Thomas Aquinas to the Rescue!

In the first part of this article, we discussed the problem of Amoris Laetitia, how it’s, from a comprehension stand-point, a poorly written document, as evidenced by the widespread confusion, furor, and diametrically opposed interpretations of the document. Meanwhile, Pope Francis has refused to further clarify. That’s okay. Well, it’s not, but the point is, we can get by without his further comment. There are two things intrinsic to the document that point us to the true meaning: context and St. Thomas Aquinas.

First, Amoris is a Post-Synodal exhortation. If Francis were clarifying doctrine, this would not be the appropriate place to do it. An Encyclical Letter–like Humanae Vitae, the Papal Encyclical Paul VI used to clarify that contraception, chemical or physical, is still as gravely immoral now as it ever was, new technologies and societal trends notwithstanding–would be the appropriate manner in which to do it. So this exhortation by the very nature of its composition is intended to encourage pastors and families to live according to the Church’s Doctrine, not change the doctrine.

Secondly, and this is where I want to spend the majority of the article, the Pope helpfully quotes Thomas Aquinas in Paragraph 304 of Amoris, to help us understand what he’s talking about:

304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, art. 4.).

Is Thomas Aquinas a Moral Relativist Too?

Wow, I didn’t know Thomas Aquinas was a moral relativist, did you? As is the sad and, we trust, unintentional tendency of Amoris, if we were to stop with the surface appearance, without delving into further detail, we might tend to think Pope Francis, and now Thomas Aquinas, are suggesting that extremely difficult situations allow us to act contrary to the moral law without committing grave sin. But this is not how we should interpret Amoris, and it is definitely not what St. Thomas is teaching. And here is where, as I said at the outset in Part 1, we reach a question relevant to both Protestant and Catholic alike: If my reason and Christian Faith tells me that something morally is the right thing to do, but it will result in great evil befalling me or those I love, is it still the right thing to do? Let us examine the ST article referenced in Amoris:

It is therefore evident that, as regards the general principles whether of speculative or of practical reason, truth or rectitude is the same for all, and is equally known by all. As to the proper conclusions of the speculative reason, the truth is the same for all, but is not equally known to all: thus it is true for all that the three angles of a triangle are together equal to two right angles, although it is not known to all. But as to the proper conclusions of the practical reason, neither is the truth or rectitude the same for all, nor, where it is the same, is it equally known by all. Thus it is right and true for all to act according to reason: and from this principle it follows as a proper conclusion, that goods entrusted to another should be restored to their owner. Now this is true for the majority of cases: but it may happen in a particular case that it would be injurious, and therefore unreasonable, to restore goods held in trust; for instance, if they are claimed for the purpose of fighting against one’s country. And this principle will be found to fail the more, according as we descend further into detail, e.g. if one were to say that goods held in trust should be restored with such and such a guarantee, or in such and such a way; because the greater the number of conditions added, the greater the number of ways in which the principle may fail, so that it be not right to restore or not to restore.

Consequently we must say that the natural law, as to general principles, is the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge. But as to certain matters of detail, which are conclusions, as it were, of those general principles, it is the same for all in the majority of cases, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge; and yet in some few cases it may fail, both as to rectitude, by reason of certain obstacles (just as natures subject to generation and corruption fail in some few cases on account of some obstacle), and as to knowledge, since in some the reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature; thus formerly, theft, although it is expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered wrong among the Germans, as Julius Caesar relates (De Bello Gall. vi). (ST, I-II, q. 94, art. 4)

Now here Thomas is explaining the necessity of Virtue Ethics, as opposed to Moral Relativism or Situation Ethics. Taylor Marshall, Ph.D. offers an excellent introduction to Virtue Ethics in Why Did They Stop Teaching Virtue, The Taylor Marshall Show Episode #11. (Start around 17 minutes, 13 seconds to about 24 minutes, 15 seconds if you’re short on time.) The problem with just basing your life upon rules alone is that there aren’t enough rules in the world to cover the details of every ethical dilemma you may have in your life. Instead, you must develop in yourself the habit of virtue, training yourself to recognize and perform what is right, regardless of the physical or emotional pain that may be involved in doing the right thing.

Thomas gives the example of the fairly commonplace rule, “Give back people’s stuff you borrow.” Seems pretty straightforward, and most of the time it will hold true. But what if the guy wants to overthrow the government, or rob a bank, or kill his wife with the gun you borrowed? You need to discern the moral principles involved and make the choice that conforms to Reason.

