Moral Theology

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This article treats of moral theology as a sacred science and considers: (1) its proper essence or nature as a sacred science; (2) its relation to other parts of theology;(3) its relation to certain profane sciencesnamely, ethics, sociology, and psychologywith which it has an affinity because they are also concerned with human behavior; and (4) its division or its basic content.


Since moral theology is a part of theology it cannot be understood or defined except in that framework, for the part has neither being nor consistency except in the whole. One's understanding of moral theology as theology must depend, therefore, on one's understanding of the kind of whole or totum that is constituted by the science of theology. Is it a universal or univocal whole, whose parts are contained in it as species in a genus? Is it a virtual or analogous whole, in which the secondary branches participate as modes, and imperfectly, in the idea of the science as this is realized in its principal branch? Or is it an integral whole, whose parts contribute to the total perfection of the whole, each in a proportionate way?

When theology began to be organized as a science, the whole of it in all its divisions, was considered to constitute one single specifically undifferentiated discipline. But in the course of time, the broadening of the inquiry into and application of the data of revelation gave rise to specialization. Gabriel vÁzquez (d. 1604) was the first to advance the opinion that moral theology as it was taught in the schools was a distinct science. This idea found favor, and works on moral theology began to be published separately from those dealing with dogmatic or speculative theology, for example, the Institutiones morales (1600) of Juan azor, the Theologiae moralis summa (1588) of Enrique henrÍquez, and the Opus morale in praecepta decalogi (1613) of Tomás sÁnchez. The 17th and 18th centuries produced an abundance and variety of works of this kind, and a determined effort was made to organize moral casuistry around specified criteria, which gave rise to the so-called systems of morality. In the latter part of the 18th century the total separation of moral from dogmatic theology was achieved and its autonomy in its status as a separate science was established. Not only was a divorce effected between moral and dogma, but under the influence of the same trend other new species of theological science were introduced. Authors began to speak, as of distinct branches, about exegetical, patristic, symbolical, polemic, mystical, pastoral, liturgical, casuistic, homiletic, catechetic, positive, scholastic, speculative, synthetic, problematic, and historical theologies. These began to be gathered together in the only unity still possible, that of collections called theological encyclopedias (see J. M. Ramírez, De hominis beatitudine 1.722).

The 19th century and the first part of the 20th inherited this legacy from the 18th century. Since 1930, however, there has been a reaction against the preponderance of casuistry in moral theology, as well as against the disjunction of the sacred sciences in general, and there have been pleas for greater union and interpenetration. This marks some return to the traditional idea of theology, according to which theology is not a genus having different species under it, nor an analogous science embracing various genera, but an indivisible science having only integral parts. The whole of sacred theology has the same principles, which are the articles of faith, and the same medium of knowledge, which is the light of divine revelation. It is an imprint of God's own knowledge, which is one and simple with regard to all its objects, or, as St. Thomas said, a single and simple vision of all that He knows (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (ST) 1a, 3 ad 7; hereafter all references with the author unnamed are to the works of St. Thomas). Such also was the position of Alexander of Hales, of SS. Albert the Great and Bonaventure, and in general of all the medieval scholastic theologians.

According to this view the sacred sciences are like the branches of the same divine tree, which is theology in its most profound and authentic sense. Its integral parts correspond to the distinct material objects contained within itself, and in regard to the various functions it, as true wisdom derived from God, exercises with respect to them. It thus treats of God, of man, of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, and of all that He did and taught; of the ultimate end of human life and of the means of attaining it; of good and evil, both eternal and temporal; in a word, of all that relates to God and to man as made to His image and likeness.

The function of theology, as true and supreme wisdom, is to grasp all divinely revealed truths to the full extent of their meaning and to direct life in genuine accord with them. For divinely revealed truth is at the same time the light of understanding and the bread of life. In regard to it wisdom exercises two functions. One of these is cognitive, for wisdom is an intellectual virtue; the other is directive of human life to the supernatural end of eternal life, since it is an affective and loving wisdom: "a sweet knowledge breathing forth love" (ST 1a, 43.5 ad 2; In epist. ad Heb. 5.2), and it is characteristic of the highest wisdom to consider the Supreme Cause of all things, God, as the ultimate end of every rational and angelic being (C. gent. 1.1). Thus Alexander of Hales could say of theology that it "teaches of God, is taught by God, and leads to God" (ST, 1.2 ad obiecta, ed. Quaracchi, 1924, 5b).

Nominal Definition. The term moral theology contains two notions. It is theology but as modified by the adjective moral.

Theology. Theology is the science or knowledge of God. This knowledge is not, properly speaking, of God as He is in Himself, but rather of God as He has revealed Himself to man, as opposed to the knowledge of Him that can be derived by natural reason from the visible works of His creation. For this reason it is sometimes called sacred or supernatural theology. It is not simple theological faith, but rather knowledge derived from faith and scientifically elaborated by reason, which theology has at its service and positively directs in the exercise of its functions. It is faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum ). For an account of the origin and semantic evolution of the word, see theology.

