By Rev. Wojciech Giertych, O.P.
Theologian of the Papal Household
Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College
September 16, 2011
Virtuous Human Action: An Icon of God
Aquinas’ Vision of Christian Morality
Children when they are born all look alike. Sometimes the family recognizes that a new born baby has the features of a grand-mother, but there is more imagination than reality in this. Babies have the face of a human being, and not that of an animal, but they have little distinctive features. It is only when the child grows that it looks into the eyes of its parents and begins to imitate them. The joy, the fascination, and also the sadness and anger of the parents is imitated by the children in the same gestures and facial expressions. Sometimes even adopted children acquire the features of their adopting parents. By the time a young man or woman is twenty years old he or she has a distinctive, charming face. But it is not immediately visible whether this is a person that is optimistic, generous, capable of service, not panicking in the face of difficulties or whether this is a lazy, unfriendly, or even morally depraved person. This is not written on the face. That is why engaged couples need long time to talk, to get to know one another, to discover the person behind the face, because the face does not reveal immediately the person that owns it. When a person arrives at the age of forty, the morale of that person is visible in the face. The personal decisions, the type of life that the person is living, the moral virtues of the person transpire in the face. Sometimes, it is possible to hide the moral quality of the person by some manipulation, by some mask that is worn, but with a little spiritual perception one can quickly discern whether the forty-year old is a happy person, someone who is generous, optimistic, or whether he or she is depressive or a criminal. When the individual arrives at the age of eighty the morale is immediately visible in the face. If a sad, depressive, self-centred, aggressive, egoist old man has a moment of spiritual conversion, a glimmer of light may appear in the face, but it will have to struggle to emerge through facial features that are already permanently locked in a negative, aggressive expression. Our faces in their beauty or horror are not painted by externally applied cosmetics, but they are painted from within. It is the quality of the spiritual life, maintained within the soul that conditions the eyes, the smile, the human face. Sometimes we can see the face of aged person, visibly marked by fatigue, by work, by concerns, but illuminated from within with a spiritual beauty. Those that had eyes to see have not failed to notice the spiritual charm of the wrinkled face of Mother Theresa of Calcutta or of the exhausted but loving face of John Paul II.
St. Thomas Aquinas began the second part of his Summa of theology, the part of his major work that is devoted to moral theology by focusing in its Prologue on the divine image, the icon of God that is painted from within by the divine artist in human faces. And to make his teaching clear, Aquinas quoted here a VIIIth century Greek saint, St. John of Damascene, who was involved in the great conflict about icons that had rocked the ancient Byzantine Church. This quarrel was not a dispute about aesthetics. Ultimately it concerned Christology. The iconoclasts claimed that it is not possible to paint an icon of Christ in such a way that something of the divinity of the Son of God would transpire through the wood of the icon, and so the veneration of icons has to be rejected as it is a form of idolatry. The Catholic iconodules answered saying that the veneration of icons has a special place in the life of the Church, because the ineffable unimaginable God has made Himself visible in the Incarnation. God has decided that for all eternity his eternal Word, his divine Son will become human, and in his glorified humanity, we will have access to God. Just as the divinity of God was made visible in the human life of Jesus Christ, so the divinity of God is also accessible in the Body of Christ, in the Church, in her sacraments and sacramentals, including the icons. St. John Damascene lived in Jerusalem outside of the political power of the Byzantine emperors and so he had more liberty to speak out in defence of the icons. The emperors supported the theory of iconoclasm and tried to make a state ideology out of it, because iconoclasm was tied with the monophysitist heresy of monothelitism, the claim that in Jesus there is only one will, the divine, and no human will. It was held that icons cannot be a means for our encounter with God, because the humanity of Jesus Himself is not really such a means, because that humanity has been truncated. Jesus was divine, it was held, but his humanity was handicapped having no human will, and therefore no human dignity, no human initiative, no human richness of its own. The humanity of Jesus was said to be like a dead puppet in the hands of the divinity. It is understandable why the Byzantine emperors supported this theory. If Jesus has no human will, if his humanity is not resplendent in its individual plenitude, if He is manipulated from within by the eternal Father, it follows that Christians are to behave in the same way not having a will of their own. They are to be passive and obedient with no personal richness. Since, it was held, the humanity of Jesus is not fully humane it is not a means through which God can be encountered, and so also the grace of God cannot be accessible through the venerated icon, and it cannot also be visible in that supreme icon of God that is the human being. The human passivism that was a result of this theological ideology explains why the Byzantine emperors rejected so brutally the confessors of the true faith. It is easier to govern, when people believe that they have to be passive, with no initiative of their own. The expansion of this heresy however explains in part the speed with which the Christian East fell into Muslim hands, with passive Christians failing to respond to the new challenge.
