Virtue ethics, once on the margins of, if not completely absent from, Catholic moral theology, Protestant ethics, and moral philosophy, has enjoyed a comeback in the last two or three decades that is nothing less than remarkable. In philosophy, this comeback is associated primarily with Alasdair MacIntyre, but also with G. E. M. Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, and Martha Nussbaum ; in Protestant ethics, first and foremost with Stanley Hauerwas ; and in Catholic moral theology, primarily but not exclusively with students of Thomas Aquinas, such as Romanus Cessario, Servais Pinckaers, and Jean Porter. With the Dominican and Thomist Michael Sherwin, successor of Servais Pinckaers to the chair of fundamental moral theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, an important new voice has joined the conversation.
By Knowledge & By Love is a notable achievement that should well establish the author in the current conversation of moral theology as well as the ongoing interpretation of Thomas Aquinas’s thought. The major achievement of the book lies in its penetrating analysis and interpretation of some of the most complex aspects of Aquinas’s moral theology.
By way of a sustained reappreciation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics among Protestants and Catholics alike, the centrality for the moral life of virtues in general and the cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) in particular is by now fairly well established. But should-and indeed can-these virtues play a role in the Christian life proper ? Or does a focus on the virtues encourage a way of life that must ultimately end in absorption with the self’s operation instead of the love of God and neighbor, that is, with self- and works-righteousness ? These concerns, among others, fuel the deep Protestant reservations about virtue ethics, particularly in its Aristotelian version. And indeed, Aristotle’s account of the virtues offers no fully satisfying way to address these theological worries. Only by moving on, via Augustine, and attending to Thomas Aquinas’s comprehensive account of the cardinal and the theological virtues, fully integrated into a psychology of intellect and will, can one address the legitimate Augustinian concern regarding the limits of virtue and the illegitimate Protestant conviction regarding the sheer impossibility if not active harmfulness of virtues in the Christian life. It is precisely here that charity becomes critical and the broader significance of Sherwin’s book obvious.
According to Aquinas, the grace-induced virtue of charity integrates and perfects all aspects of the Christian moral and spiritual life. In order to argue why this is the case and how it happens, Aquinas develops a profoundly satisfying moral psychology in which he attends to our natural constitution as rational creatures (passions, intellect, and will), the acute effects of sin on human nature, and the restoration of human nature, by God’s grace, through new capacities (faith, hope, and charity) that transcend our creaturely limitations and fundamentally direct us to God. Sherwin proves to be a perspicacious guide through the inevitable complexities of such an account. More specifically, he shows point by point that for Aquinas the intellect has a structural priority over the will and that consequently there obtains a structural priority of faith over charity. Simultaneously, charity informs all the other virtues because it commands the acts of the virtues and thus draws them into its own act of loving God and all things in God. Sherwin consistently and convincingly argues that for Aquinas intellect and will, and analogously faith and charity, depend on each other such that truth and love can never be separated, and truth always has a structural priority over love. We will see shortly why this is important per se as well as for Sherwin’s account.
But I would go amiss if I were not to mention beforehand three additional noteworthy aspects of Sherwin’s study. First, Sherwin’s reconstruction of Aquinas’s theology of charity makes it plain by implication that when studying Aquinas’s account of the virtues it is perilous-to say the least-to attend solely to the short treatise on the virtues in the Prima secundae of the Summa theologiae while neglecting the subsequent treatment of the gifts of the Spirit and the treatise on grace, not to mention the extensive treatment of the virtues in the Secunda secundae. Second, and more relevant for the experts, by drawing on the original research of Henri Bouillard and Max Seckler, Sherwin offers an accessible and nuanced account of the way Aquinas’s thought regarding the precise interaction between intellect and will developed over the course of time into his mature position in the Prima secundae of the Summa theologiae and the De malo-a matter of great importance for the book’s constructive argument. Finally, also of relevance mainly for the experts, Sherwin argues (to my mind rather convincingly) for an early dating of the disputation question De caritate, such that it would fall into Aquinas’s first Parisian regency, when he composed the extensive Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, and not into his second Parisian regency, when he worked on the Secunda pars of the Summa theologiae.
If one were now to conclude that all we have in front of us is a detailed historical reconstruction of Aquinas’s thought, relevant only for those with antiquarian interests, one could not be further from the truth. On the contrary, Sherwin’s detailed historical reconstruction of Aquinas’s thought has a significant constructive purpose. Let us turn, then, to the particular discourse in moral theology in which he intends to make a tangible difference.
