Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Theological Quagmire: The Order of Charity

In my Thomistic Thought class Monday we dealt with the topic of order in charity. It appears as Question 26 of the 'Second Part' of the 'Second Part' of the Summa Theologica. Doesn't sound like an explosive topic until you realize what it covers.

Who ought I to love most?

The word at stake is charity, of course. So the question should actually read, "Who ought I to charity most?" Charity is not the same thing as love, according to Thomas' terminology. To love is to be attracted to the good in something. Charity is fellowship with God in eternal happiness, he says. Charity is infused, and is the enjoyment of God already. One does not really charity at all, in other words; it's more true to say that God charities through us.

In q. 26 Thomas deals with the very interesting, but - to paraphrase my wife - superfluous, questions 'ought I to love father more than mother?', 'parents more than wife?', 'parents more than children?' I put the questions in this format so I could simply tell you that the answer to each of these questions is, according to Thomas, 'yes.'

Father more than Mother

No one erupted or expostulated at all vehemently. But their minds must have been running - despite it being Monday. I could tell by the look on one person's face that she did not agree with the father/mother thing. I didn't either. Another student - again, female - disagreed with my disagreement with Thomas.

I spent most of the class explaining Thomas. That's what I get paid to do, after all. I tried out a new theory on the class, since I could never make sense of his answers that seemed so counter-intuitive to me.

My theory is this. The fundamental distinction to bear in mind is that between love and charity. Love is a flexible thing because it only concerns specific goods. Charity is not flexible, and thus it does not depend who your father, mother, spouse, etc., are specifically, because it is God's love loving through the strict essence of the relations in question. The relations have theological significance, because they are modelled on the only real, substantial relations of the Blessed Trinity. Thus, it seems to me that Thomas is saying that the way 'father' relates to God's inner-Trinitarian relations means that he is charitied above 'mother,' - not this mother or that mother, this father or that father, but father and mother per se. This means that 'mother' per se is a less direct signifier of these inner-Trinitarian relations. I believer that Thomas is here picking up on Augustine's rejection of 'mother' as best term for God because it connotes a material relationship more so than father does.

Now, I endorse most of the above paragraph, but I still end on a big fat "no, that's not good enough of an explanation for why we should charity father more than mother." I endorse the fact that 'father' is the better term for God than 'mother'; also, that it would not be fitting were Christ to incarnate Himself as a woman. Nevertheless, I hardly have a good philosophical justification for either. I have a good theological one: the Catholic Tradition says so, but as a committed scholar I don't want to leave it at that.

Thomas' explanation is weak in light of modern biology. He indicates that the reason for the greater charity owed father is that the father is the active principle of our specific creation, whereas the mother is the passive. This is just not true in any other system than the Aristotelian. The Wojtylan solution to this problem is more promising but, alas, weak too, supplanting 'passive / active' with 'giving / receiving.' Unless one were to tie the sex act into some base material reductivism of the giving of the seed as the gift, you have to recognize that there is no giving in the man's spiritual contribution that is not equalled by the woman's. So, would you like to reduce the spiritual significance of sex to the transference of the seed? I should hope not! Now, admittedly, I am no expert on Theology of the Body (nor on Thomism), so if I have missed something, I am open to correction - as you know I always am...

Spouse more than Children

Thomas' answer to this one would prove less controversial, because children don't read the Summa (or blogs not about Justin Bieber). Perhaps treating of it for a moment will help to throw light on the above quandary.

Some would think this hierarchy common sense, others not. Biology tells us we should prefer our progeny. Theology - at least of more recent vintage - the spouse. Most fathers I have polled said they would in the old who dies scenario say the wife dies. I have a feeling that wives are less clear on this one, believe it or not. They hesitate to give an answer. Fathers do not. In other words, wives do not hesitate that spouses are to be charitied more than children; husbands here waiver.

Thomas doesn't address this question directly. He is more concerned with the father (strangely, since his own father hardly seemed like a model of fathers, although the info. on this is limited). Fathers more than spouses, fathers more than children. But what of the two losing groups? My guess is that he would say that theologically children should be charitied more, although wives are usually liked (amore, passion) more. Here we are weighing off one sense of the man loving his own body (really, his own self) against another sense of this. He charities his children like his own body because they come from him; he charities his spouse because of the sexual, nuptial union which makes her a part of himself. These are both Trinitarian unions, and so authentic instances of charity. The question is, which signified the Trinity more strongly? He tells us that we ought to charity more the things closer to us - so which is closer? Biologically, the child, and he gives some attention to this. He doesn't fill in the blank, but I would be very surprised were to think enough about the nature of the marital bond for it to signify a powerful theological force in his imagination. On the other hand, having Augustine to draw upon he realizes that the goods of marriage are spiritual. He never accounts for the spiritual goods of parenthood, it seems to me. In fact, it would be funny were he to actually think at all of sexual bond as the bond of marriage other than in abstract, which he seems to be doing here in q. 26. But maybe I am wrong to understand his thinking about the two-becoming-one as if he is thinking sexually or even primarily sexually? It seems suggested by the fact that he is contrasting it with other spiritual relationships, and it is the one thing that essentially distinguishes it from these.

Tentative Conclusion

Just had an interesting conversation with a student, this time a male - they weren't all asleep. What came out was that in the difference between mother and father as object of charity it might be good to understand their difference in terms of the efficacy of their positions as icons of God. In this sense, since father per se is a better image of God than mother, a better revelation of God in and of itself, it is not that the father is being loved more, it is that by contemplating father per se God is better known (usually or potentially).

1 comment:

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