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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 12: The Good Life
Part 1

For the Catholic Church, morality has high doctrinal significance. There are two reasons for this. First, Christian morality sets forth vital aspects of our vocation as sons and daughters of God. Second, for those who do not have the good fortune to possess revealed truth, living an upright life may be a highway on which, unknowingly, they can walk towards the God of all salvation. The moral teaching of Catholicism is that dimension of its wisdom which states and explores the principles that should govern human behavior vis-à-vis the final destiny of humankind: the vision of God. Though chiefly based on divine revelation, the theological expression of Catholic morality also incorporates much rational ethics. When looking at the nature of salvation we saw how our human substance is neither destroyed nor displaced by its supernatural elevation in grace to glory, but is, rather, ennobled and perfected. Here and now humankind's ultimate goal, the enjoyment of almighty God, can be anticipated in his conscious and willing service. And this is not only an obligation laid upon us. It is also the proper finishing of our nature, an exercise of our faculties that gives them final satisfaction. If God is the Creator of human beings who wills salvation for them and gives them a revelation for this purpose, they have, evidently, a duty to attend to that revelation and adapt themselves to what it commands. But if it were possible to isolate the commands from the revelation, they would still be recognizable as the way to our full flourishing. Happiness lies in so ordering the goods of this world that by way of them we can efficaciously elect the infinite good. For no finite good is so necessary, sufficient, and irreversible that it can constitute the final resting-place of the heart in its open-ende
eros" (both negatively, its power of desiring, and positively, its capacity for living).

The Church's Concern with Morals

The ethics of Jesus, though bulking large, belong within his teaching on salvation. The behavior of the disciples in the present age is to reflect as much as possible of the love and unity which typifies the life of the kingdom in the age that is coming. As prophet of the good life, Jesus is an ethical maximalist. The good one must do to gain eternal life is a striving after nothing less than perfection. But everything turns on how such "perfection" should be understood. Jesus reaffirms the validity of the Ten Words, the foundational pillars of the moral life registered in inspired fashion by Moses on Sinai, but arising more primordially still from the created pattern inscribed in the being of the human animal by its maker. In the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus transforms the ethos of the Law, the spirit in which these commands are to be received. The Beatitudes, in privileging such dispositions as humility, penitence, mercy, peacefulness, purity of heart, and vulnerability for righteousness's sake, propose a new manner in which to obey the commandments, and so define ethical holiness in a novel, distinctively evangelical, way. For these qualities express, in a form appropriate to fallen creatures, their own archetypes in the attributes ascribed to God — his patient mercy, flaming justice — by the gospel itself. Of these, Jesus gave ostensive definition in his own deportment: he did divine things humanly. The imitatio Patris for which he called — Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48) — takes the concrete form of the imitatio Christi, for Jesus is the incarnate visibility of the Father. Finally, the setting of Jesus' ethical teaching within a message of salvation implies the provision of fresh resources of grace for keeping the commandments — summed up in the two imperatives of loving God and loving neighbor — in this perfect spirit. Through the grace of God we can keep the commandments: this is one important way in which the God of grace enables us to claim his own promise of life everlasting.

After our Lord left the public space of this world, we find the apostles treating the moral life as vital to the new "way" which was Christianity. They were as vigilant over the conduct of Christians as they were over their beliefs. There has been a development in the ethical understanding of the Church since apostolic times, but, as with all development of doctrine, this has happened homogeneously (consistently) and not heterogeneously (by sudden unrelated new starts). The later teaching of the Church in moral matters underscores the permanent validity of the words of Jesus himself.

Faithful to her master, the Church's ethical concern was clear from the outset. The apostolic letters betray a regular pattern. First, converts to the faith are enjoined to abandon various vices (recognized as such elsewhere in the ancient world, an important link to the Fathers' notion of a law of nature or rational ethics presupposed by the teaching of the gospel, and first appearing with Justin Martyr). Next they are invited to develop some typical virtues of the Christian life: gentleness, humility, generosity, purity, the readiness to forgive, and so forth. Characteristically, neophytes are then advised of the need to deal uprightly with their pagan neighbors, to obey the lawfully constituted state authority (though without prejudice to the integrity of the faith), and are reminded of the specially onerous time in which we now live: the "last age" with its attendant responsibilities.

The gospel changes the context of ethics. In the first place, the world looks smaller, God greater. The conviction that this world-order is definitively surpassed in the new order of the resurrection makes what would survive the passing of the old heavens and earth alone seem finally worthy of attention. And yet the same eschatological consideration makes more urgent the need to use one's gifts ethically while time lasts. Moreover, the justice of God, and his mercy, looms larger in human affairs than ever before in history — for the death and resurrection of the divine Son are their supreme manifestation. In the second place, the moral life is now to be lived within a new society — the body of Christ, the Church — a community at once deeper and, in principle, wider than any community heretofore existing. Deeper because as wholly subordinate to the divine glory in Christ, this one society alone can make total demands on its members without totalitarianism. Wider because the Church is the nucleus of a new humanity, formed from the riven side of Christ who died and rose again as representative of all humankind. The ethos of this new society is fashioned by the imitation of Christ. Insofar as God in Christ can be a model for creatures he is so in such virtues as forbearance, gentleness, self­giving, charity — the last of which is not simply one virtue among many but that all-embracing attitude brought about by exposure to the love of God expressed in Christ's sacrifice, and manifesting itself in unselfishness, kindness, compassion, courtesy.

