Norms and Postulates
by John A. Hardon, S.J.
An objective approach to moral science demands some knowledge of its basic
postulates and some familiarity with its terms. Sciences like physics and mathematics,
for example, have their own presuppositions and a specialized vocabulary, without
which it would be impossible to communicate as simple a fact as the expansion
of metals under increased temperature or the rudiments of commercial arithmetic.
Whatever else morality deals with, its main interest are human actions
performed knowingly and freely, and not through physical necessity, inadvertence
or instinctive spontaneity. The latter are sometimes (and not too happily) called
acts of man, on the assumption that truly human activity proceeds from
antecedent reflection and free choice of will, whereas anything else is man's
indeed, but not strictly human. Between the two is the essential difference
that some actions, like metabolism or the circulation of the blood are not under
our control. So, too, when a person talks in his sleep or under the influence
of drugs, he is not exercising his autonomy. But writing a letter or eating
a meal, in spite of distractions or preoccupations, may be done deliberately
and is therefore subject to dominion by the will.
Determinants of Morality.
However, just because an act is human does not tell us whether it is morally
good or bad. The moral quality of our actions derives from three different sources,
each so closely connected with the other that unless all three are simultaneously
good, the action performed is morally bad.
First of all, the object of the act must be good, meaning that
the immediate thing with which an action is essentially concerned should conform
to the moral law. Notice that the object is not only the physical makeup of
an action, like taking what belongs to someone else, but taking it with (or
without) his permission. Only in the second case is there any question of theft.
Along with what I do are the attending circumstances of my action,
which are at once distinct from its object and yet may change or completely
alter its moral tone. Circumstances can make an otherwise good action evil,
as when a man deliberately goes to sleep while on night watchman duty. Sleep
by itself is morally indifferent, but taken at a time when a person has contracted
to keep awake, it becomes morally objectionable. Or they can aggravate the guilt,
as when a son strikes his mother; or minimize guilt, as a sudden burst of anger
under violent provocation; or multiply guilt as when money is stolen from a
person to whom I owe a special debt of gratitude.
Finally the end or purpose, beyond the act itself and its circumstances,
also affects the moral situation. If the motive is gravely sinful, the whole
action is vitiated. Thus for a gangster to give money to charity in order to
divert attention from his crime is doing wrong even though (incidentally) people
may profit from his pretended philanthropy.
The motive element is of great importance in moral theology. Some actions,
like stealing and blasphemy, are always wrong and may never be done without
culpability. But other actions may be either good or bad, depending on why we
do them. Although it is generally wrong to kill another person, we may defend
ourselves against unjust aggressors and are not forbidden to kill in legitimate
self-defense. Many other things we do, like walking, speaking, driving, or reading,
may be directed to good or evil ends, and they become good or evil according
to the purpose intended - even though the immediate work performed is morally
If we analyze this motivation more closely, we see it corresponds to the
reason a man has in mind when he undertakes a course of action. Other elements
enter the picture only as means to the end, like steps on a ladder or a bridge
that spans a chasm.
In order that a man's act be good, his intention must be honorable, and
no amount of pious moralizing will change the fact, for instance, that being
kind to a prospective victim of lust is criminal. Of course, good intentions
alone are not enough, as though we could do moral good by using evil means.
This is the pernicious error (sometimes wrongly attributed to the Jesuits) that
the end justifies the means. We may never do evil to attain an otherwise good
end. Murder, theft and deception are wrong, and they cannot be done on the pretext
that these are desirable because the intention behind them is good. If this
principle seems theoretical, it is actually one of the most practical in the
field of ethics, because people are so prone to justify their actions on the
score of the good they will do (for themselves or others) by untruth, intrigue,
bribery or racial and creedal discrimination.
Writers sometimes illustrate the relationship between object, circumstances
and intention by means of a diagram in which the morally good act is represented
by the bull's eye of a target, while the three determinants are the arrow: object
= arrowhead, circumstances = arrow shaft, and intention = directing arrow tail.
Any defect in any part of the arrow will prevent the missile from reaching its
target, as any deflection in moral rectitude in what we do, or how, or why deflects
from moral goodness in the action that results.
Degrees of Imputability.
Christianity is unlike other religions in many things, not the least of which
is its concept of moral responsibility. Built into the Christian consciousness
is respect for the person who performs an action, either to praise and reward
him if he does well or blame and punish if he sins. This implies that not all
human actions are equally imputable and, when evil, partake of greater or lesser
guilt according to the person's larger or smaller degree of responsibility.
American criminal law recognizes this principle in such well-known cases as
murder and robbery. There are varying degrees of murder, from premeditated homicide
to involuntary manslaughter; and the range of theft covers every conceivable
form of unjustly taking what belongs to another.
The two foci around which imputability revolves are knowledge and freedom;
when both faculties are fully operative, the responsibility is complete, but
when either is somehow inhibited, the resulting imputability is lessened. Thus
ignorance, emotion, or passion, fear, past habits, and external violence inhibit
the activity of the mind and free will, and, therefore, limit human guilt or
(on occasion) may remove it altogether.
The word ignorance is ambiguous. Too often it is taken to mean
merely the absence of knowledge, and may be equated with being unlettered, uninstructed,
unlearned or simply uninformed. Properly speaking, however, ignorance implies
the absence of knowledge that somehow should be present, and then, depending
on whether the absence is culpable or not, the ignorance is said to be vincible
Ignorance is invincible (from the Latin which means "unconquerable")
when it is present all right but there is no reasonable way, here and now, of
dispelling it so that the person cannot be held responsible for doing what he
does not know is wrong. He may not even suspect his ignorance, as when a child
uses profane or obscene language which was learned from adults, and in all such
cases there is no imputability. Or a man may vaguely suspect his ignorance on
a point of moral obligation but, under the circumstances, feels it is practically
impossible to acquire the knowledge required. A prosecuting attorney may fully
suspect that certain individuals are racketeering and tries to get factual.
information from victims of the "shakedown." But they refuse to talk
for fear of reprisals. The attorney's ignorance of the crime is invincible at
least until some other legal way is open to secure the evidence desired.
Vincible ignorance can be cleared up if only a man wants to do so. The
measure of his negligence to learn the truth determines his guilt when he does
something wrong through lack of sufficient knowledge. At one extreme is slight
neglect, as when a doctor fails to study a case as thoroughly as he might and
thereby causes harm to one of his patients; at the other extreme is an affected
sort of ignorance that a person deliberately encourages to avoid what he suspects
will be unwelcome knowledge, as the man who is practically certain the woman
he is courting is married and yet fails to make sure for fear of learning the
Emotions are powerful inhibitors of clear thinking and free choice, as
common experience teaches, and their influence is generally to lessen and (in
rare cases) entirely to erase culpability. According to the emergency theory
in psychology, emotions are stirred-up conditions in which the body is prepared
for a strenuous effort; in the theory of William James, emotions are the awareness
of such physiological conditions as ensue upon certain perceptions; and in popular
terminology, any departure from the calm and normal conditions of the organism
is emotional. But whatever the explanation, we know that people under emotional
stress are not themselves, and therefore should not be held as accountable for
their actions (or reactions) as when their feelings are not strongly aroused.
People in a panic have been known to fight their way to a hopeful exit
and oblivious of their cruelty to anyone who stands in the way. A husband who
sees his wife in the arms of another man may suddenly kill one or both of them,
and later confess that he scarcely remembers anything except a burst of white
anger. Actions performed under such circumstances are human only by courtesy,
and their moral responsibility is minimal. or none at all.
However, these are examples of what is called antecedent emotion, where
the feelings are aroused before any chance for deliberation. Their general effect
is to diminish guilt or absolve from it completely. On the other hand, it is
possible to foster certain emotions willfully. People are known to work themselves
up to an emotional pitch of anger, lust, envy or hurt pride, and so far from
reducing imputability, such arousal normally increases it. Nursing a grudge
over some real or apparent injury is familiar; and unless a person takes means
to keep the mind free from such hateful thoughts, negative sentiments gradually
dominate one's whole personality and expose their victim to taking revenge at
In a class by itself is the emotion of fear, which follows the
same general pattern but deserves special attention because of its pervasive
influence in human conduct. Psychologically, fear is an intense, primitive response
to danger. It is a condition during which, according to Cannon's emergency theory,
the body is being prepared to run, to elude detection by "freezing"
or to fight. According to Watsonism, fear is a basic emotion elicited by loud
noise or loss of support but, through conditioning, attached to many other stimuli.
