287. So far we have dealt with the claims of the Catholic Church to teach the world, and we have studied her doctrines in detail. It remains for us to explain the duties of her members, by the performance of which they are, with the grace of God, to work out their eternal salvation. For this purpose we shall treat, 1. Of duties in general, 2. Of the duties common to all men, and summarized in the ten commandments of God, 3. Of the duties peculiar to Catholics, and laid down in the six commandments of the Church.
288. A duty is a moral bond or obligation; it is laid on free beings in order to control their free acts. We never speak of the duties of stars, or rocks, or plants, or brute animals; because they are incapable of doing free acts. Nor should men have duties if they were not free agents. Now freedom is the power of determining one's own act at choice; the power of acting, or not acting, or of doing one thing or another as one pleases. Since liberty belongs to man alone in this visible world, a free act is called a human act; while we designate as an act of a man one which a man does without free choice, such as breathing, walking in his sleep, sighing unintentionally, etc. Whenever, therefore, we speak of a human act we mean a free act.
289. That we possess liberty of choice we know by our consciousness; that is, we perceive it directly in ourselves. We do so, both before we make up our minds to choose, and also while we are actually making the choice; and after we have chosen we often judge ourselves to be deserving of blame or of commendation. All nations at all times have acknowledged this liberty in man, praising or blaming, punishing or rewarding him; the recognition of it underlies all legislation and all sense of moral obligation; without it there would be only might instead of right, barbarism instead of civilization. If the theories of many modern scientists were to prevail among the people, no one would give any heed to morality, nor to personal responsibility to God; for they teach that man is only matter, and matter acts necessarily; it is never free to choose if so, there is no liberty, there are no human acts. Common sense condemns these pernicious theories, and so does revelation. Ecclesiasticus writes: "He (God) hath set water and fire before thee, stretch forth thy hand to which thou wilt. Before man is life and death, good and evil, that which he shall choose shall be given him" (XV, 18). It is true that, since Adam's sin, concupiscence (n. 181) inclines man to seek sensuous pleasure rather than follow the path of reason: but it does not take away true liberty of choice, So the Lord Himself declared to Cain: "The lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it" (Gen. IV, 7). In the treatise on grace, we explained the teachings of the Church regarding free-will, and we pointed out the errors of the leading Reformers on this important subject (Ch. 1.).
290. Whence come our duties, those moral bonds which are laid upon us to regulate the exercise of our freedom? They come from God, who has given us that freedom, and who therefore governs us in a manner suitable to it. For He owes it to His own wisdom to direct all His creatures to their proper ends by means suitable to their several natures. He governs matter by what we call physical laws, brute animals by their appetites and instincts, all which forces irresistibly carry the objects controlled by them to their appointed ends. But it is not suited to rational beings, such as can know right and wrong, to be thus irresistibly controlled, but rather to be informed of their Lord's will that they may freely execute it. Therefore God makes known His will to us, and thus directs us how to attain our end. His holiness, or love of the moral order, moreover, requires that He shall bind us to follow His direction, namely to do what is right, what tends to our end, and to avoid what is wrong, what leads us away from our end. The result is the moral bond which we call duty.
291. This binding of free beings to do certain acts and to avoid other acts is called a law, in the strict sense of the word: the physical laws are only called so by a figure of speech. God has from eternity appointed the course of action which good order requires free creatures to follow in order to attain their end; this appointment is called the eternal law: in as far as this eternal law is made known to men by their natural reason, is is called the natural law.
Thus it comes to pass that every man, in proportion as his reason develops, becomes better acquainted with the natural law. Wise teaching by his parents and other persons may perfect his understanding of it, and false teaching may considerably pervert his knowledge. We have in the infallible teachings of the Catholic Church the most precious light of the moral world. In fact history conclusively proves that, without a supernatural teacher, no complete knowledge of the natural law has ever been attained by the most intellectual men, not even by the most renowned philosophers, all of whom have taught some considerable errors. We have but to peruse the speculations of modern philosophers and scientists to be convinced that the human mind stands exceedingly in need of supernatural guidance in the study of morality.
