Aquinas on Marrying to Support One's Parents

Is someone obliged to marry if that is the only way he can support his parents?


This article is from Quodlibetal 10, q. 5, a. 1.

Whether someone is bound to contact marriage in order to support his father by the marriage dowry, if he is not able to support him otherwise.


It seems that a son who cannot support his father unless by marrying he receives a dowry from which he can look after his father, is not obliged to contract marriage in order to support his father.

1. Since charity is orderly, he is obliged more to himself than to his father. But it would be praiseworthy for someone to face death in order to preserve his virginity. Therefore someone is not obliged to contract marriage in order to save his father's life.

2. Further, precepts are not opposed to counsels. But preserving virginity is a counsel, as is evident from 1 Cor. 7:25. Therefore the precept of honoring one's parents does not oblige someone to lose his virginity.

On the contrary: Affirmative precepts are binding at certain times and in certain places. But the time when one's parents are in need is a time when one is bound to honor one's parents. Therefore at that time someone is bound by this precept. And so it seems that he is bound to contract marriage, if he cannot otherwise support his father.

Response: It should be said that the case proposed does not seem to be readily possible, since it can scarcely happen that someone is unable to support his parents without contracting marriage, at least by manual work or by begging. But if this were to happen, the judgment to be made in this case concerning the preservation of virginity would be the same as concerning other works of perfection, such as entering religious life.

Now different people have different opinions about this. Some say that if someone's father is in need, he should give all that he has, if he has anything, for the support of his father, and he can thus licitly enter religious life, committing the care of his parents to the heavenly Father, who feeds even the birds.

But because this opinion seems too severe, it seems to me better to say the following: he who desires to enter religious life may see that he cannot live in the world without mortal sin, or cannot easily do so. If he fears the danger of his committing mortal sin, then, since he is more obliged to care for the salvation of his soul than for the bodily need of his parents, he is not obliged to remain in the world. But if he sees that he can live in the world without sin, it seems one should make a distinction: if his parents can in no way live without his services to them, he is obliged to serve them and to forego other works of perfection, and he would sin by leaving his parents; but if they can in some way be supported without his services, just not respectably, he is not therefore obliged to forego works of perfection. The case is different when someone has already entered religious life; for since he has already died to the world by religious profession, he is freed from the law by which he was bound to his parents in worldly services, as the Apostle teaches in Rom 7:6. But in other, spiritual matters, such as by prayers, etc., he is bound to serve his parents.

What has been said about entering religious life can also be said about the observance of virginity and other works of perfection.

Replies to Objections

Reply 1. To the first objection, therefore, it should be said that if someone has not professed virginity, he should not die of hunger before contracting marriage [but should marry if that is necessary in order to live].

Reply 2. To the second objection it should be said that nothing prevents a precept from being opposed to a counsel in a particular situation.

Who is the New Eve?

To whom does the title New Eve refer? To Mary, or to the Church? And is one of these usages in a meaningful way older than the other?

I'm not aware of any study that seeks whether one of these analogies historically depends more on or derives from the other than conversely (e.g., whether the title of Church as New Eve derives to a significant extent from the understanding of Mary as New Eve, or whether conversely, the title of Mary as New Eve derives to a significant extent from the understanding of the Church as New Eve)–though see the citation from the New Catholic Encyclopedia below. In any case, both of these analogies (Mary as New Eve and the Church as New Eve) seem to be proximately and firmly rooted in the Scriptures, and are theologically almost inseparable. That Mary, Mother and Type of the Church, has the role of the New Eve, is intimately bound up with the nature of the Church as the New Eve.

Both analogies are clearly found in the Fathers:

Mary as New Eve

Just as Eve … being disobedient, became a cause of death for herself and the whole human race: so Mary … being obedient, became a cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, xxii, 4).

Christ became man by the Virgin that the disobedience which issued from the serpent might be destroyed in the same way it originated. Eve was still an undefiled virgin when she conceived the word of the serpent and brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin received faith and joy, at the announcement of the angel Gabriel…and she replied, "Be it done to me according you your word". So through the mediation of the Virgin he came into the world, through whom God would crush the serpent (St. Justin Martyr, Apologia, ch. 100).

