Thoughts, Morality of

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The act of thinking is, in itself, amoral, although it is a spiritual activity proper only to a person. All moral activity involves thinking, but it also involves volition. In speaking of the morality of thoughts, therefore, thinking must be understood to include, or to be associated with, some activity on the part of the will.

Affective Element. will is involved, first of all, by the possible dependence of thought upon volition for its existence. Involuntary thoughts, where attention is focused upon certain objects, not because one wants to consider them, but because they violently obtrude themselves into consciousness and cannot be ejected, have no moral character. Similarly, if thoughts are in some degree, but not completely, involuntary, their moral character is proportionately lessened. Second, will is involved by reason of the affective response to the value, positive or negative, perceived in the object of one's thought. Both these modes of involvement of the will are expressed by saying that when a thought is freely conceived or dwelt upon, and when the heart is freely committed to the moral values or disvalues represented in it, the act of thinking can be good or evil.

In spite of the volitional element in thought to which morality is attributed, thoughts are nevertheless to be distinguished from desires. In thoughts, the affective response is directed simply to the object as it is mentally represented. Desire, on the other hand, is a wish or decision to make the contemplated object actual.

Christianity and the Morality of Thoughts. The morality of thoughts is intelligible only in the context of morality as a whole. There are those who hold that nothing is moral or immoral except that which helps or hurts another. Genuine morality, however, is primarily a matter of the heart, or of the interior of a person. It is true that the intensity and duration of internal self-affirmation and a repetition of the subject's consent may be effected by the external act, but these are secondary considerations. The essence of morality is interiority; the kingdom of God is within. This is not to say that commitment to external goals is of little worth. Love must flow outward to others. Rather it asserts that the essential worth of external commitment is the immanent love with which one gives himself to service. Thoughts, then, pertain to the very heart of morality along with desires and other internal acts.

This conception of the morality of thought is in accord with the Judeo-Christian tradition as found in the Bible. "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart " (Dt 6.5); Jesus reiterated this theme, added love of neighbor as of oneself, and said these two great teachings express the whole of God's law (Mt 22.3740). Our most moral thoughts then are those of love of God and man. Nor does this interpretation do violence to the text, for "heart" (καρδία) in the Bible is the source of knowledge as well as the affections. And "to know God" is to experience His presence in an encounter leading to love (Jn 14.17; 10.14; 2 Jn 1.2). Our thoughts should also be those of gratitude, obedience, etc., in a word all that is meant by authentic religion (Hos 2.1920; Jer 9.24). "Whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable, whatever of good repute, if there be any virtue, if anything worthy of praise, think upon these things" (Phil 4.89). And according to a familiar theme, these interior sentiments are more pleasing to God than exterior sacrifice and prayer of the lips. The mind also is the source of evil. "For out of the heart (καρία) come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, immorality, thefts" (Mt 15.19). The importance of thoughts that are right before God is clear

What is inculcated in the Scripture is not just good thoughts but, more importantly, good attitudes and a basic commitment to the good. The primacy of attitude and orientation over acts is found in the teaching on change of heart (μετάνοια) and in the Pauline theme of the new man and the putting on of Christ: "Be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man" (Eph 4.2324).

Moral Theology. In their explicit consideration of the morality of thoughts, the attention of Catholic moralists has centered chiefly upon evil rather than upon good thoughts because the moral excellence of good thoughts is obvious, and no speculative difficulty is involved in their recognition and evaluation. With regard to evil thoughts, however, the case is not so clear. Mere knowledge of, or thought about, an evil thing is not sinful. It becomes important, therefore, to determine as precisely as possible the conditions under which thought about something bad is sinful. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas's most explicit treatment of the morality of thoughts is to be found in the context of his treatment of the subject of sin (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 74). Other moralists also have been preoccupied with this aspect of the morality of thought, which is understandable if it is remembered that their teaching was intended largely to prepare the clergy for the ministry of sacramental confession.

What makes thought of an evil thing sinful is the attitude of the will toward what is contemplated. There are two types of morally objectionable responses by the will, and there are in consequence two general kinds of "bad thoughts." One involves complacence of will with regard to the object of thought (delectatio morosa ), and the other involves joy (gaudium ). Both complacence and joy are concerned with objects that have internal reality only, and are not conceived as having external existence, for example, revenge, lewdness, or theft imagined with approval. The difference between them is that complacence has an object that has no incarnation in time, whereas joy has as its object a historical act, i.e., something actually experienced in the past. Accordingly, joy is considered to include within the ambit of its approval the attendant circumstances of the act as it occurred. This is not true of complacence, for in imagining an act that has had no historical reality, the mind can prescind from circumstances.

The pertinent moral judgments of the theologians can be briefly stated. Both complacence and joy, when their object is evil, are sinful. The quality of the sin is the same as that of the corresponding exterior act, e.g., an actual murder. The gravity of the sinful approval depends objectively on the importance of the value sinned against; hatred is worse than unchastity because charity is a higher value than continence. Subjectively, the gravity depends on the clearness or obscurity of the subject's perception of the evil and the greater or lesser degree in which the liberty of the subject is engaged. Sinful circumstances present to the subject's consciousness add their malice to the act of entertaining the thoughts.

Bibliography: b. hÄring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961) v.1. j. behm and e. wÜrthwein, g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 4:961965. f. baumgÄrtel and j. behm, ibid. 3:609616. a. snoeck, "De delectatione morosa uti est peccatum internum," Periodica de re morali canonica liturgica 40 (1951) 167209. g. gilleman, The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology, tr. w. f. ryan and a. vachon (Westminster, Md. 1959).

[r. h. springer]