In his new book, The Tyranny of the Banal, theologian David Deane examines why Catholics so often end up on the losing side of moral arguments in modern society.

Winners and losers: how Catholics drop the ball

  • June 22, 2023

On LGBT issues, abortion and euthanasia, theologian David Deane of the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax does not disagree with Church teaching. But, he decries what he calls the unChristian and non-traditional ways Catholics have tried to win these arguments.

“I think we’ve got to foreclose upon the idea that our social order is something that can be won, or that we can force people to live as if they were Catholic through the power of legislation,” said Deane.

A systematic theologian with an interest in the history of doctrine, Deane has wandered into the dangerous territory of moral theologians with his latest book, The Tyranny of the Banal, to be released July 15. Deane picked up the hot potatoes of the culture wars in his latest book because the sight of Catholics flailing away, still trying to win lost arguments, distresses him. He believes it harms the Church.

“Catholics, in trying to win arguments in civil society, are essentially trying to dominate civil society and pretend that we can simply use politics to gain control and to coerce people, and that’s a real problem,” he said. “What we can do is have a shared conversation about the problems and then, through our mode of being in the world — who we are, living differently; through the beauty and winsomeness of our perspectives — attract people.”

Those battles include taking on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and many more. The Church has argued against all of these. And the Church has lost.

Since at least the 1980s, “natural law theory” has dominated Catholic arguments about contentious issues of morality. The idea of natural law has a long history, going back to St. Augustine, St. Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas. But a contemporary version of this tradition became a political strategy for conservative, mostly American Catholics after Humanae Vitae in 1968.

When American philosopher Germain Grisez gained influence with Pope St. John Paul II, as the pontiff was writing his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, natural law theory began to pour down from pulpits and crowd the curricula of seminaries.

The historian in Deane finds this strange. Natural law arguments are not Christian arguments, Deane points out. When St. Augustine used natural law arguments he was looking for common ground for conversations with pagans. He was setting aside his own faith in Christ and a trinitarian God while he spoke with people who did not yet have this experience of redemption and salvation. When St. Thomas Aquinas invoked natural law, he was seeking to convince Muslims.

Modern natural law theory, however, has been used exclusively within the confines of Western Christian tradition. It amounts to one minority of Christians trying to convince the rest of us that the natural order demands a specific, particular kind of politics and attendant legislation.

“Less and less are Catholics buying it,” observes Deane. “Because Catholics are saying, ‘Actually, that doesn’t make sense; that doesn’t follow.’ ”

Modern natural law theory tries to ground its arguments for moral truth in recitations of quantifiable, measurable, sober scientific fact.

A Christian argument would be grounded in the Trinity, said Deane. A Christian would argue that abortion cuts us off from oneness with God, from participation in the life of the Trinity, because all of human life, including a fetus, is willed by God. The purpose of a Christian argument would not be to win in the courts, to rally public opinion or to influence legislation.

“The hold of public space (politics) on the Christian moral imagination is problematic,” Deane writes in The Tyranny of the Banal. “This is not as significant a factor in the collapse of the Catholic moral imagination as the ascent of secular moral reasoning and the divorce of Catholic positions from their foundation in the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is a factor.”

Deane does not offer a formula for winning at politics. He may not like losing, but neither does he want to win.

“The colonization of our theological imaginations by modern politics is toxic,” said Deane. “I’m not really interested in criminalizing immorality. The fact that the Catholic focus for a long, long time has been on, ‘How can we help the criminalization of immorality?’ I think, is part of the problem.”

More than non-combatants, Deane wants Catholics to be conscientious objectors to the culture wars.

As sojourners in this world, the focus of a moral life should be to constantly discover the Holy Spirit active in the world, unite ourselves with the actions of the Holy Spirit and thus find ourselves one with the Body of Christ, who is one with the Father. For Deane, who has never been accused of any sort of liberalism, the Trinity is the beginning and end of moral theology.

Deane’s doubts about modern natural law theory are not really the lonely misgivings of an outsider to the field of moral theology. Moral theologians themselves have been questioning the approach for years, said Redemptorist moral theologian Fr. Mark Miller, who points to the work of the late Fr. Brian Johnstone of Catholic University of America, the Alphonsian Academy and Gregorian University in Rome. Johnstone was father of the “gift theory” of moral theology. He sought to connect moral theology with spiritual theology and with Scripture.

“We have to take the Resurrection into account in our moral thinking,” said Miller.

The problem with natural law theory has been that it begins with Church rulings on particular moral questions — often questions involving sex — and then works to justify the Catholic rules as logical and scientifically sound. Miller likens this school of moral reasoning to the Pharisees’ legalistic approach.

“What we (Christians) are called to do is not simply avoid sin, it’s to imitate the Saviour,” Miller said. “This doesn’t mean that you get rid of the law, it just means you temper the law. It has to be complemented by the virtuous life, or virtue ethics.”

Rather than a Protestant notion of personal salvation, a Catholic vision of the moral life sees it as the larger ocean we swim in. For Deane, we strive toward the moral life by struggling to build a community. Rather than seeking guerillas for our political and cultural battles, Deane sees the future in pastors who form and lead communities of faith.

“They should be able to form a congregation that can live into the Kingdom of God, that can live differently,” he said. “They can say, ‘OK, outside of this place the richest go to the top and the weakest go to the wall. But in this community, the last are first and the first are last. In this community, no one is going to struggle to pay the mortgage. In this community, no one is going to die alone, no one is going to suffer alone. And no one is going to fail to be able to support their families. And we can live differently.”

The 290-page monograph can be ordered at

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