Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


THE Divine law in its primary applications, as given in the Ten Commandments, has been so fully presented in our text from S. Thomas Aquinas that only a few words of practical application need be added. But the student will not overlook that admirable expansion of those commandments, so serviceable also for self-examination by them, which is contained in the Church Catechism.

The First and Second Commandments concern faith, holy fear, love and worship towards God. (See Part III., page 399.)

On the sin of simony, Jesuitical distinctions concerning it, and the making pay a motive for the priest's work, see the twelfth Provincial Letter of Pascal, with the defence of it, usually appended to "Les Provinciales." The test for conscience may be to ask how the work is done. Is it with equal zeal, labour, and love where no earthly recompense can be expected?

On the Third Commandment, see Part III., page 399.

"Curses," "swearing," as ordinarily heard, need not be always regarded as mortal sin in themselves, for charity will presume that there is absence of intention. Commonly, among us, at least, they may be indications of a profane spirit, and habits of other and mortal sins. But in this matter it would not be wise to overlook the very different associations of different classes, and the very different customs of different European nations.

In oaths, assertory or promissory, there must be lawful matter; otherwise they create no obligation. Furthermore, the implied conditions in a promissory oath are (a) that no serious injury will be done in observing it; (b) that there shall be no serious change of circumstances; (c) that the other party shall observe this pledge also; and (d) that he will not give up his claim to the fulfilment of the oath. Perjury, in common law, is crime only in judicial proceedings, and in what is material to the case in question (Blackst. iv. page 137).

The Fourth Commandment. Giving time for Divine worship is a law of nature. But since the ceremonial law of ancient Israel has been abolished, the observance of Sundays, together with other feasts and fasts of obligation, rests upon positive ecclesiastical law (Duct. Dubitant. II. ii. rule 6). Such law is found in canons 13, 14, and 15, §§ 43, et seq., of 1603 (respecting "the Lord's Day, commonly called Sunday, and other holy-days,". . . "such days as are appointed to be kept holy by the book of Common Prayer," etc.), and title i., canon 18, of the American Church. The law is (a) affirmative, as in these canons; i.e., binding under due conditions. Grave injury to body or soul is full excuse from the outward obligations of such a law; e.g., for harvesters in case of need; the sickly and nurses of the sick; travellers on long voyages by land or sea; those who are engaged in cooking, mothers in charge of infants, and domestic servants; those who reside at great distance from church, etc., etc.

(b) The law is negative in requiring abstinence from unnecessary servile work. But to this must in practice be added the obligation of abstaining from what causes scandal, especially where Judaizing notions are prevalent, and from what tends to sin, seeking what promotes spiritual edification.

With this limitation, it cannot well be maintained that liberal works or recreations of any honest sort are prohibited by the law. At the same time, we have no right, under the law of charity, to make our recreations a cause of servile work and of the neglect of holy time on the part of others. The common servile work, duly limited in respect of time, such as cooking, sweeping, etc., is not a violation of the law. Servile work, also, for charity or piety is to be admitted without hesitation.

The Fifth Commandment. (See Part III., page 363.) The honour due to a father and a mother here stands for the various obligations which spring from the natural relations of human life. These are considered in various parts of our Moral Theology, and need not be now repeated.

But let us add respecting children, that in the choice of a work for life, as well as in the choice of a partner for life in life's duties, they are not subject to their parents' will, because these are the appointed and natural means of their reaching the ultimate end of their existence. They are to serve God and do their duty "in that state of life unto which it shall please God," not their parents, "to call them." But the law of nature, as well as the common law, is not to be overlooked, which requires that in their work for life they shall not forget to provide for the support of aged parents in their time of need.

Parents also have a negative on their children's choice, at least until full maturity is reached. And this will apply equally to the choice of Holy Orders as life's work, or to the "religious" life for girls.

(Qu.: The child is converted, and parents oppose the receiving of the Christian sacraments?)

Parents may violate this commandment by their neglect of spiritual instruction and training, and of moderate correction.

(Qu. 1. Suppose that husband or wife is an infidel and opposes those necessary things -- e.g., Holy Baptism -- which are the blessings of children? Also, that the other parent devoutly seeks for the same?

Qu. 2. May parents lawfully commit the care of their children to heretical schools?) The husband's special sins are neglect of his wife, tyranny towards the weaker partner, dissipating funds which are needed for family expenses.

