Obligation to follow moral Authority

Why is anyone obliged to obey an authority?

To “oblige” someone means to compel him as a free and moral agent, to do something, i.e., to compel his will in the sense of making doing anything else, or refraining from doing what is obligatory, shall entail a disorder of the will. “Hoc est obligare, scilicet astringere voluntatem, ut non possit sine deformitatis nocumento in aliud tendere.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, In II Sent., d. 39, q. 3, a. 3) The will retains the power to choose something else, but to do so would be bad.

The authority of conscience and the truth

So, for example, the interior judgment of conscience obliges the will, when a person judges doing something to be a good of such a sort, that not doing it is bad. (In II Sent., d. 39, q. 3, a. 3; Summa Theologiae (ST) I-II, 19:5). And that is true even if their judgment is, objectively, incorrect. The person is not, however, obliged by their judgment itself, as though their fundamental obligation were to follow their own judgment, but by the good, which he by that judgment holds to be an indispensable good. (In II Sent. d. 39, q. 3, a. 3 ad 3; ST I-II, 19:5 ad 1).

The most interior authority one is obliged to obey is therefore one’s conscience, while the ultimate authority is the ultimate truth about the good that we naturally love and seek.

External authorities

Why is anyone obliged by any other authority, besides the dictate of his conscience and the truth about the good?

We may be obliged to follow an authority because we need specific guidance in order to attain the good, so that our guide is an authority for us, which we are obliged to follow. For example, if I have been stricken with the plague, and desire (and perhaps am obliged) to regain my health, I may be obliged to submit myself to medical authority and follow its prescriptions. And this obligation holds, regardless of whether the "medical authority" is realized in a doctor whom I trust implicitly, or exists in a diffuse manner in medical practitioners and scientists taken as a group and comes to me through their general consensus.

Moral authority

This type of authority is often termed moral authority, rooted in the truth held and taught by the authority in question, whether that truth be medical, physical, philosophical or religious. For the Catholic, the Fathers, doctors and saints are authorities.

As our obligation to respect moral authority is not rooted in a specific responsibility for us on the part of such authority to determine the good we ought to seek, but in the truth of the good itself together with their capacity to communicate that truth, we are not bound by obedience, but by prudence to respect and sometimes to follow moral authorities.

If I need to repair my car, and my next-door neighbor, an expert mechanic who has a great deal of experience with repairing exactly that kind of car, examines it and tells me what I need to do, it is in all probability foolhardy to reject the recommendation in favor of the first Youtube video I find of someone who kind of sounds like he knows what is talking about.

In the majority of cases, moral authorities are not absolutely binding on us, and we are morally free not to follow them, though we might be imprudent to scorn them altogether.

Moral authority in the Church

Within in the Church, the Fathers, the doctors and the saints are moral authorities, as are the tradition and custom of the Church in the measure that they are treated by the Church as a kind of common law. “The custom (consuetudo) of the Church has very great authority and ought to be jealously observed in all things” (ST II-II, q. 10, a. 12)

In the measure that a given authority infallibly (e.g., Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as modes in which God speaks to us) teaches something we are obliged to know or accept, its moral authority is absolutely binding, at least in principle. In practice, we may have difficulty in discerning what is infallibly taught by that which we accept as a bearer of revealed truth. (See ST II-II q. 11, a. 2 ad 3, where St. Thomas explains why not every error about matters of revealed truth is a heresy.) Catholics accept the authority of the Church in interpreting Scripture, and the authority of the pope in defining and articulating the teaching of the Church, but none of these authorities can be received by us unconditionally without any discernment on our part. We might have misunderstood what Scripture is saying or what the Church taught, or a given ecclesial or papal teaching might not adequately represent and expound the divine revelation to which it has the vocation and responsibility to witness, but in some manner distort it. (Though a look at church history supports this last claim, the claim may have been fairly controversial a few years ago in some Catholic circles, but I believe the experience of Pope Francis’s papacy has largely changed that; the point may however still not be adequately accounted for in the Church’s own account of the obedience due to the Magisterium, see Donum veritatis 24, which explicitly only allows theologians to withhold assent to particular magisterial interventions that appear to them to be wrong or harmful).

Interpreting Religious Statistics

Check out this post by James Chastek on interpreting religious statistics. He makes three points: (1) An evaluation of religious statistics that looks only to the last 50 years is short-sighted in comparison with the long-term nature of movements in religious convictions; (2) people leaving the Church is an ambiguous statistic; it could be a sign of a spiritual good, namely a greater appreciation that belonging to the Church and church attendence should be connected with the truth–having previously accepted the Church not as true, but simply as a part of culture; (3) the statistics often rely on non-objective methods to determine the numbers of members of the Church; e.g., simply asking them whether they are "Catholic".