Moral. This word is derived immediately from the Latin moralis, a word coined by Cicero (De fato 1) and taken into common use by Latin writers as St. Augustine attests (De civitate Dei 11.25). Cicero used philosophia moralis as a simple translation of the Greek θικη φιλοσοφìα because it is concerned with mores, which they (the Greeks) called θική. The Greek term, however, richer and more flexible than the Latin, provides an explanation of θος, which means a habit or habitual mode of conduct acquired by the repetition of acts (θος), as opposed to a mode of conduct implanted by nature (Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea 2.1). The Latin mos is of unknown or uncertain etymology; it expresses indiscriminately the habit acquired by repeated acts and the repetition of the acts, i.e., both effect and cause. To distinguish these verbally the Latins had recourse to a word of different origin, consuetudo, which is a habit contracted as if it were a kind of second nature, caused by the repetition of acts as signified by mos. So understood, mos is related to consuetudo as θος to [symbol omitted]θος. Thus Macrobius wrote: "Mos, the moral act, came first, and cultus moris, the moral practice, which is custom [consuetudo ], followed" (Conviviorum saturnaliorum 3.8). In any case, mos means a manner of being or acting, or of conducting oneself, particularly in regard to men, for mores are, as St. Ambrose observed (In Lucam, prol. 8), in a peculiar sense proper to men. Only men act freely, with perfect knowledge and control of their acts, and consequently they alone are capable of acquiring operative habits properly so called. As human, mores (or conduct) are not fatally or necessarily what they are; they are contingent and free. Like luck or health, they may be good or bad. But mores unqualified, like luck or health, are generally understood to be good.

The term moral, like the Greek θικόν, is applied by metonymy to act, habit, object, science, and to the written or oral expression of the science, although differences of meaning are evident in its different applications. But morality is applied primarily to the human act, and secondarily, and because of their reference to the human act, to other things such as habit, object, or science. Because it is concerned with the human act, it follows that moral science embraces in its scope all the life and actions of man. Hence Aristotle called it the philosophy of human nature (Ethica Nicomachea 10.9 1181b).

Scripture adopted a similar terminology in reference to customs, practices, traditional rites (Lk 1.9; 2.42;22.39; Acts 6.14; 16.21; 21.21; 26.3; Heb 10.25), and the good and bad habits contracted by the repetition of acts (1 Cor 15.33; Heb 5.14). This passed on to the Greek and Latin Fathers. They did not treat of the mores of God Himself, as did the unknown author of the treatise De divinis moribus and Leonard Lessius in his De perfectionibus moribusque divinis in later timesa manifest impropriety of language, for God does not have mores. The Fathers dealt only with the mores of man, and those of Jesus Christ, to whom as man they naturally belonged. They treated of such mores as coming from God and from Christ, the Word made man. "In the Old and New Testaments," says C. Spicq, "the life of the believer goes from God to God, from God the Creator to God the ultimate end, the final repose of the just and of those who persevere. Therefore the entire biblical moralteaching can be defined as a highway code telling how one may arrive at the desired term" [L'Epître aux Hebreux (Paris 1953) 101].

St. Thomas, who devoted considerable time to the semantics of the word moral in its theological application, did not use the term moral theology formally, but resorted to equivalent expressions, such as scientiam moralem (ST 1a, 1.4 obj. 2 and arg. sed contra ), moralem considerationem or tractatum moralium (ST 1a, 83.2 ad3), de moribus hominum (ST 1a, 1.3 obj. 2; 7 obj. 2) and de actibus humanis (ST 1a, 1.4 sed contra and corp. ).

The term moral was used primarily for repeated good or bad human acts that produce a good or bad operative habit, i.e., a virtue or a vice (ST 1a2ae, 58.1); and the same term was then applied to the object or material with which these acts or habits are concerned (ST 1a2ae, 18.2; In 2 sent. 33.36.5) and to the science that deals with all of them (In 4 sent. ad 2). And although the infused virtues are not caused by the repetition of acts (see virtue ), but are the result of the direct and immediate action of God, they can, nevertheless, be called moral either because of the matter with which they are concerned and the repeated acts that follow their infusion, as in the case of the infused cardinal virtues, or because of their consequent free exercise, even though directly and primarily their object is something divine rather than human, as in the case of the theological virtues.

Although St. Thomas did not employ the phrase theologia moralis, which has been in general use since the end of the 16th century, his contemporary Robert kil wardby did [De natura theologiae, ed. F. Stegmuller (Münster in Westfalen 1935) 41, 17]. The Calvinist Lambert Daneau used an alternative expression in his Ethices christianae libri tres (1577), which was imitated in the 18th century by A. Hochkirchen's Ethica christiana sive orthodoxa iuris naturae et gentium prudentia (1751). Other works that used a form of the same title were B. Stattler's Ethica christiana universalis (1772) and Ethica christiana communis (1782), M. Schenkl's Ethica christiana universalis (1800), the Ethica amoris of henry of st. ignatius, the Ethica christiana (1758) of E. amort, and the Ethica christiana sive theologia moralis (1770) of V. Patuzzi.

From what has been said it is evident that the term moral theology, or Christian ethics, means the science of Christian life and action as this is seen as coming from God and ordained by God to man's attainment of eternal life. Or, to put it in other words, it is the science of Christian morality, i.e., of human life led in the imitation and following of Christ, who is the way by which we travel to God (via est nobis tendendi in Deum, ST 1a, 2. prolog.).

Real Definition. Since moral theology is a science and a true intellectual virtue, its real definition should stem from its relation to its proper object, for operative habits are specified by their proper objects, to which they are transcendentally related. But the formal object, both causal and terminative, of moral theology is the same as that of all theology, which is one and indivisible in species. That is to say, the object in this sense is God Himself under the aspect of His deity (sub ratione deitatis ) as this has been manifested to man by divine revelation. From this point of view, then, there can be no differentiation of moral theology from the other divisions of sacred science. However, there is a difference on the part of the material object sufficient to account for the classification of moral as an integral part within the total gambit of sacred theology.

All the material with which theology is concerned is divided into two main sections, the first embracing things that ought to be known, and the second, things that ought to be done. What ought to be known pertains to faith; what ought to be done pertains to morals. This distinction is expressed or at least suggested by Scripture itself, which records that Christ, unlike the Pharisees who taught but did not practice (Mt 23.3), began to do and to teach (Acts 1.1). His disciples were called upon to imitate their Master in this: "He that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5.19); they were to be doers of the word and not hearers only (Jas 1.22), for faith without works is dead (Jas 2.26).

