One of my favorite topics in moral theology is the the place of happiness in Catholic moral thought, and in this post I want to dive a little more deeply than normal into some theology, but bear with me…
There is an unfortunate tendency today among many — even among some committed Christians — to believe that Christian moral norms are apparently arbitrary whims imposed on us by God and/or by our Church leadership.
There is actually a good deal of truth to this belief, in that there has been a long history in moral theology of focusing on the “willed” aspect of moral norms, i.e. that things like the Ten Commandments are willed by God, and therefore we ought to obey them for that reason. This perspective began primarily with John Duns Scotus in the High Middle Ages and continued through William of Ockham in the Late Middle Ages. It was via Ockham and his circle that this voluntaristic emphasis, focusing on the will, spread during the Reformation, and in the Counter-Reformation and succeeding centuries many Catholic moral theologians continued to hold to this emphasis, as seen in what’s called the “manual tradition” of moral theology in the first half of the twentieth century.
Now, I would certainly agree that we ought to follow God’s will; I definitely have no issue with obedience. The problem comes in when God’s will is made to appear arbitrary, i.e. there is no attempt to discover the divine rationality behind His moral precepts. In fact, some would posit that we even shouldn’t make such an attempt, that it is wrong to do so.
What this leads to among too many believers is a Christian “moral spirituality” which undertakes Christian moral precepts as if they were a great weight which must simply be carried: ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do and die. I am a Christian, and therefore I have to “put up” with these precepts. For the non-Christian looking in, there is little to find which is attractive in this atmosphere. It appears laden with legalistic norms which lead only to misery in this life, with the promise for (eventual) happiness in the next.
Such a picture is not only depressing, but need not — nay, should not — be the portrait painted by Christian moral theology and practice. Furthermore, it is a perspective which is relatively new — as noted above, it was only in the High Middle Ages that this understanding of morality really began. Before that — and ever since, among a school which was in the minority of moral theologians for far too long — Catholic moral theology saw another divine purpose in living a moral lifestyle: authentic, real happiness.
St. Augustine opened his treatise on Christian ethics (“The Standards of the Catholic Church”) with the following words: “There is no doubt about it. We all want to be happy. Everyone will agree with me, before the words are even out of my mouth. […] So let us see if we can find the best way to achieve it.” As the noted Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers, commented, “For Augustine, morality begins with the question of happiness — authentic happiness — and consists entirely in finding an answer to this spontaneous, universal question. Morality is a search for happiness” (emphasis added).
As Pinckaers goes on to note, this perspective was obvious to Augustine, but is very foreign to most of us (Christian or not) today. As he says, “we are used to thinking of morality from the viewpoint of obligations and prohibitions. We equate it with a body of teaching about commandments and sins, and do not readily perceive how it connects with our desire for happiness. In fact, the two things seem contradictory” (emphasis added).
Isn’t this true? Don’t most of us see morality and happiness as opposites, or at least understand them so in an unconscious manner?
As we see above, though, this was not how St. Augustine understood happiness, and his perspective was held by most theologians into the High Middle Ages, including his most famous disciple, St. Thomas Aquinas, who was described by one of my Angelicum professors as being “more Augustinian than Augustine was.”
For St. Thomas, like Augustine, a moral life is the path to authentic happiness. Yes, there may be initial “pain” as we begin to live the life of virtue rather than vice, but in the end, the happiness we will have through the grace of God and the life of virtue will far outweigh whatever pseudo-happiness we may experience otherwise.
This “take” on morality is once again taking its rightful place, through the work of men like Servais Pinckaers (I would recommend his reflections on the Beatitudes, The Pursuit of Happiness — God’s Way, from which the above quotes were taken, and his more scholarly work, The Sources of Christian Ethics). Yes, we must follow God’s will, but we must remember and emphasize to others that God wills our happiness, and therefore that living the moral life will lead us to that end of real happiness, in this life and the next.
Living the Christian life should not be a burden to us; as Jesus said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:30). When we realize that God desires our happiness, and that living the life He sets before us will lead us there, Christian morality is transformed for us and for others.
What about you? Have you seen Christian morality as the path to happiness, or as a heavy burden, or as something else?