Lecture 3: The Moral Act
Praised be Jesus Christ. As we continue this introductory course in Catholic Moral Theology we continue to look at notions, ideas that might seem philosophical rather than theological. We always have to remember the Catholic principle that Grace builds upon, perfects and elevates nature. Grace never destroys nature. If we want to have some understanding of moral theology and the moral life of the Christian we have to understand the moral good. We have to understand moral philosophy which is why Professor McInerny has also been offering courses in moral philosophy. But for the purpose of our reflection on moral theology in this course in this hour we are going to look at the moral act.
Some of this might sound simply philosophical, but we will be looking at it from the perspective of our desire to please God so that we might attain to Him and live with Him forever, so that we might know how we can live in this life according to the fullness that He wants for all of us as He has called us to be His children.
Now the question is what is a moral act? What sort of action is a moral act? How do we know that we are faced with something about which we ought to make a moral judgment? We've been saying that reasonable human beings are to act in accordance with their nature as God has created them. We are to act reasonably in such a way that we are acting in accord with our being, which means that we are acting in accord with our dignity. Acting in accord with our dignity we are able to give glory to God since we are His image and likeness, and we reflect His glory. The human person himself is the basic fundamental good on behalf of which we act morally.
One of my favorite quotations from the great medieval theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, is found in his summary of Christian Doctrine. It is put forth in such a way that it would be understandable to heretics, Jews, Muslims or infidels. Saint Thomas wrote another great book, called the Summa Theologica, which is specifically a reflection upon the Christian life, the life of baptized men and women. Saint Thomas wants to find a way in which he can explain Christian truths to people who are not Christians, and it is in this work that I find one of the most enlightening sentences in all the writings of Saint Thomas, which I think is key to our understanding of Catholic moral life. Saint Thomas writes, "God is offended by us. God is offended by us only when we act against . . ." If I was lecturing to a live audience I would stop there and ask members of the audience to finish the sentence. This is the way in which they usually do it. They say, "God is offended by us only when we act against His will or against His laws, or against His Commandments." But this is not what Saint Thomas tells us. Saint Thomas says, "God is offended by us only when we act against our own good."
All God wants for us is our happiness. This is why He has given us the Commandments. He also came to us in Jesus Christ, so that we might be able to come to Him and be happy. The first letter of John says, "That your joy might be full, I'm writing these things to you." God wants us to be perfected and full and integrated and happy. God is offended by us only when we act against our own good. We can look to the human person to understand what our good would be as human beings, as bodies.
If we are going to be happy as human beings we have to know what we human beings are. It's not enough to simply look at ourselves and say, "I'm going to have some understanding of how we ought to act because I can see that we overeat, we get fat, or we don't eat enough, we can't concentrate to do our work, so we have to have balanced meals." Yes, that's helpful, but we need a Christian doctrine fully to understand what we are. We must always keep in mind that we are creatures created by God who has a purpose for us. When God reveals something to us about how we ought to act, we know that if we act in accord with what He has revealed, then we will only find ultimate happiness. It's very important to Catholic moral thought for us to have a thorough understanding of what it is to be bodies.
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but the passions are very important elements in Catholic moral thought because God created us with passions. He created us with appetites. We have inclinations that draw us to certain goods, and they are of the body. We have to incorporate them into our understanding of the human act if we are to understand what it is that will actually lead to our fulfillment. We, as human beings, are soul and body. Not one or the other. It's like Saint Thomas at one point is reflecting on the Soul in his book about the disputed questions about the power of God. He says, "It is the goal of each of us to be like God." We say, "Of course it is." Thomas continues, "God is non-corporeal." God is a spirit, He doesn't have a body. You say, "Yes, of course, that's right." Then Thomas goes on and says, "The soul when separated from the body must be more perfect than the soul united with the body, because the soul separated from the body is more like God who is non-corporeal, who is spirit." You think, "Yes," but Thomas is tricking you. He is doing this augmentation, making you think that this is the way in which you ought to go. Thomas stops there and says, "no, that's not right, because it's the soul's perfection to be united with the body. It's God's perfection to be Spirit. It's our perfection to be body and soul together. We believe that we were created bodies by God, and it is an aspect of our glory. We as Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. The body is going to go with us. The soul is just not going to go up to Heaven and enjoy this ethereal spiritual existence. The body is going to be there too. The body is going to be raised up."
