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The Christological and Ecclesiological

Dimensions of Moral Theolgy:

An Overview of Livio Melina’s

Sharing in Christ’s Virtues

Rev. Brian P. Christensen


            Livio Melina, in his Sharing in Christ’s Virtues, [1] presents a sketch for a renewal of moral theology in light of John Paul II’s 1993 Encyclical Letter, Veritatis Splendor.  Whereas many critics have emphasized the encyclical’s criticisms of “certain interpretations of Christian morality which are not consistent with ‘sound teaching,’” [2] Melina hopes to present a positive program that will meet the “legitimate demands for renewal” of moral theology called for by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. [3]Much ink has been spilled over the second part of Veritatis Splendor in which John Paul II sets out “the principles necessary for discerning what is contrary to ‘sound doctrine’” (VS, 30).  In this section, the Pope highlights problems and errors within the contemporary field of moral theology, especially regarding the relationship between freedom and the law; conscience and truth; fundamental choice and specific kinds of behavior; and the nature of the moral act.  However, as Melina emphasizes, this is done in the context of the initial and enlightening reflection on the encounter of the rich young man and Jesus found in Part One.  The Pope enumerates the essential elements of morality that arise from this encounter:  “the subordination of man and his activity to God, the One who ‘alone is good”; the relationship between the moral good of human acts and eternal life; Christian discipleship, which opens up before man the perspective of perfect love; and finally the gift of the ‘new creation’” (VS, 28).  Furthermore, little attention, according to Melina, has been given to Part Three where John Paul II considers morality in its ecclesial context.  It is in view of this lacuna that Melina takes up the invitation for renewal extended by the Council and reissued by John Paul II.

            There are three aspects or dimensions of moral theology to which Melina draws our attention:  the first person perspective, the Christological foundation, and the ecclesial nature of Christian moral life.  To his mind, these particular aspects of the encyclical have been relatively neglected in the initial reactions to Veritatis Splendor and they constitute the main thrusts of renewal arising out the Council.  He is not dismissing or treating lightly the real problems posed by the revisionists (consequentialists, proportionalists, etc.); rather, he hopes to construct a solid framework for the renewal that would set firm principles and foundations and thus preclude serious errors and departures from “sound doctrine.”  Melina’s proposal for a renewed theological understanding of Christian moral action is to root it in one’s “participation in the virtues of Christ by means of the grace of our ecclesial incorporation into him” (Melina, 6).  In this, he seeks to place Christian morality upon a firm Christological foundation and within the context of the ecclesial communion of faith.  The first person perspective and the role of virtue play decisive roles in Melina’s proposal for renewal.

            Sharing in Christ’s Virtues is presented in two parts corresponding to Melina’s principal objectives.  Part One is dedicated to establishing a Christological basis for moral theology.  Here, Melina proposes a “‘Christocentrism of the virtues,’ which understands the moral life of the Christian as a participation in the virtues of Christ, by means of the grace of one’s incorporation into the Church” (Melina, 7).  In Part Two, he sets about presenting the Church as the proper home of morality, “the place where the call to holiness is perceived, where the virtues of the Christian mature, where conscience is formed in the truth” (Melina, 9).  A brief review of his work will help us understand his approach and its effectiveness for the ongoing renewal of moral theology in light of Veritatis Splendor.

A Crisis of Modern Subjectivity

            Before entering into a proposed remedy or offering the lines of a solution to the current problems in moral theology, Melina outlines the crisis and its deep roots in the history of philosophy and theology.  According to Melina, the contemporary worldview, and moral theology in particular, are experiencing a crisis of “a radical subjectivization of morality” (15).  What has been called into question, in modern times, is the ability to judge between good and evil.  There is a claim, in light of a radical and absolute individualism, to “an autonomous conscience” (VS, 55).  Any outside authority, such as the magisterium, is viewed as an “arbitrary intrusion” into the private and intimate realm of the individual conscience.  Melina clearly sees that we are the witnesses to a “moral schism” in which “the individual moral conscience is therefore emancipated from ecclesial ‘communion’” (Melina, 17).  At its heart, Melina recognizes this subjectivization of morality to be “a crisis of modern subjectivity” in which the personal subject himself is lost “as the indispensable reference point for moral responsibility” (Melina, 18).  If man is the measure of all things, without recourse to an objective reference save his own feelings and desires, he becomes “the fragmented and individualistic I, unable to become a free subject of action…” (19).

