Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 27--Object of Acts

EVERY MORAL ACT HAS A SORT OF INTRINSIC MEANING, a goodness and badness in and of itself, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the intent with which the act is taken, regardless of the consequences which that act, under the circumstances in which it is undertaken, causes. A component of the act--one which proportionalists largely ignore in their focus upon intent and consequences alone--is to assess an act "according to its species" (secundum speciem suam), or what the act "in itself" (in se ipsa) means, and to determine this, we must look at the "object" (obiecto) of that act. As St. Thomas observed, and as confirmed by the Pope in his encyclical Veritatis splendor, "moral acts take their species from their objects as the latter are related to reason," actus autem moralis, sicut dictum est, recipit speciem ab obiecto secundum quod comparatur ad rationem."* The Pope will insist on the importance of the object of an act in assessing its moral character.

To assess the morality of an act on consequences and intent only, without regard to the object of the act, is an error. True, the anticipated consequences of an action are not to be entirely disregarded, inasmuch as the "foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act." But, "while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act," the consequences of an act "nonetheless cannot alter its moral species." VS, 77. Consequences do not serve to define or inform the species of the act; the species of the act is determined by the intrinsic nature of the act, that is to say, its object. A lie about whether a dress makes one's wife look fat, a lie with little consequences, is certainly less grave than a lie that results in a man being condemned to death, a lie with great consequences, but both lies are, regardless of the consequences, lies. And for being lies they are morally illicit. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose wrote Gertrude Stein in her poem "Sacred Emily." In morality, a lie is a lie is a lie is a lie, and adultery is adultery is adultery is adultery, and so on.

The Pope notes moreover that assessing the morality of an act by relying on consequences is fraught with problems. To begin with, it ignores the species or "meaning" of the act: its object. But it also places the actor in a nearly impossible situation since man is not prescient, he cannot foretell the future and the intricacies it may hold, and he therefore cannot fully assess what consequences may be caused by any one act. The moral calculus demanded by consequentialism or other teleological theories is impossible:

[E]veryone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects — defined as pre-moral — of one's own acts: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure? How could an absolute obligation be justified on the basis of such debatable calculations?

VS, 77. The question the Pope acts is, of course, rhetorical. The burden on a conscience from a theory of pure consequentialism, what David Oderberg calls the "demandingness objection," and the moral neurosis to which it gives rise, has previously been noted.**

Remember the object of your act before you act!

Not only is reliance on consequences alone to assess the moral act insufficient, relying on subjective intent of the actor is also clearly inadequate. To rely on intent without regard to the object of the act is also insufficient to make a full assessment of the moral character of an act.
The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who "alone is good", and thus brings about the perfection of the person. An act is therefore good if its object is in conformity with the good of the person with respect for the goods morally relevant for him.
VS, 78. For example, a Muslim's intent in hastening the day of Judgment by lopping off the head of a Jew merely because he is a Jew may be a sincere desire to follow Muhammad's injunction to slay the Jew who will be betrayed even by the rock or tree behind which he hides,** but that act--to lop off an innocent man's head for no other reason than he is a Jew--is not capable, irrespective of the circumstances (which include the belief that it was commanded by a prophet of God), of being ordered to God. Even God himself could not make that act ordered to him, for the act has a species that is derived from its object which simply is. God cannot contradict himself: He cannot both be and not be. Nor can God make a lie not a lie. God cannot make murder something other than murder. God cannot make lopping the head of Jew merely because he is a Jew anything other than murder, the Muhammadan injunction notwithstanding. If the object of the act were unimportant, then the moral activity of the Muslim in cutting off an innocent Jew's head is unimpeachable. Assume the Muslim's sincerity, and assume his cost/benefit analysis of the consequences of ridding the world of a Jew is all to the good, how is one to impugn his moral reasoning under the theory of a proportionalist? Obviously, the object of the act--to kill an innocent being because his religion differs from yours, something which can never be ordered to God--is essential in understanding the intrinsic viciousness of the act, irrespective of the Muslim's sincerity and poor moral calculus.

*St. Thomas Aquinas, De malo, q. 2,a. 4, ad 5. Though the Pope confirms the principle, he does not cite to this text, but to the Summa Theologiae.
**See, e.g., Contra Consequentialismum: There Ain't No Such Thing as Absolutes ("In this regard, consequentialists all seem to suffer from an overdeveloped sense of duty and hence a sort of moral neurosis follows. They are burdened with a millstone caused by the banishment of intent from the moral equation. All is outside in this theory; nothing is inside in this theory. It is hideously inhuman, and in fact leads to the justification of the most immoral behavior. Invariably, as a result of his false theory of morality, a consequentialist will turn into a neurotic whitened sepulcher, complete with the unattended inside full of a rotten corpse and black heart. The moral neurosis arises from what is an impossible proposition, and that is that one's intent makes utterly no difference in the moral calculus that determines right or wrong.") and Opera et Omissiones: Differentia non est and the Recipe for Neurosis ("The failure of consequentialism's ability to handle the distinction between act and omission and positive and negative duty is perhaps the biggest problem with consequentialist thinking. It leads to unrealistic moral impositions, practically impossible to fulfill without absurd sacrifice. The objection may be called the "demandingness objection." Oderberg, 133. The failure to fulfill these unrealistic and artificial obligations, which are entirely derived by measuring consequences without regard to whether an act or omission is involved or whether there is a positive duty or a negative duty at issue, leads to a false sense of guilt, and then ultimately leads to a kind of neurosis, both individual and social.")
Sahih Muslim 41.6985, 41.6981, 41.6984; Sahih al-Bukhari 4.56.791, 4.52.177.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 26--Proportionalism

THE "SOURCES" OR "FONTS" OF MORALITY have traditionally been identified as three: (i) the intention of the subject; (ii) the circumstances surrounding the act; and (iii) the object of the act in question. All three sources have to be kept in mind in assessing the moral value of an act and its conformity to man's end, as a defect in any one of these areas renders the whole act morally bad.

In his encyclical Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul decisively rejects theories of moral analysis that are teleological in character.* These theories assess the morality of an act by measuring the consequences of the act (hence they are "teleological"--looking at consequences--rather than deontological--looking at duties, or ontological--looking at being or nature). Consequentialism or utilitarianism is a classic example of a teleological theory:

The criteria for evaluating the moral rightness of an action [in such teleological moral theories] are drawn from the weighing of the non-moral or pre-moral goods to be gained and the corresponding non-moral or pre-moral values to be respected. For some, concrete behavior would be right or wrong according as whether or not it is capable of producing a better state of affairs for all concerned. Right conduct would be the one capable of "maximizing" goods and "minimizing" evils.

VS, 74.