In defending the icons St. John Damascene made a profound statement about how the image of God is visible in a human being, and it is this remark that Aquinas placed in the opening lines of his moral theology.1 God becomes visible not in the face of the neurotic, depressed, mentally or morally perplexed, or manipulated person, but the image of God becomes visible in that human person that is mature having three distinctive features: that person follows the light of the intellect; that person is capable of making free choices, in which the reason and the will combine together so as to elicit personal acts, undertaken with conviction and full involvement; and that person is governed from within, meaning that the ultimate source of the generous, personal gift of self springs from within, and is not something that has been imposed from without. This short Patristic reference in the opening lines of Aquinas’s moral theology presents for us a hermeneutical key for its interpretation.
St. Thomas Aquinas was not basically a philosopher or an ethicist. He was a theologian. The prime task in which he was engaged most of his life was the commenting of the Holy Scripture. His speculative theology was not devised to replace the revealed truths with truths known by an independent natural reason, let alone to prove the revealed mysteries and check them out according to purely rational criteria. Aquinas was a theologian, believing in God, and accepting all that has been disclosed by God Himself. In his theological endeavour, Aquinas tried to unpack the received revealed truths, bringing out to light the significance of the truths that have been imparted to us by God for our salvation. That is why the main subject matter of Aquinas’s theology is not the world, or man, but God. He studied God, in the light of what God has said about Himself and His relationship with us. The purpose of speculative theology is the presentation of the truths that have been revealed in a coherent manner that corresponds with the hunger for order and clarity of the human mind, seeing the ramifications and implications of these truths and also seeing how they correspond with what can be truthfully know through the independent effort of the human mind. With God being the main subject matter of Aquinas’s theology, he divided his theological reflection into three parts, because there are three ways of being of God.2 First of all, God is omnipresent everywhere as the Creator that upholds the universe in existence. The Ia pars of the Summa deals therefore with God and with creation, including a reflection on anthropology that studies human nature as it came out of the creative hands of God. Then, there is a second mode of being of God that is His special presence within the souls of the saints by grace. The IIa pars of the Summa studies therefore the presence of God through grace within free and responsible human moral action. And then there is a third, unique mode of the existence of God, through the hypostatic union. The IIIa pars of the Summa studies therefore God as He is present in the unique human and divine Person of Jesus Christ and in the sacraments that flow from His salutary and redemptive work.
With this fundamental focus, the IIa pars of the Summa of Theology devoted to moral theology studies not just moral norms or sins, but the fecundity of God, not that which took place at the moment of creation, as that was presented in the Ia pars, but that specific fecundity that takes place through grace, when the Christian consciously becomes receptive to interior divine movements and creatively takes up their dynamism within practical action. The second part of the Summa is divided into two sections, the first laying out the principles of the divine transformation of mature, free human action and the second depicting the transforming power of grace within the entire human psyche and within various vocations within the Church. The somewhat dry and precise language that Aquinas used should not make us blind to the theological and evangelical breath that underlies the entire project. It is true that the genial precision of Aquinas’s discourse may satisfy the intellectual expectations of the student of philosophy, who in reading this work may focus on the logical argument, the interior coherence and the use of sources in this discourse, but the reading of Aquinas’s moral theology as the work of a moral philosopher is a reading through reductionist glasses. It is only when Aquinas’s theological vision is perceived, as based upon the divinely revealed mystery, a mystery that is not to be distorted or adapted to human expectations but received as such, does the breadth of his perspective become enriching. The prime subject matter of Aquinas’s moral theology is not a listing of moral obligations, or of moral challenges (which of course are historically and personally conditioned), or of possible sins, but it is the dynamism of divine grace seen as it functions within the human person, enabling a personal recognition of and a reaction to various challenges as they appear in life. It is only when the individual with his or her own intellect perceives the challenge, and moved by grace responds generously from within through a personal act of free choice such a person becomes a living icon of God.
