Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Recovery of Aquinas's Action Theory: A Reply to William Murphy

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Recovery of Aquinas's Action Theory: A Reply to William Murphy

Article excerpt

IN A RECENT ARTICLE published in Theological Studies, William Murphy pleaded for renewing a conversation among moral theologians in order to overcome a certain "schism" that has taken place in that discipline after Vatican II. (1) He further suggests that it may be an apt time to revisit the issue of contraception because of recent developments [that] include strong challenges to both revisionist and what might be called "traditionally naturalistic" or "physicalist" moral theories, the contemporary recovery of Thomistic ethics, the related retrieval of virtue theory, and the vigorous renewal of Thomistic action theory in the wake of John Paul II's 1993 encyclical, Veritatis splendor (VS). (2)

I cannot here address all the ideas in Murphy's lengthy article, but this is not so crucial because, as Murphy himself states, "the first section summarizes some key principles of Thomistic action theory on which the subsequent analysis depends" (815). Furthermore, even though the title of the article gives the impression that the entire argument will be based on "the Renewal of Thomistic Virtue Ethics," when one reads Murphy's third section on "A Virtue Approach to Contraception," one finds a brief text that in fact admits to having its foundation not in Aquinas's concept of virtue but in "a richer articulation of the virtue of chastity in light of additional insights into the truth of marriage and sexuality" (837 n. 62) that are based on the writings of John Paul II. (3)

In essence, I agree with Murphy that "the postconciliar debate regarding contraception is inseparable from the corresponding one in fundamental moral theology, especially regarding the philosophy of moral action" (818). However, although Murphy states that "an assessment of contemporary developments in Thomistic action theory is beyond the scope of [his] essay," there is no doubt that his entire theory stands or falls on the presumption that there exists "a contemporary retrieval/recovery of Thomistic ethics" (813). After discussing this claim in his first section (818-26), he returns to it throughout the article. (4)


As Murphy himself points out, the traditional rejection of contraception, regardless of motive, was based on the presumption that preventing sperm from reaching its natural destination was, in and of itself, morally evil. (5) Although Murphy concedes that this approach "reflects important truths about human sexuality," he still considers such an argument to be "deficient" (817). Whether or not this approach remains a part of the teaching of Humanae vitae (hereafter HV) remains a moot point. (6) More important is the issue of whether methods of avoiding conception that have nothing to do with interference with the physical act of intercourse (insemination) are morally licit. For, while HV no. 14 teaches that "every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is illicit, it remains ambiguous how this pronouncement would include the use of the anovulant pill as a form of regulating fertility. (7)

One way to respond to this challenge is to invoke the novels teaching of HV no. 12 on what has come to be known as the "inseparability principle." (9) But this leaves unanswered the question about how the material act of taking a pill to delay or suppress ovulation constitutes an act of contraception. (10) Murphy clearly recognizes that the consideration of the "natural teleology" (817, 820, 835, 836) of the sexual act is insufficient to respond to this challenge, and that an alternative approach is needed to cover every manner of avoiding conception following marital intercourse.

To create a response to this challenge, following Martin Rhonheimer, (11) Murphy (820) draws our attention to VS no. 78:

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the "object" rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas [note 126 here refers to ST 1-2, q. …

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