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The Morality Of The Passions

August 4, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

Two deeply flawed moral theories that have gained much popularity in contemporary times were scrutinized in last week’s installment: proportionalism and consequentialism.
As we saw, Pope St. John Paul II authoritatively repudiated both notions in his tenth encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (VS), which was promulgated in 1993 after a preparation period of roughly six years.
To summarize the basis of these false concepts and how each errs, we draw once again upon the illuminating intellect of master catechist and Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, as expertly condensed in his booklet entitled Catechism on The Splendor of Truth (CST).
Proportionalism “is the erroneous moral theory which claims that the value of a human act depends on the proportion of good and evil effects which this action produces,” explains Fr. Hardon. “In the last analysis this is moral subjectivism. Each person then decides for himself whether something is good or bad, depending on the balance of good and evil effects which his action is expected to produce” (CST, p. 32; cf. VS, n. 75 § 1).
Similarly, consequentialism “is the erroneous moral theory which claims that the goodness or badness of our actions basically depends on the results or consequences foreseen as following on our actions,” continues Fr. Hardon.
“As with proportionalism, consequentialism is essentially a subjective morality. Each person, on his or her own, evaluates what they foresee as the result of their conduct. Then, guided by this norm, they are supposed to pass judgment on their moral behavior. Behind both theories, proportionalism and consequentialism, is a proud refusal to accept God’s word, as taught by the Church, on the morality of our human behavior” (ibid.).
Having considered the sources of morality (object, intention or end, and circumstances) and the necessary condition that all three must concurrently be good for a human act to be good, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) now examines the role that the passions play in one’s moral life.
A term that “belongs to the Christian patrimony,” passions (or feelings) can be defined as “emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil” (CCC, n. 1763).
The passions are “natural components of the human psyche,” teaches the Catechism. “They form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind” (CCC, n. 1764).
In his work entitled Both a Servant and Free: A Primer in Fundamental Moral Theology (BSF), Fr. Brian Mullady, OP, affirms that “the passions were created by God as a natural part of the human soul and they must be allowed to fulfill their God-given role” (BSF, p. 140). First, however, he provides a brief description of two contrary and extreme schools of thought that have negatively influenced authentic teaching on the morality of the passions.
One extreme, that of Stoicism, views passions as “sicknesses of the soul” that interfere with human freedom and cause human beings to act contrary to their nature. Emotions are considered to be evil in themselves and the ideal disposition for a “perfect human being” is one of complete dispassion. In other words, virtue has nothing to do with the passions.
The other extreme, that of Hedonism, endorses the view that the passions are to be indulged to the fullest, that any attempt to control them “would produce a psychological complex.” The mentality “If it feels good, do it!” perhaps best describes this destructive ideology, which insists that virtue does not consist in regulation of the passions, but just using them for pleasure (cf. BSF, pp. 137-140).
In slightly different terms, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, expresses the same idea in the first volume of his masterpiece on the spiritual life, The Three Ages of the Interior Life (AIL-1). “The partisans of the morality of pleasure have said that all passions are good, as the legitimate expansion of our nature,” says Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange.
“The Stoics, on the contrary, condemned the passions, saying that they are a movement which, opposed to right reason, troubles the soul. According to them, the wise man must suppress the passions and reach impassibility” (AIL-1, p. 325).
In reality, however, the passions are neither morally good nor bad in themselves. Since they are capable of being obedient to reason, they become morally good or bad insofar as they are voluntary — either by being commanded or left unimpeded by the will.
Drawing on the teaching of St. Thomas, the Catechism clearly treats this key tenet of moral theology:
“In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, ‘either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way’ (STh I-II, Q. 24, art. 1, resp.). It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason (cf. STh I-II, Q. 24, art. 3, resp.)” (CCC, n. 1767).
The exact words of St. Thomas on this matter are profound:
“If we give the name of passions to all the movements of the sensitive appetite, then it belongs to the perfection of man’s good that his passions be moderated by reason. For since man’s good is founded on reason as its root, that good will be all the more perfect, according as it extends to more things pertaining to man” (STh I-II, Q. 24, art. 3, resp.).
In other words, it might be accurately said that man’s perfection does not consist in eliminating the passions, but in causing them to participate in the order of reason. God created man with passions or emotions for a wondrous purpose: that in harmony with his spiritual faculties and properly regulated, they might contribute to human perfection. The Catechism acknowledges that “there are many passions” (CCC, n. 1765).
The Angelic Doctor distinguishes eleven chief passions. As enumerated by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn in A Tour of the Summa (ATS), six belong to the concupiscible appetites: love and hatred, desire and aversion, and joy and sadness; and five belong to the irascible appetites: hope and despair, fear and courage, and anger.
“The concupiscible passions,” explains Msgr. Glenn, “stand related to good and evil simply, . . . but the irascible passions are to related to good and evil under the aspect of difficulty” (ATS, p. 119). For example, love is for good and hatred is for evil whereas hope is for a good that is difficult to achieve and despair for an evil difficult to avoid (cf. ibid.).
“The most fundamental passion is love,” teaches the Catechism, “aroused by the attraction of the good” (CCC, n. 1765). And how is authentic, benevolent love to be defined? “To love,” says St. Thomas, “is to will the good of another” (STh I–II, Q. 26, art. 4, corp.); it is to seek what is best for the other.
“All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good,” affirms the Catechism. “Only the good can be loved” (CCC, n. 1766).
In the Christian life, then, correct and reasonable formation of the passions is indispensable. As a consequence of the original sin of our first parents, “the passions tend to arise in us before reason can be brought to bear and color our judgment. It is precisely for this reason that the formation of the passions in a good way is so essential to morals” (BSF, p. 141).
As taught by the Catechism: “The upright will orders the movements of the senses it appropriates to the good and to beatitude; an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them. Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices” (CCC, n. 1768).
“The moral virtues are acquired by human effort,” states the Catechism. “They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love” (CCC, n. 1804).
Fr. Mullady provides a helpful analogy that demonstrates the importance of their proper development:
“The passions are like tools of the will, albeit tools with a knowing and desiring life of their own. If one were an expert carpenter but tried to make a bench with a bent saw, it would be impossible. In a similar way, if the intellect and will are to sufficiently guide free human choices, the passions must be well formed to support this guidance. So they must be respected and habits must be introduced into them which make them easily amenable to the movement of reason and will” (BSF, pp. 143-144).

The Holy Spirit

Conversely, unrestrained passions result in vices. “Unbridled passions,” declares the Catholic Encyclopedia, “cause all the moral ruin and most of the physical and social evils that afflict man.” Ultimately, it is only with the aid of the Holy Spirit that the passions can be perfectly ordered to assist man in his pursuit of holiness and eternal beatitude (cf. CCC, n. 1769).
A Psalm beautifully assimilates the theme of this column: “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2).
As expressed by the Didache Bible commentator, “The heart and flesh signifies that our will together with our appetites and passions must be conformed to the moral law and God’s will. Through the practice of virtue, by which our will is strengthened and our passions are placed under the governance of reason, we can advance toward moral perfection” (p. 677).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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