Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Life of Faith and the Moral Life

On Sunday, I had the honor of receiving Mount St. Mary's University's Founder's Medal in a ceremony held at the end of a beautiful Mass in the University's Chapel at which one of my godsons, Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who is a professor of moral theology at the Mount, was the main celebrant.  I took the occasion to offer some reflections on the relationship of the life of faith to the moral life, and to develop a line of thought about about the nature of personal vocation.   These reflections began as a speech I delivered a year or so ago to students at Union University, a wonderful Baptist institution in Tennessee.  I'll provide the first few paragraphs below.  If anyone would like the full text, I'll be happy to provide it by email.


Faith is the way we realize a profoundly important aspect of our well-being and fulfillment as human beings, the good of living in friendship and harmony with God.  But faith plays another role as well:  it guides and structures our pursuit of all of the other aspects of human well-being and fulfillment that are the objects of our rational choosing.  In the life of faith, our friendship with God pertains not only to what we ordinarily regard as religious questions and the religious dimensions of our lives; it pertains to the whole of life, including those aspects of our lives that we ordinarily regard as secular.


Now this is by no means to deny that there are secular as well as religious dimensions of life.  Even the life of a hermit monk or a contemplative nun will have secular dimensions.  Nor am I saying or suggesting that friendship with God is the only true human good, or that it renders the others insignificant or reduces them to the status of mere means to friendship with God considered as the ultimate goal of all upright human choosing.  In fact, the human good is variegated:  there are many distinct and fundamentally different aspects of human well-being and fulfillment, many basic human goods.  If one considers, for example, the goods of friendship, knowledge, and religion, each is an aspect of human well-being and, as such, provides a reason for acting whose intelligibility as a reason does not depend\on any further or deeper reason (or possible subrational motivating factor) to which it is subordinate or serves as a mere means.  But the benefit of having or being a friend is different in kind from the benefit of gaining knowledge or enhancing one’s critical intellectual faculties, or the benefit of bringing oneself more fully into harmony with God.  These are distinct and irreducible human goods.  By predicating “goodness” of them, we do not suggest that they share a common substantive content that is merely expressed or manifested in different ways.  Rather, we predicate goodness of them precisely because each, in its way, fulfills persons in a certain distinct dimension of their lives, and therefore each is capable of motivating us to act by appealing to what Aristotle called our “practical intellect”—that is, our rational grasp of what is, in fact, humanly fulfilling.  Each provides a more-than-merely-instrumental reason for acting.


What then distinguishes morally upright from immoral choosing, given the variegated nature of the human good and the incommensurability of its most basic forms?  Well, morality, it seems to me, is a matter of rectitude in willing.  Its criterion, I believe, is the conformity of our choices—our acts of will—with the integral directiveness of the various basic forms of human good.  Norms of morality, whether the more general sort, such as the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, or the Pauline Principle that one must never do what is in itself evil, even for the sake of good consequences, or the more specific norms that forbid committing murder, rape, and theft, are entailments (or specifications) of the most fundamental moral principle, namely that one should choose in ways that are fully compatible with a will towards integral human fulfillment.  But if this story of the foundations of moral judgment and the criterion, or, when specified, criteria, of morally upright choosing is correct, then many of our choices are not between morally right and morally wrong options, but between or among morally legitimate options.  The application of moral norms will, of course, sometimes exclude certain options (murder, rape, and other intrinsically evil acts are always excluded; and there are many acts that are excluded at least in some circumstances), but it will often leave two or more options morally available.


While plainly there are life plans and life styles and forms of conduct that are ruled out by the application of moral norms, the variegated nature of the human good makes it the case that there are many mutually exclusive but morally upright possible plans of life and ways of living.  Norms of morality certainly require us to lead lives of integrity and coherence, lives that make use, to the extent possible, of the talents we enjoy and that accomplish, again to the extent possible, things we believe in and care about.  But very different lives can fully embody integrity and coherence. 


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