The Pope clearly rejects consequentialism or utilitarianism, a moral theory which in one way or another appears to be the majority view in the West. It is appreciated by its advocates because it essentially frees man from any absolute prescriptions. Unfortunately, this sort of thinking has been accepted, though with some modification, by some Catholic theologians under the moniker "proportionalism."** While the Pope does not begrudge continued analysis of the fonts of morality and the norms of moral life, finding such exploration "legitimate and necessary," convenient for "dialogue and cooperation" with those outside the household of faith, he insists that any theory have an adequate formulation of the moral act and be true to the Christian revelation. Proportionalists, who focus inordinately upon the consequences of an act, fail, in the Pope's view, to consider adequately the role of the will in assessing a moral act, or fail to consider sufficiently the reality of an objective good, and so present a false solution to the moral assessment.

The Pope distinguishes between classical consequentialism or utilitarianism and the related, though distinct, theory of proportionalism:
[Consequentialism] claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. [Proportionalism], by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the "greater good" or "lesser evil" actually possible in a particular situation.
VS, 75.

Regardless of the theory of proportionalism that may be involved, a common feature they all share with consequentialism as a result of their calculative, teleological focus is that "it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior which would be in conflict, in every circumstance and in every culture, with those values." VS, 75. For a proportionalist, there are no exceptionless or absolute moral norms, at least at the level of categorical or concrete or particular acts. One would think that this view alone would give the theologians who advocate such a position pause, since Jewish and Christian tradition and the best of Pagan traditions (e.g., Aristotle) have always believed in some exceptionless or absolute norms.

How do proportionalists unleash the concrete day-to-day world from the internal, fundamental world? Proportionalists distinguish between the moral order and the pre-moral [or "ontic," "physical," or "nonmoral"] order. Any act of man, they say, can be divided into its moral component and its physical, nonmoral, ontic, or pre-moral component. These two orders are subjected to different means of assessment, one a moral assessment, the other a non-moral assessment. The moral assessment looks at goodness. The physical, ontic, or pre-moral assessment looks at rightness. The moral assessment is made "on the basis of the subject's intention in reference to moral goods." The pre-moral or physical assessment is made "on the basis of a consideration of its foreseeable effects or consequences and of their proportion." VS, 75.

By separating the moral and physical realms, the moral theologians who have adopted proportionalism are able to talk about the good or evil of an act (with respect to its moral quality) and the rightness or wrongness of the same act (with respect to its physical or non-moral effects). So a concrete moral act (say the euthanizing of a terminally-ill parent) can be viewed from the perspective of moral goodness or evil and from the perspective of pre-moral or physical rightness or wrongness. Such concrete behavior can be "described as 'right' or 'wrong,' without it being thereby possible to judge as morally 'good' or 'bad' the will of the person choosing them." VS, 75. Because of this distinction, euthanizing one's terminally-ill parent (which, under traditional moral theology would involve violation of an exceptionless norm--the taking of an innocent human life) can be viewed as morally acceptable if the actor's intention in the moral realm is "good," because, viewed from a pre-moral or purely physical perspective, the euthanizing of one's terminally-ill parent may, from a cost/benefit analysis be "right." Similarly, a scientist experimenting on fetal stem cells--if he intends to benefit mankind through his research and so his "moral" intent is "good"--may legitimately engage in his research since the perceived benefits associated with such research are "right" inasmuch as they are believed to hold hope for future reduction in human suffering. Any absolute negative prohibition which might curb the decision of the euthanizer or the researcher in the area of concrete or particular activity is deftly sidestepped.

The proportionalist theory seems fitted for the prevailing "scientific mentality," and it allows practical men and women of science, of technology, and the other sciences, including politics and economics, to implement their inventions and programs without regard to moral norms that might absolutely proscribe certain activities. The end is everything; the means is simply irrelevant in moral inquiry. By dividing the moral question into moral and pre-moral realms and assessing the pre-moral realm using a sort of cost/benefit empirical analysis, it is able to accord a certain autonomy to the material, physical pre-moral realm and the scientist, technicians, and policy-makers who act in that realm. While the Pope does not begrudge science and technology their proper relative autonomy, he certainly condemns the notion that activities in science and technology (which deal with the physical world) are entirely unleased from the moral realm.

Such theories [of consequentialism and proportionalism] however are not faithful to the Church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition. . . . The faithful are obliged to acknowledge and respect the specific moral precepts declared and taught by the Church in the name of God, the Creator and Lord.

VS, 76.***

There is, to be sure, a calculative aspect in areas where prudence reigns and where a violation of a negative precept is not involved. This has always been recognized and is the basis behind moral casuistry, a "casuistry which tried to assess the best ways to achieve the good in certain concrete situations." But moral casuistry can be distinguished from proportionalism in that it involved situations in which the law was uncertain and there was not negative moral precept that was being infringed. Casuistry was never used to justify the violation of an exceptionless, absolute negative moral precept. Proportionalism, on the other hand, insists that there are no exceptionless, absolute moral precepts in the particular or concrete day-to-day decision-making. If they exist, they exist in generality; once one leaves the transcendence of generality and goes into the rough-and-tumble flesh-and-blood day-to-day human being, and such exceptionless norm is watered down to an ideal riddled with exceptions.

*There is a difference between a moral theory that views human nature as teleological (having and end or purpose), and a moral theory that measures the morality of act teleologically (viewing only its effects or consequences). The latter is what the Pope views with disfavor, not the former.
**Some of the better-known advocates of proportionalism include: Peter Knauer, Joseph Fuchs, Bruno Schuller, Louis Janssens, Franz Bockle, Gerard J. Hughes, Richard A. McCormick, Bernard Hoose, Charles E. Curran, Timothy E. O'Connell, and James F. Keenan. While proportionalist theories are myriad, the essential feature they share is a sort of moral calculus of benefits and harms in assessing the moral act. Proportionalism goes beyond mere consequentialism or utilitarianism in that it recognizes that more than the consequences of an act ought to be apprised in assessing the moral goodness of an act, including both intent, the object, the circumstances and so forth. These ought to be aggregated and summed up and weighed, and so long as the the proportion of benefit outweighs the harm, the act can be considered moral. Some proportionalists limit the application of the theory to only some acts. The Pope describes the difference between pure utilitarianism or consequentialism and proportionalism as follows. Utilitarianism or consequentialism "claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice." On the other hand, proportionalism "by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the 'greater good' or 'lesser evil' actually possible in a particular situation." VS, 75. Proportionalists also distinguish between moral goods (which involve the moral order) and non-moral goods (which involve pre-moral or non-moral goods), with the former having to do with "goodness" of an act and the latter having to do with the "rightness" of an act.
***The Pope cites to the Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session VI, Decree on Justification Cum Hoc Tempore, Canon 19: DS, 1569, and Clement XI, Constitution Unigenitus Dei Filius (September 8, 1713) against the Errors of Paschasius Quesnel, Nos. 53-56: DS, 2453-2456.

