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Beatitude and the ongoing debate over “Amoris Laetitia”

Too many churchmen seem unaware of this great achievement of post-Vatican II Catholic theology and so they remain frozen in time, trapped in the hard rules/soft rules debate.

Servais Théodore Pinckaers, O.P. (1925-2008) was a noted moral theologian and author of several works, including "The Sources of Christian Ethics" (1985) [Wikipedia]

Asked to name books that gave me the greatest intellectual jolt in recent decades, I’d quickly cite two.

N.T Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) accepts every grand-slam bid from the guild of Scriptural deconstructionists and skeptics, calmly replies, “I’ll see you and raise you” – and then takes the game with a flourish, leaving the unbiased reader convinced of, well, the resurrection of the Son of God.

Then there is The Sources of Christian Ethics, by Servais Pinckaers, OP (Catholic University of America Press). If I could put one book into the hands of every (and I mean every) combatant in the post-Amoris Laetitia debate, Father Pinckaers’ masterpiece would be it. Why? Because so much of the controversy over Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation reflects the hard rules/soft rules argument about the Christian moral life that Pinckaers explodes. The moral life, he insists, is not first and foremost a matter of rules; it’s a matter of beatitude. The Sermon on the Mount is the Magna Carta of Christian ethics. Yes, there are rules, or moral norms, but the Church teaches them in order to lead stumbling humanity toward happiness by helping us grow in the virtues that make for human flourishing.

The recovery of this insight – that beatitude is the goal of the moral life and that the virtues are at the heart of Christian morality – is one of the great achievements of post-Vatican II Catholic theology. Too many churchmen seem unaware of it, though, and so they remain frozen in time, trapped in the hard rules/soft rules debate. Thus it’s been interesting in recent months to see renewed references to the moral theology of Father Bernhard Häring, C.SS.R. Häring, an anti-Nazi hero during World War II, had a significant influence on the immediate post-Vatican II period; yet, he too seemed strangely imprisoned in a pre-Vatican II mindset. He was something of a rules-centered ethicist before the Council; he remained something of a rules-centered ethicist after the Council. What changed was his approach to the rules: he was a rigorist before the Council and a laxist afterwards. But the rules-centered paradigm was the same.

Which is to say, Father Häring missed the Pinckaers Revolution. And judging from the commentary in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, so did a lot of others, not least among those who think of themselves as the party of Catholic progress. 

This is very unfortunate. The Church can and must do a better job of explaining that, behind every “no” the Church says to this, that, or the other human failing or foible, there is a resounding “yes:” a “yes” to beatitude, a “yes” to human flourishing, a “yes” to noble living, a “yes” to a particular virtue. Grasp the “yes,” and each “no” begins to make sense as an invitation to live the virtues that make for a truly fulfilled life. The Pinckaers approach to the moral life gets us to “yes.” The rules-based approach – in its hard (rigorist) or soft (laxist) form – finds it hard to do that.

I might add that there isn’t a shred of empirical evidence to suggest that the lax-rules approach is pastorally successful in bringing the bored, alienated, indifferent, or confused back to a full and sustained practice of the faith, whereas there’s lot of evidence that the living parts of the Church are those that have embraced the Pinckaers approach – which had a decisive influence on John Paul II’s encyclical on the renewal of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. But that’s a tale for another time.

I was reminded of the Pinckaers/Häring divide when, a few months back, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster told a meeting in London that the Church would “persist” in being “awkward” when challenged by the many forms of the sexual revolution. But is that quite the right image? Is the Church being “awkward” (or “obstinate,” another term the cardinal used)?

The 21st-century Church that proclaims certain moral truths in the face of sharp cultural opposition isn’t being different for the sake of being different or mule-headed; and it isn’t being deliberately clumsy. The Church of the New Evangelization is saying, “Here’s what we think makes for the happiness you seek. Here are the virtues that make for that happiness, according to millennia of experience. Let’s talk about it.” That’s true pastoral accompaniment. 