So we must be very clear about what we are as bodies and not be ashamed of them and understand that that has to be taken into account when we are trying to determine what constitutes a moral act. We have great faculties the body has given us as bodies. We have intellect and we have will. It is the intellect that enables us to see the ends for which we have been created. We sometimes say that the intellect is the eye of the will. The will loves the good. In fact one of the great classical definitions of love is, "love is the spontaneous movement of the will toward that which is good." But the will cannot be drawn to that which is good unless the good is first seen, unless it is perceived. That is the act of the intellect. These two must work together. Both the intellect and the will must be engaged, must be working from a particular human action, to be regarded as a moral act which is capable of moral judgment, as being either good or bad. Such an act is called in Latin an actus romatis, a human act. This is a moral act about which we can pass judgment with regard to its morality, or its immorality. There are kinds of actions that we do without thinking at all. I intentionally scratch my ear just to make a point. Most people don't think about scratching their ear. If their ear is itchy, they'll reach up and scratch it. It's a human being doing that act, but, obviously, it's not going to be subject to moral judgment. We call an act like that an act of a human being. It isn't going to be a moral act unless the intellect is working and the will has been engaged, unless we have made some judgment about the action that we are performing.
Because we are bodies we also have to take into accounting the passions. We have basic appetites. An appetite according to Saint Thomas is a principle or a source of movement in a thing. It's the sense perception which ignites the appetite, draws the appetite out of itself. About the only time we use the word appetite anymore is with regard to food. When we come home we're hungry. We come in the house. We sniff the pizza and our appetite kicks in. It's engaged. We hardly even think about it. It just happens. The same is true for the sexual appetite. We see something and there is a certain trigger that just responds within us. It's why these are also sometimes called the passions.
The same Latin word that we use for passion we use also for passive. You see there is something passive in us which if ignited by a sexual image or the smell of food makes the appetite respond. People who realize that their appetites have been ignited also realize that these appetites are ordered toward good. They make judgments about what they are going to do with these appetites which have been acted upon, ignited.
We have looked at the moral agent and will go on to see what kinds of circumstances and choices have to be in place for him to make a moral act. We can't make a judgment about that unless we understand what a moral agent is. He is a rational body who uses natural reason and knowledge gained from Revelation to know that he is a child of God destined for eternity with Him. The moral agent that we are talking about is our rational bodies which have intellect and will. We have to see how closely tied in these are with one another. The intellect is ordered toward the true. Once we come to know the true good and the will is spontaneously drawn toward it as delectable, it is delightful. We have intellect, we have the will.
Aristotle says that the will is the intellect fired with desire. We understand that the appetites of our lower nature have been ignited, acted upon. Realizing that we have to be very knowledgeable and careful about the way in which we act. If we want to lead a fulfilling life, the circumstances have to be taken into account with regard to moral judgment of actions. Human beings know that one can be aroused by sensual pictures because that is part of the way God made us. He wanted men and women to be attracted to one another. One is not yet able to act upon that attraction, say, because he is not married, then the reasonable thing to do is to avoid the circumstances where one would be exposed to sensual images. Sometimes we can find ourselves in circumstances through no choice of our own which might leave us acted upon, exposed to certain dangers. If that's the case and we haven't chosen it, then we will see that the moral judgment can be altered somewhat with regard to the culpability, or the blameworthiness, of the individual in terms of the action that has been performed. If we are going to consider an act, we have to look at the circumstances in a concrete situation because we only act in concrete situations. We don't act abstractly. Every human act is concrete, that is in one place at one time, so we have to take the circumstances into account. They will even help us understand what the given act is. Sometimes the same physical act can be understood differently by virtue of the circumstances within which that act is performed. Circumstances make any given act more or less great.