Veritatis Splendor: Part 25--Good Acts and Salvation

MAN MUST NOT ONLY "BE," he must "do," as he is not Being itself, but participates in that Being, and so is a contingent, ever-changing being that is "becoming." As a consequence, man must act, and act freely, and "[i]t is precisely through his [free] acts that man attains perfection as man," which is to say becomes that which he his meant to be. VS, 71. What is he meant to be? What is his calling? He is "called to seek his Creator of his own accord and freely to arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to Him." VS, 71.

It is man's ultimate destiny in God which gives his acts dignity and meaning as they lead him to that end. It is also that fact which gives his acts a moral quality. "Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them." VS, 71. The both express who we are and determine who we are to become. They are at once both descriptive and formative. In a sense, man makes himself, not, of course, in the sense that he makes his nature, but in the sense that he has a role in freedom to perfect that nature by doing good or to act against that nature by doing evil. He uses his freedom and wills to act either to conform to his nature, or to deform his nature. That nature is spiritual, and hence every act has the ability profoundly to affect, to define, to determine the profound spiritual traits of man. John Paul II quotes the observation of St. Gregory of Nyssa from the latter's Life of Moses:

All things subject to change and to becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or worse. . . Now, human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew . . . . But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention [non extrinsecus / οὐκ ἐξ ἀλλοτρίας ], as is the case with bodily beings. . . ; it is the result of a free choice [electione propria / ἐκ προαιρέσεως]. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents [ipsis patres quodammodo simus nostri / καὶ ἔσμεν ἑαυτῶν τρόπον τινὰ πατέρες], creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions.

VS, 71.

St. Gregory of Nyssa
Our free choice allows us to parent our souls

The moral character of our acts is defined or determined by measuring it against authentic good, and so it is the relationship between the exercise of our freedom and that authentic good that determines whether and act is morally good or evil. This good is not something we define, but to us is a given, a gift whose source is God:
This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end: this eternal law is known both by man's natural reason (hence it is "natural law"), and — in an integral and perfect way — by God's supernatural Revelation (hence it is called "divine law").
VS, 72.

We have then this good promulgated by the Divine Wisdom of God as the eternal law, a law that orders all contingent beings to their own end. The eternal law is known to us in two ways: imperfectly and not altogether integrally through the natural law (i.e., through reason), and perfectly and integrally through the divine law (i.e., through Revelation). Since an act is morally good when it is freely and voluntarily ordered to, or conformed with, our true good, it follows that for an act to be morally good it also must conform to the natural and divine law both. And since man's ultimate good is God, it is to God as our ultimate end that all our moral acts must be ordered. Both the natural law and divine law come from God as creator and redeemer, and tend to him as our ultimate good. God himself is "the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness." VS, 72. God is the end of the law.

Hearkening back to his meditation at the beginning of the encyclical, John Paul II observes that there is an ineradicable nexus or connection between the moral value of an act (i.e., whether a moral act is good) and the final end of man, that plenary happiness of which is his as a result of a loving union with God. "What good must I do?" the young man asks, "to have eternal life." What good must I do to achieve my ultimate end?

There is an important principle here: eternal life is not something that is gained because one does good. Nor does the rich ruler see it that way. What the rich young ruler sees, however, and what most contemporary men (including many Christians, particularly those raised in the Protestant ecclesial communions, but not any less the Catholic theologians which John Paul II has in mind) fail to see is the necessary quality of good works, of acts that conform with the authentic good of man. Morally good acts may not be sufficient for salvation, but they are necessary for salvation:

[T]he performance of good acts, commanded by the One who "alone is good," constitutes the indispensable condition of and path to eternal blessedness: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). Jesus' answer and his reference to the commandments also make it clear that the path to that end is marked by respect for the divine laws which safeguard human good. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life.

VS, 72. The modern problem is significant. In a way, we are all heirs to the Protestant Reformation's sophomoric and neurotic fear of any doctrine infected in any way by any hint of "salvation by works." The Protestant Reformers of course touted as their central doctrinal pennant the notion of "sola gratia," only grace, and held out as their oriflamme the doctrine of "sola fide," faith alone. As a consequence, the intimate relationship of good acts to salvation has largely been lost to the Protestant world. The Catholic theologians to whom John Paul II directs himself have fallen into this same trap: they have severed the tie between particular, concrete acts that conform with the good with eternal life, making the latter dependent upon some vague, generic "fundamental option," which is sort of a Catholic form of "once saved always saved."

But with St. Paul, John Paul II reminds the faithful: "Know you not that the unjust [unrighteous] shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err [or be deceived]: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God." 1 Cor. 6:9-10. Good acts, and not acts with good intentions, are a sine qua non of salvation:
The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth and the voluntary pursuit of that good, known by reason, constitute morality. Hence human activity cannot be judged as morally good merely because it is a means for attaining one or another of its goals, or simply because the subject's intention is good.* Activity is morally good when it attests to and expresses the voluntary ordering of the person to his ultimate end and the conformity of a concrete action with the human good as it is acknowledged in its truth by reason. If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.
VS, 72.

One act, then, if it involves a grave matter and if done with knowledge and sufficient consent, can sever our tie with our ultimate Good, and make our will and our very persons morally evil, putting us at enmity with God. And this is universally true for all men: none escape from its reality.

Granted, the Christian, "thanks to God's Revelation and to faith," both products of God's grace and not as a result of any intrinsic merit, sees the natural law in a new light. The Christian is, as John Paul II expresses it, "aware of the 'newness' which characterizes the morality of actions," a morality he shares with all other men. He sees that his "actions are called to show either consistency or inconsistency with that dignity and vocation which have been bestowed on him by grace." The natural law is the gift of creation, the first creation, and may be called the "first grace." Man, the reasonable creature, made in the image of God, is meant to act out his nature as one created in the image of God. As a result of becoming a "new creation" in Christ, the Christian sees the natural law as being part of a greater order.

The Christian is aware that he is a citizen of the realm of nature, but is also aware that he is a citizen of the realm of supernature. When he follows Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit, the Christian becomes "a 'new creation,' a child of God," and is called to show, not only the likeness that is his as the "image of God" which he shares with all men, but also the "likeness or unlikeness to the image of the Son who is the first-born among many brethren." VS, 73 (cf. Rom. 8:29)** He is to live out his life either in "fidelity or infidelity to the gift of the Spirit." VS, 73. The Christian is aware, ultimately, that by his acts he either "opens or closes himself to eternal life, to the communion of vision, love and happiness with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." VS, 73. The moral life for a Christian, then, is clearly Trinitarian, and goes well beyond an ordering to the law of God who is known only as Creator, as First Cause.

