Lesson 4: The Moral Anthropology of the Imago Dei

Lecture 2B

Because moral theology properly considers God as our first cause (origin) and final end (destiny), we must understand what it means that the every human person exist as Imago Dei. In this lesson you will learn about the universal character of moral theology, based on the good of the human person which is the same for every human being.

In the Ia-IIae of his Summa theologiae, Aquinas introduces the Trinitarian theme as a guiding one for moral theology. Everything that exists depends on the creative action of God. Theological anthropology points to creation. It is impossible for the Christian to carve out a world of freedom that remains independent from God's creative and sustaining providence. The scholastic philosophers coined the phrase "being precedes actions" (agere sequitur esse) to remind us that human actions are dependent upon the human creature.

Natural desire for God represents a theological interpretation of our common psychology: The distinction between image of representation & image of conformity deepens our understanding of how the human person images God. For further development, see my Christian Faith and the Theological Life (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), chap. 1.


The distinction between reason and appetite is central to the notion of the human person as imago Dei. In his Summa theologiae, Aquinas discusses the distinction between the sense appetites and the intellectual appetite. The text is found in Summa theologiae, Ia q. 80, a. 2. It is characteristic of Christian anthropology to recognize a difference between the urges of sense and the desires of the heart. Because of the importance of this view of man for Aquinas's discussion of the moral life, I should like to reflect on the distinction between the sense appetites and the intellectual or rational appetite. Among other important themes in moral theology, this distinction helps us understand the relationship of the theological virtues, in particular hope, to the moral virtues, especially those ones which are circa passiones, that is, which shape the emotional life of the human person.

The arguments against the thesis of Summa theologiae, Ia q. 80, a. 2 offer reasons for thinking that appetite remains undifferentiated in man. An assumption of this kind would lead to the conclusion that no real difference exists between what sense perception produces in man's appetite and what an individual could really be said to "will" or want. Aquinas replies by recalling what Aristotle says in the De Anima, Book 3, chaps. 9 & 10. There, the Philosopher not only distinguishes the two powers of appetite but also asserts that the higher appetite is ordered to control the lower. Since so many people experience the apparent inability of the higher power (the will) to control the desires of sense, Aristotle's assumption should be read as a statement about the structure of human nature, not as a commentary on the statistically frequent. Of course, a philosopher is not held to formulate a universal doctrine of salvation. Aristotle can rest content to describe what happens in the best of men. The Christian believer knows that the truth of Aristotle's intuition about how human nature should function will be fully realized only through the preaching of the New Law of Grace.

In the body of article 2, Aquinas accepts the Aristotelian doctrine that the appetitive in man "is born to be moved as a result of apprehension." In scholastic parlance, appetite is a passive power. An object of appetite is one that possesses the power to move the appetite, even though the object itself remains unaffected by discharging this role. At the same time, human appetite moves the person toward some action even while it is being moved. In this way, the initial object of attraction becomes the ultimate term of love.

Aquinas explains the existence of two distinct appetites in man by the fact that two kinds of objects can exercise a "pull" on the human person. In order to account for the way specific kinds of objects affect the human person, we need to distinguish between sense and intelligence. This assumes that a personal agent must "fit" or be suited for those things which cause its motion. The sensitive and intellectual appetites interact with sense objects and intellectual objects respectively. So the existence of the two appetitive powers explains the range of appetite that the human person is capable of experiencing.

But there is a difference in the way that objects of sense and objects of meaning move a person to action. Take the example of fleeing from a dangerous circumstance, whether it be a burning building or a government hostile to Christian faith and practice. The sense appetite can be moved to flee a life-threatening danger, e.g. excessive heat, but only the rational appetite can discover and love the principle, or "object," that a particular threat, e.g. a Roman judge, should be withstood for the sake of the Gospel or for some virtue such as chastity. Again, the sense appetite can be drawn to some illicit sexual gratification, e.g. adultery, but only the rational appetite can discover, love, and depend upon the truth, or "object," that a rectified love of friendship excludes a specific form of carnal communication, e.g. sexual congress with the spouse of another.

In fact, as the reply to the first argument points out, there is an essential difference ("per se") between what the intellectual appetite wants and the sense appetites want. On the basis of this distinction, the Christian faith holds that authentic personal choosing can occur even in the presence of overwhelming sense desire. When this happens, Aquinas recognizes the exercise of the infused virtues which ensure that the Christian believer makes the right moral choice, even if it happens that his or her emotional state does not reflect the state of the acquired virtues.