In the Church Fathers, the aspect of natural ethics — the good life as a life in harmony with the creation — came more to the fore. The Fathers quite consciously adopted the wisdom of the philosophers of the ancient world so as to understand better the progress of human beings toward God. Under Stoic influence, they spoke of the "mind­possessing soul": and it is this human capacity to grasp the meaning of existence which founds the role of rationality in ethics. For patristic thought, humanity is at once solidary with God (since the human mind is a tiny reflection of the divine mind) and with the universe, which, in the words of Jacques-Bénign Bossuet, man "gathers up in himself." If Justin was the first Father to use the term natural law, Irenaeus could say that the Lord in his incarnation willed to perfect the naturalia legis, [1] while for Tertullian the law as revealed by God renders more precise the wisdom of nature. Clement of Alexandria declares that "from God is the law of nature and the law of revelation, which together makes but one." [2]

We are dealing here with not only the integration of ancient ethics but also their transcending by the demands of the gospel. The Fathers, like the great Scholastics after them, did not know the much later separation of morals from spirituality, or of morals from dogmatics, or even (to some extent at least) of theology from philosophy. All these subject matters, or distinctive approaches, formed part of a continuous wisdom. The Fathers' moral theology is found in their Scripture commentaries and homilies, as well as in their general writings: it is not confined to opuscula devoted to particular moral problems. The Fathers took the Bible as the main source of their moral theology not surprising when one considers that they viewed the main question in morals as beatitude (final happiness) and the ways in which one might attain it. Their exegesis expresses an understanding that has penetrated into the heart of the mysteries of which Scripture speaks and whereof it is a sign.

Little by little there emerges a picture of the moral life as ordered love, a discipline of loves great and small. For Augustine, supremely, love calls for order and a rectitude which gives it beauty and makes it true. Here a philosophical ethics and a theology of grace can greet each other and embrace.

In the medieval period, and notably with the reception of Aristotle's psychology in the West, a greater effort is made to integrate the orders of nature (creation) and grace (redemption and transfiguration), so as to show how, in the Christian life as a concrete whole, the human being enters on the moral good. In particular, a Christian Scholastic like Aquinas usefully supplies a lacuna in his account of the structure of the human act. In his theology, the reciprocal influence of knowing and loving is expressed in terms of causality. Mind affecting will resembles a formal cause, which gives shape and meaning to some action, while will affecting mind is closer to an efficient cause, setting up a movement in accord with the dialectic of love for which motion goes from soul to thing, not from thing to soul. (These are not, we should note, full causes, for mind and will are only aspects, albeit dynamic ones, of human persons.) The role of perception, wish, judgment, intention, deliberation, consent, decision, choice, command, application, performance, and completion, explored by Aristotle above all, is explained within a Christian anthropology by Thomas in the West as by Maximus the Confessor (seventh century) in the Byzantine East. The last of these terms — "completion," fruitio —in Aquinas's use is more indebted to Augustine as well as to Scripture with its imagery of the Sabbath rest: quies, with its joy (gaudium) and delight (delectatio).

The humane holism of Aquinas's account is remarkable. For him, the moral good is an inner modulation of the common end sought by all love; the activity of virtue belongs to the metaphysical dialectic of love, and "right" wells up from the very nature of things. Moreover, since Aquinas conceives the good as, above all, actuality, the proper response to it is appetite, including even the unconscious drives of "natural appetite," given with our nature as such. Yet the proper good for human beings, rational animals, is answered by their proper appetite, the rational appetite — the will — which indeed works on and through a kind of blind instinct for wholeness (consistentia naturalis), yet seeks what is appreciated as good by the mind. The good is, in other words, for the classical Latin theology of the thirteenth century, not only a term to reach and rest in, but an objective to grasp and hold. The will has a capacity for the all-good which, were it present (as in the Beatific Vision), would transport it into unpremeditated rapture; in this life, however, God appears to us only as the greatest of particular goods, though we can correct that misperception mentally by denying limit to God's goodness (the via negationis) and affirming its supreme transcendence (the via eminentiae). Our sharing in God's beatitude turns on our adjusting ourselves to an environment composed of many other, and conflicting, goods, and on our picking our way to him, aided by the judgment both an influence from reason and an assurance from revelation — that any goods distracting us from God will in the end profit us nothing.

The unity of the Summa theologiae is not merely logical and intellectual. It can also be called ontological and dynamic, since it tries to reproduce the very movement of the divine Wisdom and action in their work of creation, terminating as this does in man as the image of God, and in the work of governance, which leads back to God, as ultimate end and beatitude, all creatures, and especially the human being — thanks to the free will which makes him master of his acts and capable of enjoying God. This work at once divine and human cannot come to completion, however, without Christ who in his humanity has become for us the way to the Father. [3]

Here moral theology has its own final outcome in the loving vision of God: it is truly a wisdom both natural and Christian. Aquinas is concerned both to do justice to the internal demands of the natural world order (a metaphysical quest) and to ensure that these demands are truly "finalized," that is, receive their own ultimate meaning and fulfillment, by an account of the human being's supernatural destiny in Christ (a theological vision). Thus Thomas's discussion of the virtues — the concrete forms of moral goodness — is, in effect, an account of the relation between the natural law, seen as a law of moral progress for the human being as spiritual creature, and the law of Christ, regarded as a law of moral progress for men and women as sons and daughters of God.