This knowledge is not only one to which a Christian is called: all men are called to this end. And in fact, in some manner, men of good will may, without even expressly knowing it, be participating in the Christian dispensation. Here we enter into a world where only God knows, and where no man can see and must speak only of possibilities and not probabilities, and surely not certainties. There may, it would appear, though how many God only knows, anonymous Christians, secret Christians--anima naturaliter Christiana, the souls is naturally Christian. John Paul II, invoking the Second Vatican Council's pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes observes that the call to a Trinitarian response to the moral life is universal: "This applies not only to Christians but to all men of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for all and since man's ultimate calling comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of sharing in this paschal mystery in a manner known to God." VS, 73, n. 123 (quoting GS, 22). The image of God in every man is implicitly a Trinitarian image. What else could it be since the God who created man is the God who redeemed him? There is not one salvation for the non-believer, and another for Christ's faithful. There is only one way, truth, and life: there is only one faith, and one baptism. And how the Holy Spirit reaches outside of the confines of his established Church with Grace to draw men toward Christ and his Church and into salvation is shrouded in mystery.

Because the moral life is intrinsically ordered to God as Trinity, it follows that it "has an essential 'teleological' character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man." VS, 73. That end is not subjective: we do not give ourselves our own final end. That end is objectively predetermined, and that is why there is a law--"commandments"--which serve, as a sort of moral trailblazers, to mark the way, to keep us on salvation's path.

To have moral value, our participation in that objective order must be free, and must, in addition, be conscious and deliberate. The opposite side of the coin of freedom, consciousness, and deliberation is responsibility. Together with his freedom, man holds his responsibility. And the use (or abuse) of this freedom is "subject to the judgment of God," that good and just judge "who, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, rewards good and punishes evil." VS, 73.
*Cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae, q.148, a. 3.
**"For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 24--Sins Unto Death

JOHN PAUL II ADDRESSES THE DISTINCTION between mortal and venial sins in his encyclical Veritatis splendor. This is necessary because of some theologians' efforts to revise the Church's traditional teaching regarding sins. Traditionally, the Church distinguished between sins, most basically categorizing them between mortal and venial, in accordance with the gravity of the matter involved and the level of awareness of consent to the act involved. We may best be served by quoting verbatim the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture,* became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.

1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:
When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.**

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."†

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother."†† The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart‡‡ do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.

1862 One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.

1863 Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God's grace it is humanly reparable. "Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness."☨

While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call "light": if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession.☨☨

The Pope insists in the validity of the classical theological division, and insists, further, that a mortal sin cannot be limited to some sort of fundamental option against God and neighbor but includes particular acts--given that the particular sinful act meet the traditional requirements of being a grave matter undertaken with full awareness and deliberate consent. John Paul II quotes from the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia:
For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts.
VS, 70 (quoting RP, 17)

What appears to be happening with the theologians that seek to tamper with the distinction between mortal and venial sins and who urge that a particular act cannot sever a man's tie to God and merit eternal damnation is that they are confusing psychological spheres with theological spheres. Again, relying on Reconciliatio et paenitentia:

Clearly, situations can occur which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which influence the sinner's subjective imputability. But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to create a theological category, which is precisely what the 'fundamental option' is, understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin.

VS, 70 (quoting RP, 17).

The Pope thus concludes this section of his encyclical:
The separation of fundamental option from deliberate choices of particular kinds of behavior, disordered in themselves or in their circumstances, which would not engage that option, thus involves a denial of Catholic doctrine on mortal sin: "With the whole tradition of the Church, we call mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his law, the covenant of love that God offers, preferring to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will (conversio ad creaturam).ǂ This can occur in a direct and formal way, in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an equivalent way, as in every act of disobedience to God's commandments in a grave matter."
VS, 70 (quoting RP, 17).

*The Catechism references 1 Jn 5:16-17, the Scriptural locus classicus for this distinction, which distinguishes between sins which lead to death (ad mortem / πρὸς θάνατον) and those which do not lead to death (non ad mortem / μὴ πρὸς θάνατον):
He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him ask, and life shall be given to him, who sinneth not to death. There is a sin unto death: for that I say not that any man ask.
**St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 88, art. 2, corp.
Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 17, § 12.
††Mark 10:19
‡Mark 3:5-6; Luke 16:19-31.
Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 17 § 9.
☨☨St. Augustine, In Epistolam Ionannis ad Parthos Tractatus Decem 1,6 (PL 35,1982).
ǂThe interjection "conversio ad creaturam" (turning to a creature) is a reference to a classical definition of mortal sin: aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam: an aversion towards God, through conversion to a creature. In other words, placing too much importance, a disordered importance, upon a created good at the expense of God, the source of all good. In a way, all mortal sin really involves a sort of idolatry. Cf. Romans 1:25, where St. Paul refers to the Gentiles and their sins: "Who changed the truth of God into a lie; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 23--The Fundamental and Concrete are Joined at the Hip

IN ONE SENSE IT IS PERFECTLY LEGITIMATE to talk about fundamental choice, and in another sense that notion is fraught with error. Christ himself is a fundamental choice for mankind. The Scriptures themselves, the entire Christian kerygma, the entire burden of the Gospel acclamation is that Christ presents himself and forces upon his listeners a fundamental, primordial, elementary proposition: "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29). We are going to have to say that Christ is Elijah, or John, or someone or something else, or we are going to have to respond like the Apostle St. Peter: "You are Christ, Son of the Living God!" or like St. Thomas the Apostle, "My Lord and my God!" (Matthew 16:16; John 20:28)

Tu es Christus Filius Dei vivi!

Dominus meus et Deus meus!

To utter those words with concomitant internal assent is to accept grace upon grace: and it represents a watershed difference in the life of any man: a B.C. and A.D. moment. The history of every man is divided before Christ and after Christ. Nothing is more fundamental than how we answer to the Incarnate Word, Jesus.

The acceptance of Christ as the Son of God, as the Incarnate Word of God, as the "I am" who was before Abraham, and who did not grasp at equality with God, but who became man for our sakes and like us in all things but sin is more than a theoretical or intellectual endeavor. It is equally a practical or moral endeavor. Christ does not only ask, "Who do you say that I am?" Christ also commands, "Come, follow me!" Veni! Sequere me!

Our openness to the invitation of Christ--Veni! "Come!"--and our decision upon that invitation to obey the command in faith--Sequere me! "Follow me!"--is exactly that for which human freedom was designed.

Jesus' call to "come, follow me" marks the greatest possible exaltation of human freedom, yet at the same time it witnesses to the truth and to the obligation of acts of faith and of decisions which can be described as involving a fundamental option.

VS, 66.* There is thus a valid way in which we can say that man is fundamentally free, and that this fundamental freedom is what is most legitimately expressed and in fact confirmed in the decision to follow Christ. But the exercise of this freedom in following Christ is accompanied by warnings regarding specific, concrete, "categorical" behavior:
We find a similar exaltation of human freedom in the words of Saint Paul: "You were called to freedom, brethren" (Gal 5:13). But the Apostle immediately adds a grave warning: "Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh". This warning echoes his earlier words: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal 5:1). Paul encourages us to be watchful, because freedom is always threatened by slavery. And this is precisely the case when an act of faith — in the sense of a fundamental option — becomes separated from the choice of particular acts, as in the tendencies mentioned above.
VS, 66.