The Catholic Church is very realistic about human nature. It shouldn't be surprising that we find our courts of law, for example, taking the same kinds of actions into account. Let's say you have a man who has been charged with murder. If it's a jurisdiction that has the death penalty very frequently they will have two trials; one trial will be to determine whether or not the man did the deed of which he is accused; the second will be the sentencing trial. The first trial is just concerned with whether or not the man did the deed of which he is accused. Let's say he is found guilty. There will be a sentencing trial which will look at all the mitigating circumstances that took place with regard to the act that he has committed. Let's say he committed an act of murder. When he did it was he intoxicated? Had he been drinking too much? Had someone goaded him into the action so that he wasn't completely in control of his faculties? Or had he reflected long and hard about murdering this other person and did so in cold blood, with clear vision, with eyes wide open? When the sentencing court makes its judgment it will allow itself to be guided by these mitigating and aggravating circumstances, so that the judgment will be less harsh if the individual has not been entirely free in his performing the act or if he did it out of ignorance.
Circumstances are taken into account when we are passing judgment on the type of action that an individual performs. Circumstances can make an act more grave or less grave. They can also increase or diminish the guilt of the individual. But circumstances cannot make a bad action good; however they can make a good action bad. That might not seem fair, but our Lord said, "The way is straight and the gate is narrow that leads to eternal life." The moral life requires a certain precision and clarity of vision, of purpose. The Church's moral theologians will consider six circumstances when they are passing judgment on an act: who, what, how, where, by what means, and when.
These can be circumstances surrounding the act, some of which might even enter so much into the act that the act that the act itself is transformed into another kind of act. They might diminish the act. A simple physical act, for example, can change depending on who is actually performing the act. You can have a simple act of sexual intercourse, for example. If we ask who is performing that act it will have a determining influence of what the act itself is. If you have this act of sexual intercourse being performed by a loving married couple, open to life, then what we have is a marital act. If it's performed by two unmarried people, what we have is an act of fornication. If at least one of the partners is married, then it is an act of adultery. If, God forbid, one of the persons performing the act should be a priest or a religious then it is an act of sacrilege, in addition to being an act of fornication or adultery.
Certain actions are legitimate in some circumstances which would not be in others. Husband and wife can enjoy marital relations at home in the bedroom but may not do so publicly. Doing so would truly make it a bad act. It would become an inciting act, not a good wholesome act. We can say the same with another physical act such as killing another person. You've killed another person. You've pulled the trigger of this gun and the other person has died. What has he done? Look at all of the components of the act. Find out what that moral object actually was. It might have been an act of murder. It's the same physical act even if it was an act of self defense. The trigger of the gun was pulled. The bullet went through the other person and killed him. In one circumstance it is murder, and in the other circumstance it is an act of self defense, which is quite legitimate. In another situation it might be a soldier defending his country. In yet another situation it might be an executioner carrying out the execution of a convicted criminal. We have to take all of the circumstances into account as we are passing a judgment.
To have a moral act three components are necessary: the moral object, the intention on the part of the individual who is acting, and the circumstances. The moral object asks the question, "What is it that I am supposed to do?" The moral actor must intend to act to that object. He must intend to do what he has indeed done. It might be that from the physical order he has done something that he did not intend to do. For example, he may pick up a radio at the beach and walk away with it because it looks like his radio, and he thinks that it is. In that case he has not committed theft, morally speaking. He has taken away somebody else's property but he didn't intend to do so. He is not subject to moral scrutiny because the intention was not there. The good act that the moral actor performs may no longer be a good act in certain circumstances.
Saint Thomas said, "to be good a thing it must be entirely good. It is made evil by any defect." I may, let's say, perform an act of alms giving. I may give money to somebody who is poor, do it in the context of the Church. The circumstances are good, the moral object of my action is good. But let's say I'm doing it not out of love for this person who is poor. In fact maybe I harbor resentment, an ill will toward that person, but I know that I will gain great notoriety and great acclaim if I do this act. I'm really doing it for vain glory. Even though from outward appearances this could be a very good act, if my intention is bad, if my intention is not to give alms, not to express my love and charity toward this man in need, then that defect has initiated that act. It has disordered that act from within and is no longer the act that it appeared to be.
To have a morally good act the object of the act must be good. The intentions must be upright and good, and the circumstances must be the proper ones for that action to take place.