The Fathers. St. Cyril of Alexandria said that Christian religion consists in devout dogmas and good actions, not taken separately but rather together (Catech. 4.2; Patrologia Graeca 32:455; St. Gregory of Nyssa, Epist. 24; Patrologia Graeca 46: 1087). St. Augustine wrote a special work, De fide et operibus (Patrologia Latina 40:197230), and elsewhere he wrote: "Everyone knows that in the sacred Scriptures some things are proposed simply to be known and believed, for example, that in the beginning God made the heavens and the earth, and that in the beginning was the Word and other things are commanded to be observed and carried out, or prohibited and to be avoided, such as 'honor thy father and mother,' and 'thou shalt not commit adultery"' (Speculum de sacra scriptura, pref.; Patrologia Latina 34:887889).

Medieval Theologians. The distinction was too well recognized to require many citations. peter cantor in the 12th century wrote: "Theology is twofold: there is the high or heavenly that offers knowledge of divine things; and there is the lower, or subheavenly, that teaches about moral matters" [Summa Abel, cited by M. Grabmann, Geschichte der scholast. Methode (Freiburg im Breisgau 1911) 2.483 n.2]. St. Thomas wrote: "The truth contained in Sacred Scripture is ordered to two things, namely, to believing rightly and to acting rightly" (Quodl. 7.6.2). Divine revelation was ordained to man's salvation; what is necessary to that end is reducible to the instruction of faith and the formation of morals (De ver. 12.2; cf. In 1 sent. 23.5, arg. sed contra ). With the other theologians of his time St. Thomas was accustomed to translate this division into the Aristotelian terms of speculabilia and agibilia, and this provided the basis for the distinction of speculative and practical theology (see In 1 sent. prol., 3.1; ST 1a, 1.4). The practical part came to be called moral, the speculative part dogmatic, theology. The latter expression, however, appears not to have been coined until the 16th century, and its author may have been F. Suárez (Opera, ed. Vives, 20 p. xii), since whose time the older terms speculative and practical have been replaced by the terms dogmatic and moral.

The Object of Moral Theology. The object (or subject matter) with which moral, as distinct from dogmatic, theology is concerned is wholly and solely that which is capable of supernatural (i.e., theological) morality. This includes whatever can in any way influence or be the cause of that capacity or that morality, for all science properly so-called is the knowledge of its object through its causes.

The first and original subject of Christian and theological morality is man insofar as he is the adopted son of God and brother of Christ, or insofar as he is the super-natural image of God, bearing as a participant of the divine nature through sanctifying grace (2 Pt 1.4) a likeness to the consubstantial image of the Word made man, Jesus Christ (Col 1.15; Heb 1.3), to whose image the Christian should be conformed (Rom 8.29). Therefore, as St. Thomas noted profoundly and with great precision, the proper object of the moral part of the Summa theologiae is man as the image of God (ST 1a2ae, 1 prol.). It is the nature of the image to resemble its exemplar and imitate it as perfectly as possible, just as the son resembles the father and imitates his conduct or manner of acting.

Sanctifying grace not only heals and regenerates man wounded by sin, original and personal, but raises him up and makes him into a son of God, giving him in a sense a divine existence. And although this deification originally affects the soul as spiritual, it consequently also affects it as the animating and vivifying principle of the body; and hence the deification flows over into the body, which it makes the living temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6.19), the bearer of God (1 Cor 3.1617), and an instrument of justice and sanctification (Rom 6.13, 19). Rooted and enfolded in man as the principle, or formal cause, of his justification (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 152930), this participation in the divine nature (2 Pt 1.4), which is grace, produces a corresponding divine operation. St. Peter emphasizes this, saying that it obliges us to flee all corruption of concupiscence and sin and to cultivate all the virtues, especially faith, hope (including patience), and charity, laboring ceaselessly to work out our sanctification and thus guarantee our entrance into the eternal kingdom of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pt 1.411).

Habitual grace is the first immanent supernatural principle of the salutary works of the Christian life, just as the soul is the first immanent natural principle in man of the natural acts of human life. However, actions come from sanctifying grace through the infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit that flow from grace in the manner of operative powers in the same way that the natural powers through which the soul operates flow, so to speak, from its essence. The infused virtues not only bestow on man a facility for the performance of supernatural works as acquired habits facilitate the operations of the natural powers of the soul, but also confer the very power to perform them (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 226, 245, 373, 395). Without them the natural powers can do nothing in the supernatural order. Virtues are needed, first of all, as the immediate principles of the salutary action that has God as its direct object. These affect the superior powers of the soulfaith, the intellect; hope and charity, the willelevating them radically and sanctifying them. But besides this, other virtues are needed to elevate, even with respect to their activity having a created thing as its direct object, all the powers of the soul that are in any way rational and thus participate in a certain sense and to a certain degree in the natural image of God, and raise those powers to the level of the supernatural image. Thus, there are infused cardinal virtues affecting reason (prudence), will (justice), and the two forms of sense appetite, concupiscible (temperance) and irascible (fortitude). In addition to these there are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, corresponding to the three theological and the four cardinal virtues, perfecting and completing the adaptation of the natural powers to supernatural activity.

However, the immediate subject of Christian and theological morality is the human act of the Christian performed with full consciousness and freedom. This is an act commanded or elicited by the will; for nothing is to be classified as moral unless the will is involved, because in the sphere of morality will is the principle upon which the morality of all else depends (In 2 sent. 24.3.2). Thus the psychologically complete human act, fully conscious and free in regard to its specification and performance, or at least with regard to its performance, is the proper subject of the form of either natural or supernatural morality; and even the acts of the infused virtues and gifts must be psychologically complete to be accounted moral.

