Lesson 10: Virtue and Human Action

Lecture 5A

The God-given created order of reality, how God knows the world to be, stands underneath the order that shapes moral reason. Since virtue is called by Aristotle and Aquinas a "habitus of acting according to reason" (Summa theologiae Ia-IIae q. 64, a. 1), when something is "against reason," it is, in its most fundamental sense, against virtue too. Whence comes this law or order of nature which is the reason for things that measures the validity and correctness of human reason? It derives from the divine reason, the eternal law, an order set in things by God, their Creator. Hence when something is described as unvirtuous, this is synonymous with saying that it is against reason--the reason of God whose order placed in things constitutes nature, and is the reason or cause of their being and activity, and which reason, cause, or order, in things ultimately measures human reason.

Veritatis splendor provides an extended critique of what it calls teleological ethical views. To avoid confusion, it may have been better to use the English term "teleologistic," since "teleological" theories in fact reject the Church's teleological tradition in morals. These views, the encyclical says, claim to look at the conformity of human acts with the personal objectives pursued by the doer or with the values that he or she intends. In other words, the measure of the moral act falls principally within the agent. The encyclical, on the other hand, points out the totality that exists in a properly defined moral object that both carries and embodies its own intelligibility independent of subjective considerations. A good human act, good according to its object, perfects a human person because it conforms to human nature. When the action is enacted in charity, the person enters, either for the first time or with greater intensity, into a communion of love with God. Here below, this communion subsists in the Church of Christ, whereas hereafter it becomes that beatific sharing in the divine nature which we call the communion of the saints.

Nominalist reductions of moral action can lead to mistakes about the pursuit of the good and of the ultimate good which is God. Certain moments in the modern period have illuminated the conceptual affinities between casuistry and nominalism. In the Church of seventeenth-century France, Blaise Pascal's Fourth Provincial Letter provides a good illustration of what happens when teachers of the moral life neglect its in-built teleology.

During the conflicts which arose between Jansenists and Jesuits, it seems that certain theologians had advanced the theory that for persons to suffer harm from sinful actions required the verification of a complete set of subjective conditions. In order to enlarge the ambit of personal freedom, some authors included among these conditions the requirement that a person consciously advert to the fact that a particular action actually stands directly opposed to God's law. To be held culpable, then, of even the grossest departures from the natural law meant that a person had to be informed completely of the sinful nature of the acts and advert to it. On the one hand, this outlook represents a certain apogee in extrinsicism, not to mention an excessive concern for establishing culpability, but on the other, the frame of mind reveals a complete lack of appreciation for the intrinsically evil character of certain specific actions. To this obviously obfuscatory way of talking about practical morals, Pascal retorts to an imaginary clerical advocate of the non-advertence theory:

Blessings on your head, Father, for justifying people in this way! Others teach how to cure souls by painful austerities, but you show that the souls which one would have believed to be the most desperately ill are in the best of health. What an excellent path to happiness in this world and the next! I had always thought that the less one thought of God the more sinful one was. But, from what I can see, once one has managed to stop thinking of him altogether the purity of one's future conduct becomes assured. Let us have none of these half-sinners, with some love of virtue; they will all be damned. But as for these avowed sinners, hardened sinners, unadulterated, complete and absolute sinners, hell cannot hold them; they have cheated the devil by surrendering to him. (Pascal, IV Provincial Letter, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 65).

In his essay, Pascal plays with a reductio ad absurdum in order to make the point that something beyond an analysis of personal subjectivity must enter into the moral meaning of a human act. These words from one France's finest belletrists impress on us the need for objective moral criteria. In our own day, Veritatis splendor has outlined the proper criteria for determining moral behavior within a proper teleology.

Because of the truth about the good and the invitation to participate in it that Christ announces, Christian theology is able to include among the goods required for complete human flourishing the beatific vision of God. "Beatitude, in my opinion," writes Gregory of Nyssa, "is a possession of all things held to be good, from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want. Perhaps the meaning of beatitude may become clearer to us if it is compared with its opposite. Now the opposite of beatitude is misery. Misery means being afflicted unwillingly with painful suffering" (St Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes, Sermon 1, trans. Hilda C. Graef, The Lord's Prayer. The Beatitudes (Westminster, MD:: Newman Press, 1954), p. 88). For the Christian believer, the face to face beholding of God's goodness alone fulfills the yearnings of human nature. As the Roman liturgy softly reminds us about heaven, "there we hope to enjoy the vision of your glory." And because heaven remains our vocation, every created thing which forms a basic human good requires integration in God in order to achieve its ultimate perfection.

The call to beatific fellowship with God implies that man possesses an openness to communion with God. The sacred Scriptures and the theological tradition of the Church refer to this capacity as man's being created in the image of God (imago Dei). Good moral theology must respect the ordering of the imago Dei to its God-given ends. Again Gregory of Nyssa, "He who paints our soul in the likeness of the only blessed One describes in words all that produces beatitude; and he says first: `Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven'" (Sermon One). To describe Aquinas's moral theory as teleological means nothing more than to identify it with this sort of Christian eudaimonism. Without due attention to the Sermon on the Mount, it is impossible to elaborate authentic Christian moral theology. Warrant for this assertion comes from the theological traditions of both East and West.

Moral theories which reject the notion that the human person achieves its perfection through freely-accomplished virtuous actions are committed to developing models other than a realist teleological one to guide human behavior. Utilitarian consequentialism, to take an example which has its roots in the British moral tradition, judges morality somewhat mathematically on the basis of the over-all good accomplished for the largest number. Kantian deontology, which is typical of Continental schools of ethics, grounds moral judgments on the basis of duty or obligation to follow a moral imperative which itself usually results from some form of a priori moral reasoning. Whatever contributions to Christian moral theology these schools of ethics can make, experience has shown that Christian moral realism best suits the requirements of the Catholic tradition. As the topics that will be addressed in this series reveal, Catholic moral theology is too much concerned with the concrete existent not to take its form seriously, e.g. the contents of safes, freshwater lake fishes, jewelry in Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse, fine cars like a Rolls Royce, etc.

Because Christian moral theology finds its beginning in God's own knowledge about himself, the eternal law gives a determinate and recognizable shape to the whole of Christian morality. Though Aquinas describes the natural law as a participation in this effective ruling design whereby God governs creation, his natural law theory enunciates a position quite different from the "Book of Nature" theories developed by Enlightenment thinkers. It was characteristic of many Enlightenment thinkers to deny God altogether or, among the moderates, to assume that the only trace left of him in the universe was to be found at its origins.

Reading Assignments

Martin Rhonheimer, "Intrinsically Evil Acts and the Moral Viewpoint: Clarifying a central Teaching of Veritatis splendor," inVeritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral TheologyStudies by Ten Outstanding Scholars. Edited with J. A. DiNoia, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999).

Romanus Cessario, "Moral Absolutes in the Civilization of Love," in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral TheologyStudies by Ten Outstanding Scholars. Edited with J. A. DiNoia, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999).


1) Why are moral absolutes a good for the human person and not an infringement on his or her personal autonomy?

2) Why does something other than subjective human intention enter into the moral nature of what we do?


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top