“One of the most common errors concerning conscience involves taking a half-truth (that conscience must be followed) without explaining what conscience is, or why it needs to be formed.
Pope John Paul II warned against precisely this kind of distortion: “To claim that one has a right to act according to conscience, but without at the same time acknowledging the duty to conform one’s conscience to the truth and to the law which God himself has written on our hearts, in the end means nothing more than imposing one’s limited personal opinion.”
So how do we avoid falling into that kind of distorted understanding of conscience? By ensuring that our consciences are properly formed. This is not an option, but a moral duty for all humans:
“Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings (CCC 1783).”
One reason conscience is at such risk of corruption is that we tend to contemplate actions that we want to do (or else, that we feel we ought to do, but are looking for excuses not to do). We’re not neutral, which is why it’s so easy for us to corrupt our consciences by (for instance) rationalizing our actions or creating one standard for ourselves and another for everyone else.
The world may say to “follow your heart” in such matters, but the Bible takes a more realistic view: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Recognizing this, and the need for a neutral, outside authority, is the first step. But it’s only the beginning. As the Catechism points out, “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (1784). It means much more than simply reading Church documents to find out official Catholic teaching (although that can be an important part of it). It begins with parents attending to the “moral education” and “spiritual formation” of their children (CCC 2221) and includes every means by which we strive to grow in virtue.
In this process, we are “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (CCC 1785). When we find our own inclinations pointing in one direction, and Church teaching pointing in the opposite, it can be helpful to ask: which of us is more likely to be correct? The Church, which was promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with two thousand years of lived experience? Or me, the individual with an obvious bias in the situation at hand?
But our ultimate teacher in this area is not our parents, or even Church authorities, but God Himself. Proper formation of conscience cannot happen apart from a life of prayer, since “in the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path” and “we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (CCC 1785).”
“When he was yet Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI delivered four homilies using passages from the book of Genesis as points of departure. These later became a book: “In the Beginning”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.
The book gets to the heart of the matter. “In our own lives,” Benedict declares, “each one of us must answer, whether he or she wants to or not, the question about being human.”
Even after God came down from heaven and gave us the answer, we continue in no small number to cast about for an explanation of why we are here. Indeed, the assertions by nihilist historians such as Yuval Noah Harari—that all the meanings we attach to life are delusions—are evidence that the question will never go away.
Whereas the Socratics and the Scholastics would have contemplated the question with quiet serenity, we pursue it with anxiety, created and exacerbated by the ubiquity of screens. In screens so many of us search, and search, and search, without even realizing that it is meaning we’re searching for. How enervating a search, and how hopeless!
Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, knew where to locate our meaning, and he devoted his priesthood to directing and redirecting our focus there. He pointed us to the complementary realities for which man was made, the two experiences necessary for living a full life: divine worship and human friendship. As he insisted in his brilliant Spirit of the Liturgy, we must get the former right to get the latter right: “It is only when man’s relationship with God is right that all of his other relationships—his relationships with his fellow men, his dealings with the rest of creation—can be in good order.”
Where, how, does man put his relationship with God in good order? It is in the same place—the same experience—where he locates his meaning: in the liturgy.
Pope Benedict knew that we, in the post-conciliar age, had lost our sense of this truth. In his 1985 interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, called our attention to “the post-conciliar [liturgical] pluralism,” noting that it was strange that it had “created uniformity in one respect at least: it will not tolerate a high standard of expression.”
It would be reductionist to understand this observation merely as the future pope seeking to rescue the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from banal sanctuaries, insipid music, the innovations of narcissistic liturgists, and the extemporizing of bored priests. As his papacy would show, through his profound theological reflections on liturgy—ever rooted in his extraordinary grasp of Scripture, his command of classical languages, and his understanding of the anthropology of ritual sacrifice—and through his restoration and promotion of the traditional Latin Mass—Pope Benedict understood and wanted the faithful to understand that man is most himself participating in the liturgy, because it is in the liturgy that, on this side of the veil, man is most united—heart to heart—with God. So sacred an encounter, by virtue of the gravity and sublimity of its nature, must be elevated in its forms and expressions above all other human activity.
