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Challenges in Research in the field of moral theology in Poland

By: Konrad Glombik, Opole University

Research in the field of moral theology has an increasingly interdisciplinary character. This reflects the complexity of the contemporary problems and issues which become the subject of theological and moral reflection, especially bioethical, social, sexuality, marriage and family life issues. An adequate explanation and investigation of such issues requires taking into account the complexity of phenomena, which implies using research findings from other disciplines, including empirical disciplines such as the human and social sciences (e.g., psychology, medicine and sociology). The community of Polish moral theologians generally agrees that the interdisciplinary nature of scientific research needs to be taken into account. Otherwise, we obtain a simplified presentation of contemporary problems and theological and moral issues or a reproduction of patterns of thinking and approaches to traditional moral theology which does not introduce new issues and solutions and is unable to justify, clearly and convincingly, its positions and views. Interdisciplinary research in the field of non-theological disciplines is sometimes conducted by moral theologians alone, which raises questions about competency within these disciplines and the problem of respect for necessary methodological and conceptual distinctions. Undermining one’s own identity is one of the dangers in this regard, when the moral theologian also becomes sociologist, political scientist, psychologist, and cultural anthropologist.

New moral questions are constantly arising which require complex and specialised knowledge. Contemporary moral problems tend to be examined from the perspective of general theological and moral rules and principles, and not only from a case-based point of view. Such an approach meets the criteria of contemporary theological and moral discourse, which includes the ability to take a critical position, to dispute matters of contention, and to explain particular questions on the basis of general principles. In general, we see the decline in a negativistic approach to moral and theological issues, which came down to determining sinful behaviour. The area of sexual ethics was the most affected by this problem. This shift in how moral theology is conducted occurred gradually and is largely a post-conciliar phenomenon seen in the youngest generation of theologians. Research in the field of moral theology should have practical relevance, as Bernhard Häring recognised. Research conducted by Polish moral theologians meets this requirement, though we can find works and studies which are only theoretical in nature. These meet the requirements of abstract discourse, but are deficient in their practical value.

Another problem of research in the field of moral theology in Poland is the issue of language. Latin and the precise language of scholastic theology is incomprehensible to the younger generation and a largely secular society. In general, in the presentation of the results both traditional theological concepts and contemporary, understandable concepts and language are used. Sometimes the lack of clarity and the use of terms and language that are incomprehensible for contemporary people is problematic. A typical example would be the use of the word ‘virtue’, which has both a traditional meaning in moral theology and a contemporary meaning in popular usage.

Another change in the field of theological and moral research relates to the increase in international research collaboration conducted in cooperation with various foreign institutions. The opening of borders enables contacts and exchange between various research centres, and specialized studies and scientific internships for Polish scientists in the major academic centres in Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.S.A. The results are international symposia and publications, as well as the wider dissemination and use of scholarly ideas in moral theology. This enables a broader view on the issues than the view from one’s own local perspective. It also creates the opportunity to jointly analyze problems which are of global concern and to make attempts to search for joint solutions. However, the language barrier can make the implementation of joint research projects difficult.

A distinction is sometimes invoked between liberal and conservative theologians, referring to the different ways of reasoning, argumentation and conducting research in the field of moral theology. The representatives of theological and moral ideas in Poland are attentive to the ecclesiastical requirements of teaching and conducting research. This sometimes results in repeating and commenting upon Magisterial documents and a lack of critical reflection which is the basis of its development. A positive aspect of the church requirement is orthodoxy of views. However, this can lead to a failure to identify new aspects of complex phenomena, uncovered by research in the human sciences and contemporary exegesis.

One of appeals in this regard is the attempt to encourage further interaction on the part of the representatives of traditional approaches, who are loyal to church-teaching, with modern ideas which, though often located on the borderline of the interpretation of the church, can nonetheless be solidly reasoned and clearly presented. It would be an unjustified simplification to label as ‘liberal’ a theologian who is loyal to the Church’s traditions, does not agree with the modern trend and describes his or her position as a conservative, yet who dialogues with such new approaches and uses the ideas contained within them to make critical reflection with regard to the traditional approaches.

Today, one of the most important media for presenting scientific research is the internet, which allows worldwide access to and dissemination of research findings based on various kinds of databases. It appears that this way of disseminating the results of research and gaining access to them is still undervalued and poorly used. From the Polish perspective, the problem is how to disseminate research knowledge to foreign communities. This is related to the quite high formal and methodological requirements of scientific research, the language barrier, the poorly developed international contacts of many scientific communities in Poland, but also to the homogeneity and closing of foreign communities for the achievements of Polish moral theologians. In this context we should expand the opportunities to present and exchange academic research from various countries, which leads to mutual enrichment and a broadening of horizons of thinking about problems.