Two Paradigms of Catholic Moral Theology

By Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP

October 14, 2007


            We are all to some extent the products of our culture.  Whether we like it or not, we are influenced by modern developments in theology, philosophy, science and historical studies.  Thus, it is good to take a step back once in a while to ponder how modernity, or perhaps post-modernity, influences our thinking.  No man is an island.  We need to recognize to what extent today’s Western culture colors our understanding and practice of the Catholic faith.  One of the crucial elements of that culture is found in the basic assumptions surrounding ethics or morality.

            The older half of this room was raised with a catechesis that emphasized the Ten Commandments.  Just think of the Baltimore Catechism.  You memorized those commandments well, and remember them to this day.  If I were to ask you what the heart of Catholic morality consists of, some or perhaps most of you would probably say: the Ten Commandments.  When the Commandments were hard to apply to a moral situation, how did you resolve the issue?  You would probably look for an official pronouncement by the Church or ask your parish priest.  Ethics was a straightforward matter: follow the rules, and you will be fine.

            The younger half of this room was raised with a catechesis that did not emphasize the Ten Commandments, and perhaps not much else either.  You might remember learning various stories about Jesus and being told to follow your conscience.  To be honest, I can barely remember even that, and I went to Catholic schools for twelve years.  But the basic lesson was: be good to your neighbor and follow your conscience.

            Now you might think that these two forms of catechesis are utterly opposed in their basic philosophies.  This is true to some extent, but I want to propose that in one sense, both forms of catechesis spring from the same root.  The idea may sound absurd to you.  The older catechesis was crystal clear, perhaps too much so, while the more recent catechesis seems terribly murky.  But I want to show you how we arrived at many of today’s basic assumptions about Catholic morality by telling you a story, one that will show how the two forms of catechesis actually share numerous crucial assumptions.  The story is mostly inspired by a brilliant theologian and historian of ethics named Servais Pinckaers, a Belgian Dominican who taught in Fribourg, Switzerland for many years, where he still resides and does research.  Pinckaers has developed quite a following among moral theologians throughout the world, and helped to initiate a renaissance in what we call virtue ethics.  But that’s getting ahead of the story.

            Much of Pinckaers’ greatness as a moral theologian consists in his amazing grasp of the history of Christian theology.  By telling the story of how Catholic morality was taught throughout the centuries, Pinckaers was able to identify the strengths and deficiencies of our own era.  I will highlight some of Pinckaers’ historical discoveries for you, ranging from antiquity, to the Middle Ages to modernity.


The Patristic Heritage

            When we look back at the moral thinking of ancient Christians, we find that moral catechesis was quite different from the two types that those in this room have experienced.  The first catechetical text that we know of is the Didache, which was completed around 110 A.D..  It reflects very old traditions probably going back to the middle of the 1st century.  The Didache is striking in that it combines a very rigorous set of rules that are clearly based on the Ten Commandments with numerous allusions to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  The Didache makes it clear that murder, theft and abortion are unthinkable acts for a Christian, while almsgiving is not optional for those who are not poor.  Intertwined with these precepts are exhortations to pray and fast for one’s enemies.  The Didache is not interested in present a list of minimum requirements for Christian behavior.  Nor can the author imagine the case of a Christian who obtains an abortion without sinning because their conscience approves.  Rather, the Commandments and the beatitudes go hand-in-hand as essential elements of daily Christian life.  Did you learn how the beatitudes are to be lived when you were in CCD or religion class?

            The pattern we find in the Didachist can be detected throughout ancient Christianity.  Much of the catechetical instruction of ancient bishops and priests took place in the context of their Sunday sermons.  This means that their ethical instructions were almost always based on biblical stories, especially the Gospels.  The teaching and example of Jesus became the primary foundation of ancient Christian morality (Pinckaers, Sources of Christian Ethics, 195-6).  In resolving hard ethical questions, the ancient Christians did not ask: “what would Jesus do?”, a rather tricky enterprise where the Jesus of our imagination easily displaces the real Jesus.  Rather, the ancient Christians learned to ask: “what did Jesus do?”, something they knew quite well from their Sunday sermons.  Here we find a crucial difference between ancient Jewish ethics, which was indeed centered on the Ten Commandments and other precepts, and Christian ethics, where biblical precepts and the life of Jesus became complimentary sources of doctrine.

