Thursday, March 4, 2010

Scholastic’s Bookshelf, Part III

Resuming my “recommended reading” series on (mostly) pre-Vatican II works in philosophy and theology – the earlier installments are here and here – we come now to ethics and moral theology. Readers of chapter 5 of Aquinas, chapter 4 of The Last Superstition, and the first half of my recent article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” will be familiar with the general moral theory underlying the Neo-Scholastics’ approach to these topics. The works described below all expand on that approach, some developing the theory in greater detail, some applying it to various specific moral issues, and some doing both. Naturally, the works in moral theology also incorporate theological considerations (Catholic ones, specifically). But they too should be of interest to non-Catholics sympathetic with Thomistic natural law theory, because they are all informed by a rigorously worked out philosophical ethics.

On these topics especially, one often hears the Neo-Scholastics dismissed – even, sad to say, by some with a reputation for theological conservatism – for their “manualism,” “legalism,” and committing of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.” In my view, none of these criticisms has any force. I explain in the works cited above why there is no “naturalistic fallacy” given a classical metaphysics. The possibility of such a “fallacy” arises only if we take for granted a modern mechanistic philosophy of nature, which, of course, the Neo-Scholastics did not. To reject their alternative classical metaphysics is one thing. But to allow that their metaphysics may well be valid while at the same time insisting that they are guilty of the alleged “fallacy” in question (as “new natural law” theorists appear to do) is simply muddleheaded.

The “legalism” charge is sometimes based on the suggestion that a law-oriented approach to ethics of the sort one finds in Scholastic manuals is a holdover from late medieval nominalism. (Apparently Moses was an Ockhamite – who knew?) The truth, I would say, is rather that there is bound to be a “legal” aspect to any workable system of ethics. If there are objective moral principles, we need to know how to apply them to concrete circumstances, and working this out carefully and systematically entails that casuistry will be a part of any serious moral theory. (It is certainly something the Neo-Scholastics’ critics inevitably engage in themselves when applying their own alternative systems – witness the three gargantuan volumes of “new natural law” pioneer Germain Grisez’s The Way of the Lord Jesus. “Manualism” indeed!)

There is also the fact that the priests for whom the old manuals were largely written needed guidance in the confessional, as did their penitents. And that means, inevitably, a way of telling mortal sin from venial sin – grave matter from light matter, sufficient knowledge from insufficient, sufficient consent from insufficient, in all the areas of human life where we find ourselves tempted. If you don’t like this, blame Catholic doctrine. But if you accept Catholic doctrine – as I do, and as many critics of the Neo-Scholastics do – then, it seems to me, you should not complain about “casuistry,” “legalism,” “manualism,” etc. Here the critics will say that the Neo-Scholastic ethics nevertheless encouraged “moral minimalism,” letting penitents and the faithful in general rest content so long as they stayed within the law. We should aim higher than merely fulfilling our strict moral obligations, the critics tell us. And so we should. But whatever might be true of angels, “new natural law” theorists, nouvelle théologie adepts, et al., we mere flesh-and-blood mortals, when striving to go beyond the moral minimum, find it helpful to know what the minimum is.

“Manualism” is also a bad thing, we are told, because the old Neo-Scholastic works merely repeated each other, peddled a closed system, and thereby stifled theological creativity. One problem with this charge is that it isn’t true; anyone who has actually read the work of the Neo-Scholastics knows that they disagreed about and debated all sorts of things. But it is true that their disagreements took place against a background of agreement on fundamentals. But so what? No one complains that the existence of textbooks of physics, geometry, or logic – which do rather “repeat each other” insofar as the basic material presented does not vary much from book to book – is evidence of a regrettable “manualism.” Nor do contemporary philosophers whine when textbooks on philosophy of mind (say) all tend to approach the subject from a naturalistic point of view (the occasional exception notwithstanding) and address more or less the same issues and arguments. One man’s unreflective prejudice is, apparently, another man’s “settled wisdom” – except that it’s only ever one side, it seems, that’s allowed to see itself the second way.