This word, participating, confounds us because we think Christianity is a religion of doing rather than being. What is meant by participation, or even “active participation”—participatio actuosa, as the Second Vatican Council puts it? “Unfortunately, the word,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “was very quickly misunderstood to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible should be visibly engaged in action.” Visit today a parish where even the most reverent Mass of Paul VI—what Benedict called the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite—is offered, and witness, for example, the collective arm-raising during the prayer “We lift them up the Lord” . . . even if it’s rendered “Habemus ad Dominum.” You will see what is not participation, but, in fact, a distraction from what Cardinal Ratzinger identified as the actio divina.
What should the faithful be doing at Mass, then, if not opening their arms or calling out responses or looking for work in the sanctuary? “The real action in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate,” Benedict wrote, “is the action of God Himself.” In the “oratio, the priest speaks with the I of the Lord—‘this is My body,’ ‘this is My blood.’” At this moment, Benedict asks us, “are not God and man completely incommensurable? Can man, the finite and sinful one, cooperate with God, the Infinite and Holy One?” The answer is yes, and it is this cooperation that the Church intends when calling for our participation in the liturgy—not a participation of moving and speaking, but rather the participation that comes from cooperating in mind and spirit with what is happening on the altar. This requires the active engagement not of our arms, but rather, as the rite says, of our hearts. That engagement can be given silently, and no less ardently for the silence. Perhaps it should.
This participation, which becomes a constant living in the presence of God, informs and transforms all our other relationships, all our friendships. The Christian who leads such an integrated life, one that begins with participation in a rightly ordered liturgy, becomes another St. Andrew, bringing his brother to Christ.
In 2007, on the Feast of St. Andrew, Pope Benedict XVI published his second encyclical, Spe Salvi. “In hope we are saved,” it begins, quoting St. Paul to the Romans. This salvation, Benedict continues, citing the patristic studies of Henri de Lubac, “has always been considered a ‘social’ reality.” Real life, the pope declares, can be attained only within the context of “we.” The “individual,” an impossible concept conceived by Enlightenment philosophers, and one that their less imaginative heirs today keep attempting to foist on us, makes no sense to the Christian.
In marriages, in families, in associations and friendships and religious orders, we are not individuals, but a communion of persons. The Trinity—the God in Whose image we are made—is a communion of persons. Our road back from the hopelessness of an atomized society of screens to true friendships is true liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI pointed the way—and will continue to.”
Amen. I am in a desert wasteland of liturgy. The ancient Greek philosophers began with the question “What is the life well lived?” The question remains to each person who dares live it as weighty and profound and pressing as ever.
“To make sense of what the Catholic Church teaches about the importance of conscience, it’s important to know what “conscience” really is, because the term is often used in popular culture in inaccurate and misleading ways.
One way we misunderstand conscience is by thinking of it as a set of emotions, reducing it to “feeling good about doing the right thing” or (especially) “feeling bad about doing the wrong thing.” For instance, it’s become commonplace to say that psychopaths are “without conscience,” but this is untrue. They may lack empathy or emotion or remorse for their actions, but what they don’t lack is conscience, properly understood. Conscience may cause you to regret something, but “conscience” and “regret” aren’t the same thing.
What does this get wrong? As the Catechism explains, “conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (1778). The Catechism continues with a quotation from St. John Henry Newman, who describes conscience as “a law of the mind.” That is, conscience isn’t primarily a matter of feelings; rather, it’s about forming proper judgments about the morality (or immorality) of a particular course of action.
Conscience has a trifold role. It “includes the perception of the principles of morality,” “their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods,” and finally “judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed” (CCC 1780). So conscience tells you (1) that you shouldn’t steal; (2) that taking your neighbor’s lawnmower is stealing, and therefore wrong; and (3) that you should feel guilty for having taken your neighbor’s lawnmower.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, drawing upon philosophers from Plato to Aquinas, describes this first level of conscience as “something like an original memory of the good and true,” saying that we find a “tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, man’s being resonates with some things and clashes with others.” Professor J. Budziszewski calls these the “truths that we can’t not know.” It’s why a non-Christian, and even a non-believer, can’t escape the realization that things like theft and murder are evils . . . even if they can’t explain why they know these things. C.S. Lewis calls these “basic moral intuitions” and says, “If there can be a difference of opinion which does not reveal one of the parties as a moral idiot, then it is not an intuition.” These are the most basic building blocks of morality. They are not arguable because there are no more basic principles than these to point back to.