            But a synthesis of stories about Jesus and Old Testament precepts is not easy.  Many of the Church Fathers or early theologians found a very handy model in pagan philosophy that enabled them to integrate these distinct sources.  The model is none other than the cardinal virtues of prudence or wisdom, justice, temperance and fortitude.  The virtues are habitual dispositions to use the mind, will and emotions well.  Prudence is the habit of finding the best means to the end, justice is the habit of treating my neighbor with fairness, temperance is the habit of enjoying the good things of life in moderation, and fortitude is the habit of overcoming fear in order to stand up to injustice.  Writers like St. Clement of Alexandria (early 3rd century) and St. Ambrose of Milan (late 4th century) used the cardinal virtues that Plato and Aristotle had already taught to present a summary of Christian morals.  This development may sound like an invasion of non-Christian philosophy into the world of pure biblical revelation.  But in fact, preachers like Ambrose turned to Scripture and the Christian tradition for the bulk of the content that explicated the four virtues, which were, of course, also completed by the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  Now, the perfection of prudence was not just in choosing the right means to an end, but also in knowing the Trinity.  The goal of justice was not just to be fair to one’s neighbor, but to love God with the whole heart.  Christians also added new biblical virtues, like humility and patience, within the pattern of the four cardinal virtues (Wilken, 279-284).

            In virtue ethics, a central conviction is that certain kinds of acts naturally lead to our happiness and personal fulfillment, while others take us away from our happiness.  The virtues involve the proper use of certain faculties or abilities of soul and body, such as the mind, the will and our emotions.  The nature of this “proper use” is inscribed in our very being, in our human nature.  This was already Aristotle’s conviction.  Thus, engaging in fair business practices may cost me money, at least in the short-run, but it will actually lead me to greater happiness.  Consuming food with moderation may prevent me from indulging my appetites here and now, but such discipline will keep the desires of soul and body properly ordered, and therefore able me to enjoy food more without over-consuming.

            But the Christian doctrine of creation also offered a sound foundation for this conviction that nature is intelligibly ordered.  Beginning in the Old Testament and culminating in the Gospel of John, we learn that God created the world with wisdom, or through the Logos, the Word, which we might also translate as reason.  God creates by bringing order and intelligibility into the universe.  In fact, both the Old and the New Testament are convinced that the order of creation is such that traces of the Creator can be found in it (Wisdom 13:1-5, Romans 1:20).  The universe is not chaotic or unintelligible.  It has a particular pattern that reflects God’s wisdom, and a particular goal, which is to be reconciled with God (Revelation 1:17).


Aquinas’ Synthesis

            The patristic synthesis of Old and New Testament ethics within the model of the virtues bore great fruit in the Middle Ages, especially in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas (are you surprised?).  Aquinas devoted half of his gigantic Summa Theologiae to moral theology.  Interestingly, he did not organize his ethics around the Ten Commandments, but rather around the virtues.  Aquinas saw the biblical precepts as supernatural manifestations of the true content of the virtues.  The Commandments teach us how to live the virtues.  He begins his section on ethics with the question of happiness.  First, he determines that we are naturally inclined toward happiness, and that we can only be fulfilled through communion with God, which is fully attained in heaven.  The key to Aquinas’ ethics is not duty or obedience, but happiness.  We are naturally inclined to the good by our Creator, despite the wounds of sin (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, questions 1-6).  By learning and practicing the virtues and seeking out God’s grace, especially in the sacraments, we overcome those wounds and attain a gradually increasing share of our true happiness.

Aquinas proposed a second crucial insight.  He was convinced that revelation is not just a manifestation of God’s will, but also a manifestation of his being and wisdom.  That is, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and fulfilled the teaching of the Law through the Sermon on the Mount and the Paschal Mystery, God revealed something of his very being.  The Ten Commandments show us how to act in a God-like way.  Jesus seems to confirm this in his teaching, which clearly builds on the Ten Commandments: “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”.  Aquinas was convinced that the revelation of God in the Old Testament was above all to show Israel who God is.  Likewise, Jesus came to show us the face of the Father (John 1:18, 14:7).  Thus, the inspired moral teachings of the Old and New Testament show us how to become like God.

