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Class 3

Ockham on liberty, God’s will, and law

Last time we finished with Nominalism and the vision of Ockham on liberty. For him, liberty meant that we’re not determined to any direction. Any habit would be a constraint on liberty. Freedom for him consisted in the ability to choose in any way whatsoever. Ockham looked at individual acts in an atomic way, not at man as a being responsible for all his acts. Ockham claimed that completely unrestrained was the absolutely free will of God, for the will of God is omnipotent. What God wills becomes good because God wills it. He denied any law in human nature, though he conceded that things are generally done in the same way by God. He doesn’t change the ten commandments every now and then, but he could. There’s nothing to stop God will’sfrom changing from one day to the next. Likewise for Ockham, our will is absolutely free up until the point that something is forbidden by God.

Hence, the core of morality consists in the will of God. Moral goodness or evil denote that the agent is obliged to a particular act or its opposite. To act well means to fulfill divinely and externally imposed obligations. Obligations were the highest imperatives of the moral law, even supplanting charity. All law, because it expresses obligation, is hence important. Saint Thomas said that law is like a signpost to that which is good. For Ockham, the law is just a series of do’s and don’ts. So the natural law for Ockham mirrors the will of God in my conscience. The decisions of God do not have to be justified or logical. The Decalogue is just an expression of the arbitrary will of God. Since Ockham, law has taken on an increasingly important function in moral theologies.

For Saint Thomas, law shows us where the values are, but the virtues are the core of morality. To play football well you need the training of a coach, but there comes a time when you no longer need a coach; but then there is the rule book. Fr. McCabe says we need both the signposts and the interior liberty to choose the good. Out of 1422 pages in the Latin summa, only 26 deal with the commandments.

Prudence and conscience

Ockham wrote about prudence and the practical reason, but changed their meanings. The practical intellect was not to discover the law and order things in their relationship to God — he didn’t write about synderesis — but consisted in the manifestation of the will of God in the commandments and the application of these commands to the human situation and movement toward action. The practical reason and prudence were merely intermediaries transmitting an obligation; there’s no human creativity involved. The human will can be just by following the rules alone. For Saint Thomas prudence is a general virtue, having a certain creativity toward action. There’s no creativity in terms of the ends, but in terms of the acts. For Ockham, obedience became the general virtue. Ockham built a logical and a consistent system of morality based on obligation. Before that, morality consisted in happiness, with the ancient philosophers and the fathers. Happiness was achieved by the virtues, practical and theological. In the Summa, there is no article on obligation as such.

Up to the 14th century, the moral teaching was about happiness and the virtues that led to it. With Ockham, the center of gravity changed and the study of morality became the study of obligations. Almost all Catholic moralists from the 17th century on were imbued by Ockham’s spirit of obligation. For Ockham, we are free up to the limits imposed by God. God reduces our liberty. Moral science had two poles: the liberty of God; the practical reason, which listens and applies rules (often called conscience). Within these two poles, concrete, doubtful cases were studied and analyzed. This was casuistry. The preparation of priests for pastoral concerns kept a focus on sin as well.

The other treatises that Saint Thomas wrote were either dropped or forgotten. Happiness was considered suspicious. The emotions, which give dynamism to the virtues, were considered a threat. Virtue was reduced to the conformity of the will to the law. Charity was subordinated to obligation. The gifts of the Spirit disappeared from this moral theology. So casuistry had its source in Ockham.

A renewal of moral theology demands a return to the time before Nominalism, which reduced the revelation of morality to the obligations. We have Scripture on happiness, charity, Mary and Martha, etc.

The modern moral manuals

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the scholastics became divorced from practical experience. Along the line of the old Irish penitentiaries, other summae confessorum arose. The theology of the universities became far too academic, and this development led to the birth of a new office in the church, the professional theologian, divorced form pastoral contact. The speculative approach aimed at the building of faith disappeared from the theological studies at universities; voluntarism and Nominalism caused dissatisfaction at the universities. As a reaction to this, we have the rise of great mystics in the 14th and 15th century, warning against university theology: Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a Kempis, Brigit of Sweden, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. Kempis wrote about the vanity of theological speculation. Saint Francis de Sales showed in the 16th century that all people are called to holiness, which was almost novel to the time.