The disintegration of Aquinas's beautiful synthesis had a deleterious effect on the moral theology of Catholicism. Morals and mysticism moved further apart, though the new emphasis on obligation did bring out the holiness of the moral law, the seriousness of the moral life. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, handbooks for confessors provided help for people placed in difficult situations of moral choice (casus conscientiae), while the sheer range of ethically relevant subject matter in human life was displayed in manuals of "special morals," frequently divided into the areas of living typified by each of the Ten Commandments. Justice became more and more important with the new problems of political ethics raised for Catholic Christendom by the discovery (and ultimately conquest) of the New World.

The early modern period, and notably the seventeenth century, was the age par excellence of casuistry. By discussing moral cases and taking them as patterns theologians could throw light on the true meaning of the basic principles involved and disengage the values present in complex data. Good casuists avoid futile questions or an excessive concern with calculating the minimum needed to fulfill the whole duty of a Christian. For the earlier tradition, our best hope in quandaries lies in practical reason, fortified by prudence, and assisted by discretion or discernment (in the monastic tradition especially), faith, and the gift of counsel. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Church tried to take stock more systematically of her resources for arguing in such hard cases: the criteria of judgment for uncertain cases were themselves argued over, until in 1831 the papacy declared for the view of the Neapolitan lawyer and mystic Alphonsus Liguori: for there to be true doubt, the arguments in favor of liberty (including "external" ones from Church authority) must be at any rate equal to those favoring the law. Such a view was declared to be something that confessors may follow safely (itself, then, a prudential judgment by the Holy See!) and in 1871, significantly, Liguori was declared a doctor of the Church.

Alphonsus's view reflects Paul's teaching in the Letters to the Corinthians that it is not conscience that is supreme but Christ the Lord. The Second Vatican Council says the same in affirming the Lordship of Christ over conscience, and the consequent obligation to form conscience by the teaching Christ gives through the Church. As Christians, we have already exercised our conscience — our moral judgment — on the fundamental question of whether we accept Christ and his Church as holding authority from God to teach. Once we have made this act of acceptance, we are obliged by our conscience to follow the authoritative guidance that comes from these sources, though of course they may offer such guidance with more or less binding degrees of authoritative utterance, and in ways that are more or less clearly pertinent to our situation. Nor is this alien to conscience for, as Newman stressed in his 1830 university sermon on "The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religions Respectively," conscience "implies a relation between the soul and a something exterior, and that, more­over, superior to itself,"' a tribunal, judge, or lawgiver to whom, it realizes, obedience is owed.

In the centuries between Liguori and Vatican II, the biblical, patristic, and Thomist revivals in Catholicism restored morals to its place within Christian spirituality as a whole: the moral life is centered on God's kingdom; it is the life of a child of God within Christ's mystical body; the theological virtues and the beatitude they set before us belong intimately to its texture.

On the other hand, Catholic ethics remain distinguished from general Protestant ethics by their insistence that, within the law of Christ, the practice of which proceeds from the Holy Spirit by charity, the natural human virtues are assumed and assimilated. Faith transcends them, yet it requires incarnation in them. The wisdom of God can purify reason and the heart, assuming human wisdom and knowledge in a living conjunction of faith and reason. Nevertheless, the pride of place in moral theology belongs to the act of faith, which submits and opens our intelligence to the Word of God — the external Word in Scripture, read in the Church; the internal Word in the action of the Holy Spirit.

The Church's doctrinal authority, her mandate to teach, covers not only faith but also morals. The Catholic tradition accepts that the principal revealed moral truths are open to our natural reason. As Paul remarks, Gentiles who lack the Mosaic Torah nonetheless have what the Law requires written on their hearts (Rom 2:12-16). Following Irenaeus and Aquinas, the Louvain theologian John Driedo could write in the throes of the Reformation crisis:

The teachings of natural and moral philosophy have nothing to do with faith, just insofar as they are entertained by philosophers or by peoples. But many of those teachings are de necessitate fidei, insofar as they could be demonstrated from Sacred Scripture, either expressly or by silent implication. . . . Thus, for example, it is heresy to persist in asserting that adultery, or theft, or false testimony are not wrongful. [5]

God's revelation, whose authentic transmission is entrusted to the Church, enables certain truths per se accessible to reason to be known by everyone, even in the present condition of humankind, with ease, with certitude, and without admixture of error, as the two Vatican councils (1869-70; 1962-65), would later insist. At the Council of Trent, the fathers were anxious to distance the Church from the potentially subversive implications, for Christian morality, of the Reformers' sola fide. They maintained, accordingly, that the last stage of that conversion which disposes one for the forgiveness of sins, and sanctification, is a determination to keep the divine commands which Christ charged his apostles with teaching. Keeping these commands is vital if faith is not to be dead and fruitless for us. Trent affirms, in a passage taken by the Second Vatican Council, [6] that the gospel, whose purity is to be preserved in the Church by the elimination of errors, Christ first promulgated by his own mouth, and then ordered to be preached by the apostles to every creature, as the source not only of all saving truth but also of moral discipline. On such matters as polygamy and divorce, controverted by the Reformers, Trent insisted upon moral norms as intrinsic to revealed and salvific truth. The phrase fides et mores was already classic in the twelfth century, and has roots in Leo and Augustine.

