Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beatitude, rather than the conscience, is the foundation of Christian ethics

This is not Christian ethics

When St. Thomas Aquinas turns to his study of the moral life, the return of the rational creature to his Creator, he begins not with the personal conscience of the believer, nor with the objective precepts of the moral law, nor even with virtue and vice, but with the pursuit of happiness. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas tells us that happiness is the last end of all men, it is the one end two which all men tend. This, then, is the goal of morality: To aid us in the attainment of happiness, which is found in the vision of the Divine Essence.
In this matter, St. Thomas is following his divine Teacher, who began the Sermon on the Mount, the great discourse on the Christian life, with the Beatitudes:
He began to teach them saying: Blessed are they…
Christ our Savior does not begin his instruction with law, nor with the subjective discernment of the individual conscience, but with beatitude. Blessed, he says, which means happy. He draws the disciples to the Christian life through appealing to their deepest desire – he who made us knows that we want to be happy, and he also knows how we will get there.

An error of most modern systems of Christian ethics
There are generally two popular approaches to Christian ethics in the modern day – on the one hand, there are those who insist on the objective requirements of the natural law and of divine positive law; on the other, there are those who insist on the absolute authority of the personal conscience, perhaps tempering this with the assertion that the conscience must be well formed. I would submit that both of these approaches are deeply flawed. Christian ethics can begin neither with law, nor with the conscience – rather, all ethical discourse must begin with the teleology of man, with his desire for happiness.
I have mentioned that St. Thomas begins his discussion of morality with man’s pursuit of happiness, in this he is following Aristotle. The first five questions of the prima secundae of the Summa treat of man’s happiness, then St. Thomas proceeds to the question of voluntary and involuntary actions by which men pursue that happiness.
Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of the life in Christ with man’s dignity, as being created in the image of God, and his vocation to beatitude. This discussion of man’s desire for happiness is rooted in the Beatitudes which Christ delivered in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. CCC 1716-1729) – the moral conscience of the individual believer is not discussed until sixty paragraphs later (cf. CCC 1776-1802).
For both St. Thomas and the Catechism, the discussion of the moral law is placed at the very end of general morals – ST I-II, qq.90-108; CCC 1949-1986. Why is it, then, that so much of contemporary moral theology (and even conservative moral theology) is dominated by the questions of law and conscience?
The source of this error
Unfortunately, if we seek to find the source of the modern error in Christian ethics, we will have to look to some of the great saints and theologians of our Church – men who were well intentioned, but who were very much a product of their times. So many of those theologians of the Catholic Counter-Reformation did not realize just how heavily their own theology had been influenced by the protestant revolutionaries – many of the moral writings, especially in the Jesuit tradition, are filled with the fundamental presuppositions of the protestant puritans. Here we will simply mention the rise of casuistry, the radical emphasis on the moral law, and even the beginnings of the disproportionate focus on the judgment of the personal moral conscience.
Now, let me be clear: I am in no way intending to discard or short-change the work of these theologians. Anyone who has been reading this blog will recall that I have on numerous occasions held up St. Alphonsus Liguori (whom I would consider a “source” of the modern error) as a great doctor of the Christian life. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the time has come for the Church to take an honest look at her ethical tradition. Before we begin to move forward in the new millennium, we ought to consider carefully how we want to present the Christian moral life.
Modern examples of this error
Allow me to list two modern examples of this fundamental error of placing the emphasis on either law or the conscience.
1) Consider the case of contraception. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the law – because it is contrary to natural law, contraception cannot be practiced. On the other hand, there are those who emphasize the authority of the conscience (and here we refer the reader to an earlier article in which I criticize some of the common interpretations of the Vademecum for confessors) – because the individual believer is, perhaps, invincibly ignorant of the evil of contraception, they should be allowed to remain “in good faith,” i.e. they should not be challenged to conversion.
2) Consider the case of receiving communion in the state of mortal sin. Again, those who emphasize the law will say that this must be preached against with great zeal, since it is contrary to the law of the Church for one conscious of grave sin to receive the Sacrament until they have gone to confession. On the other hand, those who emphasize the conscience will say that the ignorance may be invincible, or at least it would be very difficult to enlighten the conscience of the individual, and therefore the culpability is greatly reduced and the individual ought not to be too strongly challenged – less, perhaps, what is currently only a material sin, should become a formal sin.
 In both cases, a moral theology which is founded on man’s desire for happiness will approach the question with the primary goal of discerning what will lead to beatitude. If we know that contraception is inherently evil, and is therefore destructive to the happiness of the family and of the individuals, then we will not hesitate to speak publicly against contraception. Indeed, even if the culpability of the individuals who use contraceptives might perhaps be lessened due to the state of our culture, we nevertheless affirm that contraception ALWAYS makes the individual unhappy – what we don’t know can hurt us.
Likewise, in the case of the reception of communion, we will affirm that it is imperative to teach this truth quite clearly – not so much because it is in Canon Law, but because the worthy reception of Holy Communion is essential to supernatural beatitude.
What happiness is
In ST I-II, q.3, St. Thomas asks what happiness, the last end of man, is: “Our end is twofold. First, there is the thing itself which we desire to attain. Second there is the attainment or possession, the use or enjoyment of the thing desired. In the first sense, then, man’s last end is the uncreated good, namely God, who alone by his infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will. But in the second way, man’s last end is something created, existing in him, and this is nothing else than the attainment or enjoyment of the last end.” (ST I-II, q.3, a.1)
The whole question of applied moral theology should then be: Will this particular action lead the soul to the enjoyment of God? If the action is most conducive to beatitude, it is to be pursued. If the action is sometimes conducive to beatitude, it is to be sometimes pursued. If the action is contrary to beatitude, it is to be avoided.
And with this simple insight (from St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominican Thomistic Tradition), all the many confusions of contemporary ethics could begin to be solved.