Church as New Eve

As Adam was a figure of Christ, Adam’s sleep shadowed out the death of Christ… that from the wound inflicted on His side might, in like manner (as Eve was formed), be typified the church, the true mother of the living. (Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, ch. 43).

The apostle directly referred to Christ the words which had been spoken of Adam. For thus will it be most certainly agreed that the Church is formed out of His bones and flesh; and it was for this cause that the Word, leaving His Father in heaven, came down to be “joined to His wife;” and slept in the trance of His passion, and willingly suffered death for her, that He might present the Church to Himself glorious and blameless, having cleansed her by the laver, for the receiving of the spiritual and blessed seed, which is sown by Him who with whispers implants it in the depths of the mind; and is conceived and formed by the Church, as by a woman. so as to give birth and nourishment to virtue….

[When Paul] was grown to a man, and was built up, then being molded to spiritual perfection, he was made the help-meet and bride of the Word; and receiving and conceiving the seeds of life, he who was before a child, becomes a church and a mother, himself laboring in birth of those who, through him, believed in the Lord, until Christ was formed and born in them also. For he says, “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you; “ and again, “In Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel.”

It is evident, then, that the statement respecting Eve and Adam is to be referred to the Church and Christ. (St. Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 3, Ch. 8-9.)

Adam sleeps that Eve may be formed; Christ dies that the Church may be
formed. Eve is formed from the side of the sleeping Adam; the side of the dead
Christ is pierced by the lance, so that the Sacraments may flow out, of which the
Church is formed. Is there anyone to whom it is not obvious that future events
are represented by the things done then, since the Apostle says that Adam himself
was the figure of Him that was to come? (St. Augustine, In Ioannis evangelium tractatus 9, 10; translated by W. A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979), 117.


From the article on Mariology in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

Mary’s spiritual motherhood of the members of the Mystical Body appears clearly only in the 12th century, e.g., in Hermann of Tournai. A factor here is the mutual enrichment of Mariology and the theology about the Church. The maternal meaning that has always been part of the concept of the Church as new Eve is applied now also to Our Lady as new Eve. ‘‘Like the Church of which she is the figure, Mary is mother of all those who are born again to life’’ (Guerric of Igny, d. 1155; Patrologia Latina, 185:188).

… The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in the pastoral on the Blessed Virgin Mary points out: ‘‘Even more anciently, the Church was regarded as the ‘New Eve.’ The Church is the bride of Christ, formed from his side in the sleep of death on the cross, as the first Eve was formed by God from the side of the sleeping Adam’’ (NCCB 41).  ("Mariology", edited by E. R. Carroll and F. M. Jelly, New Catholic Encyclopedia).

Marriage and Procreation

This post continues the response to the question, what has changed regarding christians' and the Church's view of marriage and marital relations, a question raised in a comment on the post Married Saints and Continence.

Traditional View (Systematized by St. Augustine)

St. Augustine understands sexual intercourse to be so ordered to children, the "one honorable fruit" of intercourse, that even a spouse who desires sexual intercourse more than necessary for procreation, unless they do so for the sake of their spouse and their relationship with their spouse who desires such intercourse, is guilty of a venial sin, inasmuch as they are unduly attached to the pleasure of sexual intercourse or something similar, as manifested by their use of sex apart from the end for which it is given.

This continence is more meritorious; it is no sin to render the marital debt, while to demand it beyond what is necessary for begetting children is a venial sin." (St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, n. 6)

These goods that are necessary for the sake of something else, if someone uses them for some other purpose than that for which they were instituted, he sins, in some cases venially, in other cases mortally (ibid, n. 9).