Since Nominalism had placed the emphasis on obligation, love took a back seat. The counsels had been seen only for the few; mysticism for a smaller number. Academic theology was separated from practical experience, from the Gospel, which was not a speculative text but an evangelical tool. When good speculative principles are forgotten, experience took over as the grounding data. Biblical exegesis began to concern itself far less with faith, looking for what the one author (the Holy Spirit) had to say.

Beside these shortcomings, there were developments, particularly in ethical reflections on new modern problems, on immigration, sailing, pagans, the Indians in the New World. The voice of the theologians in Spain began to become important. The 16th century brought a renewal of Saint Thomas, who replaced Lombard in the schools, de Vittoria, de Soto, Baņez, John of Saint Thomas, Cajetan — many of them had a great interest in the prima secundae. Cajetan, however, when he reached the part on the new law ignored it.

Azor’s Model Manual

The Council of Trent required that seminaries were to be established, and that priests had to be prepared for their ministry in the confessional to hear integral confessions. The seminaries required a set of textbooks. The first manual, which became a model, was from Juan Azor, SJ, Institutiones Morales (1600); it was divided into the following four sections: the ten commandments, the seven sacraments, censures, other ecclesiastical penalties and indulgences; states of life; and final ends. The sacraments were studied under the aspect of obligations that flowed from them. Azor’s manual was preceded by an introduction with seven themes: human acts, the moral qualification of acts (good or evil), the emotions leading to good or evil, habits, virtues in general, habits in general, moral laws and the five Church commandments — which Azor claimed were taken directly from Saint Thomas. They were, but he dropped the treatise on happiness which opens the Summa, the treatise on the gifts of the spirit, and the treatise on grace. Happiness in terms of the final end was considered worthless and too speculative. The question of the hunger for happiness was treated as unimportant. Lombard wrote of happiness at the end of his work, and Saint Thomas consciously put it into the beginning.

The division between prima secundae and secunda secundae occurred after the discussion on happiness. Strict obligation cannot be found in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Counsels come from a different discipline, it was said. The practical conclusion was that the spiritual life was not for ordinary people. Love became required by the first and fourth commandments, and justice was the root of all the rest. In the old textbooks, justice was omnipresent, because it could be measured. The law of Moses was interpreted as a set of obligations, rather than as a part of a covenant. The dropping of the treatise on grace occurred because it was considered too speculative. Grace was given to the dogmatic theologians, not the moralists. But grace has such a role in our practical moral living. When moral theology is built on law interpreted voluntaristically, there is no room for grace. It was handed over to the dogmatic theologians and became way too speculative in dogmatic theology, which led to a practical Pelagianism. Azor didn’t deny grace, but excluded the study of it in the moral system he constructed.

Azor had a long study on conscience, which Saint Thomas had hardly mentioned. The various types of sins and laws were studied The study of the emotions, habits, virtues were minimized, and understood as hindrances to free acts. Azor’s became a model for several centuries; it was coherent and built on obligation. It was received without discussion by all of the schools. This led to the reduction of morality to casuistry — how far one can go before sinning. The task of the pastor consisted in the formation of consciences, in difficult, doubtful cases. This led to a focus on sin rather on how to love God better. Many people who act against the Church in the past twenty years react because of this same problem, too much of a concentration on sin.

The Laxists allowed for liberty in cases of doubt, which was condemned. The Jansenists went to the other extreme, that almost everything was sin. Probabalists held that if we can find some argument to prove what we want to do, we can do it. Such a moral theology had no contact with dogmatic theology. The whole of moral theology was centered on two conflicting principles: law and liberty. Moral theology had the task of determining what was obligatory, what were the limits of liberty. The most important source became the canon law. Casuistry considered moral situations as separate monads with no interdependence, and their relationship to grace was left aside. Spiritual theology was called a theology of the interior life, rather than of life in general. So the subject matter of moral science was reduced, only to those things that can be reduced to obligation. Hence what moves people really — friendship, love, fortitude, martyrdom — were outside of moral theology.