The wife's special sins are lack of Christian submission (Col. iii. 18), irritating words, "scolding," needless provocation in general, exposing the husband's faults, etc.

Caution: Let the priest beware of lending a ready ear to a wife's complaints, which many are so ready to pour into a pastor's ears, and of taking part in family quarrels, because there is usually fault on both sides; e.g., among many, exasperating a drunken husband by "nagging" words instead of meeting him with patience and forgiveness.

If the husband be negligent in providing for his family, the wife may justly expend, out of the common income, what is suitable for her station in life, what is necessary for children, and other domestic expenses. If, through the husband's excesses, the family's support be endangered, she is not morally obliged to consult him in her action.

(Qu. 1. Debts are due at the husband's death, and she also and her little children must be provided for; which has the prior claim?

Qu. 2. May investments be withdrawn from business, and released from claims of creditors, for her benefit?

Qu. 3. Can parents justly cut off children, in case of a runaway match, from all inheritance, and expel forever from the family?)

The master's and employer's special duty is to make prompt and just payment, and to see that due time is provided for spiritual improvement, and for recreation. The servant's and employee's duty is to avoid slovenly work, work for self in hours which belong to the other, and using unlawfully, selling, or giving away that other's goods.

(Qu.: Suppose that the servant or employee leave before the stipulated time expires, what is the moral obligation? Certainly, if loss ensue thereby, there is no claim for pay; but suppose no serious loss?)

The Sixth Commandment. (See Part III., page 297.) This, of course, includes the grave sins of hatred, dissension, etc., which find their consummation in the malicious taking of human life. The law of nature is repeated in Revelation (Gen. ix. 6), "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, etc., for in the image of God made He man."

But God, by His agents, may demand the life which He has given (Rom. xiii. 4, the ideal of civil government).

Lynch law, therefore, in organized society is murder.

Divine law, however, does not forbid, and human law makes it lawful, to protect one's own life and what is necessary to life, even at the cost of the life of the aggressor -- e.g., the burglar -- provided that no other means will serve the purpose. Charity may demand the same course in defence of one's neighbour against the unjust aggressor.

Manifest limitations of this natural right are (1) He who takes what is not necessary to life is not lawfully killed; (2) no such injury shall be done after the aggression. That would be revenge, not lawful defence (Blackst., iii. page 3).

Common law accords so strictly with the spirit of this commandment that it may be well to note its distinctions. Homicide is -

(1) Justifiable in order to save life or limb, but not universally in order to save property. Special cases under common law, making homicide justifiable, are, (a) in case of arrest for felony, the accused taking flight or resisting; but it is murder to kill a felon without due process of law; (b) if a house be broken into for robbery at night (day-time also, New York), or if an attempt be made to burn it; (c) in defence of chastity, either by the woman or her relatives (Qu.: her neighbour?), but not in case of a woman taken in adultery, for there violence is absent; (d) in case of attack threatening grave injury, with clearly felonious intent (Blackst., iv. pages 178, 181, 184).

(2) Excusable homicide is in case of attack threatening grave injury, if no means of escape -- e.g., retreat -- be present. But if the affray be over, or the assailant running away, homicide is criminal revenge. Husband and wife, parent and child, may use the same means in general for one another (page 186).

(3) Manslaughter is homicide: (a) voluntary, but through sudden passion; (b) involuntary, but while doing any unlawful act.

Attempt at murder is not judged so gravely in common law as in morals (except poisoning, in England; Blackst., page 196); it is only on a par with manslaughter. Killing another instead of the one intended is equally murder in law.

An act dangerous to others, even when care is used, may result in the sin of homicide. It is the same sin for the physician to shorten human life for the purpose of avoiding suffering. Abortion is homicide, but the mother's life may be saved by what is injurious to her offspring.

(Qu.: Killing it to save the mother's life -- can one life be taken, when it will be certainly lost, in order to save another?)

Defensive war is lawful, for the life of the state is more precious than that of the individual; therefore all that is essential to war is also lawful. Stratagems are lawful, except those which no prudence can avoid. If the innocent necessarily suffer in sedition, riot, or war, that is not intended, and there is no sin in the result.

Suicide, as we have seen (Part III., page 299), is sin against nature, for though man has direct dominion over his body, it is only "dominium utile," received from God and to be accounted for.

