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The Will of God, Christian Morality by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.

This article is recommended reading for Advanced Course Lesson 26

In order to reach Heaven, we must have the grace of God. Beyond what we have when we enter this world, we need divine grace in order to reach everlasting life in the world to come.

The main source of this grace is the Sacraments, beginning with Baptism. And the most important of the Sacraments to keep us spiritually alive and well is the Holy Eucharist.

But the Sacraments alone are not enough. We must cooperate with the graces we receive. God keeps giving us constant illuminations of the mind and inspirations of the will, and we must respond to these divine visitations. We must be mentally alert to what God is telling us He wants. And we must be ready with our wills to choose what He tells us to do.

The English word “morality” is misleading. We speak of something a person does as “moral” or “immoral,” to describe something “good” or “bad.” Properly speaking, however, every action we perform with conscious awareness of what we are doing, and freely choose to do it – is a moral action. There are therefore morally good and morally bad actions. If the action is done consciously and voluntarily, it is a moral action. And if what we choose to do is what God wants us to do, it is morally good. Otherwise it is morally bad.

If we further ask: Why does God want us to do certain things? The answer is because He knows that certain actions will lead us to Heaven.

Our main task on earth is to decide with our minds and choose with our wills what God tells us will bring us to Heaven, nothing else really matters during the few years we have between birth and death. Our main purpose is to live a good moral life here, so we may enjoy a happy eternal life hereafter.

Basic Principles: Knowledge and Freedom

We see immediately that the foundation of all morality is knowledge and freedom.

Knowledge means that we know in our minds what we should do to reach Heaven. When what we think should be done is what God wants us to do, we have the truth. In other words, truth is the agreement of mind with reality. And reality in moral matters is what God knows and tells us will bring us to our final destiny.

Freedom means that our wills are not compelled to do something. They are not forced either by some pressure from outside of us, or compelled by some power inside of us, to do what our mind informs us is desirable. We are free because we can choose what we want. Of course, we are truly free when we are at liberty to choose to do what is morally good and choose not to do what is morally bad.

There is a close relationship between knowledge and freedom. Before we can choose anything we must first know what to choose. Our wills must be informed by our minds that something is desirable. The person, place, or thing must at least appear to be good before we can reasonably choose it.

Sources of Moral Knowledge

There are, in general, two sources of knowledge available to us to help us to live a good moral life: They are reason and revelation.

Our reason has the natural ability to learn what is the right course of action to follow in a given situation. By reflecting on ourselves and other people, we can obtain some knowledge of what is right and wrong, at least in some basic areas of human behavior.

Thus our reason can attain some knowledge of the existence of God as a Supreme Being whom we should obey, and to whom we should pray. Our reason, too, can conclude that because we want others to respect our life and property, we should act the same way toward them. Therefore, hurting or killing another human being, or stealing from someone is wrong. We expect others, when they talk to us, to be honest in what they say. So we naturally conclude that when we speak to others, we should not tell a lie.

But our minds have been darkened by Original Sin, and further darkened by living in a sin-laden world, and even more darkened by our own personal sins. That is why God has seen fit to teach the human race, by His special revelation, many things that we might otherwise not all know, or know as well as we need to reach our heavenly home.

We may safely assume that God began this special revelation of His will at the dawn of human history. But once He called the children of Abraham to be His Chosen People, He revealed to them many duties that have since become the common possession of the human family. The single most important summary of these duties is the Ten Commandments.

When God became man in the Person of Christ, He did not do away with the Commandments of the Old Law. But He developed and deepened them beyond anything that was known before. That is why, when we speak of Christian morality, we mean all that Jesus Christ meant when He told the Apostles to teach all nations to observe everything that He commanded. This “everything” includes whatever human reason can know about the divine will, whatever God revealed since the dawn of human history, and whatever Jesus taught we must do to return to the God from whom we came.

The Church’s Role as Teacher of Morality

Christ did not leave His followers without a living guide. That is why He founded the Church. She was to keep intact the truths of faith which His followers were to believe. She was to remain the Universal Sacrament of Salvation, as the channel of grace so that those who believe might live on in a blessed eternity. But she was also, and with emphasis, to continue teaching and explaining the moral responsibilities of historic Christianity.

