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Moral Theology and Human Flourishing Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 08 August 2013

In several previous columns, I suggested that there are serious problems with the two major ways in which people in our society customarily frame moral questions: either in terms of the utilitarian “harm” principle (“I should be free to do what I want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else”) or Immanuel Kant’s “universalizability” principle (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”). Catholics can get themselves and their interlocutors deeply confused if they accept either of these two principles as the grounds upon which moral questions must be resolved. The Catholic Church is neither utilitarian nor Kantian in its approach to moral questions.

Modern ethicists tend to focus their attention solely on discrete, individual acts as conceived of and chosen by a completely rational, self-possessed, autonomous being. Modern moral philosophy, because it presupposes that human beings are fundamentally individual and autonomous beings, has the problem of justifying to these self-regarding, self-interested individuals why they should consider becoming “other-regarding.” “Why be moral?” is thus one of the key questions of contemporary ethics.

And since for modern man, “freedom” always means “freedom from” any and all external constraints, it follows that any and all moral rules tend to be considered undue impositions on one’s freedom. Thus when students ask me about the Church’s moral teaching, they’re basically asking me to justify why anyone or anything should be allowed to constrain their “freedom.” And – trust me – most of them have set that particular bar very high: indeed, oftentimes almost out of sight.

            The Church, by contrast, generally prefers for us to think about our individual acts in the context of deeper reflections on the meaning and character of a whole human life and its attendant obligations to God and neighbor. Following a long tradition that goes back to Aristotle and beyond, the Catholic moral tradition understands man as by nature a social and communal being. We are made in the image of a God who is both one and three – that is to say, in the image of a God who is fundamentally communal. Thus, we realize our humanity most fully when we are not closed in upon ourselves, but, like Christ, give ourselves to others selflessly.

As John Paul II was wont to say repeatedly, quoting a passage from the Second Vatican Council:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . .as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (Gaudium et Spes 24)

Freedom on this view is not understood to be essentially “self-protective,” keeping oneself sequestered apart from incursions by others on one’s autonomy. Freedom, on the Catholic view, is understood to be a freedom for others, a freedom for devoting oneself to God and to the providential care of others, in the image of the God who providentially cares for us.

            Heroic virtue: The Choice of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (Benjamin West, 1764)

Classically the moral life was understood to be transformational. We are born fallen, untutored, and uncivilized – sweet and cuddly, yes (when we’re not screaming or throwing up), but with potential for both great good and horrible evil. What the classical moral tradition believed justified moral rules and virtues was that they were the disciplines needed to transform us from our untutored, fallen self to the perfected self we were meant and created to be.

So, for example, when as Catholics we talk about the “natural law,” we should understand that human nature is not static, it is teleological: it is directed to the goal (the telos) of authentic human flourishing. The problem with many moral systems – even some forms of natural law thinking – is that they attempt to derive the basic moral rules from our fallen, imperfect human nature.

Of course, this is impossible because our fallen, imperfect human nature is the most unlike the person we are meant and created to be. Thus the moral rules and virtues that are meant to transform us from our fallen, imperfect self to our more perfect self will be the ones most contrary to the self we are now, and when we come upon them, we are most likely to find them not only difficult (which, like any worthwhile discipline, they are), but also noxious and even distinctly “un-natural.”

Is heroic virtue “natural” for humans?  How about kindness, compassion, generosity, and unselfishness? We call these dispositions “humane,” but we know that most humans don’t usually exhibit them. This is because we know both what human beings should be, as well as what most of the time we actually are: namely, inhumane. We can’t be other than “human,” but we know we aren’t yet what we should be and, with God’s grace, can become. We are most “human” when most like Christ.

Catholic moral theology is at its best, then, when it spends time (as John Paul II did so effectively) describing the positive goal of human flourishing to which the moral life is meant to direct us, and then showing how the moral rules and virtues are the necessary means for reaching that end. Discussing the moral rules first is to put the cart before the horse.

One of our biggest problems, I would suggest, is that even when young people know the moral rules, because they have no conception whatsoever of the Church’s notion of freedom and human flourishing, they have no notion of the reason for those rules, and thus the rules remain alien: idealistic, unrealistic, and thus, for the most part, irrelevant.