But the objective formality that moral theology considers in its material object is the supernatural and divine morality proper to the sons of God and brothers of Christ who act as such; for Christian, or theological, morality is the relation of conformity or disconformity of human acts with the law of God and of Christ. This is the eternal law, the law of divine love or of charity, for charity contains all the law and the prophets (Rom 13.10; Col 3.14; Mt 22.3740). An act in conformity with this divine standard of conduct and befitting sons of God and brothers of Christ is morally good and Christian; if such conformity is lacking, the act is bad. The moral obligation to conform to this supreme norm is not something violent to nature or imposed from without; rather it is postulated and demanded by the essential condition of those who are living, supernatural images of God, His sons by adoption, and brothers of Jesus Christ.

The voluntary acts of the Christian are the essential means of attaining eternal life. They are a conscious and free movement toward God. As means, they affirm an essential relation to their proper end and should be proportioned to it. Consequently, those acts are morally good and Christian that are so proportioned and do in fact lead to eternal life. On the other hand, those acts are evil that are not proportioned to man's end and alienate him from God. The supreme good in the moral, as well as the ontological, order is God Himself as the object in which man finds beatitude, and it is in relation to Him that all human acts are to be considered as morally good or evil.

Supernatural morality is concretely reducible to the idea of merit or demerit with respect to eternal life. Thus it is proper in the strictest sense to the human acts of Christians, for one merits or demerits by his acts, not by his habits or his operative powers (De malo, 2.5 ad 8; 2.9 ad 9). Meritorious acts are here understood to mean acts that are salutary in the full sense, i.e., acts that are meritorious de condigno of eternal life. Imperfectly salutary acts, such as the acts of unformed faith (fides informis ) and hope, prepare or dispose to justification only when they are united with the fear of God and sorrow for sin and are not called meritorious except in a broad and improper sense. Their merit is de congruo. Consequently, they are not salutary and meritorious except in an analogous sense of attribution (see analogy) insofar as they participate imperfectly in the value and dignity of merit de condigno ; and it is in this sense that they come within the orbit of supernatural morality (see merit).

Therefore, as St. Thomas observed, "the [condign] merit of everlasting life pertains first to charity and secondly to the other virtues inasmuch as their acts are commanded by charity" (ST 1a2ae, 114.4). Acts elicited by charity, especially the act of love directed immediately to God Himself, are, of their nature, meritorious de condigno. It is indeed the primary analogue of all that is meritorious. To acts commanded by charity and executed through the other virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit merit belongs by participation. Charity gives form and life to all the other virtues, endowing them with their ultimate perfection as virtues leading to eternal life (Gal3.14). Without charity all the other virtues and their acts, however heroic and sublime they may seem to be, merit nothing with respect to eternal happiness. Even faith without charity is useless (Jas 2.20); it is of no avail toward eternal life except when united to charity and moved by it (Gal 5.6). He who does not love abides in death (1 Jn 3.14). In the words of St. Augustine, "The Scriptures command only charity and blame only cupidity, and thus do they form human morals" (Doctr. christ. 3.10.15); to which St. Thomas added, "The rectitude of the human will consists in an ordering of love which is its principal drive. Love is ordered when we love God above all things, as the highest good, and when we order all things to Him as the ultimate end" (De rat. fid. 5).

Charity, then, as Benedict XV declared, is the soul and the form of the whole Christian life [encycl. Pacem, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 12 (Rome 1920) 210]. Or, in the words of Leo XIII, "The kingdom of Jesus Christ takes its form and vitality from divine charity; its foundation and achievement is ordered and holy love" (encycl. Tametsi futura prospicientibus, Dec. 1, 1900). Indeed charity is the constitutive and distinctive sign of the true disciple of Christ, who loved men with the highest degree of love, giving His life for them upon the cross (Jn 15.913; 17.13). It is the seal of the true sons of a Father whose love embraces all things and all men, even to the extent of sending His Son for their ransom and redemption (Wis 11.25; Mt 5.4448; Jn 3.16). Therefore the Apostle said: "Be you, therefore, imitators of God, as very dear children, and walk in love, as Christ also loved us and delivered himself up for us" (Eph 5.12). There is nothing more natural than that a son love his father and repay love with love (1 Jn 4.911; Comp. theol. 2.5).

All this is contained in yet another formula with which St. Thomas indicated the proper object of moral theology, namely the motus rationalis creaturae in Deum, the movement of the rational creature toward God (ST 1a, 2 prol.). This movement is the conscious and free act of the rational creature acting rationally. But the rational creature acts and moves toward God by acts of love. The feet with which he runs and the wings with which he flies and is lifted up to heaven are the acts whereby he fulfills the demands of charity (St. Augustine, In psalm. 33, serm. 2.10; Patrologia Latina 36:315).

Therefore moral theology is really and essentially the theology of love, that is, of the loving movement of the Christian toward God in the footsteps of Christ, his Redeemer and Savior.


According to the traditional view expounded above, all the parts of the theology properly so-called are integral parts within one body of sacred science. Between integral parts there should be neither antagonism nor separation, but only mutual union and solidarity. All the parts of theology together require a total theology that is complete and unmutilated. Each part or division has its function in the whole, as do the members and organs of a living body. And like the members of the body, they live and prosper when united among themselves in a whole, but they lose their identity and being on becoming separated.