Some such precepts derive from the natural law. We should note that not only is revelation's help morally necessary for us to know the natural law: since the whole human being is embraced by the order of salvation, the Church quite properly claims the right to speak authoritatively in questions of the natural law — not merely as pastoral directives but as doctrinal assertions. In part, the order of nature can be regarded as the order of God's creation. In this sense, we are asked to recognize our place within this order, to appropriate it in freedom, and to realize those goals of nature which the rest of creation aims at instinctively. In part, too, however, we are charged with shaping the world of nature we have inherited. We must not simply accept passively the goals of creation but exercise a reasonable dominion over nature, giving her new goals and meanings — however, such humanization, or personalization, of the world can never take the form of a flight from nature or a disregard of the preestablished meanings already embedded in the structures of the world. It falls to the magisterium to formulate norms for Catholic believers, in the light of the gospel and with the collaboration of the laity (with their Christian experience). Christian moral teaching on the new issues of the day is to flow from revealed faith without contradicting human reason but without being limited to human reasons. The faithful owe the bishops in communion with the pope a religiosum animi obsequium when the latter teach doctrine about (faith and) morals in the name of Christ (not, of course, when they simply propound a personal opinion). This religious assent is not, it should be said, an absolute assent, but it is still "religious," that is, supernaturally motivated.

Some further nuances must be added. The obligation of submission to the bishop or the pope in their exercise of teaching authority is measured according to the quality of that exercise. Between the careful attention which is appropriate to some merely prudential judgment of the Petrine officeholder and the glad inhesitancy which should greet his definitive interpretation in persona Petri of the Gospels a great gulf is fixed. As for the bishops, what is said of the pope applies also to them when considered as a body, a college. Though bishops individually, or in groups, can err, the charisma veritatis can enfold them even before they pack their bags for Nicaea or Constance. The Second Vatican Council speaks of their collegial infallibility on three conditions: that they remain in hierarchical communion with the pope; that their common teaching is on matters of faith and morals; and that they show an official and manifest consensus not just on the proposition concerned but also on its absolute and obligatory character. Naturally, the infallible character of such ordinary magisterial teaching is most easily perceived in the context of an ecumenical council. A zeal for giving clear and firm moral guidance may be tempted to treat all moral norms of the magisterium as of equal weight: but this backfires in the long run, by lessening the magisterium's own credibility. Yet it is an even more serious mistake to suppose. that, because some concrete norms lack perfect certitude, they may be ignored or minimized. It is typical of a legalistic mentality to think of moral norms as obligatory only when they are certainly binding, rather than to be grateful for whatever guidance they can give, even if this is only probably correct.

Some have questioned whether the Church can teach specific moral norms, rather than the most universal ethical principles — either on the grounds that, since faith and love determine salvation, specific moral practices are only secondary, or by appeals to the constantly changing concrete nature of humanity. But if the magisterium is to apply concretely the faith that works through charity, it has to teach . specific norms. If it cannot be specific then it cannot teach Christian morality in any challenging fashion. As to the historicity of morals: while the magisterium must teach with morally binding efficacy for the formation of conscience and the conduct of life, the quality of its teaching may be differentiated. On the one hand, it can teach some norm — arrived at by interpreting the law of the gospel, or the natural law — as an absolute norm for all times and places; on the other, it can present some norm as the historical application of an indeterminate and dynamic gospel principle. In his commentary on Aristotle's Politics, Aquinas points out that as a society progresses it may become more perfect through enrichment with new dispositions: for instance, a greater awareness of the need of general education. There may not be progress in moral behavior, but there can be a fuller explicit awareness of particular precepts of the natural law. Recognizing this should not, however, lead us to the conclusion that the magisterium's moral norms are in every case historically conditioned in value, and hence changeable as cultures change. The religious import of this lies in the fact that even universal moral laws serve an interpersonal responsive morality: they are the abstract expression of God's call to us.

Yet the "words" they speak are altogether concrete. John Saward remarks, tellingly:

As the Fathers of Orthodoxy taught against the abstract Christology of the Iconoclasts, the divine Word assumed into the unity of the divine person a complete and concrete human nature, not a mere "general idea" of humanness, and he merited our salvation by specific historical human acts. In becoming man, he entered into human relationships both universal (he united himself, somehow, as Head, with every man) and particular (he became the Child of the Virgin Mary of Nazareth). Now that he is in glory at the right hand of the Father, his human words and actions on earth live on, in the Sacraments and teaching of the Church, with a sanctifying and normative force that is inseparably universal and concrete, applicable to all men at all times and in all places, and to all their specific acts. St. Gregory Nazianzen says of the incarnate Word that "he bears me wholly within himself, with my weaknesses, in order to consume in himself what is evil." How could that be true if he did not, through his Church, give me not only grace to heal the weakness of my will, but also certain knowledge, with respect to specific actions, of what is good and what is evil? [7]

We hear much nowadays about the respect due to liberty of conscience; yet that theme can be expounded in ways that falsify the truth about the human being as a creature of God, a being, that is, with a God-given nature and called to a God-provided fulfillment. In Veritatis splendor, the most comprehensive document of modern Catholicism on "fundamental morals," Pope John Paul II pointed out that, for the gospel, we are neither autonomous (a law unto ourselves), nor heteronomous (puppets whose strings are pulled by a being quite other than ourselves), but "theonomous": we find our inner law in God, who is not another being set beside us, because, as our Creator and Redeemer, he is most intimately identified with us and is in fact the only cause and source of our ultimate happiness.[8] God has not just made us beings who can set up moral laws for ourselves. He has given us in our moral reason a participation in his own eternal Wisdom, so that we can discover, in a human way, his divine will for us. The capacity to identify the natural moral law — in effect, a form of access to the divine counsels — is a far higher dignity than would be the mere ability to set out our own rules for living.

