Francis Phillips reviews Morality, The Catholic View,
By Servais Pinckaers OP.

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Morality, The Catholic View, By Servais Pinckaers OP. St Austin Press, £8.

When my 21-year-old daughter saw the title of this book she commented, ‘I bet it’s all about rules and the Church saying “No!”’ The author is sympathetic to this response but takes great pains to refute it.

In fact his book, as he states in the Introduction, seeks to demonstrate that ‘Catholic morality is a response to the aspirations of the human heart for truth and goodness…[it] is not by nature oppressive.’ This is very good news – so why is my daughter’s reaction so widespread and why have the Church’s moral teachings so often been viewed in a forbidding light? Pinckaers fully answers this question in his two-part approach, the first devoted to an historical overview and the second to a reflection on the nature of true freedom.

Beginning with the Beatitudes, key texts from St Paul’s Epistles and the Church Fathers, he shows that in the early Christian centuries morality and right conduct were never separated from spirituality and the quest for true happiness and joy. However, by the fourteenth century, the Pauline paeans to love and the fruits of the Spirit as irresistible spurs to holiness had been obscured or overshadowed by a gradual ‘morality of obligation’ and the struggle against sin. ‘Moral theology has become the domain of obligations and legal imperatives and has set aside the question of happiness or perfection.’

By the time of St Alphonsus Liguori, 1696-1787, patron saint of moral theologians, this negative process had reached the stage where Liguori, in his Theologia Moralis, could devote 781 pages to precepts of the Ten Commandments and those of the Church and only 73 pages to the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, now subordinate to legalised imperatives. Pinckaers concedes that teaching the rudiments of moral conduct is essential and that such an approach served a sound if limited purpose in Counter-Reformation seminary training and the ministry of confessors, but he is eager to show how growth in the spiritual life requires a return to the ‘law of love’ instituted by Christ.

The Second Vatican Council was aware that such a redress was necessary if the Church were to offer hope to the world and the new Catechism reflects this hope in its renewal of the presentation of Christian morality. Pinckaers emphasises that moral action does not properly flow from avoiding the bad as from our natural yearning for 'truth, goodness and happiness.’ In this interior process the Holy Spirit (the ‘Interior Master’), left in abeyance for several centuries, comes into His own.

Although we might begin with a recognition of moral obligations, we will move on to a ‘correspondence’ between precepts and our ‘intimate aspirations’. Finally, as mature Christians, the law simply becomes the support of ‘the creative power of the Spirit within us.’ From this angle, happiness is no longer seen as mere hedonism or pleasure and therefore to be avoided; in St Augustine’s words, ‘The happy life is joy, born of the truth.’ The artificial breach between morality and happiness has been healed; we are magnetised by virtue rather than constrained by rules.

This book, with a preface by the philosopher Alastair MacIntyre, can easily be read by a layperson, unversed in theology or philosophy. To aid understanding, the text is interspersed with ‘boxed’ pages, quoting relevant passages from St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas and others. Coincidentally, as I was reading it, the opening prayer for Mass on the 6th Sunday of the year was, ‘Let us pray that everything we do will be guided by God’s law of love.’ It is not only my daughter, clearly ‘oppressed’ by the Church’s rules, who should read it. It is for anyone who once felt inspired by a passage in the Gospels or St Paul but who was then cast down in spirit by reading the small black print in old manuals on ‘how to prepare for Confession’.

© 2004 Francis Phillips


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