We are talking about moral acts. Obviously to talk about moral acts we have to talk about the actor, the agent who does these acts. Our Holy Father points out (in a huge and very difficult book which is entitled, The Acting Person) the moral agent is one who is intelligent, who can choose freely. The moral agent is a body and has dispositions and passions and acts within a concrete circumstance. When all of this is taken into account we can pass judgment upon an act which is performed to see whether that action is enabling that person to attain his end well or impeding him from attaining his end well. If the act that is chosen is consonant with the end that he is pursuing, that is one of his God given ends, then we say this is a good act. He has chosen his spouse. He has committed himself to her for life. The Church says you can choose any spouse you want if she's free. The essence of the moral life is to make the choice of some good, and the choice is almost unlimited. That's one of the beautiful and exciting things about the moral life for the Catholic. We understand it as being a life which pursues happiness and the good which ultimately can be found in God alone, but by choosing from all these goods out there.
There is a very beautiful saying by a Frenchman, who said, "What man seeks in woman is what God alone can give." The man who seeks happiness (good) in his life may find it in a woman who directs him beyond himself to the ultimate happiness found in God alone. The marriage and the act of mutual giving and loving that the husband and wife experience within marriage are goods, but they come to participate in varying degrees in that great good which is God Himself.
There is a great variety of actions that we can choose which would be appropriate to helping us attain our ends. The Catholic moral life is very open ended. It is not confining. It's not restrictive. It's not narrow. It doesn't say this is the only way in which you can act in order to find eternal life. In fact, within the Church there is a variety of vocations (which most other Christian bodies don't have) in which one can find eternal salvation as a spouse, a parent, a consecrated virgin, a hermit, a monk, or a teaching religious sister. There is a great variety of the goods that can be chosen to help us attain our end. But the object that we are choosing, the moral object itself, must be appropriate to the attainment of our God-given end. The intention must be upright and the circumstances must be appropriate. When we pass judgment on an act we have to say, "The man knows what he is doing. He has the free will to do it. He also has to do it in the right kind of way."
In doing that over and over again we find that the human person becomes habituated to certain kinds of action. When a man persistently performs acts of kindness toward his wife, then over time he hardly has to think about it. It's the most natural thing there can be. If a man is trustworthy, and he gives his hand on a deal, he shakes on it, and he is always just and always holds to his word, then this man has a sterling character. He is just, his behavior is predictable, he is going to be always loving toward his wife, to hold to his word. These habits enable us to attain our ends well. We call them good habits or virtues. Of course, we can make bad choices too. We can choose to stay out too late all the time, or to have too much to drink before we go to bed so we wake up with a hangover. We could do that over and over so that we become habituated to that kind of behavior as well. Those behaviors don't enable us to achieve our end well. They are bad habits. We call them vices.
Moral life is such that we are either growing in virtue or we are growing in vice. In making the choices we set our wills and bodies to follow along. I was reading an interesting book on addiction one time in which the author told about the ingestion of various chemicals in the body, for example, alcohol. He said that the body desires homeostasis, the body desires harmony within itself. As individuals ingest these chemicals they find their way through the entire body even into the brain itself where receptors of neurons produce the chemical that holds back this strange chemical that's coming. As it does this over and over again, because the man drinks habitually the body begins producing these inhibitors, these other chemicals to hold off the other one. Why? To maintain some homeostasis, some balance. Let's say the man all of a sudden realizes he has been drinking too much. He stops drinking. The body doesn't know that he has all of a sudden stopped drinking, but in the brain these inhibitors continue to be produced because they are anticipating the onslaught of these alien chemicals. What happened? Those alien chemicals are not there. Meanwhile the body is producing the inhibitors to stop them from having their effect but they are no longer there. So the body begins manufacturing other chemicals which then throws the body out of balance again. This homeostasis or balance is lost and the body begins craving that chemical to counteract these inhibitors which are being produced by the brain.