            At the root of this crisis of modern subjectivity is a double rupture first presented in Veritatis Splendor and further discussed by Melina.  The first rupture is between freedom and truth.  The second is between faith and morality.  In each case, the personal subject steps outside his own creaturely reality to assert an independent and unconditioned liberty without connection to the truth of his nature or to the truth of his life of faith.  This false notion is already taken up in the encyclical:  “And since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness” (VS, 48). 

            To recapture the moral subject, Melina first proposes, along the lines of Veritatis Splendor, a “relocation of morality in its theological context” (24).  A specific Christian morality arises out of the encounter of the human person with Christ.  Melina never explicitly addresses the question of a specifically Christian morality; however, on several occasions he highlights certain uniquely Christian aspects of the moral life.  In this case, in reconstructing the Christian moral subject, he seeks to rediscover the nexus between freedom and truth, and then between faith and morality.  These two “problems” find their solutions through the perspective of the first person’s – the acting person’s – encounter with Christ within the context of the Church.

A First Person Perspective

            A significant step towards a solution of the two “problems” begins with a change of perspective.  Regarding the current disconnect between freedom and truth, it is necessary to relocate the point of reference to the first person.  Whereas “truth” or the “law” is seen or experienced as an “imposition” from outside, the first person perspective recognizes the subject as determining himself by the free choices he makes according to the truth of his nature.  Rather than a “morality of law” or a “morality of norms,” which is constructed from the perspective of the third person – the viewpoint of a judge or observer – the first person perspective moves towards a “morality of virtues” (5).  According to Melina:  “What is designated here as the ‘ethics of the first person’ is rooted within the perspective of the subject, who in his acting is called upon to realize acts that are excellent, that direct him to his own fulfillment” (39).  Once again, this stands in contradistinction to the contemporary “ethics of the third person,” so often defended by revisionist theologians, in which the human act “is considered as an event that happens and provokes a certain state of affairs, which is in conformity with or not in conformity with a legal rule” (39).  The first person perspective, according to Melina, includes the concepts of finality or destiny, the good life, and virtue.  In this way, freedom and truth are coincident in the acting subject who is called to act according to his nature, discovering that direction and desire arising from within.  He is called to act according to the truth of his own nature.

            Secondly, the nexus between faith and morality finds a new foundation through the first person perspective.  Veritatis Splendor warns of a dualism that threatens the human person when faith and morality (expressed as “fundamental option” and “particular moral acts”) are disjoined at their root.  “To separate the fundamental option from the concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul” (VS, 67).  From the perspective of the acting person, the moral subject comes to birth “from the encounter, namely, between the quest for happiness or blessed fulfillment, which dwells in the human heart and motivates every initiative of his freedom, and the person of Jesus…” (27).   There is one moral subject, the human person, who recognizes the truth in the person of Jesus Christ and freely determines his life, through the particular actions of choice, in relationship to this truth.  “Faith does not exclude but rather includes human morality, showing the ultimate meaning of the requirements that reason also can discover on its own” (30).

