Materials

A Critical Consideration of the Sources of Human Conduct
A paper by Rev. Paul C.B. Schenck

In his book, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Fr. Servais Pinckaers indicates that it is “The spiritual hunger that impels us toward truth, love, and goodness. It is the fundamental desire, the spiritual instinct (instinctus rationis, as St. Thomas says) that underlies all choices. “

In so doing, Fr. Pinckaers identifies the sources of human action (here described in Thomist terms as instinctus rationis, or spiritual instinct) as “fundamental” and therefore elementary. In this way, he contrasts St. Thomas with William of Ockham, whom I dub “the father of agnosticism.”Ockham’s nominalism viewed the choice between simple contraries as an end in itself. I am convinced that this is the idea that lay behind many jurists’ justification of abortion. Aquinas on the other hand, “considered human acts within the perspective of a final end, which would crown human happiness, and of the virtues, which would assure progress toward this end.”As such, Aquinas, and the moral theology of happiness, understands human actions to arise from the interior life, “The interior principles of action, the human faculties,” as opposed to external influences. The interior life, what St. Paul calls the inner man, then, is the locus of the sources of such actions (or choices). Yet, this is not to say that the inner man is the authority on what is good and what is evil, or of right and wrong. In Pinckaers’ interpretation, Aquinas places only the faculty of choice, or moral decision, within man -

St. Thomas placed freedom after the intellect and will, the latter having as its chief object the good seen as end. Freedom was placed at the conjunction of the intellect, which judged, and the will, which willed, loved and desired. From them it received the light and strength that were united within choice.

Moral actions are a product of man’s freedom, intelligence and will influenced by the properly formed conscience. His choice must be the result of consultation, either within himself, or with something other then himself. Yet, this still does not place the source of the action outside the man – rather, it is from his conscience that his actions ultimately arise. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the conscience is “the interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the law of God is inscribed.”

Fr. John Hardon, S.J. says: “It is an operation of the intellect and not of the feelings or even of the will. An action is right or wrong because of objective principles to which the mind must subscribe, not because a person subjectively feels that way or because his will wants it that way.

The conscience is therefore the inner process of discerning between good and evil. It is not however, the authority which determines good and evil. That authority is “the Law of the Lord,” according to Jeremiah (31: 31-33), written on the heart:

The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

The Law of the New Covenant is “placed within them,” i.e., in the inner man, and is transmitted to and from the heart, which is roughly equivalent to the conscience. The Law is not the conscience, but is placed upon or “deep within” it. Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.

The origin of the Law then is not man, nor man’s spirit, nor the inner man, but God. Yet, it abides within man, and is therefore interior, as opposed to exterior. In order then to do good and avoid evil, man must consult within himself, but not with himself. St. Paul quotes Isaiah:

None is righteous, no, not one;
No one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
No one does good, not even one. 

Left alone, without the help of grace, man is unable to fully choose to do good. St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 2:14 that the unspiritual man: “…does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

And in Ephesians 2:1-3 that:

[Y]ou were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Pope John Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor, “Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.”

However, man, aided by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit in the Magisterium of the Church, is able to develop his capacity to follow after God, to discern between good and evil and to choose to do good. The Catechism says: “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. “

And the Holy Father says in Dominum et Vivificantum – Under the influence of the Holy Spirit this inner, “spiritual,” man matures and grows strong. Thanks to the divine self-communication, the human spirit which “knows the secrets of man” meets the “Spirit who searches everything, even the depths of God.”

St. Paul goes further to say in I Corinthians 2:15-16:

The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ. 

Properly, the morality of human acts is made up of “sources” – the object, the intention and the circumstances, as well as the consequences of the act or acts, and, “a morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together.”

Therefore, good acts as well as evil acts arise from within and not externally. Choices are made between oppositions “accordingly as reason recognizes and judges it good or evil.” Reason here should be taken to include all the apparatuses of moral decision-making. It is not only the intellect, but spiritual, as well as natural, knowledge:

I appeal to you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual [reasonable] service.

The Amplified Version of the Bible renders this phrase as; “your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship.” This is an attempt at an expanded translation of the Greek λογικός, which includes the reasoning process as well as revelation. The inner man therefore must rely upon the conscience, formed by faith and reason, and guided by the Holy Spirit, in order to make morally good decisions and execute morally good actions in conformity to the Law of the New Covenant, which was revealed to man. The first and preeminent of these choices is to turn towards God and follow after him.

St. John says, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” Pope John Paul II observed, “the moral life presents itself as the response due to the many gratuitous initiatives taken by God out of love for man.” According to Pinckaers, this thirst for the infinite is an essential element of what he calls, “the primordial will”:

“From the point of view of the will, the source of energy resides in the simple willing of the end, such as goodness and happiness. This initial will indicates the primordial, profound spontaneity of the human person, corresponding to his intuitive knowledge of first principles. We could call it an “original” will, compounded of love and desire. It is also a final will, since it determines the goal and object of this movement. Such is the bodily hunger that drives us to choose and seek food. And again, such is the spiritual hunger that impels us toward truth, love, and goodness. It is the fundamental desire, the spiritual instinct (instinctus rationis, as St. Thomas says) that underlies all choices.”

The love of God and the desire to please Him by conforming to His Law forms the foundation for all other moral choices. “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” Proper attention to the formation of one’s conscience is absolutely essential to human existence – and even more so in view of building up human society.Without the proper reception of and response to a well formed conscience, the human spirit is weakened, diseased and ultimately deformed. The Golden Rule, (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”), love of neighbor and peaceful coexistence all extend from the well formed conscience. These are possibilities only because the human conscience is acknowledged, attended to and deliberately developed.