Start with the end. In the end is our beginning.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (18)Add Comment
written by ib, August 08, 2013
Thank you, Dr. Smith for this series on Roman Catholic moral theology. It was very well presented, but with one very small suggestion: involve more of the history of the RCC's moral theology. For example, a paragraph exploring how it responded to the challenges of Kant (in the 18th century) and the utilitarians (in the 19th). It needn't become overburdened with this history, but it would help provide a depth to the rest of the post. Just a small suggestion ...

On another note, ignoring the non-RC students for the sake of argument, how did the Roman Catholic students get to be such shallow moral thinkers? Here's my historical reconstruction: In Europe, after WWII, Roman Catholic moral theology started to fall apart. The major moral theological syntheses of medieval and counter-reformation times were perceived to be inapplicable to modern moral situations (WWII hit them hard). Something new was demanded! So moral theologians emphasized a Biblical-narrative approach (one thinks of Häring) or an ersatz Kantian-Aristotelian approach (here one thinks of Fuchs). These approaches accelerated after Vatican II, leading to massive confusion among Bishops, priests/confessors, and laity: just what did the RCC teach about moral theology? It's within this 40 years of confusion, when RCC moral theology seemed up for grabs, that the current shallow approaches of much of the U.S. RCC became the default view. And it this view that was handed-on to unlearned young men and women.

The re-establishment of the tradition of Roman Catholic moral theology under John Paul II is one of the most unsung accomplishments of this great Pope. Of course, a good deal of credit goes to Pope Benedict who doggedly supported it every year he worked in the Vatican. The moral theologians who caused and thrived in the confusion have been by-and-large disciplined and deprived of their positions, or else they grew old and died. But because of 40 years of confusion, many older Roman Catholic laity in powerful political and social positions openly defy the reinstated moral tradition.

Your series gave me a stronger hope that, as the older generation-of-confusion passes, the future can be brighter.
written by GKC, August 08, 2013
Great column. As good and succinct a short presentation of Catholic moral theology as any I have ever read.
written by John McCarthy, August 08, 2013
Dear Professor Smith: This essay is as clear and convincing a statement of the distinctiveness of Catholic moral theology that I have ever read...Thank you.
written by Stanley Anderson, August 08, 2013
I think there is an unstated, even subconscious and unrecognized idea that God becoming man was sort of like filling up a gas tank where the level gets closer and closer to "full" until finally, "ding", he's fully man now. And the non-Christian view sees the "effort" more like "well, it didn't quite make it to the 'full' mark -- after all, if he didn't engage in the sorts of sins we engage in, he can't be "fully" human.

My response to this sort of comment (which I have run across often enough) is that it is the wrong perspective -- i.e., that it is we who are not fully human precisely because of that sinful fallen nature.

A fairly obvious observation perhaps, but it does seem easy to think of us as the "humans" that God needs to "live up to" in order to be fully human rather than the other way around where it is Jesus who has restored the fully human form that we aspire to. And of course that his works on the Cross form the bridge that allow us to reach that goal. But that is theology that is generally easier to see after the reversal of perspective occurs.

Once Christ is seen as the model of "fully human" rather than as God "catching up" to our human nature, we can more easily see that his giving up of self to save us is the "reason for those rules that Randall Smith mentions in the last paragraph of the column.
written by Briana, August 08, 2013
"In the end is our beginning." Great paraphrase from T.S. Eliot! The Four Quartets is one of my favorite works of poetry! And great essay! :)
written by Randall B. Smith, August 08, 2013
Mr. Anderson,

Thank you for your comment. Yes, Jesus is most "human" because most truly and fully in the "image of God." We are "human" but with a fallen, damaged human nature. Our "humanness" has not been entirely eviscerated, but it is often enough not what it should be.

We are, to use an image from C. S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity," toy soldiers who share only some of the characteristics of live soldiers. Our hope is to some day "come alive" again with the real life of real soldiers. (If you prefer to think of something more pacifist than soldiers, think Pinocchio.)

Christ is the real, live "image and likeness of God," with real divine life. We lost the divine life, and so now we only have a pale imitation: the sort of life that runs down and dies. And because we're so afraid of death, we try to preserve ourselves by taking from others instead of giving. We indulge in material selfishness rather than spiritual selflessness. When we feel our bodies in pain, we think we're dying and that oblivion is all that awaits us. Christ shows us we're wrong about that.

When we live like Christ, we become not less human, but more so. I ask my students this: Who is "more human" (that is to say, to use the adjectival form of the noun, "more humane"): Mother Theresa of Calcutta or Adolph Hitler? Did Hitler's hatred and sins make him "more human" or less? Did Mother Theresa's love and care for others make her less "human" or more so?