St. Thomas basically takes the same position, though he notes that one spouse ought to have marital intercourse not only when the other spouse explicitly expresses a desire for it, but implicitly shows that he or she wants it. (In IV Sent., dist. 32, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 1) Moreover, he says that intercourse which happens to be sterile (as opposed to intercourse intentionally sterile) is not a sin, and this includes not only cases where the spouses do not know that the intercourse is sterile, but also the cases where they know it (Summa Contra Gentiles 3, 122). This may possibly show that the procreative intention for St. Thomas need only be a fundamental and habitual intention, not an actual intention in the sense of actually expecting, with at least some small probability, a child from the particular act of intercourse. (It is not certain, as it is also possible that when he describes this act as not a sin, he means that one can consent to the act [as when one's spouse desires intercourse]).

Changes definitively made through recent Church teaching

The position systematized by St. Augustine can be, with variations, roughly described as the majority view in the West until some time after St. Alphonsus Liguori. Nonetheless it was not a universal position.

In magisterial documents in the 20th century, the Catholic Church has, in an authoritative way, somewhat qualified the manner in which the principal end of the marital act has to be in the intention of the spouses. The marital act must remain intrinsically directed towards procreation, and this intrinsic order of the act to procreation must be respected by those who choose to engage in martial intercourse, but the marital act need not lead concretely lead (even in terms of probability) to the procreation of children. Having marital intercourse for the sake of the relationship between the spouses can be morally good, even if children are impossible, and neither of the spouses expects or intends to have children through that act of marital intercourse.

Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (Humanae Vitae, n. 11)

If there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained…. When the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love. (Ibid., n. 16)

Common Change of Viewpoint

The common view, in contrast to the position of the Church, is now that sexual or marital intercourse, or at least individual acts, need not be ordered in any significant way to procreation. This is the complete opposite of the traditional position systematized by St. Augustine. This view has a number of consequences. One of these is that it leads quite naturally to the abandonment of any general moral objection to homosexual unions, even if it still allows for various sound political and religious reasons to not recognize them as marriages.

Garrigou-Lagrange & Communicating Under Both Species

St. Alphonsus thinks it not improbable that more grace is given in Holy Communion under both species, and all theologians agree that if the ardour of charity is increased by receiving the second species, then greater grace is conferred accidentally by reason of the better disposition. Therefore a layman who wants to become a priest in order to communicate under both species so as to receive this greater grace is not to be dissuaded. (Garrigou-Lagrange, The Priest in Union with Christ, "The Priest's Communion", emphasis added)

I'm not sure exactly why Garrigou-Lagrange draws this rather strange conclusion (I highly doubt that St. Alphonsus would hold it), but it's perhaps a sign of some problematic approachs or views in many modern scholastics: an ultra-formal way of speaking about things; in regard to the moral life, an excessive concern with tidily categorizing all kinds of actions; in regard to the priesthood and other sacraments, a tendency to over-reify (admittedly, this last tendency was not limited to scholastics, nor were all subject to it).

Also striking is that he draws this conclusion despite remarking that in general nothing is lost by the fact that people only receive Christ's body under the species of bread, and not the Sacred Blood.

"Nothing is lost by this (that is, by the body being received by the people without the blood): because the priest both offers and receives the blood in the name of all, and the whole Christ is present under either species" (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 80, a. 12, ad 3). Under the species of bread there is also present, by concomitance, the precious blood. Thus the faithful are not deprived of any notable grace, and a fervent Communion under one species is far more fruitful than a tepid Communion received under both species.

Attitudes to Marriage and Holiness

This post is a partial response to a question raised on the post Married Saints and Continence.

The attitudes of Christians towards marriage and holiness have changed in the past centuries, and in a particular way in the 20th century.

In regard to the value of marriage and marital sexual relations, we might overall describe the change as an increase in realism (a change for the better), and a decrease in idealism (understood as orienting oneself by and striving for noble ideals–a change for the worse).

By the increase in realism I mean a greater appreciation of temporal reality, for instance, of how concretely the human ties to one's family can be an occasion and impulse to better live a truly human and Christian life, as well as how the marital act, if done with true love and concern for the spouse, can strengthen the relationship and consequently the family and Christian life of the spouses.

By the decrease in idealism I mean a lesser appreciation of the goods that though truest, are not directly visible or tangible: a lesser appreciation that only one thing really matters, that this life is only a shadow of that which is life in the fullest sense, etc.

