February 1998

The Sources of Christian Ethics. By Servais Pinckaers.  Catholic University of America Press. 489 pages. $44.95.. $.

Christian ethics studies human acts so as “to direct them to a loving vision of God seen as our true, complete happiness and our final end. This vision is attained by means of grace, the virtues, and the gifts, in the light of revelation and reason.” Such is the definition of Christian ethics provided by Fr. Pinckaers in this book. Pinckaers takes seriously the teaching of Pope John Paul II, who maintains that in order to “‘prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. 12:2), knowledge of God’s law in general is certainly necessary, but is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of ‘connaturality’ between man and the true good” (Veritatis Splendor, 64). But how exactly is this “connaturality” to be properly emphasized and cultivated in the field of Christian ethics? The answer is to make a profound return to the very sources of Christian ethics. What Pinckaers means by a return to the sources is refreshingly distinct from what other modern scholars might mean. Instead of an opportunity to deconstruct and misinterpret traditional sources, Pinckaers has in mind a true reacquaintance with Scripture, the patristic period, St. Thomas, and natural law theory.

To persuade the reader of the need he sees for Christian ethicists to reacquaint themselves with the traditional sources, Pinckaers reviews the historical development of the field. His review makes manifest that the advent of nominalism, with William of Ockham in the 14th century, initiated a decline from which Christian ethics has not yet fully recovered. The nominalist explosion and the movements that have followed in its wake have been detrimental to Christian ethics, since they entail a rejection of natural inclinations (as these were understood by St. Thomas and the Church Fathers before him), a de-emphasizing of the virtues, a neglect of beatitude and grace, and a “freedom of indifference.” Furthermore, in the modern postconciliar setting, theology in general has fallen victim to the temptations of nominalism and relativism. As Pinckaers puts it, “the Catholic attachment to orthodoxy and theological and dogmatic truth was soft-pedaled in the climate of research, dialogue, and pluralism, open theoretically to all opinions but in fact excluding the orthodox one. Love of truth yielded to a taste for novelty, variety, relativity, adaptation.” It is precisely because of this departure from classical sources that Pinckaers calls for a renewal of Christian ethics, which he claims has become largely de-Christianized.

What is needed to restore Christian ethics? His basic answer is that the adverse effects of nominalism, which are still present in various forms, need to be eliminated. Only that will allow for the proper emphasis on the connatural relationship between man and the true good within Christian ethics. This will entail a number of corrections. To begin with, Christian ethics must again focus on the teleological aspect of all being, and particularly of all human actions. This is vital since the end (telos) functions as the principle of all operations and actions (including moral actions). Furthermore, all good actions are good only insofar as they are conducive to the Summum Bonum/Happiness (ultimately, that is, the Beatific Vision), which should serve as the context within which the rest of Christian ethics resides.

In addition, Pinckaers holds that the patristic and Thomistic understanding of the natural inclinations must be re-emphasized. We must again appreciate that man, by nature, is endowed with a basic set of constructive inclinations which incline him to certain goods. In turn, these goods contribute to his moral perfection when they are attained. Such inclinations, which are not merely biological but also metaphysical, serve as the foundation for man’s rights and duties as well as for his very freedom.

Freedom, moreover, as understood by Pinckaers, St. Thomas, St. Augustine, and others, does not truly consist in the mere ability to choose between good and evil. Rather, freedom is the means by which we strive for Happiness in accord with the moral order and the hierarchy of goods. In other words, freedom is ordained to excellence — i.e., the virtues, grace, the gifts, and ultimately the Beatific Vision. Christian ethics needs to be ordered not only to natural law, duties, and obligations, but also to the very sources and ends of these, both natural and supernatural. For grace, as Pinckaers reminds us, does not supplant nature but perfects it.

- David Arias Jr.

Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds.  By Phillip E. Johnson. InterVarsity Press. 119 pages. $9.99.

The debate over evolution sometimes seems a distant quarrel to Catholics. Defeating Darwinism, however, shows that the debate over Darwinism is a crucial matter that is too seldom understood by Catholics.

Johnson is a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has been a leading critic of Darwinism since his 1991 book Darwin on Trial. Johnson is adept at pointing out the problems in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

- David Arias Jr.

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