The thing is this, though: Ethics and theology either comprise objective bodies of knowledge or they do not. If they do – and it is hard to see how a Catholic could deny that they do – then “manualism” is as appropriate here as in other branches of knowledge. To insist otherwise is simply to beg the question against the Scholastic, who regards the classical metaphysical assumptions held in common by Platonists, Aristotelians, and Thomists and other Scholastics as a “perennial philosophy” whose basic tenets are rationally unavoidable, with the details rather than the big picture being what requires serious debate. Obviously, given the culture we live in, defending the big picture has its place too – here and here, for example – but so does working out the implications of the system from within, especially when the priest, the man in the pew, and the man in the street need answers to their moral and theological questions, not expressions of the theologian’s creativity. If you want creativity, take a pottery class. A good theologian is more concerned with rigor, systematic thinking, and fidelity to the deposit of faith, and these the old manuals possess in abundance. Nor will it do to complain (as is often done in certain Catholic circles) that the Neo-Scholastic system is “outdated” or that it fails to speak to “the needs of modern man.” What matters is whether the system is true – and the Neo-Scholastics gave arguments to show that it is, arguments their critics rarely bother to address.

I will end this mini rant by quoting the late Ralph McInerny, from a blurb he provided John Haldane’s Modern Writings on Thomism series of reprinted Scholastic works: “The phrase ‘Scholastic Manual’ has sometimes been used perjoratively. [Yet] some Scholastic Manuals deserve to be read before they are condemned. Indeed, some deserve to be praised.” Amen. And for good measure, here’s another blurb for the same series, from Dominican theologian Fergus Kerr: “Scepticism, philosophical psychology, metaphysical and moral realism, virtue ethics, etc., the standard topics in current Anglo-American philosophy, were all much debated by Thomistic and other Neo-Scholastic philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century: It is a great pleasure to see some of them brought back into the discussion.” Amen again.

On, then, to the recommendations. Let us consider first some introductory works on ethics:

Celestine N. Bittle, Man and Morals

Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason, Second edition

Thomas J. Higgins, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics

John A. Oesterle, Ethics: The Introduction to Moral Science

Henri Renard, The Philosophy of Morality

Renard and Oesterle, which are brief, emphasize moral theory; the other three, which are longer, develop the theory and then apply it to various specific moral issues. Fagothey, the best of those three, is also the one book among those just listed which is still in print. It is elementary, but clear as a bell and systematic, and provides a very solid overview of the structure of classical natural law theory and how it deals with various concrete moral topics (though because it was written half a century ago, it does not address all the currently “hot” topics in applied ethics or all the objections contemporary philosophers might raise – see some of the recommendations at the end of this post for that). Poor Higgins you’ll have to read in a brown wrapper, since he seems to be the favorite whipping boy of “new natural law” writers who would like to consign the Neo-Scholastics to the memory hole. But his book too provides a useful, if elementary, overview. For depth, though, you’ll want to get hold of:

Michael Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Volume I: General Ethics

Michael Cronin, The Science of Ethics, Volume II: Special Ethics

Cronin’s two giant volumes comprise, for my money, the best of the old English-language Neo-Scholastic manuals in ethics. As the subtitles imply, the first volume concerns what is today generally referred to as moral theory, while the second concerns applied ethics. If you could own only a single Neo-Scholastic manual, this big boy is the one to get. It has long been out of print, but affordable copies are available online, and it looks from Amazon that it is also available from at least one of the on-demand reprint publishers (though keep in mind that these outfits vary in the quality of their reprints).