About George Weigel 133 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999) and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010). Mr. Weigel received a B.A. from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and an M.A. from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

9 Comments

  1. Maybe when bishops stop playing armchair politicians and parroting “social justice” dogma and start learning moral theology from the basics, things will change.

  2. There is not much to disagree with here in the proposed approach to evangelization – or as it applies to in this article – invitation. The tragedy however is always the same: to assume (just as does Pope Francis) that there is a huge underlying problem that does not exist. When is the last time Mr. Wiegel or Pope Francis fielded a telephone call in a parish office from a person (who has not practiced his faith for years)seeking (often combatively) to be a sponsor for baptism or confirmation. What do the New Evangelizers they think that we do? State a list of rules? We do relate the “rules” to happiness. We do invite the person back to bask in the sacramental life? We do convert all the “No’s” into “Yes’s”! Now we may not be leading evangelizers who write apostolic exhortations or who pen for Catholic periodicals, but some of us have minor degrees and just enough understanding of classical education (and experience) to know that virtue is directly related to happiness; and we do a pretty darn good job passing this on to others on the front lines. We are tired though of being told over and over again that we should be doing what we are already doing as if we are not doing it. Every time we are told this, another string is plucked from our heart leading to our disheartenment. We don’t expect a “thank you” (far too much to expect), but some acknowledgment would serve well. It might also be acknowledged that the hedonists have their own idea of happiness and it is called “pleasure” and that it is not easily uprooted by simple instances of invitation; and that the great difficulty we are having in evangelization is not because so many are not doing enough but that there is some very great competition from a deeply embedded alternative happiness. Only grace can uproot this, which is why I add prayer and liturgy to my poor and humble evangelization (and invitations). But once again, what do I know – I wasn’t even invited to the recent Convocation which by now should be half-way toward conquering the crisis.

  3. I studied Pinckaers while compiling/assessing the ethical doctrine of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Servais Pinckaer’s was the only Thomist philosopher ethicist that isolated Aquinas’ terminology for a moral act. The ea quae sunt ad finem. Pinckaers correctly understood that the literal Latin Those things which are for the end does not refer to an end outside the act. Rather ea quae sunt ad finem refers to the end within the good of the act itself. In other words an act of charity is not simply obedience to a rule with an ulterior purpose. But an end in itself. One performs such an act because the act is manifest of God’s love within us. It is its own justification. I suppose that signifies beatitude if understood as a state of spiritual happiness. We experience it by doing it.

    • An added note. There is historically a long standing misinterpretation of Aquinas’ ea quae sunt ad finem as a Means to the End ethics. We perform an act as referred to so as to achieve some ulterior end. Servais Pinckaer’s as said rejected that. The major reason is that he also correctly saw the danger of utilitarianism in a means end ethics.

  4. The Church offers no thoughts about what makes for happiness, but announces the immutable truth that obedience to God’s commandments constitutes its necessary initial condition. The Church makes no assumption that fallen humanity is already oriented to the happiness Christian discipleship promises, but announces the existence of Heaven and of Hell in the grace-based hopes of inflaming holy desires. The Church enters into dialogue with the world in this as in every age not to offer anything as flimsy as millennia of experience, but to transmit faithfully and fully the Revelation of the One who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

  5. I was surprised and delighted to see Servais Pinckaers face when this page appeared on my screen – Yes, we so need to get back to see the beauty of virtues, to see them as reflective of God, of our participation in His life and His life in us, as important-in-themselves. And so when Christ says “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” He is speaking of sharing His Life, not just doing His will from moment to moment. For it is also how and why we do His will that is no less essential. I think that not only have too many seen the moral life as a matter of rules, but that aspersion has been cast on any concern for virtue as something egotistical or revealing an aesthete. There has been an element of dehumanization, of disvaluing what is most noble in man. We must be convinced that Christ’s words were true, that blessedness or happiness is the fruit of virtue, see the beauty of virtue in Christ and in those who possess it, and allow ourselves to be drawn by it and know that it calls forth a response to it.

    For persons caught up in pleasure it helps to have them reflect on the difference between joy and pleasure and the different types of “goods”. These are classical distinctions which have proven throughout history to help guide us. Ethics 101.

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