|This is not Christian ethics|
When St. Thomas Aquinas turns to his study of the moral life, the return of the rational creature to his Creator, he begins not with the personal conscience of the believer, nor with the objective precepts of the moral law, nor even with virtue and vice, but with the pursuit of happiness. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas tells us that happiness is the last end of all men, it is the one end two which all men tend. This, then, is the goal of morality: To aid us in the attainment of happiness, which is found in the vision of the Divine Essence.
In this matter, St. Thomas is following his divine Teacher, who began the Sermon on the Mount, the great discourse on the Christian life, with the Beatitudes:
He began to teach them saying: Blessed are they…
Christ our Savior does not begin his instruction with law, nor with the subjective discernment of the individual conscience, but with beatitude. Blessed, he says, which means happy. He draws the disciples to the Christian life through appealing to their deepest desire – he who made us knows that we want to be happy, and he also knows how we will get there.
An error of most modern systems of Christian ethics
There are generally two popular approaches to Christian ethics in the modern day – on the one hand, there are those who insist on the objective requirements of the natural law and of divine positive law; on the other, there are those who insist on the absolute authority of the personal conscience, perhaps tempering this with the assertion that the conscience must be well formed. I would submit that both of these approaches are deeply flawed. Christian ethics can begin neither with law, nor with the conscience – rather, all ethical discourse must begin with the teleology of man, with his desire for happiness.
I have mentioned that St. Thomas begins his discussion of morality with man’s pursuit of happiness, in this he is following Aristotle. The first five questions of the prima secundae of the Summa treat of man’s happiness, then St. Thomas proceeds to the question of voluntary and involuntary actions by which men pursue that happiness.
Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of the life in Christ with man’s dignity, as being created in the image of God, and his vocation to beatitude. This discussion of man’s desire for happiness is rooted in the Beatitudes which Christ delivered in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. CCC 1716-1729) – the moral conscience of the individual believer is not discussed until sixty paragraphs later (cf. CCC 1776-1802).
For both St. Thomas and the Catechism, the discussion of the moral law is placed at the very end of general morals – ST I-II, qq.90-108; CCC 1949-1986. Why is it, then, that so much of contemporary moral theology (and even conservative moral theology) is dominated by the questions of law and conscience?
The source of this error
Unfortunately, if we seek to find the source of the modern error in Christian ethics, we will have to look to some of the great saints and theologians of our Church – men who were well intentioned, but who were very much a product of their times. So many of those theologians of the Catholic Counter-Reformation did not realize just how heavily their own theology had been influenced by the protestant revolutionaries – many of the moral writings, especially in the Jesuit tradition, are filled with the fundamental presuppositions of the protestant puritans. Here we will simply mention the rise of casuistry, the radical emphasis on the moral law, and even the beginnings of the disproportionate focus on the judgment of the personal moral conscience.
Now, let me be clear: I am in no way intending to discard or short-change the work of these theologians. Anyone who has been reading this blog will recall that I have on numerous occasions held up St. Alphonsus Liguori (whom I would consider a “source” of the modern error) as a great doctor of the Christian life. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the time has come for the Church to take an honest look at her ethical tradition. Before we begin to move forward in the new millennium, we ought to consider carefully how we want to present the Christian moral life.
Modern examples of this error
Allow me to list two modern examples of this fundamental error of placing the emphasis on either law or the conscience.
1) Consider the case of contraception. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the law – because it is contrary to natural law, contraception cannot be practiced. On the other hand, there are those who emphasize the authority of the conscience (and here we refer the reader to an earlier article in which I criticize some of the common interpretations of the Vademecum for confessors) – because the individual believer is, perhaps, invincibly ignorant of the evil of contraception, they should be allowed to remain “in good faith,” i.e. they should not be challenged to conversion.
2) Consider the case of receiving communion in the state of mortal sin. Again, those who emphasize the law will say that this must be preached against with great zeal, since it is contrary to the law of the Church for one conscious of grave sin to receive the Sacrament until they have gone to confession. On the other hand, those who emphasize the conscience will say that the ignorance may be invincible, or at least it would be very difficult to enlighten the conscience of the individual, and therefore the culpability is greatly reduced and the individual ought not to be too strongly challenged – less, perhaps, what is currently only a material sin, should become a formal sin.
In both cases, a moral theology which is founded on man’s desire for happiness will approach the question with the primary goal of discerning what will lead to beatitude. If we know that contraception is inherently evil, and is therefore destructive to the happiness of the family and of the individuals, then we will not hesitate to speak publicly against contraception. Indeed, even if the culpability of the individuals who use contraceptives might perhaps be lessened due to the state of our culture, we nevertheless affirm that contraception ALWAYS makes the individual unhappy – what we don’t know can hurt us.
Likewise, in the case of the reception of communion, we will affirm that it is imperative to teach this truth quite clearly – not so much because it is in Canon Law, but because the worthy reception of Holy Communion is essential to supernatural beatitude.
What happiness is
In ST I-II, q.3, St. Thomas asks what happiness, the last end of man, is: “Our end is twofold. First, there is the thing itself which we desire to attain. Second there is the attainment or possession, the use or enjoyment of the thing desired. In the first sense, then, man’s last end is the uncreated good, namely God, who alone by his infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will. But in the second way, man’s last end is something created, existing in him, and this is nothing else than the attainment or enjoyment of the last end.” (ST I-II, q.3, a.1)
The whole question of applied moral theology should then be: Will this particular action lead the soul to the enjoyment of God? If the action is most conducive to beatitude, it is to be pursued. If the action is sometimes conducive to beatitude, it is to be sometimes pursued. If the action is contrary to beatitude, it is to be avoided.
And with this simple insight (from St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominican Thomistic Tradition), all the many confusions of contemporary ethics could begin to be solved.