Cooperation with Sins against Prudence and Chastity
[A lecture given at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. in March of 2018 and at Blackfriars Hall at the University of Oxford in January of 2019]
In 1914, John Erskine – the eminent Columbia University professor of English and father of the Great Books movement – published an influential essay titled “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.”[i] That’s an arresting phrase, and you might think it problematic. For one thing, it might appear to demand the impossible. Surely a person has no control over how intelligent he is. But ought implies can. So how could anyone be morally obliged to be intelligent? For another thing, Erskine’s notion might seem objectionably elitist. Intelligence is rare, or so it is often said. Did Erskine think that virtue is to be found only in a small cognitive elite?
But such misgivings would rest on a misunderstanding. Erskine’s true meaning can be gleaned from what he is opposed to. There is, in his view, a tendency in modern times to think that virtue has nothing to do with intelligence, or is even opposed to intelligence. Erskine thinks that Americans have inherited this attitude from the English, who, in his estimation, are especially prone to it. He has in mind lines like Charles Kingsley’s “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever,” intelligent but wicked characters like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth or Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the “well-meaning blunderer” who is the hero of a novel by Fielding, Scott, Thackeray, or Dickens.[ii] He cites also the inclination to praise the courage of the Light Brigade’s charge, rather than to lament the grave error that led to it.[iii] Erskine suggests that the English borrowed the attitude in turn from the German conscience, which, he says, “gave its allegiance not to the intellect but the will.”[iv] In America, Erskine says, the attitude manifests itself in a tendency to turn every economic or social issue into a moralistic crusade, when in fact what solving the problem often requires is calm rationality.[v]
I will put to one side the question of how fair Erskine is to the English (though Erskine himself admits that the situation is more complicated than the remarks I’ve cited imply). There can be no doubt that the attitude he describes is indeed widespread in modern times, even if there are of course also countervailing tendencies. The movie Forrest Gump is one example of a cultural artifact that severs goodness from intelligence, though that is an extreme case and probably few people would regard the title character as a role model. But less extreme expressions of the attitude are not hard to find. For example, in 1993, while deliberating about who would replace Justice Byron White on the Supreme Court, President Bill Clinton said that while he wanted a “fine mind” and “good judgment,” he also needed to pick “someone with a big heart.”[vi] The implication seemed to be that evidence of a person’s moral understanding is to be found in his sentiments as opposed to his intellect. Similarly, the influential science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once stated:
[The] android figure… is my metaphor for the dehumanized person, as you know, who is someone who is less than human – that essential quality that distinguishes a human being is essentially compassion or kindness, that – it’s not intelligence. An android – or in the film Blade Runner it’s called “replicant” – can be very intelligent, but it’s not really human. Because it’s not intelligence that makes a human being; in my opinion it’s the quality of kindness or compassion or whatever.[vii]
These examples are somewhat random, but I trust that you will recognize in them a way of thinking that is common today. Indeed, in recent years it seems to have an especially high profile in the Catholic Church. Consider the controversy that has followed upon Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia and the dubia subsequently issued by four cardinals who have asked the Holy Father to reaffirm traditional teaching on marriage and divorce. Some of the cardinals’ critics evince an attitude that seems very similar to the one Erskine had in his sights. For example, Fr. Antonio Spadaro has criticized the cardinals’ approach to moral theology as too beholden to “abstract theory” and “intellectual discussion.”[viii] Austen Ivereigh characterizes the cardinals and their sympathizers as “intellectuals,” “educated” and “clever people” who “put great store in their reason” and in “arguments, logically developed from absolute first principles.”[ix] Ivereigh contrasts this with the demands of “mercy,” “spiritual discernment,” and sound “pastoral theology.” Or consider Fr. James Martin’s influential book on Catholicism and homosexuality. Though he tells us that he does not reject the Church’s teaching on the subject, Fr. Martin objects to the Catechism’s description of homosexual tendencies as “objectively disordered” on the grounds that this language is “needlessly hurtful” and even “cruel.”[x] The implication seems to be that what we know to be true about homosexual tendencies is morally less important than our feelings and the feelings of those who have such inclinations.
The pitting of morality against intelligence can reflect either a voluntarism that makes the will prior to the intellect, or a sentimentalism that takes moral discernment to be essentially a matter of having the right affective states rather than grasping concepts and propositions. In either case, the danger to which Erskine wants to call our attention is twofold. First, without intelligence, we will be unable to work out the best means to achieve a good end even when we know what it is. Second, without intelligence, we can have no confidence that we really do know in the first place which ends are genuinely good. In that sense, Erskine argues, morality really presupposes intelligence, and thus cannot coherently be pitted against intelligence. Hence, though of course people differ in intelligence, all have the obligation to use (and, to the extent they can, to improve) the intelligence they have. For using it is a precondition of all other moral action. Merely having a good will or refined sentiments does not suffice.
My Thomist listeners will of course already have realized that what Erskine is talking about is essentially what Aquinas calls the virtue of prudence. But though I think Aquinas’s language is at the end of the day preferable to Erskine’s, Erskine’s formulation provides a salutary way to introduce our topic precisely because it is a bracing reminder that morality is indeed an essentially cognitive enterprise. Reason is not the whole of the moral life, but it is a crucial part of it, and when we reason badly we can be guilty of precisely a kind of moral error. We sin against prudence.