A third crucial insight of Aquinas is as follows.  Since the God whose wisdom is revealed in the Bible also created the universe with wisdom, there is an essential harmony between the order of creation and the order prescribed in revelation.  Thus, we should expect the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount to enlighten us on the precise content of the virtues, since the virtues deal with the natural inclinations of the human being inscribed by the Creator.

Aquinas was convinced that moral law was not so much the expression of the divine lawmaker’s arbitrary will as a manifestation of his wisdom and love.  For Aquinas, divine law was not something to be dreaded.  We can better understand this if we grasp his notion of freedom.  Perhaps the most famous phrase concerning freedom in Scripture is in the Gospel of John is: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and proposing the fruits of becoming his disciple, of adopting his teaching.  Now if freedom is the ability to do what I want, how can the Pharisees actually become free by knowing the truth through Jesus’ teachings?  If no one is restricting their choices, aren’t they free already?

An example can help us to grasp this notion of freedom.  Anyone has the ability to choose to walk up to a piano and begin to hit different keys.  They can do so for as long as they like, but the sound they will produce will be quite unpleasant.  By contrast, the trained pianist has honed a skill for many years.  He has the ability to play beautiful sonatas by Beethoven that are pleasing to the ear.  He has the capacity to create beauty and delight others.  This is a kind of freedom which the person without piano training does not have.  Pinckaers calls it “freedom for excellence.”

In Aquinas’ understanding, one shared by the Fathers, freedom is the capacity to do the good, the ability to attain greater human fulfillment.  We might call this his fourth crucial insight.  It is a strength of character, an ability to come closer to perfect happiness (Pinckaers, Sources of Christian Ethics, chapter 15).  In other words, as we grow in virtue, we acquire skills or muscles of the soul.  We gain the spiritual strength to choose our true good.  The truth sets us free because in knowing and living the truth of Christ, we are able to choose our true good, eternal life with God.  Freedom is therefore not primarily the power to do whatever I want.  Freedom is primarily the power to act according to my nature, to choose my God-given purpose, my true personal fulfillment.

Aquinas’ understanding of divine law as a revelation of God’s wisdom (the second insight) and freedom as the ability to choose the good (the fourth insight) led him to posit a particular understanding of the role of conscience in the spiritual life.  Today, many people conceive of conscience as inherently in opposition to law.  Conscience becomes a means whereby I can excuse myself from the law at certain times and thus gain a realm of personal freedom, the freedom to do what I want instead of what the lawmaker wants.  For Aquinas, this makes no sense.  Since the revealed moral law shows us the path to our true good, conscience is not a means to escape the law, since such escape leads to slavery, not freedom.  Rather, conscience is that power of my soul that helps me to discern how God’s law applies in concrete situations.  Conscience tells me how I am to love my neighbor who is poor, not whether I should love him or her.  Conscience does not excuse me from chastity, but rather guides me in living out chastity.  Conscience and the moral law are essentially in harmony, not in opposition (Pinckaers, The Pinckaers Reader, 321-355).


The Late Medieval Turn

Aquinas’ synthesis was a marvel, yet its influence and the patristic tradition that he developed would soon fall on hard times.  In the 14th century, the brilliant Franciscan theologian William of Ockham proposed a whole new way of understanding the moral life.  Ockham developed the thought of his Franciscan predecessor Duns Scotus in extolling God’s infinite power and unrestricted will.  For Ockham, the greatest attribute of God is that nothing restricts his action.  This idea may seem rather biblical: “Nothing is impossible for God,” in the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary.  But Ockham would take this doctrine in a radical new direction.

Because God’s will is unrestricted, we should not think that he is limited by an understanding of justice or wisdom that we may derive from revelation.  Rather, revelation is simply one expression of God’s unrestricted will.  God chose to give us the Ten Commandments, but these should not limit him.  Rather, God is free to command someone to hate him, and that person would have to obey, since one should never disobey God.  The Ten Commandments and other moral laws revealed in Scripture are not expressions of God’s wisdom, since that wisdom might limit his will.  Rather, God gives us arbitrary decrees.

