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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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St. Irenaeus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

[NB: This post is the first in a series of papers on moral theology. You may read the second paper, “The Nature of the Voluntary,” here and the third paper, “The Three Moral Determinates in Relation to Law and Conscience,” here.]

“The glory of God is man fully alive; but man’s life is the vision of God,” St. Irenaeus declared in Adversus haereses.[i]  This phrase points to man’s ultimate and objective end. The current crisis in moral theology is mainly attributed to losing sight of a correct anthropology of man. In order to reestablish a correct view of moral theology, we must first reestablish a correct view of man. For us to see clearly the ultimate end of man and the objective nature of that end, we must begin with a correct understanding of the nature of the soul. Through this integration, the words of St. Irenaeus become clear and firmly establish our moral compass.

St. Augustine tells us that man is at once “both a servant and free.” It is upon this point we must build our understanding of the man’s soul. Moral theology traditionally hinged on finding a proper balance between duty to the law (the servant aspect) while also encouraging the spiritual formation which the law seeks to instill within man (the freedom aspect). Modern moralists have attempted to play one aspect off the other; a sort of “either/or.” Yet, a true understanding of man shows us it is a situation of “both/and.” In order to find its true direction, the human soul requires both, and therefore entails a return to a traditional understanding of man’s soul.[ii]

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over…[all creation]…upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:26, RSV-CE). Of all visible creation, man alone can know and love his Creator; called to share in His life. The Catechism tells us the human body is special precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul. The immortal soul is a special gift of God created immediately by God and not “produced” by the parents, showing that from creation man was ordered to a supernatural end. Although undeserved by man, God is able to raise man’s spiritual soul to communion with Him. The Church believes the unity of body and soul is so profound that the soul is considered the “form” of the body: “…spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.”[iii]

As a union of body and soul, material and spiritual, man interacts with created reality through his material body using his spiritual attributes of intellect and will. St. Thomas tells us only those actions of which man is master are properly called human. True human acts arise from deliberate use of the will and intellect; they involve reflection and choice. Moral choice requires the participation of both will and intellect since the concept of free will includes both powers.[iv]

The question now becomes one of determining how man should act, or the proper employment of intellect and will. A rational being must first determine the ultimate goal of his actions (the order of intention) before beginning to implement those goals. In this step, intellect is emphasized since a journey must first have a destination. Arrival at the destination is called the order of execution and here the will is emphasized since through the will a person attains his goals. Put simply: “One must investigate and decide on an ultimate destination and pursue it.”[v]

What is this ultimate destination for man? Being seeks perfection. So, in man’s every action, he seeks greater or further participation in being: “As the eye seeks sight, the mind seeks truth and the will seeks good or perfection.” This material end of the will, the actual good which perfects humanity, is the Holy Trinity. Thus, all things have the Holy Trinity as their origin and all things seek to return to the Holy Trinity.[vi]

For man, this happiness is the Beatific Vision. We find expression of this in Jesus’ preaching of the Beatitudes. The Church teaches that the Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness placed in the human heart by God to draw man to Him and they reveal the goal of human existence, the ultimate end of human acts: God’s call to the Beatific Vision.[vii]

St. Thomas tells us, “man naturally desires, as his ultimate end, to know the first cause. But the first cause of all things is God. Therefore, the ultimate end of man is to know God.” Yet, he also tells us that “…throughout this life God can be known in no higher way than that whereby a cause is known through its effect.” God gave us an innate desire to know Him, yet did not provide us the means within ourselves to know Him by nature alone – we require His assistance of divine grace.[viii]

A misinterpretation of St. Thomas’s phrase “natural desire to see God” by Cardinal Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1469-1534) resulted in centuries of confusion in Catholic teaching. Cajetan took “desire” to mean an appetite of the will which negated the gratuitous character of grace. To compensate, he developed a “two-end” theory involving a hypothetical “pure nature” into which man could have been created, but instead was created in a second nature of grace which actually ordered man to Beatific Vision. Twentieth century theologians Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner attempted to correct the failures in Cajetan’s theory, but instead only added to the confusion. The problem was rooted in an incorrect order of approach: happiness, possibility of attainment, and natural desire. The opposite is actually the correct order: the fact of natural desire, possibility, and then happiness.[ix]

An analysis of St. Thomas’s writing makes clear he did not mean “natural desire” as an appetite of the will, but as identical with the power of the intellect and its desire to know. This natural desire is a potential to know, not the knowledge itself. It is not desire in the sense of an appetite, but the tendency of every being to seek its perfection. Our destiny cannot be realized in this life because our intellect demands knowledge of the first cause. St. Thomas shows us that even the angels cannot be satisfied with knowing God merely as cause. As he concludes: “Although man is included to an ultimate end by nature, yet he cannot attain that end by nature, but only by grace because of the exalted character of the end.”[x]

Thus, the very nature of man’s soul drives him to reach towards the ultimate objective end of his being: the Beatific Vision. Although possessing an innate desire to see God, man cannot reach his ultimate end in his nature alone, but requires him to freely accept the freely offered gift from God of His grace. As the Catechism succinctly sums it up:

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for[.][xi]


Endnotes

[i] As quoted in: Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., Man’s Desire for God (Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library, 2003), ix.

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

[iii] Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 356-357, 364- 367.

[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 1, a. 1, at New Advent, http://www.newadevent.org; Mullady, Man’s Desire for God, 34.

[v] Mullady, Man’s Desire for God, 34-35.

[vi] Mullady, Man’s Desire for God, 36-37.

[vii] CCC, 1718-1719.

[viii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 25, 11; III, 48, 9, Joseph Kenny, O.P. (ed.) (New York: Hanover House, 1955-1957) at Priory of the Immaculate Conception, http://dhspriory.org; Mullady, Man’s Desire for God, 42-43.

[ix] Mullady, Man’s Desire for God, 1-12.

[x] Mullady, Man’s Desire for God, 12-13, 15, 19.

[xi] CCC, 27.

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

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