There is another thing Erskine’s essay can teach us. As he indicates, a tendency to sunder intelligence from morality can be reflected in, and reinforced by, the culture one is surrounded by. Here, as elsewhere, there is a social dimension to morality. That entails that there can be cooperation with sins against prudence, and of course, cooperation with sin can in some cases itself be sinful. One way a person can cooperate with sins against prudence is by encouraging the tendency to emphasize tender sentiments and good will over careful thinking about moral questions – or even by simply failing to discourage this tendency when, by virtue of one’s office or other circumstances, one has a special obligation to discourage it.
In what follows I will develop these ideas in two stages. First, I will set out the Thomistic account of the nature of the virtue of prudence, and of the natures of the vices opposed to prudence. As we will see, Aquinas holds that there is a special connection between sins against prudence on the one hand and sexual sins on the other. At first thought this might seem surprising, but on careful reflection it turns out to be just what we should expect. Indeed, it is the common wisdom one finds in pagan writers like Plato, biblical writers like St. Paul, and the Christian moral tradition that built on these sources. Second, in light of Aquinas’s account of prudence and the vices opposed to it, I will consider the forms that cooperation with sins against prudence might take, and when such cooperation is itself sinful. As we will see, it turns out that there is also plausibly a special connection between cooperation with sins against prudence and cooperation with sexual sins.
To anticipate my discussion, the special connection in question has to do with the “blindness of mind” and other impairments of reason that Aquinas tells us are the “daughters of lust,” the consequences of sexual sin. Modern Western society is not only prone to pit sentiment and good will against careful thinking in morality, but is also prone to extreme laxity in matters of sex. Indeed, if we are to speak the unvarnished truth, we have to say that at this point in time the West has fallen into a state of extreme sexual depravity. As Aquinas’s account suggests, this is no accident. Sexual immorality tends to erode the virtue of prudence, and the erosion of prudence in turn tends to undermine morality in general. That in turn further erodes sexual morality in particular, which further erodes prudence, which further erodes morality in general, so that we have a vicious cycle. One of the diabolical features of this cycle is that the further along you are in it, the less likely you are to see that you are.
The relevance of the discussion to the current debate in the Catholic Church over marriage and divorce and sexual morality in general will be obvious. Fr. Spadaro, Fr. Martin, Mr. Ivereigh, and those of like mind seem to believe that in the face of the collapse of sexual morality, what the Church needs to do is to affirm that those who live sexually immoral lives at least mean well, and to avoid hurting their tender feelings by refraining from clearly explaining to them how to act well. It is hard to imagine worse advice. It is not merciful and it is not pastoral. On the contrary, it is itself a failure of prudence and a recipe for encouraging in others sins against prudence, not to mention all the other sins that follow from these. What the person in thrall to sexual sin needs is not warm and soothing complacency, but the cold shower of reason.
The Thomistic account of prudence
Those offended by what I’ve said so far are bound to be doubly so by what I am going to do next – namely, quote from a Neo-Scholastic manual. Wuellner’s Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy usefully defines prudence as:
The cardinal moral virtue or habit of right reason that knows the right things to be done by men and the right way of doing them; the habit of desiring, finding, and choosing the right means for worthy human ends.[xi]
Let’s unpack this. Note first that prudence has to do with reason. As Aquinas writes in his treatment of prudence in the Summa Theologiae, prudence is primarily a matter of cognition rather than either the will or the sensory appetite, and concerns practical reason, specifically.[xii] That is to say, to be prudent is to have a kind of knowledge, and in particular, knowledge of how one ought to act. Knowing how one ought to act, in turn, involves understanding the ends of human action, and the best way to attain those ends. As Aquinas says, the prudent man knows both the universal principles of the moral law, and how to apply those principles to particular cases.[xiii] For the Thomist and for Catholic theology more generally, these are, of course, matters of objective fact. This gives us an indication of one way in which a person can fail to be prudent. If he does not know the ends toward which human action is as a matter of fact naturally directed, or what is in fact the best way to achieve those ends, then he is not prudent. He simply does not know the right way to act. It doesn’t matter whether in some vague way he means well, or has tender sensibilities. His actions are bound to be objectively bad.
The second thing to note about prudence as Wuellner defines it is that it is a habit. A person might on some particular occasion know what the right thing to do is, but he still lacks prudence if this is merely a one-off thing, or if at best he gets things right only sporadically or by chance. Prudence is a stable disposition toward determining the right thing to do, which is why it is to be classified as a virtue. Naturally, this gives us another indication of a lack of prudence. Someone who does good works now and again, even striking ones, will nevertheless lack prudence if what he is habitually prone to are errors concerning how he ought to act.
Well, nobody’s perfect, you might say, so need this be a serious problem? Suppose someone is habitually prone to moral error but nevertheless gets some important things right. For example, suppose he stubbornly lives a life of ongoing adultery, but still writes big checks to his Jesuit alma mater. Mightn’t his overall moral character be sound? No, and this brings us to a third thing to note about Wuellner’s definition of prudence. Prudence is not only a virtue, but a cardinal virtue. That is to say, prudence is, along with justice, fortitude, and temperance, one of the four virtues on which the rest of the moral life all hinge or depend. Indeed, prudence is the key to all the others precisely because they concern specific aspects of the moral life whereas prudence concerns knowing how to conduct the moral life in general. As Etienne Gilson says, “we can regard prudence as a kind of general moral virtue whose duty it is to guide the other virtues themselves in choosing the means leading to their ends.”[xiv] Hence, a lack of prudence is bound to have a ripple effect on the rest of the virtues and on the moral character of various particular actions.