Chang and Eng Bunker
Like the Siamese Twins, the fundamental option for Christ
cannot be separated from concrete, particular acts

It is therefore fundamental and egregious error to separate the act of faith--the fundamental option, as it were, of following Christ--from the concrete, particular, day-to-day acts. It is not only part that must follow Christ--that is the lesson of the rich young ruler who turned from Christ in sorrow--it is the entirety of man, inside and outside, body and soul, internal forum and external forum, which follows Christ. "To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul." VS, 67. The fundamental and the concrete are joined at the hip, so to speak.

Indeed, particular, concrete, or "categorical" acts (if they involve morally grave matters) can revoke the fundamental option of following Christ:

It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

VS, 67.

Not only does the separation of one's "fundamental option" from the "particular acts" divide the unity of man--making him, as we suggested in our prior post, into a sort of "onion" with layers, where the internal core is unaffected by the outer shell. But it does injustice to the reflection behind the acts of man and the significance of his day-to-day affairs. It makes life on earth unimportant in achieving our end.
A fundamental option understood without explicit consideration of the potentialities which it puts into effect and the determinations which express it does not do justice to the rational finality immanent in man's acting and in each of his deliberate decisions.
VS, 67.

Additionally, separating the "fundamental option" from the particular act also misunderstands the entire moral formula, making morality something almost entirely involved with the noumenon, having nothing to do with phenomenon. We have here an incipient, if not flagrant, Gnosticism:

[T]he morality of human acts is not deduced only from one's intention, orientation or fundamental option, understood as an intention devoid of a clearly determined binding content or as an intention with no corresponding positive effort to fulfil the different obligations of the moral life. Judgments about morality cannot be made without taking into consideration whether or not the deliberate choice of a specific kind of behavior is in conformity with the dignity and integral vocation of the human person.

VS, 67.

The Christian tradition has always maintained that both intention and act are important: bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu. For something to be good, it must be good both in intent and in act; a defect either in intent or in the act make an action defective. And the Pope, in this part of the encyclical, in no uncertain terms stresses the traditional understanding that both intention and act are important, essential components for an act to be authentically good. However sincere or noble one's intention, one does not perform authentic moral good if one nevertheless does a bad, concrete act.

Pope John Paul II also insists on the distinction between positive moral precepts (which may or may not bind depending upon prudence) and negative moral precepts which bind without exception:
Every choice always implies a reference by the deliberate will to the goods and evils indicated by the natural law as goods to be pursued and evils to be avoided. In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent. But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the "creativity" of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.

VS, 67.

Separating the "fundamental option" from particular, specific, concrete or "categorical" acts not only is doctrinally unsound, it has a great effect upon pastoral practice. If what the proponents of this separation is accepted, then it follows that "an individual could, by virtue of a fundamental option, remain faithful to God independently of whether or not certain of his choices and his acts are in conformity with specific moral norms or rules." We are placed in a situation where a doctor who performs abortions, as a result of a supposed "primordial option for charity," could continue to be seen as "morally good," and could be viewed as persevering in God's grace, and "attain salvation," even when his specific kind of behavior is "deliberately and gravely contrary to God's commandments as set forth by the Church."

But this viewpoint is pastorally false:

In point of fact, man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made "a free self-commitment to God".** With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses "sanctifying grace", "charity" and "eternal happiness."*** As the Council of Trent teaches, "the grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin."†

VS, 68.
*The obedience of faith in free response to the invitation of God, the God with us, Jesus, is remarkably different from the obedience of faith in slavish submission to the Allah of Islam and his prophet Muhammad. The watershed difference is even subtly captured in the names of the religions: Islam--which comes from Arabic الإسلام‎ (al-ʾislām) which means essentially "submission"--versus Christianity--which comes from the Greek word Χριστιανός (christianos), which means "follower of Christ." Muslims are known as "slaves of Allah," ( ‏‏عبيد الله , 'abid Allah), whereas Christians are known as the adopted sons of God (Eph. 1:5) and friends of Christ (John 15:15). Indeed, John 15:15 could not be more striking: "I will not now call you servants [عبيد /'abid]: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends [احباء/ ahba']: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you."
**The encyclical quotes Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, 5, and refers to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions regarding Sexual Ethics Persona Humana (December 29,1975),10: AAS 68 (1976), 88-90.
***The encyclical cites to Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhoration Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (December 2,1984),17; AAS 77 (1985), 218-223.
†The Pope cites to Sess. VI, Decree on Justification Cum Hoc Tempore, Chap. 15: DS, 1544; Canon 19: DS, 1569.
1544 [808] Adversus etiam hominum quorumdam callida ingenia, qui 'per dulces sermones et benedictiones seducunt corda innocentium' (Rom 16, 18), asserendum est, non modo infidelitate (can. 27), per quam et ipsa fides amittitur, sed etiam quocumque alio mortali peccato, quamvis non amittatur fides (can. 28), acceptam iustificationis gratiam amitti: divinae legis doctrinam defendendo, quae a regno Dei non solum infideles excludit, sed et fideles quoque 'fornicarios, adulteros, molles, masculorum concubitores, fures, avaros, ebriosos, maledicos, rapaces' (cf. 1 Cor 6,9s), ceterosque omnes, qui letalia committunt peccata, a quibus cum divinae gratiae adiumento abstinere possunt et pro quibus a Christi gratia separantur (can. 27).

Against the crafty genius of certain men also, who "by pleasing speeches and good words seduce the hearts of the innocent" [Rom. 16:18], it must be maintained that the grace of justification, although received, is lost not only by infidelity [can. 27], whereby even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin, although faith be not lost [can. 28], thereby defending the doctrine of the divine law which excludes from the kingdom of God not only the unbelievers, but also the faithful who are "fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners" [1 Cor. 6:9 ff.], and all others who commit deadly sins, from which with the assistance of divine grace they can refrain and for which they are separated from the grace of God [can. 27].

1569 [829] Can 19. Si quis dixerit, nihil praeceptum esse in Evangelio praeter fidem, cetera esse indifferentia, neque praecepta, neque prohibita, sed libera, aut decem praecepta nihil pertinere ad Christianos: an. s.