I have often made the second point in response to what I sometimes see as an exaggerated concern with statistics of church membership, expressed on the occasion of hearing the numbers of persons leaving the Church. While it is better to be a Catholic and live as one than not, it is also better to be honestly not a Catholic than to be dishonestly a Catholic.

One must admit, however, that while cultural christianity never saved anyone, it can be an occasion for a real encounter with Christ, who is the Savior of all men.

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.

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 vocations@osbnorcia.org

Priestly vocation, holiness and service

Can the desire "to become perfect," to grow in holiness, be one's motivation for being ordained a priest? On first consideration, this might seem totally inappropriate, as the priesthood is not given in the first place for a man's personal perfection, but in order for him to serve Christ, as his representative. Thus, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, while he describes the right motivation for religious life as "to bind oneself more closely to God, or to correct the transgressions of one's past life, or to fly from the dangers of the world," describes the right motivation that is a sign of a vocation to the priesthood differently, saying that one should desire "to serve God, to spread his glory and to save souls."

This difference between religious life and priesthood, namely that religious life is directly ordered to a personal and real conformity with Christ, to perfection in love of Christ, and thereby to the service of the community and building up the Church in love, while the priesthood is directly ordered to a sacramental and representative conformity to Christ, to the service of the community in Christ's name, is a real difference, and does imply that one's motivation for the priesthood in a certain sense cannot be primarily for one's personal perfection in the Christian life.

However, this sharp division (personal perfection in Christian life, service of the Church, etc.) is not the concrete way in which a vocation is usually experienced. The Apostles did not know in all specificity what they were being called to when Christ said, "Come, follow me." They were attracted by his person or inspired by his mission, and they followed him both to be with him and to accompany him on his mission. In most cases, a person perceiving a vocation cannot define his motivation to embrace that way of life in terms of a very precise single goal. He chooses the way of life as a whole, with all that is included in it.

Now, is a special call to perfection included in the priesthood? It is. John Paul II, in Pastores Dabo Vobis, says that priests "are called not only because they have been baptized, but also and specifically because they are priests, that is, under a new title and in new and different ways deriving from the sacrament of holy orders" (n. 19). And Vatican II says, "Since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ himself, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 12). The awareness of this special calling and grace, often concretized by experience of holy priests, can be included in the discernment and decision to offer oneself for the priesthood, to seek ordination. Whatever the special aspects of priestly life that initially attract one to it, what is essential is that it be embraced in its totality. E.g., one person might, prior to any thought of the priesthood, be drawn to celibacy, to devote his life to the things of God, and through this desire come to desire the priesthood in particular. Another person might not at first be particularly drawn to celibacy, and first find his vocation to it in his desire to serve others in the ministerial priesthood, which in the Roman Rite is connected with celibacy. (In this latter case it is nonetheless important that he come to appreciate the proper value of celibacy and to embrace it freely, and not only as a extra obligation he has to submit to in order to be a priest. But that's matter for another post.) Similarly, the "path to perfection" of the priesthood might be for one person an important aspect of his initial aspect desire for it, while for another person it is not, and only in his desire for and commitment to living a good priestly life that he sees in that way of life his path to perfection.

Related: Priesthood and Perfection and The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange

Detachment and Discernment

In order to discern, we have to be detached. Why? First of all, having a pure heart, or a heart detached from temporal and limited goods, enables us to have the spiritual vision by which we can see God's will. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." While this primarily pertains to future happiness with God–"they shall see God"–it begins also now, in the living knowledge that springs from divine love. A heart attached to temporal goods hinders this perception of divine light. St. Alphonsus says that if we want to know what state of life God wants us in, we have to pray for God to show us. But he goes on to say:

To have this light [from God], you must pray to him with indifference. He who prays to God to enlighten him in regard to a state of life, but without indifference, and who, instead of conforming to the divine will, would sooner have God conform to his will, is like a pilot that pretends to wish his ship to advance, but in reality does not want it to: he throws his anchor into the sea, and then unfurls his sails. God neither gives light nor speaks his word to such persons.

If we are set upon what we want to do, even before we begin the process of discernment, then (in most cases) we will be inclined to judge accordingly, and see our own attachment to what we want to do as an indication of God's will. (A few persons may from the outset understand vocation as something essentially contrary to what one wants, and so be inclined to take their desire or attachment as a sign that it is not God's will. This happens for the lesser part, and it is also unhelpful.)

Moreover, if we are attached to some way of living, we may fail to carry out what we perceive to be the will of God, and then discernment is in vain. "Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?" (1 Cor 9:24) It is not enough to find God's will, but we have to do it, and that means denying our own will, in the sense of taking God's will over our own. "Any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mat 16:24).