The following texts, and some reflection on our reaction to them, may help illustrate this:

"Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage" (1 Cor 7:27). … Even if marriage had no troubles, it would still be better for us to press forward toward the things yet to come. But since marriage does have its troubles, why be further burdened by it? (St. John Chrysostom Homily 19)

Now that resurrection is at our gates, and we do not speak of death, but advance toward another life better than the present, the desire for posterity is superfluous. If you desire children, you can get much better old age, if you give birth by spiritual labor. So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid
fornication (St. John Chrysostom, Sermon on marriage).

As a side note, we may remark that this is said by a theologian and pastor who has a quite positive view of marriage:

"Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers…. Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks.

Seek the things which please God, and those which please man will follow soon enough…. It is possible for us to surpass all others in virtue by becoming good husbands and wives. (Homily 20).

Translations from On Marriage and Family Life, translated by Catharine P. Roth and David Anderson, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986.

From St. Teresa of the Andes (1900-1920):

I'll give you some lights that can help you recognize your vocation… Do you have a strong desire to belong to God alone, and serve Him as much as you can, with the greatest perfection? That was the ideal God proposed to us when He created us: that we should serve Him and love Him above all things. Do you think your heart can be satisfied with the love of creatures, who for the most part and most times are fickle and fleeting? … Do you think that marriage to a young man is a happy venture, with a man with whom you can form a Christian home? Does that attract you? Wouldn't you prefer to belong to God, to live despised and unknown to the world in a convent, forming thousands of Christian hearts, being a mother of those souls, converting and bringing them to God? … Who can love us like God does? No one in the world.

… My dear little sister, think about all this. And if you're able to renounce all these comforts to live with Him, to be the bride of the divine Crucified One – clearly aided by God's grace – it's because God wants you for Himself, and because He's giving you the courage to abandon everything for Him. Letter 65, To a Girl Friend. Letters of Saint Teresa of The Andes, translated by Michael D. Griffin, Teresian Charism Press, 1994.

These statements tend to make us somewhat uncomfortable, as implying a too negative or disparaging view of marriage–unless we simply disagree with them. However, it seems to me that there are many statements of Christ and of St. Paul that tend to make us uncomfortable, and for rather similar reasons:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:5)

Relatively speaking (in comparison with persons living in earlier times), these and similar sayings tend to make us uncomfortable, because they seem too negative or pessimistic.

From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-3).

We are similarly inclined to see these statements (certainly if someone now makes similar statements) as implying escapism and a negative view of the created world, and have difficulty identifying with them.

Right and Wrong Ways To Assess the Changes in Attitude to Marriage

In reviewing and evaluating the changes that have taken place in attitudes to marriage and the relationship between marriage and holiness, there are two errors we should avoid. On the one hand, we should be capable of a critical look at the tradition and refrain from immediately canonizing everything in the tradition. On the other hand, we should not set up ourselves (modern man or the modern Christian) as the reference point for evaluating the developments in the tradition; if we do so, then of course we will see the present attitude as the right one, and more traditional attitudes as imperfect or wrong to the degree that they deviate from present attitudes. Rather, the teaching of Christ and of the Apostles is the principal reference point for assessing both the attitudes to be found in the authors and saints in Christian history, and modern attitudes.

If we take this approach, in my opinion we do find a certain tendency to a lopsidedness in the Christian tradition–a favoring of continence, celibacy and virginity that lends a negative tone to speech about and attitudes toward marriage. We also find, however, that the modern Christian has lost a great deal of the fire of the early Christians and of the ideals present throughout the Christian tradition, and that it is in part due to this loss that most of the Christian tradition on marriage seems to him to be obviously a distortion of the truth about marriage.

What is needed is for us to on the one hand regain what has been lost of the faith and conviction of earlier Christians, and on the other hand to integrate recent positive insights into marriage and the call to holiness into a renewed and sound Christian view of life.