In broader terms, fear is mental anxiety because of an impending evil. It may
be grave or slight, depending on whether the threatening harm is great or small;
it may be extrinsic, or intrinsic, according to whether its cause is within
or outside the person fearing, as the fear of death is interior while the fear
of another person is external. A unique species is the reverential fear we have
to offend someone to whom we owe respect, as a parent or person in authority.
Regardless of its species, fear seldom is so great as to deprive a person
of all responsibility for actions performed. Consequently, actions done through
fear are normally culpable (if bad) and meritorious (if good), as when one student
so fears examinations that he cheats and another that he studies hard. The fear
which accompanies many of our actions, without inspiring them, clearly has no
direct bearing on moral value. It is too common an experience to affect responsibility
Habits are variously defined
by different authors. Psychologists speak of habits as learned responses which
are relatively permanent and which require a minimum of voluntary direction.
Theologians define them as constant dispositions that tend to influence us to
perform repeatedly similar actions. Their influence in life is immense, to be
examined at greater length in a later context.
Good habits evidently do not detract from the value of virtuous actions,
and virtue itself has been defined as the cultivation of good habits. But evil
habits may, at times, lessen the guilt of any single bad action if the one who
does it is sincerely trying to overcome his sinful inclinations. With this exception,
however, a habitual disposition towards sinful actions like impurity, dishonesty
or injustice does not mitigate responsibility.
The decisive norm here is a man's sincerity in working against his acquired
tendencies, not necessarily his achievement in rooting out the vice completely.
The natural drive of concupiscence is strong and, given encouragement through
repeated sins, can become tyrannical. Periodic failures are no sign of insincerity,
and may be coupled with a high resolve to overcome one's habituated weaknesses.
But if there is bad will and no effort at self conquest, habits accentuate our
guilt before God instead of diminishing it.
When force is brought upon a person against his will by some external
agent, he is said to be under violence, and his accountability is deeply
affected thereby. Absolute violence is relentless force that simply eliminates
free choice. Therefore whatever is done under such conditions is not imputable.
But usually the violence is not so great, and culpability is determined by the
amount of effort at resistance that the victim exerts, or the motivation that
guides his conduct while oppressed by violent assault. In most cases of statutory
rape, for example, the victim cannot resist effectively and her responsibility
is nullified on either of two counts: either actually resisting to the best
of her ability, or being willing to resist by judging the opposition to be futile
and therefore (at most) giving a sign of resistance.
Although violence and fear are closely connected, the two are really quite
distinct in terms of moral imputability. Under the influence of fear, the evil
that is feared is impending and future; it may also be unreal or at least exaggerated.
But violence is a present and pressing evil. It induces not so much fear as
the urge to repel and protect oneself against an existing threat to life or
bodily integrity. Its impact on the emotions, then, may be great but is accidental.
The essential fact is coercion of external action in the internal consent, and
provided the latter is withheld, no guilt is involved but rather merit and praise
Concept and Kinds of Law.
Popularly conceived, law is a rule of action, and in terms of human legislation
it is an effective and promulgated command of reason made for the common good
by one in charge of a complete society like the family, state or ecclesiastical
In order to have a full picture, we must begin with the law residing in
God, where it is the eternal divine decree which commands that the order of
nature and grace be preserved. By this law He directs all creatures in all their
activities, the angelic spirits by the ordinations that govern the purely spiritual
world, the physical universe (including the acts of men) by myriad laws of nature
that are rarely supplemented by miraculous intervention, and the multitude of
human acts by means of the natural law (recognized in conscience) and supplemented
in the family by precepts of parents, guardians or those taking the place of
either, in the state by civil positive law (whether of sovereign nations or
international associations), and in the Church by divine mandates that were
directly revealed by God or have been implemented under legitimate ecclesiastical
A correct understanding of law is so necessary in moral theology that
some attention must be paid to a familiar objection raised against the whole
idea of Christian ethics. There are some who claim that law has no place at
all in the Christian scheme of things, saying that Christ never legislated and
quoting St. Paul's words, "We are not under the law but under grace."
(1) It is asserted that by grace we receive the gift of love which enables us
to dispense entirely with laws and regulations. St. Augustine's well-known epigram
is cited in proof of this: "Love, and do what you like." (2)
Actually the writings of St. Paul are the best evidence that Christianity
includes legislation. The apostle was engaged in a life and death struggle with
the Jewish law and legalism. In the course of time the Jewish leaders had developed
a system of justification by works that were to be calculated by the oppressive
directives of rabbinic casuistry. Christ repudiated this nomism by drawing a
clear distinction between law and legalism. He defined legalism as a subordination
of the spirit of the law to its crude letter, as in the case of the rabbinical
interpretation of the Sabbath observance. According to the Pharisees, although
a man was allowed to pull his ox or donkey out of the ditch into which it may
have fallen, he was forbidden to pull a man out of an illness (except a grave
sickness) on the Sabbath Day. Time and again, Christ insisted that He did not
come to destroy the Law and the prophets. On the contrary, He came to fulfill
and perfect them.
The same with St. Paul. He also held that the law was good. "Is the
law sin?" he asked, and answered, "God forbid." In fact, "the
law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good." When he contraposed
law and grace, it was the law of Moses in contrast with its fulfillment, the
law of Christ; or the pseudo-law of Jewish Talmudists in comparison with the
laws of Christian charity. While stressing the liberating features of the faith,
he spoke of himself as "not being without law to God, but under law to
Three objections are commonly raised against laws in the Christian economy
of salvation. It is said that Christian morality is positive, whereas laws are
negative; that Christian morality is internal, while laws are external; and
that Christian morals are based on principles with no reference to laws.
If we read the Gospels carefully, we find that Christ repeatedly urged
the observance of the Ten Commandments. He never said or intimated that, "These
precepts are now obsolete, so far as you are concerned. You have passed beyond
them. Love, and do as you please." When pointedly asked by the Jewish lawyer
who came to inquire what he should do to enter eternal life, Christ told him
to keep the commandments. And when the young man admitted keeping these from
his youth, the Master "Looking upon him was moved with love (agape)
towards him." Love is the capacity to put oneself into another's place.
Christ did so on that occasion, and then explained to His questioner that, while
the law is essential, if he wished to go beyond the law in greater generosity,
he should go sell what he had, give it to the poor, and come follow the Savior.
The law, therefore, is indispensable, but for those who have the will and the
grace, in addition to keeping the law, they can follow the counsels which are
not binding under sin but go beyond the call of duty.
Accordingly, Christians never outgrow the need for negatively framed laws,
let alone laws of any kind. The Decalogue is not out of date, nor is there a
syllable in the New Testament which suggests the contrary. What is true is that
the fullness of Christian living cannot be expressed in negative terms, but
requires positive dedication as its underlying motive and offers positive supererogation
for those who wish to signalize themselves in the divine service.
The objection that laws are external but Christian morals are internal
may be similarly answered. Perhaps the root of the difficulty is a faulty conception
of the divine law, whether natural or revealed. Man-made laws are imposed from
the outside. But God's laws are not like the laws of men. They arise from deep
within the human mind, inspired by faith or enlightened by reason, in which
the divine mind is teaching what we should do on the road to salvation. True,
the laws of God are spelled out in human legislation and interpreted for the
Christian by the Church, but the genesis of the law itself and its fundamental
binding force on the will come from the divine Legislator Himself.
When critics object that Christian morals are based on broad principles
and not upon laws they confuse the meaning of principle which is that from which
something in some way proceeds; it is the starting point of being or action.
