Author Kenneth Overberg sets forth his primary assumptions very early in this book by stating, 'Deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition is the conviction that morality is based on reality. Reality is God, human being and the rest of creation--all in relationship. Every moral dilemma presents a small but real slice of this totality.' Overberg draws heavily on the publication in the 1990s of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church and encyclicals such as The Splendor of Truth and The Gospel of Life in this third edition.
While this book is written primarily with a Roman Catholic readership in mind (particularly for RCIA classes and other parish-based study groups), it can be used beneficially by Christians of any denomination. Indeed, it might well be suited for Anglican via-media Christians, given Overberg's emphasis of a discernment method that 'rejects the extremes of blind obedience and relativism.'
The book is essentially broken into two parts. The first part develops the tools of the trade--asking the right questions in the right way, understanding who we are in the first place, and understanding our context as individuals who live in community are key issues. Overberg seeks a process that works when the answers are not binary options, but rather allow for middle ground. He also replaces the word 'should' with the word 'ought,' symbolic of authentic obligation rather than a socially-expected requirement. Of course, all of this working is contingent on the kind of people we are and see ourselves as being, which requires an understanding of the meaning of human life.
The second part then uses these tools to look at three broad categories of issues: topics related to sexual morality (contraception, abortion, homosexuality all get tied together); medical topics (stem-cell research, euthanasia and life-support cessation issues, AIDS, the availability or lack thereof of medical treatment); and social ethics (globalism, war, economic justice). Overberg does not suggest definitive answers, and often not even tentative answers of his own, but rather in each instance repeats the official church teaching, the history of that teaching, where others within and outside the church have disagreed, and what the salient issues and genuine areas of honest disagreement may be. 'Merely repeating a teaching that has been seriously and respectfully questioned does not lead to the same kind of confidence,' Overberg states, as the kind of conversation and analysis that might lead to a fuller understanding, which might 'lead to change or to reaffirmation.' He applies the criteria from the first section specifically to the issues in the second.
Overberg does not have an agenda to push, other than to prompt people to be more deliberate in their approach to moral decisions. In my seminary, one of the primary tasks of the introductory theology class was to distinguish between embedded theology and deliberative theology--that kind of theology that comes to us through various unconscious ways that we develop without being aware of it, and the kind that we understand and develop for ourselves. Students were often suspicious that we were trying to change their minds or their theologies, but in fact a deliberative approach can in fact strengthen what one already believes. Overberg's process of discussion of the different moral questions reminded me of that deliberative process, where it can in fact lead to a reaffirmation of one's beliefs as much as it might lead to a reappraisal.
With its questions for discussion, this is a useful book for discussion groups, as well as for preparation by discussion group leaders. It is also a good text for individual readers to help clarify processes by which they come to moral decisions.