When prudence was replaced by conscience, the latter’s function was reduced to that of a judge, to know the requirements and apply them to circumstances. Of course confessors were reminded that they were to mediate divine mercy — not to burden consciences too heavily — but the manuals were too juridical to allow a flowering of divine mercy. The priests also read the Gospels, too, but the manuals were very influential. That there was ever another approach was not thought of. The dogma of the Church were interpreted to be propositions imposed on reason by faith. Dogmatic statements weren’t seen as a gain for the Church to help us to focus more on God, but dogma was seen as a limit imposed on the mind. It was important, hence, to know the minimum of what we ought to believe. The fathers did not conceive of these types of limits.

Despite the problems of the manuals, we must praise their merits: they formed the masses; they never tried to cover all of morality; there were great moralists who were also great spiritual leaders (Saint Alphonsus). Saint Alphonsus searched for common sense in the controversy between the Laxists and the Probabalists. For his spiritual theology we must look to his works on the love of Jesus Christ and on prayer, but not in his textbook on morality. The conviction prevailed that the moralist doesn’t require a spiritual teaching. The manuals of the post-Tridentine period were moral instructions rather than moral theology. They had no real enthusiasm for the spiritual life.

There were several types of manuals. The first is of Saint Alphonsus and Aertrys (the 17th edition appeared in 1958); another is of Tanquerey, Noldin (appeared in 1960); the Thomistic tradition includes Merkelbeck and Prummer (published in 1960 as well).

Different approaches to correct the problems

The return to Saint Thomas and to the living word of God will allow us to return to all that was lost. We must recognize the presence of God in all we do, to make use of the gratuitously given generosity of God. The fact that the manuals were not ideal shouldn’t paralyze us, nor tempt us to think that we’re now better or smarter. God has his ways of reaching souls and isn’t constrained by manuals. There have been attempts to find a new approach. So from the beginning of the 19th century, there was a criticism of casuistry, particularly by the Germans (Hirscher, Seiler). They differed from the typical moralists on the central theme of moral theology: the putting into practice of the kingdom of God within us. Theologians from Tubingen objected to the construction of moral theology on law, because so few of our moral life is based on obligation. Tillman claimed that the activity of people is the consequence of a decision, a free decision. Moral theory based on the immanence of the kingdom of God doesn’t displace the need for norms, but shows that we need more than norms, we need something to attract us. For a Christian, Jesus is the supreme model. Whatever develops life in Christ is good; whatever doesn’t is evil. It entails action as Jesus would do in this situation. This principle is very evangelical, but it cannot be applied always and everywhere, in terms of the ethics of the stock exchange, or with artificial insemination. Theology cannot introduce into an atmosphere; it must explain and give reasons for what we do.

Another (a Belgian) linked the moral life to the mystical body of Christ. Good moral activity flows from grace and builds up the Church. Bernard Haring wrote his Law of Christ that the central theme is the response to the divine call. He also included a sacramental dimension is his moral theology, but for him law remains quite important. All these attempts for renewal led to Vatican II.

Vatican II and moral theology

Vatican II inspired renewal in all aspects of the Church’s life, so also in morals. The dissent in moral theology that appeared after Humanae Vitae, and the response to that dissent, should not detract the Church from the renewal that is being undertaken under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This work needs to continue despite the problems with the dissenters. Vatican II did not give us a specific text on moral theology. Among the documents prepared for the Council, there was a proposed constitution on the moral order (written by an SJ, OP, and OFM). It was negative, assailing problems like subjectivism. It contrasted the problems with the universal moral law, expressed doubts about the primacy of charity in the moral law, pointed to the difference between the moral life and the spiritual life — and was rejected. Why wasn’t it replaced? Some historians claim that the major documents were proceeded by great theological movements in ecclesiology and patrology. In moral theology, the development before the council was minimal. There were also many specialists in other fields in the Council, and few moralists.