Viewed in this light, laws are quintessential principles of Christianity since
they assume (what the critics deny) that man has a free will with which he can
choose to follow Christ or reject Him, and that, unless he chooses to follow,
his profession of the Christian name is a misnomer. But choosing to follow the
Redeemer is nothing if not acceptance of His teachings in the humility of faith
and carrying out His precepts in ready obedience. Words could not be clearer
than the warning of Christ: "Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,
shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father
in heaven shall enter the kingdom of heaven." (4)
A sobering reminder is the counter-criticism of those who know that Christianity
makes heavy demands on its followers and yet see Christians not living up to
the obligations of their profession. No sincere Christian can read Marx' statement
of condemnation without remorse. "The social principles of Christianity,"
Marx charged, "have justified ancient slavery, glorified mediaeval serfdom,
and they now recognize the need for approving the oppression of the proletariat
- with, of course, a slightly contrite air." (5) If ever Christians forget
that their faith requires subscription to laws, beginning with the laws of justice
and charity, those who are not Christian know their history too well to make
the same mistake.
Conscience in Christianity.
If law is the basis of human conduct, conscience is the means by which the moral
law is apprehended and interpreted. Different authors have differently defined
conscience. According to Jeremy Taylor, conscience is the mind of man governed
by rule. For the English divine, Joseph Butler, "There is a superior principle
of reflexion, or conscience, in every man, which distinguishes between the internal
principles of his heart as well as his external actions, which passes judgment
on himself and them." But the classic definition is that of Thomas Aquinas,
for whom "conscience is the mind of man passing moral judgments."
Aquinas further recognizes two aspects of conscience, which are essential
to a correct understanding of its concept. There is first of all synderesis
or the permanent, inborn disposition of the mind to think of general and broad
truths of moral conduct that become the principles from which a man may reason
in directing his own moral activities. St. Jerome in the fifth century seems
to have coined the term in Christian usage as the equivalent of "a spark
of conscience," and Aquinas described it as a habitual quality of the intellect,
enabling it to know the basic principles of practical reasoning. He never confused
this faculty with conscience proper.
Conscience in the strict sense, or conscientia, is the action of
the practical intellect deciding whether a particular, proposed operation is
good or bad, here and now. It is the conclusion at which reason arrives after
duly applying the principles of morality to a specific course of action.
The word itself appears to have come from the ancient Stoics, but the
idea it couches is distinctively Christian. Even the Hebrews had no exact equivalent.
In the Old Testament, wherever moral judgments were spoken of, the terms lebh
(heart) or ruach (spirit) are used. Nevertheless, it should be remarked
that "heart" in the Scriptures, whether Old or New Testament, refers
to the cognitive aspects of the mind and not to the will or emotions exclusively.
Modern psychologists, when they refer to conscience at all, tend to regard
it as heavily if not mainly emotional. Thus they define it as "any emotionally
toned experience in which a tendency to act is inhibited by a recognition, socially
conditioned, that suffering evil consequences is likely to result from acting
on the impulse to act." Some would further undermine its authority by reducing
conscience to the super-ego, which are the ideals or standards introjected from
parents (or parent substitutes) and making up the ego-ideal. In psychoanalysis,
conscience is the sum-total of self-critical, self-judgmental functions, partly
conscious but mostly subconscious. Needless to say, conscience in this vocabulary
is a purely subjective construct, with no objective guarantee in the eternal
laws of God.
Freudian metaphysics apart, one reason why people may inject emotions
into the idea of conscience is that the operation of our moral guidepost is
often charged with emotional overtones. Conscience is often inhibitory. It can
tell us, "Thou shalt not," and whenever our actions are suddenly checkmated,
feelings are aroused. A good example is fear. As long as we are active, fear
is kept under control, but forced inactivity dams it up. In the same way, conscience
may lay certain burdens on our love of ease, expose our reputation to the risk
of loss, demand endurance of trial and even physical pain. We dread the consequences
of these moral imperatives and naturally experience the psychosomatic reactions
of a body and soul combination that forms the human person.
Yet we cannot reduce conscience to an emotional state without emptying
it of all authority. Evidently one feeling cannot have authority over another.
If conscience were only emotional, it becomes (as moral relativists claim) a
matter of personal taste, where one person's moral preference is no better than
On the contrary, conscience is imbedded in the intellect, so that the
human mind has not only the right but the duty to pass moral judgments, and
in doing so is inviolable. No dictum is more firmly entrenched in Christian
morality than this: conscience must always be obeyed. For all practical purposes,
this is a Christian innovation, and, though it was foreshadowed in the Old Testament
and the ancient Greeks, it is built on the infinite worth of every human soul
in the sight of God as taught by Christ on every page of the Gospels: "The
hairs of your head are all numbered ...It is not the will of your Father that
any one of these little ones should perish."
In the ancient world, outside the Judaeo-Christian stream, it was not
the individual but the tribe or nation or society in general that mattered;
the individual was of small account.
Three masterpieces of Greek literature were concerned with the problem
of conflict between the individual conscience and the demands of a community:
the Prometheus of Aeschylus, the Antigone, of Sophocles, and Plato's
Apology. But in order to make it appear to their readers that there was
no problem at all, the Greek authors were in each case obliged to present the
offender in the most sympathetic, and his adversaries in the most unsympathetic,
light possible. In this way they sought to leave the impression that there could
be no question of an individual disobeying the law that had been laid down for
them as the will of society. It was only by stressing the manifest injustice
of the judge or his cruelty, and the manifest innocence of the rebel that the
authors could for a moment sustain the thesis that rebellion might in some rare
cases after all be all right. For the ancient pagan world as a whole, the law
of the community was the conscience of the individual; he could not allege or
appeal to any other.
This is illustrated in the well-known dialogue between the judge Creon
and the lady Antigone, when she was arraigned before the court for burying her
deceased brother against the mandate of civil authority.
Creon. Tell me at once and to the point. Did you know
that my edict forbade burial of your brother's body?
Antigone. Of course. How could I help knowing it? It
was made perfectly clear.
Creon. And you dared to disobey it?
Antigone. Yes, for it was not Zeus who issued that
edict, and Justice who lives with the gods below never made any such law. And
I could not believe that any edict of yours, since you are only a man, could
over-rule the unwritten, eternal laws of the gods. Those laws live forever -
yesterday, today, tomorrow. So, revering them, I would not for fear of any man
invite divine judgment.
It is remarkable that when the authority of God is obscured or denied,
mankind falls back rapidly upon that totalitarianism which runs roughshod over
the claims of individual conscience. By way of contrast, the preamble to the
American Declaration of Independence, which speaks of men being endowed by their
Creator with certain inalienable rights, is a Christian document, whose roots
in philosophy go back to the early Greeks but whose inspiration is found in
But if conscience is the mind of man passing moral judgments and is inviolable,
it is not infallible. It may be in any one of four states of certitude: subjectively
certain because a man has no doubt about the morality of the way he should
act in a given case, or subjectively doubtful because a person is undecided
as to the morality of the action now before him. On the objective plane, his
conscience is correct when its judgment reveals the true moral
appraisal of a situation, and false when it erroneously tells a man that
this present evil action is good or good action is bad.
This business of following one's conscience is crucial. What responsibility
do we have to follow what our conscience dictates? Everything depends on degree
of sincere certitude we have in facing a moral decision. We are obliged always
to act on the dictates of a conscience which is certain. It must be obeyed even
though objectively it may be false, because conscience is the nearest available
norm we have for knowing what is right and wrong, and the criterion by which
God will judge the human soul. On the other hand, we may never act with a doubtful
conscience. So that unless the mind clearly says that a prospective action is
permissible, we may not do it. Otherwise we should be saying equivalently, "This
may be good or bad, offensive or pleasing to God. But I do not care, and will
do it anyway."
If the mind is in doubt,
therefore, we must either refrain from taking action or resolve the doubt. Information
should be sought, books and other sources consulted, or, if that is not feasible,
the doctrine of probabilism may be invoked to settle the uncertainty.
