Institute of Moral Theology

How can human beings lead a good, fulfilled life? How can their communal life with others and the whole of creation succeed sustainably? Which values and rules of conduct can help them? Moral theology tries to give contemporary and reflected responses to these questions. It draws on the resources of direct experience of the Christian faith, while also applying insights from the humanities and the natural sciences. Freedom, the leitmotif of modernity, is its primary principle: How can human beings achieve the greatest possible freedom during their lifetime?

The question of personal identity can be a source of distress to many people today. Given the multitude of life-possibilities the search for one’s own path is an increasingly difficult challenge. Evidently, not all imaginable opportunities are equally meaningful and valuable. Rather, we know that each person, due to their unique life-story, has access to very unique paths and ways to develop their abilities. This allows them to find themselves and realise their potential.

In light of the Christian faith moral theology attempts to reflect on the profound processes of searching which the human being engages in. Its aim is to thereby provide appropriate assistance for important life choices. Moral theology can rely on the rich history of the Christian tradition:

  • The classical theory of the virtues describes the basic moral stances one should take in order to lead a successful life.
  • The spiritual tradition of the so-called “Discernment of Spirits” offers a sophisticated method that allows to receive and to realize the call of God.
  • The stories of the Bible as well as the biographies of the Saints teach us models of successful ways of life that can motivate and positively influence believers.
  • The symbolic performances of the liturgy have the power to reveal to human beings their personal potentiality to accept their life. One is then open to one’s own possibilities.

Moral theology in the service of finding oneself is seen here as a theology of personal vocation. It reflects the paths of each human being who seeks God’s will with an open, hearing heart.

Today, ethical questions play an increasingly important role in political and social discourse. The more we as human beings are capable of in terms of technological advances, the more power we seize in our quest to master the world, the greater our responsibility becomes for what we do. At the same time, however, previously meaningful orientations of our lifeworlds are collapsing. Thus, the call to ethics is becoming increasingly louder, as it depicts qua conscious thought a thorough method of reflection of our judgments and actions. It is crucial today to find generally acceptable ethical standards that ensure a minimum of humanism – especially for the most vulnerable members of society.

Moral theology attempts to give answers to the question, how responsible action is possible today. In order to do so it takes the perspective of the Christian faith into account in its methodological and systematic approach. It begins with the assumption that human life shall and can succeed. At the same time it aims for interdisciplinary dialogue while establishing rational arguments for its recommendations for action. Moral theology is a theological discipline because of its inclusion of the perspective of the Christian faith in its commitment to these questions. The Christian element, however, articulates itself not in its specific substantive demands, but in view of the question of the reason or ground that makes it possible for the human being to act responsibly, despite his limitations and fears.

1. Learning Goals

"… man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure." (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, Nr. 17)

The key objective of the study of moral theology is to promote the students’ capacity for autonomous ethical judgment and action within the horizon of the Christian faith.
This shall enable students to:

  • discuss current ethical problems competently and argumentatively 
  • develop a credible lifestyle 
  • promote others in their ability to form autonomous judgements and make the right life choices

2. Course Contents

In view of this goal, the courses offered in moral theology include:

a) Dealing with current ethical problems and related factual questions, in particular with:

  • Problems of dealing with human life at its beginning and end
  • Problems of dealing with health and sickness
  • Questions regarding the integrity of creation and animal rights
  • Impacts of modern technology on human life
  • Questions regarding sexuality and interpersonal relationships
  • Questions regarding lifestyle, and the relation of spirituality and life praxis (including politics)

In doing so, insights of the human sciences and analysis of the social field of action are premised and included.

b) Reflection of the fundamental principles and the possibility of ethical judgment and action in general, in particular questions regarding:

  • The rationale of ethical judgements in pluralistic societies
  • Biblical foundations of Christian ethics
  • The meaning of the Christian faith for contemporary ethics
  • The meaning, formation, and function of conscience
  • The possibility of human freedom
  • Dealing with guilt and failure
  • The necessity of the formulation of fundamental ethical virtues

An interdisciplinary dialogue with related theological disciplines and especially with philosophical ethics as well as with the social sciences and psychology proves necessary to properly further the cause of moral theology.

