Obligation, Moral

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Since Immanuel kant proposed his theory of duty for duty's sake, based on his doctrine of the categorical imperative, the theme of duty or obligation has become the central one in almost all modern ethical theories. It occupies so important a place in moral reflection that in the history of philosophy moral systems are classed according as they center on the twin notions of duty and obligation or not. Kant's ethical theory, based on the notion of duty (Pflicht ) for duty's sake, was deeply influenced by his religious background and upbringing (see pietism). Much more recently Henri bergson, in a truly epochmaking work (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion, 1932), proposed a moral theory built around a double source of moral obligation, namely, social pressure and personal attraction (aspiration) in love and friendship. For both of these eminent thinkers, the notion of duty or obligation is fundamental in moral teaching. In contemporary thought, the English (principally Oxford) moral philosophers have devoted much energy to the semantics of moral theory in general and to the linguistic analysis of obligation in particular (Hare, Nowell-Smith, Ewing, and others). This article, however, is limited to examining the concept of obligation in the Christian ethos, or in the context of the history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte ).

Semantics and Metaphysics of Obligation. The notion of duty and obligation is found in the sources of revelation and in sacred theology, but in a subordinate or secondary position. This is explainable by the fact that, as against the Kantian conception of things (namely, that an action or way of life is good because it presents itself as a duty or obligation through the categorical imperative), the attitude found in the sources of revelation and in theology (in fact, in most systems of moral philosophy up to the time of Kant) is just the contrary. The attitude may be expressed this way: because an action is good in itself or because it is prescribed in the law of God (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 108.1 ad2) and as such is a manifestation of His will, it is here and now a duty and consequently it obliges. It should be carefully noted that "duty" and "obligation," although very closely related terms, are not synonymous. They are, it may be said, the twin facets of one and the same reality duty indicating the objective reality (to be realized and put into execution) and obligation being the necessity in which one's freedom finds itself when it comes face to face with this reality. Duty is what one is bound to do by moral or legal obligation (see Summa theologiae 1a 2ae, 99.5 and passim for the distinction between moral and legal obligation and duty). The very word obligation (from ob-ligare ) signifies the state of being bound around or enveloped by some constraint or necessity or force limiting the scope of free activity or perhaps orientating and safeguarding it (see freedom; see also St. Thomas, In 3 Sent. 18. 1.2 ad 5; De ver. 23.1; De malo 16.5; Summa theologiae 1a, 103.8 in fine c.; In 1 meta. 3.5860). One arrives at much the same notion by examining the word duty, which came into English from the French through Anglo-French (dû, dueté ) and ultimately from the Latin debere, which itself is composed of de and habere meaning to have something from another, to be in possession of something that in reality belongs to another [see Meillet-Ernout, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine (4th ed. Paris 195960) s.v. debeo].

Going just one step further from this nominal definition of obligation, one gets an insight into the metaphysical roots of obligation. For, supposing the fact of creation [St. Thomas frequently refers to the gift (beneficium ) of creation: C. gent. 3.120; Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 100.5 ad 2; 2a2ae, 85.2; 122.4; and even once to the right of God based on the fact of creation (ius creationis ): In 3 Sent.], it follows that all created things, sharing in or participating the being and perfections of God, are by that very fact participated being (ens per participationem ) and as such belong (ontologically) to the Supreme Being, from whom they receive all they are and have. In this precise sense all creatures must be said to be parts of the Creator; that is, every participated being is, by definition, a part of and belongs to unparticipated, uncreated, uncaused Being, which is God. This is perhaps one of the most brilliant and profound theological insights of St. Thomas, who then proceeds to apply it in many different theological fields. He uses it, for instance, to show that the angels love God by natural love more than themselves, first of all by natural and instinctive inclination and then by conscious and voluntary ordination (cf. Summa theologiae 1a, 60.5; In Dion. de div. nom. 4.9,10). All created things, then, from the greatest to the smallest, belong to God in their totality, not only as they come from the hands of their Maker and thus enter into being, but also, and perhaps above all, in the fullness of their being and perfection, that is, in the full self-realization brought about by their own free action and life, through which precisely they give full glory to their Creator, whose work they are (cf. Summa theologiae 1a, 103.2; 1a2ae, 1, 78; 1a2ae, 21.4 ad 3; C. gent. 3.1621). This notion is of paramount importance in considering those beings that grow and develop into the perfection or fullness of their being; and above all in considering creatures whose growth into plenitude of being is under their own guidance, as is the case with human beings. Man, endowed with reason and free will, moves or guides himself into the perfection that God, the Creator, has destined for him, whether that perfection is completely proportionate to his connatural powers or corresponds rather to a gratuitous divine call and to gratuitously donated life principles (infused virtues) leading ultimately to consummation in participated divine life in the vision of heaven.