There are clearly two senses of "human" at work here. We are all sinners: that is what we humans do. But that is not what defines our "humanity" (on the Catholic and classical view). What makes a person truly "human" or truly "humane" is his or her virtues, especially the virtue of love.

Our humanity, like our freedom, is both a gift and a responsibility.
written by ib, August 08, 2013
Interesting you should mention Pinocchio ... Many Italian critics read the book as a Christological allegory: the Blue Fairy is the Virgin Mary (blue is the Virgin’s iconographic color); Geppetto is the nickname for Giuseppe, or Joseph; and the little puppet, the son of a carpenter, must die in order to be reborn as a transfigured being. Collodi's story has always been a personal favorite of mine

C.S. Lewis tried his hand at a longer version of this sort of metaphoric story in his best novel, "Till We Have Faces".
written by Howard Kainz, August 08, 2013
"the moral rules and virtues that are meant to transform us from our fallen, imperfect self to our more perfect self will be the ones most contrary to the self we are now, and when we come upon them, we are most likely to find them not only difficult (which, like any worthwhile discipline, they are), but also noxious and even distinctly “un-natural.” --- You mean the rules like don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't lie, don't murder? These don't sound unnatural to me. What would be some examples of the rules you are referring to?
written by Stanley Anderson, August 08, 2013
In parallel to the idea of Christ as the “full human” and us as the incomplete humans, I think one of the problems we have in thinking about sin and fallen-ness is in conceiving of it as an "addition" onto our being. Even if that addition is not seen in a positive sense, but seen rather as a layer of muck or filth or disgusting slime that covers over, and hides the purity of our “unfallen” goal, it still has a “something-ness” to it that, willy-nilly, manifests a sort of dualism in our ideas of good and evil.

Even analogies that try to show that, say, sour milk is not an “independent” thing in and of itself, but only exists as a degradation or corruption of fresh milk, can still allow an unhealthy dualism to creep in unannounced, if we are not careful, I think. (And frankly, Scripture seems to abound in exactly the opposite idea – that it is rather evil that is covered over, whether of Adam’s and Eve’s covering the shame of their nakedness in rebellion, or Charity “covering a multitude of sins”, or any number of other images)

Such imagery probably has a valuable place in our dealings with sin and evil – e.g., references to “dross” in the OT have this quality, and we certainly can all to easily let “the world” clutter up our lives to hide what we should otherwise be seeking, so that we have to clear that clutter away at times. So we need to often think in terms of eliminating bad influences from our lives as though they were “solid” things to be gotten rid of.

But I think it is also often good (perhaps MORE often than not) to think of evil and sin and fallen-ness more as a lack or an emptiness or a reduction – a subtraction from fullness rather than as an “extra” un-needed thing, no matter how bad-sounding we make that thing seem, which only allows it to become an “addition” to our humanity for good or ill.

With a sense of evil as a lack of fullness, we can more easily see Christ as the “fully human” man that does not have the missing chinks, or even “flattening” that we, as fallen man have. I have thought this long before as a sort of “abstract” theological concept, but in light of your column, I suddenly wonder if this general concept might be helpful in turning young people’s approach to moral rules and such in the direction you discuss. It seems to fit right in with the distinction you make in your column between “freedom from” and “freedom to,” since the former implies the concept of “evil as something-ness” to be gotten rid of, while the latter leans more toward the idea of evil as a lack or an emptiness to be filled with goodness.
written by jason taylor, August 08, 2013
Re-read the Sermon on the Mount, Howard. Those are examples of exceedingly "unnatural" rules.
written by ib, August 08, 2013
@jason tyler -- Roman Catholic moral theology distinguishes between the natural law and revealed law. Further it distinguishes revealed law into the Old Law (Jewish) and the New Law (given by Christ, especially in the Sermon on the Mount).

The precepts of the natural law are part of human nature and accessible through human reason. Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue. Revealed law is not so accessible, even though revealed law validates and provides explicit divine authority to the natural law. The Old Law, in particular the Decalogue, prohibits what is contrary to the love of God and neighbor and prescribes what is essential to it. The New Law assumes the moral guidance of the Old Law, in no way abolishing or devaluing it, but takes it to a deeper level. The Sermon on the Mount makes new demands on Christians at this deeper level, and in so doing, it reveals the entire divine and human truth of the moral law. (I've summarized this from the Catechism part 3, section 1, chapter 3, article 1).

