If you want to know what St. Thomas Aquinas, the Fathers of the Church and the classical philosophers had to say about “this particular animal” — man — it is not too late.
You don't need a university class — this deceptively slim volume will help you draw from the wholesome waters of ancient wisdom about the human condition — and let you take a satisfyingly deep drink, indeed.
Our main business, according to Dominican Father Pinckaers, is happiness. You have always known this in your heart, and great minds have spelled it out. “Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone will agree with me on this almost before the words are out of my mouth.” Norman Vincent Peale? No — St. Augustine, circa 400 A.D. In the Christian view, happiness has always been the core of morality.
“In the case of St. Thomas,” writes Father Pinckaers, “we are clearly dealing with a morality of happiness, virtues and gifts. It joins together in a remarkable way the Christian heritage (based on the Gospel and developed by the Fathers of the Church) and human wisdom (Aristotle being considered the best witness of this wisdom). The point of contact is found in the desire for happiness.”
Moving through the history of thought from the ancients through the Middle Ages to the modern and postmodern periods, Father Pinckaers gives an overview of changes and developments in ethics. His style is trenchant, pithy. “An ice bridge over an abyss” is his description of natural law when twisted out of context and placed in opposition to freedom.
“The discovery of joy beyond our trials is a decisive step on the way to moral maturity,” writes Father Pinckaers. “One even comes to perceive, upon fulfilling its requirements, that joy does not destroy, but rather refines and rightly orders, pleasure. Starting from this experience, we can reestablish the vital bond that unites joy to the virtues. … We can also understand how the virtues are like arteries that carry strength and disperse joy throughout the entire organism of the moral life.”
You may want to reach for a pen — insights this sharp and useful are too good to let slip away unremembered. But there's no need. Father Pinckaers, eminent teacher of moral theology for decades in Belgium, France and Switzerland, has anticipated what attentive students think and ask. In “call-outs” of synopses, charts and quotes you'll want to return to over and over, he has written your notes for you.
True history is revelatory. But there is more than history here. “For Christians, the Person of Jesus has become the center of moral life … it is here that faith acquires its full force, Faith is a vital act; it commits one person to another forever.” This is true of marriage and of every fruitful decision at the personal, political or even artistic level. If faith in Christ is the root of morality, charity is the sap, nourishing the trunk, rising into the branches, producing what Father Pinckaers calls “the delicious fruit of good works.”
Five years ago, Father Pinckaers produced The Sources of Christian Ethics, applauded by scholars as an essential entry in the field of moral theology. Its primary achievement was grounding Christian ethics in the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. With Morality: The Catholic View, it is as though he has distilled the best of that rather academic work into a format inviting and accessible to Everyman.
In Morality, I found a mature, grounded view of morality, of law, of freedom, of happiness — yet one that is fresh, stimulating, renewing. In the book's preface, Alasdair MacIntyre remarks that Father Pinckairs “is an extraordinary author and this is an extraordinary book.”
If that struck me as a bit of a marketing pitch when I first opened the book, I was happily relieved of the notion by the time I finished the final page. MacIntyre speaks the plain truth.
Dominican Sister Mary Thomas Noble writes from Buffalo, New York.