The second level of conscience applies these general principles. Budziszewski explains,
At a certain stage of mental development, when the teacher says, “Johnnie, two plus two is four,” Johnnie can see for himself that two plus two is four; otherwise the words would be meaningless to him. At a certain stage of development, when Mother says, “Johnnie! Stop pulling your sister’s hair! How would you like it if someone pulled your hair?” Johnnie can see for himself that he should not treat another person as he would not wish to be treated himself; otherwise the command would seem arbitrary to him. Such knowledge can’t be simply pumped in. There has to be soil, or the seed cannot take root.
In this second stage, conscience takes basic moral principles (e.g., I shouldn’t do evil) and applies them to practical situations (e.g., if I wouldn’t want someone to pull my hair, it’s probably evil to pull my sister’s hair).
This leads to the third role of conscience: forming a judgment about the concrete act (e.g., pulling my sister’s hair is evil, so I shouldn’t do it). It’s here that conscience has a connection to emotions like regret, which is why we can talk about the “pang of conscience.” It’s not just regret, either: it’s here that the conscience “‘warns,’ ‘advises,’ ‘urges,’ or ‘prohibits’” regarding actions we have not taken yet, or (if we have already begun to act) it may “examine a judgment of action, intervene, stop its accomplishment,” or cause us to reconsider.
By means of these three roles, “conscience is the way that moral knowledge becomes immediately practical again.” That is, conscience uses these three steps to get from “do good and avoid evil” to “do this good and avoid that evil.” And it’s about conscience understood in this way that the Church has some shocking things to say.”
“There are countless things we do not know—and probably cannot know, in this life, anyway. Fortunately, there are many things we do know, or at least can know, with certainty or high probability. And so the Flashlight Principle says to use what is clear to shine light on what is unclear . . . and always to separate the clear from the unclear.
Here are some things I believe we can know either with certainty or high probability.
-That we can know things. If we couldn’t, then how do you know the meaning of these terms?
-That God exists. Reason forces us toward some ultimate explanation that escapes all categories of things requiring a cause outside themselves—and this, as so many philosophers have claimed, we call God: the pure actuality, utterly simple, transcendent absolute. Otherwise, there would be no sufficient condition for being.
-That murder is wrong.
We can also know that something is the case without knowing why or how. For example, I can know that my wife Christine loves me without knowing how or why. The “why” especially seems especially mysterious sometimes! However, my lack of knowing the “how” or “why” does not cause a single doubt of “the fact that” my wife Christine loves me, given all the evidence I have. She sacrifices for me, has married me, has given birth to our children, and constantly expresses her affection in myriad other ways, like slow-roasting cashews in the oven for me.
Of course, questions of any curious and intelligent person might be raised in the form that indicates not just a question but an objection. What I am going to suggest is the Flashlight Principle can help us avoid questions turning into objections or reasons for doubt.
If it is true that we can know that God exists, and that God is perfectly good and wise, then we can know that God has good (in fact, the best) reasons for doing anything, even if we have no idea what those reasons are. This is the Flashlight Principle at work. In this case, it prevents a question from turning into an objection because it uses what is clear to reason to illumine (or at least defuse) what is unclear to reason; it allows what might otherwise be perceived as a difficulty to be, at worst, a mystery. (Ed. “mystery”, in the Catholic definition, is not something that is unknowable, rather infinitely knowable.) In other words, by what we already know (that God exists and is perfectly wise), we can see (by reason) that God has good reasons for creating humans how and when he did, and what ever else He does, even if we have no idea what those reasons are.
Philosophers have long claimed that the concept of beings who have to be caused by something logically implies the existence of a necessary thing causing those beings. You can get the divine attributes from there. This is using reason to gain clarity: although many things in life are mysterious, at least some things, including God’s existence, can be known with great logical force.
That’s a mere summary, but it does share in a venerable tradition among the greatest minds ever to live, including Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, Leibniz, Clarke, and other philosophers today. You can see how many intellectual titans in the history of humanity thought not only that it is reasonable to believe in God, but also that God’s existence is logically entailed by the existence of anything. God’s existence, then, is not purely a matter of faith, but something many philosophers, then and now, consider a truth reachable by a consistent application of reason to common experience.
So it’s not necessary to doubt the existence of God just because you don’t know why he did something a certain way. To ask, “Why did God wait so long to create humanity?” is, in one sense, a perfectly good question, but in another sense, it reveals a misunderstanding of how to think about God.