Briefly stated, probabilism teaches that in an insoluble practical doubt
concerning the lawfulness of an action that is urgent, the moral agent is free
to follow any truly probable opinion on the morality of the proposed action.
On its positive side, probabilism says we may follow a solidly probable
opinion which favors liberty (the easier of two courses of action), whenever
there is question of a merely doubtful law. Naturally the opinion must be based
on reasons that are serious enough to invite acceptance by a prudent man, even
though fear of the opposite being true is not ruled out. A fair guide is to
know that several recognized moral theologians favor a certain position and
support it with valid arguments. Take the case of a man who is in possession
of secret knowledge, which he is not sure ought to be divulged to persons in
authority, say, information about subversive political activity. He has good
reason for revealing what he knows and good reasons for keeping it to himself.
Any opinion which favors not revealing would also favor liberty, since normally
it is easier to keep silent and spare oneself the consequences of revelation.
Of course, the better (or nobler) thing to do could be to divulge the information,
but our concern here is only with strict obligation and the application of the
principle of probablism.
Closely associated with settling a dubious conscience is the principle
of the twofold effect, which says that, under certain conditions, we
may perform an act that will produce a good and a bad effect. The conditions
are applications of common sense, namely, that we directly intend the good effect
and not the bad, that our action is either good or at least morally indifferent,
that we do not produce the good effect by means of the bad one, and that we
have a proportionate reason for allowing the foreseen bad effect to take place.
This principle of Christian ethics cuts through every phase of personal and
social morality. It is based ultimately on no less a precedent than the operations
of God in the universe, where He permits moral and physical evil across the
whole spectrum of human existence, yet from motives that faith and reason tell
us must be adequate and concordant with His infinite wisdom.
Parallel with our duty to obey conscience is the obligation to educate
it. Otherwise if we do wrong in ignorance, we may not be free from blame. True,
the conscience is not infallible, but, like other faculties of the spirit, it
requires development and careful training as a delicate instrument for knowing
the laws of God. Ignored and deliberately disobeyed, it becomes insensitive
and gradually so dulled that not even the physical sanctions of civil authority
may convince a criminal that he is wrong.
Fidelity to conscience is coupled with its education when we suspect our
moral faculty to be misinformed if we are unwilling to inquire into particulars.
That is why sincerity in this area is of paramount importance. Human nature
is uncanny in the dodges" and evasions to which it may resort in order
not to be convinced that something enjoyable is morally bad, or that something
unpleasant should be done. The willingness to inquire into details is a safe
index of a good will, as the opposite gives grounds for suspicion of insincerity.
Jeremy Taylor gives some sage advice on how to seek counsel, or rather,
of whom not to ask advice in order to clarify one's conscience. He quotes at
length from Ecclesiasticus to explain what he means. "Consult not with
a woman touching her of whom she is jealous; neither with a coward in matters
of war; nor with a merchant concerning exchange; nor with a buyer of selling;
nor with an envious man of thankfulness; nor with a hireling for a year of finishing
work; nor with an unmerciful man touching kindness; nor with a slothful for
any work; nor with an idle servant of much business; hearken not unto these
in any matter of counsel." (6) The point is not that these people would
be slow to give counsel nor that they might not have much to say. But in moral
matters, the character of the counselor has much to do with the soundness of
what he says; unless he is truly disengaged, his judgment is prejudiced and
the advice he gives is adulterated by his own entanglements.
Habits and Virtues. Is habit a second nature? Habit is ten times nature,
and the degree to which a man recognizes this is the measure of his self-development.
William James called habit the flywheel of society and its most precious conserving
agent. Yet just because habits are so important, it is useful to avoid confusion
on the meaning of terms. Clarification here may also help in the acquisition
of the greatest asset in the moral life.
Generally speaking, a habit is a permanent quality according to
which a person is well or badly disposed in regard either to his nature or to
his activity. In moral theology, it is a relatively stable disposition which
inclines a faculty rightly or wrongly to act with ease, readiness and satisfaction
in a certain way. If the habit is good, it is a virtue, and if bad, a
vice. Virtues may be either natural and acquired, or supernatural and
infused. Acquired virtues or habits are obtained by repeated acts of
the operation; although the power of acquisition is not limited to virtues,
since we can also acquire bad habits by the same process of repetition. Infused
virtues are specially conferred by God (infundere= to pour in) through
supernatural means; they are not acquired by our own efforts.
Although not commonly distinguished among psychologists, theologians carefully
separate habits from automatisms, which pertain to the sense faculties and not,
as do habits, to those human powers which are controlled by the intellect and
will. An automatism, therefore, is like a habit in exhibiting the same regular
way of acting, but, unlike habits, it is present in the sensitive or motor powers
of the body and is not under the dominion of the mind and free choice. In fact
automatic behavior is defined as doing something without conscious direction
or intention, as may happen among the lower animal species. Automatisms may
also be induced by means of repetition.
The secret of moral development is to make habitual, as early as possible,
as many good actions as we can, and guard against growing into ways that are
morally bad as we guard against the plague. The more of the details of our moral
life we can hand over to the effortless custody of habit, the more surely we
shall cultivate virtue and perfect our highest spiritual nature.
In the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving of an old one, psychology
recommends four great maxims to remember. They have been summarized by William
James in a way that applies perfectly to the cultivation of the Christian virtues.
First we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong an initiative
as possible. At the outset, a man should accumulate all possible circumstances
which reinforce the right motives; make engagements incompatible with the old
way; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop his resolution
with every aid he knows. This will give his new beginning such momentum that
the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and
every day a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring
Secondly we must never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit
is securely rooted in our lives. Each lapse is like letting fall a ball of string
which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many
turns will wind up again. Continuity of training is the great means of making
the moral system act in the right way.
Some success at the beginning is indispensable. Failure is apt to dampen
the energy to keep trying, whereas past successes nerve one to future vigor.
Geothe, who was no Christian, understood this well. When a man asked him about
an enterprise but mistrusted his own powers, he was told, "You need only
blow on your hands!" The implication was that will effort at the start
is connected with insured success.
Experts differ in individual cases about the wisdom of tapering off in
abandoning such habits as drink or other defects of weakness. However, the majority
opinion would agree that abrupt acquisition of the new habit is the best way,
provided there is a real chance of carrying it out. We should be careful not
to give the will so stiff a task as to insure its defeat at the outset; but
if only one can stand it, a sharp period of suffering and then a free time seems
the best thing to aim at, whether in giving up a habit like drinking to excess,
or in simply changing one's hours of rising and retiring. The surprising thing
is how soon a desire will die if it be never fed.
The third rule is to seize the first possible opportunity to act on every
resolution we make. No matter how full a reservoir of maxims we may possess,
and no matter how good our sentiments may be, if we have not taken advantage
of every concrete chance to act, our character may remain entirely unaffected
for the better. Hell is paved with good intentions. A character has been defined
as a completely fashioned will; and a will, in this sense, is an aggregate of
tendencies to act in a firm, prompt, and decisive way upon all the principal
moral emergencies of life.
Since we are speaking of acquired habits, the tendency to act becomes
effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the frequency with which the actions
occur and the personality "grows" to their use. When a generous resolve
or a fine glow of charity is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical
fruit, it is worse than a chance lost; it works in such a way as positively
to hinder the discharge of future resolutions and moral emotions. There is no
more pitiable character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer,
who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never
does a manly act of courage or generosity. Never should we allow ourselves to
have a noble feeling while reading a book, or saying a prayer, or hearing a
talk, without expressing it later in some active way. It need not be
anything heroic, and may be as trifling as speaking kindly to a stranger or
visiting a sick friend, but if carried into practice will add to the cumulative
Lastly, and surprisingly, for those who fear the very word "mortification,"
we must keep the faculty of effort alive in us by a little gratuitous exercise
every day. In a word, to grow in virtue we should be systematically ascetic
(or heroic) in little unnecessary points, do every day or so something for no
other reason than that we would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire
need arises it may find us nerved and trained to stand the test.
