Virtues in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas

By O'Meara, Thomas F. | Theological Studies, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Virtues in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas


O'Meara, Thomas F., Theological Studies


Recent years have seen the publication of studies advocating an orientation for Christian ethics based upon virtue. Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul J. Wadell, Jean Porter, Daniel Mark Nelson, and others are associated with this approach.(1) To many who had known and experienced Roman Catholic moral theology in the decades before Vatican II, this invitation to a restoration of virtue ethics, when it first appeared, was somewhat unexpected and surprising. Some Catholic schools and religious orders had been sustaining theologies of virtues for one or more centuries, and those approaches had continued up through the 1950s. Also a few Catholic moral theologians during the middle third of the 20th century had been developing new approaches (distinct from forms of neo-Scholasticism) in which virtue had an important role and which expanded ethics' horizons through modern biblical studies, Christology, and theories of personality and social analysis.

During the past years some Protestant ethicians have found an ethics of virtue attractive. Why.? Perhaps because it seemed to be original and yet had a venerable pedigree; it was formal but not legalistic, human but not transcendental. An ethics of virtue, unlike approaches based on natural law, can suggest biblical words. However, in arguing for the value of virtues, often as a reaction to the recent history of secular liberal or Protestant ethics, some new advocates of an ethics of virtue have largely ignored the distinct and diverse history of Catholic moral theology which century after century had included not a few theologies centered on virtue.

Some advocates of virtue ethics adopted the posture of discovery and originality. But for Catholics this discovery occurred as the ethics of virtue was completing a cycle of influence within Catholic moral theology; any claim of a restoration of an ethics of virtues overlooks the many presentations on virtues in Catholic moral theology from 1860 to 1960 (or from 1560 to 1860) in numerous neo-Scholastic journals and multivolume moral treatises. If influential Catholic moral theology texts such as those by Arthur Vermeersch, Heribert Jone, and Aloysius Sabetti took an approach drawn from the commandments, nevertheless not only manuals but also catechisms and devotional books often treated virtues. Recent summonses to an Aristotelian-Scholastic ethics have been accompanied at times by a monitory tone: modernity is evil, and Catholicism is slipping into a modem abyss by setting aside its Baroque seminary form of moral theology. For enthusiasts of these ethics of virtue it must have been disappointing that the wide world of Roman Catholicism did not join immediately and universally in this renewed discussion of virtues. But that could hardly have been expected: something from the past can be represented in a new form, but the course of history never repeats itself, nor does it go backwards.(2)

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas were understandably summoned to be the advocates and sources of an ethics drawn from virtues. For me, as an outsider to the field of ethics, my long Thomistic education within the Dominican Order raises questions about this rehabilitation of an ethics of virtue in the name of Aquinas. Should a teaching on virtues be extracted from Aquinas's commentaries on philosophical texts or from blocks of philosophy situated within his theological works? Was Aquinas's theology in its principles and focus actually centered on the virtues? What lies at the heart of new virtue-based approaches? Is it Aristotle, Aquinas, neo-Thomism, neo-Aristotelianism? What is the relationship of recent interpretations of virtues to the venerable schools of moral theology such as the school of Alphonsus Liguori or a centuries old tradition of Thomist interpretation like the Dominican school?

Some contemporary ethicians and philosophers cite Aquinas without seeing if his theology supports their interpretation. …

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