Still the leading truths of the natural law are, some self-evident, others are obvious conclusions from self-evident principles, so that they are easily known to all who have the full use of reason. This is seen from the fact that all nations acknowledge those truths and have always done so. Hence St. Paul says of the Gentiles: "Who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them" (Rom. II, 15).
292. How does reason discriminate between right and wrong? or what essential difference does it trace between moral good and moral evil? Goodness, in general, means "suitableness"; and badness, "unsuitableness": a pen is good if it writes well, a knife if it cuts well, any tool is good if it is suitable to the purpose for which it ms intended. Moral good is "the suitableness of free acts". Therefore human acts are morally good if they are suitable to the purpose for which man is created. Now we have seen (n. 151) that man is created for the ultimate purpose of glorifying God, that is of knowing and loving God. His acts, therefore, are morally good if they are suitable to this end, and immorally bad if they interfere with it. If they are not suitable to it and yet do not intefere with it, they are called indifferent acts. It is the most important function of reason to distinguish what acts will lead us to our end, and what others will turn us away from it; in other words to show us the difference between moral good and evil.
293. While God thus points out to us by our reason the difference between good and evil, He also informs us by the same voice that He obliges us to avoid evil and do good, or observe the right order in our free acts. For, as the poet has well said, "Order is Heaven's first law". Our intellect understands this by its own intrinsic power when an individual case is presented; and therefore all men know it. Still, much clearness and force are added to this knowledge by the teaching and the good example of parents and others. This makes a good education so important. By it, not only the intellect is enlightened, but all the faculties are properly trained at a time when habits are most easily formed; and thus the whole man becomes accustomed to live conformably to reason and to the will of God; "It is good for a man when he has borne the yoke from his youth", says Jeremias (Lam. III, 27). Such a one experiences the truth of Christ's own words, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light" (Matt. XII, 30); he is most likely to obtain the crown of perseverance: "A young man according to his way; even when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. XXII, 16).
It is not enough that God should make known His will and bind us to lead an orderly life; His wisdom also requires that He shall enforce His will by suitable rewards and punishments. The rewards promised for the observance of the law and the punishments threatened for its violation, are called the sanction of the law. The sanction must be adequate that is, sufficient to make it every one's highest interest to observe the law. If then one violates it, he has himself to blame for losing the rewards and incurring the punishments appointed. We have seen that the chief sanction of God's law consists in the rewards of Heaven and the punishments of Hell (n. 282, 283).
294. Since the reason why we are accountable to God for our acts, lies in the fact that we choose freely to do good or evil, whatever lessens this liberty will, to the same extent, also lessen our accountability. Now there are four chief hindrances to our liberty, and therefore to our accountability.
1. Ignorance. If I do not know, and cannot know, that my action is evil, I do not then consent to evil, and cannot be justly blamed; my ignorance is then said to be invincible; as if I paid out a counterfeit coin, not suspecting its worthlessness. But if I suspected it, my ignorance was vincible; in that case, I should take care not to expose myself to the danger of wronging any one; else I am to blame. Still the less the knowledge, the less the blame.
2. Concupiscence (n. 289) often arises unbidden by the will, on the apprehension of some sensible good. When it strives to overpower the will and extort its consent, it lessens our liberty and accountability. But if the will stirs up the passion freely, we become all the more accountable because we will the moral disorder more intensely.
3. Fear impels us to fly from threatening evil, when perhaps our duty is to stand firm; if we then yield, we are not blameless; yet we are less to blame than if we ran away without being actuated by such impulse. If the fright was so intense, that we did not know what we were doing, we were not responsible.
4. If violence is used to make me do wrong, and I absolutely refuse my consent, I am not responsible for what I am forced to do; but if I yield a partial consent, I am partially to blame.