2) Virtues manifest the fecundity of God
People, who are moved from within by grace, they do good works, but in such a way that those who view them are inclined to praise not them but the Father who is in heaven (Mt 5, 16). And the virtuous person does not complain about this because such a person knows his or her own weaknesses and therefore has complete trust in the power of grace and attributes the goodness to God. It is grace that works in the person through divine inspirations and also through the personal human response. The inspirations are given through the gifts of the Holy Spirit that function by way of counsel, and the human response takes place through the personal virtues, theological and moral. Both the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the virtues are stable dispositions, infused in the soul by God, but their functioning is different. The gifts ensure a passive disposition towards God, a receptivity that is willing to receive the divine counsel or instigation, whereas the virtues are active. There is no such thing as passive virtues. The virtues express the conscious engagement of the individual in the creative, free choice of the true good. In this way, the infused virtues are analogous to naturally acquired human virtues. Just as by lengthy practice, a person may acquire an artistic capacity, like that of playing the piano, so good moral dispositions can be worked out by the individual ensuring that a character is formed. Experience however proves that good moral dispositions, the natural human virtues may attain only a certain level of moral propriety. Furthermore the focus on one’s own moral worth, even though to some extent it may be successful, it can also generate an interior pride. It is only the infused virtues, generated by God himself, but developed consciously by the individual in union with God that grant to the person that fascinating spiritual quality, which inclines bystanders to praise the Father who is in heaven. Natural, acquired virtues lead to a seriousness and sometimes also to an angry criticism of the lack of goodness in others. The infused moral virtues, springing from grace have a playfulness about them. The Christian engages in good works, but in a joyful attention to God, motivated by the desire for the good pleasure of God to expand the space for the fecundity of His grace.
The viewing of Christian morality in the light of the divine icon painted by God within the person in a life-long process of openness to grace grants to its description a fascinating dimension. God is pleading for human minds, hearts and hands so that His divine love will manifest itself here and now in our lives. That is why the divine image becomes visible in the person through the acts of the virtues and not through the impulses of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The fact that somebody may have had wonderful inspirations coming directly from God is no proof of the person’s honesty or sanctity. It is not inspirations that are central but the capacity to put them into practice. And furthermore, it is not just individual acts that are of prime importance, but the virtues that are internal dispositions permanently enabling the eliciting of good acts. Individual acts may occasionally be good, and through human weaknesses they may at times also be evil, but that is not the prime question. Christian morality is to be viewed not only through the prism of a series of individual acts, good or bad, assessed according to an external rule of thumb coming from the moral norms but through the internal qualities of the person undertaking good acts. The person of character has cultivated internal habits that enable an appropriate response in every, also completely new situation.
If two people during their work have to carry a sum of money to the bank, and one of them, all along is going through an internal struggle: “Shall I steal the money or not?”, and the other does not dream of stealing the money and carries it directly to the bank, which of them has a higher morale? The first, or the second? The first has suffered more, resisting the temptation, while the second did not need to battle with it. It is clear that the first person is not yet a just person, even though he has not stolen. Only the second person has the virtue of justice, because doing the appropriate thing came to him as if spontaneously and naturally. Only those are virtuous, who are capable of doing the good, as if automatically, but also with inventiveness. Virtues are interior dispositions that permit the person to do the appropriate thing with ease, speedily, with pleasure and creatively. The virtuous person has the mind, the will and the emotions trained, so as to perceive the true good in a given situation, and to go for it creatively. There is more than the refraining from evil in this person. There is a built up personal character. This involves the capacity for really intending the true good, then deciding about action, and if there is some doubt, deliberating about it so as to arrive at the decision, and finally creatively executing the chosen good. Some people have no ideas, and they have to be nudged to desire the good. Others would like to do the good, and they know about this, but they cannot decide about doing it, because they are perplexed by doubts or fears. Others are very quick to decide, but then slow in the execution. In the formation of character one needs to perceive where in the individual there is the difficulty, and tackle it, not uniquely by sheer will-power or emotional energy, but in union with God, whose grace has been recognized and activated within the psychic struggle.
