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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Tobias Winright, PhD

Gordon: When did you study at the University of South Florida - St. Petersburg, what degree did you earn, and what is one of your favorite memories when you were there?

Tobias: Although my work as a theologian and an ethicist spans approximately 25 years, my first full time job was in law enforcement, initially as a corrections officer in a large maximum security jail and later as a reserve police officer. Coming from a working-class family, and as the only person in my immediate family to attend university, I needed to work in order to support myself financially. Thus, my initial experience in criminal justice happened while I was concurrently a full time undergraduate student, between 1983 and 1987, first at St. Petersburg College and then at the University of South Florida - St. Petersburg, where I studied political science and history and earned my B.A degree. I was initially interested in pursuing a career in law, so the combination of my work experience and academic studies made sense. The campus is located on the shore of Tampa Bay, and I fondly remember sitting by the water, sometimes watching manatees swimming past, during breaks between lectures. I especially remember with gratitude some of my professors who encouraged me to think harder and to write better about big questions in life. Given my work in law enforcement, I became very interested in social ethics, especially regarding the use of armed force, racism, and economic injustice. Significantly, Professor Regis Factor, a Catholic political theorist at the University of South Florida, encouraged me to read Aquinas, Gaudium et Spes, and papal encyclicals. Accordingly, theology and ethics came to attract my attention more than the law.

Gordon: When did you attend Duke DivinitySchool, what degree did you earn, what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?

Tobias: Although I am a cradle Roman Catholic, after my parents' divorce I stopped attending Mass regularly. I also no longer attended a Catholic primary school and studied at a public secondary school. During those years, though, many of my friends and their families "adopted me," and I became actively involved with Protestant youth groups during my teen years, especially a Methodist one. Then, during my undergraduate years, I read some work on ethics, war and peace that really challenged me by the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who is a pacifist that thinks that Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection changes everything for Christians, including the supposed moral justification to kill. As a Catholic who served in law enforcement, I especially struggled with this question: Is the use of lethal force ever morally justified, such as in defense of the innocent against unjust attack? So, from 1988 to 1991 I attended Duke DivinitySchool, which is a Methodist-affiliated institution, where Hauerwas taught, and I earned a M.Div. degree. My favorite courses were in the field of Christian ethics, taught by Hauerwas and by Harmon Smith, both of whom emphasized the importance of the qualifier "Christian" for ethics, as well as the link between liturgy and the moral life. Other courses in church history, liturgy, and Scripture and their respective professors made an impact on me, too. Some well-known professors who taught me at the time were Geoffrey Wainwright, Teresa Berger, Frederick Herzog, Richard Lischer, David Steinmetz, James Efird, and Karen Westerfield Tucker.

Gordon: When did you attend University of Notre Dame, what degrees did you earn, what was your most challenging course, and why was it so challenging?

Tobias: I attended the University of Notre Dame from 1993 to 1998 and I earned a M.A. degree and a Ph.D. degree in Moral Theology/Christian Ethics. While there I also took courses in liturgical history and in political theory. Honestly, all of the courses were challenging; I never had to work harder, especially as a working-class person studying at such a respected institution. The theologians who were my ethics teachers included Richard McCormick S.J., Jean Porter, Todd David Whitmore, Maura Ryan, and John Howard Yoder. I mention names not to boast, but to express my gratitude to them for being such a blessing in my life. I am very fortunate. I also took a philosophy course on Thomas Aquinas and analogy with Ralph McInerny, which was one of the most challenging courses because my facility with Latin was not strong. My doctoral dissertation, directed by Todd David Whitmore, was "The Challenge of Policing: An Analysis in Christian Social Ethics," which I was not able to finish writing and to defend until 2002 because I accepted my first position as an Assistant Professor in 1998 at Simpson College in Des Moines, Iowa, where much of my time was devoted to teaching undergraduate students.

Gordon: When were you appointed Professor of Moral Theology at St. Patrick's Pontifical University, Maynooth, and what courses do you teach?.

Tobias: After serving as an Associate Professor of Theological Ethics and Health Care Ethics at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, from 2005 to 2022, I was appointed Professor of Moral Theology at St. Patrick's Pontifical University, Maynooth, Ireland, in August 2022. I had visited Ireland a dozen times during the past two decades, including at St. Patrick's where I guest lectured and served as an external reader occasionally. My wife and I always thought it would be nice to move to Ireland, so when the invitation came from St. Patrick's we found it hard to say no. I teach courses in fundamental moral theology and applied ethics for undergraduate students, seminarians, and postgraduate (M.Th., S.T.L., Ph.D.) students from Ireland and globally. Some courses include: Theology, Ethics & War; Introduction to Christian Ethics; Conversion, Sin & Virtue; Contemporary Ethical Issues in a Global Society; and Contemporary Issues in Bioethics.

Gordon: Please explain to our readers what Moral Theology is.

Tobias: In the Catholic tradition, the area of theology called Moral Theology has its roots in the practice and sacrament of Confession with the Irish penitentials that were composed to assist priests and monks with assigning a fitting penance for particular sins and vices in an effort to foster spiritual and moral healing. Over the centuries, theologians authored moral manuals for the training of seminarians. In the last century, as theologians began to teach not only in seminaries but also in colleges and universities, the audience for their writings extended to the laity who now were more educated and sought moral guidance for the issues they faced in their daily lives, work, and professions. In addition, today most professional moral theologians are not clergy but, like myself, are laypersons. My Ph.D. was in Moral Theology/Christian Ethics because I had both Catholic and Protestant teachers; the Catholic tradition called the discipline Moral Theology, and Protestants tended to call it Christian Ethics. Today we see more of us from both traditions, along with the Orthodox, too, referring to what we do as Theological Ethics. In a nutshell, this theological discipline aims to help Christians -- and others -- to be who we ought to be, as human persons and as Christians, and to do what we ought to do in light of that identity and vocation. Of course, it's not easy, especially with regard to the complex and concrete realities of our lives as individuals and as communities. Hence, I teach and write about questions concerning war and peace, bioethics, environmental problems, criminal justice and policing, homelessness and poverty, and racial justice in light of what we Catholics believe God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, calls us to be in our life of discipleship and as a community of faith in this world. Another way of putting it is that I, as a moral theologian, try to help students and Catholics to genuinely inform their consciences about ethical issues so that they are mature Christians who do the right thing, morally, because they are truly persuaded that it is the right thing to do. I also learn as I teach – from our assigned texts and from my students – so that I continue to inform my own conscience, too.

Gordon: What can be done to reduce the abortion rate in Ireland?

Tobias: I think that most people know that the Catholic Church teaches that direct (intentional) abortion is not morally justified, but I am not as confident that most know why. I believe a more persuasive approach is to focus on how the biblical and moral-theological traditions place special emphasis on defense of, and advocacy for, the most vulnerable persons -- from the poor (the anawim Hebrew for “God’s little ones”), the widows, the orphans, and displaced persons from other countries (Zechariah 7:10) to any others whose voices typically are neglected or not heard, including the unborn. There remains a strong sense of social justice even among my supposedly more post-Christian students. Tapping into that sense of social justice and helping them to realize where it might lead, if they also care about being consistent, in my experience, at least gives them pause and invites them to reconsider this question about abortion. In addition, the Catholic moral tradition emphasizes addressing the root causes of social problems. Catholic social teaching highlights the importance of fair wages, access to education, adequate healthcare, and the like. There probably is no single solution to reduce the abortion rate in Ireland or elsewhere, but the Catholic moral tradition offers many helpful tools for us to try and apply.

Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.


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