Since suicide is also a crime against society, it is murder by common law, and the adviser of it is guilty of manslaughter (Blackst., iv. page 189). The only admissible question in determining the guilt of it is, as in any other case, did the person at the time know right from wrong? Beware of the sentimental sympathy which condones the crime.

(Qu.: The priest is expressly forbidden to use the burial service in such a case. What should he do if called upon?)

But exposure of life for a good end is lawful; e.g., in war, the blowing up of a vessel with imminent danger to self. The end sought for is not self-destruction.

There is no moral obligation of extraordinary -- e.g., surgical -- means to preserve life. On the other hand, immodcrate asceticism, if it injure bodily health, is unlawful, even if the aims are good.

The Seventh Commandment has been fully discussed in Part III., Chapter VIL Only a few words, therefore, need be added.

Questions connected with it require the utmost caution, both personal and official, because the soul's desires are soonest reached through the imagination.

The Gospel law is given (Gal. v. 19-21), forbidding inordinate (not merely excessive) acts of impurity, gluttony, intemperance; in the Tenth Commandment are forbidden the corresponding desires, imaginations, and other proximate causes of temptation to outward acts of sin (S. Matt. v. 28; Eph. iv. 29).

(1) Luxuria, lust, is against nature's primary law, because the appetite is given for the continuance of the human race, and the creation of the family society (Gen. ii. 18).

Proximate causes, which may become mortal sin, are kisses, even touches, exciting novels acting on the imagination, obscene speech (sometimes venial), obscene songs.

Voluntary self-pollution, so prevalent among the young, must be approached most cautiously, for fear of suggestion.

The prevalent sin of avoiding the ends of matrimony, mortal as it is, can only be treated in the most general way, by frequent iteration of the ends of this Divine institution (1 Cor. iii. 17).

(2) Sensuality is inordinate gratification of the five senses, especially taste.

(Qu.: Is gratification, purely as such, wrong?)

Temperance in eating, drinking, sleep, recreation, apparel, are alike commanded. In general, such moderation is commanded as will favour the best condition of our souls. Beyond this, asceticism is matter of counsel, or charity, in avoiding scandal of the weak.

Note that sins against the body may produce bodily disease, and demand bodily remedies.

The Eighth Commandment is against unjust acts; the Tenth against unjust desires. (See chapters on Right and Justice, on Injury, and on Contracts.)

The Ninth Commandment forbids (a) perjury, as a sin against justice and against our neighbour; then (b) lying, for the same end; (c) slander; (d) calumny; (e) detraction; (f) rash judgment; (g) injurious suspicion. (See Part III., page 311 et seq.)

Lying. The Gospel law seems to be explicit: "Putting away lying, speak ye truth each one with his neighbour; for we are members one of another" (Eph. iv. 25). But what is lying? We can only answer, it is false speaking or acting with intent to deceive (5. Aug., De Mendacio, Contra Mend. e. iii.). It is not a material falsehood, for he may lie who speaks the truth when he thinks that it is not true. Lying, formally, is the wish, the will to deceive, enunciated in any manner whatsoever, whether by word or gesture, by equivocation or mental reservation. "He lies who has one thing in mind and enunciates another in any way. For the lying and the not lying are to be judged from the intention of the mind." The enunciation of what is known, believed, or supposed to be untrue, is only the "material" part. The essence of truth is not in the uttered words, but in the mutual understanding. Therein lies the obligation of truth, "for we are members one of another."

The Jesuitical distinction, making lawful "partial mental restriction" and equivocation, seems to be corruptive of sound morals. Such casuistry says that since the other has no right to know the truth he may be allowed to deceive himself respecting your enunciation. The answer is that he has a right not to be told a lie even indirectly, for "we are members one of another." A true man will say, "You have no right to an answer," and bear the consequences. Evasion is no lie; amphibology is a lie in intention (Whewell's El. Moral. iii. 393, seq.).

