Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 2. -- Holiness and other moral attributes of the Divine Will.

Thesis XXX -- On account of the infinite rectitude of His will, God is to be called perfectly and absolutely holy, benevolent, and merciful, just, faithful, and true in His threats and promises.

184. The word "holy," as used of creatures, has a wider and a more restricted sense. In the wider signification it means "being removed and distinguished from other things, or persons, by a sort of special dedication to the Divinity." In this sense we speak of churches as holy places; we call altar-plate and priestly vestments holy things; we say that bishops, priests, and others specially consecrated to God, are to be revered as holy persons and we give the visible Head of the Church the title of "Holy Father," and "Your Holiness."

The word "holy" predicated thus does not denote any distinction in the line of morality. Pope Alexander VI., in that he was the representative of the Divine Founder of the Church, had so far forth as much right to the title of Holy Father as St. Peter himself; although in point of moral excellence Peter as far surpassed the common standard of human virtue as Alexander fell short of it.

In a more restricted sense, holiness is predicated of men alone, to signify perfection of moral character; in other words, perfect agreement of the free volitions and actions of a man with the moral law. The moral law itself is the eternal law of God, prescribing the line of action to be followed by rational creatures in the pursuit of their last end. The moral character of a man is perfect, if he does his duty with unfailing integrity. His duty as a reasonable being is to use his freedom reasonably. One of the first demands of reason in him is that he should submit freely to the will of his Creator as soon as he knows it. Doing so, he renders his actions in complete accordance with the dictates of infinite wisdom; for as God's will is really one with His infinite intellect, it is impossible that God should impose any duty upon us otherwise than in absolute harmony with His supreme reason. Hence we may define a holy man to be a man who uses his free-will constantly in such a way as to comply with the rule of action that infinite wisdom has laid down for him from eternity.

185. This definition, derived as it is from the common acceptation of the word, enables us to see that the attribute "holy," taken in its stricter sense, may be predicated of God. His free-will is not only united with His infinite wisdom, but in its subjective aspect is identical with it. It is, therefore, absolutely impossible that any free volition of God, any decree of His, any Divine action, or ordination, regarding creatures, should be different from what it ought to be according to the judgment of infinite wisdom. Independently of any other being, in virtue of His essence, God has an infinitely perfect knowledge of the way in which it behoves Him to use His freedom of will. Out of the purest love to His own infinite goodness (which is the spring and source of whatever is good), He wills and works according to that knowledge. Hence He is perfectly and absolutely holy, Holiness itself,

186. This holiness is the standard by which we must judge of the rest of God's moral attributes. The first of these attributes is the love and benevolence God bears towards His creatures. He loves all inasmuch as He wills they should all have some natural good. But in a stricter sense of the word God is said to love His rational creatures. Towards them He has a love of benevolence or friendship. On the other hand, strictly speaking, we cannot say that He is benevolent to irrational creatures; the reason whereof is simply this, that benevolence is either joy over, or a wish for, another's happiness; and only rational beings are capable of happiness. Love of friendship towards irrational creatures can only be based upon a misapprehension of their true nature. In view of the traces of the Divine goodness which they exhibit, and the generic similarity which they bear to the inferior part of our nature, we may call them our friends, or even, with the pious exaggeration of St. Francis, our brothers and sisters; we may be much opposed to reckless hurting of their sentient organism. All this accords perfectly with reason. But as soon as we begin to represent them to ourselves as self-conscious, as reflecting upon their state, and consequently, as capable of happiness and misery in the proper sense of the words -- as persons, and not as things only -- our behaviour becomes unreasonable, and borders on morbid sentimentality. It would be blasphemy to suppose such a violation of reason in God. In conclusion, as regards the benevolence of God towards His rational creatures, we know from reason alone that that benevolence is ample enough perfectly to satisfy the demands of infinite wisdom. From Revelation we are certain that God on His part is ready to make each of His rational creatures in a certain sense infinitely happy in a future life, and that only abuse of freedom on their own part can thwart and frustrate the benevolent intention of their Creator.

187. Light is thrown upon the benevolence of God by another of His moral attributes closely connected with it -- Divine mercy. Mercy, as it is a virtue, and not blind feeling, consists in the efficacious will to remove the misery of others to the extent approved of by rightly enlightened reason. In men the practice of this virtue is frequently attended with a sort of tender emotion caused in our sensitive organism by the sight or imagination of misery. And just as benevolence is not seldom misapplied by us, so we may also err in the exercise of mercy. In those who are called to govern others, for instance, mercy may degenerate into a vice, if they allow themselves to be drawn away from preventing public danger by compassion for individual criminals, who experience pain and hardship if laws against crime are laid down and enforced.

Not a shadow of these and similar defects, which disfigure human mercy, can exist in the absolutely perfect mercy of God. In it there is nothing of blind emotion. It is purely spiritual, and the rule of its application is benevolent wisdom. For this reason the mercy of God must manifest itself here on earth in nothing so much as providing means by which men may deliver themselves from moral misery. In fact, as men alone of all visible creatures are able to attain happiness, so men alone can fall into that state which is properly termed misery. It is shown in Ethics that the final happiness of man must consist in union with God by perfect knowledge and love, a union to be expected in a future life. According to Christian revelation, this happy possession of God will be a supernatural one, an immediate intuition and fruition of the infinite beauty and goodness of our Creator, carrying with it a complete and never failing satisfaction of all our longings and desires without the least admixture of satiety or disgust.