For the natural man, mortification of this sort is like the insurance
he pays on his house. The tax does him no good at the time and possibly may
never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, the premiums he has paid
will be his salvation from ruin. So with the person who has daily inured himself
to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in
unnecessary things. He will remain standing like a tower when everything around
him is shaken, and when his softer friends (who may have ridiculed his conduct)
are winnowed like chaff in the blast.
From the Christian viewpoint, the motive for periodic self-denial is not
only to develop strength of character. It is also to grow in virtue because
such is the will of God; and the inspiration to practice mortification is higher
than mere self-improvement. It is again the will of God, manifest in such teachings
of Christ as, "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself,
and take up his cross, and follow me." (8)
Masters of asceticism agree that if we realized the extent to which we
are mere bundles of habits, we would pay more attention to forming them in our
lives. We are literally spinning our own moral fates, good or evil, and very
hard to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its mark
on the soul.
Moral Virtues. As previously implied, not every habit is a virtue,
but only one that so improves and perfects a faculty as to incline it towards
goodness for the faculty, for the will, and for the whole man in terms of his
ultimate destiny. There is a broad sense in which we can speak of the natural
dispositions of any of our powers as virtues, but this is a loose rendering
and leads to confusion. More properly, the acquired virtues are those we cultivate,
repeatedly putting into practice acts of the faculty in question. The autonomous
will plays the dominant role. My consistent effort to concentrate on a given
course of action, repeating the process over a long period of time and in spite
of obstacles, gradually develops a tendency to perform the action spontaneously
and almost without reflection, yet with a degree of perfection that someone
else without the virtue cannot duplicate.
Aristotle was the basic source on which St. Thomas built the now familiar
structure of the cardinal virtues, which are reduced to four because of the
objective order of morality. The mind must first discover this order and propose
its commands to the will; prudence, or the habit of doing the right thing at
the right time, is reason's helper. The will, in turn, must execute these commands
in its own field; justice, or the habit of giving everybody his due, is helper
to the will in its own operations; temperance assists the will in its management
of the appetite's desires, and fortitude helps to manage the same appetite's
Just as there are four faculties which contribute to our moral acts -
intellect, will, appetite of desire, and appetite of aversion - so there must
be four virtues to keep these faculties straight: prudence for the mind, justice
for the will, temperance for the urge to what is pleasant, and fortitude for
the instinct away from what is painful. The Latins summarized their function
in the words, circumspice (look around), age (act), abstine
(keep away from), and sustine (bear up with).
All other virtues in the moral order can be referred to this tetrad as
their potential parts. In view of their practical value as possessions of nature
(also infused by grace), it is worth examining the whole gamut in some detail.
The principal act of prudence is the practical executive command of right
reason, and the following virtues come within its orbit: good counsel, sound
judgment when the ordinary rules of conduct are concerned, and a flair for dealing
with exceptional cases.
As regards justice, its classical type renders what is due between equals,
but other virtues come under the general heading of justice. Some render what
is owing to another, but not as to an equal. Others deal with a situation where
both parties are equal, yet the due or debt, though demanded by decency, cannot
be enforced by law, and so is not an affair of strict justice. In the first
category of these phases of justice comes religion, which offers our service
and worship to God, then piety and patriotism, which render our duty to parents
and country, then observance, which shows reverence to superiors, and obedience
to their commands. In the second category comes gratitude for past favors, and
vindication when injury has been done; also truthfulness, without which social
intercourse is impossible, liberality in spending money, and friendliness or
social good manners.
The respective parts of fortitude, on the attacking side, are confidence,
carried out with magnificence, which reckons not the cost, and magnanimity,
which does not shrink from glory. On the defensive side are patience, which
keeps an unconquered spirit, and can be protracted into perseverance.
Finally the subordinate kinds of temperance are continence, which resists
lustfulness and evil desires concerning touch, clemency, which tempers punishment,
meekness, which tempers anger, modesty in our deportment, and this includes
disciplined study, reasonable recreation, and good taste in clothes.
Running as a theme through the moral virtues is the idea of balance between
two extremes, or the "golden mean," which the Greeks called mesotes.
The value of recalling this fact is to remind us that in the practical order
we should at all times be reasonable, in virtue as in everything else. Unfortunately,
the expression "golden mean" has taken on so many and such vapid connotations
that it needs to be analyzed against the background from which it arose, and
contrasted with the full Christian ethic of which it is an integral part.
Aristotle was the main source on which the Church Fathers and Aquinas
drew for their doctrine of morality as a median between two extremes. The Greek
philosopher asked himself how does virtue stand to vice. He answered that good
actions always have a certain order of proportion, and virtue, in his eyes,
is a mean between two extremities, the extremes being vices either by excess
or by defect. Through excess or defect of what? Either in regard to a feeling
or in regard to an action.
Take the virtue of confidence, which is the first condition of fortitude
on its attacking side. An excess of the feeling of confidence constitutes rashness
- at least when the feeling issues in action, and it is with human actions that
ethics are concerned - while the defect would be cowardice. The mean, therefore,
will be a mean between rashness on the one hand and cowardice on the other hand;
this mean is courage and is the virtue in respect to the feeling of confidence.
Again if we take the action of giving money, excess in regard to this
action is prodigality - and that is a vice - while defect in regard to this
action is illiberality. The virtue, liberality, is the mean between the two
vices, that of excess and that of defect. A fairly complete list of these "means
between two extremes," as conceived by Aristotle, is found in his Nichomachean
Ethics, on which Aquinas wrote a famous commentary.
|Want of Ambition||Right Ambition||Over-Ambition|
When Aristotle spoke of virtue as a mean, he was not thinking of a mean
that has to be calculated arithmetically. That is wary, when he defined moral
virtue, he called it "a disposition to choose, consisting essentially in
a mean relatively to us determined by a rule, i.e. the rule by which
a practically wise man would determine it." He recognized that we cannot
determine what is excess, what mean and what defect by hard and fast rules of
mathematics. Much depends on the person, on the character of the feeling or
action in question. In some cases it may be preferable to lean on the side of
excess rather than on that of defect, while in other cases the opposite may
Nor, of course, should this idea of virtue be thought as a composition
of vices, a kind of amalgam of excess and defect. Rather it combines in itself
both the good points which, run to extremes, constitute vices. Thus courage
is not boldness alone, nor is it cool foresight alone, but a synthesis of both
- this character of synthesis preventing courage from degenerating into the
daring of the foolhardy man on the one hand or the caution of the coward on
the other hand.
Nevertheless, there is a basic limitation in the Aristotelian concept
of the moral virtues, which Christianity was quick to recognize and correct.
Plato and Aristotle were under the influence of a predominantly aesthetic attitude
towards human conduct. A man was basically virtuous because he displayed a beautiful
balance in his moral actions, not unlike the harmony displayed in a work of
art. Hence the attractive aspect of virtue, which is often overstressed by ancient
and neopagan writers, at the expense of morality proper. What was missing were
two dimensions of morality that only the Christian religion brought into full
light: that internal dispositions and their consequent actions were virtuous
not mainly because of any aesthetic harmony of agent, conduct and environment
but because they advanced their possessor in the direction of his final destiny
to eternal life after death; and that virtue is more than a reasonable balance
between behavioristic extremes, since it postulates a primal obligation to a
divine Lawgiver, whose will is manifest in conscience and faith, and to whom
obedience is due as man's Creator and Lord.
By the same token, modern ethicians in the positivistic schools, especially
Pragmatism and Behaviorism, exalt the idea of a mean in moral conduct, but strip
virtue of the qualifications added to it by its Christian interpreters. Like
the ancient Greeks and Romans, to whom the Cross (in St. Paul's phrase) was
a scandal and stumbling block, their current imitators are repelled by the notion
of a crucified God. It seems to them, as it did to Christ's contemporaries,
at once unaesthetic and irrational.