The human being is made in the image of God.  Thus, as God’s unlimited will is his greatest attribute, so the greatest characteristic of the human being is his or her freedom.  For Ockham, freedom means the absence of restrictions.  The will is not naturally inclined to the good, or to happiness, since this would restrict the will.  Rather, the will is completely undetermined, and is free to choose this or that.  For Ockham, this is our great dignity as human beings.  Notice that his understanding of freedom is the opposite of Aquinas’.  Pinckaers calls it “freedom of indifference,” the freedom to choose this or that, to choose whatever I want.

Ockham’s notion of the will and human freedom had radical consequences for his whole vision of the human person.  For example, he denies that we have a natural inclination toward happiness.  This means that we are not naturally inclined to the good.  The human will is simply neutral and undetermined.  Any inclinations would restrict the will and thus limit freedom.  This also means that our other faculties like the mind and the emotions do not have natural inclinations.  Acting justly in business will not necessarily lead to greater happiness.  For Ockham, virtue and happiness have little to do with Christian morals.

 What replaced the virtues and our natural inclinations in Ockham’s ethics?  The Commandments of God now took center stage, except that they were simply his arbitrary decrees.  The key to the moral life was accepting restrictions on one’s freedom and obeying the divine lawmaker, no matter what he decreed.  Morality was now reduced to obedience and duty.  Being moral might make you happy if God decides that it should, but there is really no guarantee.  God could change his mind tomorrow and decide to command you to hate your neighbor, since he is free and unrestricted.  Christian holiness was no longer a matter of fulfilling one’s God-given potential and inclination toward happiness and the right use of our human powers.  The key to holiness was now found in blind obedience.  Since the Commandments only express God’s arbitrary will, his wisdom remains utterly mysterious.  The Sermon on the Mount need not be a manifestation of God’s face.

Aquinas and Ockham answer the question, “why should I follow the Ten Commandments?” in radically different ways.  Aquinas would say that you should obey the Commandments because they will make you happy and deepen your communion with God.  Ockham would answer that you should obey the commandments because God said so.  Ockham pushed his idea of divine freedom to the limit.  He proposed that God is perfectly free to condemn the saint to hell (Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, chapters 10-11).


Modern Consequences

            Since the fifteenth century, Ockham’s vision of the moral life has gradually transformed Catholic moral theology.  Despite the influence of Aquinas in the Catholic Church, the majority of theology textbooks in morals from the sixteenth century forward manifest a strong Ockhamist influence.  The virtues became secondary, and the structure of Christian ethics was built around the commandments and duties.  Law and freedom were opposed, suggesting that freedom is the ability to do what I want, while the law restricts freedom.  Ockham’s doctrine of freedom had taken hold, while Aquinas’ vision of freedom as the capacity to choose the good seemed to fade away.  Likewise, conscience was no longer seen as a faculty to help apply the moral law to concrete situations.  Rather, conscience would now mediate between the individual subject’s freedom and law.  Conscience would determine when the law does not require something of me, thus announcing to the subject a realm of freedom, an area of life where one could follow one’s personal inclinations instead of the law (Pinckaers, Sources of Christian Ethics, ch. 11).

            Ockham’s influence was hardly restricted to theology.  By the time that Rene Descartes inaugurated modern philosophy, the Frenchman took for granted Ockham’s definition of freedom as the ability to choose this or that, the ability to do what I want.  Most modern philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant, would follow.  In fact, Kant’s whole ethics was constructed around obligations and duties, exactly what Ockham had proposed.  Ockham’s teaching on freedom was so influential that the vast majority of persons today accept it as a self-evident truth, thinking that freedom is above all the ability to do what I want.  Yet in fact, this idea only emerged out of misguided 14th century theological speculations about the divine will.  Freedom does involve an element of choice, but for Aquinas and the Fathers of the Church, this is not the primary element of freedom.

            Law-centered ethics dominated Catholic moral thinking from the early modern era until the 20th century.  The key to being a good Catholic was to know the divine commandments and the precepts of the Church and to obey without asking questions.  In this paradigm, the Sermon on the Mount, the development of virtue and the quest for happiness were sidelined.  They did not disappear.  But the beatitudes became the object of a quest embarked upon by a spiritual elite.  There was little talk of the cardinal virtues or happiness in moral catechesis and preaching.

