What is the difference between moral theology and spiritual theology and what do the words asceticism and mysticism mean (2024)

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Dear Father Angelo,

I’m Vincenzo. I would like some clarifications in the field of Spiritual Theology.

What is the difference between Moral Theology and Spiritual Theology?

What is the Spiritual Life and what does it consist of?

Does it include acts of charity towards others or is it only about prayer?

What is the difference between Asceticism and Mysticism?

What does asceticism consist of?

Thank you very much in advance. May the Lord reward you for your service and may He always be in your heart.

Have a good day

Priest’s answer

Dear Vincenzo,

1. First of all, it must be remembered that theology is a single science and its object is God. In it, we distinguish different areas.

When we study God in Himself and in His salvific economy, then we speak of dogmatic theology, now also called systematic theology.

When we investigate God as legislator, guide, and end of human life, we do moral theology.

There is also spiritual theology. This expression refers to that section of theology that studies the germination and development of the Christian life, its struggle, and its perfection.

2. This last discipline until a few decades ago was also called ascetic and mystic, or even theology of Christian perfection.

Initially, when it began to be developed separately from moral theology, it was known as mystical doctrine.

The detachment occurred in the 16th century. Before, it constituted a single discipline with moral theology.

From that same period, morality separated from dogmatics. And it began to be developed mostly as casuistry and as the “morality of the minimum beyond which it was not lawful to go.”

In this way, moral theology lost its momentum and dynamism.

Then there was the need to recover with a new treatment everything related to the progress of the life of grace.

The spiritual writings, mainly by Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, contributed to laying the foundations of this new discipline.

It constitutes a very important part of theology, alongside dogmatic, moral, and liturgical and pastoral theology.

3. Spiritual theology deals with the spiritual life of the Christian and therefore with what the spirit of Jesus operates in us.

It can be defined as the study of the application of the life of Christ to man.

If dogmatics and morals have an essentially theoretical aspect, spiritual theology has a purely practical aspect.

4. By spiritual, we mean the meaning that Saint Paul gave to this word when he spoke of a spiritual man (pneumatikós), of one who is guided by the Spirit of God.

While the soul (psiche) is the vital principle that enlivens the human body, the Spirit (pneuma) is the divine principle that makes man participate in the life of the Son and makes him a new creature.

For Saint Paul, the adjective spiritual is the technical term that indicates the Christian existence guided by the Spirit.

5. Acts of charity, rather than belonging to spiritual theology, belong to special moral theology, whose main study is represented by the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

These virtues constitute the dynamism of the Christian life.

6. Spiritual theology has as its object the development of the Christian life, which passes through stages of purification and leads to a transformative union with Christ, becoming one with Him.

Moreover, spiritual theology is interested in the various charisms and mystical phenomena that it bestows on the Church.

These are extraordinary gifts that can be of a cognitive nature (visions, locutions, revelations), of an affective nature (ecstasies and fires of love), and of a bodily nature (stigmata, fasting, levitation, tears of blood, bilocation…).

As you can see, spiritual theology has a very broad and interesting object.

7. Asceticism derives from the Greek àskesis and means exercise, effort.

Its proper subject is spiritual combat, purifications.

Saint John of the Cross speaks of it as the dark night of the senses and of the spirit.

8. Mysticism derives from the Greek adjective mysticòs and refers to the concept of mystery (mysterion), which means hidden reality.

Undoubtedly, the Christian life is a hidden life with that of Christ in God (Col 3:3) and engages in a combat that remains largely hidden: “I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27).

But its proper object consists of what keeps us united to God through grace, especially through contemplation and the experience of communion of life with Christ.

After this overview, all that remains is for me to wish you to put words into action, to bless you, and to remember you in prayer.

Father Angelo

What is the difference between moral theology and spiritual theology and what do the words asceticism and mysticism mean (2024)
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