Principles of Catholic morality I: Eros and Agape

A while back, Stephen, of Don Colacho’s Aphorisms fame, warned me that my affinity for deontological, duty-based morality was taking me outside the Catholic moral tradition.  We are supposed to be Thomists, not Kantians.  I hope Stephen is still reading this blog, because I’ve had him in mind as I’ve planned this new series.

The last several decades have seen something of a renaissance of Thomist virtue ethics in orthodox Catholic circles.  On this interpretation of Aquinas, the point of morality is to flourish as a human being, to acheive the distinct form of excellence of which human beings are capable.  Rules exist to foster virtues, rather than virtue existing to help us follow rules.  Union with God is our true perfection and happiness, and morality is the road to it.  This movement toward virtue ethics received powerful impetus from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Servais Pinckaers’ The Sources of Christian Ethics.  From the latter especially came the narrative, now well established in Catholic intellectual circles, of the rise and fall of true Catholic moral theology.  After the highlight of Aquinas’ teleological ethics, Catholic morality was corrupted by divine command theory:  that morality consists in obeying God’s arbitrary dictates.  William of Occam plays the role of main villian in this story, although Duns Scotus is usually also implicated in the decline.  (The attacks on Scotus are quite unfair, but I must not anticipate that discussion now.  A major part of this series will be dedicated to explaining and defending the Subtle Doctor.)

The revived interest in virtue ethics is certainly to be welcomed, but it would be a mistake to let it present itself as the entirety of the tradition of Catholic moral thought.  Aquinas was an important part of the tradition, but he was actually unrepresentative in some ways–particularly in his often single-mindedly teleological approach.  Taking him to represent the whole tradition creates great distortions.

While there is a strong theme in the tradition of God as our end and our happiness, Catholic morality has another theme, equally strong.  This is the theme of self-sacrifice, of loving God and neighbor not for the sake of self-perfection, but in spite of self.  The example of Jesus Christ Himself presents itself to us more as loving self-sacrifice than wise self-perfection.  Even Kant’s way of thinking, of presenting a dichotomy between duty and self-interest and identifying morality with doing one’s duty simply because it is one’s duty, is not foreign to the Catholic tradition.  One finds it most notably in Saint Anselm, who identified this ability to do the right thing for its own sake, and not from a drive for self-actualization, as the essence of human freedom.  Kant would, as we all know, follow Anselm in this connection between duty-following and freedom.  So Christians shouldn’t feel shy about adopting Kantian poses like this.  We were there first.  Kant himself credits Jesus Christ with a precursure to the categorical imperative.

Most often, Christians don’t formulate the distinction quite in Kantian terms of duty vs. selfishness.  Most theologians base their ethics on love.  Christ Himself, quoting commands from the Old Testament, says that love of God, self, and neighbor is the whole of the Law.  But what do we mean by “love”?  Do we mean love as desire for union with the beloved (“eros”, or C. S. Lewis’ “need love”)?  Do we mean willing the beloved’s good to the point of self-sacrifice (“agape”, Lewis’ “gift love”)?  Do we mean awareness of the value of the beloved (Lewis’ “appreciation love”)?  Ancient and medieval writers seldom make the distinction, and one can often infer from their writings that they meant all three.

In the middle of the last century, the Lutheran scholar Anders Nygren brought the issue to a point in his influential Agape and Eros.  According to Nygren, eros and agape have nothing to do with each other.  They are independent if not antithetical.  Agape is the only truly Christian form of love.  Erotic love of God is a hellenistic corruption.  For Nygren, Christian morality was spoiled by Saint Augustine, who combined eros and agape into a single form of love called “charity”, which–because the two loves have nothing to do with each other–could be nothing but an incoherent mess.  Luther then supposedly righted Christian thought by elevating agape and demoting eros to their proper places.

Both Catholics and Protestants saw something a bit inhuman about Nygren’s sharp distinction between benevolence and desire for union.  In ordinary love, don’t the two go together naturally?  I doubt any wife would want her husband to love her with pure agape; if she had to choose, she would probably choose pure eros.  Why should the two not complement each other in our love of God as well.  A number of important books followed, all more or less intended to reclaim eros’ good name:  C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, Josef Pieper’s Faith, Hope, Love, and Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love, to name three.  Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est is best thought of as a late addition to this conversation.  Many people noted the pope’s defense of eros as a core part of the encyclical but missed the context.  It started them wondering if His Holiness was going to soften his opposition to sodomy.  This is what happens when intellectual culture is shaped by people like Andrew Sullivan rather than people like C. S. Lewis.  What that implies about the trajectory of our culture harldy needs to be said.