An influential current in contemporary moral theology, represented most prominently by Josef Fuchs and James Keenan, draws upon a distinction of the late Rahner between the deeper, “transcendental” freedom of a person’s “total self disposal” (option fondamentale) and the “categorical” freedom of practical moral judgment (freedom of choice) to distinguish between the fundamental orientation of a person (goodness) and the person’s concrete moral judgment and actions (rightness). Charity pertains to the first, transcendental level of freedom, while prudential judgment under the law of reason pertains to the second, categorical level. According to these “theologians of moral motivation” (Sherwin’s term), charity operates completely antecedently to and independently of reason, because of the will’s alleged autonomy from the intellect. Hence, a person can have a fundamental orientation to God (charity), that is, completely submit to God on the level of transcendental freedom, and simultaneously commit objectively sinful actions. In short, the theologians of moral motivation stress that wrongness on the categorical level does not undercut goodness on the transcendental level. In a weighty study, Keenan has argued that the late Aquinas’s account of the will and of charity precisely entails such a distinction between goodness and rightness. The particular point of Sherwin’s study is to show systematically in Aquinas’s theology of charity how the intellect and the will are profoundly interdependent, with a structural priority of the intellect over the will. Hence charity, while being in one regard superior to the knowledge of faith, always depends structurally on faith’s knowledge : “For Aquinas, an act of charity is impossible without the knowledge of faith” (162). Furthermore, Sherwin convincingly points out a number of fundamental problems in the program of moral motivation as developed by Fuchs and especially Keenan. I shall mention only the two that strike me as most salient. First, transcendental freedom is wrongly likened to angelic freedom-a perfectly realized freedom, rooted in the non-discursive angelic nature-over against the thoroughly embodied character of human freedom, which is acquired only on the journey of a life increasingly transformed by faith, hope, and charity. Second, if charity does not depend on any prior knowledge, it loses its character as a virtue and turns into “a purely formal willingness to surrender to God and to engage in right action” (206). “Moral goodness, therefore, becomes the result of an ephemeral action disembodied from any storied account of human life and the actions proper to it. It becomes the product of a charity that ceases to be a virtue in any recognizably human way” (224). Sherwin has put his finger on two vital issues that deserve the full attention of the theologians of moral motivation.
While the question of how knowledge and love interrelate is undoubtedly of critical importance for the ongoing discourse of Catholic moral theology, it should not be relegated to a regional discourse. To the contrary, the question is of fundamental importance to Christian theology and ethics across the board. Does charity depend on knowledge and hence on truth ? Or is charity thoroughly independent of the questions of knowledge and truth ? In a culture of sentimentality and “cheap love,” in which sympathy is quickly offered to all who “mean well” while the question of truth is conveniently bracketed, this is an urgent topic to address. For Augustine, nothing is loved that is not first known, but at the same time our loves profoundly shape our judgments. That this indeed obtains, and why so, is the great achievement of Aquinas’s theology of charity. And Sherwin’s related achievement consists in providing a cogent and illuminating access to this theology-and in making its normative implications stick in regard to the alternative account of the theologians of moral motivation.
The only minor quibble I have is with Sherwin’s account of theoretical knowledge in Aquinas, where I think he fails to distinguish sufficiently between the intellect’s primary act and the secondary acts of discursive reasoning. While indeed the will has no influence on the intellect’s first act, it does affect the acts of discursive reasoning, not unlike the judgments of practical reasoning-hence, for example, the vice of curiosity (ST II-II q.167).
A larger question to which Sherwin’s study gives rise but which simultaneously and quite obviously transcends its scope is how Aquinas’s theology of charity and its underlying psychology of intellect and will might help or hinder our understanding of the reality of natural love, friendship, and charity in the lives of mentally handicapped persons. Quite obviously, this question was not on Aquinas’s mind. But it has to be on the minds of contemporary moral theologians and ethicists. Can Aquinas’s theology of charity offer any guidance here, or must it capitulate before this challenge ? Intuitively, I would want to affirm the former and deny the latter. But assuming that Sherwin would agree, I still wonder how he would address this question in light of his convincing emphasis on the structural priority of the intellect (and hence faith) over the will (and hence charity).
This book is required reading for anyone who is interested in grasping the full scope of Thomas Aquinas’s moral theology, that is, the way that charity informs all aspects of the Christian life and thus perfects it. Moreover, anyone interested in the discourse of contemporary moral theology must take seriously Sherwin’s incisive challenge to the theology of moral motivation. Finally, this study is highly recommended to all who are interested in the theology of love and want to entrust themselves to an able guide through the dauntingly profound yet profoundly rewarding theology of charity advanced by the doctor communis.
Duke University Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina, USA