Dogmatic Theology. Such a union exists between moral and dogmatic theology according to the traditional concept. The distinction between what is speculative and what is practical is merely human and philosophical. Theology transcends divisions and compartments of that kind and contains in a higher union all that is speculative and practical. In place of arid speculation it offers contemplation; in place of mere action with its usual accompaniment of agitation it offers a gentle, quiet, loving affection. Theology in its deepest and truest sense is, in fact, a loving contemplation of God and of all that refers to God as God. It is a development of faith, which is at one and the same time eminently cognitive and affective with respect to the revealed truth it embraces. The proper act of faith, which is to believe, is an act elicited from the intellect moved by the will, both powers being elevated and aided by grace (ST 2a2ae, 2.9). Faith is at once intellectually receptive of the revealed things of God and directive of human life. The same holds true for theology, because as the science of faith it must reflect these same qualities.

No dogma of faith is incapable of inciting to the love of God. All dogmas are concerned either with God Himself and His perfections, which call for love of Him as the greatest good, or with God's works ad extra, both natural and supernatural, which, as the fruit and product of His infinite love (ST 1a, 20.2), move one to respond with love (ST 2a2ae, 27.3). Therefore St. Thomas declared: "The knowledge of God which is had by other sciences enlightens only the intellect, showing that God is the first cause, that he is one and wise, etc. But the knowledge of God had through faith both enlightens the mind and delights the affections, for it not only tells that God is the first cause, but also that he is our Savior, that he is our Redeemer, that he loves us, that he became incarnate for us, and all this inflames the affections" (In epist. 2 ad Cor. 2.2).

On the other hand, there is no morally good and Christian act, especially if it is an act of charity, that does not dispose and help one better to grasp and understand the dogmas and truths of faith. Wisdom does not enter the sinful soul (Wis 1.4); for the sensual man lives sensuously, like the brute beasts, and cannot perceive the things that are of the spirit, which are the things of God (1 Cor2.1416). He who loves God knows Him in truth, and he who offends Him by sin does not know Him (1 Jn 3.6;4.7). The truths of faith are the life and mysteries of love, which are neither grasped nor well perceived unless love is allied with the act of the intelligence. Love opens the eyes and makes them keener, for, as St. Thomas observed, "The lover is not satisfied with a superficial apprehension of the beloved but strives to gain an intimate knowledge of everything that pertains to the beloved so as to penetrate into his very soul. Thus it is written of the Holy Spirit who is God's love that He searches all things, even the deep things of God" (ST 1a2ae, 28.2); and elsewhere: "Spiritual things should be tasted first and afterwards understood, for no one understands who does not taste. Thus the psalmist says first: Taste! and afterwards: See how sweet is the Lord" (In Psalm 33.9).

Thus dogmatic and moral theology are each in need of the other's help. They complete each other, like faith and good habits informed and vivified by charity.

The teaching of Sacred Scripture holds that it hands on not only matters to be speculated on, as geometry does, but also matters to be approved by the affective powers. Thus we read that whoever carries them out (i.e., the Commandments) and teaches them, shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5.19). Hence in other sciences it is enough that a man be perfect in his intellect; in this it is required that he be perfect both in intellect and affection. Deep mysteries, therefore, are to be spoken to the perfect: "wisdom we speak among those who are mature" (1 Cor 2.6). According as each one is disposed, thus things will appear to him, as an angry man judges one way while angry and otherwise when his anger has passed, and an incontinent man will judge something good because of his passion and differently when it has subsided. Since then the things taught in the Scripture pertain to the affections of man as well as to the intellect, it is best to be perfect in both. [In Heb. 5.2]

Casuistry and Ascetical and Mystical Theology. Just as moral theology, as here understood, cannot be separated from the rest of theology, so casuistry and ascetical and mystical theology cannot be separated from moral, or from theology as a whole. They are essentially and specifically one with each other and with theology in its totality in having the same formal object. All have the same principles and the same means of knowledge, that is, the articles of faith and the same divine revelation. They envisage the same supernatural and Christian morality. For there are not various kinds of sonship by adoption, or of brothers in Christ, or of Christian life. There is only one God, one Christ, and one Church that is His mystical body. Sanctifying grace is the same for all; the same beatitude is held out to all, and there is only one road leading to it, namely, the imitation and following of Christ (Rom 3.30; 5.15, 17; 12.5; 1 Cor 8.46; 12.927; 2 Cor 5.14; Gal 3.16, 20, 28; Eph 4.46; 1 Tm 2.5).

Theological charity, which is like the soul and form of all Christian morality, is specifically the same in all Christians who possess it. Christian morality, then, is specifically one, for this morality corresponds to the acts elicited by charity and to acts of other virtues only insofar as they are ordered and vivified by charity.

The degrees and steps of charity in its upward movement toward union with God are reducible to three, which are known as the incipient, proficient, and perfect; and to these steps three stages of the Christian life correspond the purgative, illuminative, and unitive (see three ways, the). These do not constitute different kinds of life, but are rather distinct ages of the same life and different moments of the same movement (ST 2a2ae, 24.9; In 3 sent. 29.8.1; In Isaiam 44.4). They correspond to infancy, adolescence, and manhood or maturity in human life on the natural level, which develops in these stages but remains specifically the same.

Casuistry. Casuistry is concerned with the incipient charity of the neophyte still in the stage of spiritual infancy; that is, it deals with the moral life of those recently converted from sin to grace. Such individuals still feel the goad of sin, which, though pardoned so far as its guilt is concerned, has left effects in the form of evil inclinations against which they must struggle if they would conserve the life of grace and avoid relapsing into sin. Casuistry, therefore, is concerned in particular with the licit and the illicit, that is, with what is compatible or incompatible with grace and charity, and devotes itself to the establishment of norms and the discovery of concrete means for avoiding mortal sin and the loss of grace. Hence it is preoccupied with the purgative way.