A Christological Foundation

            Beginning with this turn to the first person perspective, Melina is able to move easily to the Christological foundations of a renewed moral theology.  Following the lead of John Paul II – “Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality” – Melina sees the Christian moral life arising out the “encounter with Christ, who attracts and at the same time calls us to conversion” (9).  There is a personal encounter at the heart and foundation of the Christian’s life; it is an encounter with Christ who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  For Melina, in line with Gaudium et spes, “reference to Christ is critical for an understanding of man as such and not just as a Christian – that is for any man who wishes to understand his being, his vocation, and hence the ultimate meaning of his acting” (117).  He suggests that the moral theology proposed by Veritatis Splendor is not only Christological but “Christocentric” (117).  Melina considers the follow statement to be the “most radical and precise affirmation of the Christocentric character of moral theology”:  “Christ is the ‘Beginning’ who, having taken on human nature, definitively illumines it in its constitutive elements and in its dynamism of charity towards God and neighbor” (VS, 53).

            Melina develops a classical anthropology where man, in encountering particular goods, seeks the Good which is the source of them all: this is the promise of happiness.  There is an anticipated fulfillment that this ultimate Good promises which motivates the person’s desire.  “Desire finds its origin in love, and love its origin in an experience of particular fullness, in the promise of a personal communion, granted at the very dawn of the moral life” (41).  Morality arises as the “ordering of desire and of will required for a good life… that interior harmony that reason introduces into our passions and choices precisely so that man might be himself” (45).  Ultimately, this “‘classical’ ethic of the first person, which has as its theme the question of the good life, is a morality rooted in happiness” (45).

            “Christian revelation proposes a surprising and superabundant fulfillment of the desire for happiness…” (121).  If morality is the ordering of this desire towards its fulfillment – self-realization and attainment of happiness – then it is the encounter with Christ that awakens this aspiration for ultimate fulfillment.  “In the encounter with Jesus the desire is saved from the possible danger of withdrawal into self and elevated toward an unheard-of goal of fulfillment” (121).  Jesus invites the person into the original and ultimate source of the Good, an intimate relationship with him through a wholehearted discipleship.  It is in Christ, in relationship to him, that the desire for the Good is awakened and finds its promise of fulfillment.

            In this context, the virtues play an all important role.  Based upon the work of St. Bonaventure and the “great medieval tradition of the Franciscan school,” Melina outlines what he terms a “Christocentrism of the virtues” (129).  In the first instance, we can say that Christ is the exemplar of the virtues: “exemplar excitativum virtutum” (129).  In this way, Christ motivates man to pattern his life, by a free response, on the divine exemplar which leads to fulfillment.  However, in the second instance, Christ is not only the exemplar but the origin and goal of the moral life.  Furthermore, he is also the efficient cause of the moral life through the offering of grace.  Christ as “model” remains primarily exterior to the person, but he enters interiorly through the Holy Spirit and the work of grace.  “The imitation of Christ thus becomes participation in the virtues themselves….  From the meeting with Christ there comes to life that ‘fire of love (incendium amoris) that causes one to be virtuous” (132).  This virtuousness is not merely an interior disposition, but leads to action.  For Melina – as for Bonaventure – this is meritorious action: an act that reflects “the ecstatic character of a love that, overcoming all withdrawal into itself, turns to the Good, loving it for itself” (133).  In this way, through virtue and the human person’s participation in the virtues of Christ, Melina intimately links the individual Christian with Christ.

            Through his “Christocentrism of the virtues,” Melina claims to have achieved several objectives.  First, by establishing a morality on final beatitude, charity, and virtue, he wants to go beyond “the minimalism of an ethics of the norm.”  He sees this approach as overcoming the artificial division between morality and spirituality.  Second, grounding the virtues in Christ opens up a dynamic interplay of virtue and grace.  This leads to the “specifically Christian character of morality” in which the virtues “become the expression of a Christlike form of existence in which the glory of God shines forth in the life of man, son in the Son” (135).  Third, the category of virtue offers a “human and rational premise for a Christocentric morality of charity that makes it possible to go beyond a morality of pure obligation…” Once again, the first person perspective permits a deeper appreciation for the way in which, through human action, “the subject is called to actuate himself precisely as a person” (135).  Fourth, this approach maintains “the organic unity of the Christian moral life” (135).  Fifth, while focusing on the primacy of the virtues, the commandments are not ignored (Melina dedicates some important discussion to this relationship between virtues and commandments).  Rather, the commandments are a “pedagogical stage relative to the formation of the moral virtues” and while they are necessary, they are “insufficient and must find their fulfillment in charity” (136).