Is a useful lie (mendacium officiosum) a sin? Bishop Taylor justifies it (Duct. Dubitant. III. ii. rule 5, qu. 1, §§ 9, 11, 13).{1} But, on the rigid side, consider the arguments presented by S. Aug., Cont. Mend., c. v.: (a) Holy Scripture seems to condemn all lying (Ps. v. 6; S. Matt. v. 37; Eph. v. 25; Rev. xxii. 15). The deceit of S. Peter is rebuked (Gal. ii. 12). (b) Not even to save earthly life is life eternal to be risked by sin. (c) Nor to preserve chastity, for the purity of the soul is more precious (e. vii.). (d) Nor in the hope of benefiting others spiritually; for how can religious trust be put in one who will lie for a good cause? (e. viii.). (e) Nor to prevent others from doing us an injury (c. ix.). Lighter sins are not to be done in order to save others from greater sin; we choose neither of them; we condemn both. Each one must answer for his own sin (c. xiii.). Sin is not to be measured by temporal consequences. The Divine command (Rom. vi. 13) is, "Present not your members unto sin as instruments of unrighteousness " and the tongue is such a member. If we may use it for a falsehood with good intention, why not any other member?

S. Thomas Aquinas (see page 381 et seq.) shows that mendacium officiosum is always a sin, even if it he a venial one. If so, like other venial sins, it aids in forming a character; and it is an easy step downwards to mendacium perniciosum; e.g., in detraction.

(Qu. 1. May another be allowed to deceive himself through your words, actions, or silence, when he has no right to the truth -- e.g., in the case of lawyers, physicians, confessors, confidential secretaries, ambassadors, commanders in time of war

Qu. 2. Compliments in "good society"? "Not at home" may not be a lie, though servants may so understand it.

Qu. 3. May an advocate assert that his client's cause is just?)

"Lies of necessity" -- e.g., to save life -- must stand or fall with other compulsory acts. It is said that "necessity knows no law." But constraint of liberty or threats are not necessity, for there is always more or less constraint of fear or forces. It is sin to have cowardly fear. Only such fear as destroys the freedom of a well-governed man constitutes necessity, or such force as makes compulsion. Heroic virtue rises above the common standard of compulsion.

Another's necessity, a father's, husband's, etc., stands on the same plane with one's own. But antecedent rules are not serviceable for such cases, since formal sin is avoided when they are left to the emergency which is supposed to be outside of the law.{2}

On libel and slander, see Chapter on Injury, § 6.

Detraction, secret and unjust injury of another's good name (see Part III., page 314), is (a) simple detraction when the offence charged is true; it is (b) calumny when it is false. It is (a) direct when, if the charge be not absolutely false, yet the truth is amplified injuriously, or what is entitled to secrecy is manifested, or bad motives are imputed to a good or an indifferent act. It is (b) indirect, when good acts are denied, or diminished, or silence kept while others applaud, or praise is coldly given.

The gravity of the sin is measured by the gravity of the intention and of the injury. But it is worse than theft. "Who steals my purse," etc. Revealing wrong becomes a duty only when grave injury is effected by not doing so, or when another is entitled to know the facts.

Caution. The priest among his people is but too apt to be made the hearer of detraction, and needs the greatest care in distinguishing what he is entitled to know from idle or malicious tale-bearing.

It is sin against charity, not against justice, if a notorious offence be related to those who are ignorant of it. Listening to detraction is sin against justice, if thus inducement to it be offered; otherwise it is sin against charity.

(Qu.: Talking of injury done to one's self?)

Restitution is obligatory after these sins, so far as is possible; and usually the confessor will defer absolution until it is made. The good name is to be repaired or restored, and compensation is due for loss, if any there were, even if the fault revealed were actually committed. (Without enunciating or implying falsehood one can say, " I ought not to have said that respecting him.") Public restitution is due for public detraction, private for private. Even inadvertent detraction has the same claim.

Excuses. Restitution may be excused (a) if the fault have been otherwise revealed, or the good name otherwise restored.

(b) An old charge may have been forgotten; then to apologize for it would be to recall it.

(c) Restitution may be morally impossible, a good name being utterly lost.

(d) The detraction may have been unheeded; e.g., the speaker being perceived to be angry.

(Qu.: Suppose that the injured party has been guilty in the same way?)

Satisfaction for insult may recall the offence, and it is therefore not usually to be offered.

{1} See, also, Scott's comment on the ease of Rahab, Josh. ii. 5.

{2} In fiction the question of mendacium officiosum is very forcibly presented in Scott's Heart of Mid-Lothian (c. xviii.). Yet Jeanie Deans acted a lie (c. xxix.) in order to save her life. Cooperation, also, in the form of silence, not denouncing crime, will be found in c. xxxii.; perhaps, in another form, in c. ii.

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