Thus, whether in the order of nature or of supernature, the metaphysical roots of all responsibility and obligation are founded in God's plan for His creation and for its ultimate consummation in and through Christ. In the Book of Sirach it is said that God, having created man from the beginning, committed him into the hands of his own counsel and at the same time gave him His law to guide him (Sirach in the Vulgate 15.1416; Summa theologiae 1a, 103.5 ad 2). St. Thomas put the matter this way: just as the ship is committed by the maker or owner to the care of the captain to guide it, care for it, and bring it safely to port, so did God commit man to the care and guidance of his reason and will to bring him to the goal set by God, namely, eternal life, beatitude, and salvation (cf. Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 2.5; 2a2ae, 85.2).

From this theonomic notion of obligation and responsibility (based on the interpersonal relationship between the Creator and His creature), it should be immediately manifest that obligation may in no wise be conceived as something imposed from without, hampering freedom and growth, but rather as an exigency of being, and in particular as an exigency of human being in dependence of the divine Being, who wishes that His creatures come to perfection (cf. 1 Thes 4.3) and thus give Him the honor and glory that is His due. In terms of the nominal definition that was the starting point of this analysis, it can be said: man's first and fundamental duty is the perfection appointed him by God and consequently due to God, and his first and fundamental obligation is that of bringing himself to that divinely appointed consummation in being.

Obligation in the Old and New Testament. In the context of the history of salvation, it is evident that God, the Creator and Master of all things, entered into personal contact and dialogue with His creatures, with men, calling them to a special sharing in His life and friendship and entering into a covenant, or alliance, with them, and Himself established the conditions of that alliance, setting them down in brief in the Law, in the Decalogue of Sinai. The observance of the Law and the carrying out of all its prescriptions was the one guarantee of retaining the goodwill and friendship of Yahweh. Hence the reverence, devotion, and love with which the chosen people looked upon the Law. The Law and all its prescriptions, that is, the conditions of the alliance, bind or oblige them in all their doings. Of that they are fully conscious. This concentration and insistence on the Law may in no way be thought of as a kind of legalism, but rather, as a modern exegete has felicitously put it, as true nomocentrism. The voice of God came to Moses on Mt. Sinai: "Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: you have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex 19.36). When Moses told the people what the Lord had said and made known to them all the commands He had given, they answered, in the conviction than an obligation was being imposed on them: "Everything the Lord has said, we will do" (Ex 19.7; 24.3); and forthwith Moses committed all to writing (Ex 24.4). The observance of the Law of Yahweh brings blessing and happiness (Ex 23.2033; Dt 28.114); its breach, maledictions and misfortune (Lv 26.14.43; Dt 28.1.568).

The notion of obligation in the New Law and under the New Alliance remains fundamentally the same; but there are, for all that, important differences, differences not so much of content as of spirit or attitude, caused in men by the teaching and example of Christ and by His efficacious (sacramental) healing and sanctifying influence on those who believe in Him. "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by His Son" (Heb 1.1), whom when the time had matured, He sent, in order that we might receive adoption as sons, sending the spirit of His Son into our hearts, so that from being slaves and bondsmen we might, with and in Christ, become sons and heirs by the act of God (cf. Gal 4.47). This is the fulfillment of God's promise to enter into a new covenant with His people by transforming their hearts and renewing their spirit (cf. Ez 11.19). However, one must never forget Our Lord's constant and insistent warning that He came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them down to the minutest detail (Mt 5.1718) by seeing that they be observed from within, from the spirit of sonship, and out of love for the person of the Lawgiver. Another warning of Christ must also be kept in mind, namely, that the sole proof of one's love for Him is the keeping of His Commandments (cf. Jn 14.15, 21;1 Jn 5.2; Jn 1.6).

