The Aquinas Institute will be offering an eight week study program covering the first part of the second part of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which comprises his treatment of Christian moral life in general (the second part of this part then takes up particular Christian virtues and actions one by one). I will be teaching the third of the four blocks of this program, covering virtues, beatitudes, and the Gifts of the holy Spirit.
What is the value of studying Thomas Aquinas on the moral life? There are many ways to answer this question; I here propose just a couple fundamental points. Aquinas integrates multiple deep insights that are frequently played off against one another, and thereby gives a much fuller and more accurate account of human life. What do I mean by this? Many theories of ethics and morals, beginning from the true presuppositions that man's rationality and self-determination are essential to morality, see morality as something entirely relative, as simply created from within a person. Others, beginning from the fact that many actions have some human goodness or badness in them prior to a person's understanding or choice of those actions, see morality as something absolute apart from man, to which man must conform, as to an extrinsic rule. (One variation of this view would have it that the goodness or badness of an action derives from the fact that God commands it or forbids it; another variation would have it that the goodness or badness is something just in the act itself).
Both of these views rest on some true insight, but fail to adequately take into account the insight of the other view.
In Aquinas' understanding of morals, these two aspects of human morality are taken up, and closely intertwined. God is our last end in the first place not because we choose him for our end, but because he is infinite goodness, who alone can fully satisfy our desire, and who contains all other goods within him. Yet we seek God in a manner that corresponds to our human nature, which first possesses an abstract concept of happiness, or satisfaction of desire, and only consequently attains or is granted the insight that God alone is this goal. Similarly an action such as telling the truth is good because it builds up the human goods of truth and fellowship, while an action such as stealing is bad because it doesn't correspond to, and harms the good of the natural human fellowship that naturally arises between human persons. But these actions are only moral goods or evils, human goods or evils in the full sense, inasmuch as they are recognized for what they by a human being, and chosen. The morality of an action, good or bad, is thus not realized apart from the personal insight and choice of the one who acts. Aquinas can therefore firmly maintain that there are some actions which are bad, just because of the kind of action they are (malum ex genere), but also that a person is always obliged to follow his conscience, and indeed, if a person's mistaken judgment of what he should do is not the result of his voluntary negligence, arrogance, or other fault, then he deserves no blame for following his erring conscience.
Similarly there is often dispute about whether goals and motives, or laws and rules, or character and virtue are the principal factors for human and moral life (In ethics these sometimes take the name of virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism or utilitarianism), and evidence for one is often taken as evidence against the others. Here, too, in Aquinas all three of these aspects are integral to his moral thinking. Beginning with the last end as the first principle of moral action, he gives an undeniable primacy to the goal, or end of action. Nonetheless he does not subordinate virtue to man's ultimate end as a mere means to it, but consider it as a part of the end, and as the inner principle by which man attains that end. Law, too, in being known by man, becomes a first principle of judgment, by which a man makes rational decisions, and thus makes his way toward his end, God. The first principle of law is either, formulated generically, "do good and avoid evil," or, formulated specifically, "love, and do what you will." (St. Augustine's formulation–Aquinas usually simply places the commandment of love as corresponding to the first rational judgment to do good and avoid evil.)
These three aspects of moral life, together with a fourth human aspect, that of feelings, emotions, and passions, and a properly divine aspect, that of grace (man's share in divine life), are treated in the Prima Secundae, and will be taken up in four two week intensive courses from May 24th to July 16th, 2010.
Of course, studying Thomas Aquinas is not everything. If moral theology consists in studying, understanding, and explaining how God and his revelation in Christ affects how we live, and living isn't something realized in the abstract, but in all the concreteness of the here and now, then it pertains integrally to moral theology to consider present issues and problems, issues that did not arise for St. Thomas, and which require some particular considerations he did not make. But Aquinas's moral theology does provide a strong basis to address present issues, and to dialogue with proponents of other theories.