Aquinas's Moral Theology

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.

Making Time for What Really Matters

A few years ago, the Washington Post made an arrangement with Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, to play incognito as a street busker at the Metro subway station L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C., during the morning rush-hour.

What happened?

Asked to predict the outcome if one of the world's great violinists performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people, Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, responded: "I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe … but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

In fact, out of 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen, at least for a short time. (All the children who passed by wanted to stop and listen, but their parents hurried them on.) Excluding $20 given him by a woman who was at a concert of his three weeks earlier, and recognized him, he was given $32.17 over a period of 43 minutes. Most passers-by didn't even slow down.

Read the whole article here.

So, what does that tell us? That we can't recognize greatness? Or perhaps rather, we don't have time for it, time to recognize, appreciate, seek it? I think the latter is more accurate. Americans have a history of pragmatism, and for many of us, urgent practical matters tend to exercise a tyranny over less urgent, less practical, yet intrinsically more worth while goods and activities. (This tendency is growing in Europe, as well.)

Though we recognize at some level the difference between things worth pursuing for their own sake, and things which are practical necessities, but may marginalize it when it comes to making concrete decisions. Ironically, a helpful analysis has come in the framework of ways to be "effective" or "successful", which name, as such,
the attainment of practical goals. Stephen Covey distinguishes four classes of tasks (things we are considering doing): (1) those which are important and urgent; (2) those which are important, but not urgent; (3) those which are urgent but not important; (4) those which are neither urgent nor important.

We are unlikely to neglect the first type (unless we really don't consider them important at all). But very often we prioritize the third type of tasks or duties (those which are urgent, though not important) to the neglect of the second (those which are important, but not urgent). (One basic reason for this is that we naturally place greater priority on urgent things or things close at hand than they objectively deserve according to a reasoned consideration–more on this in another post). Once we draw this tendency to our attention, we can seek a solution. When we take note that urgent activities tend to draw all our attention to themselves, at the expense of important but non-urgent activities, we can, as a consequence, mentally re-evaluate the urgency of these activities: (it's not in itself urgent to read this spiritual book TODAY, to make a retreat THIS MONTH, to find a spiritual director RIGHT AWAY, to write that letter NOW, etc., but if I don't do it now (or in the respective time period) I'm likely to put it off unduly long, so in the long term view it actually IS urgent.)

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit according to Thomas Aquinas

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)
If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18)

What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and what do they do? This post proposes an interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on "being led by the Spirit", and of the way that the gifts of the Spirit are active in Christian life.

The Seven Gifts of the Spirit

In Isaiah 11:1-3, we read "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord."

The last part, according to the Latin tradition, reads "the spirit of knowledge and of piety [pietas], and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him."

From this text derives the tradition of the Church regarding the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say much about the gifts. The main text is in numbers 1830 & 1831.

1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

This understanding of the gifts follows the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, as he is usually understood. I would like, however, to propose a more radical interpretation of Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas on the Gifts of Holy Spirit

Selections from the text of Aquinas himself:

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 1

Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without. Higher perfections must therefore be in man, by which he is disposed to be moved by God. And these perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them, man is disposed and made more ready to be moved by the divine inspiration, as is said in Is 50:5: "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward."