The Christian world is in debt to Nygren for bringing the question of love’s nature to the center of discussion.  His solution is no doubt too crude.  Perhaps Augustine was right to think that eros and agape are two sides of a single virtue.  Still, it’s clear that some theologians have focused on one side of charity, some on the other.  Aquinas is the most erotic of the major theologians, followed by Augustine.  Scotus is probably the most agapic of the pre-reformation Catholics.

In this series, I’d like to review some major Catholic thinkers, focusing on how they understood the relationship between love of God and love of self and between duty and virtue.  The planned installments (although I obviously reserve the right to change them) are

  1. Augustine on love and virtue (based on his On the Morals of the Catholic Church)
  2. Bernard on loving God (based on his On Loving God)
  3. Anselm on freedom (based on his Philosophical Essays)
  4. Aquinas and the form of the virtues (based on his disputations on charity)
  5. Duns Scotus on loving God and neighbor (based on Wolter’s anthology Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality)
  6. Von Hildebrand and value (based on his Christian Ethics)
  7. Alasdair MacIntyre and the return to community (based on his After Virtue)

16 Responses

  1. Sounds like an interesting discussion – I look forward to reading more!

  2. Also looking forward to it, as someone with little sympathy for Scotus!

  3. I still read you when I can, Bonald. I just don’t have nearly as much time to read and comment as I used to.

    I will be interested to see where you take this. But, as I said in that e-mail I sent you a year ago, I think that some kind of synthesis of the two positions is possible.

    Right now I would say that any form of eros must be accompanied by ascesis in order to prevent it from becoming pure selfishness. When people describe eros as selfishness, they seem to forget that there are two people involved. Even as we look for fulfillment in God, God is drawing us outside of ourselves, which is why for many mystics this erotic longing for God ends in an ecstasy where the individual forgets his self. Likewise, in a marriage even though the husband may initially be drawn by pure eros to his wife, he doesn’t just find sensual satisfaction in his wife; rather, in order for the erotic relationship to continue and to flourish, the husband must put aside his own desires at times.

  4. And if anybody is curious about how this conversation between Bonald and me started, see this post.

  5. Dear Stephen,

    As one who greatly appreciated your labor of translation in your “Don Colacho’s Aphorisms” blog, I was saddened to see it promptly disappear shortly after the completion of your translation project earlier this year. Further, the site was never archived by Internet Archive so it is effectively gone without a trace. Do you have any intention of bringing the site back or making available your translation efforts in some other manner, such as publication?

  6. The whole question of the disinterested love of God was much discussed during the Quietist Controversy, beginning with Innocent XI’s condemnation of Molinism (Coelestis Pastor 19 November 1687), followed by the Commission of Issy, Fénelon’s defence of Mme Guyon in his “Explication des Maximes des Saints” and the ensuing pamphlet war between Bossuet and Fénelon (two of the best writers of the Grand Siècle) and culminating in Innocent XII’s condemnation of the 23 propositions in Cum Aliis of 12 March 1699.

    The principle condemned errors were 1) a soul can reach a state of pure love in which it no longer experiences a desire for eternal salvation; 2) during extreme trials of the interior life a soul may have a conviction that it is rejected by God, and in this state it may make an absolute sacrifice of its own eternal happiness; 3) in the state of pure love a soul is indifferent to its own perfection and the practice of virtue; 4) in certain states contemplative souls lose the clear, sensible and deliberate sight of Jesus Christ

    This “Rout of the Mysitics,” as Abbé Brémond called it, led to the usual over-reaction in the opposite direction by Catholic theologians. The notable exceptions were Cardinal Bona, J. B. Scaramelli, St. Alphonsus Liguori.

    As late as the 20th century, defenders of the spirituality of the French School, with its strong concentration on the pure love of God, perfect abandonment to the divine will and the passivity necessary for genuine contemplative prayer, such as Brémond himself, Maurice Blondel, Joseph Maréchal and Cardinal Jean Daniélou were actually suspected of Modernism. Even the usually balanced Mgr Ronald Knox wrote that “Quietism is a morbid growth on the healthy body of mysticism, and mystics of recognized orthodoxy may carry the germs of the disease without developing its symptoms.”

    It was only with Pope John Paul II’s 1997 declaration of St Thérèse of Lisieux as a Doctor of the Church that he cloud of suspicion finally lifted.