Frequently, philosophical mistakes underlie bad ethics. The trouble usually starts with a wrong understanding of how nature and freedom are related. Some people reduce freedom to nature: the way "most people do things" determines how we should act. Others regard freedom as possible only when one denies nature, which is just a brute "given," without intrinsic meaning. Our natural life (the body, and, through the body, the emotions of the psyche) are seen as just so much raw material from which, by freedom, we construct or invent our humanity.

The norms of the natural law, already implicit in the forms of our bodily and psychic life though given only through our practical reason (assisted if need be by faith in revelation), are growth-lines along which our nature can develop in freedom. As such they are the same for all men and women of all ages. They unite in the same common good all human beings in every period of history, and as they do so they express the same divine calling and destiny we all share. Since we are a single human family it is only right that one ethical truth should bind us together.

The call to respond to the moral law is not in any case a call to legalistic obedience: it is an invitation to live out those actions and intentions which enable us to share eternal happiness. The teaching authority of the Church should not be regarded as an imposition, an exercise in legal power. Only if the Church can exercise her sacred obligation to penetrate and proclaim the truth about God's plan for our salvation can she set us free to discover and enjoy that which, in the end, will make us most happy. For no action of mine, however conscientious, based on error about the moral good can have the value of a moral act founded on a correct conscience.

No doubt in some sense every act we perform is unique. It is also true however, that every act has common features with other acts. In every area of human life there is need for generalization. Life is too short for innumerable agonizing appraisals made from scratch. Rules, customs, habits, and the like capitalize on human experience, sustaining human existence as they do so. The opposing position — radical situationism — subverts the very idea of a moral community. It assumes an extraordinary degree of moral sensitivity in those expected to read the demands of a situation. It barely recognizes how distorted our consciences can be: prohibition can be protective, saving us from our worst selves.

The Holy Spirit is the inner law who enables us to imitate and embody the love of Christ, but the formulation of moral norms helps us to translate the Spirit's bidding through the ages. Some kinds of human acts, indeed, are so intrinsically evil that no intention, circumstances, or consequences could ever purify them.

For the Christian, morality is religious: it is the confession of God (we live to the "praise of his glory" as Ephesians puts it), and witness before human beings ("See how these Christians love each other"). Such has been the total respect for the Commandments in salvation history, that, beginning with the holy woman Susanna in the Old Testament, the martyrs have gone to their deaths rather than commit, even under duress, one mortal sin (of idolatry, say, or fornication). These martyrs are hailed, nonetheless, as champions of life. Since the Commandments always envisage the supreme human good, their martyrdom was not a denial of the value of human living but its consummate celebration.

The Moral Vision of Catholicism

Just as, however, Catholicism's faith-vision of the world in relation to God is not simply a collection of the Church's defined doctrines, but entails a more holistic penetration of the contents of Scripture and Tradition, the sources of divine revelation, so in morals too Catholicism has a vision which is wider than its norms. The Church's moralists are concerned not simply with the articulation of moral rules. They study human acts so as to order them to the loving vision of God as humanity's true, plenary beatitude or happiness, its ultimate end. By their free choices, human beings integrate themselves around, and in a sense synthesize themselves with, the ends and means they adopt. Those who intend to destroy, damage, or impede a human good incorporate into their will, their own subjectivity, the evil which, on choosing it and making it their own, they treat as if it were a good.

While the divine goodness is both the self-sufficiently adequate object of human love and the cause of all other goods, the loving vision of God takes place in a redeemed city: God has freely created a universe of goods distinct from himself. The "society of friends," as Aquinas puts it, is necessary to the "well being" of perfect beatitude. The vision of God in heaven unifies the goods found in the moral life, the goods that make our nature flourish "blessedly." Such integral human fulfillment is not available in this life, but what is now only an ideal regulator of action is, for faith in divine revelation, an attainable reality for the future, through the power of the gracious God. To see God in his essence will be to see the triune Lord personally causing all the goods — including the finite, created persons — of the universe. To see God will be really to understand, for the first time, the point of all created goods, including created persons and the love of friendship between them. To love oneself and others like one in fullest measure would be more possible and appropriate then than now. The full understanding of the goods we know in this life — such as friendship, practical reasonableness (virtue), and human life itself — and the realization of them in sufficient degree to satisfy our nature, is possible only through a sharing in God's creative understanding and personal existence beyond anything we can (even under grace) appreciate now. The reward so insistently proposed by Scripture is intrinsically connected to the rightful pursuit of the good fruits of our nature and choices: in similes suggested by Professor John Finnis, it is not like the prospect of a beach holiday rewarding long hours of hard work, but more like an orchestra's prospect of performing, really satisfactorily, a symphony after hours of self-discipline, work, and study. Thus the Christian life is not so much a flight from the world as a flight ahead with the world.