Now, prudence incorporates a number of subsidiarity virtues, which Aquinas calls the eight “integral parts” of prudence.[xv] Consider first the virtues that Aquinas calls understanding, shrewdness, and reason. Understanding in the sense in question entails a grasp of the general moral principles that cover a particular concrete situation. Shrewdness is the capacity correctly to size up the nature of a particular concrete situation. Reason is the ability to draw correct conclusions from moral premises, to weigh various possible alternative applications, and so on. So, suppose a coworker is generally competent and hardworking and a good guy, but is going through some difficult times and has been chronically late for work. Suppose he begs you to cover for him with the boss until he can sort things out and be more punctual. Shrewdness tells you that your coworker wants you to lie if necessary, though also that if he is fired he will find himself in desperate straits. Understanding tells you that it is wrong to lie, but also that if you can find a morally legitimate way to help your coworker to keep his job until he can be more punctual, you should do so. Reason tells you that if you flatly tell the boss that your coworker is always on time, you would be lying and that this is impermissible, but that if instead you find a way to dodge the question and emphasize the high quality of your coworker’s work, then this would be a permissible way to distract your boss’s attention from your coworker’s tardiness until he can sort things out. In this way these different parts of prudence help you to determine the right way to deal with the situation.
Next there is memory, in the sense of an inclination to build up a storehouse of experiences from which one might learn the likely consequences of various courses of action. Suppose that when first meeting people at parties, weddings, work events, and the like, you have a tendency quickly to launch into discussions of politics, religion, and other controversial matters. Suppose that, as a result, you have often caused needless offense. If you have the virtue of memory in Aquinas’s sense, the occasions on which this has happened are likely to leave a deep enough impression on you that you come to modify your behavior. If instead you lack that virtue, and tend therefore not to remember such occasions, you might fall into the same behavior again and again. Perhaps you will be puzzled at the fact that you have gained a reputation for being a jerk. In general, a person who never learns from his mistakes might be said to lack this virtue of memory. If memory is backward-looking, a fifth subsidiary virtue, foresight, is forward-looking. A person with foresight knows how to prepare for the future. For example, accepting an optional but unpleasant work assignment in anticipation of the goodwill this will generate with one’s employer, or avoiding a certain party that one knows would be on occasion of sin, would be instances of the exercise of foresight.
A sixth virtue subsidiary to prudence is circumspection, which is the ability to grasp how concrete circumstances might affect the application of a moral principle, and in particular how they might undermine the good one is seeking to achieve. For example, suppose a lawmaker seeks to pass a good piece of legislation, but is so strident in his advocacy and so unwilling to compromise on non-essential aspects of it that he ends up alienating potential allies and the proposal is defeated. Such a person lacks circumspection. Those who lack this virtue tend toward fanaticism, or simplistic thinking, or in some other way lack nuance in the application of moral principle.
Next we have the subsidiary virtue of caution, which is the disposition to perceive and avoid potential bad consequences of an action. Suppose you are presented with an investment opportunity and that you possess enough shrewdness (in the sense described earlier) to see that it is a very risky proposition. If an inordinate focus on the potential gain nevertheless leads you to ignore this risk despite the fact that you would be in serious financial trouble if things go wrong, then you would still be acting against prudence insofar as you lacked caution. Caution in this sense seems to be what people have in mind when they speak of prudence these days – think of Dana Carvey’s famous impression of George H. W. Bush (“Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”) – but for Aquinas it is in fact merely one of the parts of prudence rather than the whole of it.
Finally, we have the subsidiary virtue that Aquinas calls docility, which is the disposition to seek out and heed advice from those with greater knowledge or experience. A young person who scorns the wisdom of his elders, an impatient person who cannot be troubled to research a problem before acting, a proud person who refuses to acknowledge that others have anything to teach him, and a Catholic who refuses assent to the perennial teaching of the Magisterium, would all be examples of people who lack the virtue of docility.
Now, much more could be said about the nature of prudence, but that will suffice for present purposes. Let us turn now to the various forms of imprudence.[xvi] Obviously, acting contrary to understanding, shrewdness, reason, memory, foresight, circumspection, caution, or docility would all be forms of imprudence. But Aquinas identifies four specific forms that a vice contrary to prudence might take. The first is what he calls precipitation or temerity, which is essentially the disposition to act on impulse or out of passion rather than considering general moral principle, the details of the situation, past experience, likely outcomes, or the other factors to which the exercise of the integral parts of prudence would have called one’s attention. The second is what Aquinas calls thoughtlessness, by which he has in mind what he describes as “contempt or neglect of those things on which a right judgment depends.”[xvii] A thoughtless person in Aquinas’s sense is one who habitually shows impatience with or incapacity for clear and careful practical reasoning. The third specific form of imprudence is inconstancy, which is a tendency not to follow through with the decision that prudence would commend. The person who takes the easier path of pursuing a lesser but more immediately pleasurable good than the higher good reason would commend would exhibit inconstancy. This is the sort of vice characteristic of someone unable to overcome some addiction. Fourth, we have negligence, which is essentially a tendency not to do one’s due diligence before acting. Whereas someone exhibiting temerity is unduly moved by passion, the thoughtless person dislikes clear thinking, and the inconstant person is weak-willed, the negligent person simply can’t be bothered to try to found out what is the right thing to do.