Infants and Holy Communion

In the previous post, Faith, Intention and Sacramental Reception of the Eucharist, I spoke about the necessity of an intention to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist in order to enter into the sacramental union with Christ specific to this sacrament (rather than merely have Christ within one's body, just as a ciborium does). This raises a question about infants receiving Communion, as is customary in Eastern rites, both Catholic and Orthodox. Can they be said to receive sacramentally, and to receive the grace of the Sacrament?

Thomas Aquinas's position on this is not entirely clear. Though he knows about the Eastern practice of giving the Eucharist to infants, he argues that this is unfitting. The Eucharist should be given only to those who have or have had devotion to it (Summa Theologiae, III q. 80, a. 9). It can be given to those who have lost the use of reason on the condition that they previously had devotion to the Sacrament, but should never be given to those who have never attained the use of reason. It is not clear, however, that Thomas Aquinas considers these persons incapable of thereby being spiritually and sacramentally united to Christ through the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. It may even be more probable that he simply considers it unfitting to the dignity of the Sacrament to give it to those who have shown no actual devotion to it.

Two points should be made in regard to the question: first, the degree to which this was and is practice of the Church makes it virtually certain that the Sacrament can in fact be sacramentally received and fruitful for infants too young to know what they are doing. (St. Thomas was not aware of how wide-spread the practice had been). It was at one time almost universal practice to give Holy Communion to infants, at least on certain occasions, such as at baptism or when in danger of death–the latter practice was seemingly based, in some cases, upon a very literal reading of John 6:53 ,"unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you"; but even if partially based on a misunderstanding, it manifests the conviction that infant reception of the Eucharist was not merely understood as a sign for the adults, but as fruitful for the infants themselves. Again, it has remained and is common practice in multiple rites of the Church. To maintain that the Church has been and is all this time practicing a kind of abuse of the Blessed Sacrament by giving it to those incapable of receiving it, as though they were capable of receiving it, is not a very sound position.

Secondly, when infants receive the Eucharist in an ecclesial and liturgical context, the theological principle that those who are incapable of making an act of faith on their own receive the sacrament and grace in virtue of the faith of others, well established in the case of baptism and confirmation, seems just as applicable. Infants who receive Communion from those who intend to give the Sacrament to them, receive Christ sacramentally and receive grace from him.

For some more information on the practice of Infant Communion, an article by Charles Crawford, Infant Communion: Past Tradition and Present Practice (PDF), is available online.

Aquinas, Averroes, and Habits

A question for my readers: Aquinas quotes numerous times Averroes definition of a habit as "that by which one acts when one wills", and seemingly relies on this definition when he argues, for instance, that the habits animals acquire are not habits in the full sense, since "they do not have the power to use or not use them, as seems to belong to the account of a habit." I do not know of any passage where he justifies this part of the definition of habit as helping to make a clear and systematic treatment of the principles of human action.

I have a number of difficulties with this restriction of the term habit: (1) It does not apply to "habits" of being, such as health or beauty; (2) it does not seem to belong in a meaningful sense to natural habits such as synderesis; (3) in the case of men, the freedom to act or not to act doesn't seem any more applicable to a habit than to other, less stable inclinations or disposition to action–if anything, it seems less applicable.

(Update: number 1 above could be explained by the fact that the definition "that by which one acts when one wills" is meant only to define habits of action, not habits of being; still, the fact that definition does not apply to "habits" of being is at least an indication that it is not included in the meaning of the term habit, or the Latin "habitus" — which is related to "habere" and "se habere").

My question is, then, has St. Thomas simply adopted a linguistic usage of the term "habitus" from Averroes' Commentary on Aristotle, or is there some real justification for the insertion of this phrase "that by which one acts one when wills" into the definition of a habit?


