Throughout Christian history certain theological dichotomies tend to dominate the backdrop, such as the contrast between: nature vs. grace, faith vs. works, or freedom vs. Divine sovereignty. Though their influence is often imperceptible, the force of these clashes move like theological seismic plates along the landscape of the Christian globe, where the collision between these meta-themes, even if unfelt to some, invariably form the landscape’s very features. From time to time, a veritable subduction-zone occurs, one extreme dominates its opposite, one pole of a theological clash eclipses the other, and the both/and balance of classic Catholic thought is compromised. It is Fr. Michael Sherwin’s conviction that something very similar has happened in the 20th century field of Catholic morals.
The book is titled By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the struggle the book addresses is the classic conflict between the role of intellect and will in human action. Sherwin begins by recognizing that, where traditional moral theology has always assumed a balance between these powers of the soul in the execution of the moral act, mid-twentieth century theology did not. According to Sherwin, certain thinkers, in a well-intentioned attempt to answer the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewal of moral theology, returned to the sources of the science – to those that preceded the casuist manuals, to the fathers, and to St. Thomas himself – and began to reconstruct a theory of moral value they believed more fitting for contemporary moral analysis. As well-intentioned as this goal might have been, Sherwin insists that this reconstruction, far from being a more faithful representation of St. Thomas’s true thought, was actually a radical departure from it. Far from illuminating the true sources of moral freedom, it rather obscured them. This obscuring of morals is a danger that Sherwin’s book confronts.
To summarize the problem, certain theologians of the 20th century downgraded the role of knowledge and the act of the intellect in the moral act, and saw rather the act of the will, simplex voluntas, as providing human action with the totality of its moral value. According to these theologians, what one knows is of lesser value, or no value, compared with what one wills. Simply put, as long as one intends to do good, that is, as long as one wills some ultimate good through his actions, by that fact the action must be judged good regardless of the knowledge or intellectual content therein. This notion can be seen at work in the contemporary opinion that, as long as one intends good, or is sincere, or means well, then, by virtue of this sincerity, no further moral growth is needed. By virtue of these good intentions, any further moral formation on the intellectual front would be superfluous. Immortalized in popular song lyrics of the time, these theologians insist that, in morals “all you need is love.”
As the “and” in title might already suggest, By Knowledge and By Love is a shattering critique of this one-sided shift in moral theology. Providing a masterful analysis of the role of knowing and willing (knowledge and love) in human action, Sherwin brilliantly illustrates the various errors of these modern theologians. Where some suggest that charity’s act exists only on a transcendental level -- within some “fundamental option” toward God made before any categorical determination of action -- Sherwin shows rather that the execution of the virtue of charity exists at every level of the human act; not only in a precognitive velle free from intellectual determination, but more thoroughly in intention, judgment, choice, command, and use. Sherwin also appeals to St. Thomas’s famed distinction between specification and exercise, in illustrating how, where modern theologians might insist that moral value is derived from a naked act of the will free from the specifying role of intellect, intellect and will are rather interconnected at every level of human action. There is no act of the will (save the will’s first act, which is by nature), Sherwin explains, that is not influenced by the directing and specifying priority of the intellect. In like manner, there is no act of the intellect that is not commanded by the exercising priority of the will. Both knowledge and love inform the moral act. Both knowledge and love invest human action with the freedom and dynamism of self-direction that render it morally good.
The anthropological import of the book must also be noted. Sherwin’s presentation of the intellect and will working together in the moral act reminds modern students of St. Thomas that the human soul, although containing multiple powers, is still a unity where the full engagement of the whole human person is required for the execution of a moral act. The faculty psychology of Aristotle and the scholastics, as essential a model as it is for anthropological analysis, often tempts the theologian to think of the powers of the soul in isolation, where each is hermetically sealed from the influence of the others. Sherwin’s work is free from this trap. Where students are so often in danger of seeing the acts of intellect and will as independent, Sherwin’s book presents them again as a wedded pair. Where textbook analysis of the moral act tends to picture intellect and will as two parallel lines between which human action oscillates like a bouncing ball, Sherwin instead pictures these two lines as intertwined, in a sense, wrapping around each other like a double helix between which the very genetic code of moral action is carried and hinged to both at every stage.