Now, obviously there are many moral errors and vices that might lead to sins against prudence. For example, someone prone to excessive anger or drunkenness will often act imprudently. But Aquinas holds that sexual sin is the primary source of sins against prudence. In the Summa Theologiae, he writes:
As the Philosopher states (Ethic. vi, 5) “pleasure above all corrupts the estimate of prudence,” and chiefly sexual pleasure which absorbs the mind, and draws it to sensible delight. Now the perfection of prudence and of every intellectual virtue consists in abstraction from sensible objects. Wherefore, since the aforesaid vices involve a defect of prudence and of the practical reason… it follows that they arise chiefly from lust…
Envy and anger cause inconstancy by drawing away the reason to something else; whereas lust causes inconstancy by destroying the judgment of reason entirely. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 6) that “the man who is incontinent through anger listens to reason, yet not perfectly, whereas he who is incontinent through lust does not listen to it at all.”[xviii]
What Aquinas has to say here is closely related to and illuminated by what he says elsewhere in the Summa about the eight “daughters” or effects of lust.[xix] The first is what he calls blindness of mind, whereby the “simple [act of] understanding, which apprehends some end as good… is hindered by lust.”[xx] What Aquinas has in mind here is to some extent obvious and uncontroversial. It is a familiar fact of everyday life that taking pleasure in some bad action or foolish idea can impair one’s ability to perceive what is really good and true. For example, the habitual drug user takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble. The ideologue is so in love with a pet theory that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it. The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career. And so forth. You don’t need to be a Thomist to see that similar irrationality is common where sex is concerned. Everyone is familiar with examples like that of the lecherous boss or teacher who sexually pursues subordinates or students despite the risks to his family or career, the woman who deludes herself into thinking that the married man she is having an affair with will leave his wife and marry her, the pornography user who refuses to admit that he is addicted, and so on.
However, Aquinas regards sexual sin as especially likely to lead to serious and habitual irrationality. Why? Part of the reason has to do with the fact that among bodily pleasures, those related to sex are, as Aquinas writes, “the greatest of pleasures… [which] absorb the mind more than any others.”[xxi] Sexual pleasure is uniquely intense and enthralling, and I would suggest that on close analysis we will see that it needs to be if sex is to fulfill its procreative and unitive ends. For consider that sex is fundamentally about other people. In particular, it is about the new people you bring into being by way of sex, and it is about the person with whom you bring those new people into being. In the nature of the case, these are people you will need to be on intimate terms with for a long time, sharing a household with them and taking responsibility for them. That is demanding and difficult, and thus something which, all things being equal, we would tend to avoid. The reason most people don’t avoid it is because of the very strong allure of sex. A person becomes sexually attracted to another person, the couple’s sexual relations are extremely pleasant and tend to foster strong affection between them, and the children that result from these relations thereby have both a mother and a father to provide for them materially and spiritually. The intense delight we take in sexual relations is thus intended by nature to function as a kind of emotional “superglue.” Sexual desire is meant to direct people out of themselves and their personal interests and to seek completion in another person, and sexual pleasure is meant to bond a person tightly with that other person once he or she is found. Now, like literal superglue, it doesn’t always succeed. Obviously, sexual partners don’t always in fact bond in a stable way. But the binding function is still the point or final cause of sexual pleasure and accounts for its intensity.
However, as with literal superglue, if sexual pleasure gets misapplied there will be serious problems. It will “bond” you to the wrong thing or at the wrong time, and the more frequently it is indulged the stronger the bond will be. Getting “unstuck” from the errors to which sexual sin leads us is thus more difficult than getting unstuck from other sorts of error, just as getting apart two things that have accidentally been superglued together is more difficult than loosening Scotch tape or Elmer’s glue.
There is another consideration. Many sexual sins involve the perversion of a faculty in a way that most other sins do not. That is to say, they involve acting directly contrary to the ends or purposes for which a faculty, by its very nature, exists. Now, taking intense pleasure in what is contrary to the natural end of a faculty is bound to make it more difficult for the intellect to perceive the end of that faculty. Certainly it will make it more difficult to want to perceive it, and very tempting to try to find ways to avoiding perceiving it. Yet the natural ends of our sexual faculties are as evident as any. That sex is for expressing love and making babies is as obvious as that eyes are for seeing and teeth for chewing. It is very hard to get yourself to doubt that without at the same time doubting that anything has any natural end or function at all. In short, sexual sin is more prone than other sins are to blind the intellect to the reality of essences and natural teleology. Since the reality of essences and natural teleology is, from the Thomistic point of view, the metaphysical precondition of the very possibility of natural law, perversions of our sexual faculties are accordingly more prone than other sins are to blind the intellect to the reality of an objective moral order.
Habitual sexual perversion combines these two elements in a most diabolical way. In particular, it involves repeatedly taking intense pleasure in what is directly contrary to one’s very nature, to the point where such behavior itself becomes a kind of “second nature.” Insofar as the intellect thereby becomes “superglued” onto error and evil and thus increasingly unable to perceive what is objectively true and good, such perversion entails a kind of gradual suicide of practical reason. Thus does Aquinas aptly compare the effect of habitual sexual sin to a kind of intellectual “blindness.” As I have said, here he echoes wisdom that is as old as philosophy and scripture. In Book IX of the Republic, Plato characterizes the tyrannical man, the man who is the most unjust and the farthest from the rule of reason, precisely as the man who is dominated by lust. In chapter 1 of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul associates what he calls the darkening or depravity of the mind precisely with sins against nature.