So we need to find the theology in other documents. In Optatam Totius 16, we read that special care should be given to moral theology, which should draw more from Scripture and throw light on Christian vocation and the obligations to bring forth light in the world. This was, it seemed to many, a "could do better" comment from a teacher, putting the burden on moral theology. Gaudium et Spes touches on morality in many sections. We can summarize the chief aspects of the renewal of theology in Vatican II. It will be or have:

1) Christocentric and related to the history of salvation.

2) Rooted in the interior life of God, theological virtues, and open to love of God flowing from Trinity

3) The primacy of charity

4) The vocation to sanctity is universal, not elitist

5) Nourished by a deeper dependence on Scripture

6) Historical development is to be presented

7) An anthropological and kairetical dimension is needed

8) We must abandon casuistry and domination of sin

9) We must remain under the guidance of the magisterium of the Church, not of the press.

10) Saint Thomas remains as the guardian in theology.

We cannot fit in all of these principles in the course of this class. Although Optatam Totius had the formation of priests in mind, it did include a reworking of moral theology. In 1976, the Congregation for Education released a document that precised moral theological training. To overcome one-sidedness and fill in the omissions of past manuals due to legalism and to separation from revelation, the epistemological status must be discussed. We must have a lively awareness of connection between moral and dogmatic theology. It must be as precise as dogmatic theology, and it must be synthetic. We must consider the human and natural sciences as well as human experience. Profound philosophical reflection will help our awareness of the deposit of faith. The dynamic aspect must be cultivated so that man will be called to respond. It will acquire an inner spiritual dimension when it considers the imago Dei. And it will be well to refer to Saint Thomas.

The requirement to be tied to Scripture and Christ is difficult sometimes with modern moral problems. It’s not enough for exegetical clarification, or adornment of Biblical authority. Is the main argument based on philosophy or exegesis? The Bible is not meant to stick up for unconvincing rational argumentation. Moral theology shouldn’t frame questions for Scripture, but the other way around. We must read Scripture in faith and the Holy Spirit will help us to look at moral problems. The moral theologian cannot impose his own limited scope on Scripture; rather, he must allow himself to be drawn by the texts he receives in faith. He cannot reduce his use of Scripture to the texts on moral obligation. He must be open to Biblical themes on martyrdom, divine indwelling, salvation through faith, personal trust in Jesus. The theology of Christian living should consider the new situation of the Christian after the resurrection. The first and most necessary gift is charity, by which we love God and our neighbor through him. Charity is first of all and gift and then a precept.

The importance of the history of moral theology

The historical development is important too, as is the history of the development of dogma in the history of the Church and the history of philosophy. There are many blanks in the history of moral theology. We need this history, to determine how theologians erred, and so to bring about a proper renewal. This does not lead to a moral relativism among different times. We should look for the way in which the various moral truths are synthesized. Profound historical study should liberate from moral relativism, as it leads to a more firm grasp of the essential truths; it permits a more profitable use of the tradition. To be open to contemporary questions, to discern the signs of the times, is also necessary. We are to profit from the achievement of human sciences, which is a challenge for the church, particularly with the new medical techniques. Compared with the preconciliar period, there is a great trust today for moral theologians and, with great confidence in the Holy Spirit, the Church now faces the world. We must look at the problems and see how the Holy Spirit is leading the Church. The production of theology in the last 40 years is comparable to the whole 19th century. This can be of great benefit.


But there has also been a great period of dissent. In the 50s, dissent was an unknown term. To claim that you’re a Catholic and a dissident was unheard of. The English bishops in the 16th century, except Saint John Fisher, left the Church but kept the doctrine. Today, many have left the doctrine and kept the name. The previous political attachment of priests to the political right has switched to the left. The fixation of some theologians to the sixth and ninth commandments has led to a liberalization on sexuality. The fulcrum was Humanae Vitae. Numerous theologians publicly claimed dissent. The history of these dissenting positions is revealing, because those who claimed then that the Church could be wrong on contraception, eventually concluded that the Church could be wrong on other subjects in moral theology as well. These led to the formation of theories of morality which would justify their conclusions: The teleological theory (on intention) on the cultural influence, the fundamental option theory (no mortal sin), the primacy of the individual conscience over the teaching of the Church, etc.

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