marcy and walter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
marcy and walter said...

Thank you for this article. It has greatly helped me. I find it personally very difficult to argue about intrinsically evil things or entities...It causes me emtional pain. I am able to say abortion is wrong, abortion is the killing of an innocent child, I can and do say these things, but I am unable to debate or discuss these evil topics.
So your article has given my conscience a repreive ...and....thank you again.

Nick said...

Moral arguments are good, not in any way errorous. Ignorance of beatitude is not ignorance of good. To cite as errorous arguments based on the teachings of the Church is to be hypocritical: For it is likewise the teaching of the Church that beatitude is the source of morality.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@marcy and walter, I'm glad that the article was helpful...indeed, it is very hard to see such sin in the world, especially when we know that it brings such great unhappiness.
Peace to you in Christ!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick, once again I am left wondering whether you are attempting to enter serious discussion or simply dropping your thoughts at random...

I am not being hypoctritical in my article: I am arguing that happiness (and not law or conscience) is the foundation of ethics. I am not arguing this (primarily) from an appeal to Church teaching -- I am simply stating that this is the way the Church herself views morality: it is the pursuit of happiness, not the discernment of the individual conscience.

I do not say that we cannot have arguments that invoke Church teaching, in fact the Church gives us many teachings that help us to become happy. I am only saying that the primary goal of Christian ethics is not so much to help the individual to follow Church law as to help him find true happiness in God -- law is only a means to this final end.

Finally, your comment "Ignorance of beatitude is not ignorance of good" is very foolish... Beatitude is the greatest good, it is the only good that be ignorant of beatitude is ignorance of good in the highest degree -- for it is ignorance of the creature's participation in God.

Nick said...

I did not say you are being hypocritical, only that it is hypocritical to reject one teaching yet accept another. But I am glad you replied, for now I better understand the article. It even makes me wonder upon the phrase "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence.

However, beatitude is not the greatest good. The greatest good is God, and it so happens that men often invoke certain attributes of His - Beatitude, Peace, Love - to umbrella His Nature, as an expression of His Inexpressible Being in human language, for the better understanding of a certain truth, such as - to use your example - participation in God's Nature.

This is why I say ignorance of beatitude is not ignorance of good. God is not just Beatitude; He is also, for example, Justice, and a just man can know morality without knowing about happiness. All good things are from God.

Gregory the Eremite said...


Would I be correct in identifying that fine Dominican theologian Servais Pinckaers as a proximate source for your approach in this article?

