Wednesday, 29 January 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics III: Basic Questions 2 (Pinckaers 1995)

This is part 3 of a series on Christian ethics I originally wrote some years ago. The rest of the series can be found here.

(Originally posted 26 April 2009)

Continuing my analysis of Pinckaers' book (earlier entries here), some further basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence:

3. Life's meaning and goal. Pinckaers quotes the pioneering Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, as saying "The psychic life of man is determined by his goal." St. Thomas taught that happiness is our ultimate end, but later moralists dismissed this idea of Man's ultimate end as "too speculative" in favour of "the study of individual actions in relation to law, the study of cases of conscience". But this misses the point that finality is essential to human existence.
Since the question of life's goal or ultimate end is so important, we might define Christian ethics as the science that teaches us the meaning of life. It shows the supreme end toward which all our actions should be directed, the end that gives them meaning, value, and wholeness. Within this perspective, the work of the ethicist and the priest will be to help every Christian, indeed all whose lives they touch, to respond personally to the question of the real meaning of life. Their task will be to point out the highest good in the light of the Gospel and to show how all lesser goods can lead to it.
4. Suffering. Pinckaers observes that "the manuals of moral theology have little to say about suffering", choosing instead to refer this matter to treatises on asceticism. But as he points out further, both Scripture and human experience shows the centrality of suffering in human existence. The life of Christ and His disciples is steeped in suffering. The theme is prominent in the Psalms and in Job. Even on a relatively mundane level, suffering leads Man to appreciate good. According to Pinckaers, the failure of ethicists to deal with this concept is another result of the over-emphasis on obligations: "once the idea of obligation becomes dominant and determines the scope of morality, the consideration of suffering becomes marginal, since it is not a matter of obligation," and continues, "On the other hand, if the idea of happiness is the initial consideration in moral theology, the place of suffering will be obvious, for it is precisely the reverse of happiness. Suffering will then be an element of moral theology from the start." The concept of suffering is prominent in St. Thomas, too, and closely tied up with the virtue of courage, Christian martyrdom, and the Passion of Christ.

Pinckaers believes that the separation of ethics and suffering is the product of a rationalistic mindset, according to which reason and will occupy the paramount position in the moral life of the individual, while love and suffering are secondary concepts. On an even lower level is to be found the (largely irrational) sentiments, which must be dominated by reason. But, says Pinckaers,
In setting up this dichotomy between reason and appetite, rationalism misunderstands the existence of what might be termed spiritual sensibility... [which] is associated with direct perception - a kind of instinct or connatural knowledge - and with the unique movement of selfless love which is the love of friendship... And delightedly [St. Thomas] called the gifts of the Holy Spirit "instincts of the Holy Spirit" in both intellect and will.
Instead, Pinckaers, here as always, calls for a more integrative approach which can also effectively take in the question of death which is so prominent in our society.

I can't determine whether his assertion that the separation of ethics and asceticism is due to rationalism is correct, or whether this separation necessarily implies that one is superior to the other. It might seem reasonable to separate the two for investigative purposes. But the integrative approach called for by Pinckaers certainly seems to promise a more rounded view of human existence and the role of ethics in it.

Monday, 27 January 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics II: Basic questions 1 (Pinckaers 1995)

This is part 2 of a series on Christian ethics I originally wrote some years ago. The first part can be found here.

(Originally posted 12 March 2009)

I started working through Servis Pinckaers OP's work The Sources of Christian Ethics here. Moving on from placing the issue in its historical context, Pinckaers posits some basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence.

1. What is a person obliged to do and not do - what Kant called the moral imperative? This was touched upon in the previous post. Pinckaers points out that Catholic moral teaching of the last six centuries has tended to assign an unjustifiably large importance to the role of moral obligations. For instance, ethicists have discussed how often we are obliged to pray, or perform works of charity. Some, especially Protestants, will infer that this is silly since we are required to do so incessantly. This is a bit beside the point, for such discussions took place in the context of determining when people were obliged to go to Confession - if a person had not performed a charitable act for two months, should that be considered a grave sin which needed to be confessed? This is a valid question for a Catholic. However, there is a danger, Pinckaers argues, of equating morality simply with the science of obligations and duties. This is a reduced view of morality, since - as the Saints demonstrate - what drives Christian life is the interior workings of the Spirit, which, while ensuring the honouring of obligations and duties, also calls Man to go beyond them.

