The modern Church seems crippled when it comes to its moral teaching. Of course, many in the hierarchy openly dissent from the Church's moral principles. But even among those inclined to defend them, there seems a growing uncertainty about how to explain them. Similarly, the Catholic laity are as little disposed as ever to actually receive and understand them; hence the complaint of the bishops in the 2014 Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod on the Family that a morality grounded in natural law is "incomprehensible" to most Catholics. Thus dissent and confusion are the order of the day, and the hierarchy seems hobbled about what to do. As with many problems in the modern Church, this difficulty is bound up with an abandonment of the teaching of St. Thomas on moral actions. In order to construct a solid basis for our moral teaching, we need to recover a Thomistic approach to morality. In this article, we will sketch St. Thomas's moral principles and contrast them with the presumptions of post-medieval moral theology.
Aquinas: Morality of Happiness
The dominating focus in the morality of St. Thomas is the question of human happiness. Thomas is not treading new ground here; in many ways he is simply following the classical tradition going back from Augustine to Aristotle and even Plato. Centering his thought on happiness establishes the ultimate teleological end of human actions and thus of our lives. Happiness ultimately consists in the vision of God. This is the meta-principle upon which the questions of the Summa I-II and II-II focus.
St. Thomas goes on to treat of the voluntary act, the passions, and the principles or sources of our actions, in which he distinguishes between internal and external causes. An internal cause of a moral action is some habit or dynamic quality of the soul. Of course, the virtues fall under this category, which are habitual qualities in the soul disposing it to choose the good. These virtues are perfected by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are a function of God's grace upon human nature. An external cause of moral action is something external to us, the preeminent example being law - and here St. Thomas will go through the distinctions of the Old Law, New Law, eternal law, etc.
The New Law, however, is unique, in that we see aspects of internal and external causes joined. In the Gospel, the external principle of law becomes internalized. In the New Law, the grace of the Holy Spirit operates on the human heart through faith and charity to become a true cause of action, external in its origin but profoundly personal through the depths that it reaches within us. Thus is fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the nature of the New Covenant:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34).
In book II-II, St. Thomas considers each of the virtues in particular along with the corresponding gifts of the Spirit and corresponding vices. He closes his section on morality with an examination of special charisms.
We are not here interested in the particular questions Aquinas addresses as much as sketching out his general overview of the moral life. His view is profoundly synthetic in that it brings together the pagan contributions of Aristotle, Cicero and others who developed the doctrine of the virtues and fuses it with an authentically Christian teaching on the role of grace. These two heritages, pagan and Christian, are brought together on the point of the human desire for happiness. The natural virtues, the "good life" of the pagans, dispose the soul to receive the grace of God. Nature, elevated by the grace of the Holy Spirit, is able to attain its natural end which is the vision of God, in which perfect happiness consists.
Thus the morality of Aquinas, which is representative of the classical tradition, begins with the natural desire for happiness and moves from there to focus on virtues and gifts which enable nature to move towards its natural end, elevated by grace, in such a way that faith and reason, intellect and will, individual conscience and external law are all harmoniously worked together in man's pursuit of beatitude. This is why Aquinas' moral system has been called a morality of happiness.
The Moderns and the Moralities of Obligation
The morality of St. Thomas Aquinas represents the best thought of the medieval synthesis. Nevertheless, following the political, social and religious upheavals of the 14th century, the men of the late Middle Ages found themselves increasingly unable - or unwilling? - to maintain the harmonious tension in the morality elaborated by Aquinas.
It began with William of Ockham's nominalism, which denied the existence of uniform "natures" and posited that what tradition called natures possessed no independent reality but were merely names (nomen). Once the existence of "natures" was denied, it was no longer expedient to speak of a "natural end", a telos. This posed grave problems for any morality which was centered on the fulfillment of ends, such as Aquinas' morality of happiness.
If we can no longer speak of a fulfillment of ends, on what basis do we ground moral action? For Ockham and his successors, it is obligation. St. Thomas certainly recognized the existence of obligation, but it was subordinated to consideration of virtue. But because Ockham does away with natural ends, all that remains is obligation, grounded in an arbitrary will of God who wills whatever He wants for whatever reason He wants apart from all consideration of nature, natural ends, or any teleology. There is just the naked obligation of man before external law, and this law invades every aspect of moral theology. The theological treatises on morality that appeared in the late Middle Ages were focused not on the relationship between human acts, virtue and happiness, as in Aquinas, but rather on the interplay between liberty and obligation.
Unfortunately, Ockham's thinking dominated European theology and philosophy in the 14th and 15th centuries; it is interesting to note that Luther was a professed admirer of Ockham and similarly suffered from an inadequate understanding of the relationship between law and grace. But it is not merely among the Protestants and other heretical movements that we see this shift; even among Catholic theologians, who otherwise rejected some of Ockham's more radical positions, there is an increased focus on obligation.
A classical example is the Jesuit Juan Azor (d. 1603), whose work Institutiones morales divides morality into two parts: fundamental moral theology and special moral theology. The former corresponds to Aquinas' introductory section on morality in the Summa I-II. Azor divides this section into four treatises: law, human action, conscience, and sin. If we compare this with Aquinas' Summa, we note that the consideration of happiness as the end of moral action is missing, as well as any systematic treatment of the virtues - and that a treatise on conscience has been added. Conscience will increasingly come to dominate moral thought as we move into the modern period.
