Y'know, surfing the Catholic blogosphere, you tend to get the impression that there are two distinct Christian moralities out there, which don't have a lot to do with each other.
These are, needless to say, over-simplifications — even caricatures. But I think there is enough truth in them for us to see some reality there. A lot of Catholics do seem to lean pretty much in one of these directions, or in the other.
Many will tell you that this is a pre-Vatican II/post-Vatican II distinction or a modernist/traditionalist distinction. Pay no attention to these people; they are completely wrong. This is much, much older.
The Roots of Christian Morality…
These two views can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and in particular to the competing views of Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. But, to really understand them, we need to go a bit further back.
So come with me to AD 110 when, give or take a few years, an author whose identity is unknown to us put the finishing touches to one of the oldest surviving Christian texts: The Didache.
The Didache is a catechetical text reflecting traditions which probably go back to the middle of the first century – only a couple of decades after the Resurrection. It offers a tough moral code that we recognise easily:
The author has no interest in presenting a minimal code of Christian behaviour; he sets demanding standards. And he draws on the Sermon on the Mount, as much or more as he does on the Ten Commandments.
This is pretty typical of early Christianity. Moral instruction is gospel-based. Remember, most early Christians could not read, and received little or no formal education. Nearly all their formation in the faith came by way of homilies which, as now, were devoted to the scriptures, and particularly to the gospels. So the teaching and example of Jesus became the primary foundation of early Christian moral teaching.
That's not to say that Christians abandoned the Ten Commandments; far from it. But they sought to integrate them with the moral teachings emerging from the teachings and life of Jesus, and they did not always find that easy.
Perhaps surprisingly, to find an overarching framework which could accommodate both the ten commandments and "gospel morality" early moral theologians turned to pagan sources; to the "cardinal virtues" of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude taught by Plato and Aristotle. To these they added the three "theological virtues" of faith, hope and love.
Of course, they didn't abandon either the ten commandments or the gospel. In the hands of writers like Cyril of Alexandria and Ambrose of Milan, most of the content which exemplified and illustrated the virtues came from scripture and tradition. The result was what we can call "virtue ethics".
In virtue ethics – and this idea comes from the Greeks – virtues are about the "proper use" of our human capacities and abilities. "Proper" in this context refers to our nature, our very being. Virtuous acts are those which are in accordance with our nature, and will make us happy and fulfilled. (So, for example, fair business practices may cost me money in the short-run, but will ultimately lead to greater happiness.)
This idea comes from pagans, but it fits nicely with the Christian idea that creation is intelligibly ordered. The universe is not chaotic or unintelligible. It has a particular pattern that reflects God's wisdom, and a particular goal, which is to be reconciled with God.
Skipping forward to the Middle Ages, we see this virtue-based approach to Christian morality being adopted by the enormously influential figure of Thomas Aquinas. Half of his Summa Theologiae is devoted to moral theology, and he centres his ethics on the virtues, not on the ten commandments. He uses the commandments to explain and illustrate the virtues.
Aquinas: Morality and Happiness
He starts his consideration of morality by looking at happiness. He argues that we can only be fulfilled as humans in communion with God, which is the destiny towards which we are ordered. Because the virtues are directed towards our true natures, practising them (with the help of God's grace) helps us to attain a gradually increasing share of our true happiness. For Aquinas, then, the key to morality is happiness and fulfilment, not duty or obedience.
Aquinas also proposed a second, and related, insight. He suggested that revelation is not just an expression of God's will; it also expresses his divine nature and being. What God reveals, above all, is Himself. So revealed moral laws do not just tell us how God wants us to act; they tell us how to act in a "God-like" way. Jesus seems to say as much when he tells us to "be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect". And, since the nature of God is infinite wisdom and infinite love, moral revelation like the ten commandments is ordered towards helping us to live in wise and loving ways.
To really understand what this means, we need to look at Aquinas's notion of "freedom".
Aquinas: Morality and Freedom
Normally, we understand freedom to mean "the ability to do what I want"; if your choices are unrestricted, then you are free. But, Aquinas says, there is a different kind of freedom.
A couple of years ago, I saw a fly-on-the-wall documentary following a group of laymen who had agreed to live in a Benedictine monastery for a period, and to share the life of the monks. Periodically the volunteers would meet with the abbot to discuss their experiences and insight, and the progress of the experiment. On one occasion, they talked about leaving the abbey to go to a neighbouring village to buy chocolate. There was nothing, the abbot insisted, wrong with chocolate, and the volunteers were free to enter and leave the Abbey whenever they wished. In the conventional sense, therefore, they were free to buy and eat chocolate whenever the impulse took them. But he encouraged them to consider whether a different kind of freedom might not be more worthwhile; being free from the impulse to eat chocolate.
By this he did not mean that they would no longer feel an impulse to each chocolate, but that they would be free to disregard that impulse; to leave it unsatisfied.
This idea of freedom – and, often, the difficulty of attaining it – is of course familiar to anyone who has ever tried to give up smoking. And anyone who has succeeded in giving up smoking can attest to the importance of this kind of freedom.
So, for Aquinas, freedom is not the power to act however I wish. It is the power to act according to my nature, to be wise, to love, to choose my God-given destiny, my true personal fulfilment.
Aquinas: Morality and Conscience
Because Aquinas understands divine law to reveal God's wisdom, and sees freedom as the ability to choose what is good for oneself, he proposes a particular understanding of the role of conscience in the spiritual life.
Conscience is often presented is being in opposition to law. It is the means by which I can excuse myself from the law at certain times, and so gain the (moral) freedom to do what I choose instead of what the lawmaker chooses.
Aquinas would say no. If the moral law shows me the path to my own true good, excusing myself from the law is the path to slavery, not freedom.
For Aquinas, conscience is the capacity to discern how God's law applies in concrete situations. Conscience tells me how I am to love my neighbour, not whether I should love them. Conscience does not excuse me from chastity; it tells me what it means to be chaste in my particular circumstances. Just as the commandments exemplify the virtues, so conscience is the practical application of the commandments (and the virtues).
Next week: the rival views of William of Ockham
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.