1704 The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection "in seeking and loving what is true and good."7
As with last week’s Monday post, Paragraph 1704 of the Catechism continues to draw from the Council’s Gaudium et Spes to develop a “moral anthropology,” so to speak, or a description of the human species that explains the human capacity to do good and avoid evil. Footnote 7 cites GS para. 15 in its assertion that man, by the very nature of his creation, can participate in the light and power of the divine spirit with two capacities: natural reasoning enables a person to understand the correct ordering of things as established by God; the natural will, the power to judge and decide, can prompt a human toward his or her true good.
GS heaps generous praise upon the achievements of the human species. Gaudium et Spes is addressed to all mankind; it is not an in-church instruction, so it can afford to be generous. It cites modern achievements in empirical sciences, technology, and liberal arts. It is safe to assume that GS is including scientists and thinkers outside the Catholic fold, because the heart of the argument is the universality of the human capacity to know and will greatness. GS goes on to say that mankind “has always looked for, and found, truths of a higher order.” This is consistent with the Aristotle-St. Thomas Aquinas grand medieval synthesis of all knowledge ending with the beatific vision.
GS refers to the summit of learning and investigation as “wisdom,” where “the intellectual nature of man at last finds its perfection as it should….” The Vatican II document declares that “filled with wisdom, man is led through visible realities to those which cannot be seen.” Again, the medieval synthesis is in play, whereby visible observation of the natural order proceeds seamlessly to the invisible metaphysical classifications of species and the ultimate reality of a real yet undescribed First Cause, as Aristotle would have put it, or an all-powerful and loving God, as Aquinas asserts.
My goal here this morning is not to bury you in erudition, but to follow up on the dual teachings of the Council and the Catechism on the magnificence of the human species in its capacity to grasp essential truth and its ability to love. Morality cannot be discussed without some idea of what the human species is capable of, nor can it be taught without reaching the dual faculties of seeking (intellect) and loving (will). I would suggest that a flaw in catechetics is the compartmentalizing of “moral information” or principles from the broader human experience of seeking truth and acting in tandem with that truth.
Since GS respects the competence of the empirical sciences, how does para. 1704 of the Catechism and Gaudium et Spes itself stand up to empirical critique? Is it even possible to scientifically correlate intellectual growth and virtue? In my own graduate moral studies (1971-74) one of the most influential figures of the time was not a churchman but an American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987). Kohlberg was a prisoner of war in Cypress during World War II but eventually returned to the United States to pick up his advanced degrees in psychology. When it came time for him to select a thesis topic at the University of Chicago, he submitted the topic of “moral judgment.” This was an extremely unusual concentration for any major university, religious or secular. In fact, the last significant work on moral development dated back to Jean Piaget a quarter-century earlier.
Kohlberg’s work was not immediately accepted. The psychology field was dominated by Freud’s theory that human behavior is determined by outside forces (the “Super Ego”) or by B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist system of punishment and rewards. For Freud and Skinner, moral determinations were reactions to outside forces. Kohlberg, by contrast, believed that moral formation generated inside the human’s experiences and correlated to intellectual maturity. His target audience was the U.S. public school audience, though one cannot help being struck by parallels to Gaudium et Spes, which appeared at roughly the same time as Kohlberg’s first books appeared.
Those who know little of Kohlberg may remember his “six stages of moral development” and the novel method of testing applied. Kohlberg created moral dilemma stories for his subjects (72 all male lower and middle-class boys); the most famous: “would be permissible for a poor man to steal medicine for his dying wife?” The children’s responses became the basis of his six-stage theory of moral development, but Kohlberg was more interested in why they had given their answer than in an objectively correct right-or-wrong answer. (The “dying wife” scenario does allow for multiple considerations.)
Kohlberg observed that some of his subjects chose not to steal the medicine to avoid punishment, and others did so to gain something in the process. These are his steps one and two. Others posited their answers to gain the approval of others (stage 3) or to maintain a respect for law and order (stage 4). In my school days, stage four was called “The Archie Bunker” stage, after the TV blue collar character who decried the disorder of the Viet Nam War and Civil Rights protests. The most advanced subjects provided rationales of respect for laws and moral rules (stage five) and abstract principles of justice and equality (stage 6). Kohlberg believed that achievement of stage 6 was unusual.
Kohlberg devoted much of his working life to integrating the ideas of morality and social/intellectual development. He believed in using biographies of famous and virtuous men such as Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He understood that the young needed provisional instruction in making basic choices upon which to develop the cognitive tools for appropriate moral decision making. In 1981 the Methodist theologian James Fowler attempted to elaborate the process of internal moral decision making based upon the theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erik Ericson, but in my Amazon review of Fowler I found his approach and case study much harder to discern than Kohlberg’s.
It is important to note for Catholic readers that Kohlberg’s theory came under fire by another theorist, Carol Gilligan, who achieved fame in 1982 with her In a Different Voice (1982). She observed that Kohlberg had only tested boys, and that feminine conceptual development takes different forms from the male. For much of my lifetime Catholic moral theorizing has been conducted by clergy, particularly in seminary settings. Today much of Catholic moral theology is undertaken by women, religious and lay, in the relatively diverse settings of Catholic, Protestant, and secular universities. The feminine impact upon Catholic academia, including moral theology, should be interesting to behold as we progress through the next decades.