Can. 19. If anyone shall say that nothing except faith is commanded in the Gospel, that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free, or that the ten commandments in no way pertain to Christians: let him be anathema.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 22--Fundamental Option and Pots and Pans, the Drama of Butter, and Minute Particulars

EVERY JUDGMENT MADE BY CONSCIENCE contains within it a universe of its own. The Church has always taught the sacred aspect of conscience in each and every one of its acts. The moral and metaphysical implications of even the smallest pecadillo has greater meaning and moment that the largest of purely physical or pre-moral evils. Hence Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman could scandalize the liberals and secularists and even the religiously insipid Anglicans of his day (and similarly insipid "Catholic" theologians of our day) when he wrote:

She [the Catholic Church] holds that it better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details in every city in Sicily, except so far as these great national words tended to some spiritual good beyond them.*

Every act of conscience behind the least of any moral action is of great moment, of significant weight: The exercise of one's freedom to choose to do a particular act is "not only the choice for one or another particular action." It is, at the same time, "a decision about oneself and a setting of one's own life for or against the Good, for or against the Truth, and ultimately for or against God." VS, 65. In man, the moral world and physical world meet, in each and every instance, even in the most mundane, particular, and concrete act.

It is true that some choices are more significant than others: the choice intentionally to seduce on best friend's wife, or to murder one's father to gain one's inheritance, or to disbelieve in God and to curse him, is more vicious than lying to one's wife about whether the dress she has chosen makes her look fat. Without question there are "certain choices which 'shape' a person's entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop." VS, 65. Some choices are obviously life changing.

And yet we must not forget that even small choices, small acts, remain significant. Life is played out for most of us in more humble ways, among the pucheros, the pots and pans of St. Theresa,** in St. Josemaria Escriva's "drama of the butter."*** The moral life is in the main composed of the "Minute Particulars" of William Blake's poem Jerusalem.
You accumulate Particulars, & murder by analyzing, that you
May take the aggregate:& you call the aggregate Moral Law:
And you call that swell'd & bloated Form a Minute Particular.
But General Forms have their vitality in Particulars: & every
Particular is a Man: a Divine Member of the Divine Jesus.
P. 91, ll.26-30 "He who would do good," says the poet William Blake, "must do it in Minute Particulars: general good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer." P.55,ll.60-62 "All broad & general principles belong to benevolence / Who protects Minute Particulars, every one in their own identity." P.43, ll.22-23. "[E]very Minute Particular," Blake therefore insists in the same poem, "is Holy." P.69, l. 42.†

Some moral theologians
--"scoundrel, hypocrites, and flatterers" all--
would make man an onion

The importance of "Minute Particulars" is precisely what John Paul II insists upon against those who would build the moral life of man upon what William Blake called the "general good," and upon what these theologians would call one's "fundamental freedom" or "fundamental option."††
According to these authors, the key role in the moral life is to be attributed to a "fundamental option," brought about by that fundamental freedom whereby the person makes an overall self-determination, not through a specific and conscious decision on the level of reflection, but in a "transcendental" and "athematic" way. Particular acts which flow from this option would constitute only partial and never definitive attempts to give it expression; they would only be its "signs" or symptoms.
VS, 65. These theologians would make man like an onion, composed of a bunch of layers, with the outward layers of one's concrete, particular, "categorical" or occasional activity (his "Minute Particulars") being less significant with respect to man's relationship with God than one's central core, where "fundamental," "transcendental," or "basic" decisions are made. Particular acts, therefore, at best of only partial importance, can never be outcome determinative. There is a difference, then, between choosing (or not choosing) Good, and choosing (or not choosing) any particular concrete good. While there may be some distinction to be made between some decisions and others, the problem results from making this distinction between general and particular into a separation between the general and the particular:

A distinction thus comes to be introduced between the fundamental option and deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behavior. In some authors this division tends to become a separation, when they expressly limit moral "good" and "evil" to the transcendental dimension proper to the fundamental option, and describe as "right" or "wrong" the choices of particular "innerworldly" kinds of behavior: those, in other words, concerning man's relationship with himself, with others and with the material world.

VS, 65.

What happens, of course, when separateness is said to exist between general or fundamental dispositions and one's individualized, concrete and particularized acts, is that we end up with two disjoined spheres: two levels of morality. They have separated man into an innerwordly East and an exterior West, and "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."‡
There thus appears to be established within human acting a clear disjunction between two levels of morality: on the one hand the order of good and evil, which is dependent on the will, and on the other hand specific kinds of behavior, which are judged to be morally right or wrong only on the basis of a technical calculation of the proportion between the "premoral" or "physical" goods and evils which actually result from the action. This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behavior, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process, and not according to the criteria proper to a human act. The conclusion to which this eventually leads is that the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behavior.
VS, 65.

What happens as a result of this claimed disjunction, this separation between the basic and the particular, is that the particular, concrete life becomes less significant in the realm of the moral enterprise, and notions of utilitarianism, consequentialism, or proportionalism creep in and govern this outward realm. The significance of any one act is spurned, and the existence of any absolute or exceptionless norms on the concrete or particularized level of activity is, in the main, rejected. At the extreme end of these theories, the particularized, concrete level becomes merely "physical" or "premoral," and thus is not to be assessed in the same manner as the "fundamental" realm, where morality really takes place.

John Paul II rejects this separation of one's fundamental choice from particular acts. While man is called to exercise a fundamental choice, that fundamental choice is expressed, in each and every instance, in particular acts.

*John Henry Newman, "Lecture VIII," Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (London: Burns & Lambert, 1850), 199-200.
**"Entended," said St. Theresa of Avila in her
Libro de Fundaciones, 5.8, "que si es en la cocina, entre los pucheros anda el Señor ayudándoos en lo interior y exterior." ("Understand that if one finds oneself in the kitchen, among the pots and pans walks the Lord, helping us in the interior and exterior life.")
***Josemaria Escriva, The Way, No. 205: "We were reading--you and I--the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him struggle whole months and years (what an 'accounting' he kept in his particular examination of conscience!); one day at breakfast he would win, the next day he'd lose . . . 'I didn't take butter . . . I did take butter!' he would jot down. May we too--you and I--live our . . . 'drama' of the butter."
†William Blake, Jerusalem (London: A. H.Bullen, 1904) (E. R. D. MacLagan and A. G. B. Russell, eds.)
††In keeping with the encyclical's general nature, the Pope does not identify any specific author, and the theories or notions of "fundamental option," and "fundamental freedom" advanced among the moral theologians in the academic and pastoral worlds are both legion and subtle (or, in some cases, not so subtle). The general thrust of the "fundamental option" theories is to separate particular, occasional acts from one's more intimate being, so that ordinary, day-to-day choices--though they may not accord entirely with the Good--do not of themselves change one's fundamental direction, and thus do not separate the individual from God. Any individual act, even one that involves grave matter and free will, will not serve to separate from God, inasmuch as to separate oneself from God one has to go from individual, particular acts to the level of fundamental, predominant, or central commitment. This theory, of course, deprecates the importance of individual, particularized, concrete acts. Another form of "fundamental option" posits such a thing as "fundamental freedom" or "basic freedom" or "transcendental freedom" and it is the exercise of this "fundamental freedom," and not the day-to-day exercise of free choice, that implicates one's relationship with God. By separating "fundamental freedom" from particularized freedom these theologians also deprecate particular, concrete acts as important in the moral life. Advocates of such theories include Joseph Fuchs, John W. Glaser, Richard A. McCormick, Timothy E. O'Connell, Bernhard Häring, and, less directly perhaps, Karl Rahner.
‡Rudyard Kipling, "The Ballad of East and West."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 21--Conscience and Error

THE POPE IN HIS ENCYCLICAL has just told us that the judgment of conscience is the proximate norm of personal morality (VS, 60), which all men are bound under penalty of sin to follow, but, "as the judgment of an act, [conscience] is not exempt from the possibility of error." VS,62. "Conscience is not an infallible judgment; it can make mistakes." VS, 62. The error may be as a result of invincible ignorance (in which case, though wrong, it imparts not moral blame upon the actor when followed), or it may be vincible (in which case their may be moral fault).