We should not easily assume that most people are virtuous. In fact, the reverse is true, and many people for years fail to cross the threshold of virtue. They may struggle at times against temptations. They may be ashamed when they fall, and then with difficulty they may pick themselves up. They may constantly lack certitude about whether truth about various situations can really be known, not having confidence in the capacity of their own mind, and therefore hanging loosely on the level of volatile opinions, fashions and wishful thinking. And finally, they may do good things as they are forced to do so by some external events, but without that interior, playful and joyful dynamism that enables the truly virtuous person to creatively perceive challenges, to see where it would be good to be involved, and generously to give oneself to the chosen good. Correspondingly we can say that many people commit evil acts, but they are not necessarily vicious people. The person truly animated by vice is creative in the choice of evil. He does not fall into evil out of weakness, but is capable of inventiveness in evil. A burglar, when he is creative in his robbery, capable of planning out and executing in every detail his robbing of the bank, having the internal strength to overcome laziness, fear and emotional tension has a cultivated vice. He has the psychic capacity of putting creatively his mind, will, emotions, imagination and technical capacities together in view of the desired object. When such a person will convert, he will become a great saint. St. Paul was a man, who knew how to persecute the Church with conviction and perseverance. When he met Christ, he became a great saint. A truly virtuous person is rich in personal capacities and always surprises us with the originality of response.
As Aquinas in his moral theology strived to depict the icon of God, painted within the mature Christian, he described one by one, the various manifestations of the fecundity of God working within the human psyche. He did this by focusing on the virtues, which he studied, analyzing their structure, their basic quality and location within the faculties of the soul. The natural composition of the mind with its faculty of cognition, the intellect and the reason and the spiritual faculty of appetition that is the will, together with sensitive, bodily faculties, common with the animals, that are the sense cognition, imagination and memory and the sense appetition that are the emotions compose the terrain in which the organism of the virtues may be infused by God and then by conscious human cooperation developed. These virtues were therefore studied by Aquinas theologically as they compose a supernatural, mutually supporting organism, spurred on by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, leading to acts that manifest the fecundity of God and ultimately granting the happiness that all people desire. The hunger for happiness is the basic human urge that provokes all human action. A Christian presentation of morality takes into account the promises of beatitude given by Christ that are His response to that human hunger and locates them both at the starting point of human activity and at its end, when the Christian experientially perceives that “there is more happiness in giving than in receiving” (Ac, 20, 35).
The supernatural organism presented by Aquinas begins with the theological virtues that are then followed by the many moral virtues. The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are infused in the soul by grace and they adapt the intellect and the will to adhere to God. The prime task of faith is not to humiliate the mind so that it would accept that which is not evident, but it is to adapt that mind so that it would reach out beyond its natural limits towards the revealed mystery. Faith initiates the supernatural life. Had God been accessible only through rational reflection, then we would have reduced God to the level of an object over which we have dominion. God therefore hides in a mystery, which we can penetrate only through faith, but where there is true faith there is also hope and love. Faith leads to the personal encounter with God. The hidden God, known by faith reveals Himself as something more than an intellectual response to the riddle of existence. He reveals Himself as a loving Father, who can be known and loved, who has shared with us His eternal Word, his project for us, made visible in His incarnate Son, and who imparts His Spirit that accompanies us in our lives. Faith, therefore, that is the encounter with the mystery of God is the most fundamental virtue. Even though it is received as a gift, given freely by God, it can then be developed becoming more and more rooted in the human psyche, dominating the mind and practical decision-making. Faith then generates hope that allows one to focus the will on the ineffable mystery of God that unfolds itself in our lives. And these two virtues lead to charity, the supernatural love that persists among the Persons of the Trinity and that infused in human hearts enables individuals to love God and to love one another with that same divine love. Charity in its essence is friendship with God, who allows and enables us to become His friends and to extend that friendship to all those who are the friends of God. There is no greater gift of God than divine charity that infused in human souls takes up the natural movements of human love, whether volitional, emotional or even erotic, transforming them to a divine level, enabling true, responsible and perseverant love that is the source of deepest happiness. There is no moral question, no more serious issue than the question how is that we can become open to this transforming divine love, and how can we persevere in it, in particular when our human loves have expired or have painfully manifested their limitations.
