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Christian ethics

The Christian ethics (theological ethics) is one of the basic disciplines of theology. It deals with the reflection of the moral good in the context of Christian theology. According to the older definition, Christian ethics is “the science of the Christian rules of life, by the observance of which man is delivered from sin and perfected to the image of God.”

Sermon on the Mount (1877, by Carl Heinrich Bloch)(Sermon on the Mount (1877, by Carl Heinrich Bloch) depicts Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he commented on the Old Covenant and summarized his teachings. Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant.)

Subdivision of discipline

The theological ethics is assigned in the canon of Christian theology of systematic theology – together with dogmatics, philosophy of religion and fundamental theology. The traditional subject Christian social studies is included in some faculties as part of theological ethics, partly according to a professional understanding, which faces the Christian social studies as a social ethic and applied ethics of a fundamental ethics conceived especially in an individual-ethical way. Sometimes the Christian social studies is led to a hermeneutics of the Christian social doctrine.

Theological ethics includes both the reflection of the moral good from the standpoint of the individual – the so-called individual ethics – as well as the criteria of a just society – the so-called social ethics. The term “theological ethics” was originally used – in the second half of the 19th century – mainly by Protestant theologians. In Catholic theology, for a long time, it was “moral theology”, the term for the whole area of ​​theological moral reflection. Since the end of the 19th century, in addition, chairs have been set up for the “Christian Social Teaching”. Hence, there is still a predominant division of work between individual ethics and social ethics. The term “moral theology” is then further used in part for the whole of both perspectives, but often also for the individual ethics alone. On the other hand, both disciplines together are often referred to by the term “theological ethics”, which above all also implies a demarcation from philosophical ethics and also indicates that the earlier counterposition to Protestant ethics is no longer represented. Both major disciplines of theological ethics can be subdivided into numerous sub-disciplines and are often pursued at two different chairs. As far as their cause is concerned, it is often argued that these are not separate subject areas, but two differently accentuated (individuals versus structures).

The theoretical foundations of theological ethics, in which, among other things, the principles and methods of justifying concrete moral judgments and moral validity claims are treated at all, are often referred to as fundamental ethics or fundamental morality, now and then as moral theology or as part of it together with individual ethics and overlaps in the subject area with the moral philosophy. It often becomes the philosophical-theological treatise of theological anthropology (especially in view of the theory of action and freedom) as well as the doctrine of the conscience assumed or connected. In accordance with today’s diversity of methods in theological ethics, fundamental ethics in many current concepts is no longer just part of an individual ethic or closely related “moral theology”.

Partly transversely to the distinction of the individual (conscience) and society (justice, institutions, structures), the subject area is subdivided into subject areas – often called “areas of life” in an anthropological perspective, whose respective specific responsibilities are also referred to as “area ethics”, including: (theological) bioethics, medical ethics, business ethics, cultural ethics, sports ethics, media ethics, educational ethics, sexual ethics, political ethics, institutional ethics, etc.


Whether and how the prerequisites for divine revelation are included in the methodological implementation is, like many other questions of the fine determination of method and object, judged differently by different expert representatives.

Following controversies that have been going on since the 1960s, a distinction is made between belief-ethical and autonomous approaches to justifying the moral. The former – and the term moral theology is sometimes used in a specific way – assumes that it is only in the horizon of Christian understanding of self and of the world that a full conception of reason and good is possible. The latter emphasize that an autonomous, universally justifiable argumentation is necessary for the foundation of the good, but that its results are to be integrated into the context of Christian ideas, whereby criticism remains possible on both sides.

As faith ethicists are among other Bernhard Stoeckle, Joseph Ratzinger, Heinz Schürmann, Robert Spaemann or Hans Urs von Balthasar. There is often a strong continuity with traditional positions that assume a natural predisposition of the moral.

Franz Böckle and Alfons Auer are the first representatives of a decidedly autonomous statement of morality. Religious contexts here have the status of a broadening horizon of motivation and meaning, but they are not an argumentative prerequisite for moral judgment. In fact, today only a few theological ethicists pursue the program of a strict ethics of faith.

In line with the broad field of modern approaches to justifying the moral right, diverging research programs are also pursued in today’s theological ethics. In metaethics, in fact, predominantly or exclusively, realistic and cognitivist positions are defended, which are at best mitigated, for example, to accommodate reservations to general regulations of concrete conflict situations and to defend moderate relativistic options.

With regard to the alignment of normative ethics were classically deontological (duty-oriented) prefers theories, often supplemented by teleological (goal-oriented) perspectives, often on the basis of strong ontological conditions and embedded in natural law ideas. Today, with the exception of amoralistic positions, individual expert representatives receive almost all contemporary moral philosophical approaches, including deontological, contract theory , discourse theory , transcendental pragmatic, narrative and model-ethical and virtuous ethics, very rarely even younger utilitarian approaches to methods and justifications, as well as, for example, attempts to integrate ideas of critical theory and other schools – often by means of specific modifications.

An integrative methodology of theological ethics have been proposed, inter alia, Werner Schöllgen, Hermann Ringeling, Wolfgang Huber, Wilhelm Korff. What is meant is not only an interdisciplinary interested case by case integration of information, but a “universal action-guiding integration theory”. Dietmar Mieth, in his program “Ethics in the Sciences,” assumes somewhat weaker general assumptions, but proposes, with similar intent, a “conductive method,” which begins with a “hermeneutics of anticipation” and a “knowledge of the pertinent facts,” following a “rationalization of the alternatives” into a “consideration of the priorities for the constitution of the correct moral judgments”.

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