Sense desire is indiscriminate. By this we mean that there is nothing in either the irascible or concupiscible appetites that allows them to discriminate morally a good-to-be-sought or an evil-to-be-avoided. Only the intellectual virtue of prudence can discern the good-as-meant, or how this sense good or sense evil should be virtuously embraced or avoided. Prudence makes this determination on the basis of how a particular moral object conforms to the end of the human person.

A Pastoral Reflection

In the same question of the Summa theologiae, Aquinas says that the "intellect penetrates the will with its act and object the way it does any other particular objects of understanding, like stone or wood, which all fall within the field of being and truth" (Ia q. 82, a. 4 ad 1). The same intellect not only discriminates moral truths, for example, flesh to be cherished from flesh as abused, but it also penetrates faith truths, for example, God loves us because He is good, not because we are, Jesus saves us by his death on the cross, Mary is immaculately conceived, the sacraments are efficacious for our salvation, etc. Hence the Christian believer is able to choose, rationally, the truth of God's goodness, the power of the blood of Christ, the mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary--in short, the whole economy of salvation--because faith penetrates the rational appetite with these good things.

Although the virtue of faith perfects the intellect, it motivates the virtue of hope whereby the believer clings to God's omnipotent mercy as the source of salvation. This spiritual clinging forms the basis for the whole Christian life and is easily interpreted as fulfilling the meaning of the many places in the New Testament where Jesus encourages his disciples to stay closely united with him and his Heavenly Father. Furthermore, the believer can make this efficacious choice through the intellectual appetite even in the face of a whole range of disordered sense appetites which may, depending on his state of personal growth and development, overwhelm his sense powers, internal and external, at a given moment.

To react in this way first requires being instructed in how to make an act of faith. This in turn requires being practically convinced that God loves you because He is good and not because you are. Otherwise, at this point, a person would most likely give up in despair because he would falsely conclude that even if salvation were promised, it is not possible for him since he has not achieved that state of holiness wherein God loves one enough to grant it. But with a spiritual mentality of this kind, a person would never achieve holiness since he would always be seeking to break out of sin by himself. Many people, desirous of loving God, are blackmailed by this very false understanding of how God's love works.

Existentially, the doctrine of the distinction between the two kinds of appetites serves an extremely important function in Aquinas's theology as well as in the practice of Christian life. In short, it allows Aquinas to affirm the ultimate triumph of God's power over fallen nature. Later in the tract Aquinas asks whether the irascible and concupiscible appetites obey reason. He concludes that the sense appetites obey reason because particular truths can both calm wrath and fear or arouse them and, furthermore, that they obey the will since human action requires the "consensus" of the higher appetite. The teaching could appear naive were it not understood that the ultimate truths which control the appetites are the incarnational truths derived from the person and teaching of Jesus, i.e. the whole economy of salvation, and that the "consensus" of the will for choosing the good is given to the Christian because of the union that he enjoys with Jesus, the one Son, in the Church of faith and sacraments.

Further Readings

Suitable background for speaking about the moral life includes a basic knowledge of the human person and the operative capacities (powers) that enable each person to act for an end (see Veritatis splendor, no. 72). The relationship between the rational self ("logos") and the appetitive self ("amor") stands at the heart of a realist psychology. For those students who may wish to review this material, the following texts provide a helpful summary of the standard accounts:

Summa theologiae Ia qq. 75-83. This tract on the nature and abilities (capacities) of the soul is available in volume 11 (edited by Timothy Sutton) of the 61-volume Blackfriars Summa. Also, see Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992): 207-226.

Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part Two, chapters 4,5,6, & 8. This secondary source by a recognized scholar (see Fides et ratio) provides a good survey of the material and in some detail.

W.A. Wallace, O.P., The Elements of Philosophy, pp. 71 - 84 offers a very concise treatment of the required material, but he also provides references to the pertinent articles in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (cf. p. x). See also his, The Modeling of Nature (Washington, D.C., 1996), pp. 159ff; p.419ff for a more scientific treatment.

B. M. Ashley, O.P., Theologies of the Body also considers this material, but more diffusely, even though in a way that takes account of the modern categories.

Pierre-Marie Emonet, The Greatest Marvel of Nature. An Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person (New York, 2000) provides a brief account for beginners.


1) What are the implications of the doctrine of the imago Dei (image of God) for moral theology?

2) Why is it important to distinguish between the substance, the powers, and the actions of the human soul?

3) To what does the phrase, "the good of the human person" refer?

4) How does the intellect's impetration of the will help to explain the motivation of hope by faith? What objective truths given to the intellect through the habit of faith by their nature serve to strengthen hope?


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