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Posts Tagged ‘Natural Law’

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]


Endnotes

 [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.

2011 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

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Light of the World

I’m very saddened, but unfortunately not surprised, to see the liberal media bandwagon spinning and twisting the Pope’s comments on condoms.  The reality is the Church continues to rightfully teach that the use of artificial contraception in any form is dangerous due to the “de-humanizing” such practices have on human sexuality – and by extension the human person.  Despite the “spin” on the Pope’s comments by the liberal media and progressive liberal “Catholics,” nothing has changed in Church teaching.  Neither the Church, nor the Pope, approves the use of condoms or other artificial conception in any case.

First, one must understand, as many do not, that the Pope is allowed to express personal opinion on any matter he wishes – just as we all have that right.  Despite what some think, Catholicism does not hold that whatever the Pope says is automatically “official” teaching of the Church.  The Doctrine of Papal Infallibility only applies to teachings related to faith and morals, and even then, it must be specifically and clearly invoked.  Most people don’t know that the popes have very, very rarely exercised this authority, despite their voluminous writings from audiences, homilies, letters, etc.  To make an infallible statement on the teachings of Jesus Christ is a very serious process and never something done in mere casual conversation with a reporter.  In this situation, namely an extended interview with a reporter, the Pope’s comments are personal opinion, not “official” Church teaching.  Even so, again despite the “spin” put on his words, what the Pope said is consistent with Church teaching and actually shows tremendous charity on his part.

Second, most people, including many Catholics, completely fail to understand Church teaching on human sexuality.  Briefly, the Church teaches that since God is infinite love and created everything out of His infinite love, all His creation is good.   It is actually a very old heresy going back to the early days of Christianity to claim the body and sex are somehow “bad” or inherently evil.  We must also understand God created not because He had to create, but because He wanted to create out of His free will and His infinite love – which again reinforces the very goodness of His creation.

When it comes to humans, not only are we part of the goodness of God’s creation, we are even more special since we are created in His image.  How are we taught to treat gifts of great value, like a special family heirloom?  We’re taught to treat it with great care as a sign of respect to the giver of that gift – we honor the person by cherishing the gift he or she gave us.  Our humanity, which includes our sexuality, is the greatest gift we can ever receive, for it is only because of that gift that we exist.  Therefore if we truly desire to love, honor and serve the Lord, we must treat His gift, our humanity, with the absolute greatest respect.  Consequently, we must refrain from doing things which “dehumanizes” or goes against the nature of humanity – which includes things like promiscuous sex, unmarried sex, engaging in homosexual acts, abortion, artificial means to prevent the gift of human life and so forth.  All these things work to destroy our human nature – we need only look to today’s society for abundant proof of this fact.

Pope Benedict XVI, as anyone who reads his writings comes to know, is a very intelligent, scholarly and intellectual person.  While on one hand, this is very good as one can gain very deep insights by reading his work, on the other hand his is not writing which lends itself to the short sound-bites so many rely on as their sole source of information today.  As we see in this situation, one comment in a book-length interview, before the book is even released, is taken out of context and twisted to mean something else.  A society fed on nothing but sound-bites eats it up and never bothers to discover the truth for themselves.

All the headlines completely ignore this line from the Pope’s comments: “[The Church] does not regard it [use of condoms] as a real or moral solution.”  Saying it’s not “a real or moral” solution means it is not the right choice, not an “acceptable” choice and not a moral choice – in other words, it is bad and immoral.  If one bothers to read the Pope in context, he makes it clear up front that he does not approve of condom use by anyone.

However, and here’s where the charity I mentioned comes into play, the Pope goes on to say that if someone infected with a STD uses a condom to prevent disease transmission that fact (again, while not the right choice or moral choice) might indicate the beginning of a proper understanding of human sexuality in that person.  He’s really saying the first step to fixing your problem is the recognition you have a problem in the first place.  If we never recognize we have a problem, especially a moral problem, we can never begin taking steps to resolve that problem.  Only if we begin taking personal responsibility for our actions can we begin moving into the light of understanding and Truth.

Unfortunately, in all the media “spin,” we completely fail to grasp the Pope’s real message, a message applicable to all of us.  For far from being an affirmation of condom use, the Pope’s message is actually an affirmation of hope.  The hope we should all share as Christians that even the greatest sinner will eventually recognize his sins, open his heart to God, beg forgiveness and redemption and thereby gain entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is the Pope’s real message.  The headlines should actually proclaim:

“Pope says Hope of Redemption Possible for even the Greatest of Sinners”

Here are some links which further expound on the Pope’s true message:

http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2010/11/excerpt-pope-benedict-xvi-discusses-condoms-and-the-spread-of-hiv.html

http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2010/11/what-does-the-holy-father-really-say-about-condoms-in-the-new-book-janet-e-smith.html

http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2010/11/the_pope_condoms_and_confusion.html

http://www.jimmyakin.org/2010/11/new-developments-on-the-pope-and-condoms.html

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