The encounter with God through the theological virtues then bears an impact on the moral order, on all human, this-worldly activities. That is why it is essential in the spiritual life that there will be the primacy of the theological virtues. On this issue there has been some misunderstanding in some quarters. The idea that first we are to struggle with moral evil so as to attain a certain level of moral propriety, and only then will come the moment for entertaining a living, mystical relationship with God is deeply erroneous. We have been gifted with the theological virtues at baptism, and we need to start using them as children, so that they will grow and become the fundamental axis of life. The fact that we may have moral weaknesses of various sorts should not prevent the development of the theological virtues. Christian life should therefore begin with the development of a personal prayer life, in which faith is exercised. The regularity and quality of the encounter with God will then influence the entire ethos. Whoever is capable of devoting thirty minutes a day for a person to Person encounter with God will benefit from a hidden stream of grace, changing eventually the person from within. The free gift of time wasted for God, and the discovery, after a period of regularity that with it daily routines acquire sense and that without this encounter with God they become empty enables then easily the overcoming of other difficulties. When God really becomes most important other issues fall into place. Having insisted on the primacy of the theological virtues, centred upon God, Aquinas therefore then described the fecundity of God in the entire moral order. He analyzed one by one over fifty virtues, seeing where they are located in the human psyche, how they transform the natural faculties, and how they benefit from the external guidance given by the commandments and by the direct impulses of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He also looked into how that supernatural dynamism may be distorted or even poisoned by opposing sins. Sins were therefore viewed by him not as conclusions logically drawn out from the commandments but as the opposite of the dynamism of the virtues. Goodness is more important than evil, and evil is only the lack of goodness. But goodness is more interesting.
The description of the organism of the moral virtues was hung methodologically upon the major, cardinal virtues, which located in the fundamental human faculties support like hinges the entire edifice. To these cardinal virtues other virtues were attached in various ways. Within the practical reason there is the virtue of consistent resourcefulness enabling creative action known as prudence, within the will there is the virtue of justice adapting the personal will to the rights of others. Within one set of emotions, those focused on pleasure, there is the virtue of temperance, and within the other set of emotions focused on assertiveness, there is the virtue of fortitude. All other stable moral dispositions enabling the creative adherence to some true good, such as chastity, patience, or truthfulness are somehow related to these fundamental moral virtues. It is interesting to note that Aquinas disagreed with his contemporary, St. Bonaventure about the cardinal virtues that deal with the affective life. St. Bonaventure was of the opinion that the virtues of temperance and of fortitude are located in the will, the idea being, that virtue has the task of harnessing the somewhat wild dynamism of the emotions by sheer force of will-power. Aquinas disagreed. These virtues are located within the emotions themselves, because emotions, even as they draw out towards the unknown, have an inherent need of being directed by the reason and the will. The virtuous person does not exclude the colourfulness, passion and dynamism that the emotions of desire, love, sadness, abomination, anger, ambition, audacity or fear bring to life. These partly psychic and partly bodily movements have a valid place in life. They engage the person and are to be experienced as such, as they cooperate with the reason and the will. The bodily and spiritual faculties can cooperate together, and also with the supernatural dynamism of grace. In fact, grace needs the humus of nature, to express itself.