Next we have some introductory books on moral theology:

Francis J. Connell, Outlines of Moral Theology

Heribert Jone, Moral Theology

Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology

H. E. Cardinal Roberti, ed., Dictionary of Moral Theology

None of these is still in print, though the most recent reprinting of Jone was not too long ago. Jone and Prümmer are old standbys. Every Catholic moral theorist should own both, though Prümmer is harder to find a cheap copy of. For depth you’ll want to consult:

Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology (in five volumes)

Antony Koch and Arthur Preuss, A Handbook of Moral Theology (in five volumes)

John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, Moral Theology: A Complete Course (in two volumes)

I think McHugh and Callan is probably the best of these; certainly it is absolutely packed with information, and you can’t do better if you want a solid grasp of the overall theoretical structure, terminology, and characteristic doctrines of traditional moral theology. But you will have to shop around for it. The Davis volumes, also very useful, are easier to come by and have (mostly) been reprinted now by one of the reprint publishers. Koch-Preuss is a bit tougher to track down – and for some reason, only the first three volumes of it have been reprinted recently.

Among the old moral theology manuals, though, special mention must be made of the most recent of them:

John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume I: Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology

John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume II: Marriage Questions

The second volume of Ford and Kelly’s outstanding set appeared in 1963. The two volumes do not present a complete treatment of moral theology, but volume 1 treats a number of special topics in depth (such as the various psychological issues underlying questions of culpability, and the debate over the direction of moral theology that would come to a head with Vatican II); and volume 2 comprises by far the best and most thorough treatment of sexual morality (at least in English) that I know of. The books are also very sensitive to ordinary human weakness – Ford was an expert in the treatment of alcoholism, for example – without making of it an excuse for sin; anyone who thinks the manualists were insufficiently “pastoral” has not read Ford and Kelly. As it happens, they also defend a more “lenient” position on at least one issue – the removal of a damaged uterus where no immediate danger to the life of the mother is present – that was an open question at the time they wrote but has since been settled by the Church in a less “lenient” direction (the Church has as of 1993 officially forbidden such removal). But on several still-open questions they provide an excellent, fair-minded analysis of the alternative positions Catholics loyal to the Magisterium of the Church might defend.

The Ford and Kelly volumes too are out of print, though used copies should not be too hard to track down. Someone should reprint them immediately – especially volume 2, since there is (in my view) so little first-rate material currently available on the subject.

Also worth mentioning are some important volumes on questions of political philosophy written from a traditional Catholic natural law theory point of view:

John Eppstein, The Catholic Tradition of the Law of Nations

Johannes Messner, Social Ethics: Natural Law in the Modern World

Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought

John K. Ryan, Modern War and Basic Ethics

Eppstein and Ryan are especially important in-depth treatments of just war theory (a topic also given briefer but significant treatment in some of the volumes mentioned above, such as Fagothey, Cronin, and McHugh and Callan).

Finally, let me recommend some recent works written from a classical natural law position similar to that of the Neo-Scholastic writers. By far the most important are:

David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach

David S. Oderberg, Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach

The Oderberg volumes are the fullest recent defense of a traditional natural law position against the sorts of objections that might be raised by contemporary analytic philosophers. The volume on applied ethics focuses on “life and death” topics – abortion, war, capital punishment, and the like.

Recent works on Aquinas’s ethics which eschew “new natural law” and other revisionist approaches include:

Ralph McInerny, Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas

D. Q. McInerny, A Course in Thomistic Ethics

Fulvio Di Blasi, God and the Natural Law: A Rereading of Thomas Aquinas

There, I’ve now given you that most wonderful of gifts – a new excuse to spend enormous gobs of money on books. No need to thank me; just do the same for someone else some time.

19 comments:

Gregory the Eremite said...

My poor credit card!

This article is a happy coincidence as I've just managed to pick up a nice second hand copy of McHugh and Callan (rare on the second hand market here in the UK) to join my copy of Prummer.

Now I've got some expert guidance to surround these two with a larger family. I feel quite light-headed!

Bwall said...

Thanks for the fun blog. I am wondering, though, if you have read Servais Pinckaers' 'The Sources of Christian Ethics' and, if so, what you think of his thesis that the main problem with the manual tradition is not so much natural law as such (though he does downplay that tradition), but their acceptance of a 'will of indifference' and a need for an exterior force of obligation?

Anonymous said...

