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The Anatomy Of A Moral Act

July 14, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Last week, as we considered the role that human freedom plays in the economy of salvation, it was immediately acknowledged that “man’s freedom is limited and fallible” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1739). Free will, so wondrously bestowed upon man as an essential element of his great dignity of being created “in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), gives him the capacity to refuse God’s salvific plan of love.
As expressed by the servant of God, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, man was given the ability to freely “choose what is contrary to the will of God, even though he has no right to do so. He can deceive himself and become a slave to sin” (The Faith, p. 154).
The weakening of human freedom, engendered by the original sin of our first parents and intensified by our successive personal sins, has given rise to man’s alienation from God: “History testifies to the evils and enslavements of the heart born of the misuse of freedom” (ibid.).
Threats to freedom in the form of distorted ideologies and unjust practices abound in modern-day society. Moreover, “the economic, social, political, and cultural conditions that are needed for a just exercise of freedom,” warns the Catechism, “are too often disregarded or violated” (CCC, n. 1740).
No one can reasonably deny that these and other factors that are so pervasive in our relativistic, materialistic culture “can pose grave obstacles to the right use of freedom in the practice of Christian charity” (The Faith, p. 155).
Yet, our Catholic faith gives us great hope in that Christ, by His death and Resurrection, has redeemed us from the slavery of sin. As St. Paul proclaims: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Fr. Hardon sagely encapsulates how this can be realized in our lived-out experience: “By our cooperation with divine grace, we become more docile to God’s will, more free to respond to His Spirit, and more ready to collaborate with His work in the Church and in the world” (The Faith, p. 155).
As St. Paul elsewhere attests: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). These words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, assure us that if we ask — in faith — for God’s grace to help us resist temptation and overcome sin, He will continually make it available to us.
The Catechism now takes up “the morality of human acts,” and prefaces its treatment with an important affirmation: “Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts” (CCC, n. 1742).
To better understand, it would be good to begin with some formal definitions. An act of man, as defined by Fr. Hardon, corresponds to an “action performed by a human being but without reflection and free consent, e.g., digesting food, instinctive reaction to some external stimulus” (Modern Catholic Dictionary [MCD], p. 10).
They are natural actions that do not involve deliberate choices or judgment of conscience on the part of a human person. As such, acts of man are not morally imputable.
Human acts, on the other hand, which are “acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil” (CCC, n. 1742).
Fr. Hardon expands on this definition by stating that a human act “proceeds from the deliberate will of a human being. Consequently it proceeds from the knowledge of the intellect and the free decision of the human will. It is an act of which a human being is the master, whether the act begins and ends in the will (i.e., an elicited act such as love), or the will affects another faculty (i.e., a commanded act such as writing). Only human acts are morally imputable to the one who performs them” (MCD, p. 258).
In his excellent volume entitled A Catechetical Dictionary for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Dr. Joseph A. Fisher, Ph.D., provides a definition using slightly different terms: “A human act is an act that is freely chosen in consequence of a judgment and that proceeds from a deliberate act of the will. Human acts are moral acts, that is, they can be morally evaluated as being either good or evil. Because they are freely chosen they make the person accountable for them and their consequences” (p. 257).
From both definitions, it is clear that human acts do not include those “performed by persons who lack the use of reason or whose freedom is totally inhibited as in sleep or under anesthesia” (MCD, p. 258).
At this point, it would be helpful to describe the anatomy of a moral act, a task that St. Thomas Aquinas has masterfully executed in his Summa Theologiae (see I-II, QQ. 10-17). A human or moral act consists in a series of interrelated acts of the intellect and the will — they interact and collaborate throughout the process. A general principle is that of the two faculties, the action of the intellect logically precedes that of the will. The acts of the will in the human act include natural desire, intention, consent, and free choice (intention, consent, and choice are morally relevant). The preceding acts of the intellect are a series of deliberations and judgments.
In other words, there is an act of the intellect, then an act of the will, then another act of the intellect, and so forth. From the standpoint of moral theology, the primary act is free choice or election since it is where the rational being most directly exercises his freedom.
The first consideration for a human act is that the intellect conceives our final end: eternal happiness or beatitude. The will then naturally desires it. This natural desire is the ultimate motivation for acting here and now, but is not sufficient. One desires happiness in general, but more particular desires are necessary for its realization. These include such things as health and knowledge, which are also natural desires first conceived by the intellect. The intellect then considers or deliberates on whether the object of desire is attainable. If so, the will forms an intention which is the first part of the human act that has a moral value. The intention should involve a practical and efficacious desire (assisted by grace) toward some end or goal.
Then it’s back to the intellect to consider not only possibilities in general, but to examine particular means, one by one, to judge if each is acceptable from the point of view of practicality, morality, etc. A judgment is made and the will then either consents or does not consent to each means.
Deliberation (i.e., inquiry) and judgment (i.e., conclusion of inquiry) are of the intellect, but consent is of the will. Assuming there is more than one viable means, the intellect then deliberates, compares the alternatives, and makes a judgment as to which is best. It is then back to the will to choose or make an election of the proposed operation under the given circumstances and conditions.
However, even if a perfect judgment is made, the will can decline to make a choice (i.e., choose to not choose). Perhaps there are conflicting motives because the intention, or the deliberation and judgment, is not clear. The virtue of prudence, which will be covered in a later installment, is critical in making good deliberations and judgments.
Finally, following the choice, the intellect orders or directs the act, and the will has to move or execute the act through the application of exterior faculties. Fruition is a resting of the will in possession of the end sought, and is perfectly realized only in the final end of heavenly beatitude.

A Determined Determination

It was stated earlier that an intention should involve an efficacious desire. This, of course, implies that some of our desires are inefficacious. In other words, they are desires that do not result in a command of reason and will to follow through with the appropriate means necessary to attain the desired end.
Perhaps one of the most famous classical examples is that described by St. Augustine in his Confessions as he struggled in the midst of his conversion process with a desire for chastity that was not yet efficacious:
“I begged chastity of Thee, saying: ‘Give me chastity and self-restraint, but not just yet.’ I was afraid that Thou wouldst quickly heed my prayer, that Thou wouldst quickly cure me from the disease of concupiscence, which I preferred to be appeased rather than to be abolished” (book 8, chapter 7, n. 17).
In chapter 21 of her spiritual classic The Way of Perfection, the sixteenth-century reformer of the Carmelite order and doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, strikingly describes the effort that may be required in order to transform our inefficacious desires to efficacious ones so as to gain the great treasure that lies at the end of the path on the royal road to Heaven:
What is necessary is “a great and very determined determination to persevere until reaching the end, come what may, happen what may” (Study Edition, Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, ICS Publications, p. 229).
The Catechism next examines the three general causes that make a human act good or evil, i.e., the sources or constitutive elements of the morality of human acts: “the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; and the circumstances of the action” (CCC, n. 1750). We will pick with this topic next week.

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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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