This reclaiming of a balanced understanding of knowledge and love is preceded by a stunning historical analysis of St. Thomas’ very notion of love itself. Before presenting the relation between knowledge and love in human action, Sherwin first reveals a development from St. Thomas’ earlier description of love in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard to his later descriptions of love in the Summa Theologiae and Quaestiones Disputatio de Malo. In his earlier writings, St. Thomas described love with the language of form; he understood love to be, like intellection, a type of adequatio, a type of reception within the lover of the form of the thing loved. As helpful as this understanding was for St. Thomas’ earlier analysis and as faithful to tradition as it might have been, Sherwin shows how it failed to sufficiently distinguish the act of love from the act of knowledge and, consequently, failed to provide the correct moving parts by which the actions of both could reciprocally coordinate. However, in his later writings, St. Thomas abandons the language of form and speaks of love solely as an appetitive movement, a tending outward towards that which is presented as good and perfective. Sherwin explains how this streamlined understanding of love solely as an appetitive movement proved to be the final tool needed for St. Thomas to synchronize both knowledge and love as two mutually intertwined movements. From this point of view, nothing can be loved as good and perfective, until it is first known, and nothing can be known as perfective, until the will exercises its command toward the aspect of goodness.
These aspects of the book place By Knowledge and By Love as undoubtedly one of the great works of moral theology in modern times. It is a great gift to the Church -- a clearing of the obscurities that cloud the air of modern moral discourse. It is an even greater gift to students of Catholic morals, particularly those of the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, providing a systematic, precise, and balanced answer to complex and nuanced problems. As all students of St. Thomas know, a small error in the beginning leads to a great error in the end. From time to time, the Catholic world wakes up to a consciousness that one of these great errors is upon her. At these moments in history, it is the role and duty of her disciplined theologians, who are also her loyal children, to exercise their skills of faithfully examining where, when, why, and how such small errors might have occurred in the beginning. Fr. Michael Sherwin’s By Knowledge and By Love is a shining example of one of these faithful sons of the Church exercising this duty with the highest degree of skill and erudition. It will be a crowning addition to any theological library.
In the medieval convent of San Marco in Florence lived one of the Dominican Order's greatest evangelists. He was not a master of the spoken word, an expounder of sacred scripture, nor an expert rhetorician; rather he was a simple artist. This friar was none other than Blessed Fra Angelico, who was able to craft images that both illustrated profound theological themes while also raising the mind to the sublime contemplation of God. Below is the second video in the DSPT Lenten reflection series in which Fr. Michael Morris, O.P., reflects upon one of Fra Angelico's most famous images of St. Dominic at the foot of the cross. Check it out and have a blessed Lent.
Fr. Michael Morris, professor of Religion and the Arts at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, has narrated lenten reflections through the medium of sacred art. This is the first reflection in the series called, "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent." Check it out and have a blessed lent.
One of the great blessings of St. Albert's Priory is the silence -- periods of great quiet where one is able to reflect, recollect, and be with God. This time of “still” is a great spiritual luxury, a time of prayer and solitude. In the hustle and bustle of a modern and urban setting, we are bombarded with sounds: traffic, car horns, sirens, cell phones, alarm clocks, and all the machines that make our world possible. Modern life is just plain noisy. Sonically speaking, the world is a very different place than it was for the early Dominicans, even for those religious men and women a century ago. Truly if there is one respect in which modernity has altered life, it is by stealing away the silence.
Last week, during one of these periods of quiet, the Lord brought me to a deeper understanding of the beauty of silence, and its importance in the life of prayer. If I am to unite myself with the mission and work of the great saints of old, it must begin right here, stocking the fire of the interior life in the silence of prayer.
I recall a prayer that a retreat master once offered to open a day of silence and, though I cannot remember every word, the finale certainly left an impression: “...that our hearts and minds might be open to the Lord,who speaks in silence.”
Why is silence so important for hearing the voice of God? Now that I am more adapted to the rhythm of Dominican life, the answer has begun to dawn on me. Silence is a powerful icon of God, perhaps the greatest icon we have. It is utterly simple, like one long “now” without division of parts, yet large enough to contain all measure of diversity and plurality.
I am reminded of the Prophet Elijah who, upon being told to stand on the mountain before the Lord, was engulfed by violent winds, fires and earthquakes. None of these, as powerful and as distracting as they must have been, brought the voice of God. However, in the silence that followed, when he heard a “still small voice” speaking in the calm of his heart, he covered his face with his mantle, for then he knew he was in the presence of the Almighty. It was in the school of silence that Elijah learned to recognize the voice of the Lord.
When we allow ourselves to enter into silence, when we make room for it, we then realize that it was there all along, not imposing itself like a tyrant, but waiting for us like a patient friend. It never left us; we left it; or rather forgot to notice it. Where had we gone?
We cannot create silence or manufacture it; we can only get out of its way and simply let it be. Unlike human artifacts, it can never be rendered “secular” or “timely.” It can never be out-of-date or old-fashioned. Only human creations get old. But this is exactly what we should expect. Our creations were made by us and for us, to suit us and entertain us. Just as every cause is contained in its effect, so do our own artifacts resemble their makers each in its own way, like various reflections in a mirror. When they no longer arrest our attention, we simply get bored with them and create new ones: a new pop song, a new movie star, a new fashion trend, a new gadget to play with.