            Since Vatican II, a revolution seems to have hit Catholic moral thinking.  Today, we live in the era of the primacy of conscience.  “Follow your conscience” is perhaps the most used ethical advice in Catholic circles.  Many appeal to conscience to excuse themselves from the teachings of the Church or Scripture.  Suddenly, everything seems up for grabs.

            But in fact, we are still stuck in the old modern paradigm.  Today’s frequent appeals to conscience are often made to create a space of personal freedom outside of the moral law.  Conscience and the moral law are set in opposition, not in harmony.  The fruit of conscience is freedom, the ability to do what I want.  Often, the moral law is approached with suspicion.  St. Paul’s prohibitions of homosexual behavior sound too much like his cultural prejudice rather than the Holy Spirit.  The Church’s strict teachings on just war or sex outside of marriage seem to many like the idealistic dreams of Vatican bureaucrats.  Today’s moral climate has found the obligations imposed by the lawmaker oppressive.  The real problem is the way in which we view law, freedom and conscience.  The irony is that post-Vatican II “progressive moral theology” is in many ways operating out of the same assumptions as pre-Vatican II “conservative moral theology.”  The latter often taught us to obey the Bible and the Church without asking questions.  Obedience was the one essential key to being morally upright.  The former tells us simply to follow our conscience and not worry about obedience.  Being true to yourself becomes the key to being ethical.  Instead of following the arbitrary will of the divine or ecclesial lawmaker, we follow our own arbitrary wills.  The will of the individual subject simply replaces the will of the outside lawmaker (Pinckaers, The Pinckaers Reader, 338-344).



            The solution to the problem lies in returning to a patristic and Thomistic understanding of law, freedom and conscience.  The revealed moral law does not consist of arbitrary divine decrees.  God truly shows us a glimpse of his face in the revelation made to Israel and the revelation of Jesus Christ.  The moral teachings of the Scriptures show us who God is.  They teach us how to become like God.  This is why the Sermon on the Mount must be the crown of any authentic Christian ethics, for there, Jesus gives us the highest teaching on how to become like his Father.  The moral law is a gift, not a threat.

God also speaks in sacred Tradition and through his Church.  When the Church interprets the divine law for us by reflecting on Scripture and Tradition, our primary disposition should be one of trust, not suspicion.  In virtue ethics, a community and mentors are essential for any significant growth to occur.  The radically autonomous self constructed by Descartes and his successors is an illusion.  Descartes wanted to construct all thought beginning with the idea, “I think, therefore I am.”  The trouble is that Descartes did not teach himself how to think.  He learned it from his parents and Jesuit professors.  We are communal beings.  No student can learn from his or her teachers if the student’s fundamental attitude is one of mistrust.  The teaching office of the Church is one of those indispensable teachers.  Teachers lead us to freedom by leading us into the truth, even if their every statement is not infallible.  Your parents and 2nd grade teacher were not infallible in everything either, but you still trusted them.  It turns out that they were right most of the time.  Freedom is our capacity to choose to act in a God-like way, not the ability to rebel or follow any inclination.  The truth shall set us free.  Our conscience must be trained in the truth of Christ, so that we can apply the moral law well in our lives.  The purpose of conscience is not to excuse us from God’s way or the teachings of the Church, but to show us how to continue on the path of Christ.  Law, tradition, our community and the Magisterium are essential guides for our conscience, not threats.

            The catechetical systems that we grew up with had their advantages.  The older generation in this room learned the Ten Commandments well.  The younger generation learned that blind obedience is not a virtue.  Most of us have probably picked up bits and pieces of virtue ethics from our parents, from the lives of the saints, or from a few Dominican sermons.  But the challenge for the Church and catechesis remains.  Only by returning to the virtue ethics and Scripture-based moral catechesis of the Fathers and Aquinas will we find a way out of today’s ethical wasteland.  Just think of how different our society would be if people realized that freedom is not the absence of restrictions on my autonomous self but rather the capacity to choose my true good.


Pinckaers, Servais, OP, The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology, edited by John Berkman and Craig Steven Titus (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005).

________. The Sources of Christian Ethics, translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, OP (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

Wilkens, Robert Louis, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought Seeking the Face of God, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003).


Copyright © Bernhard Blankenhorn, 2007