The next three “daughters of lust” follow straightforwardly from blindness of mind. The second is what Aquinas calls rashness, which concerns the way disordered sexual desire hinders “counsel about what is to be done for the sake of the end.”[xxii] What Aquinas means here is that just as pleasure in what is disordered can blind us to the true ends of our sexual faculties, so too can it blind us to the means to achieving those ends.
The third daughter of lust is what Aquinas calls thoughtlessness, and he appears to have in mind here a failure of the intellect even to attend to ends and means in the first place. In other words, whereas blindness of mind involves the intellect’s attending to the question of the ends of sex but getting them wrong, and rashness involves the intellect’s attending to the question of the means of achieving those ends and getting those wrong too, thoughtlessness in the present sense involves the intellect’s not even bothering with the question of what ends and means are proper. The “thoughtless” man simply pursues the disordered pleasures to which he has become addicted in something like a sub-rational way, “mindlessly” as it were. His intellectual activity vis-à-vis sex no longer rises even to the level of rationalization.
The fourth daughter of lust is inconstancy. Here the idea seems to be that even when the lustful person is not utterly sunk in blindness of mind, rashness, and thoughtlessness and thus still has some grasp of the proper ends and means vis-à-vis sex, that grasp is nevertheless tenuous. The pleasure of disordered sexual behavior constantly diverts the intellect’s attention, so that what is truly good is not consistently perceived or pursued.
Now, these first four daughters of lust – blindness of mind, rashness, thoughtlessness, and inconstancy – concern the intellect. But for Aquinas, will follows upon intellect, and thus the daughters of lust include four disorders of the will in addition to the four disorders of the intellect. Aquinas describes the fifth and sixth daughters of lust as follows:
One is the desire for the end, to which we refer “self-love,” which regards the pleasure which a man desires inordinately, while on the other hand there is “hatred of God,” by reason of His forbidding the desired pleasure.[xxiii]
What Aquinas calls “self-love” can, I would propose, be understood as follows. The thoughtless person is entirely sunk in his disordered sexual pleasures. The person manifesting blindness of mind and rashness is also sunk in disordered sexual pleasure, but has managed to cobble together a network of rationalizations for his pursuit of these disordered pleasures. Either way, though, the lustful person’s focus has turned inward, on the self and its own pleasures and intellectual constructions, rather than outward, toward what is actually good and true. The intellect corrupted by lust wants to make reality conform to itself, rather than to make itself conform to reality. Hence the very idea that there is such a thing as a natural, objective moral order, especially where sex is concerned, becomes unbearable to the lustful person.
The sequel, naturally, is what Aquinas calls “hatred of God.” For God is Being Itself, and since being, like truth and goodness, is a transcendental, it follows that God is also Truth Itself and Goodness Itself. These are all just different ways of conceptualizing the same one divine reality. Thus, to hate what is in fact true and good is ipso facto to hate what is in fact God. Of course, the person lost in disordered sexual desire might claim to love God. If such a person knows he is lost in disordered desire and seeks to be freed from it, this love is sincere. He still has some perception of what is truly good and wants to strengthen his grasp of it and his ability to pursue it. But suppose the person loves his disordered desires, hates those who would call him away from indulging those desires, and refuses to take seriously the suggestion that such indulgence is contrary to the divine will. Then his purported love of God is bogus. It is not really God that he loves at all, but rather an idol of his own construction.
The last two daughters of lust are what Aquinas calls love of this world and despair of a future world. Now, for Aquinas a human being qua rational animal has both corporeal powers and the incorporeal powers of intellect and will. It is the latter, higher powers that make our souls immortal and destined for a life beyond the present one. Since our animal powers, and the pleasure associated with their exercise, are natural to us, there is nothing wrong with our loving these things. But by “love of this world” what Aquinas has in mind is an excessive love of these things. Disordered sexual pleasure, by virtue of its intensity, has a tendency to turn us away from the goods of the intellect. In part this is because such pleasure blinds us to what the intellect would otherwise see to be true and good, but also in part because even where the lustful person can still perceive truth and goodness, its pursuit is difficult since the pleasure he takes in it is so much less intense than the disordered sexual pleasure to which he is in thrall. Naturally, then, the lustful person is bound to be uninterested in the next life, and disinclined to do what is needed to secure his future well-being within it. It will seem cold, abstract, and dull compared to what he has set his heart on in this life.
Now, since sexual sin has such unusually deep and pervasive ill effects on the intellect and will, it is no surprise that Aquinas takes it to be the primary source of imprudence. Sexual immorality is, you might say, the gateway sin to sins against prudence, and thus to general moral dissolution. There are other gateways too, of course. But they are relatively narrow. Broad is the sexual gateway to imprudence, and there are many who go in by it.
Cooperation with imprudence
Let us turn at last to cooperation with sins against imprudence, and it will be useful to begin by rehearsing the main standard distinctions concerning cooperation with evil. Such cooperation involves either actively joining in the commission of some evil act, or not doing so but still in some way providing the means for performing it. Cooperation is formal if the one cooperating shares the same intention as the person committing the act, as when you sell a gun to a bank robber precisely because you want to help him carry out the robbery. Formal cooperation is always wrong. Cooperation is merely material when one does not share the same intention as the wrongdoer, as when you sell guns to the bank robber simply because you want to make some money from the sale, even though you disapprove of the robbery you know he is going to commit. Material cooperation can be wrong (as it would be in that example) but it is not always and intrinsically wrong. It depends on the circumstances.