The roles of revelation and grace are, evidently, essential to the constituting of this "vision." Catholic moralists understand human actions as rightly ordered not least by the means of grace, the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and (as we have seen) they exercise this understanding in the twin light of revelation and of reason. The aim of the Church's moral doctrine is the formation of Christian personalities, seen at one and the same time as ethical personalities where the flux of subjectivity and the passions has been temperately mastered, and also as centers of spiritual spontaneity and creativity. But this is not a technique: the spinal column of the question of happiness is formed by the question of meaning — which is why moral doctrine, in formulating its answers to the problems of human living, conjoins rational reflection with the revealed word of God. The resources with which it works are not only the natural resources of the human affections, the will, and the intellect, but also the secret spring of the Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts by the sacramental economy of the Church. Though concerned with what needy human nature demands, the Church's ethic goes beyond a naturalistic eudaimonism: human beings are capable of a true love for God for God's own sake, and for their neighbors for their neighbors' sake, and, this being so, the desire for happiness, for the fulfillment of their capacities, can open them to God and to others. A desire for happiness that is amical, open and generous, is itself set to work, in the Catholic understanding, for the construction of the moral life.

Let us look now at some of the underlying principles in the Catholic appreciation of ethics-notably at (1) the existence of a specifically Christian morality; (2) the recognition of nature as an ethical norm; and (3) the virtues, and the development of the ethical personality. After such a tour d' horizon, we should be well-placed to consider how the Catholic Church treats substantively of the main questions of ethics typically controverted by secular society today — especially of social and familial morality.

For Catholicism, morality is the movement of rational creatures towards God. Every action is good insofar as it has that perfection of being which it ought to possess, and whose presence (or absence) is determined by the object, the circumstances, and the intention involved. As already indicated, the moral life is essentially connected with the spiritual, because for successful practice the moral life requires some grasp of scientia cordis, the "science of the heart." After all, most of morality is a matter of harnessing, and transfiguring, our emotions. In moral action, God in his Law provides the external principles — the norm, the contents, and the sanctions of moral action — but the internal principle of habit, both natural and supernatural, is also unavailable to us unless in his grace he moves, supports, and raises us, implanting supernatural energies in our acting. Such sanctifying grace is a communion in the agape which is God's own being. It generates in the soul a new reality: charity-love in its "primal act," its primordial reality within us. Through the Word incarnate and his Church, the divine agape creates in me a kind of echo of itself, a created gift enabling me to respond to it, an infused virtue whereby I can produce acts of divine worth. In charity what we do — loving God as his children and each other in him and for his sake — is raised above itself by God's action.

Christian action consists in translating this modus vivendi into a way of acting, a modus agendi, or "second act." Though each distinct virtue retains its proper character, virtue is, in the Christian economy, and in the words of Augustine, "the ordering of love." The basic movement of love for God- — our insertion into the dynamic interrelations of the Holy Trinity — must express itself in us by an outreach toward all those who are related to God as well. The primacy of God's love means that his charity now indwells, and acts through, ourselves with a view to bringing all rational creatures into his presence.

That reaching, with the neighbor, into God's infinity, is summed up in the Sermon on the Mount, which Augustine regards as our chief mirror of perfection.[9] It is the transmission of our Lord's teaching on the specifically Christian virtues which lead to perfection: poverty of spirit, humility, docility before the Word of God, penitence, hunger and thirst for justice, mercy, purity of heart. These Beatitudes can be seen as so many degrees or stages which lead the Christian from humility and poverty of spirit up to the heights of wisdom and the vision of God. That is where we locate our perfection: in the loving vision of God which will perfect all our powers.

The specificity of Christian morality is above all then a Christological specificity. The incarnate Word, taking on our entire condition (except sin, from which he frees us through his cross and resurrection), has simultaneously restored it, not least in its ethical dimension. He did not come to abolish or replace human ethics. Instead, that "perfecting" of the Law which the Sermon on the Mount announces radicalizes its demands. From out of the gift of a new heart in justification morality can deploy new energies; the resultant actions stem from a human freedom regenerated by the Passover of the Lord. In the Christian regime of life, human morality is reconstituted as the consequence and fulfillment — albeit still within our sin-pocked condition — of the love-gift of God. That is why Christian morality is paschal longing. The commandments remain its rudimentary requirements, the agapeistic minimum, but the agape-life is not content with them, and rises (super) naturally to the self-giving spirit of the evangelical counsels.


Nature herself is nonetheless an ethical norm in Catholic morality. This does not mean that the cosmic process, with its vast evils of waste and suffering, is itself an exemplar for human conduct. That the moral life is a life "in accordance with nature" is a proposition which, in the first place, draws our attention to the objectivity of the good. We cannot be content with a purely psychological theory of value. We cannot help asking, Why do we desire something? Why do we take an interest in it? Why do we approve of it?, which means, What is it that makes this or that an object of desire, interest, or approval? No one could be content, then, with a purely psychological, subjective theory of value unless he or she had despaired already of finding an objective one. The Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore's view that the good is a simple unanalyzable quality (like, for example, yellow) which we directly recognize as belonging to certain situations and states of mind is, again, a theory of value which no one would be likely to hold unless he or she had first tried to analyze the notion, and failed abysmally. Nor can Catholic ethicists be content with the suggestion that the good is the pleasant, even though one of their masters, Aristotle, taught that pleasure is a normal consequence and accompaniment of the attainment of good — however twisted some people's pleasures may be, the pleasure always results from some element of positive attainment and not precisely from the twist, the evil in the activity. More fundamentally, however, the good of anything appears as the actualization and fulfillment of its potential nature. Its complete good will involve the completest possible actualization of its nature as a whole, sponsoring a harmony and due order for its different powers. Human good ought therefore to be investigated, in the first place, by examining the functions of human nature, for that good must include their harmonious fulfillment.

