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Saturday, April 6, 2013


by   Lawrence Fox

Catholic Moral Theology is the branch of study which seeks to know the goodness and evil of human actions through the gift of faith and reason. Philosophy, rooted in the principle of seeking the good through the gift of reason, provides a crucial contribution in support of the development of Catholic Moral Theology.(1) Crucial contributions of philosophy, many of which have their complimentary expression in theology, include the principle of non-contradiction, virtue, flourishing, exitus-reditus, hylomorphism, four causes, and participation. With these philosophical contributions, Catholic Moral Theology serves the whole church to fulfill its mission of a new evangelization to the world, to form the conscience of the members of the Body of Christ, while shepherding them through complex moral issues, and remaining faithful to the task of guarding the Deposit of Faith with the help of the Holy Spirit (NIV, 2 Timothy 1:13-15).

Complex moral issues include but are not limited to, birth control, abortion, human egg donation, in-vitro fertilization, embryonic and adult stem cell research, organ donation, same-sex attractions, surrogacy, and euthanasia. These issues are not complex because Divine Revelation is lacking.(2) These issues are complex because the Catholic Church must faithfully and objectively discern the intent, means, and results of both individual and collective human actions. And the Church must effectively, clearly, and patiently confront the widespread spirit of agnosticism and relativism, which has cast doubt on reason's ability to know the truth – the truth which alone satisfies the human heart's restless quest for meaning.(3) Without faith and reason, the answer to the question “What must I do to flourish?” is subject to ill-reasoned solutions which move the human person and society away from virtue and happiness, towards a state of vice and despair (i.e. culture of death).(4)

1 Susan Selner-Wright, PHIL500 Distance Education Program Video Series (Augustine Institute, 2012), Discs 1-6. Classical philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus pursued knowledge and the possession of the good through reason and the ascetical life. The Catholic Church recognizes in their pursuit, the movement of the Holy Spirit preparing the gentiles to hear and receive the Good News.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1997), 82. The Catholic Church derives her certainty in matters of truth from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

3 John Paul II, Address of John Paul II to the Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Provinces of Indianapolis, Chicago, and Milwaukee on their Ad Limina Visit, Internet, available from http://www.adoremus.org/AdLimina052804.html, accessed October 2012.

4 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason ( 1998), Internet, available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html, accessed October 2012.

Moral Theology

Moral Theology flows from the foundations of theology and philosophy. The word theology is composed of two Greek words "Theos", which translated means God and "logos", which translated means “the study of.” As such, theology is the branch of knowledge which deals with the study of God and things related to God. Its foundation is the Deposit of Faith (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition). The word philosophy is also composed of two Greek words: "filio", which translated means love or friendship and "sophia", which translated means wisdom. Wisdom is the virtue of knowing the proper order of things or good judgment. As such, philosophy is the love of wisdom. The philosophical
Plato and Aristotle
foundations discussed in this essay come from the writings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus who viewed the pursuit of “the good” as something objective and imperative in order for the human person and society to flourish. Their contributions were perfected by Catholic theologians such as St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas who in turn contributed greatly to the systematic development of Catholic Moral Theology. St. Augustine utilized the contributions of Plato while writing on topics dealing with goodness, free-will, innate knowledge, and the moral difficulty and reality of evil. St. Thomas Aquinas utilized the contribution of Aristotle to articulate a knowledge of the human person (body and soul), the role of intellect and will in the pursuit knowledge, virtue, and natural law. Finally, Catholic Moral Theology is rooted in the consoling principle that the human vocation of moral goodness is supported by God, Who has not left his human creation orphaned.

To demonstrate how philosophy as a branch of study contributes to the support of the development of Catholic Moral Theology, the principles of non-contradiction, virtue, flourishing, exitus-reditus, hylomorphism, four causes, and participation are described, with their compliments in Moral Theology, and examples of their application to complex moral issues.