From this it must be inferred that man is to be called substantially happy, in this mortal life, so long as he is on the right path to his future union with God, and really miserable, so soon as he goes astray from it. Here, then, there arises the question: Which is the true way to that union? Reason answers clearly: Compliance with the law of God in the use of moral freedom. Christianity stamps this judgment of human reason with the seal of Divine authority; and assures us, moreover, that nothing is able to endanger man's final happiness but a deliberate breach of the law of God.

This being so, God cannot show His mercy in this world more splendidly than by leading men to the knowledge of Himself and to the observance of His law, and offering to those who transgress it a remedy against the evil consequences of their transgression.

188. Different from but not opposed to the effects of Divine mercy are the manifestations of another moral attribute of God -- His justice. By this term we do not signify commutative justice, or that moral disposition which inclines us to render to others what they have a right to ask. This virtue cannot belong to God, who is the First Cause of all rightful claims, and against whom, strictly speaking, no one can have a right, as He is the only Lord of all. However, besides that kind of justice there is another kind, called by writers on Ethics distributive justice. This term denotes a virtue proper to rulers of a community, a virtue which consists in a constant will to treat every subject according to his dignity and merits. Such a will is a moral excellence which does not connote any imperfection, and therefore cannot be wanting in God, whose absolute dominion extends over the whole of creation. Being possessed of infinite knowledge, He thoroughly comprehends the natural and supernatural dignity of each of His rational creatures, and estimates exactly its merits or demerits. Knowing, moreover, how many ways of treatment there are applicable to a concrete case without violation of wisdom, He is free to choose between those; but He cannot choose any way forhidden by His wisdom.

These few statements embrace almost everything that can be said on the subject of Divine justice a priori. To determine accurately the way in which creatures are to be dealt with in harmony with their natural dignity and merit, is the work of God alone, whose judgments man has not to criticize, but in all humility to accept. Created reason rightly used cannot be opposed to the reason that is uncreated.

189. From the identity of this uncreated reason with the will of God we argue that He possesses two other moral attributes, veracity and fidelity. God is truthful, that is to say, He never can utter falsehood, nor approve of any such utterance on the part of His creatures. The reason is obvious. He is essentially infinite Intellect and infinitely righteous Will. Under the former aspect His essence is the expression of all objective truths in such a perfect way that He is constantly conscious of each of them; under the latter aspect He loves Himself necessarily as an infinitely complete representation of truth. His dealing with creatures must be in conformity with this love which is essential to Him. But an utterance made with the intention of leading into error would evidently be opposed to this essential love of truth. Such an intention would necessarily be involved in any false utterance coming from God: for Infinite Wisdom cannot tell an untruth by mistake. It follows then from God's very nature that His every utterance must be true.

But can God'ever approve of a lie told by one of His rational creatures? To solve the question, we have only to weigh the fact that lying is directly in conflict with the natural desire for truth proper to rational beings. The good of a creature endowed with intellect is truth. Its final happiness is in the possession of God, the Infinite Truth. The preparation to be made for this happiness must be the direction of the creature's free-will towards God by the way of true knowledge and true love. For these reasons man feels himself instinctively repelled by the suggestion of deliberate insincerity. The child's first lie is told with remorse and confusion and sense of moral disorder. How could it be otherwise? The intention to tell a falsehood is a stain on the natural image of Eternal Truth stamped upon the human heart. God Himself has an infinite detestation of uttering what is false, and necessarily wills that His rational creatures should in all free acts conform their will to His will, and consequently to the exigencies of their nature. It is therefore altogether inconceivable that God should ever approve of the deliberate spreading of falsehood. Every deliberate lie must be condemned by Him as something intrinsically bad: and all the more condemned, the more it tends to draw men away from God the Truth. Before all others therefore those liars must be held in special abhorrence by God who under the false pretence of Divine authorization try to lead others into error as regards religion and morals. Their endeavours cannot possibly be favoured by evident marks of Divine approval, as are true prophecies and true miracles. No false religion can be supported by such marks.

God's veracity is the light which guides the Christian safely along the narrow paths of faith. Another moral attribute of God, His fidelity, guarantees the attainment of the goal of happiness to which living faith leads.

"God is faithful," writes St. Paul.{7} To prove this, we need but to consider the veracity along with the physical and moral immutability of God. Being truthful, He does not reveal that He will punish or bless, without at the time of the revelation intending to award punishment or blessing, either absolutely or under certain conditions. This intention, in virtue of His physical and moral immutability, remains unchangeable. Consequently, when the time arrives to which the threat or promise is attached, and the condition fulfilled under which it was uttered, He is as determined to keep His word as He was when He first uttered it. As we shall see in the next chapter, He is also omnipotent. Therefore nothing can prevent Him from doing what He wills. Consequently, He is faithful. He will never be mocked by the sinner who despises His warnings, nor will He ever disappoint the just man who relies upon His promises.

Note. -- Difficulties against the moral attributes of God will be solved in the chapter on Providence.

{7} 1 Cor. i. 9, and x. 13.

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