205. That an act may be morally good, it must be in every respect conformable to reason; it must, therefore, be free from all disorder in its object, its end or purpose, and its circumstances. These are called the determinants of morality.
1. The object is the thing done, the act itself. Some acts are bad in themselves, because they are always disorderly; such are theft, murder, injustice, etc.; others are good in themselves, such as the love of God, submission to lawful authority, etc. Other acts are in themselves neither good nor bad, but indifferent (n. 292); such are reading, writing, etc. If the object is bad in itself, it can never be lawful to do the act.
2. That an act may be good, it must be done for a good end or purpose; if the end is evil, no matter how good the object may be, the act becomes evil. Thus if a man were to praise God for the purpose of provoking another to anger or blasphemy, his prayer would be a sin. When an indifferent object is used to procure a good end, as when we eat to support life, the act is good; but if the same object is used for an evil purpose, as when one eats to indulge gluttony, the act is evil. All this is expressed by saying, that the end specifies the means; this expression, therefore, means that the good or evil of an indifferent act is determined by the good or evil purpose for which the act is done. But if the means chosen is itself evil, it cannot become good by being used for a good end; thus a lie can never become lawful though it should be told for the very best purpose, say to save the life of an innocent man. The doctrine contradictory to this is expressed by the false maxim, "the end justifies the means", which would signify that a good end could be lawfully promoted by bad means. No man can maintain this perverse principle; but on the contrary we must hold that "no evil is ever to be done that good may result". This principle is expressly taught by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (III, 8).
3. The circumstances also of an act must be free from blame that the individual or concrete act may be morally good; thus even almsgiving would be wrong if it were excessive or imprudent. That an individual act, therefore, may be truly good, there must be no evil whatever, nothing that reason disapproves, in the object, the end, and the circumstances. Whenever this tripple condition is fulfilled, the act is good as an individual or concrete act. In the concrete, then, there are no indifferent acts, but only in the abstract, when an act is stripped of its purpose and circumstances.
296. It often happens that a good act, one whose object, end, and circumstances are unobjectionable, becomes the cause, or at least the occasion, of evil consequences. If these cannot be foreseen, the agent is, of course, free from responsibility, on account of his invincible ignorance (n. 290). But what if they could be foreseen? Am I ever allowed to do an act from which I know that evil may, or even certainly will result? If I were not, then I could scarcely do any thing ; for instance, I could not manage a drug-store or a railroad, nor a fire-engine, for all these may cause the death of innocent men. Yet even God, who is all-holy, gives free-will to such men as He knows, not only may, but certainly will abuse it. He intends that all shall make good use of it; but He permits, that is He does not prevent, their free choice of sin What He thus permits, He is said to will indirectly, in as much as the choice of evil proceeds from the free-will whose existence He wills directly. Therefore to will evil indirectly is not always wrong. That we may be free from responsibility for evil consequences which we foresee may or will result from our acts, and which therefore we will indirectly, the following conditions are required: 1. We must not will the evil consequences themselves, or will them directly; 2. We must not will those evil consequences as means to accomplish our good purposes; for a good end will not justify a bad means (n. 295); 3. We must not do an act whose evil consequences are likely to outweigh the good; 4. Nor can we lawfully do an act from which we know that evil consequences will follow which we are under some special obligation to prevent.
297. Since moral good or evil consists in the proper or improper choice of the free-will, it does not necessarily suppose any external action; but the will to do what we know to be evil is the sin. Even the mere desire of evil, or complacency in it, say in revenge, is sin if the will assents to it, though there be no intention of carrying the act into execution. The execution, however, usually increases the moral evil, because it gives more intensity to the will. But yet we should not confound wilful complacency in evil with the simple temptation to evil. When the thought of revenge occurs to my mind, being suggested by my passions or by an evil spirit, and I promptly reject it, I gain a victory over the temptation. The evil thought may return and haunt me for days, and result in a succession of similar victories, which are so many acts of virtue. In troublesome temptations we should invoke the help of God, lest we succumb; when we pray, we are almost sure to triumph.