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 2

Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.
Now man's reason is in two ways perfected by God: first, with a natural perfection, namely the natural light of reason; secondly, with a supernatural perfection, by the theological virtues, as was said above. And although this second perfection is greater than the first, nevertheless man possesses the first perfection in a more perfect way than he possesses the second perfection. For man possesses the first perfection as his full possession, while he possesses the second as an imperfect possession; for we imperfectly love and know God. Now it is manifest that everything which perfectly possesses a nature or form or power, can of itself act according to it—though not apart from God's action, who acts interiorly in every nature and will. But that which has a nature or form or power imperfectly, cannot act of itself, if it is not moved by another. Thus the sun, which is perfectly bright, can give light of itself, while the moon, which has the nature of light only imperfectly, cannot give light unless it is illuminated [by the sun]. Again, a doctor, who perfectly knows the medical art, can act on his own; but his student, who is not yet fully instructed, cannot act on his own, but only with the guidance of his instructor.
Thus, with regard to the things that are subject to human reason, i.e., in relationship to man's natural end, man can act by the judgment of reason. If in this action, man is nevertheless helped by God by means of a special impulse, this will pertain to God's superabundant goodness. Hence according to the Philosophers, not everyone who has the acquired moral virtues, has heroic or divine virtues. But in relationship to the last supernatural end, to which reason moves us insofar as it is in in a certain manner, and imperfectly, formed by the theological virtues, the motion of reason itself is not sufficient, unless the impulse and movement of the Holy Spirit comes from above, according to Rom 8:14, 17, "They who are led by the Spirit of God, are sons of God," and "if you are sons, then also heirs." And in Ps 142:10 it is said, "Your good Spirit will lead me into the right land," i.e., because no one can arrive at the inheritance of the land of the blessed, unless he is moved and led by the Holy Spirit. And therefore in order to attain that end, a man must have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In response to the objection that the theological virtues enable us to reach out to God, believing his word, trusting in him, and loving him, St. Thomas responds: "The theological and moral virtues do not perfect man in relationship to the last end, in such a way that he does not always need to be moved by a certain higher impulse of the Holy Spirit, for the reason just stated." [emphasis added]

Garrgiou-Lagrange interpreting the "always" says the following:

To say that the gifts of the Holy Ghost must intervene in every meritorious act, even though it be imperfect (remissus et quantumvis remissus), would be to confound ordinary actual grace with the special inspiration to which the gifts render us docile. In the text which we have just quoted, St. Thomas means that man is not perfected to such a degree by the theological virtues that he does not always need to be inspired by the interior Master (semper not pro-semper), as we say: "I always need this hat," not however from morning until night, or from night until morning. Similarly a medical student not so well instructed that he does not always need the assistance of his master for certain operations. The need we experience is not transitory but permanent; all of which goes to show that the gifts should be not transitory inspirations, like the grace of prophecy, but permanent infused dispositions. (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit", footnote n. 33)

A text that lends support to reading the "always" as referring to every moment, however, may be found in the Secunda Secundae. St. Thomas says: "The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the principles of the intellectual and moral virtues, as was said above" (II-II 19:9 ad 4). He seems to have in mind his treatment in I-II q. 68, although in that article he does not thus articulate it. But if the gifts of the Holy Spirit are principles of the infused intellectual and moral virtues, and not just perfective and supporting of them, then the movement of the Spirit through the gifts seems to be presupposed to all the acts of the virtues, to all acts of Christian life.

The role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to this reading of Thomas Aquinas

If we follow this reading, we can explain the need for and role played by the gifts of the Holy Spirit as follows: first, we need to be constantly moved and led by God; yet because we are not merely moved passively by God, like limp dolls, but are ourselves involved in our own actions, and thus can be either open or closed, ready for or resistant to God's movement, we need the gifts to make us open and ready to receive God's movement and guidance.

We need God's movement because the divine love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit is essentially a participation in God's own living love, just as grace is essentially a participation in God's own nature. Thus I cannot simply take my share of God's knowledge and God's love that I receive in the gifts of faith, hope, love, and run with them, as it were—i.e., simply make use on my own of these abilities by my empowered nature. If I were to do this, it would no longer be God's love present within me, but a mere parody of it; no longer a share in God's knowledge, but my own notions and whims.

This way of looking at the gifts of the Spirit would explain why St. Thomas calls them principles of the moral virtues. To have theological virtues and moral virtues without gifts would mean that I have no problem putting into practice the way I determine and choose to shape my life in accord with Christ. But I would still be living according to precisely my choice. Without an openness to "Christ who lives in me", without an openness to being guided by God in living out divine life, my determination and readiness to carry out what seems to me to be fitting to Christian love would not be truly virtue simply speaking, but only in a limited respect. Thus the gifts are principles of the moral virtues insofar as they are virtues.

