Last week we took a look at the moral theology of Thomas Aquinas — in particular, his view that
Pretty much his entire moral theology is constructed on those two premises.
Another View: William of Ockham…
Given the towering reputation of Thomas Aquinas in Catholic circles, even today, it comes as a big surprise to learn that the moral theology he formulated in the 13th century soon fell on hard times. In the 14th century, the English Franciscan William of Ockham proposed a completely different view of morality, which soon eclipsed the view of Aquinas.
Ockham: Free Will
Ockham reckoned that the greatest attribute of God was his infinite power and unrestricted will. The entirety of creation was called into existence, and is forever maintained in existence, by the pure will of God. All God's power, everything he does, is an exercise of pure will. Because God is omnipotent, nothing restricts, or can restrict, the action of God's will.
But, because God's will is unrestricted, what he does cannot be limited by any understanding of justice or wisdom that we might derive from revelation. These notions refer to us, not to God.
So, for Aquinas revealed moral law expresses God's love, wisdom and justice, but for Ockham revelation simply expresses God's pure will. God chose to give us the Ten Commandments, but they are not expressions of his wisdom, since that would imply that his will was constrained by his wisdom. In fact, says Ockham, God's moral laws are arbitrary. He could have given us nine commandments, or eleven commandments, or ten completely different commandments.
We are made in the image of God and, since God's unlimited will is his greatest attribute, so our unlimited will is ours. Like God's will, our will is unconstrained, free to choose this or that regardless of the outcome in terms of our own good or our happiness. For Ockham, freedom is the absence of constraints on my will, and my freedom to choose whatever I want is my greatest dignity as a human being. This is of course quite different from Aquinas's view of freedom as the capacity to act in a way which fulfils my true nature.
Ockham's idea of free will has profound consequences for his vision of the human person. He denies that we have a natural inclination toward happiness. Human will is neutral and undetermined. Our other faculties, like the mind and the emotions, equally have no natural inclinations. In fact, Ockham denies the whole notion of "virtue" as referring to acts in accordance with our true nature, since our true nature has no inclination to any act over any other.
So, to return to an example used last week, Ockham denied that observing fair business practices will tend to make me happier. For Ockham, virtue and happiness have nothing to do with Christian morals.
Ockham: Morality and Obedience
So what replaced virtue in Ockham's ethics? The Commandments of God took center stage, except that now they were just arbitrary decrees. They were important not because they were directed towards love or justice. They were important because they were the will of God.
The key to the moral life was aligning one's own will to the will of God. This meant obeying the divine lawmaker, whatever he decreed. Morality was, above all, obedience.
In short, Aquinas and Ockham answer the question, "why should I follow the Ten Commandments?" in radically different ways.
Being moral might make you happy if God decides that it should, but there is really no guarantee. The only way to know how to behave in any situation was to know what God had commanded. Since his commandments were not oriented towards justice, or mercy, or anything else, what action God commanded in any situation could not be inferred from considering what action would produce a just or merciful or wise outcome. Moral rules had to be directly revealed.
Ockham has been profoundly influential. Despite the stature of Aquinas, much theological writing on morals from the sixteenth century onwards manifests a strong Ockhamist influence.
In short, Ockham's doctrine of freedom as the ability to do what I want had taken hold, while Aquinas' vision of freedom as the capacity to choose the good received less attention — sometimes only lip service.
In the same way, conscience was no longer seen as a faculty to help apply the moral law to concrete situations. Rather, conscience drew the borderline between freedom and law. Conscience determined when the law did not require something of me; where there were no applicable commandments, thus carving out a realm of freedom, an area of life where I could follow my personal inclinations instead of the law.
Law-centered ethics dominated Catholic moral thinking from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. The key to being a good Catholic was to know and obey the ten commandments and the precepts of the Church. In this framework, the Sermon on the Mount, the development of virtue and the quest for happiness did not disappear, but they were sidelined. The beatitudes ceased to be thought of as a moral code, and instead became the subject of an advanced spiritual quest.
Ockham's influence was not restricted to theology. Many secular philosophers and political thinkers took, and still take, for granted Ockham's notion of freedom as the ability to choose this or that, to do what I want. In fact, pretty much everybody today accepts Ockham's idea as self-evident, and thinks that "freedom" is the ability to do what we want.
Primacy of Conscience
Since Vatican II, we — except perhaps for Cardinal Pell — live in the era of the primacy of conscience. "Follow your conscience" is one of the most-quoted ethical maxims. We appeal to conscience to excuse ourselves from the teachings of the Church or Scripture (or indeed from civil law).
But maybe we are still stuck in an Ockhamist paradigm. We still set conscience and the moral law in opposition. In this scheme of things the fruit of conscience is still "Ockhamist freedom", the ability to do whatever I choose to do.
"Conservative moral theology" taught us to obey the Bible and the Church without asking questions. Obedience was all. "Progressive moral theology" tells us simply to follow our conscience and not worry about obedience. But all that is saying is that, instead of following the arbitrary will of the divine (or Roman) lawmaker, we are to follow our own, equally arbitrary, wills. One will has simply replaced another as the source of moral commandments.
Aquinas would propose a far more radical critique of commandments-based morality. Perhaps it is time for us to rediscover his views.
Morality does not consist of arbitrary decrees, whether divine or otherwise. True Christian morality really does offer us a glimpse of the face of God, It shows us who God is, and how to become like God. The Sermon on the Mount is the fullest scriptural expression of authentic Christian ethics, because there, Jesus gives us the clearest teaching on how to become like his Father.
Working out who I am and who I am called to be is, however, a bigger challenge than working out what I like or what I want. The virtue ethics of Aquinas does not always offer easy-to-identify answers to tough moral questions. This is where conscience comes in; its purpose is not to excuse us from behaving virtuously, but to help us discern what is virtuous.
The Catholic tradition is that we address this task, and engage with moral revelation and the formation of conscience, collectively as well as individually. And this seems right to me:
We should, therefore, approach the Catholic moral tradition with an attitude of trust, not of suspicion. It does offer a much-needed guide through a very difficult maze. Certainly, not every thought that the "official" church is going to offer me is going to be infallible, or even helpful. But my parents and my schoolteachers were not infallible either; nevertheless I learned rather more from listening to them, observing them and imitating them than I would have if I had completely ignored them. They were mostly right, most of the time.
The great weakness of old-fashioned moral instruction, based on the commandments, was its not-so-subtle message that obedience was a virtue; indeed, it was the prime virtue. This is simply false. But its great strength was that it forced you to take seriously the moral insights of others; the moral insights of the community. It cost you something to reject Catholic moral teaching on some point and, to be absolutely honest, I think it probably should.
Link: Last week's introduction, which looked in more detail at the arguments of Thomas Aquinas, can be found HERE.
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