Catholic Moral Theology in the United States

A History

Charles E. Curran

"The book is a wonderful gift to the church that could come only from one so deeply involved in the very development of the field as both a careful observer of events but also as one of the most significant moral theologians of our time."
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In this magisterial volume Charles E. Curran surveys the historical development of Catholic moral theology in the United States from its 19th century roots to the present day. He begins by tracing the development of pre-Vatican II moral theology that, with the exception of social ethics, had the limited purpose of training future confessors to know what actions are sinful and the degree of sinfulness.

Curran then explores and illuminates the post-Vatican II era with chapters on the effect of the Council on the scope and substance of moral theology, the impact of Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical condemning artificial contraception, fundamental moral theology, sexuality and marriage, bioethics, and social ethics.

Curran's perspective is unique: For nearly 50 years, he has been a major influence on the development of the field and has witnessed first-hand the dramatic increase in the number and diversity of moral theologians in the academy and the Church. No one is more qualified to write this first and only comprehensive history of Catholic moral theology in the United States.

Table of Contents


1. The Nineteenth Century

2. The Twentieth Century before Vatican II

3. Twentieth-Century Social Ethics before Vatican II

4. The Setting of Moral Theology after Vatican II

5. The Aftermath of Humanae vitae

6. The Aftermath of Vatican II and Other Developments

7. Fundamental Moral Theology

8. Sexuality and Marriage

9. Bioethics

10. Social Ethics

Conclusions: Looking Backward and Forward


About the Author



"This book and Curran's work generously deserve the attention of all those Catholics who believe that history matters, and that the church finds its mission in that essential framework given its best expression in Vatican II's 'Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.' As many have turned away from the promise of the council, Curran has done as much as any American Catholic to keep hope alive."—National Catholic Reporter

"Curran covers a tremendous amount of ground in these chapters, over complex and controversial territory . . . . He is to be given high marks for the way he summarizes carefully and fairly the theological arguments with which he has disagreed . . . . I am grateful for Curran's scholarly work in this book. As a 'participant observer,' Charles Curran has chronicled history fairly and clearly—no small accomplishment for someone whose own voice has been such an important part of the story."—America

"The book is a wonderful gift to the church that could come only from one so deeply involved in the very development of the field as both a careful observer of events but also as one of the most significant moral theologians of our time."—Conscience

"This volume deserves serious consideration for any student of theology because it is threaded through with thought-provoking comments . . . Ultimately the great merit of this significant and fascinating book is to draw attention to the fact that moral theology is part of a living tradition and in the process open ups a rich vein of wisdom and insight that can help us address many of our most pressing problems today."—Doctrine & Life

"The thematic chapters provide a literature review that is striking both for its compendious range and for its commitment to fairness . . . Curran's text provides a much-needed framework for analyzing the past and tracing the trajectories of U.S. Catholic ethical reflection. This account of the discipline's development will serve as a standard resource for both theological education and historical research."—Theological Studies

"The sheer breadth of this historical survey of Catholic moral theology in the United States would be daunting to any theologian except Curran, whose synthetic mind and critical grasp of the discipline make possible a succinct analysis of key figures as well as newer scholars."—Religious Studies Review

"The book is to be commended for the thorough way in which it covers, or at least mentions, almost every significant writer in Catholic moral theology during this period. . . . [This] book would serve well in introductory undergraduate and graduate courses on Catholic moral theology and the history of American Catholicism."—Church History

"This volume needs to be in every university and college library. Nothing compares to the breadth and depth of this historical study of United States moral theology. Any who teach in the discipline of theology need to read the book, even if their specialty is not moral theology."—Horizons

"Published in the well-known Moral Traditions series, this is an excellent book on the recent history of Catholic moral theology in the United States. . . . This is a highly readable account, written by an expert, and is suitable for undergraduates and the general reader."—Theological Book Review

"Having practiced the art of moral theology for half a century, Curran has acquired encyclopedic knowledge, a sure touch, and balanced judgment. He is a consummate surveyor of cultural and ecclesial trends, trajectories, and politics. Of unparalleled scope and balance, Catholic Moral Theology in the United States is an invaluable guide for scholar and student alike, showing us why moral theology matters beyond academia."—Lisa Sowle Cahill, J. Donald Monan Professor of Theology, Boston College

"The most ambitious chronicle we have of the development of moral theology in the United States. [Curran] shows that many of the questions we are asking today uncover the tensions within earlier views. This book is a must read for every graduate student of moral theology. This book brings one up to speed on who has shaped this discipline, what have been its major concerns, and why we are facing the issues we do today."—Richard M. Gula, SS, Franciscan School of Theology/Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

"An informative narrative of the development of the discipline here in the United States. Once again, Curran adds a valuable volume to the already long list of contributions he has made to Catholic theology."—Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, chair, Theology Department, Boston College


Supplemental Materials


Winner of the 2009 Catholic Press Association Book Award for History. 2009 Illustrated Cover or Jacket Award, Large Nonprofit Publishers Category of the Washington Publishers Book Design and Effectiveness Awards, Second Place. Winner of the 2008 PROSE Award for Theology and Religious Studies.

About the Author

Charles E. Curran, a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, is Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University. He was the first recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award for Theology and has served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the Society of Christian Ethics, and the American Theological Society. In 2003, Curran received the Presidential Award of the College Theology Society for a lifetime of scholarly achievements in moral theology, and in 2005, Call to Action presented him with its leadership award. He is the author of Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian, The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II and Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present, all published by Georgetown University Press.

368 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-58901-195-3
Apr 2008

368 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-58901-196-0
Apr 2008

368 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-291-2
Apr 2008

Moral Traditions series
David Cloutier, Darlene Weaver, and Andrea Vicini, SJ

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