Faith, Intention and Sacramental Reception of the Eucharist

While discoursing on who can receive the Eucharist sacramentally (Summa Theologiae III, q. 80, a. 3), St. Thomas Aquinas describes three cases where the one consuming the Eucharist does not receive the Eucharist sacramentally: when the Eucharist is consumed by an unbeliever, an animal, or by one who does not know it to be the Eucharist, for instance, if he thinks that the host is not consecrated. About an unbeliever who receives the Eucharist:

Even if an unbeliever receives the sacramental species, he receives the body of Christ under the sacramental sign. Therefore, he eats Christ sacramentally, if "sacramentally" refers to that which is eaten. But if it refers to the person eating, then properly speaking he does not eat sacramentally, because he does not use what he receives as a sacrament, but as simple food. Unless, perhaps, the unbeliever intends to receive that which the Church bestows, although he does not have true faith regarding the other articles or even regarding this sacrament (Summa Theologiae III, q. 80, a. 3, ad 2).

About an animal that consumes the Eucharist, or a person who does so unknowingly:

Even if a mouse or dog eats a consecrated host, the substance of Christ's body does not cease to be present under the species as long as these species remain, that is, as long as the substance of bread would remain [if it were bread], just as happens if it is cast into the mud… and yet it is not be said that the brute animal consumes the Christ's Body sacramentally, because it is not unable to treat it as a sacrament. Consequently, it does not consume the Body of Christ sacramentally, but only accidentally, just as he who consumes a consecrated host not knowing that it is consecrated (ibid., ad 3).

If I rightly understand Aquinas's position, it could be described in the following manner: the Body of Christ is present under the species of bread as long as the species of bread remains, and in this enters into any person or animal who consumes this species; but, if they do so without at least an implicit intention to receive the Body of Christ, they are not united sacramentally with him; the Body of Christ is present in them in the same way that the Body of Christ is present in a ciborium, or perhaps in a vessel of water that is dissolving the species of bread (somewhat analagous to the process of digestion dissolving the species).

In a similar manner, one who knows that he is consuming the Eucharist, but does not intend to do so sacramentally, does not in fact receive sacramentally. There are two quite different ways  this could occur: (1) someone could ritually receive Communion, e.g., during a Mass, while intending not to receive sacramentally, to be sacramentally united to Christ; this would be a grave sin against the Sacrament; (2) someone could consume the consecrated species in another context; e.g., a minister of the Eucharist consuming a host that falls on the floor, someone consuming remaining hosts or the Blood after Mass, or purifying the sacred vessels. This seems to me not to be a sacramental reception. One liturgical argument that could be advanced for this is that an institute acolyte may take and carry the chalice to the credence table (without receiving it from the priest) and purify it there. If such purification is to be considered a sacramental reception of communion, then this would be self-communication, which is generally forbidden.

Though the distinction between "receiving that which is the Sacrament" and "sacramentally receiving the Sacrament" may in this case seem a subtle one, I wonder whether it might not be  a valuable point of contact with some of the protestant understandings of the Eucharist and their emphasis on the role of faith. Admittedly we cannot overlook the differences; the Council of Trent expressly rejected Luther's position that the Real Presence is only there in the consumption of the Eucharist (in usu) (Session 13, Canon 4); but such points of contact, even if they do not involve simple agreement, are still important.

Lying and Moral Intuitions

Peter Kreeft recently wrote a post titled "Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that". There are three elements to his thesis, two bare affirmations–Live Action did right; we should all know that–and an affirmation of how any sound person would know they did right.

His position and argument can be summed up in the following sentence:

By an intuitive judgment that is based on moral experience and on a comparison with other ways of defending person's lives (eg., spying, physical harming someone else to keep them from killing people), it is evident to most people, and to all normal human beings that what Live Action did is right, and if you think otherwise, you're morally stupid, and care about principles or moral uprightness more than about people.

I'm not going to take a position on the legitimacy of what Live Action did, but I take a definite position on this manner of arguing: it is unsound, guilty of several classic fallacies, and uncharitable, arguing by ridiculing one's opponents.

1. Appeal to the people–because most people think its so, it must be so–or simply begging the question. Peter Kreeft premises: Most of my students immediately and firm conviction is that Dutchmen "were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide". He then affirms that these students "know, without any ifs or ands or buts," that such Dutch deception is good, not evil, and that anyone who is more certain of a universal philosophical principle, from which he would conclude that such deception was wrong, "is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian."