I teach Ethics to juniors in a Catholic high school. I teach, in order, Pinckaers, ST I-II q6-48, and Pieper's Four Cardinal Virtues.

One of the money questions in the spring semester is to compare how Pieper and Pinckaers differ in their use of the word obligation. Why does one pillory it and the other use it as an integral part of his theory of justice?

In my opinion, Pinckaers is excellent and does not fall into the trap of blasting the neo-Scholastics. I find him to be a useful introduction to the overarching topics of happiness, freedom, and law. Your mileage may vary.

Full disclosure: I also have them read part of Dr. Feser's article on natural law and property rights. They all agreed that he didn't tie into happiness and man's last end enough.

bgc said...

C.S Lewis has, scattered through his letters, some very negative things to say about neo-Scholasticism.

For example, on 4 April 1934 he wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths OSB. Lewis refers to N-S as 'an influential school of thought both in your church [RC] and mine [Anglican]' who were 'very antagonistic to Idealism' and who 'run something called Neo-Scholasticism as the cure for all evils. The people I mean are led by Maritain on your side and T.S. Eliot on ours. Perhaps I over-rate their importance. I hope I do, for I confess there is no section of religious opinion on which I feel less sympathy. Indeed I confess that it is no overstatement to say that your Chruch and mine are, at the moment, closest to each other where each is at its worst.'

Phew! This is very strong stuff indeed. Those who know CSL will realize that it is _very_ unusual of him to criticize Christian denominations - he believed in Mere Christianity, after all.

Why on earth would Lewis (one of a small handful of the greatest Christian apologists of the 20th century) regard Neo-Scholasticism as the 'worst' type of Christianity?

There are some aspects such as that when Lewis became a convert in the late 1920s he was very much an Evangelical Protestant, while by the time he died in 1963 he was much more of an Anglo-Catholic. This letter is from the earlier period.

Some people make a lot of Lewis have been an Ulster Protestant by upbringing, and quote a handful of apparently anti-Catholic comments; but having read all the biographies, letters, memoirs etc - I think this is untrue. It has to be remembered that Lewis had a robust sense of humour, and anti-Catholic jokes (esp with his brother) do not make him a visceral anti-Catholic. Of course many of Lewis's very best friends and closest correspondents were Catholics, some of them in religious orders.

My guess is that Lewis 'hated' Neo-Scholasticism because it was philosophically hostile to the Idealism and Platonism which were the basis of Lewis's own philosophy.

Lewis really loved Platonism, and lived by it. His friendship with Charles Williams arose from Williams’ novel 'Place of the Lion' which is about Platonic archetypes invading this world. It seems to my inexpert eyes that Platonisms permeates the whole of Lewis's work, and formed the basis of his theology and his understanding of salvation.

To this kind of Platonist (and I would regard Charles Williams as similar), Thomism/ Artistotelianism, seems dry and deadly; and to such the life from life - to be a reductionist, skeletal, pseudo-scientific - even deathly - philosophy.

Of course, CSL was mistaken in this in an ultimate sense; but I think this was how he personally felt when his Platonism was being undermined; and why he reacted so uncharacteristically vehemently against N-S.

The matter of late Platonism, and its war with Thomism, would make a very interesting topic for Ed to tackle; because of course it still goes on within the Catholic hierarchy.

And maybe it has a lesson for Thomists - that it is apparently not enough for Thomists to be right (which they are) and for Platonism to be deficient (which it is) – Thomists also need to bring-out the 'poetry' of Thomism (which it certainly has) in a way that can rival that of Platonism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for such excellent book recommendations. This is priceless information.

Edward Feser said...

Hello all,

Bwall and Anon 1, I agree that Pinckaers intends to be fair-minded and doesn't indulge in the knee-jerk Neo-Scholastic bashing others do. But I still think he's just wrong to pit the manualists' understanding of obligation against the other themes mentioned -- as if what existed was an incompatibility, as opposed to a mere difference of emphasis -- and gravely wrong to insinuate that the manualists' position somehow presupposes Ockhamism (especially given that he concedes, as of course he must, that they were not nominalists). In general, I am utterly opposed to the mentality that holds that Catholic thought -- here or elsewhere -- somehow got way off track between Trent and Vatican II, a mentality which you find in writers like Pinckaers no less than in dissenters like Curran and Co. And this sort of mindset has, unfortunately, contributed to a contemporary tendency of even some conservative Catholic thinkers to want to distance themselves somewhat from the manualists. This nonsense has got to stop.

