Lesson 2: What about "Ends"? Teleology and Moral Theology

Lecture 1B

Texts that help us understand how moral theology differs from moral philosophy, even though moral philosophy can be put at the service of moral theology:

"Sacra doctrina can borrow from the others sciences, not from any need to beg from them, but for the greater clarification of things it conveys. . . . That it turns to them so is not from any lack or insufficiency within itself, but because our understanding is wanting, which is the more readily guided into the world above reason, set forth in the sacra doctrina, through the world of natural reason from which the other sciences take their course" (Summa theologiae Ia q. 1, a. 5, ad 2).

"Moral theology has perhaps an even greater need [than other theological disciplines] of philosophy's contribution. In the New Testament, human life is much less governed by prescriptions than in the Old testament. Life in the Spirit leads believers to a freedom and responsibility which surpass the law. Yet the Gospel and the apostolic writings still set forth general principles of Christian conduct and specific teachings and precepts. In order to apply these to the particular circumstances of individual and communal life, Christians must be able to fully to engage their reason. In other words, moral theology requires a sound philosophical vision of human nature and human society as well as of the general principles of ethical decision making" (See Fides et ratio 68).

In this lesson you will learn about the ends or purposes that God ordained for the human creature. The Greek word telos stands at the origin of our English word, teleology, and describes the outlook of Catholic moral theology. But teleology entered the vocabulary of moral theology only during the late modern period. Because he required a term to distinguish the branch of natural philosophy which treats of final causes from that which treats of efficient causes. Christian Wolff, it seems, devised the term "teleology" as a way to talk about finality in nature. The usually accepted etymological root for the 18th-century neologism comes from telos, the Greek word for "end." The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings in 1912, apportions 33 columns to the entry on "Teleology," but we find only a single paragraph devoted to how the concept is used in ethics. The author of the article, who significantly subalternates ethics under sociology, presents ethical teleology as the case when "the moral standard is represented by the idea of good or value" (see William Fulton, "Teleology," in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, volume 12, edited by James Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), p. 228). On the basis of this blurry characterization, he concludes that the teleological standpoint is to be distinguished from the abstract and transcendental principles associated with Kantian formalism and that "their value consists not in defining but in their power of promoting the ethical end." Because the term had only entered the vocabulary of ethics in the 19th century, Hasting's Encyclopedia provides a much briefer entry for "Deontology." The author of this article identifies deontology with the science of ethics. On his account, the term seems to have been used first by Jeremy Bentham, who "had in mind the principles of duty as distinct from those of prudence and interest." These popular dictionary accounts of teleology and deontology reflect secular notions of moral philosophy, and are not very helpful to understand what the Church means when she teaches that moral theology enjoys a distinct teleology. Read Veritatis splendor, chap. 2, to discover the richness of the Church's use of teleology.

Moral realism, which describes the perspective of this course, operates within the framework of a highly refined teleology. I would describe a Christian moral teleology as one which explains and evaluates human behavior on the basis of whether or not a given human action properly and opportunely attains a good which conduces to the complete perfection of the agent. For the moral theologian, end then refers to those goods which perfect the human person; broadly speaking, good moral action develops out of a proper love of those goods which constitute human flourishing. Aquinas expresses this truth directly and simply when he inquires whether the emotion of love as a basic element of human psychology does harm to the lover: "The love of a fitting good makes the lover more perfect and better, but love for a good that is unfitting for the lover wounds the lover and makes the lover worse. Hence we are especially perfected and made better through love of God, but are wounded and made worse through love of sin" (Summa theologiae Ia-IIae q. 28, a. 5). Sometimes philosophers in their ambition to examine the human powers of the soul often ignore this aspect of Aquinas's existentialism, with the result that not enough emphasis is given to the basic conviction of moral realism, namely, that the good we seek and embrace in love inescapably affects our personal being and goodness.

Reading Assignments

Benedict Ashley, O.P., "What is the End of the Human Person? The Vision of God and integral Human Fulfillment" in Moral Truth and Moral Tradition: Essays in Honour of Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe, ed. Luke Gormally (Four Courts Press, 1994): 68-96.

Introduction to Moral Theology, chap. 1.

Writing Assignment

Write a three-page paper in which you explain to a friend why it is perfectly reasonable to accept moral guidance from the Church.


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