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Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

St Thomas Aquinas (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

[NB: This post is the third in a series of papers on moral theology. You may read the first paper, “The Nature of the Soul and the End of Man,” here and the second paper, “The Nature of the Voluntary,” here.]

“Called to beatitude but wounded by sin, man stands in need of salvation from God. Divine help comes to him in Christ through the law that guides him and the grace that sustains him.”[1] Despite our wounded nature, God provides clear moral “signposts” to help guide us towards the good and our ultimate goal: the beatific vision. Primary among these “signposts” are the three moral determinates by which we can judge the good or evil of a human act. Closely related are the concepts of the law and conscience. Let us briefly consider how these come together to serve as our guides.

Every human act is morally good, evil, or indifferent. In other words, these human acts either move us towards God, away from God, or do neither.  In order to discern in which direction a particular act moves us, we must have some process of evaluation for human acts. This process of evaluation is the three moral determinates. They are: object, circumstances, and intent.

The moral object is the first determinate for the good or evil of a particular act. As Fr. Brian Mullady writes, “The constant tradition of the Catholic Church affirms that the object of the act is the first basis for determining the good or evil of an action, that is determined by reason, and this determination can occur regardless of the consequences or the greatest good for the greatest number.”[2] An act can be objectively good, evil, or indifferent depending on its relation to reason.

Knowledge of conditions is also required to make a complete moral judgment. Circumstances are truly exterior to the object of an act, so they do not form the moral species in themselves. Instead circumstances can add a character of good or evil depending if they act with or against reason. While not all circumstances add further conditions, it is possible for circumstances to render evil an action good in object. Likewise, an act indifferent in object can be rendered good or evil by circumstances. However, an act evil in object can never be rendered good by circumstances – in fact, we don’t even need to know all the circumstances if an act is evil in object (for example, attempts by some to “justify” abortion based on various circumstances).[3]

Next, we must consider intention or the individual reason a person performed an act. An act done from free will must have good motivation for the act to be wholly good. However, good intent cannot make up for an evil exterior act. For example, one cannot steal from another person with the intent of giving the goods stolen to the poor.[4]

Thus, objective judgment on the goodness or evilness of a human act must be based on all three moral determinates. An action is evil if it is not in accordance with reason from all three perspectives. As Fr. Mullady sums up, “Any given action which is contrary to the order of the world as created by God cannot be referred to God as an act of love…All three moral determinates must be in accord with nature for the action to be good.”[5]

While the three moral determinates provide a process of evaluation, we must consider by what standard human actions are evaluated. We find that the standard of evaluation is the law. In fact, the law is the source of the three moral determinates. Thus, an understanding of the nature of law and its types is critical to the study of fundamental morals.[6]

At the root of the crisis in modern moral theology is a detachment of human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Modern morals attempt to deny any real objective human nature and in the process reduce man to nothing more than his freedom. In its rejection of natural law as the basis for ethics, modern morals separates matter and form in human acts which results in a divorce of morals from nature. Yet, there are objective standards of truth to which human reason is servant since man did not create himself. This standard is God’s reason, which is the eternal law from which all other rightly ordered law must flow.[7]

“Law is a rule of conduct enacted by competent authority for the sake of the common good” or as St. Thomas says, “An ordinance of reason is what one calls law.” We find there are several different, yet interrelated, levels of moral law: eternal law, which is the source in God of all law; natural law, which allows man to discern by reason good and evil; revealed law, which is the Old Law and the New Law or the Law of the Gospel; and finally civil and ecclesiastical laws. All moral law finds its fullness and unity in Jesus Christ.[8]

While natural law provides objective moral standards discernable by human reason, the Old Law and the New Law help move man beyond merely avoiding evil and doing good. The Old Law, summed up in the Ten Commandments, prepares and disposes the chosen people for Christ. The New Law fulfills the Old Law as the perfection of divine law on earth through the work of Christ and is expressed most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. While the Old Law prepared the way, it did not provide salvation in itself. The New Law, on the other hand, completes the work of salvation through the gift of grace given by the Holy Spirit to the People of God. It is the New Law which truly provides love, grace, and freedom.[9]

Finally, the conscience moves concept to action. As Fr. Mullady defines it, “Conscience is a judgment of practical reason in which an individual applies general principles of the moral law to specific actions here and now.” One must have an informed conscience, enlightened by moral judgment.  The proper formation of conscience is a lifelong task in which the Word of God serves to light the path.[10]

The tendency in modern moral theology to place freedom and law in opposition to each other has led to what Pope John Paul II described as “a ‘creative’ understanding of moral conscience, which diverges from the teaching of the Church’s tradition and her Magisterium.” Freedom of conscience is not moral license to adhere to error or a right to error, but instead means that man’s conscience cannot be coerced. A free choice to accept the Catholic faith also necessarily means one must freely accept the judgment of the Magisterium on matters of faith and morals.[11]

Thus, we find that man truly is at once both a servant and free. Through the use of his reason in free will, he comes to know natural law which leads to an understanding of the moral determinates for evaluating human actions. Enlightened in his conscience by the guiding light of the Word of God coupled with the guidance of divine grace, man freely chooses to become a servant to the Eternal Law in order to do good and avoid evil as he seeks his ultimate end of an eternal life in God.


Endnotes

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1949.

[2] Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., Both a Servant and Free: A Primer in Fundamental Moral Theology (New Hope, NY: New Hope Publications, 2011), 123.

[3] Mullady, Servant and Free, 125-127.

[4] Mullady, Servant and Free, 128-129.

[5] Mullady, Servant and Free, 130-131.

[6] Mullady, Servant and Free, 147.

[7] Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., Man’s Desire for God (Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library, 2003), 52-54; Mullady, Servant and Free, 148.

[8] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, 90, 1, at New Advent, http://www.newadevent.org; CCC, 1951-1953.

[9] CCC, 1961-1973.

[10] CCC, 1778, 1783-1785; Mullady, Servant and Free, 176.

[11] CCC, 1782, 1790-1794, 2108; Mullady, Servant and Free, 175-176, 184.

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