Pinckaers and the Joy of the Gospel

Morality: The Catholic View is not the most riveting title for a book. Given the foreboding title, the volume is astonishingly trim — a little over a hundred pages. Very succinctly, the Belgian Dominican Servais Pinckaers offers a clear précis of his longer works, and a new approach to moral theology after the Second Vatican Council that he helped to orchestrate.

Pinckaers starts with the Sermon on the Mount, but really gets going when he re-threads Romans 12-15. Protestants are guilty of “cutting the thread” between faith and works, just as Catholics have cut the thread between dogmatic theology and moral theology. Jesus exhorts his followers to seek the joy they secretly desire in a certain way. This deep-seated desire for joy is the seed of moral behavior.

The danger is a radical notion of freedom that arises in the fourteenth century nominalism of William of Ockham, in which the “freedom of indifference” supplants the “freedom for excellence”:

“Free choice does not proceed from reason and will; instead, it precedes them on the level of action, for we can choose to think or not to think, to will or not to will. Hence, free choice is the first faculty of the human person, whose act does not originally depend on anything but his or her own choice… The famous maxim of the Ancients, sequi naturam (follow nature) loses its meaning; instead, a new vision emerges: dominari naturam. The ideal becomes the domination and enslavement of nature” (68-9).

Once the desire for happiness is no longer the universal ground of ethics — i.e. the Aristotelian-Thomistic teleology of human eudaimonia — ethics must turn to the language of obligation. Obligation stems from the sheer force of divine command, and God’s arbitrary will and our freedom of indifference turns natural law into an “ice bridge over an abyss”. Once they lose sight of the universal deep-seated desire for joy, Protestants and Jesuits alike cut the eudaimonistic thread between dogmatics and morality. Christianity from 1517 to 1963 is somehow gelded.

Still, it is true that we have this “freedom of indifference”, as Pinckaers calls it, even if we should not honor this radical freedom like “freedom for excellence”. In his mind, the only way to rediscover the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) is to do Christianity, if you will pardon the inelegant phrase.

“To renew freedom in its roots requires more of us than merely a discussion of ideas. It is only attainable through the experience of personal action that is true and good…” (76).



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