Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P.—a Dominican Friar, priest, and moral theologian who passed away this week—presented the world with a most inspiring and provocative account of Catholic moral teaching. Fr. Pinckaers’ theology is so inspiring because he thought about morality in the same terms as the authors of the New Testament, the Fathers of the Church, and St. Thomas Aquinas rather than in terms that have become woefully common since the fourteenth century.
For the New Testament, the Fathers, and St. Thomas Aquinas, human beings are essentially hungry for happiness. We are hungry for goodness in all of its depths. Furthermore, all human beings are endowed with a free will. Free will is nothing other than the ability to choose what is good, that is, to choose what will lead to true, lasting, and abiding happiness. The trick in life is to find those things that will lead to true, lasting, and abiding happiness, and to choose those things once found.
Because of our inherent hunger for happiness, and because we are all on a quest to find and choose what will make for real happiness, God comes to meet us. He comes both to guide and to solidify our free choices as we travel down the road from Egypt to the Promised Land.
The road is dangerous. At every turn it is fraught with deceptive goods and counterfeit versions of happiness. The deceptions and counterfeits cry out for us to choose them. They can seem so reasonable, so good, so compelling. But despite appearances, these counterfeit goods (that is, evils) inevitably divert us off the road to the Promised Land and lead us down so many dead ends.
But God is with us every step of the way. For thanks to the cross of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us. The Spirit endows us with the most important thing we need to travel this road without getting stung by deceptions and diverted by mere appearances. The Spirit gives us the virtues.
The virtues are dispositions of one's intellect, will, and emotions. These dispositions equip us to do various things that we need to do in order to make our way down the road to the Promised Land. Who can name all the marvelous benefits of the virtues that the Lord gives to us? Some virtues enable us to see through the deceptions all around us, others enable us to make solid decisions in complex circumstances, others restrain us from acting on silly whims and fickle impulses, still others drive us forward when we feel surrounded by threats and swamped by fears. And all the virtues, once deeply ingrained, fill us with joy and delight in acting them out—even in hard circumstances. The virtues perfect our free will. They make it easy to see and choose what will truly make us happy.
But the virtues take time to grow and mature. Just as it takes time for bike riding or piano playing to become second nature, so too it takes time for the virtues to become deeply rooted and second nature. It takes time and growth to feel the ease they afford and the delight they bring.
In the interim, when we are on the road to happiness but virtue is still an immature seedling within us, the Church's moral teachings come to our aid. These moral principles educate us from without and help bring to maturity the virtues poured into us by the Holy Spirit. Felt conflicts between duty and desire are gradually resolved over time as a person morally matures and the virtues radiate through his or her being more and more. The process of moral (i.e. spiritual) growth follows an identifiable pattern or set of stages. The stages are the Beatitudes. One begins by learning poverty of Spirit, then comes a stage of mourning, then meekness takes root, etc. Through it all, the love of Christ compels us. Love makes the growth happen. And the fruit of it all is joy—Christian joy.
Such is Fr. Servais Pinckaers’ understanding of happiness, freedom, virtue, life in the Spirit, moral principles, the priority of love, and the recognition of joy. He advanced his account over and against a rival view of morality that, ever since the 14th century, has become almost everyone’s conception of morality. When most people think of morality, they think of what Pinckaers warns us against. The common understanding of morality (what Pinckaers thought was the wrong understanding) goes like this:
As I sit here, I feel like I have the ability to choose between contrary courses of action. I can keep typing or I can leave the computer, I can go take a walk or go for a drive. I feel like I can choose between contraries. The great mistake of thought is to jump from experiencing my free will as the ability to choose between contraries to the judgment that free will is the ability to choose between contraries. My free will is not the same as my felt ability to choose between contraries. In truth, my free will is a continual interaction, illuminated by grace, between my felt hunger for goodness and my perception of what is good. If, however, I define my free will as the ability to choose between contraries, then I am thinking of free will as essentially indifferent to goodness. I can just as much choose good as evil, right as well as wrong. My free will is not, in itself, bent on happiness. It does not essentially involve the hunger for goodness. Instead, my free will is just power. My power. My power to choose between the options before me.
On the view of free will as power, the moral law is basically my adversary. For the moral law directs me to choose A rather than B. But I have the power to choose either A or B. The main question for me becomes whether I will obey or disobey the moral law. And moral theology becomes basically a matter of figuring out what the law is in various cases and trying to get people to obey the law. Human life thus begins to be thought of as a contest between law and free will, and morality comes to be thought of as the art of holding freedom in check by obedience to law. Gone is any serious consideration of happiness, virtue, love, the emotions, life in the Spirit, etc. What comes to the fore is personal power, subjection to law, and the need for obedience. We are not far from the question, “Why be moral at all?”
Through a review of all the textbooks in moral theology that have been used in forming Catholic seminarians over the last five centuries, Fr. Pinckaers demonstrated that Catholic moral theology had been reduced to the legalistic picture of power-law-obedience, rather than the more ancient and more attractive Patristic and Thomistic picture of love-virtue-happiness with its great themes of personal growth, emotions, and life in the Spirit.
It is not that law and obedience are absent from Fr. Pinckaers’ thought. Law and obedience are rather put in their place or put in their proper perspective. They are at the service of love. Furthermore, Catholic writers of the last several centuries said much about love, life in the Spirit, and emotions. But they treated these topics in a separate discipline called “spirituality.” Fr. Pinckaers has made spirituality the heart of his morality.
I believe Fr. Pinckaers has taken us into deep waters. The widespread distortion of what is a free will contributed, among other things, to the Protestant Reformation. Without free will thought of as essentially indifferent power, the work of Immanuel Kant would also have been inconceivable. And without the reduction of morality to “law as controlling my power,” Nietzsche would have had no morality to “go beyond,” and no will to power to exalt above all. Luther and Kant both presupposed the distorted picture of free will that Fr. Pinckaers identifies. Nietzsche rejected that picture in his own way. And to that extent, he is a friend of Thomists—at least this Thomist.
Fr. Pinckaers has inspired a whole generation of scholars (especially Dominicans) to relearn and preach the Scriptural, Patristic, and Thomistic view of the moral life. With St. Paul, we say that the moral life is first of all life in the Spirit. It is about the love of God poured forth into our hearts making us cry “Abba.” Everything else that can and must be said, especially about the possibility of moral living among (and moral conversation with) those who have no Christian faith, can be said afterwards.
Fr. Pinckaers’ books are not so technical as to be inaccessible to nonspecialists. It was a layman, and not a theologian, who first referred me to Fr. Pinckaers’ great book The Sources of Christian Ethics (Catholic University of America Press, 1995). For a shorter version of that great book, see Morality: A Catholic View (St. Augustine’s Press, 2003). Everyone, simply everyone, should read The Pursuit of Happiness God’s Way: Living the Beatitudes (Alba House, 1997). Fr. Pinckaers was a true gift to the Church in our confusing times. Requiescat in pace.
Br. James Dominic Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar in formation for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.