As Bruce says, though, the mentality is to be found in surprising places, and I think you're right, Bruce, to see a tendency toward Platonism as part of the problem, at least among conservatives who evince hostility to Aristotelianism, Thomism, Neo-Scholasticism, etc. In conservative Catholic circles, this "Platonic" mentality manifests itself in a tendency to pit Augustinianism and the Church Fathers in general against the period between Trent and Vatican II. This is standard nouvelle theologie shtick, for example, which one finds in de Lubac, Balthasar, et al.

Part of the motivation here is ecumenical -- a desire to minimize Catholic-Protestant differences. Part of it is a tendency toward mysticism and a temperamental dislike of the rigor and systematic quality of Scholastic thinking. And part of it reflects, I think, a moral rigorism of its own -- a dislike of the realistic and down-to-earth quality of the manualists' approach to ethics, and an insistence on something more high-falutin' and touchy-feely.

Edward Feser said...

(continued)

This is why in sexual morality, for example, these folks often fling around the same sorts of caricaures of Neo-Scholasticism that theological liberals do -- "All those horrible manualists cared about is what body part goes where" blah blah blah -- and prefer to talk instead about a communion of persons, "one flesh union" etc. That's all fine as far as it goes, but sure enough, the moment they have to explain why exactly this rules out homosexual acts, marital sodomy, and the like, they are themselves back to talking about... why this body part is supposed to go here rather than there etc. But they do so in a way that is totally unconvincing to those who don't already agree with them, because they've chucked out the A-T metaphysics that makes the appeal to natural function intelligible. The whole thing is farcical.

In other ways too I think the decision of many Catholic conservatives after Vatican II to abandon the Neo-Scholastic tradition has been rather obviously a disaster. The disappearance of general apologetics is only one example: In response to the militant secularism that has only increased since Vatican II (all the "dialogue" with "modern man" notwithstanding), too many conservative Catholics have nothing to say except that Christianity is a better way of upholding "the digity of the human person" -- which, of course, secularists don't buy for a moment, because they disagree in the first place about what counts as upholding the dignity of the human person. To settle that question requires getting into the metaphysics of human nature, the metaphysics of the good, and all the other stuff the Neo-Scholastics did so well and their successors do so badly when they do it at all. There is also the collapse of catechesis and the disappearance of a general understanding among the faithful of what Catholic theology teaches and how it all fits together into a rational system -- something R. R. Reno lamented in a recent First Things piece, and traced to the abandonment of Neo-Scholasticism.

Edward Feser said...

Anon 1,

One more thing re: "They all agreed that he didn't tie into happiness and man's last end enough":

Keep in mind that in the article in question (a) I was merely summarizing the overall theory to set the stage for a discussion of property rights specifically, not giving a complete account, and (b) I was writing for a secular audience that is hostile enough to the stuff I did say, so that getting into the details vis-a-vis man's last end (i.e. God) would have been ill-advised, and in any event was not essential to the argument of the paper.

Have 'em read my book Aquinas, especially the last chapter (on ethics), and see what they think.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 again. I intended my comment about my juniors rejecting your essay to be tongue-in-cheek (although also pretty observant for 16 year olds). I do in fact recommend Aquinas to them as extra reading.

I am more or less with you about the period between Trent and Vatican II, although I was initially raised on nouvelle theologie schtick (don't worry, I love Lagrange now). I'm not first-hand familiar with Pinckaers going after the entire manualist tradition--the stuff we work with is pure Ockham-hatred. I find him useful for stretching before running, but if I had free hand with training these kids they'd be learning hard core metaphysics early in life so we can go nuts with the Aquinas.

