St. Thomas Aquinas (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
[NB: This post is the second 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 third paper, “The Three Moral Determinates in Relation to Law and Conscience,” here.]
“Man stands in the middle of creation, on the horizon of being, between flesh and spirit, between time and eternity.”[i] In order to approach moral theology from a correct perspective, we must begin with a proper understanding of the nature of man. In examining the nature of man, we come to understand the nature of the voluntary in which we find the power of the soul, and come to see how ignorance, passions, and circumstances affect the freedom of man.
Since man arrives at ultimate happiness through acts of the free will, our first task is distinguishing the primary characteristics of those acts by which man arrives at heaven from all other actions of nature. This is important since those actions which do not include the correct order of the intellect, will, and passions are not worthy of praise or blame and thus are not subject to moral responsibility.
In considering this, we find there are four requirements which must be satisfied for an action to be subject to moral responsibility:
1. It must be action, not passion (distinguishes actions from passivity).
2. It must result from a principle intrinsic to the being (distinguishes nature from violence).
3. The principle involves some knowledge of ends and means (distinguishes animals and man from nature).
4. The principle must include knowledge of why the ends and means express human nature (distinguishes man from animals).
Only actions which meet these requirements can be moral actions worthy of praise or blame and are the only means by which man arrives at or fails to arrive at heaven.[ii]
Actions which meet the requirements above are called voluntary. As St. Thomas tells us, “So men’s actions are in the fullest sense voluntary: they deliberate about the goal of which they are aware and about what will lead to it, and are able to pursue it or not.” It is precisely these voluntary actions which make man “lord of his own actions.” Thus, the person is the efficient cause of his own acts and therefore his own perfection in morals. So, while “every act directly willed is imputable to its author,” the intellect and will are not the only factors in determining moral responsibility. We must consider as well the affects of the passions, ignorance, and circumstances.[iii]
The passions enter into moral responsibility because they participate in the will. While the passions in man are born obedient to reason, they are not automatic and are able to resist the direction of the spirit or to not come along. As a result of original sin, man acquired a weakness of passions which causes them to rise before the will is brought to bear. Therefore, we must conclude that an action which results from the passions is less free than one which comes from the will.[iv]
Thus, we must consider the passions in forming a proper order of judging moral freedom. First, an act done merely from passion does not involve the will and therefore has little to do with morals, either for the good or for the bad. Second, acts done from reason guiding the will are those actions with which morals is primarily concerned. Finally, acts done with both the will and consequent passion show a greater freedom in deed, thereby becoming more virtuous or more sinful.[v]
We must also understand that nothing can be willed unless it is first known. The will cannot move towards anything unless it is first presented to the will, and only the intellect can do this. Therefore, ignorance must affect moral responsibility. Here too, the conscience comes into play since knowledge is necessary for action. Some, such as Socrates and Plato, played down the role of the senses (including the passions) in knowledge, claiming that the wise man is always the good man. St. Thomas, however, declared this a critical point.[vi]
St. Thomas presented a clear distinction between nescience, ignorance, and error. Nescience means simply a negation or absence of knowledge. Ignorance, on the other hand, means knowledge which a person should have by nature. Ignorance is either a perverse form of mind (i.e. a habit of false principles or false opinions which impede knowledge of truth) or it is error, meaning the approval of the false as true. It is important to note that “one can be in ignorance without making a judgment about truth, but one cannot be in error without making a false judgment.”[vii]
Simple nescience is not sinful since even angels lack complete knowledge of everything. Antecedent or invincible ignorance, ignorance which precedes an act of will in a way that the will can do nothing about it, causes involuntariness and therefore lacks responsibility. Consequent or vincible ignorance, in which a person wills to be ignorant, makes the act more voluntary.[viii]
If any of the three powers of the soul (intellect, will, and passions) are diminished or absent, the act is not fully voluntary. Thus, just because an act is conscious, it is not necessarily voluntary. As St. Thomas points out, ignorance of circumstances, not principle, is the primary ignorance which affects the voluntary in a way that makes the subject not responsible for an action. Circumstances are external factors which in some way affect the evaluation of an action. As St. Thomas writes, “Human acts are judged voluntary or involuntary according to knowledge or ignorance of circumstances.” Circumstances can affect the morality of an act in three ways. First, they can change the kind of act in its objectivity. Second, they can change the gravity of a deed. Third, they can affect the subject’s involvement in a deed and thus increase or decrease the depth of his choice for good or evil. The first two consider how circumstances affect the actual nature of the deed, which the last one considers how they affect freedom.[ix]
Thus, we come to see the nature of the voluntary in which we encounter the power of the soul, and come to see how ignorance, passions, and circumstances affect the freedom of man. As the Catechism teaches, “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own action…with free will and is master over his own acts.” With the gift of grace, the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom so that we can become collaborators in His work in the Church and in the world. Through a right ordering of the powers of our souls: intellect, will, and passions; we obtain our perfection in freedom by directing our actions toward the ultimate good, our God and sovereign Good.[x]
[i] As quoted in: Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., Man’s Desire for God (Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library, 2003), 22.
[ii] Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., Both a Servant and Free: A Primer in Fundamental Moral Theology (New Hope, NY: New Hope Publications, 2011), 55-57.
[iii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, 6, 2, at New Advent, http://www.newadevent.org; Mullady, Man’s Desire for God, 28; Mullady, Servant and Free, 63.
[iv] Mullady, Servant and Free, 65, 67, 69.
[v] Mullady, Servant and Free, 69-70.
[vi] Mullady, Servant and Free, 70-71.
[vii] Mullady, Servant and Free, 71.
[viii] Mullady, Servant and Free, 72-73.
[ix] Aquinas, STh I-II, 7, 2; Mullady, Servant and Free, 74, 77.
[x] Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1730, 1742, 1744.
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