For one thing, God is eternal. So there was no “waiting” on God’s part. All moments of creation are simultaneous to God in His eternity, (Ed. We say God lives in his eternal now. God transcends, exists outside of the time-space He created. So many prominent atheists, i.e. the late Stephen Hawking, Ricky Gervais, etc., display their ignorance when they stake their atheism that God is not in the universe. Of course, He’s not. A creating being, by necessity, must be, not even “exist”, for to use the word exist is to imply non-existence, or non-being, must be outside His creation, not within it! God is sine qua non.) so it is not as if God required an enormous amount of patience to get around to something more interesting. Also, it is not as if any of us had to wait, since (presumably) none of us existed until we were conceived—so who cares how much time predates us?
Whatever God’s reasons are for guiding our universe along its evolutionary timeline are probably not only something we cannot know (unless God tells us), but also something we should not expect to know. We are only one small (though extremely important) part of creation. So we should not expect to see such things, as seeing them would require a God’s-eye view. But keep this in mind: just because we do not see God’s reasons for why He created exactly as He did, that does not mean we see that God does not have reasons—let alone good reasons—for doing so. In fact, if we can see that God exists and has certain attributes (perfect wisdom, justice, and so on), then it is entailed that God does have reasons for creating the way He did—and good ones!
This is the Flashlight Principle at play: using what is clear to shine light on what is unclear, and not allowing questions to turn into (irrational) doubt.
By keeping the Flashlight in hand, we can pursue questions from a position of confidence rather than anxiety, fretting that an undesirable answer may turn up—or even no answer at all. Further, the Flashlight Principle encourages humility and intellectual exploration. It hinges upon us being able to know at least some things, including some important things, like God’s existence, through reason alone (Ed. as did the ancient philosophers) . . . but also, we cannot know everything, nor should we expect to.
In other words, life will always have its mysteries, and that’s okay. With the Flashlight Principle, these mysteries can be sources for intellectual and spiritual growth rather than confusion or despair.
So keep that Flashlight handy and well charged. Darkness is less intimidating with a source of light.”
“Henry P. Stapp is a theoretical physicist at the University of California–Berkeley who worked with some of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. He does not seek to prove that the soul exists, but he does say that the existence of the soul fits within the laws of physics.
It is not true to say belief in the soul is unscientific, according to Stapp. Here the word “soul” refers to a personality independent of the brain or the rest of the human body that can survive beyond death. In his paper, “Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory With Personality Survival,” he wrote: “Strong doubts about personality survival based solely on the belief that postmortem survival is incompatible with the laws of physics are unfounded.”
He works with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics—more or less the interpretation used by some of the founders of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Even Bohr and Heisenberg had some disagreements on how quantum mechanics works, and understandings of the theory since that time have also been diverse. Stapp’s paper on the Copenhagen interpretation has been influential. It was written in the 1970s and Heisenberg wrote an appendix for it.
Stapp noted of his own concepts: “There has been no hint in my previous descriptions (or conception) of this orthodox quantum mechanics of any notion of personality survival.”
Why Quantum Theory Could Hint at Life After Death
Stapp explains that the founders of quantum theory required scientists to essentially cut the world into two parts. Above the cut, classical mathematics could describe the physical processes empirically experienced. Below the cut, quantum mathematics describes a realm “which does not entail complete physical determinism.”
Of this realm below the cut, Stapp wrote: “One generally finds that the evolved state of the system below the cut cannot be matched to any conceivable classical description of the properties visible to observers.”
So how do scientists observe the invisible? They choose particular properties of the quantum system and set up apparatus to view their effects on the physical processes “above the cut.”
The key is the experimenter’s choice. When working with the quantum system, the observer’s choice has been shown to physically impact what manifests and can be observed above the cut.
Stapp cited Bohr’s analogy for this interaction between a scientist and his experiment results: “[It’s like] a blind man with a cane: when the cane is held loosely, the boundary between the person and the external world is the divide between hand and cane; but when held tightly the cane becomes part of the probing self: the person feels that he himself extends to the tip of the cane.”
The physical and mental are connected in a dynamic way. In terms of the relationship between mind and brain, it seems the observer can hold in place a chosen brain activity that would otherwise be fleeting. This is a choice similar to the choice a scientist makes when deciding which properties of the quantum system to study.
The quantum explanation of how the mind and brain can be separate or different, yet connected by the laws of physics “is a welcome revelation,” wrote Stapp. “It solves a problem that has plagued both science and philosophy for centuries—the imagined science-mandated need either to equate mind with brain, or to make the brain dynamically independent of the mind.”
