Book Review: By Knowledge & By Love

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture
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By Knowledge & By Love

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.