A Catholic catechism has always contained these three essentials: 1) the faith to be believed, 2) the Sacraments to be received, and 3) the Commandments to be observed. But in modern times, there is a special – and crucial – need for understanding how Christians are to live by their obedience to the will of God.

The key to this moral understanding is the teaching authority of the Church, vested in the successors of the apostles in union with the successor of Saint Peter.

The Conscience

Given the foregoing principles, it is obvious what the Church understands by the conscience. Conscience is the practical judgment that a person makes whether a particular action is morally good or bad. Conscience is the mind deciding on the morality of a given action. But the basis of this decision is always our human reason enlightened by faith in God’s revealed truth as taught by the Catholic Church.

Seen in this way, it becomes clear that we must always follow our conscience. But we have the prior responsibility of making sure that our conscience is properly educated. There are objective norms of morality, and it is our duty to learn these norms from prudent reflection on the world in which we live, from humble acceptance of divine revelation, and from sincere obedience to the Church’s Magisterium or teaching authority.

Virtues and Vices

Experience tells us that we develop moral habits according to our fidelity to the voice of conscience.

There is an iron law in the formation of habits. Apart from the supernatural action of divine grace, we can acquire good moral habits, called virtues, as we can acquire bad moral habits or vices. The law which underlines all formation of habit says that every thought tends to become a desire, every desire tends to become an action, and every action tends to become a habit.

Consequently, there is no such thing as a sterile thought. We conceive a thought and, unless checked, it grows into a desire. Our wills operate on two levels of desire:

  1. The first level is a spontaneous, instinctive desire for something pleasant that enters the mind. As such, this desire is involuntary in the sense that it is not deliberate or freely chosen.
  2. The second level is voluntary desire. After the mind reflects on the desire, the will chooses to enjoy or indulge the desire. The will may further choose to put the internal desire into external action.

As with thoughts, the same holds true of our desires. Unless checked, they become actions. And so, too, with actions. Simply because I have performed any action, interior or exterior, it spontaneously grows into a habit by sheer repetition.

Moral Virtues.  Unlike the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the moral virtues are immediately directed toward morally good actions.

1) Prudence enables us to make correct moral judgments. A prudent person can recognize what needs to be done, and what morally good means should be used to do what is pleasing to God. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that prudence is composed of no less than eight elements:

  1. the memory of past experiences on which a person draws when making a moral decision.
  2. understanding of the basic principles of morality, derived from reason and revelation.
  3. docility or the willingness to learn from others, especially those of mature age and experience.
  4. shrewdness in being able to make a wise conjecture about the best course of action to follow in a particular case.
  5. reason or the ability to apply general principles to a concrete situation.
  6. foresight is the single most important part of prudence. The very word “prudence” means being able to provide or foresee how something should be done.
  7. circumspection takes into account the circumstances under which we plan to do something. Thus the time, place, and persons involved have an important bearing on the morality of our actions.
  8. caution is the final ingredient of prudence which anticipates the evils or harm that an otherwise good action may occasion or produce.

2) Justice concerns our dealings with others. Unlike prudence, justice is a virtue of the will. It respects the rights of others, that is, the rights of God and of our neighbor.

There is a profound sense in which we are to practice justice toward God. And we have come to call this justice the virtue of religion. Religion means respecting the rights of God as our Creator and Lord. Everything we are, and have and hope to become and possess, come from Him. He therefore has a right to our recognition and respect, to our gratitude, and love, to our obedience and submission to His will.

There are two forms of virtue in our dealings with others, namely commutative and distributive justice. While both concern our respecting the rights of other people, they differ in the relationships that we have with one another.

Commutative justice. There is first of all the mutual relationship between people. As individuals, each of us has certain rights that another person is to respect. When I recognize the rights of another, I practice commutative or mutual justice. Each of us has a right to be treated as a person who has certain needs like food, shelter, and rest for the body; like attention and affection and acceptance for the soul. Each of us has a right to fulfill these needs and to possess the necessary means to their fulfillment. Others are to honor these rights and not deprive us of what we possess or need to acquire to live as human beings with an external destiny.