It will warm your heart to know that the positive feedback on my class always demands more Aquinas. The kids eat him up.

Gregory the Eremite said...

I'm glad that an expert has given confirmation to the some of the doubts that came to my mind as I read through Pinckaers' "Sources" and the "Pinckaers Reader" a couple of times last year.

It struck me then that the positive message that Pinckaers gives could be a very great force for good as far as moral theology is concerned; but in criticising the manualist tradition, he appeared to lapse into generalities that needed far more discussion. There was the opportunity for him to state exactly the way in which particular manualists had erred and he did not take it.

However, it surely has to be admitted that much of what is handed on in the manuals is of sufficient intellectual depth to leave quite a lot of "practitioners" bemused. Is it possible that what Pinckaers was reacting against was the inadequate translation of manualism into everyday practice?

Ross said...

Dr. Feser,

Thanks for these recommendations. Sorry for bringing back a thread that has been dead for some time, but I have a question for you about Neo-Thomistic works on free will.

I'm a first year PhD student in philosophy, and have thought a lot about free will from the contemporary analytic tradition. I have been an ardent proponent of libertarian freedom, but of late have begin to wonder if critiques of LFW might have more going for them than I initially thought.

Recently I have become interested in learning more about the Thomistic tradition, primarily through reading your *TLS*. What I'm wondering is (1) if any of the books you have mentioned thus far have a good treatment of the issue of human agency, and (2) if there are any books by neo-scholastics specifically on human agency.

I have Oderberg's *Moral Theory*, but there he states

"One of the presuppositions of the present work is that human beings have free will. I do not propose to defend this claim, or to refute determinism. Instead, it will be taken for granted that human beings are capable of acting freely, of making choices about what they do." (p. 27)

What I'd like to find is a good Thomistic account of the free will that Oderberg assumes. Any recommendations would be appreciated.

Cheers!
-- Ross

Brian said...

When I read these older texts on moral theology, I get the sense that some of its moral advice no longer applies. I do not think that the motivating moral principles have changed, but I do think there have been cultural and social changes since the writing of these books that reconfigure when and where and how these principles are applied.

And so, the authors might warn about some act that would cause scandal in their time, but it would not cause scandal in our time. Causing scandal is generally always wrong, but what is considered scandal can change.

I also become somewhat distressed when I read these books. For the most part, I enjoy the challenge of living a moral life, but I become very anxious about the possibility of scandal and cooperation in evil. It seems like the duty to avoid scandal and cooperation in evil can become very severe.

It is difficult enough being vigilant about your own moral well-being, but when you must also be vigilant about the moral well-being of others by avoiding scandal and illicit cooperation, your life can become seriously inconvenienced. Buying a cup of coffee at StarBucks is no longer just a simple transaction. You might be cooperating with their efforts to pass same-sex "marriage" legislation. Renting your house to the first decent person willing to pay could be cooperating with any illicit activities they do in your house. And so on. And on.

It's tough, and I am hoping that, as I learn more, these duties are not calling me to such severe choices.

Brian said...

btw, can anyone recommend a good resources on the principles of cooperation? I have bought A LOT of ethics and moral theology books - most of the ones Dr. Feser has recommended, in fact - and their discussion on these principles is very short. Some have only a few paragraphs. Others have only a page or two. What gives!

Brian said...

I am skimming through Romanus Cessario's "Introduction to Moral Theology," and I think he is one of those critics of the pre-Vatican II manuals. He is especially critical of the casuistic approach to moral theology, and he thinks that the disappearance of this approach after the council is a good thing.

I do not know if his criticisms pan out, but it is clear to me that there is a history to moral theology that is worth exploring. Like the history of Thomism, moral theology has gone through many phases, controversies, and developments. What concerns me is that Cessario claims that this could compromise many authorities that I have been using on moral theology. He criticizes Prummer, for instance, for a misinterpretation of Aquinas.

It's never easy, is it?

Edward Feser said...

