Attention to the history of attitudes toward leprosy in Christian history has been particularly helpful. There is now widespread agreement that the term "leprosy" was applied in the ancient world to a variety of skin complaints and disfigurements, rather than just to the disease of leprosy in the modern sense. Within Leviticus, for example, the concern about leprosy is more to do with ritual pollution than with contagion (it was "soiling" rather than "catchy"). As a result of this distinction, some translations of the New Testament now prefer to substitute a reference to "skin complaints" for the term "leprosy" in stories such as that of the ten "lepers" in Luke.
Despite the Synoptic Gospel stories about Jesus healing and even touching "lepers" (Mark 1:41), a fear of leprosy remained within the medieval Church. This fear even helped to shape church buildings, with the aim of reducing contact between lepers and non-lepers. Through narrow slanted windows lepers were allowed to view the central actions of the Mass without polluting other members of the congregation.
Leprosy was also given particular attention within more recent Christian missions. Before the invention of modern drugs, the isolation and sometimes courageous care of lepers by medical missionaries was often cited by Victorians as evidence of deep Christian faith. In postcolonial studies such missionary work tends to be viewed more circumspectly. Motives other than pure Christian altruism are detected by some as underlying many "heroic" missionary endeavors.
Very similar changes can also be found in moral theology/Christian ethics (distinctions between "morality" and "ethics" tend to be rather contrived: in origin the first derives from Latin and the second from Greek). A changing constituency within the Western academy, allied to a shift towards hermeneutics, has radically changed the discipline. However, in this instance, the current dominance of virtue ethics presents a particularly intricate intertwining of faith, practice, and theology - an intertwining which I believe characterizes applied theology in general.
A generation ago, when university theological students were predominantly young, male ordinands, Christian ethics (if it was taught at all in Britain) was distinctly more confessional in character than it is today. Classic Anglican moral theologians of the first half of the twentieth century, such as Kenneth Kirk and Robert Mortimer (both later to become bishops), presented a mixture of ethical/theological analysis and advice on pastoral practice in their books. They could assume that their audience of ordinands shared the same faith and religious practices as themselves and were looking to be guided about how they should respond to ethical issues once they were themselves ordained. Similarly, Roman Catholic moral theologians of the time, or Church of Scotland practical theologians north of the Border, also mixed analysis and pastoral advice in their work, and simply assumed that they wrote from faith to faith within their respective communities. As a result Roman Catholic moral theologians of this period largely ignored Luther and Calvin, just as Scottish practical theologians paid little attention to Aquinas. Christian ethics at the time was predominantly confessional, both in its scope and in its approach. That is, it was written from within particular denominations, by people of particular faith traditions, to fellow believers.
Within the Western academy such an approach would be less likely to commend itself today. An approach to Christian ethics that simply bypassed one of the major traditions would usually be judged to be inadequate. Roman Catholic theologians have now entered the mainstream of the Western academy and, in the process, have ensured that the natural law tradition is taken seriously even within formerly Presbyterian or Anglican faculties. In turn, these Roman Catholic theologians have taken seriously the biblical scholarship generated by generations of Reformed and Anglican theologians. This two-way process has ensured that Christian ethics is now more genuinely ecumenical than it typically was a generation ago. Scholars across denominations and across different faith traditions mutually read each other's works. They may still disagree with each other - ecumenical dialog does not guarantee consensus - but they are less likely than hitherto simply to ignore each other.
This shift within the academic study of Christian ethics entails changes similar to those already noted in other areas of theology: critical comparison tends to replace a mono-confessional approach; pluralism rather than consensus predominates; and a degree of academic detachment becomes evident. There is no need to rehearse these points again within this new context.
However, there is one point that is new here. A multi-confessional approach to Christian ethics soon reveals that there are incommensurable moral differences between Christians. Of course, there always were real moral differences between Christians within particular denominations. Nevertheless, as long as Christian ethics was conducted separately by denominations, each might maintain the hope that their internal moral differences could in time be resolved. The doctrine of the "consensus of the faithful" reinforced this hope. But once Christian ethics is studied in a multi-confessional and ecumenical context, then it soon becomes apparent that such differences are in reality incommensurable. For example, there is no way finally to resolve crucial differences between denominations about when full human life begins or when, if ever, it is legitimate to end human life. As a result, bioethics and just-war ethics have both faced differences between Christians, which a comparative, critical approach to Christian ethics can help us better to understand but not to resolve. More than that, such an approach has revealed that there are sometimes stronger connections on particular moral issues between Christians and their secular counterparts than there are between opposing Christians.
The current debates about stem cell research or physician-assisted suicide demonstrate this clearly. Supporters and opponents of stem cell research using embryos created by cell nuclear replacement can be found amongst both Christians and secularists. Within particular denominations it can, of course, be maintained that only one side represents "orthodoxy" from a Christian perspective. Traditionalist Roman Catholics have indeed held this view, condemning such stem cell research as contrary to natural law and to the gospel. Yet across denominations such claims to "orthodoxy" soon appear tendentious where there is no agreement about when full human life begins, or indeed whether an embryo created by cell nuclear replacement constitutes a potential human being at all.
Even physician-assisted suicide, which is rejected by most denominations, is not condemned by all theologians. The latter tend to argue that it is too readily concluded from the doctrines of creation and resurrection that physician-assisted suicide is wrong. In contrast, they maintain that a belief that there is a life beyond this life might actually encourage Christians to believe that there is no need to cling to this life. My point is not to side here with either position but merely to suggest that a critical comparative approach to Christian ethics soon reveals incommensurable differences of faith and practice between Christians on moral issues.
Given this, a shift away from ethical decision-making within academic Christian ethics and toward virtue ethics is hardly surprising. As a result of this shift, recent Christian ethics has rediscovered new links with systematic theology and, ironically, with sociology. Within virtue ethics the focus is upon virtuous character and upon those communities that nurture and shape character. We are the products less of rational, individualistic moral decisions made from one situation to another than of ways of living shaped by tradition and community. As Christians our moral lives and characters are shaped by the faith and practice of worshipping communities and the traditions that they carry over the centuries. Such an understanding of Christian ethics places it firmly within the broader context of applied or practical theology.
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