Discoveries by contemporary neurologists provide a physiological understanding of the classical Catholic teaching of the virtues. Virtues become set and they become very hard to change, or vices become set and they become very hard to change. There is a certain physiological and chemical basis for this, so we want to do our utmost to act in such a way that the habits that we have are ordered toward the good, toward harmony within the body, toward helping us achieve our true ends. Saint Thomas tells us that these inclinations that we have are the nurseries. That's a beautiful phrase. He says that they are the nurseries for the planting and growing of the virtues, these natural dispositions that we have, but we have to act in accord with them.
One of the things that can occur is that we become habituated not simply to chemicals that we are ingesting from without but also, for example, to anger. Whenever we flare in anger all kinds of chemical and electrical reactions are taking place in the body. If we become accustomed to this, the body itself becomes poised chemically to react in an angry way. Or we expose ourselves to sensual pictures. Again there are chemical reactions which are taking place within the bodies. We can become habituated to these things. Nothing could be worse than to be a victim of a vice because it robs us of our freedom. It keeps us from doing the things that we truly want to do. It has the tendency to fragment our personality, it's a lead to disintegration and we want to be able to overcome it.
One of the things that can limit our freedom and make a particular act that we perform not as culpable is the fact that we might be victim to some vice. Let's say you have a particular vice. You repent of it. You go to Confession. You tell the priest that you are truly sorry, and you are sorry. You truly want to do better, but it takes time to set and establish habits. You leave the Confessional and not a day goes by that once again you find yourself being gnawed at, falling prey to these temptations. Depending on how deeply rooted the vice is, your freedom might actually be diminished by the vice to which you have become subject. Therefore the confessor has to take into account the diminution of freedom that you might have in this given area while you are struggling against a particular vice.
For us to perform a moral act and to be capable of being judged blameworthy or praiseworthy of a given act, we must know what we are doing, and we must be free to do it, or we must be doing it in the appropriate circumstances with the right intentions. If all of those elements are there, we have a good moral act which is going to help us flourish and find that happiness which we are seeking which is the true end of the Catholic moral life and the end which God wants for all of us. But we have to be capable of judging these acts for what they truly are and seeing whether or not they are the free human act which we may justly call an act of humanity.
There is a notion that I want to get across which is very important and which we find in most of the classical moral texts. You don't find this much anymore, but I think it's very useful for us to have in our minds if we are going to be able to pass judgments on moral acts. It has to do with the distinction between form and matter. This gets quite philosophical, but the Catholic Church embraces all truth which comes its way because all truth is of God. This is a distinction which Aristotle made and is referred to as the hylomorphic theory. The Church made good use of it. The hylomorphic theory refers to a distinction in things between form and matter. What does that mean? Well, these are actually terms which are very simple and commonsensical.
Aristotle was aware of the fact that things "were" rather than the fact that they "were not." (I'm going to make up some words here in trying to explain this). He realized that there is a vatness to everything. He says there is a vatness here, and a vatness here. It's "there" rather than "not being." But this vatness is different from this vatness, which is different from this vatness. Aristotle said not only does everything have a vatness that "is," it "is" rather than "it is not." It has awatness. Well, what is the watness of this vatness? The watness here is a desk. The watness here is a pencil. Aristotle said you always have both of these out of the theory. You always have a watness and a vatness, and can't have one without the other. Aristotle, himself, simply coined some words to refer to these concepts. The matter refers to thevatness of the thing and the form refers to its watness. According to that theory the watness of "this" that I am holding in my hand is "book." Another way of saying it is the form of what I am holding in my hand is "book". Form doesn't mean shape. There has been a lot of confusion in many contemporary writers and some moral theologians even who would go back and read the classical authors who will run into this language of form and matter, and they don't have the proper understanding of form. They think that form refers to shape. It doesn't. It refers to the interior intelligibility of this thing, the watness of it. This is a "book." This is a "desk." This is a "pencil."
Aristotle applied this to a human person, too. He said the body is the matter and the soul is the form, but you have to have both of them together. This is why we believe in the Resurrection of the body. We will be raised up as bodies. Our soul in heaven is not going to be perfect because there you have the form without the matter. You don't have the full reality unless you have both. Now what in the world am I talking about here with regard to moral acts. Well, we can talk about moral acts having a form and a matter also.