The methodical presentation of the moral ethos that Aquinas gave was suspended upon the basic structures of human psychology. It is of course possible to organize a discussion of morality in a different way, taking into account the major challenges that people face today. It is also possible to reflect upon new virtues that Aquinas did not discuss. Our modern sensibility makes us also aware of such moral dispositions as solidarity, transparency, capacity for dialogue, inclusiveness or ecological awareness. There is nothing wrong in reflecting upon these moral attitudes. The teaching of Aquinas however reminds that in the usage of such new terms, we need to be clear exactly what do we mean by them, and what is more important that we reflect about them theologically, perceiving how they spring from a lively encounter with God, in which charity plays the central role.
The supernatural virtue of charity as it grows it engages the entire personality. In fact, just as in the natural life, there are three decisive stages, that of the little infant, that of the child that has begun to use reason, and that of the adolescent that is already physiologically capable of transmitting life, so the supernatural life of charity, when it grows in the individual, it passes through three similar stages.3 First the individual is more or less pushed by events in life, doing good where necessary. Then, if there is growth of character, the person becomes virtuous, capable of a personal stance, freely and creatively choosing the good simply because it is worth choosing. And finally, the spiritually advanced person is so transformed by charity that he or she is capable of assisting in the genesis of the life of grace in others. Spiritual maternity and spiritual paternity are found in those who are so animated by divine charity that the divine love passing through their being becomes attractive and alluring to others. The icon of God becomes visible in the face transformed from within by grace.
The focusing of attention on personal virtues that make the icon of God visible in individual people grants a freshness to the moral theology of Aquinas. This does not mean that he rejected the role of the moral law. That law extracted from an understanding of the reality of human nature, expressed on the basis of divine authority in the Ten Commandments, and finally infused as a personal stimulus in the souls of Christians by the Holy Spirit and spelt out in Gospel teaching is important, but an excessive weight is not to be attributed to it. Moral law is an expression of the wisdom of God, and it is inherently logical. As such it is addressed to the human mind. It has a pedagogical role, assisting in the eliciting of good acts, and even more in the formation of virtuous character. But it is goodness done, for the good pleasure of God that is more important than a merely legal perception of moral obligations and obedience to them. For this reason Aquinas wisely notes that he who avoids evil because of divine precepts is not free. He who avoids evil because it is evil, he is free.4 Similarly, he who does the good because he was told to do so is not free. He who does the good because it is good and he has seen this and personally wishes to do it he is a free and mature person.
3) The vision of Aquinas – a forgotten treasure
The synthesis of Catholic moral theology given by St. Thomas Aquinas is difficult to assimilate for various reasons. The content of this teaching in itself is not alien to the human mind. In fact, a presentation of this vision invariably elicits a fascination, joy and gratitude that intellectually confirm the intuitions of every Christian. The method of presentation however that Aquinas used with its technical language, metaphysical concepts and division into questions and articles is very mediaeval and thereby unfamiliar to the beginning student. That is why initially the student has to be introduced into his thought with the help of modern manuals that take into consideration the resistances and difficulties of a modern mind. Furthermore the vision offered by Aquinas is presented from the summit, and we in our own spiritual and moral development have not yet reached that stage. The supreme, well organized, coherent vision of the graced moral life can overwhelm the humble beginner. For this reason, other approaches within the Catholic tradition have been developed particularly in the modern centuries, like the Jesuit tradition which begins from the bottom studying human sinfulness and psychic struggles in all their ramifications, or like the Carmelite tradition, which focused on the encounter with God has tried to spell out the stages of growth, through necessary purifications, both actively undertaken by the individual and passively experienced as they are conducted by God himself. These approaches are valid and they remind that there is movement in the moral and spiritual life, but a presentation of the summit, which explains the essence of a divinely transformed life, is of extreme value. When we know where we are going, we do not err in basic issues, even though we may stumble on the way. If we do not know where we are going, we may honestly and earnestly struggle - going in the wrong direction. A clear understanding of spiritual liberty, of moral character, and of the ways in which God’s grace can work in us, transforming our being and our faces in such a way that the icon of God will become visible within us is of supreme value. It is important that we maintain a child-like relationship with God, granting primacy to God’s grace, and be mature, adult and responsible in our daily lives. The problems come, when we revert the perspective, and imagine that we have to be adults towards God, proving to Him that we deserve to be well treated, and when we are immature, insecure and infantile in our lives.