Ascetical Theology. The ascetical theologian deals with proficient charity, or with the spiritual adolescence of those who, having overcome and conquered evil inclinations to sin, seek to grow and develop in a truly Christian life. Ascetical theology, therefore, is less concerned with the good and evil, the licit and the illicit, the permitted and the forbidden, but is more interested in the greater and lesser good. The proper function of this branch of theology, therefore, is to deal with the illuminative way.

Mystical Theology. The mystical theologian treats of perfect charity, that is, of the spiritual maturity or manhood of those Christians who, having conquered sin and its evil inclinations, and having grown in grace, have drawn near to Christ and are united to Him in close friendship, as if transformed into Him, as was St. Paul, who said: "It is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2.20). Mystical theology, therefore, is not concerned with the good or better so much as with what is, properly and absolutely speaking, the best, which consists in intimate union with God and permanence in Him in what is called the unitive way.

Differences Not Specific. A certain caution, however, is necessary to avoid exaggerating the significance of the distinction between the different stages of the Christian life. These ways or stages do not constitute autonomous and separate compartments, but are rather mutually intermingling and interacting phases. The life of grace and charity, even in the case of neophytes or those recently raised to grace by baptism or penance, is not lacking in a real illumination from above by which they pass from the darkness of sin to the light of Christ and to an affective and effective union with Him. Moreover, by resisting temptation to sin and struggling against the inclinations left by their former sins, they really gain merit before God and grow in grace and charity.

On the other hand, temptation and the danger of relapse into sin do not totally cease as long as the present life lasts, and therefore in all stages of the spiritual life the Christian should be vigilant and resort to mortification, according to the admonition of St. Paul: "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor 10.12; Phil 2.12; 1 Cor 9.27; 2 Cor 4.10). Charity and with it the vigor of Christian life should ever grow during the present life, being renewed day by day (1 Cor 4.10) until death. Charity does not grow old, but rather gains new strength the more it is used.

One cannot hold the contrary without falling into the aberrations of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, of the Beghards, the illuminati, or the quietists, who thought that the Christian or spiritual man can in this life attain such a degree of perfection that he no longer needs to be mortified or to perform acts of penance or to practice virtue, since he has become incapable of sin and has attained union with God, a condition that puts him beyond the need of purification or growth [J. De Guibert, Documenta ecclesiastica christianae perfectionis studium spectantia (Rome 1931) 200204, 274275, 304, 315317, 403419, 438468, 471, 474].

Charity does not make the observance of the Commandments of God and of the Church unnecessary; on the contrary, it positively demands their observance: "If you love me, keep my commandments" (Jn 14.15; Jn 14.20; 1 Jn 2.35; 5.2). The same charity, without change of kind, is capable of performing the different functions appropriate to the different stages of spiritual development. It struggles to avoid sin; it resists temptation; dynamic and active, it grows until the soul is united perfectly to God. It is impossible to distinguish in kind between the Christian moralities corresponding to the several branches of theology under discussion, just as it is impossible to make a division in charity itself.

The Detachment of Casuistry from Moral Theology. In every practical science there must be a certain casuistry, for "all operative sciences are perfected by the considerations of details" (ST 1a2ae, 6 prol.; ST 1a, 22. 3 ad 1). It must, however, shun sophistry and exaggerated pragmatism, for otherwise it would cease to be a science and become a mere art or simply a technique. Unfortunately, casuistry has too frequently inclined in this direction at the cost of a loss of contact with Scripture and the Fathers, with the great dogmas of faith, and with the basic principles of moral theology itself. And this has resulted in a moral doctrine that sometimes appears to give no thought to man's ultimate end or to grace. It seems cramped by a certain legal juridicism and meticulously catalogues sins as they are related to confession and to sacramental absolution, but gives scant attention to the spiritual life or the supernatural virtues. The moral systems (see morality, systems of) founded on certain reflex principles of more juridical than moral value do not compensate for what is lost by abandoning the great foundations of Christian moral teaching and the use of Christian prudence, which is precisely the virtue that, illuminated by faith and backed by a sound moral theology, guides science in the sure and genuinely Christian solution of its cases. Fortunately, in more recent years greater importance is being attached by moral theologians to the virtues than to the vices, to the law of Christ than to the old law of the Decalogue; but much remains to be done toward raising the general level of moral theology and putting it in greater accord with the spirit of the gospel and the teachings of the great theologians of the past.

Some of the excessive juridicism that marks moral theology as expounded by some moralists stems, no doubt, from its association with a type of canonical thought disengaged from its ancient theological context. Canon Law in the beginning was not separated from theology but rather formed a part of it and had, therefore, a more evangelical flavor. There are indications that it may return in some degree to its old matrix, for, according to Vatican Council II, the duty of the bishops and of the whole government of the universal Church to rule is essentially united to the duty of sanctification [Dogmatic Constitution De Ecclesia 3.27, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (Rome 1965) 3233]. The pope and the bishops govern the Christian people in the name of Christ, as His vicars, for the better fulfillment of His law, which is the law of love and charity.

Liturgy and Pastoral Theology. The liturgy integrates the Scriptures (the Psalms and readings from the sacred books), the writings of the Fathers (homilies), the living magisterium of the Church (the hymns and prayers approved and proposed by it), and the purest ascetical and mystical spirituality with which not a few Masses and Lessons of the Breviary abound. Through it, therefore, the functions of dogmatic, moral, and spiritual theology are exercised in a living and effective manner [Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 1619, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 (1964) 104105].