Stapp said it is not contrary to the laws of physics that the personality of a dead person may attach itself to a living person, as in the case of so-called spirit possession. It wouldn’t require any basic change in orthodox theory, though it would “require a relaxing of the idea that physical and mental events occur only when paired together.”
Classical physical theory can only evade the problem, and classical physicists can only work to discredit intuition as a product of human confusion, said Stapp. Science should instead, he said, recognize “the physical effects of consciousness as a physical problem that needs to be answered in dynamical terms.”
How This Understanding Affects the Moral Fabric of Society
Furthermore, it is imperative for maintaining human morality to consider people as more than just machines of flesh and blood.
In another paper, titled “Attention, Intention, and Will in Quantum Physics,” Stapp wrote: “It has become now widely appreciated that assimilation by the general public of this ‘scientific’ view, according to which each human being is basically a mechanical robot, is likely to have a significant and corrosive impact on the moral fabric of society.”
He wrote of the “growing tendency of people to exonerate themselves by arguing that it is not ‘I’ who is at fault, but some mechanical process within: ‘my genes made me do it’; or ‘my high blood-sugar content made me do it.’ Recall the infamous ‘Twinkie Defense’ that got Dan White off with five years for murdering San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.”
“What is the difference between God’s causing something to be and my causing something to be? Francesco Silvestri, a.k.a. Ferrariensis (1474–1528), gives us some helpful tips to isolate these two main kinds of cause-and-effect—God’s causing something and a creature’s causing something.
There are a lot of different kinds of beings, and these beings don’t always have a lot in common. Sure, polar bears, ostriches, and earthworms are all animals, but how the moon or the wind or fire are all alike isn’t obvious. Furthermore, what about the kind of being that the act of scratching your head has? Or your posture? Certainly, actions and positions exist—sort of.
What absolutely everything has in common is that they all are, or they exist somehow, even though what that means in each case—for animals, actions, positions, colors, and anything else you can think of—can differ widely. Everything is alike insofar as everything has being. If something is not—it does not have being—then there’s nothing to talk about. It doesn’t share what everything else has, but it’s also not included in everything—it’s nothing (no + thing).
With this in mind, now consider what kind of cause God is. God produces things out of nothing. That means that by creating, he gives something existence—he gives something what it needs to be anything at all. He gives it being. No creature does this.
But suppose you, in your budding artistic practice, paint a canvas red to include in a museum of abstract art. You cause, not being, per se, but redness. Yet you would also seem to cause being; you cause the canvas to be red. And this should seem strange. God is absolutely the cause of being; but you also seem to be a cause of being. Is there a conflict?
Ferrariensis helps clarify how mere creatures cause being in a rather intriguing way. He explains that nothing at all can truly be separate from its being or its existence. Everything, insofar as it is anything, is. That is not to say that there is no distinction between what a thing is (essence) and its being (existence). But a thing’s essence relies on its existence at least in some way if you want to talk about anything at all.
Therefore, when you, a creature, cause a canvas to be red, there’s no way to understand your causing redness without your causing the redness to be. That is, you cause the canvas to be red. Otherwise, you would not cause anything at all. How could you cause redness in a canvas without causing the canvas to be red?
This does not mean that you, mere creature that you are, cause being out of your own resources—out of nothing. You really cause the canvas to be red, but that whole process of creaturely cause-and-effect depends on God’s causing the whole chain of causes to be at every moment.
Ferrariensis helps us to understand how we creatures cause being as a secondary effect. For you, the artist, redness is the primary effect of your painting, but being is a secondary effect, because by causing red in a canvas you cause the canvas to be red. But God causes all of it—you, your act of painting, the canvas, and the red in the canvas—to be absolutely. He holds everything in being: Being is God’s primary effect. And because you cannot cause something without causing it to be—being is a secondary effect of anything you cause—you depend on God to cause anything at all.
This means that at every moment and in everything we do, we depend fully on God to act. But it also means something very beautiful. We’re not like mere characters in a fictional book, who are not only dependent entirely on the author, but also do not have any real causality (unless you suspend disbelief). We creatures are real causes of our effects. We depend on God completely, but our actions are, in a very real way, our own.”
(Ed. it is helpful to go all the way back to Plato’s ideas of ‘forms’ first. The good father goes a little fast past primary definitions for the novice.)
