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Life Arts    H3'ed 4/13/23

John T. Noonan on Slavery in Catholic Moral Thought (REVIEW ESSAY)

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John T Noonan Jr.
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) April 13, 2023: The American Jesuit writer Thomas J. Reese (born in 1945; Ph.D. in political science, University of California, Berkeley) is the author of several books, including Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Harvard University Press, 1996). From 1998 to 2005, he served as the editor-in-chief of the Jesuit-sponsored magazine America. However, he was forced to resign as the editor-in-chief by Pope Benedict XVI. More recently, Father Reese has served as a columnist for the Religion News Service, regularly publishing the column "Signs of the Times." His columns are regularly featured at the National Catholic Reporter website.

Reese's recent column "Pope benedict 'closed' Limbo and no one complained" (dated April 12, 2023) can serve my present purposes as a springboard for discussing the American Catholic author John T. Noonan's still-relevant learned book A Church That Can and Cannot Change (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

You can see Reese's most recent column at Click Here

Briefly, Father Reese says, "The New Testament is full of passages that say baptism is necessary for salvation." "But sending unbaptized infants to hell seemed especially cruel." "No church father before Augustine thought unbaptized children would be punished [in hell]." "St. Augustine, however, believed unbaptized children would experience the misery of the damned [in hell] but be consigned to the mildest part of hell."

According to Father Reese, "Around 1300, the term Limbo, from the Latin 'Limbus,' meaning edge or boundary, became used for the dwelling place of the good or innocent dead [in hell] who were not baptized. They experienced natural happiness but not supernatural happiness."

Father Reese says, "What Pope Benedict did [in officially relegating Limbo to the status of a hypothesis, as distinct from a dogmatic definition of the church's magisterium] was the greatest change in church teaching since the Second Vatican Council."

According to Father Reese, "In history books, Benedict will be remembered as the pope who resigned and as the pope who got rid of Limbo."

Now, Father Reese does not happen to mention Noonan's 2005 book A Church That Can and Cannot Change. To be clear here, the Roman Catholic Church cannot change because it must remain faithful to the deposit of faith as revealed primarily in the New Testament (and secondarily in the Hebrew Bible [also known as the Old Testament]).

The prolific lay American Catholic author John T. Noonan, Jr. (1926-2017; Ph.D. in philosophy, Catholic University of America, 1951) is the author of several classic studies, including The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Harvard University Press, 1957) and Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965; 2nd ed., 1986). Noonan revisits the history of usury in his 2005 book A Church That Can and Cannot Change (for specific page references, see the "Index" [p. 296]). But he devotes most of his 2005 book to discussing the history of thought about slavery (for specific page references, see the "Index" [p. 295]). Overall, Noonan's theme in his 2005 book is the development of moral doctrine in the Roman Catholic tradition of thought.

Ah, but the famous nineteenth-century English convert to the Roman Catholic Church John Henry Newman (1801-1890) famously introduced the idea of the development of Christian doctrine in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845).

See the American Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong's essay "Newman's Essay on Development in Its Intellectual Milieu" in the Jesuit-sponsored journal Theological Studies, volume 7, number 1 (March 1946): pp. 3-45. It is reprinted in volume two of Ong's Faith and Contexts, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (Scholars Press, 1992b, pp. 1-37).

Ong also discusses Newman in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, pp. 18-19, 24, 90, 95-96, 119, 124-126, and 132-133), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

In Noonan's Chapter Sixteen: "Emancipators' Eclat" (pp. 110-118), he quotes certain lines from Hopkins' poem "For What Serves Mortal Beauty?" about Gregory the Great's encounter with beautiful slave boys. Noonan says, "Like Newman, Hopkins had no notion that he was looking at an intrinsically evil institution" (p. 111). (Noonan also discusses Newman on pp. 3-4, 99, 111, 122, 177, 216-218, 222, 226, and 278).

Now, according to Noonan, the first official church document that denounces slavery unequivocally is the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (Latin for "Hope and Joy") - also known as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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