Examples of such "appropriate operations" for human nature, both suggested and stirred by our deepest inclinations, would come from: the human being's social character (hence the precept against injuring others in society); the due hierarchy of his or her being (hence precepts concerning the use of "lower things" like food and drink); the human soul­body relationship (thus moral precepts inhibiting actions that disturb the body sufficiently to hinder the work of human reason); and human nature as that of a worshipping being, on which Aquinas comments:

Since the good, taken universally, is God himself, and since . . . all human beings . . . exist as contained within that good — because every creature, precisely in respect of what it is by nature, belongs to God — it follows that the instinctive love of each . . . human being is for God first of all and for God more than for self. Otherwise, if this were not true, if creatures by nature loved themselves more than God, then natural loving would be perverse; and would not be perfected, but destroyed, by charity.[10]

Insofar as human nature is constant, it makes permanent demands which form a basic human morality. Catholicism is opposed to ethical relativism. It sees the gospel as a transcultural, transhistorical universal standard, which both confirms and surpasses the order of creation.

Confirms and surpasses — for right action is directed not simply towards the good of the agent but towards the good of all affected by the action. Morality frequently calls for self-sacrifice: that is, the surrender of one's own good for the sake of the good of another. Complete rightness does not belong to the kind of action in which the claims of self and of others are anxiously weighed, for it belongs to the activity of love, which is in one sense an enlargement of the self but in another transcendence of the self. An action done through love is necessarily both completely unselfish and yet completely satisfactory to the agent. Morality itself is fulfilled when it becomes true love of God and of human beings. So while the concept of nature provides the ethical norm, nature is not the culmination of ethical life and activity. Morality is not complete until the contrast of self and other ceases to be relevant, and that belongs to the sphere of agape — that charity in which alone duty and happiness are fully one — as we have seen already above.


In Catholicism, the theory and practice of the good life is bound up with the virtues. Not only does right action express itself theoretically in the formulation of moral norms, the truths of practical reason. It also expresses itself by way of concrete living, in the form of the virtues, which may be called "life-enhancing habits." Right from the time of Homer, the virtues have been recognized as those qualities which sustain free persons in their roles, and manifest themselves in the actions their roles require. In epic, heroic, and tragic writers, a view of the virtues is at the same time an attitude to human life in its story-like or narrative structure.

If a human life is understood as a progress through harms and dangers, moral and physical, which someone may encounter and overcome in better and worse ways and with a greater or lesser measure of success, the virtues will find their place as those qualities the possession and exercise of which generally tend to success in this enterprise and the vices likewise as qualities which tend to failure. Each human life will then embody a story whose shape and form will depend upon what is counted as a harm and danger and upon how success and failure, progress and opposition, are understood and evaluated.[11]

Or, in Aquinas's perspective: that a thing should reach its proper perfection is both God's will for it and its own way of reaching God. But the instinct for God which carries a human being, via a certain self­transcendence, towards the supreme good (the "natural desire for God") is not by itself enough to teach persons what their end is, much less to lead them to pursue it. Our responsibility lies in acting so as to attain the end once it is seen. While some dispositions may be innate (for some people are better endowed temperamentally in this or that respect than others) most dispositions are, by contrast, the result of the agent's own activity. When we reflect, our reasoning affects the faculty of desire, generating dispositions in the will and the sensory appetite. In this sense, virtue is a benison upon morally disciplined attention. Virtuous habits can never be compulsive or impulse-ridden tendencies; they are, rather, the tendency to perform right acts where moral reason would call for them. Thanks to the virtues, we can have such things as virtuous passions. Even at the level of physiological engagement, we — that is, our bodies — can be the subject of virtues.

The virtues that the Catholic moral tradition regards as cardinal ("hinge-like") in importance are justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. They come from the ancient pagan world, but are now to be supernaturalized: that is lived in the new, divinely given, evangelical spirit. Prudence is the virtue that disposes us to discern the golden mean of all the moral virtues, and inclines us in the choice of right means of action. Without prudence, no other moral virtue could truly be exercised: for example, the virtue of mercy bids us help the needy, but only prudence tells us how and when so to do. Justice is the moral virtue that moves us to give others their due. Fortitude is the virtue that urges us to action where we would otherwise and unreasonably be apt to shrink back because of difficulties foreseen. Temperance is the virtue that holds us back from pursuit of pleasure where appetite would urge us unreasonably to go forward.

In the ancient world, before the gospel, it was realized that these virtues — and others — must be interrelated.

Because of the different types of achievement in different types of situation; because of the different character of the goods which are at stake in different types of situations, it will be impossible to judge justly, and consequently, impossible to act justly, unless one can also judge correctly in respect of the whole range of the virtues.... But since on Aristotle's view it is impossible generally to judge consistently aright concerning a particular virtue without possessing the virtue, it seems to follow that someone who makes just judgements must not only be just but also temperate, courageous, generous and the like. . . . [Moreover] since practical reasoning, as Aristotle understands it, involves the capacity to bring the relevant premises concerning goods and virtues to bear on particular situations, and since this capacity is inseparable from, is indeed a part of, the virtues, including justice, it is also the case that one cannot be practically rational without being just. [12]

But we can go further. Once the gospel enters the picture, not only does prudence unite the virtues at the natural level, but charity enters to unify them more deeply still at the level of God's grace. Here is the result, according to Augustine:

