Principles of Catholic Morality

I. Eros and Agape
II. Augustine on love and virtue
III. Bernard on loving God
IV. Anselm on freedom and justice
V. Aquinas on the first principles of practical reasoning
VI. Aquinas on charity
VII. Scotus on the greatest commandment
VIII. Scotus on the natural law
IX. Dante on purgatory
X: The challenge of modernity and the contested legacy of Thomism
XI: Dietrich von Hildebrand

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.  That discussion inspired this essay as I’ve tried to explore this issue further.

Eros and Agape

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.

3 Responses

  1. As a Thomist (well, a Protestant Thomist), I appreciated your efforts to defend Duns Scotus from the baying hounds of my fellow virtue ethicists. You might be interested in “Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality”. The author discusses his attempt to dissolve misconceptions about Scotus here:

  2. Thanks! I own a copy, and it certainly guided my understanding of Duns Scotus.

  3. It appears that I misunderestimated you!

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