This brings us to the distinction between proximate and remote material cooperation. Proximate material cooperation is very closely connected to the evil action, as selling a gun to someone you know is planning a robbery would be. Remote material cooperation is more loosely connected to the evil action, as selling a donut and coffee to a bank robber on the morning of the robbery would be. Even though this breakfast will no doubt nourish the robber in a way that will facilitate his alertness, strength, etc. as he commits the robbery, it is obviously not as closely connected to the specific nature of the act of robbery as a gun is. Then there is the distinction between cooperation that is indispensable and that which is not. If a robber cannot get in the bank unless you give him the key, your cooperation is indispensable to the robbery. If he can get a donut and coffee at many other places even if you refuse to sell to him, your cooperation is not indispensable. We can also distinguish between cooperation which violates an explicit duty to refrain from such cooperation, and cooperation which does not. For example, if both an unarmed innocent bystander and an armed security guard stand by and do nothing while a bank robber gets away, they can each be said to have cooperated in the robbery. But there are special moral problems with the guard having done so precisely because he is being paid to prevent such things.
Now, the more proximate or indispensable one’s cooperation is, or the more one has an explicit duty not to cooperate, the harder it is morally to justify material cooperation. The more remote or dispensable one’s cooperation is, and the weaker one’s duty not to cooperate, the easier it is to justify material cooperation by the principle of double effect, if there is some proportionate good to be attained by it.
Again, those are the standard basic distinctions. So, how does all this apply to the question of cooperation with sins of imprudence? What exactly would it be to cooperate with a sin of imprudence?
To make the idea concrete, let us consider the guidance that Ivereigh and Fr. Spadaro think confessors ought to give divorced Catholics involved in adulterous sexual relationships, and the approach Fr. Martin thinks the Church ought to take toward those with homosexual inclinations. Since these men deny that they are advocating any sins against chastity, I am sure that they would also deny that following their advice would entail any immoral cooperation with sins against chastity. I think that is very naïve at best, but let us put that to one side for the moment. What I want to suggest is that, though undoubtedly they don’t realize this, what they are advocating very definitely entails immoral cooperation with sins against prudence.
Hence, consider Fr. Spadaro’s interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. On the one hand, Spadaro affirms that:
The moral justice of a particular concrete act includes, inseparably, the search for the objective norm which I must apply to the complexity of my case, as well as the virtue of prudence, which disposes us to discern in every circumstance our true good.[xxiv]
He also acknowledges that a divorced person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her spouse “is in an objective situation of sin” and that “the general norm remains clear.”[xxv] So far so good. Indeed, these remarks seem pretty clearly to affirm the perennial teaching of the Church that such sexual relations are always and intrinsically wrong. In particular, Fr. Spadaro seems to be acknowledging that since there is an “objective norm” to the effect that adulterous sexual acts are always wrong, the virtue of prudence will lead me to apply this norm to any particular act of adultery I am considering and conclude that such an act would be “objectively sinful” and thus impermissible.
If only he had left it at that. But unfortunately he did not. In the same interview, Fr. Spadaro also said the following about the advice the confessor should give someone who is committing adulterous sexual acts in the context of an invalid second marriage:
When the concrete circumstances of a divorced and remarried couple make feasible a pathway of faith, they can be asked to take on the challenge of living in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulty of this option, and leaves open the possibility of admission to the Sacrament of Reconciliation when this option is lacking.
In other, more complex circumstances, and when it has not been possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, this option may not be practicable. But it still may be possible to undertake a path of discernment under the guidance of a pastor, which results in a recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations which attenuate responsibility and guilt – particularly where a person believes they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union.
In such cases Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to Reconciliation and to the Eucharist.[xxvi]
Note first that “continence” – that is to say, refraining from any further adulterous sexual acts – is described by Fr. Spadaro as an “option” which the penitent may be “asked” to consider if “feasible” but which may not in fact be “practicable.” This gives the impression that such sexual acts are not after all always and intrinsically wrong. This impression is reinforced by two further remarks made by Fr. Spadaro. First, he implies that in some cases it is possible for people who intend to commit such adulterous acts to have “access to Reconciliation and to the Eucharist.” Since no one may have access to the Eucharist who is guilty of mortal sin, this gives the impression that the acts in question are not always mortally sinful. Furthermore, since no one may be absolved of sin without a firm purpose of amendment, and Spadaro seems to be saying that a penitent need not in every case have a firm purpose of amendment vis-à-vis such adulterous acts, talk of access to Reconciliation also gives the impression that such acts are not always sinful. Second, Fr. Spadaro also goes on to say:
There cannot exist a general norm which is capable of covering all the particular cases. Just as the general norm remains clear, so it also remains clear that such a norm cannot cover all cases in an objective way.[xxvii]
Here he seems to be saying that there is no objective norm that entails that adulterous sexual acts are always and intrinsically wrong. So we appear to have a contradiction. For as I noted a moment ago, Fr. Spadaro seemed to concede in other remarks that adulterous acts are always “objectively sinful” and that those committing them are “in an objective situation of sin.”