Given this background, perhaps you can understand Howard Kainz's question better. Maybe Randall Smith means "rules and virtues" that are part of the New Law and which require God's grace to achieve. Or perhaps he is thinking of CCC 1960 which reads in part: "The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known 'by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.'"

written by Howard Kainz, August 09, 2013
@jason taylor: The Beatitudes are not rules or laws. When Jesus was asked in Matt. 19:16 how one can come to live everlasting, Jesus answered with the commandments I mentioned above. So I'm still wondering what moral rules are considered by Randall's students to be "noxious" or "unnatural," and amenable to improved moral theology. Examples can be useful.
written by Randall B. Smith, August 09, 2013
Prof. Kainz is being generous here; he's lobbing me a softball question the answer to which he already knows, but which involves an issue he thinks I should clarify for my readers. Since he is remarkably perceptive, I'll have to surmise that he's probably right.

Let's start with simple things: "Be generous to others." "Don't gossip." Everyone SAYS "yes, those are good things," but how many people do the first and refrain from the second? Why don't they? Because refraining from selfishness and being generous to others is hard, as is restraining one's appetite to engage in some nice, juicy gossip.

If we take "natural" to mean "what everyone usually does," then it is decidedly "natural" for people to gossip, as it is decidedly "natural" for people to be selfish. It seems "unnatural," then --- in the sense that it's hard to do and in the sense that it's not altogether common --- to insist that we should be generous to others and refrain from gossiping.

Are these things (doing the one; refraining from the other) appropriate expressions of our perfected, truly "human" nature? Yes. Clearly, then, our natures presently are not all their supposed to be.

The moral rules "Don't gossip" or "Be generous to those who are poor" aren't incomprehensible to my students, they just seem, well, a bit too idealistic. Who could possibly obey those rules? Mother Theresa, maybe, but not anybody they know personally.

"Don't commit adultery" and "don't fornicate" are related natural law commandments that perfect our nature as social, communal beings of a certain sort and serve our authentic human flourishing. But try telling a college freshman away from home and at the local pick-up bar that "refraining from fornication" is entirely "natural." Try telling the same contemporary college freshman that "temperance" --- refraining from exhaustively sating one's appetites --- is "natural." Some of them may think of such temperance as "moral" (this special category of things that only gets discussed in church or by one's parents), but relatively few of them will think of temperance or chastity as "natural."

The same could be said currently about both lying and cheating. Are they quote-unquote "wrong"? "Sure, I suppose," students will say. Is it "natural" for students to cheat and lie to their parents? Absolutely.

The point, once again, is this: The moral commandments and the disciplines required by the virtues are precisely those things that help transform us from our untutored, fallen nature to our more perfect nature. Christians believe that God's grace is absolutely part of this process, but allow me to leave that aside for the time being. To a person without the virtue of charity, the commandment "Give alms to the poor," although it may SOUND nice, will generally remain hard to do, and thus largely foreign. Those "moral" rules are for saints or something, but not for the run-of-the-mill person like me.

So too with chastity: if you don't have the virtue, refraining from the activity will for many people seem, well, just about impossible --- indeed, perhaps even unhealthy, if you've listened to the propaganda of the modern culture, which of course most of my students have.

And things get worse the more serious the sin. So, for example, we say that abortion is contrary to the natural law, and it is. But talk to a fifteen or sixteen year old girl who's pregnant out of wedlock, and ask her whether "having the baby" seems like a "perfectly natural" thing to do. It seems much more the "natural" thing to do for many people simply to sell out and get rid of the problem. And it seems horrifically "unkind" (the king of the contemporary character traits) to many people for anyone to insist that this young girl carry the child to term.

As Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas understood, following the law is easy for those who possess the virtues such as charity and courage, but can seem very difficult, if not impossible, for those who don't. Asking a fifteen-year old girl not to abort, when she's never been required before in her life either to temper her appetites or show any courage seems to some people like asking a person who can't swim to jump in an Olympic-sized pool and do ten laps.

We should not deceive our students (or ourselves) about the difficulties of the moral life. Living in accord with the natural law is not simply the "natural, easy" thing to do for us in our current fallen state. Quite frankly, it wasn't easy for the saints either. Living in accord with the natural law may not be "natural" in the sense of common, but obeying those laws and developing the associated virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice, formed by charity, will, in the long run, perfect our natures and bring us whatever happiness is possible in this life to beings created as we are.

