflections on difficult questions.
Yet in his essay on Can Gay Men Be Priests? it seems to me he fails to address the most salient question about homosexuality today: if - as modern genetics are tending to suggest - a person is born a homosexual, therefore, is he, literally, the way God made him, and does this nullify his lifestyle choice?
The discoveries of contemporary science and genetics really do have to be brought into the picture.
Interestingly, some biological research is tending to confirm conservative traditions - for example, neurological work now indicates that men and womens brains really are wired up differently, and thus Biblical notions of sex-difference are not inaccurate.
I was also disappointed that the author did not tackle the question of crime more robustly in his chapter on justice.
Open any daily newspaper in Ireland, and the horrors of the assault on the person - rape, brutality, homicide - are quite despairing. If ever there was a negation of human rights - and the dignity of the person - it surely lies in the prevalence of crime: murder is said to have increased five-fold in Ireland since the 1960s.
Crime and punishment - though I would rather use the word penalty, since we all understand that there are penalties exacted for certain offences, beginning with a humble parking fine - are, surely, among the central moral issues for our time.
I hope that the moral theology of the crime wave will be the theme of Patrick Hannons next book.
- Mary Kenny, The Irish Catholic