In the context, then, of the New Alliance, it is evident that the roots of obligation for the new people of God are visibly and outwardly the Law and the Prophets and, in the inner being of the new creation (2 Cor 5.17), the new spirit of sonship and friendship infused into mens' hearts through and in Christ, together with mens' consciousness of this new nobility and dignity (see conscience). Here it is really a question of noblesse oblige, and St. Paul, in the parenetic sections of his Epistles, returns to it again and again (see Eph 5.3; Col 3.12; Gal 5.22; Rom 6.22). The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican Council II (ch. 2.5, 7) insistently recalls the people of God to a recognition and to a renewed consciousness of the dignity of their divine calling and of the obligations that calling imposes, echoing thereby the words of St. Leo: "Recognize, O Christian, your dignity and having become a partaker in the divine nature, do not degrade yourself by returning to your former baseness. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member" (Serm. 21.3; Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne [Paris 187890] 54:192193).

Here a point of the greatest importance must be carefully noted. Yahweh did not conclude the alliance with individual members of the chosen people, but with the people as such, making known to them through His Prophets the terms of the alliance laid down by Him and the conditions of its observance. So it was in the course of sacred history; in the designs of divine providence, so it still is in the context of the New Alliance with the new people of God. The conditions of the alliance, it must be confessed, affect and oblige each individual, and the Spirit of God moves the minds and inspires and informs the consciences of the individual faithful (cf. Mt 10.2933; Lk 12.67). To guarantee the genuineness and authenticity of such inspirationswhether in matters of faith or moralsChrist, foreseeing the ever-present danger of error and deception, endowed His Church with an infallible teaching authority vested in its pastors, who receive Christ's injunction to go teach all nations to observe all whatsoever He had commanded them (Mt 28.20), as well as the assurance that whoever listens to them listens to Him (Lk 10.16). This important matter was emphasized in a special way in Vatican Council II (cf. loc. cit. 2.12.2).

Obligation and Law. Before termination of the discussion on the notion of obligation in the context of the history of salvation and of the Christian ethos in particular, one final matter must be mentioned. The radical binding force of divine (and natural, which is a direct and immediate participation of divine) law, as the main source and root of obligation in the context of the history of salvation, has been examined above and need not be further expatiated. However, the question of the binding force of positive human lawwhether civil, ecclesiastical, or religiousmust be considered, since there is the ever-present danger of either exaggerating its binding force (see rigorism) or of so minimizing it that it no longer has any real meaning as law (see laxism). This question is all the more important in that positive law affects men more tangibly and obviously and, as man-made, appears more readily as an unwarranted curtailment of man's innate freedom. Besides, a wrong conception of things in this domain can, and indeed at times must, inevitably lead to a falsification of conscience and eventually to scrupulosity. First, the principle of St. Thomas with regard to the general binding force of positive (human) law should be carefully noted: when there is no evidence of the fact, it is a dangerous thing to lay down categorically what is or is not a mortal sin (Quodl. 9.7.2). Second, all positive law, if it be just and prudently made, whether civil or ecclesiastical or religious, binds in conscience and must be observed ut in pluribus (see Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 96.1 ad 3; 1a2ae, 96.6 and passim ) under pain of sin and corresponding punishment as laid down in the law itself. Third, there is the special case of laws of constitutions that stipulate explicitly that they do not bind under sin, but oblige only to undergo the penalty attaching to their violation. This is the case, for instance, with regard to the 1932 constitutions of the Dominican Order (32.1, dating from the general chapter of Paris, 1236; Monumenta Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum historica, ed. B. M. Reichert [Rome-Stuttgart-Paris 1896]3.8) and, following that example, the constitutions and rules of many other orders, congregations, and confraternities. Fourth, it should be noted that therein is the source of much confusion in later moral theology. For such rules and constitutions were (and are) said to bind sub levi or sub gravi, meaning that they oblige to the acceptance of the light or grave penalty imposed by them, but in no wise insinuating that there is any question of sin: quite the contrary. In later times, and especially in post-Reformation theology, the origin of these expressions was overlooked, and they were wrongly given the meaning of obligation under light or grave sin. Hence arose the bitter discussion during the 17th century. The bitterness seems to have disappeared, but the confusion persists, and so far shows no sign of being dissipated.

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[c. williams]