The second section of the Institutiones on special moral theology concerns itself solely with questions of conscience, examining in detail the laws concerning what is permitted and forbidden. From Aquinas' conception of a freedom that generates moral actions aimed towards fulfilling a telos, we see a focus on law as an obligation that limits action.
Another notable shift from Aquinas is that grace has absolutely no treatment in Azor's moral theology. It is removed and relocated to dogmatic theology. Aquinas, on the other hand, chose to treat of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the charisms in the context of morality.
Juan Azor was not the most important moral theologian of the post-Tridentine period, nor were his Institutiones the only moral manual, but they did serve as a template for future moral manuals, including the more famous moral theology of St. Alphonsus Ligouri.
Law and the Primacy of Conscience
As freedom enables us to move towards happiness in Aquinas, in the moderns conscience plays the role of determining the application of law. Conscience is essentially neutral, evaluating our acts and applying the demands of law to them. This is important, as we are moving now from the universality of law to the particularity of individual actions. Each act is considered a case of conscience (by the way, this is where we get the word casuistry, the study of 'cases'). Our readers will hopefully recognize in this the kernel of modern moral thinking.
Law is dominant throughout the entire domain of moral theology. This results in a twofold association: First, law is increasingly associated with the pure will of lawgiver, rather than the wisdom of the lawgiver. Second, and related to the first, freedom is increasingly viewed as liberty from constraint rather than the ability to fulfill one's natural end. We have moved from freedom to excellence into the more modern concept of freedom from restraint. Certainly, a man may voluntarily use his freedom to submit to the law that God promulgates, but without a consideration of happiness and man's natural end, morality is reduced to being merely the spot where the freedom of man's will interacts with the freedom of God's will to legislate. One can see in this the origin of the libertarian "mutual consent" theory of freedom.
The manualists would typically include several "case studies" of conscience as demonstrations of how these moral principles are applied. Again, the focal point becomes the particular conscience of the individual in understanding his obligations and applying the demands of law, rather than the freedom of the individual as enabling him through the exercise of virtue to dispose himself to grace and attain his natural end, happiness in heaven in the vision of God.
The Modern Descent
We are not talking about mutually exclusive systems here, but rather about emphases, focus and categorization. St. Alphonsus Ligouri certainly did not deny the existence of natures, or that man's natural end was happiness with God in heaven. But he does begin his moral work with a treatment of conscience and omits any treatise on happiness. Aquinas, on the other hand, begins his moral work with a treatment of happiness and lacks any treatment on conscience. So what we see in Azor, Ligouri and the moderns is not so much any heresy as much as a new point of departure that is focused on the individual and his obligations rather than on human nature and its real capacity for happiness.
St. Alphonsus was a loyal enough son of the Church to work his morality within a perfectly Catholic framework - nevertheless, a framework inferior and narrower to the one worked out by Aquinas. Unfortunately, other moralists not as in tune with the mens ecclesiae as Ligouri woudl take the modern approach to morality and bring about the destruction of classical Catholic morality.
Once the center of morality is law or obligation and not happiness, a disconnect arises between the law and why one should keep the law. We could of course focus on the temporal or eternal punishments that inevitably arise when law is broken, but then the cause of moral actions becomes merely exterior; we lose the dynamic interiorization that Aquinas envisioned when nature, disciplined by the virtues, is elevated by grace. Law comes to be seen as primarily restraining (as opposed to enabling), and without a morality of happiness, freedom is increasingly seen as only truly possible in the absence of law. This mentality is precisely why modern people associate morality with rules.
Since the advent of modernity, the centrality of obligation has only increased the centrality of conscience, which as we can see in modern discussions of the Church's discipline on communion for divorced and putatively remarried, becomes the dominating factor in moral discussions. Essentially, we have lost the ability to speak of universal moral laws aimed at elevating human nature as such; instead, we are left with a reductionist wasteland of full of cases of conscience, in which human nature is given short shrift and conscience is left as sole arbiter of right and wrong.
Furthermore, the possibility of moral fulfillment that is opened up when we leave room for grace is entirely denied. This is reflected in modern Catholic assessments of the current moral "problems" faced by the Church; they frequently evaluate them in a purely naturalist manner, importing observations from psychology and sociology but leaving no room for the operation of grace. This is is also why these sorts of assessments never to seem to consider that people can actually overcome their moral difficulties through prayer, penance and God's grace. Thus all that is left is to accommodate people where they are at; or in other words, the Kasperite "age of mercy" and all it implies
Thus, the 2014 Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod on the Family is not that far off the mark when it speaks of modern "perplexity" at the concept of natural law, which many bishops said is "highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible" to contemporary man. If we hope to safeguard our disciplines surrounding marriage and communion, we need to recover a sound understanding of natural law, which can only come about by a new catechesis on nature, teleology, and a return to a Thomistic morality of happiness.
For further reading on this, I highly recommend Servais Pinckaers, O.P., Morality: The Catholic View and his larger masterwork, Sources of Christian Ethics. Also see our RCIA lesson on "Freedom and Happiness."