Principle of Non Contradiction

The principle of non-contradiction comes from Aristotle’s Metaphysics book 4, chapter 4, and simply states that something cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way.(5) It is a common sense principle upon which philosophy builds a reasoned pursuit of the truth and overcomes sophistry which is characterized by arguments meant to distract in order to deceive. The principle of non-contradiction is complimented within Moral Theology by the paraphrased message which Joshua gave to the people of Israel, “How long are you going to straddle the fence; either God is God or He is not? Choose!” This philosophical principle provides Moral Theology with a tool to root out moral inconsistencies. For example, in one ward of a hospital, medical staff terminates the life a pre-born child. In another ward in the same hospital, medical staff feverishly works to support the life of a pre-born child. These two activities performed by the same medical institution violate the principle of non-contradiction. The medical institution judges that one pre-born child does not have a right to life and another pre-born child has a right to life. This decision is not based upon objective pre-natal medicine, but based upon a subjective reflex known as “choice”. This moral contradiction was promoted by educational, religious, political, and judicial institutions of society. This widespread moral contradiction prevents society from flourishing. It is like the human heart with faulty check valves, although beating frantically, it cannot support the organs in the body. So many resources are expended with little good. The evidence of this floundering in society includes, rising moral indifference, ignorance, weakness of character, immoral levels of financial debt, aging demographics with fewer children to support the elderly, constant wars, and no clear moral principle to confront the jihad barbarians at the wall.

5 Robert Spitzer S.J., Ten Universal Principles, A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issue, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2009), pp. 11-14.

The Principle of Virtue

The principle of virtue comes from Plato, From the Republic Book I.(6) Socrates was asked by contemporary philosophers to answer the question “What is justice?” Socrates reasons by way of analogy that justice is that good which supports the proper function of something (its virtue). For example, the function of the eye is to see; therefore seeing is its virtue. That which supports the virtue of the eye is justice. That which diminishes the virtue of the eye is injustice since vice is promoted and not virtue. Socrates argued that in order for a society to flourish, it needed to develop the virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. This principle of virtue is complimented within Moral Theology by the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. The philosophical principle of virtue provides Moral Theology with a tool to discern the fruits of human actions (i.e. is there an increase or decrease of virtue as a result of human actions). For example, fertility is an integral part of a human being’s sexuality as created by God. It is a good. Contraception is a vice because it impedes the virtue of fertility, in other words it removes a good which ought to be there. Laws which support the use of contraception are a form of injustice. This injustice is obvious considering that the virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom are diminished. Medical practice should seek to harmonize human actions with natural law.(7) Instead a tremendous amount of human resources are expended on the  pursuit of materialistic efficiency, convenience, and a “will to power.” When virtues are diminished, the individual and society cease to flourish.

6 Charles M. Bakewell, Source Book in Ancient Philosophy, Plato, From the Republic (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), pp. 180-182.

7 Spitzer, pp. 53-55.

Principle of Flourishing

The principle of flourishing begins in Plato, From the Republic Book VI 506C-509 and reaches further development in Proclus’ Elements of Theology. Socrates demonstrated that the virtue of the eye is dependent upon the light of the sun, representing the truth, a form of the Good.(8) Socrates reasoned that the moral virtues were necessary for the individual and society to flourish. Education needed to be directed towards the knowledge of the good and the development of virtues.(9) Virtue flourishes when the human intellect and spirit both direct and govern the appetites. Society flourished because courage brought about steadfastness, temperance maintained harmony, wisdom secured the common good, and justice allowed each part to accomplish its own good work. When the appetites govern, and the intellect and will both serve the appetites, then evil flourishes. This principle of flourishing is complimented within Moral Theology which guides moral character based upon the “Beatitudes” and the realist view of human character as described by Jesus Christ in the parable of the sower and the seed (i.e. shallow soil, rocky soil, un-weeded soil, and well conditioned soil).(10) This philosophical principle provides Moral Theology with a tool to discern the source, potential, and actual fruits of human actions. For example, Western Society believed for centuries that medical practice existed to heal the individual. It was the pagan witchdoctor who attempted to manipulate the natural order with sterilization, death, and altered mental states through various forms of incantations and potions. To combat this chicanery, the Hippocratic Oath was developed to promote the medical principle “Do no harm.” Medical practice prescribed a remedy or pill to cure or mitigate illness, not harm. In the case of contraception, the prescription of a pill denotes that a woman or man needs to be cured from the ill effects of fertility. This widespread acceptance of contraception has engendered a culture that demands the need for abortion.11 This widespread acceptance also contributes to the phenomenon of a pilled society that demands moral actions be free from consequences (sexually transmitted diseases, AIDs, gluttony, drunkenness, promiscuity, un-planned pregnancy) through the prescription of a pill. Society ceases to flourish as a result of medical, political, and judicial institutions now dedicating themselves to the service of man’s appetites and not the pursuit of the good. Consider the never ending search to discover new ways to prevent and destroy conception, to conceive and destroy human embryos in support of stem cell research, and to impregnate women in support of various lifestyles with no consideration of the conceived child’s emotional development. This separation of actions and responsibility engenders a form of moral dualism which attacks the next principle known as hylomorphism.