Distributive justice. But we are also members of a natural society like the family or State, and the supernatural society of the Church. Those who hold authority have the duty to provide the members with all the means necessary to fulfill their respective role in the society to which they belong. Indeed, they have a right to these necessary means. And when those in authority respect these rights, they are practicing distributive justice by distributing to those under their care each one’s just and proportionate share.

3) Fortitude is the virtue of the will which controls our natural fears. We are afraid of pain, whether bodily or spiritual, and instinctively draw away from a painful experience. But immediately we must distinguish two kinds of fear, which call for two different forms of fortitude.

The first kind of fear arises from the prospect of doing something difficult. It may be as simple a thing as writing a letter or as important as entering marriage, or as demanding as a vocation to the consecrated life. In this case, we need courage to do what conscience tells us we should, or even undertake a lifetime responsibility that is clearly God’s will. Our wills are weakened by sin and therefore shrink from either starting or persevering in what our better judgment says should be undertaken or carried through.

The second kind of fear is different. What we dread is our own weakness in enduring trial or suffering that God sends us. It may be sickness or disability, rejection by someone we love, or opposition from persons who were formerly friends. The pain may be in the body, the emotions, or in the depths of the soul. And we are all too aware of the strength it will take to suffer without complaining, not to say to remain calm and cheerful under duress.

Fortitude is necessary to cope with both kinds of fear. But the second kind of fortitude, faith tells us, is especially needed to remain loyal in following Christ. More than once, the Master predicted that to be His disciples we must resign ourselves to carry the Cross. That is why Christian fortitude is, above all, the courage of patience.

4) Temperance, like fortitude, is a virtue of the will that controls our natural impulses. But whereas fortitude protects us from running away from pain, temperance preserves us from running toward sinful pleasures. Temperance controls our spontaneous desires.

There would have been no need for temperance, as we now understand it, except that we have a fallen human nature. We are drawn to whatever pleases us, regardless of whether or not what we desire is morally good. We need food and drink, clothing and shelter, sleep and rest for the body. In order to survive, the human race needs to reproduce itself. On the mental level, we need to acquire knowledge; on the social level we need acceptance, companionship, and understanding love.

But our wants tend to exceed our needs, and our needs do not always correspond to our wants. There is imbalance between reality and desire. This is where temperance is not only useful or important. It is absolutely necessary if we are to be at peace in this world, and attain the happiness, for which we were created, in the world to come. Temperance is at once a brake and an accelerator. As a brake, it keeps our desires from getting out of control; it tempers our urges to make sure they correspond to what reason and faith tell us is really, and not only apparently, good for us. As an accelerator, temperance stimulates our dormant impulses to want what we should desire, even when we have to rouse ourselves to seek what we need.

There is a close connection between fortitude and temperance. In order to control our desires and direct them toward what God wants us to do, we need courage, especially the courage to face difficulties and not collapse under the sometimes heavy demands of Providence. But fortitude also requires temperance, because we need motivation to sustain us under trial. Part of this motivation is the desire to obtain the reward, already in this life, that God has promised those who courageously submit to His divine will.

As with fortitude, so temperance has been immensely elevated by the coming of Christ. He has given His followers such powerful reasons for self-control as were never known before. He has also given us such good things to desire as were unknown in the annals of human history. By His grace He made available supernatural means to subdue our irrational drives. And by the same grace He has made it possible to aspire to become like Him who is our God.

Capital Sins 

Technically speaking, a vice is a bad moral habit. Just as the repetition of good moral actions gradually develops into the corresponding virtues, so the repetition of sinful acts induces sinful habits that we call vices.

However, there is more at work here than merely human psychology. No doubt, habits are produced by repeatedly performing certain acts. If I hold back my temper every time I am provoked to anger, I will acquire the virtue of patience. And if I regularly give in to my love of ease, I will acquire the habit of laziness.

But Christianity teaches that we have a fallen human nature. Since the fall of our First Parents, even though we recover the supernatural life through Baptism, we have sinful tendencies (disordered passions) that remain with us until death. These tendencies have come to be called “capital sins.” They are the seven principal forms of concupiscence to which we are all naturally prone. We may say they are the main, or capital inclinations we have to commit sin and they require the help of divine grace to be mastered according to the dictates of right reason, enlightened by divine faith.

Scriptures may even call them “sins,” but the Church tells us they are not really sins. Rather they come from sin, and unless resisted they lead to sin.