When we discuss Kant and the issue of lying, most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. … They know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil. If anyone is more certain of his philosophical principles than he is that this deception is good, I say he is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian.

Here Kreeft is either (1) begging the point at issue, using his students merely as a illustration of that which he takes as a fact anyway, namely that whatever deception was realistically necessary to save lives (whether one uses the term "lying" or not) was good, or (2) arguing from the fact that the intuition of most persons is in favor of lying in such situations.

2. Begging the question and ridiculing your opponent: "Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It’s a good thing to do. If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles."

3. Argument by ridiculing your opponent: "If lying is always wrong, then it is wrong to lie to a nuclear terrorist (the “ticking time bomb” scenario) to elicit from him where he hid the nuclear bomb that in one hour will kill millions if it is not found and defused. The most reasonable response to the “no lying” legalist here is “You gotta be kidding”—or something less kind than that."

4. Argument from analogy, which, however, reduces to the previous fallacies, either appeal to the people or a begging of the question). The genuine morality of what Live Action did is the same as that of spying in order to save lives. But spying in order to save lives is morally right. Therefore what Live Action did is morally right.

The closest analogy I can think of to Live Action’s expose of Planned Parenthood is spying. If Live Action is wrong, then so is all spying, including spying out the Nazis’ atomic bomb projects and saving the world from a nuclear holocaust.

This is a logically valid argument. Kreeft does not argue for the premise that spying is morally licit, but this premise is probably not disputed by those whom he is opposing. The more questionable premise is his supposition that the morality of spying is the same as that of lying. He does not give any argument for this, thus it is either simply assumed (begging the question) or assumed on the basis of majority opinion.


Peter Kreeft does give a certain argument in favor of the use of the argument from majority opinion in moral matters: because they deal with concrete realities, "moral experience, instinctive moral judgments about concrete situations by our innate moral common sense" has priority over "clear definitions of general moral principles and valid logical reasoning from them"

Several questions pose themselves in regard to this: (1) what do we do when faced with a moral situation, such as that of lying to save someone's life, where the instinctive moral judgment says it is morally right, and the instinctive moral judgment of others says that it is morally wrong? If we say that the instinct of the majority is right, it seems we would have to say that the use of artificial contraception is morally right, a conclusion Kreeft would not accept. In the Aristotelian and Thomistic account, it is not just anyone's instinctive judgment which is decisive, but the judgment of the virtuous man? Is Kreeft so sure of his virtue that he can say that one who denies that his instincts are correct are "morally stupid" and is "not functioning as a human being"?

(2) What do we do when faced with a moral situation where, when the situation is presented in one way, we have one instinctive moral judgment, and, if the situation is presented in another way, we have a different instinctive moral judgment?

I hope to return to the question of instinctive judgments and moral reasoning in a later post.

See also: A Response to Peter Kreeft, On Lying, posted on the New Theological Movement Blog, and Augustine vs the Priscillianists by Mark Shea, two other responses worth reading.

Summer Discernment Program in Norcia, Italy

The Benedictine monks in Norcia, Italy, are offering a discernment program this Summer, July 4-29. This is the same town where the Summer Theology Program mentioned earlier will be held from June 20 to July 1.

The purpose of the program is to offer young men a time to discern God's will for their life in a more concentrated way than normal worldly circumstances permit. Attendees will be invited to participate in the life of the monks as a way to guide their decision.

Vocation Flyer

Discern Your Vocation with the Benedictine Monks of Norcia, Italy Summer 2011 | July 4 – 29

Study, prayer, and discussion for vocational discernment, drawing from classic texts of Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the Monastic Tradition
•    All the states of life (i.e., marriage, priesthood and religious life are considered
•    Spiritual direction with the monks
•    Weekly outings to important places in St. Benedict's life (Subiaco, Monte Cassino)
•    Weekly hikes in the mountains surrounding Norcia

•    A letter of recommendation from a priest
•    A $300 donation
•    Open to men ages 18-30
TO APPLY: Please write to the Vocation Director at