Correspondingly, neither the Greeks nor those outside the Christian philosophy,
have any idea of moral virtues being not only acquired through repetitive practice
but infused by a supernatural action of God. Yet, the existence of supernatural
equivalents for the natural moral virtues follows logically on all that the
Scriptures say about man's condition in the state of friendship with God. The
evangelist John and the apostle Paul emphasize the new life acquired by those
who are justified. They are enabled to perform actions beyond the capacity of
their native powers because of the new dispositions they received from the indwelling
More than once, St. Paul spoke of various types of these virtues as the
special possession of those in God's grace. "I exhort you to walk,"
he told the Ephesians, "in a manner worthy of the calling with which you
are called, with all humility and meekness; with patience." and "careful
to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (9) Timothy
was reminded that, "God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power
and of love and of prudence." (10) In a long exhortation to the Romans,
the converts were urged to practice zeal and fervor, patience and perseverance,
hospitality and condescension, peaceableness and justice. (11)
In the last analysis, the main reason why there must be infused virtues,
moral virtues, elevating the acquired ones, is the possession of faith in the
person justified. A moral virtue, by definition, avoids extremes. It does not
offend against right reason by excess or defect. But once the faith is had,
there is no question of limiting the practice of morality by reason alone. Faith
sublimates reason as the standard of moderation; and just as prior to faith
there are acquired virtues commensurate with reason to assist the natural mind
and will in the performance of morally good acts, so with the advent of faith,
there are corresponding supernatural virtues commensurate with the light of
faith to assist the elevated human facilities in the performance of their good
actions in the moral order. With the reason enlightened by faith, the scope
of virtuous operation is extended to immeasurable wider horizons. Faith now
furnishes motives of which reason would never dream, and divine charity offers
inspiration that surpasses anything found in nature.
Faith, Hope and Charity.
More fundamental than the moral virtues are others, called theological, which
are so typically Christian that there is no counterpart for them anywhere in
the non-Christian systems of thought. They are called theological precisely
because they put us directly in touch with God. By faith I believe in God, by
hope I trust in God, and by charity I love God. There is no such thing as a
natural or acquired theological virtue; either God directly infuses (pours in)
these qualities into the soul, or they are not possessed at all.
Unlike the virtues known to philosophy, faith, hope and charity are not
applications of the golden mean between extremes. They can be measured, indeed,
but only by what the virtue demands or by what our capacity allows. Concerning
the first, "God Himself is the rule and mode of virtue. Our faith is measured
by divine truth, our hope by the greatness of His power and faithful affection,
our charity by His goodness. His truth, power and goodness outreach any measure
of reason. We can certainly never believe, trust, or love God more than, or
even as much as, we should. Extravagance is impossible. Here is no virtuous
moderation, no reasonable mean; the more extreme our activity, the better we
Still there is a valid sense in which even the theological virtues observe
a kind of mean, or better, a center of gravity to which they tend. As far as
God is concerned, He can never be believed in, trusted or loved too much. But
from our viewpoint, we should exercise these virtues according to the measure
of our condition. Christian faith goes midway between unorthodox extremes, for
instance between Pelagianism which dispensed with divine grace and Jansenism
which denied a free will; Christian hope must choose a path among the numerous
prospective means of salvation; and Christian charity must find a balance in
the myriad opportunities for loving God.
In the words of St. Paul, "faith is the substance of things
to be hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." (13) Thus faith is basically
a virtue of the mind, giving it the power to assent, on the word of God, to
whatever truths He revealed. The intellectual character of faith becomes clear
from a cursory analysis of the Pauline definition.
The apostle calls faith the substance (hypostasis) of things to
be hoped for, or, as the New English Bible has it, faith gives substance to
our hopes." Taken objectively faith is the substance of our hopes because
it is the basis of all merit, and consequently the ground of our hope to obtain
the heavenly promises in which we believe. It also gives substance to our hope
by defining the nature of the blessings we desire and gives a foretaste of what
they will be. Faith gives me a firm conviction in the objective truths communicated
by God, because I know what He revealed, with the assurance that my will is
not hoping in fables or dreams.
But faith is also the evidence (elegchos) of things unseen, i.e.,
it "makes us certain of realities we do not see." The first meaning
of elegchos in ancient Greek literature was "proof" and "argument
Consequently the things which are not seen are more than invisible to
human eyes; they are beyond the capacity of the mind to comprehend. Yet by faith
we know they are true because the word of God supplies for comprehension; He
sees and understands and tells us what He knows. "For if we receive the
testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater." (14) If we believe
in fallible men and guide so much of our lives by their claims, why not the
infallible word of God?
The virtue of hope is related to faith as desire is related to
knowledge, or, in the question posed by St. Augustine, "what can be hoped
for which is not believed?" And therefore just as we speak of a human and
divine faith, depending on the persons (man or God) on whose authority we believe,
so we have two kinds of hope, natural and supernatural, according to the things
desired and the persons from whom we expect to receive them. In the natural
order, an object is possible either because we can secure it by our own efforts
or because we rely on the help of friends, in which case two elements enter--the
good hoped for and the person who will support our desires. Supernaturally,
however, no one is able of himself to grasp the supreme good of eternal life,
whose very existence would be unknown except for a gracious revelation from
God. To reach heaven we need divine help, so that hope as a theological virtue
has a twofold object: the beatific vision we look forward to attaining, and
the divine grace by which this heavenly goal is attained.
The two basic features of Christian hope are desire and confidence, so
that hope itself may be defined as the confident desire of obtaining eternal
beatitude. Already in the Old Testament, notably in the Psalms, we find this
dualism expressed, where the just man looks forward to the consummation of happiness
in the life to come. "I am sure," sings the Psalmist, "I shall
see the Lord's goodness in the land of the living. Hope in Him, hold firm and
take heart. Hope in the Lord." (15)
However, it was not until the fullness of revelation was made under Christ
that the full meaning of hope became clear, since the clarity of what we desire
determines the surety of what we hope for. Once the mystery of man's elevation
to the divine love and the love of God in the person of His Son were made manifest,
the well-springs of desire to reach this high destiny were opened as never before.
Compared with the glory that awaits us, the trials of our present existence
are as paltry chaff, of which St. Paul wrote to encourage the Romans: "I
reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared
with the glory to come that will be revealed in us." (16)
Christians, then, are not as other men, who have no hope, because the
faith is lacking. They see through the eyes of God what the Lord has prepared
for those who love Him, and this vision gives substance to the future which
is closed, or at least uncertain, to all who do not believe.
In the centuries since the New Testament was written, the vagaries of
philosophy have reached their zenith in the utter pessimism that characterizes
a great deal of modern thought, sometimes in circles that are only nominally
Christian, but always among people who have lost their faith (and consequently
hope) in the supernatural. "The universe is what it is," for Bertrand
Russell, "not what I choose that it should be. If it is indifferent to
human desires, as it seems to be; if human life is a passing episode, hardly
noticeable in the vastness of cosmic processes; if there is no superhuman purpose,
and no hope of ultimate salvation, it is better to know and acknowledge this
truth than to endeavor, in futile self-assertion, to order the universe to be
what we find comfortable." (1'7)
Severed from the life-stream of Christian hope, the alternative is stark
pessimism which sees no finality in man's existence and no purpose beyond the
Charity as an infused virtue
is so characteristic of the Christian dispensation that some have wrongly concluded
there is no evidence of its concept in religion prior to the coming of Christ.
While this is not true, since the Old Testament already prescribed loving God
with one's whole heart and soul, there is a distinctiveness about man's relations
with God as taught in the Gospels. Christ told the disciples, and through them
all His followers, "No longer do I call you servants, because the servant
does not know what the master does. But I have called you friends." (18)
In this statement of friendship, He was declaring the charity by which God loves
those who are in His grace and the virtue by which they are enabled to love
Him in return.
Sanctifying grace makes its possessors friends of God, members of His
Trinitarian family, and capable of knowing and loving Him in the beatific vision
even as He knows and loves Himself. It implies a mutual love between two persons,
here between the soul and God. Theological charity is simply the virtue that
gives this friendship expression, allowing us to reciprocate the "loving
kindness" that God is constantly showing us.