But silence will forever lie just beyond the reach of human touch. It reminds us that there is something in our souls that will never be satisfied by a mere reflection of our finite selves. In fact, if we manage to sit in silence for long enough, that seemingly bottomless ache will begin to rumble in that even more bottomless resonance-chamber of the human soul, and thus remind us that we will only be satisfied by the infinite God. Pascal wrote, “I have discovered that the unhappiness of men comes from just one thing, not knowing how to remain quietly in a room.”
This is why I have found silence so powerful in the spiritual life; it is the sound of the sacred. Truly the rising of the heart and mind to God -- the essence of prayer -- is what the human soul does naturally if not troubled. If not distracted or held back by other concerns, the soul in the state of grace will fall to God like gravity to its true center. Perhaps this is the reason why so many of the great saints, even those not cloistered in religious life, hungered for hours and hours of silence spent with God. It is here that the soul can truly be itself.
It is in prayer that I am united with the Dominicans of the past and all the saints who have died in friendship with Jesus; united in our Lord who is the end towards which we all tend. I am united with them in the great liturgical prayers of the Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the chanting of the Divine office. As a member of the Order of Preachers I long to unite with them in the cause of saving souls through the preaching of the Word, and the living of the three vows.
I know that I am still a sinner; religious life has made that uncomfortably clear. There is still much of that random noise echoing in my own soul from the original fault of man. The senior friars have jokingly warned that, once the white habit is worn, all the stains show, literally and figuratively! But I am growing. Slowly but surely, little by little, I am growing, and walking the same path that hundreds of Dominicans have walked before me.
I pray, if it is the Lord’s will, that one day I may also cross the same passover and sleep the same sleep, resting in that same silence that can only come from the life of sanctifying grace. This is where all the prayers, psalms and hymns will cease and reach their goal. They will all be realized in that perfect silence of heaven. Then and there will that perfect stillness be, and that one perfect and infinite WORD uttered from all eternity will be the only sound we hear.
Recently the brothers and I were engaged in a conversation about the nature of human liberty. We were reflecting on the stark difference between freedom as the modern world would present it, and the true freedom to which our Catholic faith teaches that all men are called.
When most people consider the concept of human freedom or liberty, they generally consider, not the presence of a positive reality within the soul rendering it capable of free action, but rather the absence of realities outside the soul that serve as limits or boundaries to choice. Freedom is said to exist when all the various impediments to external movement or choice are removed; this is the notion of “freedom as license” that is so very common today. Given this understanding, a ball rolling down a hill -- where the mere pull of gravity rules its motion -- would be dubbed “free” if it simply has no obstacles in its path. Yet in this scenario, the ball’s fall is not something that it is “doing,” as much as it is something “being done to it.” The ball is not self-directed, not moved from within. The ball is not dominus sui (Lord of itself), but rather is lorded over by external forces outside of its control. This is not freedom.
True human freedom consists not in the absence of external impediments to action, but rather in the internal principle by which self-directed action towards an intended good is taken. This inner strength or virtus, by which one intentionally chooses the good and thus moves himself to a greater fulfillment of his human nature, is where human freedom lies.
The word of the LORD came to me: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. But you, prepare yourself; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Do not be terrified on account of them, or I will terrify you before them; for I am the one who today makes you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze, against the whole land: Against Judah’s kings and princes, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you. -- Oracle of the LORD.
Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19
As a candidate for the Catholic priesthood, I have had the opportunity to speak with many priests and seminarians about their own unique vocations. Over the years, I have begun to detect a common theme -- a sense of unworthiness. They all tell of a moment of doubt, fear, and even paralysis at the beginning of the journey, due to a looming suspicion that “they can’t do it” or “God’s got the wrong guy,” because “I am not enough.” One seminarian even told me that he delayed the pursuit of Orders for over ten years out of fear of inadequacy.
This is not unique to priests. Married men often speak of the same phenomenon that strikes them soon before the birth of their children; and mothers, when they become awestruck at the task of motherhood, often feel the same. I believe that one of the most common human experiences is the feeling of unworthiness. In the face of responsibility, duty, and even honors, how often do we feel like we are not enough?
I think it probable that this very same all-to-familiar doubt was also churning in the soul of the soon-to-be prophet Jeremiah. The Lord tells the prophet that before he was ever formed in the womb, God knew him, formed him, dedicated him according to a plan known before all creation. It is only after assuring Jeremiah of this fact that the Lord then commands him to “prepare himself.”
