"You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn. 8:32).
As Saint Paul confirmed in his letter to the Romans, “what the law requires is written in their hearts,” true morality is a movement within the heart of man enlightened through faith and reason. For all who are on the straight and narrow path of a Christian moral life have the deep abiding moral knowledge required to reach eternal happiness or finality. Any moral argument that negates this truth threatens the intrinsic nature and dignity of the human person. The interior fontal knowledge that Fr. Picknaer upholds in his book “The Sources of Christian Ethics” is a truth we must continue to defend for it is our birthright the Creator has given to all mankind created in His image and likeness.
Fr. Picknaer’s discussion within his book is a perfect fit for building a foundational understanding of the definition of ethics and moral theology. The lesson defines ethics as “the science of human conduct as known by natural reason; the activity of moral reasoning.” Moral theology is defined as “the science of human actions insofar as they are directed by natural reason and divine faith to the attainment of supernatural destiny.”
Human ethics asks the question “what should man do?” Most modern ethicists according to Picknaer only look at this question at a very shallow level which he calls positivist knowledge. Positivist sciences have a general method of analyzing behavioral actions in a way that looses the human person completely through its apersonal focus. Humanistic ethics concentrates on external actions through a rigorous observation of facts that can only be perceived by the senses—in other words only seen by the observer. Through these observations the ethicist is able to formulate laws around the actions observed. This is to be done with complete objectivity. For any human being this complete objectivity is impossible, because all humans are influenced by deeper realities then just those that are “observable facts.”
Ethics can not stand on its own if in the name of modernism it rejects the idea of truth in the fullest context. Moral theology has a more complete view of the human person and the moral actions that an individual takes. The human heart is a very deep reality and can not be negated when it comes to the influence it plays in the daily actions of human beings. Human beings can not be placed within the narrow box of just scientific knowledge, because there is an element of the human life that can not be explained through scientific or positivist knowledge.
Ethics or moral reasoning asks the single question “What should man do?” We must know “what man is?” first to truly comprehend how man should behave. Just judging morality through the lenses of moral obligation without love and full discernment endangers the human person to become a lost sheep to the world of impulses or “observable facts.” To search for just quantitative information in order to judge the moral obligations within the given context of a human life is to miss a whole other capacity of the human experience. Living a moral life within the murky waters full of the currents of relativism and “broadmindedness” in this post-modern age with this narrow minded view threatens the true freedom of the human spirit.
John Paul II explained the struggle between human based ethics and God centered moral theology within his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (84), “Pilate’s question: ‘What is truth’ reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes and where he is going…man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil. This relativism becomes … a lack of trust in the wisdom of God, who guides man with moral law…when all is said and done, the law of God is always the one true good of man.” The danger of some post-modern thought within the field of ethics is that anything goes in the name of “freedom” which threatens morality at its core-- for then there is no true freedom—“freedom” meaning the full potential of the human person to do the good, thereby becoming the truest good.
Human beings are spiritual beings and moral theology takes the spiritual nature of the human person into perspective. This view of the moral life is explained thoroughly within Fr. Picknaer’s discussion of Christian morality and gives a strong foundation for the true intellectual and spiritual capacity of moral theology.
Moral Theology asks deep questions when looking at the actions or behaviors of the human person. As Fr. Picknaer explains that moral knowledge “comes into being through dynamic reflection on human actions.” Moral theology goes to the origin of human actions, or what could be called the heart of the matter. Moral theology is theological because it focuses on how faith enlightened by revelation and the Holy Spirit pierces the depths of the human soul. These deep internal movements of the heart have no quantitative means of measure, for these inspirations are subjective to the unique heart in relationship with the divine and their previous life experiences.
Fr. Picknaer so eloquently reveals a special type of knowledge which must be recognized by the ethicist if the source of human actions is to be fully appreciated. This knowledge he calls fontal knowledge. Fontal knowledge is that innate gift that the Lord planted in all human hearts, His “law written in our hearts.” Through this knowledge the human being is able to recognize truth, goodness, happiness, and moral reality. This fontal knowledge Fr. Picknaer says isn’t even our subconscious, he calls it “superconscious.” It is very difficult to adequately explain this knowledge because everything infinite is difficult to put into finite words. Every human being has this innate part or grace within themselves that pierces the deepest part of their being.
The simplest way to illustrate this is to watch children play a board game and then reflect upon the reaction when someone is caught cheating. They are so quick to point out that cheating is wrong and that it is not fair. They innately know when something is good or something is bad, they just can’t explain how they know. As human beings dealing with much harder decisions at times, the best thing to do is to allow our fontal knowledge direct our actions. If a person has to stop and think if they should do something, it probably means they shouldn’t. The Lord’s divine influence on the soul is giving a little warning or caution to think something through before taking an action. This fontal knowledge also comes into play in crisis situations. As in those heroic actions humans take in helping someone else in need, even when saving the other may put them into grave danger.
This fontal knowledge is rejected by Ockham and others who see human actions as being separated from any outside influences or divine interventions. Moral theology is a science of the divine in relationship with human life. This is a divine science that is enlightened by truth, beauty, goodness, and moral reality. Fontal knowledge is the source of all our moral or immoral actions is so far as the human heart can choose to follow the divine inspiration within the heart or reject it. That is where free will comes to play within the complex and dynamic movements of the heart that lead to human action.
Moral theology needs to look at all of the influences that come to play in the actions that a human being makes. Even behavioral sciences have something to offer for the full understanding of morality. For everything within a human person’s experience influences the choices they make. The harm that behavioral sciences can cause to morality is the denial of the spiritual dimension to human life. For those who follow the just the positivist knowledge of the moral reality around them, see only part of the picture.
Those who live their life based on moral obligations and “going with the flow” risks the very real danger of conditioning their hearts to stop recognizing the fontal knowledge that the Lord has planted within their hearts. Ethical relativism removes all moral reference point for mankind to follow. It rejects truth. This danger is not just for the individual but for society as a whole, for society is loosing its soul as well.
As John Paul stated “morality – founded upon truth and open in truth to authentic freedom – renders a primordial, indispensable and immensely valuable service not only for the individual person and his growth in the good, but also for society and its genuine development” (VS, 101.) If relativistic morality continues to take hold on all of society then the very moral fiber of society and true freedom with collapse. Moral theology has what all science and mankind need. Through moral theology mankind finds a focus and center that embraces the whole of human experience which doesn’t run contrary to human freedom and life.
Moral knowledge is enlightened and “supermoral” when united in love for God and for the other. Moral reality is a choice or a commitment for a person or a society who chooses to live in the Spirit, to grow in virtue and personal holiness. Moral theology looks at the choices that persons make through out their lives and becomes a living testament to the interior live within their hearts and their divine destiny. Moral theology is a necessity for all humans and all society to truly understand what it means to be a human being. If the world would look to moral theology and practiced it at its deepest sense it would find –Truth—the only reality that will set us free.
Copyrighted September 22, 2008 by Janelle M. Wingert