If virtue leads us to the happy life, I dare to affirm that virtue is nothing else than the sovereign love of God. For in saying that virtue is fourfold, one is speaking . . . of the diverse movements of love itself. And so I would not hesitate to define these famous four virtues (if only their force lay in all spirits as their name is on all lips!) in the following way: temperance is love giving itself integrally to what it loves; courage is love bearing everything with ease for what it loves; justice is love serving exclusively what it loves and for that reason governing with rectitude; prudence is love separating wisely what is useful and what is harmful to it. But this love is not just any love, as we have said, but the love of God, that is, of the sovereign Good, Wisdom and Harmony. [13]

Thomas will go on to speak of charity as the form of the virtues. For him, it is the highest of the three "theological" or God-conjoining virtues, of which the other two are faith and hope. We must say something about each of them. Faith is the virtue that enables us, in recognizing God's revelation for what it is, actively to believe his promise. As a gift of God, it unites our minds with the God whom we believe on, making us rely on his truthfulness. In so doing, it prepares our intelligence for the final union of heaven. Hope gives us the strength to continue to strive for the eternal life which is the goal God holds out to us. Impossible through our own efforts, it is possible by God's help.

The essential and chief good that we ought to hope for from God is an unlimited good, one matching the power of the God who helps us. For it belongs to unlimited power to lead to the unlimited good. Now this good is eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of God himself. For nothing less is to be hoped for from him than what he is. . . . No one can rely too much on God's help. . . . Hope does not chiefly rely on grace already received, but on God's omnipotence and mercy, through which even one who does not have grace can receive it and so come to eternal life. And whoever has grace is certain about God's omnipotence and his mercy. [14]

By charity, God enables us to love him more than all else, so that our lives are shaped by the love of God — our decisions so taken that they imply we prefer nothing else to him, and our actions such that they show we love him and will to share his love for others. In charity, we love God not simply as our maker but more characteristically as our freedom, who wishes to share with us his life and happiness. Of its nature charity flows into love for those whom God loves. But the union of love for God and love for the neighbor is not only in their source; it is also in their goal.

"You do not love your neighbor as yourself unless you try to draw him to the good towards which you tend yourself." [15]

Charity, then, orientates the other virtues toward their last end: it is, in the language of the Scholastics, both their "efficient" and their "final" cause. The human virtues find their value reaffirmed, not denied, by their integration in the order of grace. Yet the theological virtues remain outstanding, for unlike the moral virtues they have no "mean"; we can never love God inordinately, nor believe in him excessively, nor hope in him too much.

The ugly reverse of virtue is of course vice. The ascetic tradition of the Church normally numbers seven "capital" vices: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth. They are at their worst in "mortal" sin, the sin that destroys charity (i.e., friendship with God), robbing us of sanctifying grace and the right to eternal happiness and so killing off the spiritual life of the soul. Such sin involves an awareness that one is turning from the supreme good, not only to find satisfaction in some created finite good, but to do so to the exclusion of God. Though there may be no act of direct hatred of God, one knows that what one is doing is seriously evil: this constitutes the fact of one's "aversion" from God. Such a sin must involve some intrinsically grave moral matter, thorough advertence to that gravity, and full consent in the act of sinning. It is a major decision in favor of wrong priorities. The greatest good is to be the friend of God, and if I break off that friendship, only God can reach out to draw me back to himself. He must reinvent charity in me, re-orientate me so that I once more live for and in him. Because we often repent of mortal sins, it seems natural to do so. But this is because God is so gentle in his rich manifestation of mercy.

Venial sin is called sin only by analogy with mortal sin. It is really a slackening in the momentum of the life of grace. Though it is not rebellion against God it nonetheless slows down our pursuit of him and makes it easier to commit truly grave sins. It calls not so much for repentance as for a reinvigoration of our Christian effort.

There has been much talk above of effort. But in fact the good life in Catholicism is meant eventually to be, easy, we might even dare to say facile. The strain we experience in trying to live well is not an inherent part of Christian ethics. On the contrary, the glorious freedom of the sons of God promised us under grace involves learning how to do the good in a spontaneous fashion, as though it were second nature. Aquinas speaks of the God of grace as rendering the acquired moral virtues easier for us by his bestowing of infused moral virtues, whose whole point is to give us greater facility in the exercise of the basic decencies. Analogously, the theological virtues become easier for us to practice when the Holy Spirit gives us himself in the full form of the seven gifts bestowed in embryo at confirmation. In the saints, those gifts are seen in their full flower, and they make the saints docile — readily responsive — to the mind and will of God, to his truth and goodness. The good life becomes a song for them, rather than a slog.

Part 2


1. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 4.24.1-3.

2. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.73.3.

3. S. Pinckaers, Les sources de la morale chrétienne: Sa méthode, son contenu, son histoire (Fribourg, 1985) 226.

4. J. H. Newman, University Sermons: Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford, 1828-1843 (London, 1970) 18.

5. J. Driedo, De ecclesiasticis Scripturis et dogmatibus (Louvain, 1533).

6. Dei Verbum 7; see DH 1501.

7. J. Saward, Christ Is the Answer: The Christ-centred Teaching of Pope John Paul II (Edinburgh, 1995) 97, with an internal citation of Gregory Nazianzen's thirtieth Oration.

8. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 41.

9. Augustine, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount 1.1.

10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1.60.5.

11. A. Maclntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind., 1981) 135.

12. A. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London, 1988) 106,123.

13. Augustine, On the Customs of the Catholic Church 15.

14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2-2.17.2.

15. Augustine, On the Customs of the Catholic Church 26.

Part 2

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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