  • Pride, as a sinful inclination, is the inordinate desire for self-esteem. In relation to God, we were nothing until, in His almighty love, He brought us into existence, and except for His sustaining hand, we would lapse into the nothingness from which we came.

The problem is that we tend to forget who God is and who we are. The most fundamental form of pride, therefore, is to think of oneself independently of God.

The further problem is that we not only tend to take other people for granted, and forget how much we owe to everyone whom God has put into our lives, but we are slow to recognize the good qualities of others, and become preoccupied with ourselves.

The virtue opposed to pride is humility. The remedy for pride is a sincere knowledge of self, especially of one’s sinfulness. We must pray for humility and accept the humiliations permitted by Divine Providence.

  • Lust is an inordinate desire for sexual pleasure. There is a God-given desire for sexual pleasure within the sanctity of marriage. But the urge is so strong that it requires the constant help of divine grace to be kept under control.

The virtues opposed to lust are chastity, modesty and purity. In order to master the sexual passion, it is necessary to control one’s thoughts. But there can be no control of the mind without constant discipline of the senses, especially the eyes.

  • Avarice is the disorderly love of material possessions. Greed is extreme avarice. We need material things in order to serve God in this world of space and time. But the world is so attractive and its pleasures so seductive, that our fallen nature wants to acquire far beyond what we need. Avarice is the desire to accumulate, which has become an addiction.

The virtues opposed to avarice are generosity and kindness. Avarice must be controlled by an interior detachment from worldly possessions. Daily reflection on the passing nature of everything in this life is necessary to free one’s heart from sinful attachment to material things.

  • Envy is the sadness felt when another person has something which is considered detrimental to one’s own reputation or self-esteem. Envy is a deeply interior urge that demands careful watchfulness.

The virtues opposed to envy are gratitude and charity. The surest remedy, with God’s help, is the practice of selfless charity.

  • Anger, as a sinful tendency, is the inordinate desire to remove obstacles or difficulties that stand in our way. Anger can be sinless, and even virtuous, as when Moses was angry with the rebellious Israelites, and Jesus was angry with the money-changers in the temple.

What makes anger sinful is either the cause of the anger or its intensity or duration. It is righteous indignation when there is a justified reason for becoming angry, and the intensity or duration is kept under reasonable control.

The virtues opposed to anger are meekness, patience, serenity, kindness and gentleness. The virtue of meekness moderates anger and its disorderly effects. Meekness is a form of temperance, and it is closely related to the virtue of courage (bravery in facing difficulties, and especially in overcoming fear of the consequences for doing good). Both have to do with controlling one’s emotions so that the emotions can be used in a way that pleases God.

One of the surest ways to control one’s temper is to develop the habit of patient thoughts. Keeping one’s mind off things which annoy or irritate us is necessary if we are to acquire the habit of patience.

  • Gluttony is an unreasonable desire for food or drink. As with the other capital sins, it is not the desire that is wrong, but that it gets out of control.

The virtues opposed to gluttony are temperance and fortitude. Mortification of one’s appetite is a proven way of mastering the urge to gluttony. This means not only controlling the amount of food and drink to reasonable limits, but also avoiding self-indulgence in taste and extravagance. There is such a thing as luxury in food and drink that a follower of Christ should mortify. Moreover, abstinence may be necessary, especially in the use of alcohol or other addictive satisfaction of the palate.

  • Sloth is the desire for ease, even at the expense of doing the known will of God. Whatever we do in life requires effort. Everything we do is to be a means of salvation. The slothful person is unwilling to do what God wants because of the effort it takes to do it. There is such a thing as weariness in well-doing. Sloth becomes a sin when it slows down and even brings to a halt the energy we must expend in using the means to salvation. Sloth is mainly psychological.

Sloth and laziness are not the same thing as fatigue. We need a break and relaxation from work. But we give in to sloth when we are unwilling to pay the price of exertion in doing what reason and faith tell us God wants us to do.

The virtues opposed to sloth are perseverance, zeal, diligence and obedience. Remedies for sloth are frequent reflections on the harm it causes, by developing the habits of punctuality, prudent planning, and meditation on divine justice in rewarding human effort and punishing laziness in the service of God.

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