So the authentic teaching of Francis in Amoris Laetitia cannot be “Although the moral law says that people committing adultery are committing grave sin, and it also says people in grave sin should not receive communion, sometimes people should receive communion if they are ‘at peace’ (to quote the Maltese Bishops) with their objectively disordered life.” Such an interpretation would contradict Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, quoted by Pope Francis to help us to understand his teaching:

Article 4. Whether the sinner sins in receiving Christ’s body sacramentally?

…Objection 2: [T]his sacrament, like the others, is a spiritual medicine. But medicine is given to the sick for their recovery, according to Matthew 9:12: “They that are in health need not a physician.” Now they that are spiritually sick or infirm are sinners. Therefore this sacrament can be received by them without sin…

Reply to Objection 2: Every medicine does not suit every stage of sickness; because the tonic given to those who are recovering from fever would be hurtful to them if given while yet in their feverish condition. So likewise Baptism and Penance are as purgative medicines, given to take away the fever of sin; whereas this sacrament is a medicine given to strengthen, and it ought not to be given except to them who are quit of sin. (ST, III, q. 80, art. 4). [See also article 6, “Whether the priest ought to deny the body of Christ to the sinner seeking it?” Short answer: Yes, if their grave sin is public.]

A more reasonable interpretation of Pope Francis’ Amoris, in this light, is that just telling someone “You can’t receive the Eucharist because you’re an adulteress,” is too reductive of an explanation and fails to train up the person in the virtues that form Thomas Aquinas’ ethical system. In order for a person to grow spiritually, they need intellectual feeding as well, they need to be told why grave sin is grave sin, since the intellect is like the skeleton that gives a structure to the body of a person’s life and prevents it from collapsing in on itself. Only with a skeleton can the muscles of a person, which we might liken to the person’s will and even his affections, propel the person in the right direction. Otherwise, he’ll just be a quivering pile of skin and flesh.

The person thus educated might perversely respond, “It’s wrong for me to deny the father of my children my body, and I could not possibly live with him as a sister does her brother.” While it would usually be wrong to deny the father of your children sexual intercourse (a very particular situation), yet the broader theoretical principle that it is sinful to have sexual relations outside a true sacramental Christian Marriage shows us the defect in the particular principle. This is the only consistent way to read Thomas Aquinas, and so it is the only consistent way to read Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia that appeals to Aquinas’ moral system.

Church leaders like the German, Maltese, and Buenos Aires bishops, who should know better, may close their eyes to the brilliant light of the Gospel Truth (Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate) when He teaches on this issue in Matthew and Luke. Yet, that Truth remains, and only by heeding it and arranging our lives in accordance with it can we truly be at peace. Since this is the Maccabee Society, I want to conclude by reflecting on another family that found itself faced with practical difficulties in doing what was right, but would not allow their particular situation to obscure the needfulness for them to follow God’s Law:

It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law. 2One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” 3At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated. 4These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on. 5When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, with these words: 6“The Lord God is looking on and truly has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song, when he openly bore witness, saying, ‘And God will have compassion on his servants.’”

7After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, “Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?” 8Answering in the language of his ancestors, he said, “Never!” So he in turn suffered the same tortures as the first. 9With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”

10After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands,  11as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.”12Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.


13After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.14When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”


15They next brought forward the fifth brother and maltreated him. 16Looking at the king, he said: “Mortal though you are, you have power over human beings, so you do what you please. But do not think that our nation is forsaken by God. 17Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.”


18After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such shocking things have happened.19Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.”


20Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord. 21Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words: 22 “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of. 23Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.” 24 Antiochus [the king], suspecting insult in her words, thought he was being ridiculed. As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office. 25When the youth paid no attention to him at all, the king appealed to the mother, urging her to advise her boy to save his life.26After he had urged her for a long time, she agreed to persuade her son. 27She leaned over close to him and, in derision of the cruel tyrant, said in their native language: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.28I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence.29Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.” 30She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses. 31But you, who have contrived every kind of evil for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God. 32We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins. 33Though for a little while our living Lord has been angry, correcting and chastising us, he will again be reconciled with his servants. 34But you, wretch, most vile of mortals, do not, in your insolence, buoy yourself up with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of heaven. 35You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty and all-seeing God. 36Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance. 37Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God. 38Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.” At that, the king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt. 40Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord.41Last of all, after her sons, the mother was put to death. (2 Maccabees 7:1-41)

So let us never assume that following the Law of God is “humanly impossible” (Maltese Directive Paragraph 9). In their obedience, for being too rigid about obeying the Hebrew ceremonial customs, this family reaped unhappiness and destruction according to the wisdom of this world, and yet in keeping the Law of God undefiled, even through torture and death, The true Joy of Love was theirs.