Now, Fr. Spadaro also refers to “limitations which attenuate responsibility and guilt – particularly where a person believes they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union,” and elsewhere in the interview he says that “in certain cases… we are in an objective situation of sin without being so subjectively.”[xxviii] These considerations might seem to provide a way to resolve the contradiction, but they do nothing of the kind. The conditions that the Church says can mitigate responsibility for an objectively sinful act are lack of knowledge or lack of deliberate consent. But neither one of these transforms an act that is objectively wrong into one that is not objectively wrong. In particular, an adulterous sexual act is always and intrinsically wrong whether or not the one committing it knows that it is and whether or not the person deliberately consented to it. One’s culpability for the act is altered, but the nature of the act itself is not. So, the conditions which mitigate responsibility do nothing to justify Fr. Spadaro’s remark that “there cannot exist a general norm which is capable of covering all the particular cases,” and they do nothing to show how this remark can be reconciled with his earlier concession that those committing adulterous acts are “in an objective situation of sin.”
Another problem, of course, is that while the conditions that mitigate responsibility are certainly relevant to helping a penitent determine culpability for past acts of adultery, they can in no way be construed by a penitent or confessor as a way to justify future acts of adultery. Consider Spadaro’s example of penitents who “[believe] they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of the new union” if they refrained from adulterous sexual acts. The idea here is presumably that such penitents might mistakenly but sincerely believe that the aim of avoiding other sins and of fostering a good home life for children would justify adulterous acts, or that fear of falling into the other sins or of harming the children might cause such stress and confusion in a penitent that he could not be said to have consented with sufficient deliberation to the adulterous acts he commits. Now, even if these considerations could be said to mitigate a penitent’s responsibility for past acts of adultery – something that in the case of most actual penitents I think is highly implausible, but let that pass – they are in no way relevant to what the penitent should do once he leaves the confessional. For once his confessor informs him of the Church’s teaching that we may never do evil for the sake of a good end, he can no longer be said to be acting without sufficient knowledge. And even if for some reason he cannot extricate himself from a context that will involve many occasions of sin, and foresees that he will be sorely tempted to commit adultery in the future, he may nevertheless absolutely never intend to do so and indeed he must sincerely intend not to do so. So, contrary to what Fr. Spadaro appears to suppose, the circumstances that can limit culpability simply in no way could ever justify permitting a penitent to intend to commit future acts of adultery, and therefore could in no way ever justify absolving or giving communion to a penitent who intends to commit them.
Fr. Spadaro’s position, frankly, is in my opinion incoherent. Lest you think I am being unfair to him, it is worth reminding you that this is the man who famously said that “2 + 2 in theology can make 5.”[xxix] If we find it difficult to make coherent sense of what he says, that is hardly our fault. Be that as it may, the point to emphasize for present purposes is this. Fr. Spadaro’s position appears to entail that confessors in circumstances like the ones in question may guide their penitents according to one or more of the following principles:
Adulterous sexual acts are not always and intrinsically wrong
It can be permissible to do what is intrinsically evil for the sake of a good end
If it is very difficult to resist the temptation to commit a certain sin, then it can be permissible in some cases to go ahead and intentionally commit it
A Catholic may act contrary to the Church’s moral teaching if he disagrees with it
It can in some cases be permissible to take communion even in a state of mortal sin
A firm purpose of amendment is not in every case a requirement of absolution
Now, I submit that to guide a penitent according to any of these principles would constitute proximate cooperation in sins against prudence. And it would contribute to undermining the penitent’s development of the virtues subsidiary to prudence. In particular, insofar as a confessor gives a penitent the impression that there is no general principle that absolutely rules out adulterous acts, he would contribute to undermining what Aquinas calls the virtue of understanding. Insofar as he gives a penitent the impression that the sexual acts he is tempted to engage in would not strictly be adulterous or otherwise sinful, he undermines the virtue of shrewdness. Insofar as he deploys muddled reasoning of the kind Fr. Spadaro exhibits, he undermines the virtue of reason. Insofar as his advice is liable to lead the penitent not to avoid future occasions of sin but rather to anticipate and even plan for future acts of adultery, the confessor undermines the virtue of foresight. Insofar as the penitent will not look back on these future sins of adultery as mistakes to learn from but as just a normal part of his everyday life, the confessor will be undermining the virtue of memory. Insofar as he leads the penitent badly to misapply the criteria that mitigate culpability, he will be undermining the virtue of circumspection. Insofar as the confessor will effectively be encouraging the penitent to ignore the bad consequences of such adulterous acts, such as the bad example it will set for his children, the deadening of his conscience, etc. the confessor will be undermining the virtue of caution. Insofar as he will be acquiescing in the penitent’s flouting of the clear and perennial teaching of Christ and the Church, he will be undermining the virtue of docility.
Of the vices contrary to prudence, the one that Fr. Spadaro’s advice would most directly foster is that of thoughtlessness, which, you will recall, involves impatience with and incapacity for clear and careful reasoning concerning questions of morality. And Fr. Spadaro’s advice is calculated to minimize the significance of certain habitual sexual sins, specifically – where habitual sexual sin, you will recall, has of all vices the greatest tendency to corrode the virtue of prudence. And prudence is the key to the successful carrying out of the moral life in general. Hence the potential moral harm of applying Fr. Spadaro’s advice couldn’t be more far-reaching.