3. Modules

The central issues of moral theology are primarily problematised in the following modules: 

  • 2 Semesters “Special Moral Theology“ 
  • 2 Semesters “General Moral Theology“ 

These modules treat topics relevant to a profound understanding of moral theology. They are taught cyclically in compulsory lectures held across four semesters. There are further lectures and seminars that allow deepening the study of particular aspects of moral theology. We are especially proud of our WiEGe-Project (“Business – Ethics – Society; the acronym WiEGe, for Wirtschaft, Ethik, Gesellschaft, means ‘cradle’)

In the 1970s, the global community became aware of the “Limits of Growth” (the title of the 1974 study of the Club of Rome) for the first time. The study found that an ever more extensive and quantitative growth of the economy in industrialized countries would by far exhaust the natural resources available on our planet. Since then, environmental issues (and a little later also animal welfare problems) have become a crucial standard of public discourse and political action. Theological ethics proactively participates in the discussion. Nonetheless, many authors tend to pander to either one side of two extremes: While some contribute little to nothing original to the debate in terms of theological emphases, and merely support mainstream secular environmental ethics with theological terms, others tend to be romantic, even naïve, technophobic and anti-commercial in their arguments and glorification of pre-modern lifestyles.

The apparent deficit of the debate is owed to the failure to provide an original, theologically reflected spirituality of creation in the context of the problem of growth: What does it actually mean for the human approach to the world that we understand the world as God’s creation? This question is scientifically addressed in this area of research. In order to achieve this, fundamental issues such as a sound doctrinal understanding of “creation,” the question of its value, and the creaturely dignity of the non-human creature must be clarified. Biblically relevant texts on the subject as well as their epistemic status in theological ethics require detailed discussion. In particular, basic attitudes like humility, respect, empathy, and a willingness to renounce are examined in terms of their specific religious potential. Under the condition of a sufficiently determined relationship between faith and reason, the goal is to develop a normative concept for a faithful encounter with creation in perception and action. The project aims to remain communicable to and understandable for general social discourse.

The research project includes the following projects: 

  • Laechaem (לֶחֶם): Literature Database for Ethics and Spirituality of Nutrition (since 2008)
  • The Human-Animal-Relationship in Interdisciplinary Dialogue (since 2008)
  • Utility and Dignity of Forest and Wood (since 2012)
  • The Pope Francis' Encyclical "Laudato Si'" and its Importance for the Environmental Debate (since 2015)
  • Vegetarism and Veganism from the Perspective of Christian Ethics (2014-2016)
  • Blessed Meal. Ethical and Spiritual Aspects of Nutrition (2008 – 2014)
  • CONTRA – The Role of Sceptics and Deniers in the Climate Change Debate and Their Influence on Austrian Politics (2011- 2013)
  • Approach to Creation in Benedictine Monasteries (2008 – 2011)
  • Animal Testing in Research (2005 – 2008)

Positioning of the Research Focus and Permanent Collaborations

The research focus was agreed upon in collaboration with colleagues of other Austrian institutes. It is unique in the German-speaking realm. There is a close cooperation with the research project “Social Ethics of Sustainability” at the Chair of Christian Social Ethics of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (Prof Dr Markus Vogt).

Presentations at Scientific Conferences

  • Talk at the Interdisciplinary Symposium at Eferding, 16.-17.09.2013, on the topic "Giving each Animal a/his Name? The Individuality of Animals and its Relevance for Sciences"
  • Talks at public conferences in 2009 and 2013 of the Interdisciplinary Human-Animal-Relationship Research Working Group
  • Talk at the Symposium "World Food Supplies" of the Forum St. Stephan at the University of Salzburg, 12.-13.11.2010, on the topic "The Royal Dish Bread. Moral theological Considerations on Eating and Drinking"
  • Talk at the International Symposium at the Bavarian Department of Agriculture and Forrest at Munich, 13.-14.11.09, on "The Human-Animal-Relationship in the Interdisciplinary Dialogue"
  • Talk at the Symposium "Medizinphilosophie" of the Editorial Staff of  "Aspekte der Medizinphilosophie" and the Interfaculty Center for Ethiks in sciences  (IZEW) at the University of Tübingen, 18.-19.10.2008, on the topic „Eating"
  • Talk at the Austrian Pastoral Conference 2007 in St Virgin in Salzburg on “The Responsibility for the Creation as a Pastoral Task”
  • Talk at the International Congress of Moral Theology and Social Ethics 2003 on “Ethics and Conflicting Convictions”