There is, however, an obligation to inform the conscience with moral truth, which would include truths of fact and truths of the moral law: "man must seek the truth and must make judgments in accordance with the same truth." VS, 62. Man is under a strict obligation of being honest with the faculty of conscience: he dare not "practice cunning and tamper with God's word," he must seek to have his conscience "confirmed by the Holy Spirit," and so he dare not inform his conscience with falsity. Rather, there is an obligation to have a "good conscience," to conform his conscience to truth so that the possibility of an erroneous conscience is minimized: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."* VS, 62. "Thus, before feeling easily justified in the name of our conscience," the Pope admonishes, "we should reflect on the words of the Psalm: 'Who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults.' (Ps 19:12) There are faults which we fail to see but which nevertheless remain faults, because we have refused to walk towards the light (cf. Jn 9:39-41)." VS, 63.

Yet withal the obligation to inform the conscience with the truth, it remains an unfortunate reality that conscience can be invincibly ignorant:

The [Second Vatican] Council reminds us that in cases where such invincible ignorance is not culpable, conscience does not lose its dignity, because even when it directs us to act in a way not in conformity with the objective moral order, it continues to speak in the name of the truth about the good which the subject is called to seek sincerely.

VS, 62.**

While insisting on the dignity of conscience even if invincibly erroneous, one must not think of this dignity of conscience as being independent of the truth. Indeed, the truth is the opposite: the dignity of conscience comes from its relationship to truth, and so the invincibly ignorant conscience retains its dignity not in making an erroneous decision, but despite of it, because it is fundamentally ordered to moral truth, even though in this particular instance it is in error and sees an objective wrong subjectively as a concretization of the good. The invincibly ignorant conscience is not a rejection of the good, of the natural moral law; rather, it is a misjudgment regarding the content of the law or the application of it to a concrete situation. It follows that there is no equivalency between an erroneous conscience and a right or correct conscience, even where moral fault may not exist in the former because the erroneous conscience is one that is invincible. In other words, in all times, all circumstances, all places, it is better to have a correct conscience than an invincibly ignorant conscience.

It is never acceptable to confuse a "subjective" error about moral good with the "objective" truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. Furthermore, a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good.

VS, 63.***

There is a watershed of difference between an invincibly ignorant (inculpably erroneous) conscience an a conscience which is culpably erroneous. Here the difference is one between night and day:
Conscience, as the ultimate concrete judgment, compromises its dignity when it is culpably erroneous, that is to say, "when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin". Jesus alludes to the danger of the conscience being deformed when he warns: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Mt 6:22-23)
VS, 63.†

"Christ the Teacher" in the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption,
Torcello, Italy (11th Century)

There is no warrant for resting comfortably in error: the human conscience thirsts for truth, and there is an overarching obligation to seek the truth as a thirsty deer seeks running water.

The words of Jesus just quoted also represent a call to form our conscience, to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good. In the same vein, Saint Paul exhorts us not to be conformed to the mentality of this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf. Rom 12:2). It is the "heart" converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience. Indeed, in order to "prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2), knowledge of God's law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of "connaturality" between man and the true good. Such a connaturality is rooted in and develops through the virtuous attitudes of the individual himself: prudence and the other cardinal virtues, and even before these the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. This is the meaning of Jesus' saying: "He who does what is true comes to the light" (Jn 3:21).
VS, 64.

The notion of "'connaturality' between man and the true good" is a borrowing from St. Thomas, and his treatment of the gift of wisdom. The Pope cites to Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 45, a. 2, and it is worth quoting entire:
[W]isdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus,[for example,] about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learnt the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality.

Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry, but it belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost to judge aright about them on account of connaturality with them: thus Dionysius says (Div. Nom. ii) that "Hierotheus is perfect in Divine things, for he not only learns, but is patient of, Divine things."

Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Corinthians 6:17: "He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit." Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above (I-II, 14, 1).
Pope John Paul is thus insisting on the importance of formation and of the inculcation of virtue and the practice of religion as a fundamental part of the formation of conscience, of what Gabriel Marcel, in his book Creative Fidelity, identifies as the duty of the believer to become aware of the non-believer that is within him so that he can root the non-believing out. So also must man identify the immoral within him so that he can root any immorality out.

How is this growth in wisdom, in virtue, in the use of right reason to come about? How is the conscience to be formed, and where is any deformed or malinformed or erroneously formed conscience to go for enlightenment?

Ite ad ecclesiam!

Christians [and indeed all men of good will] have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. As the Council affirms: "In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself."
VS, 64.††

Conscience is inextricably bound to the truth: it is compelled, under a most sacred duty, to conform itself to truth. This means that conscience is intimately bound with God, the source of all truth, with Christ, the Way and the Truth and the Life, and with Christ's Church, the Church to which Christ gave all authority until his Second Coming. A man's conscience is therefore intimately tied to the Church, and to her authoritative teaching:
It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom "from" the truth but always and only freedom "in" the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.
VS, 64.

To pit conscience against the Magisterium is a grave error, as the human conscience, like the Church, is ordered to the truth, and while the conscience is not preserved from error and is fallible, the Church, when she teaches universally, is, by the grace of God, preserved from error and infallible in her teaching on faith and morals.