8 G.M.A Grube, Revised by C.D.C Reeve, Plato, From the Republic, (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1992), 180-182.

9 Ibid, Book VIII 518d-519, pp. 190, 191.

10 Romanus Cessario, O.P, Introduction to Moral Theology, (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), p. 31.

Principle of hylomorphism

The principle of hylomorphism (human person is body and soul) is found in the Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics Book II On the Soul (414a-414b).(12) It is complimented by another philosophical principle known as potency and actuality. The human soul actualizes the rational and irrational potencies of the body. The evidence of this actualization is manifested by animation. This philosophical principle was perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae (Article 1 Question 76) (13) identifying the human soul as spirit, eternal, and remaining in relation with the human body even after separation. Moral theology utilizes this hylomorphic principle - rooted in faith and reason - to defend the dignity of human life through all stages of conception, development, and natural death. For example, it is indisputable that with conception, the fertilized egg (zygote) is not an active sperm or an active egg but something uniquely different and alive. For the child moves down the mother’s fallopian tube and implants itself within the mother’s uterine wall to derive its nourishment and develop a heart, mind, fingers, skin, nerves, and sensory organs. In other words at conception, the necessary genetic human matter and human soul exists. With every living body there is a soul which is wholly present to the living body even when corporeal intelligence is not active. There is a human person at conception as long as the body demonstrates it is animated. As such, abortion, suicide, murder, and euthanasia are intrinsically evil, acts of injustice, and evidence that the next principle of exitus-reditus is lacking in the individual’s moral development.

11 John Paul II Evangelium Vitae To the Bishops Priests and Deacons Men and Women Religious, Lay Faithful and all People of Good Will on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, 14, Internet, available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae_en.html, Internet accessed October 2012.

12 Richard McKeon, The Basic Works of Aristotle, (New York: Random House, 1941), pp. 558-559.

13 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia I, (London: University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1975), pp. 15.

Principle of Exitus-Reditus

The principle of exitus (procession) and reditus (return) is found in Proclus’ Elements of Theology.(14) This principle simply defines that which flows from the source of its being, naturally reflects upon its source. In this process of reflection, it is perfected. To not turn towards the source is an unnatural state of being. The compliment in Moral Theology(15) is expressed in the words of St. Paul: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8-9) This principle is explicitly described by the words spoken by Jesus to his disciples: “I came from my Father and I am now returning to my Father.” (John 16:28) The disciples responded to his words exclaiming that for the first time they clearly understood him. Jesus’ expression of his exitus and reditus brought clarity to his disciples. Moral theology utilizes this principle of exitus and reditus to address the following complex moral issue: our first parents are the efficient cause of human life through their sacramental bond and gift of fertility. This gift of fertility signifies completeness and goodness in nature created by God. God is the supernatural efficient cause of human life. This is no small matter considering that God’s 4th commandment requires “Honor your Father and Mother so that you may have a long life.” Through this commandment, God directs the human intellect, will, and appetites to respect the spirit and matter of their creation. Actions which ape this co-creative principle and source of human life (i.e. polygamy, homosexuality, self-abuse, IVF, contraception, and surrogacy) exemplify a rebellion against the principle of exitus (procession) and reditus (return) - an unnatural state of intellectual and willful being - and has the potential of de-stabilizing natural human development. This rebellion and unnatural state of living is evidence that the essence of one’s own being is not properly understood.