This interpretation of the gifts, which would hold the gifts to be active all the time, in making us open to the constant leading of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily exclude an understanding of the gifts as making us ready to receive special inspirations of the Spirit, given only in times of special need or difficulty. We could understand the gifts as opening us up to all movement of the Spirit, whether (1) the movement of the Spirit involved in all activity of the children of God; (2) the special help of the Spirit when we especially need it; (3) and even in a certain way charismatic graces (though the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not necessary in order to receive charismatic graces, which can be had without charity).

Francis on the Special Virtues of Particular Saints

This post continues the theme from the previous post, on the unique character of each saint, who is distinguished by particular virtues. St. Francis de Sales has the same understanding. "We say some were saved by faith, others by giving alms, others by temperance, prayer, humility, hope, chastity, because the acts of these virtues shown forth in these saints" (Treatise on the Love of God, Book 11, Ch. 4). Of course, each virtue is valued to the degree that the divine love shines in it: "After we have extolled these particular virtues we must refer all their honor to divine love, which gives to each of them all the sanctity they have."

St. Francis recommends the practice generally of choosing a virtue at which especially to aim, though naturally not to the exclusion of other: "It is well for everybody to select some special virtue at which to aim, not as neglecting any others, but as an object and pursuit to the mind" (Introduction to the Devout Life, Book III, ch. 1). He then gives various examples of saints who were devoted particularly to the practice of certain virtues: Saint John, bishop of Alexandria, who had a vision "in which he knew that it was pity for the poor which God commended to him, and from that time he gave himself so heartily to practice it"; Saint Louis, who visited hospitals; Saint Francis, who loved poverty above all; Saint Gregory, who received pilgrims, after the example of Abraham, and who, like Abraham, received the Lord himself under the guise of a pilgrim.

And so some of God's servants devote themselves to nursing the sick, helping the poor, teaching little children in the faith, reclaiming the fallen, building churches, and adorning the altar, making peace among men. In this they resemble embroidresses who work all manner of silks, gold and silver on various grounds, and thus produce beautiful flowers. In the same way the pious souls who undertake some special devout practice use it as the ground of their spiritual embroidery, and frame all kinds of other graces upon it, ordering their actions and affections better by means of this chief thread which runs through all of them.

Read the full text of these two works by St. Francis de Sales.

Every saint is unique

Virgin Mary and saints
St. Catherine of Sienna in her Treatise of Divine Providence keeps to the teaching that the virtues are connected, i.e., that whoever has one virtue, must have all of them. Nevertheless she teaches that God gives to each person one particular virtue as principal: to one he gives principally love, to another justice, to another humility, to another faith, to another prudence, to another patience, etc. It is then especially by the exercise of this virtue that the person grows in all the virtues, due to their being connected in love. (In another words, it is chiefly in the one principal virtue God gives the person that the divine love is expressed and actualized, and yet because it is truly divine love that shines forth and is exercised in this virtue, this love is deepened and increases, and thus gives greater strength and vitality to all the virtues, of which it is the heart.)

The love of God and neighbor, while it elevates and ennobles all human faculties, and while it does require a struggle against the baser inclinations of nature, does not destroy or level out different characters or personalities, but perfects them. Every saint thus has his own unique character, by which he grows in and lives out the holy love of God and neighbor. We will only fully appreciate this in heaven, where we will see the full beauty and harmony of how all the different saints show forth in their own special ways the glory of God's love.

Law, counsels, virtue, perfect virtue

An analogy occurred to me between the relationship between law and virtue, and the counsels and perfect virtue, which may be helpful in considering the role and necessity of the counsels in attaining spiritual perfection. A lawmaker intends to lead those who are subject to the law, to virtue, so that from within themselves, from inner principles, their own reason and will, they do right deeds. Thus virtue has a certain priority as the end of the law. Again, when it comes to particular actions, virtue also has a priority as regards leading someone to act well, since it is not possible to consider thoroughly all of the elements involved, and thus one must act from one's inclination… and it is virtue which makes this good.

Similarly, the counsels aim to lead those who follow them to a perfect state of virtue, so that from within themselves they act with a fully spiritual attitude… to do all for God, and rely entirely upon him. Thus this habitual spiritual attitude is the end of the counsels, and also in concrete life has the priority as regards actually turning one's attention to God.