298. The direction of the will to a certain object is called an intention. I may, for instance, intend to gain an indulgence by daily doing a certain good work to which such a benefit is attached. While I am thinking of the indulgence, my intention is said to be actual; when I do the good work in consequence of my former intention, but without presently thinking of the indulgence, my intention is virtual; as long as it is not in any way revoked, though it does not presently influence my conduct, my intention is habitual. If I did not intend to gain a certain indulgence simply because I did not know that it could be gained, yet I would have made that intention if I had been better informed, I am then said to have that intention interpretatively, or by interpretation. It is the common opinion of theologians that a general intention to gain indulgences, if daily renewed, is thus kindly interpreted by our good Lord.
299. Our reason applying the principles of morality to our several acts is called our conscience. In thus judging whether an individual act is morally good or evil, we consider all the determinants of the act, together with the moral principles applicable to it; and then we draw the conclusion, "It is right for me to do the act", or "it is wrong to do it"; this conclusion is a dictate of conscience. In such practical judgments we may at times be mistaken. Before pronouncing them, we should consider the matter with a degree of diligence proportioned to its importance. When we have done so, and still we err, this error is invincible, and the omniscient Judge will not lay it to our charge.
300. Our conscience is the proximate rule of our actions. When its dictates are certain, that is when they are prudently formed and leave us no fear of being mistaken, they must be obeyed; for they are then the law of God as far as this is manifested to us by the natural light of our reason: to disobey them is to disobey the voice of God. But when we see reason to fear lest we may be mistaken, our conscience is then doubtful. If we act with this doubt in our minds, seeing reasons to fear that by doing a certain act we shall displease God; and doing it nevertheless, because we are willing to take the risk of displeasing Him, we are said to act in a practical doubt, and we do wrong; for then we consent to the offence as far as we know it. In such a case, reason bids us pause till we dispel the practical doubt. We may often do so by a more careful consideration of the case itself, or by consulting those better informed. When we have used all proper industry to remove the practical doubt, if the uncertainty still remains, we can take the safer side, preferring to sacrifice some advantage rather than expose ourselves to do even a material wrong.
301. But are we always obliged to choose the safer side? No, not always. We must distinguish two kinds of material wrong. 1. Some wrong is such that it is formally wrong wilfully and freely to expose ourselves to the danger of it; for instance, I must avoid using doubtfully valid matter in administering a Sacrament when matter can be had that is certainly valid (n. 235). In all such cases we must follow the safer course. 2. Other acts are materially wrong, not in themselves, but only because they are forbidden; for instance, eating meat on Fridays. The only harm done in eating it is that it violates a law. If I did not know of the existence of such a law, I should incur no blame by eating the meat. So too if I had no suspicion that to-day is a Friday. But suppose I doubt whether to-day is a Friday, and I have no means of finding out whether it is or not; now the question arises: "Am I bound to abstain from eating meat to-day, because it may be a Friday?" It is a safe rule to go by, that, if God wishes me to do or to avoid any act, He would give me the means to know His will, as any sensible master would do to his servant. As long, therefore, as I try to know it, and do not succeed, He does not hold me bound to obey the behest. "A doubtful law has no binding force" is the received maxim that expresses this truth. Of course, the law is supposed to be really doubtful; that is, we see solid reason to doubt of its existence, or of its applicability to the case in point. St. Thomas proves this maxim thus: he compares a law binding the conscience to a rope binding the body. That it may do so, he says, the rope must be in contact with the body; thus also, that a law may bind the conscience, it must be brought into contact with the conscience now this is done by certain knowledge (per scientiam). Hence be argues that a doubtful law has no power to bind the will (2a. 2ae. Q. 90, Art. 4).
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