Catholic moral theology is a major category of doctrine in the Roman Catholic church, equivalent to a religious ethics. Moral theology encompasses Roman Catholic social teaching, Catholic medical ethics, sexual ethics, and various doctrines on individual moral virtue and moral theory. It can be distinguished as dealing with "how one is to act," in contrast to dogmatic theology which proposes "what one is to believe." Sources of Catholic moral theology include both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and philosophical ethics such as natural law that are seen as compatible with Catholic doctrine. Moral theology was mostly undifferentiated from theology in general during the patristic era, and is found in the homilies, letters and commentaries on Scripture of the early Church fathers. During the Middle Ages, moral theology developed in precision and scope through scholasticism.
Contemporary Catholic moral theology is developed by both church officials and moral theologians, who are scholars who may be less directly accountable to the Catholic church hierarchy (e.g., Charles Curran, Richard A. McCormick). Moral theology tends to be advanced most authoritatively through official statements of doctrine, such as papal encyclicals and the major works of Vatican II. In addition, moral theologians publish their own works and write in a variety of journals devoted in whole or part to moral theology. These journals are helpful to make the theology of the church more clear and accessible to the laity. However, these journals do not add or remove anything from the Catholic teaching, but rather serve as a forum in which scholarly discussion of unsettled issues occurs.
Major contributors to Catholic theology
St. Thomas Aquinas is considered one of the greatest contributors to Catholic moral theology. His Summa Theologica gives an account of moral theology using the virtues as a framework, situated in a systematic theology of creation and return to God.
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