One of the reasons why the vision of Christian morality that Aquinas presented has been set aside in the modern centuries is that with later philosophical developments in European culture, intellectual presuppositions have appeared which have made the reception of his teaching difficult. The basic change appeared in the XIVth century, with a new understanding of the nature of the human will. Ever since, the human will was claimed to be by nature absolutely free, with no need for internal development, and posited in rivalry towards God, whose will was obviously understood to be more powerful. The idea that God, who is the Creator of the human being, body and soul, can work by grace within the human will in such a way that human liberty grows and is not distorted as a result became incomprehensible. God’s will was therefore understood as overpowering the human will, with the individual being obliged to follow even arbitrary commands of God. In such a perspective it was not charity but obedience which became the prime virtue, and not the striving towards the promised happiness but the fulfilment of moral obligation that became the central issue. Modernity and post-modernity manifest a rebellion against such a vision. That is why a return to the mediaeval vision, that was formulated before these errors and before their rejection, and which corresponds better with the Biblical teaching, is so refreshing.
As I mentioned earlier, to study Aquinas’s moral teaching one needs to be introduced. One of the most important contemporary theologians, who had shown a way for a renewal of moral theology that is in accord with the evangelical and patristic vision and based upon the writings of Aquinas, was a Belgian Dominican, Fr. Servais Pinckaers OP, who for years taught at the Theological Faculty in Fribourg in Switzerland. His major work, Les sources de la morale chrétienne5 has been translated into the major languages, including English, Polish and Hungarian. In this work Fr. Pinckaers analyses the historical distortions that have made the reception of an evangelical vision of morality difficult. He explains that modernity has espoused an understanding of liberty that can be called a “liberty of indifference”. The will supposedly is automatically free, indifferent towards values and the truth, and subject only to a higher liberty of God that supposedly is also arbitrary in its imposition of moral obligations. As a result the entire moral science was reduced to the encounter of these two liberties, with the study of moral law, the obligations that flow from them and the sins that are to be avoided, and with the questions of happiness, virtues and the spiritual life being marginalized to the realm of the extraordinary. The understanding of liberty that Fr. Pinckaers, following Aquinas proposes, is that of the “liberty of quality”, which is given initially by God, but which needs to grow during the lifetime, through the cultivation of the virtues, theological and moral. This takes place within a living encounter with the living God, leading to supreme happiness.
I heartily advise you to read Fr. Pinckaers’s book. You will find it extremely enriching, but I have to make a suggestion. As you start reading the book, skip the first 100 pages, which you will find heavy. Begin reading from the middle, and when you will finish the book, then return and read the first 100 pages. In this way, you will be drawn into the fascinating vision of the Christian life that is given us in the theological synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas. And you will discover how from within the icon of God can be made visible in your faces!
2. Super Col.., c. 2, l. 2, (97): Tribus enim modus est Deus in rebus. Unus est communis per potentiam, praesentiam, et essentiam; alius per gratiam in sanctis; tertius modus est singularis in Christo per unionem.
3. S. Th., IIa-IIae, q. 24, a. 9.
4. Super II Cor., c. 3, l. 3, (112): Ille ergo, qui vitat mala, non quia mala, sed propter mandatum Domini, non est liber; sed qui vitat mala, quia mala, est liber. Hoc autem facit Spiritus Sanctus…
5. Servais (Th.) Pinckaers OP, Les sources de la morale chrétienne. Sa méthode, contenu, son histoire, (Fribourg : Éditions Universitaires, Paris : Cerf, 1985).
“It is amazing to read all the different works from a wide range of disciplines, and see the same truth popping up again and again — whether it’s in Euclid, or theology, or natural science. It all comes together to form a full picture.”
– Isabella Hsu (’18)
Redondo Beach, California
“Thomas Aquinas is already the preeminent Catholic college in the country.”
– John Cardinal O’Connor (†)
Archbishop of New York