One of the things that puzzles me somewhat about his approach (and the approach that you seem to have taken here) is the claim that catholic moral theology fell into the error of focussing on “the objective requirements of the natural law and of divine positive law” to the virtual exclusion of the consideration of beatitude. The problem is that this is a wide and sweeping claim that needs specific evidence to back it up. I’m struck by how lacking that specific evidence is in Pinckaers’ work! I’ve read a few old manuals of moral theology (nineteenth & twentieth century stuff) and the impression I’m left with from them is of the balance between the supernatural end of man and the role of the specific act.

I’m happy to be proved wrong on this so I’d be very grateful if you could point me at studies of specific examples that back up this overarching theme.

Another point worth investigating, perhaps, is the observation that although supernatural beatitude is the final cause of the moral act inasmuch as acts are moral if and only if they are fully aligned with God in all aspects, when one attempts to make the translation to “what do I do in these concrete circumstances” one can easily be left floundering in generalities! In a similar fashion, theological arguments starting from the end of beatitude can be hard to construct and harder to understand (especially for the ordinary worshiper in the pew); in many circumstances the reduction of the “moral law” to propositional form is the most helpful, indeed, the most “pastoral” approach to the teaching of a particular point. Your example of the reception of communion might be taken as a case in point: one can construct an argument based on beatitude that one should not receive in a state of mortal sin, but St. Paul saves us the effort by simply telling us that doing so will be deleterious to our souls.

Turning to what you say about the “absolute authority of the personal conscience”, surely this position is more easily demolished? The modern error lies in misunderstanding what the conscience is; it is a faculty of the intellect that enables us to judge the morality of the concrete action rather than any sort of power prior to that.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick, if you would take the time to read my article, you would see that I address the particular point you raised -- beatitude is the greatest good because it is God himself (considered as the good desired) and the creature's participation in God (considered as the attainment of that good).

As morality is that art by which we attain our last end, which is beatitude, one cannot know anything at all about morality without knowing about happiness -- a man cannot be even the least bit just, if he knows nothing at all about beatitude.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In fact, I have read almost nothing of Fr. Pinckaers, but I have heard that he makes similar arguments.
Personally, I agree with you that he is far too hard on the manuals -- St. Alphonsus was dedicated to casuistry, and he is the great doctor of moral and confession.

Nevertheless, it is good to point out that the Counter-Reformation period did not follow the solid foundation of St. Thomas, but instead began to get involved in schools tending toward nominalism.

Your point about being pastoral by giving clear moral directives is very good -- I would certainly agree. Yet, the foundation of those precise and clear directives is happiness, not law.

btw, the phrase "absolute authority of the ponscience" is supposedly from Bl. John Henry Newman. Something of the theory comes up a few times in the Catechism even.
And, yes, I personally do believe it can be very easily demolished.

Gregory the Eremite said...


Thank-you for your gracious reply.

If you have not read much Pinckaers, then may I thoroughly commend his writings to you; he is very much attuned to your approach.

For example, what you say about the counter-reformation period and nominalism corresponds to his distinction between "freedom for excellence" (good) and "freedom of indifference" (not so good and susceptible to the baneful influence of nominalism).

Nick said...

An unhappy man can know right from wrong. He can be a just man despite his lack of happiness. As I said, all good things come from God. If, however, you are speaking about a different happiness, than please clarify what you mean.

And I did not see you speak about God being Beatitude. Please explain what Saint Thomas means when you cite him about beatitude, just as you have for me in your comment, because not everyone understands him.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Ok...let's take a step back...

When I say that the desire for happiness is the foundation of morality, I do not mean that one must be happy before they are moral (or just, etc). What I mean is this: Happiness is the goal of morality; therefore, just actions and every other moral action is well ordered insofar as it brings the individual to beatitude (the first in the intention is the last thing achieved).

Hence, if we do not know what happiness is (i.e. if we think it is in money or fame or long life, rather than in God) we will never have a proper understanding of morality.
This, is submit, is a problem in some moral systems today -- while focusing on important things (like law and the conscience) they neglect what is MOST important (happiness). This either makes morality too dry and rigid (law-based ethics) or too subjective and relative (conscience-based ethics).

However, if we begin with considering man's final end (happiness in God), then both the law and the conscience fall into their proper (and very important) places!
This is why I said (in my comment at 3:49pm), "A man cannot be even the least bit just, if he knows nothing at all about beatitude."

Regrading where I speak about God and beatitude -- it is the quotation from St. Thomas in the paragraph directly under the sub-title "What happiness is".

Peace to you.

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