Ipsum Esse Subsistens, Existence or Act of Existence Itself, subsistent of Itself or subsisting by Itself, i.e. God. God is being itself. God exists outside of time, i.e. transcendence. God is. God just is. (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 4, a. 2)
“Metaphysics is the [philosophical] study of the basic structure of reality. It is, in Aristotle’s words, the study of being as being, rather than the study of any particular being per se. Metaphysics is the framework by which we understand reality. We can’t avoid metaphysics — every act of understanding entails a metaphysical framework, a perspective. One might say that our metaphysical perspective is that by which we understand, contrasted to nature itself, which is that which we understand.
Our own metaphysical framework is often opaque to us. We use it, like we might use an intuitive political bias, without really examining the framework we are using. We each have a metaphysical bias — it’s unavoidable, and the important question is: does our bias lead us toward or away from the truth? Gaining metaphysical insight is not easy, but it pays big dividends. It helps us to know the truth — indeed, it is that by which we know the truth.
A Rigorous and Consistent System
St. Thomas Aquinas developed a rigorous and consistent system of metaphysics. He was the first Christian philosopher to insist that faith and reason, properly understood, are never in conflict. Belief in God is not contrary to knowledge of the natural world. St. Thomas’ doctrine was controversial in his day, but it was accepted by the Church in the centuries after his death, and it became the intellectual foundation of the modern world, including the cornerstone of modern science.
Ironically, the correspondence of faith and reason is controversial today, especially in the atheist community. The denial of the compatibility between faith and reason is a lynchpin of atheist arguments for naturalism: atheists insist that science tells us the real truth about the world, and faith in God is superstition. The Thomistic reply is that genuine faith and reason both point to the same truth. The Thomistic understanding of reason and its correspondence with faith offer a powerful reply to atheistic naturalism. For readers who are interested in metaphysics and in these modernist controversies, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at the principle that is the cornerstone of Thomistic metaphysics.
Essence and Existence
The cornerstone of Thomistic metaphysics is the doctrine of essence and existence. It is this: essence is absolutely distinct from existence. This doctrine, which St. Thomas was the first philosopher to assert unequivocally and demonstrate with rigor, has profound implications for our understanding of reality, of nature, of science and of God. What does St. Thomas mean in saying “essence is absolutely distinct from existence”?
First, definitions. Essence is that which makes something the sort of thing it is. It is, succinctly, all the characteristics that are knowable about something. The essence of a cat is everything about the cat that makes it a cat. Its cat-shape, it’s furriness, its meow, its animality, etc. Some things about the cat, things the cat may do or what may happen to it (projectile vomiting or be eaten) — are not parts of the essence of a cat. They are extraneous to it, although in rare circumstances, they may be true of it. You can see here where that modern notion of “essence” comes from. Essence is what’s important about something, what tells us what something really is. [ Ed. A cat is still a cat, maintains the “essence” of cat-ness, even when it is not projectile vomiting or being eaten. These question arise practically in artificial intelligence.]
And Now for Existence
Existence is that a thing is, rather than what a thing is.The existence of a thing is different from the essence of a thing. I can know the essence of a rock, but it is the rock’s existence by which I stub my toe. I can’t stub my toe on essence, no matter how hard it is.
Prior to St. Thomas, many philosophers considered existence to be a property of something, part of its essence, i.e. Plato. We might say that my cat Fluffy’s essence is that she is shaped like a cat, purrs and meows, likes to play with yarn, and exists.
An Utter Metaphysical Distinction
St. Thomas emphatically pointed out that existence is not, and cannot be, any part of essence.Existence and essence are metaphysically utterly distinct — existence is not a genus, in scholastic terms, but is above every genus. Existence is not a characteristic or property of a thing. It is something much more fundamental.
To understand what Aquinas is getting at, consider again my cat Fluffy. I will describe her to you: she is calico, weighs nine pounds, hates baths, purrs, says “meow” several times a day, is three years old, and is expecting kittens. If you want to know more about her, just ask. I can describe her in any degree of detail you would like.
Now tell me this: does she exist? I have given you her essence, to any level of detail you want, but the fact or fallacy of her existence is not knowable from knowing her essence. In fact, I don’t have a cat. I have a dog. But I can describe my cat completely, and you still can’t know if she really exists.