Hope and charity both are directed to God, and both find their fulfillment
ultimately in Him. But where hope is a form of self-interested love, whose motive
is the desire to possess the Summum Bonum for oneself, charity is a disinterested
love of benevolence for God Himself, where the motive is not His goodness to
be enjoyed by me but His goodness as it shines forth in Him.
The motive force of supernatural charity, then, is the absolute goodness
of God, i.e., not relative to us but as it is in Itself. When we love God for
His sake and not for ours, we seek no profit or utility from so loving Him as
happens with the virtue of hope. Yet while excluding self-interest strictly
so-called, we do not exclude from perfect charity a desire for union with the
God whom we love, since this is necessarily part of every true love of friendship.
In other words, the desire of possessing God is one thing (always present in
hope), and the desire of union with God is another (always present in charity).
When we love God perfectly, we want to love Him as He wishes to be loved, which
cannot be otherwise than united with Him in the embrace of consummated charity.
The main element here concerned is the motive that psychologically
flows into the will to effect an act of perfect love of God, and in this sense
we eliminate all self-seeking motivation. However, it is quite another question
whether objectively it is possible to have any love among creatures (such
as we are) where an object is loved only for itself and without benefit to the
one loving. It is not possible, given our finite nature and the built-in perfectibility
of every act of love we perform. Consequently our wills cannot love God, whether
in hope or with theological charity, without advantage and increased perfection
to ourselves. Nevertheless the guiding and dominant motive in charity is not
this benefit, which is never absent, but the sheer goodness of the Triune God.
It is the motive of charity, in the love of friendship, that most clearly
distinguishes this virtue from all others and, in practice, even from acts of
charity which are not the perfect love of God. To clarify the obvious, the motive
moves a faculty to action and determines its distinctive quality. Where the
rational will is involved, the moving force must always be goodness, real or
apparent, created or divine, otherwise the will remains unmoved.
What precisely is the divine goodness which theology says is the object
that moves us to a perfect love of God? In general a good thing is suitable
for the being in question, and among creatures always improves it. Thus food
and drink are good for the body, and knowledge is good for the mind. The goodness
of God is a composite of all His attributes: His wisdom and power, justice and
mercy, beauty and liberality, in fact all the "qualities" that form
His divine being and are therefore "good to Him" in constituting His
infinite perfection. Most theologians teach that any divine attribute, even
taken singly, when viewed under the aspect of its goodness to God, is an adequate
motive for placing an act of perfect charity.
For practical purposes it is well to consider these perfections under
two aspects, absolutely, as they are in God, and relatively, in so far as they
produce some benefit in creatures. We do not mean that divine attributes like
mercy and magnanimity cannot be the object of perfect love, although they bear
a direct relation to the world outside of God. Everything depends on the aspect
under which they are viewed. Seen as perfections proper to God, emanating from
Him, deriving from the ocean of goodness which He contains, they are adequate
motives for loving God with pure benevolence. But taken from our viewpoint as
benefiting me, either personally or collectively as a member of society, the
divine mercy and magnanimity are objects of hope or gratitude, but not strictly
of theological charity. Of course charity may arise from hope and gratitude,
and these will always be present along with charity, but the latter is itself
caused by no personal benefit accrued or desired. Its guiding star is the divine
perfections in so far as they are God's.
True love for God is spontaneously demonstrative, since genuine charity
cannot remain sterile and our benevolence towards the Creator will not be unproductive.
It shows itself internally by acts of affection and externally by effective
deeds. The terms "internal" and "external" in this connection
are misleading, but they have to be used. Internal acts of affection are called
such with reference to the will, and cover all the elicited (immanent) acts
of volition, which begin and terminate in the will faculty.
In the hierarchy of acts of perfect charity, the highest are the joy and
complacency we experience by reflecting on the perfections of God: His holiness
and dazzling beauty, His wisdom and boundless power, His mercy and selfless
liberality. When the mind attentively considers the infinite perfections of
the divinity it is impossible for the will not to be animated with the sense
of complacency in this good. The first reaction of complacency, it may be said,
arises unbidden at the very sight of an attractive object. But where God is
concerned, "we promptly use the liberty we have to provoke our heart to
redouble and strengthen its first complacency by acts of approbation and rejoicing.
We enjoy the infinite perfections of God, deriving happiness and satisfaction
from them as from an inheritance which belongs to us. By this means the divine
perfections become in some manner our own property. We attract them to our heart,
and they become a heavenly banquet that fortifies our souls." (19) In a
word, we are pleased to see the greatness and beauty and goodness of God and,
without envy, join with Him in rejoicing over His myriad possessions.
If this kind of complacency seems unreal or superfluous to the believing
mind, it is only because the thought never occurs to Christians to do anything
but rejoice with God over His perfections. There is a complete "otherness"
they naturally associate with loving God, and taking satisfaction to see Him
for what He is; they never dream of wanting to "deprive" Him of what
He has or claim for themselves what belongs to Him.
There is more than passing value in seeing the transcendence of Christianity,
which enlightens the mind by faith to recognize with complete certitude the
existence of a personal God and inspires the will not only to trust God but
so generously to love Him that reflection on His goodness evokes sentiments
of most selfless charity. A parallel reading of a work like Nietzsche's Thus
Snake Zarathustra and Newman's Apologia would show the chasm that
divides two contradictory philosophies of life or, in Augustine's phrase, the
two loves that have created two cities: "self-love to the extent of despising
God, the earthly: love of God to the extent of despising one's self, the heavenly
city. The former glories in self, the latter in God." (20)
Parallel with complacency, love of benevolence urges a desire to increase
the divine goodness as far as possible, since benevolence means just that, "to
wish another well," except that God is infinite and cannot be enriched
by anything we do. If there is question of God's intrinsic perfections, His
power, wisdom and goodness, then, barring a fiction of the mind, we cannot desire
to increase them because nothing can be added to infinity.
But there is no figment about desiring to increase God's external glory,
which consists in the knowledge and love that rational creatures have for Him.
The internal impulse to great sanctity and heroic work in the apostolate stems
from this principle, that the glory of God admits of degrees and variations,
and that in the measure of a man's love he will seek to increase the depth of
his own and other people's knowledge of God, the intensity of his and their
love, and the number of those who advance the ultimate purpose of rational creation
the loving acknowledgment of the Creator by His creatures.
Among the internal acts of supernatural charity, sorrow for sin follows
consistently on the desire to see God honored and duly loved. When I think of
my own sins and those of others, I am grieved at the injury done to the Divine
Majesty and wish to make amends for the offenses committed against a loving
External acts of divine charity are the effective counterpart of internal
affection. They are called external only in relation to the will, and include
every form of activity (not excluding the most internal) that may be commanded
or directed by the power of free will. In the history of Christian asceticism,
they are an essential part of any true love of friendship, which consists not
only in sentiments of affection but in the exchange of any goods that are separately
Basically these acts are of two kinds: those involving labor for the glory
of God and those concerned with reparation for sin. On the first level, the
desire to promote God's kingdom is manifested (beyond internal affection) by
using every means to advance in personal holiness, and doing everything to increase
the knowledge and love of God in the souls of others. In the same spirit, the
sorrow we feel over sin moves us to the practice of penance and mortification,
to expiate the injustice committed against the Divine Majesty and make satisfaction
for man's ingratitude to God.
Among the most satisfying truths of the Christian faith is the fact that
we can direct our affection for God to the person of Jesus Christ, and be certain
that the love we express is not lessened but fortified by this method. Christ
Himself said that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. "In Christ,"
said Augustine, "you have all. Do you wish to love God? You have Him in
Christ. 'In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word
was God.' Do you wish to love your neighbor? You have him in Christ. 'The Word
was made flesh.' " (21) The whole panoply of theological charity finds
scope in the person of the Savior; in His divinity we have the primary object
and the fulfillment of the first great commandment, "Thou shalt love the
Lord thy God with thy whole heart"; in His humanity we have the secondary
object, responding to the precept to love our neighbor as ourselves.
There is profound wisdom in these injunctions. They accentuate a basic
principle of spirituality. Since Christ is true God, Christians may love Him
with all the ardor reserved for the Creator, and be assured that His humanity
is no obstacle but a help to supernatural charity.