2. The role of happiness. Some more modern moralists are perplexed that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great master of theology, has very little to say about obligations. But, Pinckaers argues, this is because he frames his teaching on morality in a somewhat different way than later generations of moralists. St Thomas, in fact, bases his whole moral teaching on the question of happiness, beatitude. This is not something novel. Both the Pagan Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church viewed the question of happiness as the primary principle in dealing with morality. When St. Augustine is asked what we should ask of God, he replies, "Ora beatam vitam" - "Ask for the happy life." Right living, it was unanimously believed, would lead naturally to a state of happiness. Friendship is another important theme, especially among the Greek Fathers. St. Thomas defined charity as friendship with God. Pinckaers notes:
This theme has completely disappeared from modern books on morality. The reason is obvious: friendship, being essentially free, could hardly be considered an obligation. Friendship can create obligations, but the inverse is not true. As a result, friendship has been excluded from the field of morality as an indifferent sentiment...
As Pinckaers points out, the approach of the Fathers and St. Thomas is profoundly scriptural, much more so than that of later moralists. The wisdom litterature, the Beatitudes in Matthew's Gospel, St. Paul all speak of morality in the context of the search for happiness. Later moralists seldom quote Scripture apart from the Decalogue.

Now, I and many others would infer that all this talk about happiness is very good, but is there not a risk of perverting the quest for genuine happiness - which is found only in the beholding of the glory of God - into a self-seeking hedonism? Pinckaers acknowledges this concern, but, he argues,
The quality of our desire for happiness depends on the love that inspires it and on our concept of the human person. If the love is selfish, and still more if the human person is seen as a being with needs craving satisfaction, then the desire for happiness is bound to be self-centered... If, on the other hand, a person is capable of true, unselfish love for God and neighbour... then the desire for happiness can lead that person to be open to God and neighbour and become generous.
According to Pinckaers, obligations and happiness are not antithetical to one another. A proper moral theory of beatitude should well be able to accord obligations and the Commandments their proper place within it. Going on, he says,
This would be to place Christian ethics in a very different context. It would be seen as the science of happiness and of the ways that lead thereto... In Scripture, God always approaches us with promises of happiness before speaking of precepts. Inspired by the desire for happiness, the movements of the human heart and all its actions, even on the level of emotion, can work together to foster moral growth...
I completely agree with Pinckaers that this must be the starting points of Christian ethics. After all, the Beatitudes were the starting point of Christ's moral teaching. This in no way reduces the radical demands of the Gospel, but rather places them in their proper context. As I see it, what many perceive as "traditional" Catholic moral teaching, i.e. that of the last six centuries, for all the truth it contains has shown to be vulnerable in that it stresses law for law's own sake, thereby separating it from the concerns and challenges of the individual. This has probably been a factor in the large-scale defections from the Church in recent decades. In contrast, by positing law as the answer to Man's legitimate search for happiness, its relevance in the life of each individual shines forth clearly, and we realize that our innate longing for happiness is fulfilled by adhering to the revealed truth about God, our ultimate end.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics I: Introduction (Pinckaers 1995)

In the coming days I will revisit a series of posts I wrote some time ago on the Swiss Catholic theologian Servis Pinckaers' important work The Sources of Christian Ethics. At that time I provided a summary and some reflections on the introduction, in which he explains the scope of the work and asks some basic questions to start off his investigation. I now offer these posts again for reflection and discussion, and hopefully I will soon delve further into the book:

(Originally published 28 February 2009)

This is the first of a probably long series of posts where I will relate my thoughts on works on ethics which I am reading. In this day and age, it is hard to distinguish good, orthodox Christian books on ethics from dissenting ones. There is such confusion as to what constitutes genuine Christian thought, which is why everyone studying this type of subject should consult theologians whom one knows to be solidly orthodox and whom one trusts.

Incidentally, I got Servis Pinckaers OP's book The Sources of Christian Ethics as a present from my mother, who is not Catholic. But I had confirmed by a Priest whom I trust that it was an excellent work. Pinckaers is a member of the Order of Preachers, the Dominican Friars, who have a long tradition of scholarly excellence. Sadly, many of them have lately veered off into speculative non-Christian theology, but Pinckaers places himself squarely in the ancient tradition along with the greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas (also an OP).

Pinckaers' main point, with which I heartily agree, is made clear from the very start: any genuinely Christian view of ethics and morality must be based in the sources of the Christian faith - namely, Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers. This seems self-evident, but, as he shows, the sources have been largely neglected, not only during the past century, but in fact since the late Middle Ages.

