Some years ago, when the anti-apartheid agitation was at its height in the western media and among popular singers, drummers, and electric guitarists (those stern guardians of morality), a certain breakfast cereal had the slogan ‘Free Nelson Mandela!’ emblazoned on the outside of the box. I remember hearing about a chap, obviously not too well versed in international politics, who duly emptied his box of cereals and was miffed at not finding his free Nelson Mandela inside. He didn’t know what it was, but he wanted one.
So please understand that I am not giving anything away gratis in this blog-post. No, I am referring to the need to free the angelic doctor from the positions which he is used to support in the recent apostolic exhortation, ‘The Joy of — ‘.
The first mention of St Thomas is in para. 99, where the document quotes the words from STh 2a 2ae, 114, 2 ad 1: “Every human being is bound to live agreeably with those around him”. This is not too bad, though it omits the second half of the sentence, which is nisi propter aliquam causam necesse sit aliquando alios utiliter contristare (“unless it should be necessary for him for some reason to cause them profitable sadness at some time”).
The next mention is in section 102, where the document quotes St Thomas as teaching that it is more characteristic of charity to love than to be loved. This is quoted in support of the claim that the only value of loving oneself is that it is “a psychological prerequisite for being able to love others”. The quotation from Aquinas is fairly accurate (though one could quibble at the translation of maxime as ‘the most’ rather than as ‘very much’); but he did not think that love of oneself was only important as a sine qua non for loving others. No, loving oneself is valuable as such. In fact, in the order of charity, a man is bound to love himself before any other creature. St Thomas explains that this is why it is never licit to commit a sin for any end whatsoever. By contrast, making love of neighbour as what is valuable for its own sake, and denying that love of self is valuable for its own sake, opens the way to sinning for the good of one’s neighbour.
In paragraph 120, the document quotes St Thomas’s description of love as a vis unitiva, a unifying force. This is unexceptionable, although he is not as one might suppose from the context of the citation speaking of conjugal love, but of love in God. Something similar can be said about the quotation of his description of love as a ‘union of affection’ or ‘affective union’, which again the document quotes as if it were said specially of married love. There is nothing much wrong here, though at least a ‘cf.’ before the reference to the Summa would have been in order.
The use of St Thomas that is made in paragraphs 123, 126-7, and 134 appears to me good.
Paragraph 145, however, says: “Experiencing an emotion is not, in itself, morally good or evil. The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy. What is morally good or evil is what we do on the basis of, or under the influence of, a given passion.” It footnotes Sth 1a 2ae 24, 1. This is objectionable. What St Thomas says here is that no emotion, abstractly considered, is either good or bad. Not even hatred is bad as such, since it is good to hate sin. But actually existing emotions are either good or bad, even independently of what may be done under their influence. St Thomas says: ipsae passiones, secundum quod sunt voluntariae, possunt dici bonae vel malae moraliter. Dicuntur autem voluntariae vel ex eo quod a voluntate imperantur, vel ex eo quod a voluntate non prohibentur (“The emotions themselves, insofar as they are voluntary, can be called morally good or bad. And they are said to be voluntary insofar as they are commanded by the will, or else because they are not checked by the will.”)
Paragraph 146 cites the angelic doctor in connection with the statement that: “A family is mature when the emotional life of its members becomes a form of sensitivity that neither stifles nor obscures great decisions and values, but rather follows each one’s freedom”. The citation is a bit strange, since St Thomas says nothing about families or great decisions and values or freedom in it; he just explains in what sense emotions co-exist with moral virtues. However, there is no particular harm in citing him, I suppose.
Paragraph 148 first of all cites the angelic doctor in support of the statement that excessive seeking of some pleasure can weaken or taint that same pleasure. This is alright. Personally I find the use of the next quotation, in a footnote to the same paragraph, somewhat distasteful in its context, and there is no attempt to give a well-rounded account of St Thomas’s teaching on the relation between the use of matrimony and virtue; but let us pass on.
Now, paragraph 301. Here the pope states that people, and from the context he is speaking of Catholics, can be living in irregular (e.g. adulterous) situations and may know the Church’s teaching on ‘the rule’, and yet may be unable to see the point of ‘the rule’. These people, he says, may possess sanctifying grace and may be unable to obey the rule without sinning. This is contrary to Trent; but here I am considering only the use which Amoris Laetitia makes of St Thomas. And it quotes him in support of this position! “Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well.” As Joseph Shaw has pointed out, this quotation is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. St Thomas is talking of people who have repented of past sins, and who keep the moral law, but do so with some difficulty because of the effect that those past sins have left behind. It is hard not to see this as a cynical misuse of the angelic doctor.
Paragraph 304 seeks to recruit St Thomas in favour of having no unvarying law about how to act towards those in e.g. adulterous situations. It quotes a passage from 1a 2a 94, 4: “Practical reason deals with contingent things, upon which human activity bears, and so although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles.” Presumably one is supposed to think that St Thomas would have said that therefore you can’t have a fixed principle of not giving Holy Communion to those who live in an adulterous relationship, but only a defeasible presumption of not doing so. The problem with this is that it ignores his, and the Church’s, teaching about intrinsically evil actions. Since some actions are intrinsically evil, one can indeed have unvarying negative precepts, saying that such and such a thing must never be done, whatever the circumstances. Affirmative precepts, on the other hand, such as giving back a loaned article when the lender requires it, bear on a good to be done and not on an evil to be avoided, and since goodness requires not only a good object but also the right circumstances, affirmative precepts can be suspended in particular cases (e.g. don’t return a gun to a madman.) The precept of not giving Holy Communion to those in public mortal sin is a negative precept, based on the intrinsic evil of dishonouring the Church.
In a footnote to the same paragraph, the document says: ‘In another text, referring to the general knowledge of the rule and the particular knowledge of practical discernment, Saint Thomas states that “if only one of the two is present, it is preferable that it be the knowledge of the particular reality, which is closer to the act”.’ This is a reference to the commentary on the Nicomachaea ethics, Book 6, lecture 6, section 11. It is misleading. St Thomas does not contrast rules and discernment here, but universal truths and more particular truths. He gives the example of someone who knows that ‘light flesh’ is healthy to eat, but doesn’t know what counts as light flesh, and someone else who doesn’t know the general principle about ‘light flesh’, but does know that the flesh of birds is healthy to eat. The latter person is a better guide to diet. So St Thomas is not saying that the priest who knows that Mrs Smith really loves her new husband but has never heard that one should not give Holy Communion to those in adultery is in a better position to judge what to do at the altar-rails, but that a priest who knows that one should not give Holy Communion to those in public adultery, but doesn’t know the general principle that one should not give It to those in public sin, is in a better position to decide what to do than one who knows that one should not give It to those in public sin, but who has no idea about what counts as public sin.
I didn’t notice any other references to the Angelic Doctor in this document.