The Ecclesial Dimensions of Moral Theology

            In Part Two of his book, Melina desires to overcome the same critical and principal problems – the false oppositions of truth and freedom, of faith and morality – by reweaving “the ‘theological bonds between morality and Christology, theological anthropology, and ecclesiology” (140).  In is in the Church, within the ecclesial communion, that such a “reweaving” can take place, since it is in the Church that all these disciplines find a home.  Therefore, at the heart of Melina’s project is to uncover the “ecclesial dimension of moral theology” seeing the “the Church as the place of morality” (141).

            To arrive at the ecclesial dimensions of morality, Melina initially returns to his Christocentic argument.  Christians are predestined for happiness or beatitude in communion with God through their predestination as “sons in the Son.”  This is the aim of the Christian life – a life of faith and moral action – that is “actuated” through a participation in the virtues of Christ.  Beyond simply respecting his nature, the one who follows Christ is “fulfilling a unique and singular call from the personalizing relationship that each person has with God” (87).  This life in Christ, who is, in a sense “the concrete norm of moral behavior,” becomes universal for all people at all times through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Each person is invited, through a personal encounter with Christ, to the fullness of life that he alone can offer.  This universal and personal encounter is also “objective” through the action of the same Holy Spirit in the life of the Church (cf. 148-150).  Through the sacrament of Baptism, the baptized person “is now ‘in Christ,’ in-corporated in him and, at the same time, ‘con-corporated’ with one’s new existence” (150).  Through the action of the Holy Spirit, a person enters into a life in Christ and a communal life in his body, the Church.  “Belonging to Christ as members of one body bestows, at the level of the Church, the gift of the ‘we’ consciousness, without diminishing the personal responsibility of each, according to the model of the Most Holy Trinity” (150). 

            Several consequences follow from this ecclesial understanding regarding the moral life.  First, it squarely situates the moral life in the context of the life of faith.  There is no extrinsic division between the transcendent and categorical orders of faith and moral behavior.  The two aspects are intimately united in the one moral subject, the one action of the Holy Spirit, and the one ecclesial body of the Church.  Any approach to the contrary would, in Melina’s words, “place oneself in contradiction to the dynamics of the Incarnation, which brings salvation not only to the spirit, but to the whole man in the concreteness of his own choices” (180).  This applies especially to the moral conscience which is formed and informed through the ecclesial community entrusted with the “Spirit of all truth,” the witnesses of the saints, the communal life of virtue, and the grace of the sacraments, and living word.  “The communion dimension is not an extrinsic or accessory instance with respect to the search for truth that animates moral conscience: it is rather intrinsic and constitutive of it” (184). 

            Secondly, sometimes this discussion surrounding the ecclesial dimension of moral theology is reduced to a debate regarding the role and competence of the magisterium; however, Melina sees a broader and more dynamic ecclesiology at work vis-à-vis the moral subject.  The relationship between morality and ecclesiology cannot be limited to simple obedience to the magisterium; instead, Melina draws our attention to the call to holiness.  “Holiness, which is first given to the Church, is then communicated by her to individual faithful members through the sacraments, which see to it that they develop in life right up to the perfection of charity” (176).  Throughout this growth in holiness, the Church serves as Mater et Magistra who “generates life through the sacraments and an abode that offers shelter and favors growth – an environment in which the witness of brothers, particularly that of the saints, creates a favorable atmosphere for moral maturation” (176).  There is a whole dynamic to the life in Christ – a moral and faithful life – which finds it home in his body, the Church.