To suggest that conscience can go about its business without the guidance of the Church is to suggest that a blind and inexperienced mariner can go about the seas without a sextant, map, or any other navigational instrument, and make it to his destination by "feeling." It would be as imprudent as the ill-fated journey of Maurice Wilson, who thought he could climb Mount Everest without mountaineering experience, without proper training and preparation, and without the use of ice axe and crampons. That would be a fool's journey.
*John Paul's teaching on conscience in this section is biblical and Pauline: he cites 1 Tim 1:1-15; 2 Tim. 1:3, 2 Cor.4:2, and Rom. 12:2.
**The Pope is apparently referring to a brief quotation from Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
Gaudium et Spes, 16 cited earlier in the text: "[N]ot infrequently conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on that account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin."
***John Paul II cites to Saint Thomas Aquinas,
De Veritate, q. 17, a. 4. "Therefore, [an erroneous] conscience is not said to bind in the sense that what one does according to such a [erroneous] conscience will be good, but in the sense that in not following it he will sin." He further observes that "a correct conscience and a false conscience bind in different ways. The correct conscience binds absolutely and for an intrinsic reason; the false binds in a qualified way and for an extrinsic reason."
†The quotation is from
Gaudium et Spes, 16.
††The quotation is derived from Declaration on Religious Freedom
Dignitatis Humanae, 14.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 20--Conscience as Judgment

CONSCIENCE IS NOT ONLY A WITNESS of God, a dialogue between man and God, but it also has the nature of judgment: a moral, practical, imperative, and normative judgment about the good. It is a judgment, one might add, subject to scrutiny, for at the end of time, the eschaton, God through Christ judges the secrets of men. It is an error to view judgment as a mere arbitrary, autonomous "decision," ultimately a whim, a caprice, a matter of choice. There is an inextricable link between the judgment of conscience and the good, and this necessarily links judgment to truth: truth about the good. And conscience's link to the truth about the good is its anchor. Hence man's freedom is inextricably linked with the truth about the good, and conscience is the intimate faculty by which the truth about the good is applied through a judgment by a man about a particular act.

John Paul II identifies the "precise nature of conscience" as a "moral judgment about man and his actions, a judgment either of acquittal or condemnation, according as human acts are in conformity or not with the law of God written on the heart." VS, 59. Since the judgment is moral it follows that it deals with a realm outside the mere utilitarian or expedient. It is a judgment about what is right, what is good, and not a judgment about what is efficient or of great utility. The efficiency, utility, or expediency of an act is measured by a calculative faculty different from the judgmental faculty of conscience.

The fact that conscience deals with the moral realm does not mean that conscience is something impractical. In fact, the opposite is the case. The moral judgment of conscience is a "practical judgment, a judgment which makes know what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him." Conscience has both a "looking forward" aspect and a "looking backward" aspect, and so it judges both prospectively and retrospectively. Conscience is both epimetheal and prometheal.* Whether looking forward or looking backward, the same standards are applied by conscience, for it is a judgment about whether a concrete, specific act is consonant with the good. The judgment of conscience, then, is the application of law to a concrete situation.

[Conscience] is a judgment which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil. This first principle of practical reason [to love and do good and avoid evil] is part of the natural law; indeed it constitutes the very foundation of the natural law, inasmuch as it expresses that primordial insight about good and evil, that reflection of God's creative wisdom which, like an imperishable spark (scintilla animae [spark of the soul]), shines in the heart of every man.** But whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to a particular case; this application of the law thus becomes an inner dictate for the individual, a summons to do what is good in this particular situation.

VS, 59. It is apparent that the concrete, specific, "here and now" practical judgment does not disdain the universal natural law, but confirms it in its specificity: "The universality of the [natural moral] law and its obligations are acknowledged," by a judgment of conscience, "not suppressed," in the judgment of conscience. VS,59.

"La Conscience" by Lionel Le Falher

Since the judgment of conscience is moral, practical, and based upon the application of law in a particular case, it follows that it has an "imperative character," so that "man must," in a moral sense, "act in accordance with it." VS, 60. Man is, of course, free to act against the judgment of conscience, but he is not free to escape the result of such act:
If man acts against this judgment or, in a case where he lacks certainty about the rightness and goodness of a determined act, still performs that act, he stands condemned by his own conscience, the proximate norm of personal morality.
VS, 60.

It is critical to be aware that the judgment of conscience is linked to an objective truth, one ultimately founded upon God. With conscience, we are dealing with a scintilla of God, a spark of God, as it were, which is markedly different from a will-o'-the-wisp, and ignis fatuus, or foolish fire.

The dignity of this rational forum and the authority of its voice and judgments derive from the truth about moral good and evil, which it is called to listen to and to express. This truth is indicated by the "divine law", the universal and objective norm of morality. The judgment of conscience does not establish the law; rather it bears witness to the authority of the natural law and of the practical reason with reference to the supreme good, whose attractiveness the human person perceives and whose commandments he accepts. "Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-à-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behavior."***

VS, 60.

The judgment of conscience can haunt: It can both excuse and accuse. The judgment of conscience sometimes rubs our insides raw: "Out, damned spot; out, I say," though the rubbing off of the blood guilt incurred by disobeying one's conscience is not so easily rubbed off without repentance and a turn to the only One with the keys of mercy. The furies of conscience, then, irritate: but they are not meant to lead us to neurosis, or, in grave matters, to despair. The furies of conscience are meant to drive us into the arms of the merciful God
The truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience, which leads one to take responsibility for the good or the evil one has done. If man does evil, the just judgment of his conscience remains within him as a witness to the universal truth of the good, as well as to the malice of his particular choice. But the verdict of conscience remains in him also as a pledge of hope and mercy: while bearing witness to the evil he has done, it also reminds him of his need, with the help of God's grace, to ask forgiveness, to do good and to cultivate virtue constantly.
VS, 61.

And so it is that John Paul II concludes:

Consequently in the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Precisely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of "judgment" which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitrary "decisions". The maturity and responsibility of these judgments — and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject — are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favor of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one's actions.

VS, 61.

John Paul II next addresses the issue of conscience and error, a matter we reserve for our next posting.
*Epimetheus (from Greek, Ἐπιμηθεύς, which means "hindsight" or "afterthought") was brother to Prometheus (from Greek, Προμηθεύς, which means "foresight" or "fore-thought") were Titans, sons of Iapetus. One could only look forward, the other could only look backward.
**The choice of "scintilla animae" is interesting. As Michael Crowe points out in his book:
The term scintilla also has an interesting history. Literally it means a spark or particle of fire. In a transferred sense it can mean a fragment remaining of something that is compared to fire; or it can mean a germ. The transferred senses is of very respectable classical antiquity. Cicero, for example, speaks of the scintillae of virtue in children. . . . St. Jerome . . . had given the example in speaking of scintillae conscientiae [the spark of conscience]. But it was not until the thirteenth centurty that the uncertainties of terminology involved between synderesis, conscience, ratio superior and scintilla were resolved. For St. Thomas the scintilla conscientiae is synderesis; not alone because it is the purest part of conscience but because it files above the conscience as the spark does over the fire . . . . In parallel senses one also hears of a scintilla rationis (in Peter Lombard, for example) and even scintilla animae. It was because of abuse of this latter term by the German [pantheistic or near pantheistic] mystics Suso and Eckhard that the nomenclature finally fell out of favor."
Michael Crowe, The Changing Profile of Natural Law (The Hague: Martinus Nihoff, 1977), 129. It is obvious that John Paul II perceives an intimate link between human conscience and God.
***The encyclical quotes the Encyclical Letter Dominum et Vivificantem (May 18, 1986), 43: AAS 78 (1986), 859; It also references the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 16 and the Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae, 3.