This is applied even to the Sacraments in the Church's teaching, for example the matter of the Sacrament of Baptism is the pouring of the water over the baby. The form is the priest saying, "I Baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." You bring those two together and what you have is the one act of Baptism. St. Augustine said, "If the priest weren't saying the words, "I Baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," what would you have? And Aristotle said, "you would have the baby taking a bath." So the form must be there to bring the reality into being.
The same is true when it comes to human actions. The actor, the moral agent has to bring the interior reality to the act that he is performing through his intention. This is why we can look to the young man who took the radio off the beach thinking it was his radio, but is he truly guilty of theft? Theft is the unjust expropriation of someone else's property. Did this young man expropriate someone else's property? Yes, he did. Did he do it knowingly? No, he didn't do it knowingly. That condition of the unjust appropriation of someone else's property, is only expressive of an act that one has interiorly executed and performed. He didn't realize he was taking someone else's radio. Materially he has taken the matter away with him, but he wasn't intending to steal the person's radio, so we say it's not formally an act of theft.
This is important when we make certain distinctions with regard to moral actions because there can be some actions which, objectively speaking, are wrong. They are disordered. They don't enable a person to achieve the end that he is pursuing. They don't really allow him or enable him to achieve it well. He might be ignorant of this fact, and even though the act that he has committed materially might be a disordered act, formally he is not guilty of the sin. He hasn't shaped that act to be the kind of act that is truly immoral. He hasn't known any better.
Saint Thomas tells us that the act receives its species from the end. Objectively speaking, the act that is performed could well be in a moral act, but if the individual is not aware of that fact, he may be committing a bad act but it is not immoral. It is not held against him in a blameworthy way.
Saint Thomas has said that all of us can understand the natural law in terms of its general principles. We must always pursue good and avoid evil, we must always refrain from harming another person, in terms of killing them, lying to them, or abusing them in some other way. He also said that when it comes down to the particulars, when it comes to concrete details, it is not always so easy to make form an absolute judgment.
It could be that you would have people moving in a society which is so disordered that they are guilty of actions which really in and of themselves are disordered, that they, not knowing that, will go ahead and perform the act thinking that they are doing right. I was talking one time to a man who was a convert to the Catholic faith but while he was a Protestant, he and his wife had been contracepting thinking that what they were doing was morally right and morally good. They loved God, they wanted to please God, they read their Bible every day, they prayed together. Now all of those wonderful actions didn't make contraception an objectively good act. It still is a disordered act. But these people didn't want to be doing anything that was displeasing to God. So even though the act was disordered, they were ignorant of this fact and it would not have been held against them in terms of a subjective guilt.
When he came to realize that this was wrong, he changed his actions. Because his deepest desire was to know God, to love God, and to please God. Then he came to understand that God's Church taught that such behavior was actually harmful to one's self. Saint Thomas says, "God is offended by us only when we act against our own good." Then he was more than happy to refrain from that kind of behavior.
We have to be able to make this distinction between form and matter. It's a terrible thing to blaspheme God. Terrible is hardly the word for it. It is unspeakably bad. There is something known as heretical blasphemy. That is if we say something about God which is contrary to His nature and offend His goodness and His dignity. So to say that God is cruel would be heretical blasphemy. If you have a mother who sees her dear child dying a slow death from leukemia, and the mother in her anguish, says, "how could God be loving if He allows this to happen? He must be cruel, look at my poor little girl." Well, such a statement, materially speaking, could constitute heretical blasphemy, but this woman doesn't really mean it. She is wracked by anguish. She is feeling great sorrow over what is happening to her child. She is not really meaning to blaspheme God and to say heretical things about Him.
Even though it might materially be this kind of act, formally it is not. It doesn't have that character of an immoral act. Any priest would understand that, and he would provide comfort and solace to a woman in such an anguished situation. One of the things we must always try to do is to bring our thinking and our wills into line with reality itself, so that we don't find ourselves with a split between a material act and a formal act. Materially we might be doing something bad but formally we are not guilty of it because we don't see it. The idea is that we always bring our minds into conformity with truth itself, as the Holy Father said in his Encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, so that the acts that we perform materially and formally show forth the glory of God.