FROM JULY 24 TO 27, 2010, there was an international gathering of about 600 Catholic moral theologians and scholars from over 70 countries in the Italian city of Trento. Cardinal William Levada, who succeeded Pope Benedict XVI as the Head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was invited for this gathering. However, because of prior commitments, he was unable to come. But he gave his blessing for this special congressional assembly of Catholic moral theologians. Father James Keenan, a well known American Jesuit moral theologian was the principal organizer of the event.

The Archbishop of Trento, Monsignor Luigi Bressan (photo), hosted this gathering and gave the opening address. He also celebrated the first day liturgy, which was beautifully prepared and sung, in the Basilica where the Council of Trent was held. I felt within a special connection to an important landmark in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. For it was here that the Council of Trent was held time and again from December 13, 1545 to December 4, 1563. It was called to respond to the deep crisis in the Church sparked by the Protestant Reformation, and to reform the inner life of the Church.

Part of the Council reforms was the setting up of a seminary system for the theological and ministerial formation of priests. In particular, attention was called for the training of priests in the ministry of reconciliation in confessions. Hence the discipline of moral theology was created.

The Council Fathers could not have imagined that after close to five centuries of Catholic theological education done primarily in a seminary setting for the training of clerics, interest in the biblical and theological disciplines could have evolved to the way it is today.

From the 1960s onwards, many young men and women studied these disciplines as part of their faith development, commitment, and search for what it means to live as a believer in the community of Jesus today. In many countries all over the world, there is a huge surge of interest in biblical and theological studies among the laity in various degree programs up to the doctoral level. For many of them, becoming ordained or joining religious communities were not on their personal agenda at all.

In this Trento gathering there were 147 young scholars who have just begun their teaching careers in various top notched universities across the continents, and some who are doctoral candidates. Others came with their spouses and children. And there was a large contingent of women delegates. Women moral theologians in particular had made significant contributions to the discipline in the past five decades through theological reflections on their experiences as women in the world today.

The plenary and semi plenary sessions each day were conducted in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. There were simultaneous electronic translations for us to understand what were being said. Interestingly, during the first plenary session, a Muslim scholar from Indonesia, Professor Ahmad Syafii Ma’arif, was invited to address the participants. He spoke of the need for understanding, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation among believers of various faiths. I found him very impressive.

During each of the four days, there were twenty concurrent sessions conducted. Most of them were conducted in English and there were sessions conducted in French, Italian, and Spanish. A wide swathe of moral issues were dealt with, ranging from fundamental moral theology, bioethics, warfare, justice, globalization and economics, human rights, environment, ecclesiastical authority, human sexuality, AIDS crisis, the use of internet chat rooms and their risks, human suffering, torture and genocide, women’s issues, and others. It was a rich feast of topical choices and one had to choose which sessions to participate in depending on one’s particular interests.

One of the purposes of this gathering is to hear the neglected theological voices of others. This is because much of the sources in moral theological reflections were primarily from Europe and the United States. It is heartening to hear the theology that was being done in Africa and Latin America. There were few others from Asia.

I was very much taken with the theologians from the African continent, and Latin America, many of them women and laity. In presenting their papers on their given topics, they showed they were really on top of their game, with a deep appreciation of the Church’s teachings and traditions, and able to cast these anew in the light of current challenges for the continent, especially in the field of economics, social justice, environment degradation, and human rights. They were doing moral theology from the underside, the source of moral knowing coming from the experience of those who are voiceless and powerless. It was a refreshing lesson on how to do contextual theology while being faithful to Catholic and Church tradition.

What does it mean for the teaching and practice of moral theology in the future? What would be the sources of moral knowledge for theologians and the teaching authority of the church to draw upon? This will be a great challenge for the Church and for the clergy in the course of their ministry to God’s people. With the surge in hunger all over the world among the laity for theology, scripture, and the other ecclesiastical disciplines, the style of ministry would have to be more in tune with theologically and biblically literate laity. It would challenge seminaries to come up with better theological programmes in the formation of their candidates. This situation would also challenge the official Church to come up with better ways of listening to sources of theological knowledge, of formulating their authoritative teachings, and the way that these teachings are communicated.

It is doubtful that a Congress of this scale would be organized on a regular basis since there is so much logistics and expenses involved. But one participant mentioned something that resonated with many of us. He was very much alone in his country where he is ministering. He said that it is heartening to know that in coming to a gathering like this, he is not alone but part of a wider community of Catholic moral theologians who experience great difficulty and sometimes danger in teaching and practicing this discipline. One has to contend very much with Church authority and its teachings, the bishop, the role and formation of conscience, and the place of the moral theologian in all these. Many of the theologians expressed fear in speaking and writing until their jobs are secure! At least in this congress, we were reminded that the official Church has affirmed the vocation of the moral theologian.

There was a proposition that that perhaps the next Congress of this scale could be organized for the 50th anniversary of the Encyclical “Humanae Vitae”, the Encyclical of Pope Paul VI issued in 1968 on birth control and contraception. It was this Encyclical that sparked some of the most intense and passionate discussions over the past four decades on the meaning of Church, of ecclesiastical authority and its place in the believing community, the weight of its authoritative teachings, and how conscience relates to them and formed in the process of making moral decisions.

I certainly hope that this proposition will come to fruition in 2018.

Singaporean Father Bernard Teo joined the Redemptorists and was ordained a priest in 1979. He has taught moral theology at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, Australia and regularly teaches theology in the Philippines.

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