I am always wary of theologians who imply that the pre-Vatican II Church went 'off course', as if it had completely misunderstood the message of the Gospel. Such a notion is of course intolerable for a Catholic. Yet Pinckaers is not the first I have seen raise the point that the late Middle Ages saw some unhelpful shifts happen in Catholic theology, and it seems there is something to it. If we look at the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and further back of St. Augustine and most of the Fathers, they are adamant that the participation of the human intellect with Divine Reason, the source of all existence, is a necessary element of Christian faith. Life as a Christian is "Life in the Holy Spirit", is communion with God. Though we are fallen and sinful human beings, God's grace gives us the ability to overcome sin and become ever more like Him.

But from the late Middle Ages until modern times, moral theologians focused increasingly on the duties and obligations required of the Christian. Pinckaers points out that the need for Priests to determine (especially vis-à-vis Confessions) which actions were sinful and which sins were mortal and which venial (for an understanding of this distinction, read here) led to the drawing up of manuals classifying sins according to their nature, and listing moral obligations imperative upon Christians. These were intended for the formation of Priests, but Priests were influenced by them in their preaching, which perhaps at times led to an unhealthy focus on the letter of the Law rather than its Spirit in the life of the Church in general.

I contend here: duties and obligations are indeed important, something which our age has largely forgotten. Ills like divorce and abortion arise from a lack of sense of duty and a supreme focus on one's personal well-being. It is also important to know what is sinful and what not. But it is true that a genuine sense of duty and of love for others cannot arise from a purely juridical view of ethics which easily degenerates into legalism. It must be born from the encounter with the Divine, the infusion of God's grace into our lives.

Of course, moral theologians of the past centuries would have largely agreed. But Pinckaers' issue with them is that they wanted to treat moral theology as a science separate from the rest of theology, essentially leaving it in the hands of jurists who would work out what was sinful and not according to more or less arcane casuistic principles. This concept of morality focuses very much on the Moral Law, starting from the Ten Commandments as an expression of the Natural Moral Law (the Law inherent to all Mankind) and adding various prescriptions of the New Covenant, as well as some particular laws of the Church (such as the ancient obligations of fasting and attending Mass on Sundays). One can be forgiven for seeing in this the works-centred Christianity which Luther rebelled against (although it has nothing to do with 'justification through works'). It certainly is, Pinckaers says, a system which is more concerned with sin than with virtue.

Instead, or rather to complete this truncated view of ethics, Pinckaers offers a view of ethics as
the branch of theology that studies human acts so as to direct them to a loving vision of God seen as our true, complete happiness and our final end. This vision is attained by means of grace, the virtues, and the gifts, in the light of revelation and reason.
According to Pinckaers, theology has suffered from being divided into ethics, dogmatics, and various other disciplines. It must rather be integrated and seen as a whole. Also, ethics must focus more on both the external and internal, individual and communitarian realm, rather than merely on cases of individual conscience, such as the casuists did. All this is to direct us to God, our final end, but it must include the dimension of love, without which ethics is sterile. Also, it must include the dimension of happiness; not understood in a sentimental way, but as the natural aim of our actions. Grace builds on nature. It is perfectly natural for us to want to attain happiness, even if we have a distorted view of what happiness constitutes. By God's grace, our natural impulses are given the proper direction and become vehicles of grace.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Blogging again

As my lovely wife decided to take up blogging, I thought I might have a go at it again after a four-year hiatus. I think I need somewhere to pen thoughts that are deeper than a facebook update can bear.

Just to recapitulate what I want to do with this blog:
  • Share thoughts on various issues I grapple with, such as: Christian faith and morality, medical ethics, unborn rights, family, fatherhood, the place of religion in society, politics, traditionalism, art...
  • Try to uncover the meaning of human life and the mystery of the human person, with the help of Catholic Christian teaching and the great philosophers and theologians, Christian as well as non-Christian.
  • Promote a vision of human life as a pursuit of truth, of beauty and of happiness - not understood as pleasure but as a state in which life is suffused with meaning and beauty, even in the face of struggles and adversity, a happiness that can only be fulfilled by fellowship with the Creator.
Looking back at some of my previous posts I can see that I have since matured somewhat in my way of thinking and reacting. Some of what I wrote then was perhaps rather unreflected and harsh, but I hope to do better in the future and that all I write will be edifying for all who happen to pass by.