What do we discern

What is the object of discernment? Does discernment mean only finding what is best among options that are all good? Or does it refer also to distinguishing morally good choices from morally bad choices? As noted previously, Fr. Peter in his article on discerning personal vocation, attributes to discernment only the apprehension or determination of the best out of several good choices.

The meaning of discernment

First we should consider the meaning of the word "discern" and "discernment". The fundamental meaning of "discern" is to mentally or sensibly distinguish something from others. And of course we should not only distinguish the best choice from other good choices, but should, indeed must distinguish good choices from bad choices. So discernment does include also, as most fundamental, perceiving the difference between what is truly good and what only seems so, between what truly comes from God or leads to him, and that which comes from our selfishness or leads away from God.

Discernment in Scripture

St. Paul also uses the term this way: "solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil" (Heb 5:14). In another traditional text linked with discernment, St. John says, "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1). Here the main distinction to be made is not between a spirit that moves one to something good, but not all that good, and a spirit moving one to the best ways of thinking and acting, but the fundamental distinction or discernment to be made is between the good Spirit, the Spirit of God, and an evil or false spirit, which is not from God.

Discernment and Prudence

It is important to bear in mind this general notion of discernment, in order to avoid making it excessively obscure and mystical. Of course, when the question is discerning God's will, there will always be some mystery, because God himself is a mystery to us, who walk by faith. Nevertheless the connection between discernment and ordinary Christian prudence is important for the practice of discernment. The ordinary means of discernment is prudence enlightened by faith and motivated by charity, the "faith that works through love" (Gal 5:6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "When a prudent man listens to his conscience, he can hear God speaking" (n. 1777). And Vatican II says about priestly vocation: "The voice of the Lord who is calling should not in the least be expected to come to the ears of a future priest in some extraordinary manner. Rather, it is to be understood and discerned by those signs by which the will of God is made known daily to prudent Christians" (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 11).

Discerning Your Personal Vocation

I came across an interesting article by Fr. Peter Ryan, How to Discern Elements of Your Personal Vocation. [No longer accessible at the original address].

The article is a bit disorganized, jumping back and forth between points, but it is thought provoking, and raises some interesting questions, which I'll address in upcoming blogposts.

He gives several points to bear in mind when preparing to discern your vocation (or anything else for that matter), which I'll summarize here:

(1) Discernment pertains to morally acceptable options, so we should eliminate options that are simply wrong, before making discernment. (this is not strictly true; the most important discernment we do is to discern or distinguish good options from bad options, in order to choose the good. See the post on the object of discernment: what do we discern – JB.)
(2) It is possible to discern one's personal vocation. God has a preference regarding what he wants us to do: he wants us to do the very best thing. God would not have a plan for us, yet keep us from discovering it, so it must be possible to discern this plan.
(3) One must be motivated to discern one's personal vocation. He gives three reasons for discerning one's vocation: (1) the first and least helpful reason, is that we are morally obliged to do so (I comment on this statement in a later post: Commandments and Counsels – JB); (2) it is in our own interest to discern; (3) discerning our vocation is pleasing to God.
(4) The proper disposition for discerning one's vocation presupposes that one is detached from any agenda of one's own. Having such an agenda hinders the discernment of God's plan, and also the acceptance of that plan. (See the post Detachment and Discernment – JB)
(5) As regards the future, we cannot discern whether we should do something, but only whether we should try to do it.
(6) Nothing is wasted in God's providence. Even when what we judged God was calling us to seek does not work out, this attempt has a place in God's plan.
(7) Discerning one's personal vocation is not accomplished once and for all, but is ongoing. Even a major commitment such as that of marriage or religious life does not settle or eliminate all future questions and discernment.

The process of discernment of vocation Fr. Peter gives is based on the third time for discernment given by St. Ignatius Loyola.

(1) We should seek only what God wants, and ask him to make us see what he wants us to do.
(2) We should look at our gifts and experience, and relate them to the world around us, considering all our options, and the pros and cons of each option. If one option remains as clearly the best, the discernment may end there.
(3) If several options remain, and are not settled by the consideration of pros and cons, then we should look at our affective response to them, our how heart moves in regard to them. We must distinguish those movements that are in us, but are not really integrated into our "converted selves", from those which arise from our converted hearts, and be moved in our discernment only by the latter kind of desires.

Questions for those discerning a religious vocation

Fr. Philip Powell gives some good practical points, and questions that those discerning a religious vocation should ask themselves. These questions to ask when discerning a vocation may be found, together with comments on the Anti-Christ, and the difference between magic and prayer, at his blog Domine, da mihi hanc aquam!