I can describe anything you like in whatever detail you like, but you can’t know whether it exists or not merely by its description. You can’t know existence merely by knowing essence…unicorns. Essence is not existence.[Ed. Essence meant here as a philosophical term is more than merely creative writing. We all know what an acorn is. That is its essence. That we know what an acorn is. Specific acorns exist, but that is not what we are talking about. We are not discussing a specific acorn when we are discussing or imagine acorns.] In modern terms, [unicorns mean] the Venn diagram of existence has no overlap with the Venn diagram of essence.
In Thomistic terms, in order for something in nature to exist, its existence must be joined to its essence.[Ed. Essence, in philosophical terms, is a reality outside the mind of any one or group of persons. We know there are planets in the galaxy, even if we cannot currently see them. We have an idea of what a planet is. The abstract philosophical construct of a planet would still exist even if there were no intelligent creatures to understand the essence of a planet. It merely requires an intelligent creature to discover the concept of philosophical essence. Essence was there in philosophical thought all along. When we discover a new planet its essence, the concept of planet, and its existence, the planet we found, coexist. It is the essence of planet that even impels us to look for such a thing as a planet, having not discovered the next actual planet we find.] In fact, that is what nature is: distinct essences joined to existence. Things that exist are composites of existence and essence, and existence and essence are really distinct things [philosophically].
So what does this matter? It seems too esoteric to have any relevance to anyone not in a cloister. But its relevance is profound and extends to many aspects of theology and science [i.e. artificial intelligence].”
“Domingo Báñez (1528-1604) was a feisty Basque Dominican Friar and a leading theologian of his era. He was part of the third generation of scholasticism’s Silver Age, centered around the University of Salamanca in Spain where he occupied the prestigious first chair of theology for nineteen years. His fierce intellect was often embroiled in theological controversy in an age when doctrine was a matter of life and death. He deployed his sometimes scathing prose—a departure from the usual academic reserve of the scholastics—in service to the adoration of God and the defense of Catholic teaching. He taught Saint John of Ávila, counseled King Phillip II, and was confessor and defender of Saint Teresa of Ávila.
Βáñez is best known for his leading role in the De auxiliis controversy concerning the grace of God. All Catholics agreed (and still agree) that we cannot be saved without God’s grace. Though we were broken by original sin, God deigns to dwell in our souls and raise us to new life. Our path to salvation has God as its first source at every step and in every good work. Unfortunately, some Protestants taught that there is no such thing as free will because God determines everything, and Catholics in the sixteenth century were divided on how to respond.
Some began to argue that God only gives grace to those whom He knows will make good use of it. Báñez, however, thought this theory was a disaster, worrying that it meant the ultimate reason for salvation was found, not in the mercy of God, but rather in the free choice of man. God would only be reacting to future human choices, instead of giving the grace to choose the good in the first place.
This touches upon many of the deepest and most difficult questions plumbed by man. What is free will? How does God relate to creatures? Why is there evil in our world? Báñez attacked these questions with the full force of the doctrine of the Master, Thomas Aquinas. He attended always to the authority of Scripture, the Fathers, and the Councils, particularly the writings of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. Báñez contended that the difference between a sinner and a saint is first of all the mercy of God. Yet God never takes away our free will. Rather, he gives us the grace to use it well.
This may sound rather pedantic, but for Báñez the whole Christian life was at stake. Referring to a passage of St. Augustine in which he found his position articulated, the Dominican writes:
“I say before God who judges me, that reading this in St. Augustine and citing him, it gives me great wonder that men who teach prayer and the spirit come to feel so feebly the movement of the grace of God. . . . Because even I, being a sinner as God knows and a man of little spirit and less prayer, but knowing that I am the work of his mercy and that each day he suffers me my ingratitude, reading these words of St. Augustine, have held back tears and, knowing my faults, have invoked the mercy of God that it may efficaciously carry me to him. May God give light to all so that with humility we may attribute to God what is his own, and to ourselves what is our own, that is, sin, in which God has no part, although being able to impede the sin he permits it on account of his secret judgments” (Translated by the author of this post).
For Βáñez, doctrinal arguments mattered because God matters. He fought hard to secure what he believed to be the metaphysical foundation for any sound spiritual life. He remains controversial to this day, even within his own Order, for the views that he defended so vociferously. Nonetheless, when he died, the faithful Dominican commended all his teachings to the judgment of the Church.
May we, too, burn with the zeal for truth that once fired this towering intellect of the Order of Preachers.”