The awareness that God has perfectly designed him for the task to which he was called is the only backdrop, the only frame, within which Jeremiah could ever muster the courage he needed to realize his calling. The Lord pleads with Jeremiah to “not be terrified” on account of His commands and tells him: “For I am the one who today makes you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze.”
Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord teaches us an important lesson: when God calls us, it is He, not we, that first provides the necessities. It is God who qualifies us, not we that provide the qualifications. In fact, this providence is the very beginning of God’s call.
The wise artist, craftsman, or architect, before ever setting out to build a structure, first knows the structure’s purpose. Only then, in light of that purpose and with that purpose in clear focus, does he collect materials needed for the task. The craftsman would be a fool if, in aiming to build a firm load-bearing structure, he chose brittle clay or weak straw. The craftsman would be a fool if, in aiming to lay a stable foundation, he chose sand instead of solid rock. Instead, the wise craftsman always chooses the right material for his purpose. Yet even this human craftsman, as wise and skilled as he may be, is always laboring with materials that are not of his own making.
If even these human craftsmen can be trusted with their skill and the materials that they have, how much more can we trust the Divine craftsman who, not only chooses and calls us according to His purpose, but even creates us and provides for us according to His master plan set from all eternity? Does the Divine craftsman not know His material? Is God unaware of the task to which He sets out? If a calling is from God, it is He, and only He, who possesses the power to work out the calling through us.
The Lord is the only solid foundation upon which we may live our unique callings. Only upon Him can we become, like Jeremiah, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze. The mystery of our vocations as Christians is buried deep in the mystery of God, and we can never possess the strength needed unless we first possess Him. Brothers and sisters, let us not be afraid but let us take courage…for we are the creation of God.
Brothers and sisters: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever. The one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You are being enriched in every way for all generosity, which through us produces thanksgiving to God. (2 Cor. 9:6-11)
Imagine this scenario: A father of four small children loses his job in an economic down-turn. In that same down-turn, an elderly widow on a fixed income loses her savings when the stock market plummets – savings that those she trusted promised would remain safe. A single mother is told that her only daughter is terminally ill, and the treatment is beyond what she could ever afford. These three individuals meet at Mass on Sunday morning only to hear St. Paul tell them how much “God loves a cheerful giver” and exhorts them to give generously of their recourses.
Our modern world is riddled with uncertainty. Simply no one, no matter how rich or resourceful, is immune from it. Even devout Christians, those who claim that “God is in control,” may find themselves haunted by doubt in their future security. This doubt leads to distrust; distrust leads to fear; fear leads us to spiritual isolation; and spiritual isolation tempts - even Christians - to a posture of protective competition with others, the world, and even with God. In such a world, is it truly possible for a Christian to be generous with joy? Yet this is exactly what St. Paul tells us to be.
In the Gospels, we find one shining example of a giver whose generosity is praised by our Lord, yet it is a generosity that remained invisible to many. The story of the Woman in the Temple presents a poor woman among the rich elite. She is uncertain and afraid yet, out of her poverty, she still gives all that she has, a mere two coins. Jesus, knowing her gift and her intentions pronounces that she has given more than all the rest.
How can this be?
Jesus is illustrating that Christian generosity is not a matter of quantity, but quality. God in himself is pure gift. He gives out of the overabundance of His being, goodness, and mercy. Although He understands our human condition intimately and intensely, He labors under no economic problem of scarcity and lack. Thus the giving that is most akin to the heart of God is that giving and generosity which emerges from the human heart, not human physical abundance. Although the woman gave until it hurt, she could still be called a “joyful giver” since her giving was likened to the generosity of Christ, who also gave all that He had.
Let us recall what St. Paul teaches us: “God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.” The giving that most pleases God is not one of great quantity, as if He somehow benefits from the gift, but rather one of great quality, where our hearts are conformed to His heart, and it is us, not Him, that change through the giving.
Thus, the remedy for worldly fear and uncertainty is also the very mark of Christian giving. This is a quality of loving self-surrender to God that characterizes the “cheerfulness” of joyful generosity. Let us remember that “the one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”
In spite of the unavoidable uncertainties of life, we can always find joy in generosity. We can do this with full confidence that God can supply all of our physical needs.
This is not a call to imprudence, but rather a call to plant our lives in the seedbed of a supernatural hope in God. This hope is the true source of cheerful joy.
The prophet Isaiah tells us to "seek the Lord while He may br found; call upon Him while He is near." It is through a life of repentance and turning from sin that the Lord is sought. St. John Chrysostom teaches us that "it is our lack of penance, not our sins, that offends God the most." The saint understood that the fingerprint of true Christian spirituality is not perfection, but repentance.