Pastoral theology aims at the proper fulfillment of the duty of the pastor of souls, in imitation of Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, the Pastor by antonomasia. He feeds His sheep with His life and His doctrine (Acts 1.1), giving example in all the virtues, especially that of charity, by dying for men on the cross (1 Pt2.2125), and communicating to them the words and mysteries of eternal life (Jn 6.64, 69). His pastoral teaching contains the truth to be believed and the holiness to be realized in practice. Such is the work of the pastoral ministry, namely, to teach Christian dogma and morals, according to the revelation of Jesus Christ and the authentic interpretation of the Church, in which exegetes, Fathers, and theologians have collaborated.

Pastoral theology is reduced to practice in the liturgy, in homiletics and catechetics. The catechesis of the Apostles, contained in the Gospels, was impregnated with the life and doctrine of Christ, as was the liturgy practiced by them and transmitted to the Christian community, which has continued to flourish and develop throughout the centuries. The homilies of the Fathers, especially those of SS. John Chrysotom, Augustine, and Leo the Great, contain immeasurable biblical, dogmatic, moral, and spiritual riches. They lived the divine revelation in its entirety and gave expression to it in their words. As true and authentic kerygma, it was a living proclamation of the gospel. The truths of faith and the norms of conduct taught by Jesus Christ, and collected and illustrated by a sound and authentic theology, are always lifegiving and kerygmatic.

In this way all the integral parts of sacred theology are mutually completed and perfected, to the great advantage of theological science and of the Christian life.


Moral theology is essentially distinct from natural ethics, not simply in species but also in genus, in the same way that Christian theology is distinguished from theodicy (ST 1a, 1.1 ad 2). Between them there is only an analogy of proper proportionality inasmuch as moral theology holds the same position in the supernatural order that moral philosophy does in the natural order (In 3 sent. The essential generic difference appears on the part of the subject of the respective moralities, the moralities themselves, and the means of knowing them.

Subject and Operative Principle. The remote and radical subject of moral theology or philosophy is the person operating, that is to say, man. For moral philosophy the subject is man as man, that is, considered simply as a rational animal; for moral theology the subject is man as the adopted son of God and brother of the only begotten of the Father, Jesus Christ.

The operative principle of moral actions for moral philosophy is, radically, the rational soul and, proximately, the rational powers of the soul and the cardinal virtues acquired by the repetition of acts; for moral theology the radical principle of moral acts is habitual grace, and the infused virtues are the proximate or immediate principle.

In natural ethics the immediate subject of morality is the natural human acts of man as man and of his acquired virtues; in moral theology the subject is the super-natural human acts of man as a Christian and son of God by adoption and of his infused virtues.

Morality. Ethics considers only the natural morality of the human acts of man as man and of his acquired virtues; moral theology directly and principally considers the supernatural morality of the human acts of man as a Christian and of his infused virtues. Natural or philosophical morality is the order or relation of natural human acts to the ultimate natural end of human life, according to the natural law naturally known by man and the determinations of positive human laws; supernatural or theological morality is the order or relation of supernatural human acts to the ultimate supernatural end of the whole Christian life of the sons of God. Goodness in the former is measured in terms of what is befitting human nature and natural right reason; in the latter in terms of conformity with the divine filiation, brotherhood of Christ, and with the teachings of the faith. The ultimate issue, in the case of natural morality, is a well-being in the natural order; in the case of supernatural morality, it is the vision of God, for supernatural human acts executed with the help of God's grace and the infused virtues, especially charity, are salutary in the full sense and meritorious of eternal life.

Means of Knowledge. These differ essentially for both moral sciences. Ethics can know its formal object by the light of natural reason alone. By this light it knows the rational and social nature of man, his human acts, his natural powers, the acquired habits that are the immediate principles of his good and evil action, and his ultimate natural end. But the proper object of moral theology cannot be known by natural reason, but only in the light of divine revelation. By this means alone can be known the elevation of man to the supernatural order and the status of son of God, brother of Christ, and heir of eternal life. The same light is needed to know of sanctifying grace, the infused virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Sacraments through which God communicates His grace, the meritorious value of acts elicited or commanded by charity, and the eternal and the positive law of God, especially the law of charity, promulgated and carried to its highest perfection by Christ.

The Comparative Imperfection of Ethics. Philosophical ethics is an imperfect science within its own sphere, for it does not know the true existential situation of man as it is in fact. Natural reason is capable only of knowing human nature in its essential lines and in the rights and duties that are proper to it as such, that is to say, in its condition or state of pure nature. It knows nothing of man's elevation to the supernatural order or of original sin; it is ignorant therefore of the state of original justice, or of the state of nature as redeemed or repaired after the Fall, which are man's true historical states. Knowledge of these can be had only through divine revelation.

Knowing nothing of man's historical states, purely philosophical ethics has no knowledge of the wounds, the weaknesses, and the infirmities due to original sin, which affect man even in his natural life and environment, because, in addition to being deprived of the supernatural and preternatural gifts that he enjoyed in the state of original justice, he was also left wounded in his nature. Because of this he is morally incapable of fulfilling all the natural law by the natural powers at his disposal, but even for that achievement of the natural order, he must have the help of grace. This moral impotence carries over into his very knowledge of the natural law, which becomes uncertain in not a few of its precepts for the majority of men; for the practical intellect, to which such knowledge belongs, has been especially weakened in its proper function of discriminating between good and evil and of directing the will to true good. "Because we do not know ourselves perfectly we cannot fully know what is for our good according to Wisdom (9.14): 'For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans"' (ST 1a2ae, 109.9). Therefore the divine revelation of these fundamental truths of the natural law was morally necessary in order that all men from the beginning of rational life might have certain knowledge of them without admixture of error (In 3 sent. 37.1, and ad 1, 3). In addition to its ignorance of the true moral order, ethics labors under the more serious ignorance of man's elevation to the dignity of son of God and heir to His glory.