It is a help because they have in the Savior the incarnation of the divine
attributes, lived out in historical perspective and manifested in flesh and
blood. We know that God is loving, merciful, forbearing, all wise and infinitely
powerful. But to Christians the man Jesus is God in human form. The love He
showed by His death on the cross was no abstraction, His mercy in the parables
of the Prodigal and the Good Shepherd and in the prayer for His enemies on Calvary
was no mere idealism, His patience with sinners and kindness towards those in
distress and want were not speculation, His wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount
and power in the miracles He worked were not idyllic representations but vivid
realities, perceptible to the senses and palpable with all the materiality that
only God made man could have devised. He wants men to profit from these evidences
of the divine perfections in order to love Him the more easily because they
can witness Him in action so tangibly.
The person of Christ as the object of divine love makes the practice of
perfect charity and contrition simple for those who believe that Christ is God.
This Person becomes the focus of effective volition every time they choose to
do so, and a single glance at the figure of Christ or a passing thought are
enough to evoke an act of benevolent love. He epitomizes in Himself all the
goodness of the Divinity, manifested in every detail of His mortal and glorified
life, and continues in the Mystical Body which He animates. All that is necessary
is the momentary recollection of this fact, even implicitly, and a responsive
act of the will that reacts to the mental realization.
People sometimes wonder what sentiments are needed to express an act of
the perfect love of God. The answer may be found in all the standard formularies
and summarized in the short sentence that was St. Francis of Assisi's most common
exclamation, "My God and my all!" At the same time, it is imperative
to know that whatever formula is used, it can always be directed to Christ,
the God-man, whether the name of the Savior is mentioned or not. The practice
of the saints, however, was to explicitate the Holy Name often when they addressed
God in terms of affection. St. Paul's desire "to be dissolved and be with
Christ," and Ignatius of Antioch's "I am the grain of God, being ground
by the teeth of beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ," are
echoed in the history of Christian hagiography.
Although the primary object of supernatural charity is God Himself, it
also includes the person loving as well as his neighbor. In fact, whatever increases
the divine glory is indirectly related to the secondary scope of the highest
theological virtue, and follows logically from the perfect love of God. If we
love Him, we must love what He loves and for the same reason. Among the objects
of His affection are we and our neighbor. He loves us with complete selflessness
and out of sheer liberality. Therefore within the ambit of true charity are
included, besides God, all the persons touched by His beneficent will, notably
myself and my fellowman. Yet the motive even in loving myself is not self-interest
but God, here seen as the divine Rewarder in the exercise of His liberality
If legitimate self-love subordinated to perfect divine love offers no
practical difficulties, love of neighbor as an instrument and index of theological
charity is a lifetime effort and its precept has been woven into the texture
of the Christian religion. "This is my commandment," Christ told His
disciples, "that you love one another as I have loved you." (22) On
the last day the human race will be judged on the practice of fraternal charity,
with the good entering heaven because they loved others, and the wicked condemned
because they closed their hearts to the neighbor. The first epistle of St. John
is a treatise on the subject, rising to a climax that synthesizes the Christian
Let us therefore love, because God first loved us.
If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar.
For can anyone who does not love his brother, whom he sees, love God, whom he
does not see? And this commandment we have from Him, that He who loves God should
love his brother also. (23)
The correlation of these two loves, of God and neighbor, is a matter of
faith, already found in the Old Covenant. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and
with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself." (24) Christ repeated the
injunction and confirmed it, "This do, and you shall live." (25) He
further added that in this twofold precept are contained all the Law and the
Prophets. St. Paul declared in a brisk sentence that "love is the fulfilling
of the Law," and went on to explain in lyric language the excellence of
divine love, whose manifestation in the love of neighbor comprehends all the
virtues: patience, kindness, modesty, meekness, humility, selflessness, and
Not only are these two loves always conjoined, but one is a proof of the
presence of the other. "The surest sign that we are keeping these two commandments,"
according to Teresa of Avila, "is that we should be really loving our neighbor.
For we cannot be sure if we are loving God, although, we may have good reasons
for believing that we are. But we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor.
And be certain that, the farther advanced you find you are in this, the greater
love you will have for God. For so dearly does His Majesty love us that He will
reward our love for our neighbor by increasing the love that we bear to Himself,
and that in a thousand ways. This I cannot doubt." (27)
The norm for loving our neighbor is deceptively simple: we are to love
him as we do ourselves. "As yourself," therefore, is the divine mode
of fraternal charity, which ascetical theology has invested with the qualities
of truth, order, decisiveness, constancy and generosity.
We should first of all love others truly, for their own sakes (out of
love of God) and not for our own. Friendship may be spurious or genuine, depending
on its character of selflessness. If we love a person out of utility, we give
him up when no further advantage is to be gained; if we love him for pleasure,
it is ourselves and not him we seek; only if we love him for virtue's sake,
i.e., to be of benefit to him, do we love truly.
We should love others ordinately, and not treat them as though they were
the ultimates of our affection. Christ stressed this rule even where the closest
bonds of human relationship are involved. "He that loves father and mother
more than me is not worthy of me." (28) Love of neighbor must be subordinated
to the love of God.
We should love others effectively, as we do ourselves, doing them whatever
good we can, and, where possible, protecting them from evil. "Let us not
love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and truth," and "without
dissimulation." (29) The prototype of such affection is the divine love
for us, which God effectuated in time, though He loved us from eternity, bringing
us out of nothing into existence, raising us to the supernatural order, and
constantly serving our bodily and spiritual needs.
We ought to love patiently, calmly bear with people's defects, endure
quietly whatever is disagreeable in them, and pardon readily the offenses they
commit against us. This is the way we like to have others deal with us, or as
we deal with ourselves. We prefer to have people overlook our faults, keep silent
about them, ignore them and excuse them, and if possible, even keep them off
their minds. The same standard is a divine mandate in our treatment of every
person who enters our lives. Patience joined to meekness are the keystone of
enduring fraternal charity.
Finally we should love generously, and without envy, rejoicing over the
success of others as we do over our own. No aspect of charity is more difficult,
as none is more pleasing to God. Envy has been described as a criminal sorrow
over the good fortune of others. It is no coincidence that the earliest and
longest extant document in Christian literature outside the Scriptures, the
first century letter of Pope Clement to the Corinthians, treats exclusively
of this one vice, to which Christians as every one else are readily prone. It
was envy, Clement explained, that brought sin into the world when the devil
tempted Eve; it was envy that brought death to the prophets of the Old Law,
and finally death to Christ on Calvary. The lesson of history is the story of
conflict, born in large measure of envy, where human pride is saddened at other
people's happiness and seeks to destroy what it cannot share.
A brilliant insight into God's providence which invites us to communal
charity is the bond of love by which He seeks perforce to unite the human race,
through family ties and language, circumstances and every kind of need. Necessity
is not only the mother invention, it is the parent of selfless charity.
Norms and Postulates References
- Romans 6:14.
- St. Augustine, Homily on the First Epistle of St. John, 7.
- I Corinthians 9:21.
- Matthew 7:21.
- Jean-Yves Calvez, La Pensee de Karl Marx, Paris, 1956, p.81.
- Ecclesiasticus 37:11.
- William James, Psychology, New York, 1961, passim.
- Matthew 16:24.
- Ephesians 4: 1-3.
- II Timothy 1:7.
- Romans 12:9-19.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 64, 4.
- Hebrews 11:1.
- I John 5:9.
- Psalm 26:11.
- Romans 8:18.
- Bertrand Russell, Understanding History, London, 1957, p. 102.
- John 15:15.
- St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, 1942, p. 196.
- St. Augustine, The City of God,14.
- St. Augustine, Homily 261.
- John 15:12.
- I John 4:19-21.
- Deuteronomy 6:5-7.
- Luke 10:25-29.
- I Corinthians 13:1-13.
- St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, V, 3.
- Matthew 10:37.
- I John 3:18; Romans 12:9.
Copyright © 2004 by Inter Mirifica