Any commandment can seem "unnatural" to someone who has disordered passions and appetites. Apart from God's grace, all of the basic moral commandments --- Don't kill, Don't steal, Don't commit adultery, Don't covet --- will seem to us as merely burdensome. That is because the law (whether the unwritten precepts of the natural law or the written precepts of the moral precepts of the Old Law) need to be written not only on our minds, but also on the fleshy tablets of our hearts.
written by Howard Kainz, August 09, 2013
@Randall B. Smith: To put my question in context: We have a popular moral theologian teaching at Marquette University who points to Catholic teachings on abortion and sexuality as oppressive, and argues that we are liberated from such rules by Christian freedom. From the examples you give, it seems to me you are conflating "difficult" with "unnatural." There are only a certain number of vices or acts that seem to many of us to be clearly unnatural -- e.g. sodomy, cannibalism, addiction to pornography, slavery, pedophilia, suicide, abortion, extreme misanthropy, etc.
written by Mark, August 10, 2013
That sounds like a "popular moral theologian" who isn't qualified to teach moral theology. As for Prof. Smith's conflation of "difficult" with "unnatural", that seems to me entirely consistent with the dominant ethic at work today (and probably yesterday as well).
written by Randall B. Smith, August 10, 2013
Prof. Kainz,

My point is precisely that what is difficult will SEEM "unnatural" and what is easy will SEEM more "natural" if you take "natural" in the way we tend to in the modern world.

To fallen men, giving in to one's appetites will seem very "natural." By the same token, disciplining one's appetites will seem very "unnatural." And thus, given our foolish modern notion of freedom as "freedom from constraint" rather than a "freedom for excellence," any sort of discipline will appear to be very "un-free."

If the members of the Marquette basketball team thought of "freedom" the way he does, they'd never win a game, nor would they ever have gotten into Marquette. It's ridiculous to preach a kind of "freedom" that no student in the class could possibly respect in any area of his or her life other than with regard to sex (and of course in that area it is especially ruinous).

But since this man is a "popular moral theologian," I imagine he talks about very little else other than sex, likely not realizing that the bourgeois lifestyles he is supporting among his students will do very little to help them discipline themselves sufficiently to express the needed "preferential option for the poor," something to which he no doubt gives empty lip service as well.

I trust I have not been too subtle in expressing my opinions about this form of moral theology.
written by ib, August 10, 2013
Kierkegaard (yes, Kierkegaard) has a journal entry quite along the lines of what Prof Smith is saying about the difficulty of doing the naturally right thing. He writes that the naturally right thing appears to be death-like for sinful humanity (it means the death of the "old man" in Pauline terms). I'd provide more information, but unfortunately my copies of Kierkegaard's journals are packed (I am moving house on Monday) and I cannot access them at this point ...
written by Romy1, August 12, 2013
Are we "fallen"? I thought that was the Protestant approach; that we are hopelessly sinful and fallen. I could be wrong but I thought that, although we may fall, we are not fallen. Does not our baptism dispose of that "fallen nature" and create in us a new person, a Christened person? Does it not open to us the hope of infinite grace, following the recognition and contrition of our sins?

Would anyone hire an "accountant" who had never been to accounting school, knew no accounting rules, and had screwed up countless tax returns? Would any accounting association recognize such a person or recommend them as a member in good standing? What credibility would such an association have?

Any rules, whether accounting or moral, (let's be practical) are meant to instill trust in an association of persons. "Best practices" standards are observed in virtually every accredited association but we Catholics like to make up our own "best practices". Some like to enjoy the benefits of membership but many - priests, bishops, and laity - give the wink/nod to the "association's" best practices and choose which ones they will follow and those they will not follow. It is hard to imagine why anyone would find such an association attractive.

If we in the Catholic Church cannot get our house in order, if it's a mess, and we are told to go out and make a "mess" in the world, what kind of message is that? That is not a mission; that is fingerpainting.

Only in morals do humans go out making the same errors over and over again, and yet they wonder why the outcome is always the same: veneral disease, depression, broken families, addiction, war, etc. If we did more "self-accounting", so to speak, and were encouraged to do so by our bishops, we might find that the "rules" of Christian living are really quite appealing.

Living from the consequences of our base behavior is what is really noxious. Even a child could see that on the playground.

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