Hello Brian,

With all due respect to Fr. Cessario, that kind of thing annoys the hell out of me. The dismissal of the manualists has done enormous damage to moral theology. It is IMHO the main reason Catholic moral teaching falsely seems to so many people today to lack any rational foundation, and in particular so often seems to boil down to a murky, subjective appeal to the "dignity of the person," schmaltzy talk about our personal relationship with God, etc. without any account of exactly how the specific moral conclusions follow from human dignity, our relationship with God, etc. Anyway, no one is obliged to go along with the murky contemporary stuff. Prummer et al. aren't perfect, but they provide a foundation that needs to be built on, not pushed aside.

Brian said...

So you are familiar with Fr. Cessario?

To be honest, I am very new to moral theology, and I cannot make heads or tails of what Cessario is saying half the time. I do think, though, that he has a point that a purely manualist approach to moral theology could miss out on a lot and may tend towards rigidity. I know that's not what you are suggesting, but I do get the sense in reading these manuals that they are almost singularly focused on the nitty-gritty. I love that nitty-gritty stuff and the precision that comes a long with it, but I also love the, uh, I guess you could call it the "spiritual" angle of texts that are more informed by Scripture, patristics, an the saints. Why can't we have both?

Edward Feser said...

We can have both. I think you'll find, BTW, that it is not the manualists who tend toward rigidity, but rather their critics. The manualists are very clear to try to point out as far as one can what counts as sin and what does not, what counts as mortal sin and what does not, etc.

For this they are accused of "legalism" and the like, but what they are actually doing is quite humane and practical. The sacrament of confession is central to Catholicism, and of its nature it is something of a "legal" setting -- one accuses oneself of sin, receives a penance, etc. It is extremely important, wherever law is concerned, that the law be clear, that one be able to know when one is obligated and when one is not. Naturally we want to go beyond what is strictly required, but since we do have such requirements -- again, that is in the very nature of the sacrament -- we need to know where we stand.

Now when one is just told vague stuff about treating others with dignity, being true to our personal relationship with Christ, etc., then we do not clearly know where we stand. We do not know, from that alone, when we have crossed the line into mortal sin. There is also a danger, when seeking to know one's strict obligations is derided as "moral minimalism," to think that failing to do all sorts of things that we are not strictly obliged to do really counts as mortal sin. The "anti-legalist" view thus threatens, ironically, to generate a kind of scrupulosity and excessive pessimism about one's moral state. And indeed, you will find that the "personalists" and "new natural law" theorists who pushed aside the manualists sometimes tend toward a more rigorist and austere approach to moral questions, not a less strict one. (For example, the old manualists tended toward "probabilism," which is the more lenient of the ethical systems the Church allows. But their critics sometimes criticize this approach as insufficiently rigorist.)

Brian said...

At this point, I am just venting my frustration, but I just am so angry right now. Many poor individuals seeking moral guidance take to the internet with their concerns, and the help they receive by many Catholics is pathetic.

Catholic Answers Forum has a moral theology subforum, and many of the posters there confidently answer moral questions without any exposition of moral argument. They may link to some related article or refer to some passage in Scripture, but without making a rational case for their moral conclusions, it is simply not good enough. How many times have Catholics been badgered by Protestants with similar arguments? The First Commandment obviously convicts against Catholic images and icons, right?

And, of course, their moral conclusions are often very severe. Who knew merely exclaiming "Oh, my God!" was grave matter! Well, perhaps it is grave matter, but merely asserting that it is will not convince me.

I hope reading these texts on moral theology will provide me with more clarity and more sanity.

Anonymous said...

I was able to get a copy of Austin Fagothey's Right and Reason (hardbound, 3rd Edition) for less than 0.25 US cents. I got it from an online used book seller. It's a used copy, but the book is in very good condition, and upon reading it I realized it's the best 25c I ever spent or could ever spend. I always have it on my bedside table and I read it almost every night(along with TLS and Aquinas - I keep Philosophy of Mind in the living room bookshelf). ~ Mark