Value of Ethics. Although imperfect and incomplete, the knowledge of man sought by philosophical ethics is not something false or valueless. This knowledge does not contain total and complete, but only partial and imperfect, truth. Nevertheless it is truth and not error. The natural knowledge of God derived by theodicy from the visible things of creation is not false, nor is it opposed to the knowledge of the one and triune God that theology seeks in faith and divine revelation; on the contrary, it is a preamble to it. In a similar way, the natural knowledge of God as the natural ultimate end of man, to whom man owes the cult of prayer and adoration according to his strength and possibilities, is not an aberration; rather it is natural truth that prepares the soul to receive the plenitude of saving truth drawn from divine revelation.

Between ethics, then, and moral theology one must admit an essential distinction, but not a separation and much less an antagonism. The distinction parallels that between reason and revelation, or the more universal one between nature and grace. Grace does not destroy nature, but rather supports and perfects it (ST 1a, 1.8 ad 2; 60.5;62.5). This distinction provides a certain autonomy for both sides within their proper field and limits, which was recognized by Vatican Council I with regard to theology and philosophy in general (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 3019), although the Council exacted a true union and collaboration. Moral theology admits all the good and true taught by ethics and makes use of it for its own higher ends, at the same time remedying the defects and imperfections of ethics and enriching it with new and sublime contributions from Christian revelation.

Ethics is subordinate to moral theology just as reason is to faith and nature to grace, but it is not subalternated properly and strictly speaking, as J. Maritain thought [Science et sagesse (Paris 1935) 327345]. This would mean the absorption of ethics in theology and its reduction to a theology of the second class [J. M. Ramirez, "Sur l'organization du savoir moral," Bulletin Thomiste (Paris 1935) 363386; "De philosophia morali christiana," Divis Thomas (Fribourg 1936) 87122, 181204].

Moral theology should similarly make use of the sciences auxiliary to ethics, especially of psychology in its experimental, rational, and pathological branches. Human acts, psychologically considered, are the matter with which ethics is immediately concerned, and whatever exerts influence on the cognitive and appetitive elements of the human act is likely to have some influence on the responsibility of the agent and the morality of his acts. And, since the supernatural act with which moral theology is immediately concerned supposes a complete natural human act, it is evident that psychology, and, in general, anthropology in its fullest and integral sense, can be of great use to the moral theologian.


With greater attention to practical utility than to the scientific organization of their material, many moralists of the past arranged their matter in alphabetical order. Others divided it according to the Commandments of the Decalogue and of the Church. This mode of division enjoyed general favor for a time. Later, in an attempt to give greater scientific character to their subject, many theologians began to treat moral theology as a body of doctrine parallel with dogmatic theology. Therefore, because dogma was commonly divided into general and special dogmatic theology (the general being known as fundamental, and the special being subdivided into various treatises, On the One God, On the Trinity, etc.), moralists imitated this procedure and divided moral theology into general and special. The general part was called fundamental, and it dealt with the notions common to all moral material. The special was subdivided into different treatises on the virtues, sins, and precepts, and terminated with a practical treatise on the Sacraments. This division was much in vogue after T. J. Bouquillon published his Theologia moralis fundamentalis (Bruges 1873). This work omitted any treatment of grace or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which it relegated to dogmatic or mystical theology, and gave only superficial consideration to the ultimate supernatural end of human life, although these treatises are the most fundamental of all moral theology. Moreover, it lacked a Christological flavor because it did not focus Christian morality in an explicit and formal way on Christ. The Redemptorist Bernard Häring sought to remedy this defect in his Das Gesetz Christi (Freiburg im Breisgau 1958).

The End. Moral theology ought to revolve entirely around God and Christ since it is a theology of the morality of the sons of God and the brothers of Christ. On the other hand, an explicit and clear consideration of the proper end of all human life and the means of attaining it is an essential requirement of all moral doctrine. There are two poles on which all morality moves: de vita et moribus. The life is to be understood as the vita beata and the mores as the human acts by which one moves toward it. This was known to the ancient Greek and Latin philosophers, but their ideas must be translated analogically and proportionally to the supernatural order. Therefore, a scientifically and vitally structured moral theology should begin by pointing out the final goal of all Christian life, which is God Himself as He is in Himself, the object in which beatitude is found. The way by which this beatitude is achieved must be indicated. The royal road is Christ, who said of Himself: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me" (Jn 14.6). In this way all moral theology is theocentric and Christocentric.

The Means. The means to be employed ought to be proportionate to the essentially supernatural and divine end. They are human acts performed in grace and love, for only such are actus salutares and lead to eternal life. Therefore, moral theology ought to contain a treatise on grace and the infused theological and moral virtues, which are the immanent principles of the salutary acts that merit eternal life. It should contain also a consideration of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, of the beatitudes, and of the Sacraments as the efficacious means of Christian sanctification. Finally, it should treat of the law of God and of His Commandments as these are necessary to the dignity of Christians who are sons of God by adoption and heirs to His glory, the Commandments being expounded as they are contained in the all-embracing law of charity.

Such was the field of moral theology as this was understood by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose achievement as a moralist is sometimes overshadowed in popular consciousness by his greatness in other areas of theological and philosophical thought. But his excellence, in the judgment of someat least of his contemporaries, was to be found especially in moral matters (Chronica minor auctore Minorita Erphordiensi 4; Monumenta Germaniae Historica 24.212). Precisely as a moralist was he most original and creative, and in nothing is he more admirable than in his total view of the life worthy of a Christian, which he set out to treat in such a way that nihil moralium erit praetermissum (ST 2a2ae, prol.).

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[j. m. ramÍrez]

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Moral Theology

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