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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Aquinas’

St. Thomas Aquinas (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the traditional calendar March 7th is the Feast Day of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225 – 1274), the Angelic Doctor of the Church and Patron Saint of Catholic schools, scholars, theologians, and booksellers. Studying under St. Albert the Great at Cologne from 1248 to 1252, St. Thomas’s large frame and quiet demeanor led to fellow students dubbing him the “Dumb Ox.” This “Dumb Ox” went on to become arguably the greatest theologian of the Church. Among his voluminous works, Summa contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae represent the high points of scholasticism, remaining unsurpassed in scope and quality even today.

Numerous Popes have praised St. Thomas and his work. The words of Pope Leo XIII in calling for a renewal of scholastic philosophy are representative of papal praise of the Angelic Doctor:

While, therefore, We hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned ought to be received with a willing and grateful mind, We exhort you, Venerable Brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic Faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences. (Leo XIII, On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy Aeterni patris (4 August 1879), 31)

Read more about St. Thomas:

Catholic Encyclopedia Article on St. Thomas at New Advent

“St. Thomas Aquinas, Master of the Sacred Page” at The New Theological Movement Blog

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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.

2012 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

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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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