“Christian moral theology will . . . acquire a personalistic and responsorial character: it will arise as a response to the totally gratuitous encounter with Christ.”
Since initial attempts, dating as far back as the 1930s, to renew Catholic moral theology in relation to its post-tridentine manualist tradition, the question of christocentrism has come into contact with more innovative theological proposals, and has swung back and forth between enthusiastic programs and declarations of inconclusiveness or outright failure.1 The bold proposals for a radically new approach centered on the person of Christ,2 which marked the preconciliar and immediate postconciliar periods, were succeeded, particularly in the seventies, by drastic calls to abandon this road in light of the demands of rational autonomy and the universality of ethics. Franz Böckle’s pronouncement represents the common sentiment: “the focus on christology stands in contradiction to a normative universalization.”3
The encyclical Veritatis Splendor, for its part, has recalled that “the following of Christ is the essential foundation of Christian morality” (19). This constitutes an implicit and authoritative invitation to take up the question of christocentrism once again in moral theology as a privileged starting point for the renewal that is being called for (cf. 29). To be sure, accepting such an invitation does not mean ignoring the problems that have emerged in recent theology. The present article, therefore, intends to review, albeit in a necessarily schematic and general fashion, the principal models of christocentrism that have been proposed, paying special attention to the theoretical knots that have emerged along the way, in order to find a positive orientation for future investigation that will allow us to meet the proper demands of a truly scientific moral theology.4
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1. For a general overview, see A. Bonandi, “Modelli di teologia morale nel ventesimo secolo,” in Teologia 24 (1999): 89–138, 206–43. J. Reiter offers a summary, covering only the realm of German scholarship before the second Vatican Council, of the various attempts at working out a christocentric approach to moral theology, in his Modelle christozentrischer Ethik. Eine historische Untersuchung in systematischer Absicht (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1984).
2. According to F. Tillmann, moral theology, as a scientific enterprise, ought to show “die unmittelbare Bindung der Sittenlehre an die Person des Herrn” [the immediate connection between moral teaching and the person of Christ], Die Idee der Nachfolge Christi (Düsseldorf: Schwann, 1934), 10f.
3. Böckle, Fundamentalmoral (München: Kösel, 1977), 234. The North American moral theologian, Charles E. Curran, recently justified the rejection of a christocentric approach for the same reason: The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999), 31: “I also have problems using Jesus Christ as [a] stance because this approach has been used by some in the past to ground a very narrow Christology or Christomonism that gives little or no independent room or importance to the human. . . .”
4. Cf. Optatam totius, 16.