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Holiness and Moral Virtue

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Holiness and Moral Virtue Fr David Goodill OP, Vice-Regent at Blackfriars, Oxford, reflects on the importance of Servais Pinckaers OP (1925–2008) whom he considers to be one of the great moral theologians.

A number of years ago I introduced the works of some leading contemporary moral theologians to my first class of diocesan seminarians at St Mary's College, Oscott. The class were amused at my description of Fr Servais Pinckaers OP as the 'great Belgian Dominican moral theologian', but the use of the adjective 'great' was not merely a case of Dominican bias. It is ten years since his death on 7th April 2008, but Fr Servais' influence in the world of moral theology continues to grow and his legacy bears much fruit.

Born in 1925 in Belgium to a Flemish father and Walloon mother, Fr Servais grew up in Wallonia, speaking Walloon at home and French at school. After joining the Dominicans he studied at the Priory of La Sarte at Huy in Belgium, where he continued as a professor in moral theology until it closed as a house of studies in 1965. La Sarte had opened in 1942 under the influence of professors committed to the use of the historical method in theology. This involved the use of historical study in theology, returning to its sources in Scripture and tradition (particularly the writings of the 'Fathers of the Church'), and St Thomas Aquinas' theology was read in its historical context rather than through the works of his later commentators.

The young Pinckaers wrote his STL thesis in 1952 at La Sarte on the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac's Supernatural, before completing a doctorate at the Dominican University in Rome under the direction of Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange on the virtue of hope from Peter Lombard to Thomas Aquinas. The influence of these texts can be seen on his later works in the application of the historical method to moral theology and his insistence that moral theology is concerned first and foremost with the life of grace.

After the closure of La Sarte, Pinckaers was assigned to Liège where he undertook a preaching apostolate for some eighteen years until his appointment in 1983 as professor of fundamental theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland; but the long years in Liège should not be seen as lost to academia: although he wrote relatively little in this period, his preaching and retreat-giving enabled him to engage more deeply with Scripture and to develop an approach to moral theology which overcomes the modern division between theology and spirituality.

The renewal of moral theology in the light of the Second Vatican Council formed the focus for Fr Servais' work in Fribourg where he taught until his retirement in 1993. Here, reflection on the theological virtues lay at the centre of his theological vision. In manner which paralleled Alasdair MacIntyre's revival of virtue ethics in the world of English-speaking philosophy, Pinckaers showed how an understanding of virtue is essential for moral theology. Both men were unaware of the other's work until the early' eighties when Fr Servais wrote a review of MacIntyre's influential book After Virtue. Later MacIntyre was to write a foreword to the English translation of Fr Servais' short introduction to moral theology, Morality: The Catholic View.

Pinckaers emphasised the role of the virtues in the Christian life to correct what he saw as too narrow a focus on moral precepts in modern moral theology. Rather than viewing our life in Christ as primarily a series of laws which we either succeed in keeping or breaking, he returned to the texts of St Thomas to show how the Christian life is a life lived in grace through the virtues of faith, hope and charity and with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He was far from denying that there are God-given laws, but he set out to show how keeping God's laws makes sense if we want to grow in the perfect charity of God's love. Through the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we are healed and sustained in our journey through this life and raised up to gain a first taste of the joy God promises his faithful in eternity.

Holiness and Moral VirtueIn his book The Sources of Christian Ethics, Fr Pinckaers charted the development of Christian ethics from Apostolic times to the present day. It is a monumental work, and arguably the most important work in Catholic moral theology since the Second Vatican Council. Most Catholics, however, will be more familiar with his writings through his contributions to part three of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Life in Christ. He also played a central role in the writing of St John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis splendor, which gives a vision of the Christian life as centred on beatitude while discussing controversial questions in moral theology.

Holiness and Moral VirtueFr Servais remained active as a writer up until his death in 2008, and his final work Passions and Virtue, published after his death, explores the role that human passions and emotions play in our Christian lives.

In the ten years since his death his influence on a new generation of moral theologians has continued to grow across the world. He provides a model of fidelity to the tradition of Christian reflection on life in Christ, while engaging with the contemporary context in which we now live. A life dedicated to learning in charity; to a deep engagement with the truth for the salvation of souls.


Monika commented on 10-Jul-2018 11:25 AM
A really succinct summary. Thank you, Fr David.
Anonymous commented on 10-Jul-2018 09:58 PM
Heartened whenever a weighty tome on theology is published. Disconcerted and amused when commentaries on historic philosophers leave out Christianity, often with an openly declared intention in their introduction to the work.

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