Lesson Eight: Three Fonts of Morality


    In this recent encyclical, which relies on the second part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the part devoted to the Christian life, Pope John Paul II, having laid out in its grand lines the Christian moral ideal, has some critical things to say about some Catholic moral theologians. The Christian moral ideal is developed in the encyclical, as it was in the Catechism, as a kind of meditation on the Gospel passage in which the rich young man asks Jesus what he must do in order to be saved. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he enumerates some of them. The young man says he already does. Jesus then tells him what he must do in order to become perfect. The negative prohibitions that Jesus mentions -- they are taken from the Ten Commandments -- are seen to prohibit actions which thwart and destroy the human good. The Holy Father points out that over the last quarter of a century and more, there have been Catholic theologians who suggest that such prohibitions may not be as absolute as they appear. Thus, it may be, they astonishingly suggest, that sometimes adultery or fornication or homosexual acts are morally okay. The Pope sees their error as following on confusion as to the object of the moral act.


    In order for an action to be good, the end for which it is done must be good, the circumstances in which it is done must be appropriate, and its object -- the deed done -- must be good. An act will be flawed and morally evil if there is a defect in any of these three. A good deed can be performed for an unworthy motive, a bad deed may be performed for the sake of some good end -- in both cases the result is a bad act. A good end does not justify an act whose object is bad, nor does a good means justify a bad end. And a deed which may otherwise be good, is bad because of when and where it is done.

    End, object, circumstances -- these are called the three fonts of morality. We introduced them first, some lectures ago, as varying answers to the question, "Why did you do that?" Exceptionless prohibitions concern acts whose object is such that it is unfitting for the human agent to do it. Lying, fornication, adultery, murder, theft -- just run through the Decalogue -- are acts which are wrong because of the kind of act they are; they are intrinsically evil. They can never be done in order that some good might result. When heterodox moralists suggest that sometimes it may be okay to commit adultery, they alter the conception of the object of the act. In every case of which I am aware, their view comes down to an attempt to get into the object of the act, the end or motive for which it is done. Furthermore, they suggest that, unless we consider the motive, we do not know what kind of act the person is performing. But the object of the act does not include the motive or remote end. Thus the position criticized is seen as an instance of asserting that evil may be done in order that good may come of it. But it is an inviolable law of morality that we cannot do evil in the hope that good will follow.


    In the Gospel story, Jesus tells the young man to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him -- if he would be perfect. Clearly, the negative precepts are seen as defining the moral terrain, ruling out acts which are such that they always and everywhere thwart the human good; but the moral life is not exhausted by observing negative precepts. What defines the moral good is not simply the avoidance of evil, but the pursuit of the good. And the good is inexhaustible.

    Consider the case of justice. Justice is a virtue which disposes us to give to each his due, to be fair to others. Now there are negative rules of justice -- Do not steal, for example -- but the overarching rule, "Be fair" points to possibilities of action which could never be reduced to rule. Quite apart from the counsels of perfection which seem in play in the Gospel story, it is clear that the moral life is chiefly the pursuit of the good, and this is a pursuit which differentiates human persons more and more, since no one of them could possible exhaust the possibilities of the good.


    We saw in our first lecture that Aristotle saw contemplation of the divine as the ultimate end of the human person, as that which comes as close as we can come to achieving happiness. We also saw that, by Aristotle's own admission, this is an imperfect achievement. Christ's redemptive act has raised human beings to an end which exceeds the capacities of our nature. This supernatural end, eternal union with God in heaven, is perfect happiness: it fulfills completely the ideal of happiness we find sketched in pagan philosophy. Our ultimate destiny is called the Beatific Vision, when we will no longer see through a glass darkly, but face to face, and know God even as we are known by Him. It was the genius of Thomas Aquinas to see that the natural and supernatural complement one another, that the happiness discerned by the philosophers is only an imperfect realization of what, thanks to grace, we will enjoy in the next world.

    This introduction to moral philosophy, while it has clarified the high points of Catholic moral thought, requires a good deal more inquiry, both within the confines of moral philosophy itself, but even more so in moral theology.


St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 3
Ralph McInerny, The Question of Christian Ethics
Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture


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