Now, insofar as a confessor would be actively encouraging adulterous acts or the various vices against prudence I have just described, he would be formally cooperating in a penitent’s sins against prudence. But even if his cooperation is merely material, it is certainly proximate, since the confessor is giving direct and explicit guidance to the penitent about how to form his conscience. Such cooperation would also for most penitents be indispensable, insofar as for most penitents, their confessor is their chief source of knowledge about what the moral teaching of the Church requires of them. And needless to say, confessors have an explicit duty to guide their penitents away from sins against prudence. In short, the cooperation with sins against prudence that the following of Fr. Spadaro’s advice would entail has in my opinion all the marks of sinful cooperation with wrongdoing. Moreover, following that incoherent advice is bound to corrupt the confessor’s own capacity for prudential judgment. It is morally harmful to confessors and penitents alike.
What I have said about Fr. Spadaro’s position applies to Fr. Martin’s position as well, except that Martin’s position is even worse, in two respects. First, Fr. Martin has proposed replacing the Catechism’s description of homosexual inclinations as “objectively disordered” with a description of them as “differently ordered,” on the grounds that the more traditional language is “hurtful.”[xxx] In effect, he holds that we ought not clearly and explicitly to describe the nature of a sexual vice when doing so would be unpleasant for the person in thrall to it. It is hard to imagine a more perfect recipe for the blindness of mind that Aquinas says is the chief daughter of lust and the greatest danger to the virtue of prudence. Second, Fr. Martin has claimed that “for a teaching to be really authoritative it is expected that it will be received… by the faithful” and that the Church’s teaching on homosexual acts “has not been received.”[xxxi] The conclusion to the syllogism is obvious, though Fr. Martin refrains from explicitly drawing it. Only if he did so could there be a more perfect instance of cooperation with sin against the virtue of docility.
I have been emphasizing the harm that is done to prudence when we let sentimentality trump careful reasoning. But it is no less important to emphasize that there is also a positive good that we deprive people of when we do not articulate moral truths clearly and consistently and defend them logically and systematically. Human beings are rational animals. They are best able to do the right thing when they understand it, when they are not only acting out of duty but when their intellects see the rationale of a moral principle. This is especially so where sins of the flesh are concerned. They are attractive enough even when we understand what is wrong with them. When one does not understand this, resistance can seem almost impossible. It is true that, like steel, a chain of clear and logical reasoning can seem cold and forbidding. But like steel, such a chain is also solid and unbreakable, and thus can function as a reliable lifeline for someone who is struggling with deep-seated inclinations. It can help him to keep his will focused on what his mind perceives to be truly good, even when his appetites are pulling him in the opposite direction.
In many ways, then, the anti-intellectualism evinced by Fr. Spadaro, Mr. Ivereigh, and Fr. Martin is very far from merciful or pastoral. On the contrary, to follow their advice would be precisely to neglect the first two spiritual works of mercy – to instruct the ignorant and to counsel the doubtful – where, as Aquinas teaches us, these particular works of mercy are to be practiced “in order to relieve a deficiency on the part of the intellect.”[xxxii] We have, as Erskine might have put it, a moral obligation to help others to be intelligent – more precisely, to help them exercise sound prudential judgment.
[i] The essay first appeared in The Hibbert Journal and was reprinted in Erskine’s book The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent and Other Essays (New York: Duffield and Company, 1915) and, much later, in Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer J. Adler, and Clifton Fadiman, eds., Gateway to the Great Books, Volume 10: Philosophical Essays (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1963), pp. 5-13. The page references that follow are to the latter.
[ii] Erskine, “Moral Obligation,” 6-7.
[iii] Ibid., 10.
[iv] Ibid., 9.
[v] Ibid., 11-12.
[vi] Thomas L. Friedman, “Clinton Expected to Pick Moderate for High Court,” New York Times (March 20, 1993).
[vii] Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter, eds., What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick (New York: The Overlook Press, 2000), pp. 63-64.
[viii] Austen Ivereigh, “Jesuit close to pope says attacks on ‘Amoris’ are ‘part of the process’,” Crux (December 4, 2016). Online at: https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2016/12/04/jesuit-close-pope-says-many-attacks-amoris-result-bad-spirit/ Accessed February 1, 2018.
[ix] Austen Ivereigh, “As anti-Amoris critics cross into dissent, the Church must move on,” Crux (December 11, 2016). Online at: https://cruxnow.com/analysis/2016/12/11/anti-amoris-critics-cross-dissent-church-must-move/ Accessed February 1, 2018.
[x] James Martin, S.J., Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), pp. 46-47.
[xi] Bernard Wuellner, S.J., Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1956), p. 101.
[xii]Summa Theologiae II-II.47.1-2.
[xiii]Summa Theologiae I-II.47.3.
[xiv] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 287.
[xv]Summa Theologiae II-II.48-49.
[xvi]Summa Theologiae II-II.53.
[xvii]Summa Theologiae II-II.53.4.
[xviii]Summa Theologiae II-II.53.6.
[xix]Summa Theologiae II-II.153.5.
[xxi]Summa Theologiae II-II.46.3.
[xxii]Summa Theologiae II-II.153.5.
[xxiv] Ivereigh, “Jesuit close to pope.”
[xxix] The remark was made by Fr. Spadaro on his Twitter account on January 5, 2017, and was widely reported in the Catholic press.
[xxx] Jonathan Merritt, “This Vatican adviser is moving Catholics toward LGBT inclusion,” Religion News Service (June 6, 2017). Online at: https://religionnews.com/2017/06/06/this-top-vatican-official-is-quietly-moving-catholics-toward-lgbt-inclusion/
[xxxi] Dan Hitchens, “Fr. Martin Does Not Actually Say,” First Things (October 2, 2017). Online at: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/10/fr-martin-does-not-actually-say