            Finally, the person who is in-corporated in Christ and con-corporated in the Church finds himself in an open dialogue with God and the community (190).  It is through this dialogue or communion that the person is “born,” in the sense of realizing his authentic vocation in Christ and in the community.  It is within the ecclesial communio that one is “personalized.”  Within this same communio, one’s conscience becomes “ecclesial” by opening “toward the truth that shines in Christ” (189).  In this way, Melina sees the Christian conscience as an essentially “ecclesial” conscience.


            In answer to two of the most challenging problems within contemporary moral theology, Livio Melina, sets a firm and solid basis for response in his proposed “Christocenstrism of the virtues” and his “ecclesial dimension of morality.”  Both problems – the rupture between truth and freedom and the separation between faith and morality – can be seriously engaged on the basis of their faulty Christology and minimalist Ecclesiology.  In the search for an “autonomous ethics,” many revisionist moral theologians have seemingly failed to adequately account for the uniqueness of the Christian claim, namely that in Christ, man’s ultimate dignity and destiny have been revealed.  The revisionists appear to have given little consideration to the innovation of Gaudium et spes in which theological anthropology and Christology were given a new and mutual impetus (GS, 22).  Melina has taken both these aspects into serious consideration as he developed his proposal for renewal.  Even within his system of virtues, a so-called “autonomous ethic” (by which I mean an ethic without the explicit encounter with Christ) could find a more solid home; and it could even serve as a preparation for the Gospel as opposed to a “separate” and “legitimate” option to Christian morality.

            Melina’s presentation of the ecclesial dimension of morality, intrinsic to the whole Christian life, highlights the integrity of the Christian person in faith and morals as well as in truth and freedom.  The unifying aspect of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and her members also helps us to see truth as intrinsic to the communal life of faith.  This seems to be the promising start of an adequate response to certain revisionist moral theologians who see an opposition between individual moral conscience and the truths proposed by the Church.  Some of the same theologians also draw a distinction and separation (direct or indirect) between one’s “transcendental” life of faith or fundamental option and one’s “categorical” human behavior.  However, Melina’s approach permits him to state clearly:  “The God of the Law, we could say, does not remain in the transcendental and formal dimensions of intentionality, but enters into the categorical in order to save the concrete flesh of human action” (181).  Both his Christocentrism and his ecclesiology take seriously the Incarnation and its profound consequences.

            Finally, the shift of perspective from the third person to the first person subject serves a valuable role in the ongoing renewal of moral theology.  One of the principal errors of the revisionists remains a seemingly intransigent insistence upon the moral act as event.  Looking at the “event” from a third person perspective, they seek to evaluate the morality of the action, based upon on the external state of affairs generated by that action.  It is an approach that is more concerned with the objective state of affairs than with the self-determination of the acting subject.  For this reason, Melina’s resolve with regard to a first person perspective is both promising and appealing.

            In all three areas – the first person perspective, the Christocentrism of the virtues, and the ecclesial dimension of moral theology – Melina finds a basis within the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Veritatis Splendor.  As he freely admits within his book, more work needs to be done is these various areas to develop a more thorough and comprehensive moral theology for our age.  Nevertheless, in his Sharing in Christ’s Virtues, Livio Melina has provided richly for the renewal of moral theology by laying a solid foundation upon the principles articulated by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor.


1. Livio Melina, Sharing in Christ’s Virtues:  For a Renewal of Moral Theology in Light of Veritatis Splendor, (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 2001), William May, trans., hereafter Melina.

2. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993), no. 29, hereafter VS.

3. Optatam Totius, no. 16 in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1992), Austin Flannery, O.P., ed.  “In like manner the other theological subjects should be renewed through a more vivid contact with the Mystery of Christ and the history of salvation.  Special care should be given to the perfecting of moral theology.  Its scientific presentation should draw more fully on the teaching of holy Scripture and should throw light upon the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world.”

Copyright ©; Rev. Brian P. Christensen 2003

Version: 21st January 2003

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