14 E.R. Dodds, Proclus, Selection from the Elements of Theology, (London: Clarendon Paperbacks, 1992) Proposition 31 States that all that proceeds from any principle reverts in respect of its being upon that from which it proceeds. Proposition 32 States that all reversion is accomplished through a likeness of the reverting terms to the goal of reversion.

15 Cessario, p. 3.

Principle of Four Causes

This principle comes from Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book II in which he argues that knowing the four causes (material, form, efficient, and final) of an object enables the subject to properly know the essence of the object and relate to it correctly.(16) Moral theology uses this principle of four causes (not to be confused with casuistry) (17) as a means of discovering the intent, the means, results (virtue or vice) and culpability of human actions. For example, to discover the material cause of human actions, one must know the dominating factors in the person (i.e. the intellect, will, or the appetites). Determining the formal cause of human actions requires knowing the devotions, disciplines, and habits of the individual. Determining the efficient cause of human actions requires knowing whether the movement of the intellect and will is based upon grace or upon ignorance, weakness, and or indifference. Determining the final cause of human actions requires knowing the fruits of human actions, whether there is an increase in happiness, joy, and moral virtue, or an increase in confusion and vice. The existence of virtue is evidence of the next principal known as participation.

16 McKeon, pp. 240-242.

17 Cessario, pp. 196,197 & 229.

Principle of Participation

The principle of participation comes from Plato’s Republic and Proclus’ Elements of Theology.(18) Socrates argued that the reason the philosopher is able to be the guardian of society because he knows “the forms of the good.” Platonism reasoned that men know the good in as much as they participated in the good. Proclus’ Elements of Theology identified that which is perfect emanates or brings forth its perfection and that which is emanated participates in its source. This participation was touched upon under the principle of exitus-reditus. It is also complimented by the moral theological axiom, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Mystical Body of Christ participates in God’s Divine Nature (2 Peter 1, 4). All of creation is governed by God’s wisdom. In essence, creation (nature) participates in God’s eternal law. Natural Law, which is a participation in God’s eternal law, plays a central role within Catholic Moral Theology.(19) The essence of nature can be observed by man’s senses and experiences. Man reflects upon his experiences and this enables him to reach a reasoned knowledge of the good,
provided his formation is proper and not impeded by vice. This knowledge of the good is the result of man and woman being made in God’s image, and created with the ability to grasp what is common to all of humanity by natural reason, namely self-preservation, the common good, procreation and the rearing of children so that the human family flourishes, and the knowledge of God who is Truth. The philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus in successive stages reasoned the existence of “the good,” “the un-moved mover,” and “the one” as being that source which actualized in nature the qualities of beauty, truth, justice, and all that is good. This principle of participation supports Moral Theology through a reflection upon the Genesis Story. Man and woman put their hand to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequences of sin and death were the result of desiring knowledge in disobedience to Divine Revelation. But this does not negate the reality that man and woman are existentially able to reason the good and the absence of good (evil). As such, Catholic Moral Theology knowing with certitude that everything which is good comes from God, is enriched when reflecting upon the Natural Law (a participation in the Eternal Law) and Divine Revelation. For example, the truth that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness stems from Natural Law. (20)

18 Dodds, Proposition 23 States that all this is un-participated produces out of itself the participated; and all the participated substances are linked by upward tension to existences not participated.

19 Cessario, p. 81.

20 Spitzer, pp. 53-57.

  In summary, philosophy rooted in the principle of seeking the good through the gift of reason, provides a crucial contribution in support of the development of Catholic Moral Theology. With this crucial support, Catholic Moral Theology serves the whole church to fulfill its mission of the new evangelization to the world, to form the conscience of members of the Body of Christ, shepherding them through complex moral issues, and to remain faithful to the task of guarding the Deposit of Faith with the help of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:13-15).


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