  7. The striking thing about the Holy Father’s defense of eros is its timing. Right now, today, are we in a time when the balance in most people’s understanding of love/charity is tilted too far towards agape? How can one ask with a straight face? What is he trying to do?

    Anyway, I am looking forward to the series.

  8. Stephen, great to hear from you again! Thanks for posting the link. I had meant to do so in the original post, but then forgot.

  9. The Holy Father has an odd habit of jumping into old debates that everyone else had forgotten about. Remember the Regensburg lecture that was actually an attack on Adolf von Harnack?

  10. Peter,

    Thanks for your kind words. Please write me; you can find my e-mail address here.

  11. Actually, I do think the distrust of eros in Catholic spirituality is still very strong.

    In a sense, this is natural enough; “In the course of the normal development of man,“ says Brémond, “there occur moments in which the discursive reason gives place to a higher activity, imperfectly understood and indeed at first disquieting.”

    Our situation is worse. Our paradigm of objective knowledge (object of what?) has made us distrustful of subjective experience. Now, the knowledge that Brémond is describing is intuitive, rather than logical; it knows by communion with, not observation of, its object. The modern is inclined to deny that this is, properly speaking, knowledge at all. Christian experience asserts the contrary; this knowledge does give contact and certitude, but not understanding: as breathing or bathing give us certitude about the air and the ocean, but no information about their chemical composition. But, without this prior certitude, why would we undertake chemical analysis at all?

    Eros is bound to be depreciated, in a culture that regards its object as illusory.

  12. What does “in Catholic spirituality” mean? Are you talking about some monks somewhere? Some theologians? The defense of eros is then directed at some tiny (but influential?) group of Catholics? You can’t be saying that most pew-sitters or even most serious Catholics are too suspicious of eros? ‘Cause in my experience, it’s all about the feeewings.

  13. Examples abound amongst retreat directors, especially those who base them on the Spiritual Exercises, many spiritual directors, particularly those who send out monthly letters, preachers of parish missions and leaders of prayer groups and so on.

    The tend to rely on a very structured method of meditation, with a sort of apparatus of preparation, divisions of the subject, resolutions and with a lot of work for imagination and very little of the prayer of simple regard. The only notable exception, in my experience are the Carmelites of the Reform.

    Joseph Maréchal captures this well, when he said that “our philosophy and religion are oriented, not towards the awful Vision of that Principle before which Isaiah saw the seraphim veil their eyes; but merely towards the visible life of man and its needs. We may speak respectfully of Mary, and even study her psychology; but we feel that the really important thing is to encourage Martha to go on getting the lunch.”

    Feelings are elicited by an Object – the certainty of first-hand contact with a spiritual reality that is beyond but not against reason, a reality which is not given us by the senses, or reached by logical thought. Without that, religion is hardly more than the beneficent illusion which Freud supposes it to be. Tauler calls it “‘the Abyss which is unknown and has no name . . . more beloved than all that we can know.”

  14. OK, unless you correct me, I’m taking that as “yes.” Your point is that the people serious Catholics turn to for help in their spiritual development are too oriented towards the world and insufficiently oriented towards mysticism or too oriented towards meditation and too little towards contemplation. I think I agree with this, although one of the points of meditation is that the development it engenders makes contemplation more possible.

    On the other hand, there are an awful lot of Oprah Catholics who would profit greatly from homilies along the lines of “love isn’t a feeling.” I doubt any of my children’s catechists could successfully deal with the riddle: “How can God love you if He has no emotions?” I was pleasantly shocked that this was one of my parish priest’s main points in a homily a few weeks ago.

  15. Bill

    I wholly agree with you about the “Oprah Catholics” – a great phrase, by the by, and, truth to tell, my last response lacked balance.

    I would hate to encourage an unhealthy habit of introspection (to which I am myself rather prone) A very wise confessor of mine once remarked that, for most Catholics, awareness of the presence of God is like awareness of the direction of gravity; it controls their lives, but it is not in the forefront of their minds. Indeed, we usually become aware of it, only when we are in danger of falling.

    The most important rule is that of St Angela of Foligno, “The only sure test that we are not being deceived by the devil is complete obedience to a human spiritual director.”

  16. […] Principles of Catholic morality I: Eros and Agape « Throne and AltarOct 9, 2011 … A while back, Stephen, of Don Colacho’s Aphorisms fame, warned me that my affinity for deontological, duty-based morality was taking me … […]

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