“Throughout the wide world of creation, God has left all sorts of signs that point right back at him. Often these clues tell us more than that a divine being exists; they often tell us what kind of divine being exists. Some of these clues lie right under our noses in the world around us, whereas others lie deep inside us at the level of immediate subjective experience. Among these interior signs is the conscience, which points toward the existence of not merely a God, but a personal God.
In his “Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent,” St. John Henry Newman sets out to demonstrate how we come to approve or “assent” to the reality of God. Newman does this by appealing to the human conscience, demonstrating the significance of this mysterious interior faculty and showing how its presence and effect upon us suggest the reality of a divine moral legislator. Newman writes:
“Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).”
But where does our conscience come from?
The Catechism tells us that conscience is “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796). It is a rational human faculty, agrees Newman, like memory, reason, and the sense of beauty—yet it also has a moral sovereignty over us. We often find ourselves going where we do not want to go, doing what we do not want to do, or saying what we do not want to say; our conscience informs us of this.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right,” affirmed Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech, “A Proper Sense of Priorities.” Truly, the conscience demands unconditional obedience, respect, and loyalty—often at a cost. Yet to disobey our conscience is often the more immediately painful option, at least on an emotional level. Strangely, in a culture so averse to moral authorities, despite the potential consequences of choosing the right decision over the popular decision, almost no one would say it’s okay to disobey one’s own conscience. It may not even be possible to say, “It’s okay to disobey your conscience” without disobeying your conscience.
But where on earth does such firm and unshakable authority over humanity come from? Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:
“Conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.”
Newman draws the same conclusion when he calls conscience the “aboriginal vicar of Christ.” He too was in awe of the mysterious authority of the conscience and believed that the best explanation behind it was a supreme and authoritative personal authority, which he characterizes powerfully in this reflection:
“Man has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion or impression or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others . . . what I am insisting on here is this, that it commands; that it praises, blames, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses of the unseen. It is more than a man’s own self. The man himself has no power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it.”
It is a common mistake to equate feelings with conscience, but feelings and conscience are not the same thing. Feelings (unless bridled according to right reason) are often fleeting, impulsive, and irrational. Conscience, on the other hand, is abiding, authoritative, and reasonable. These distinctions are key. Kreeft points out, “If our immediate feelings were the voice of God, we would have to be polytheists or else God would have to be schizophrenic.” Feelings may accompany our conscience, but they are not synonymous with it.
Newman suggests that such a relationship between conscience and the feelings it potentially invokes makes sense only if there is a personal explanation behind it. In his “Essay,” he wrote, “If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of the conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claim upon us we fear.”
Through our conscience we discern not only a moral law, but a moral lawgiver. When we transgress our interior moral compass, we feel a genuine sense of guilt, as though we have let someone down. On the other hand, when we obey our conscience, we feel invigorated—particularly if such obedience requires great courage—as though we have been praised by another. But merely impersonal objects like brains neither praise nor blame. The feelings we experience when we respond to our conscience are distinctly relational and point to a personal being who is holding us accountable for our actions.
“There is no moral authority outside of oneself,” asserts the spirit of the age. Yet despite this popular attitude, there is a common human experience of something dangerously akin to moral obligation. There does seem to be a “right way” to act, regardless of our personal opinion; there does seem to be an interior voice within us that commands us to do good always and to avoid evil.
Some write off conscience as a natural phenomenon, an evolutionary instinct. Our inclination to do what is right, they say, exists in order to keep the peace among the human species. The compulsion to do good is required in order to have a society where survival and reproduction are optimized.
But conscience is different from instinct. My instinct in the middle of the night when my two-year-old daughter wakes up crying is to ignore the commotion and keep sleeping, but my conscience tells me to overrule my instinct and tend to my child. The moral choice may be more evolutionarily undesirable, yet in such cases, conscience still tends to overrule instinct. But even in cases where there may be natural advantages to following our conscience, this does not rule out God as evolutionarily obsolete. As philosopher Mitch Stokes reflects:
“I have no doubt that our moral code(s) provide survival advantage over many of the alternatives. But this biological benefit does not in itself imply that our ethics developed naturalistically. It may be, for example, that a divine lawgiver hardwired us with knowledge of moral laws, and one of the benefits of following them is that things will generally go better for us, as well as for others.”
So the naturally advantageous results of following our conscience may be the result of God’s genius and careful planning.
It might be tempting to reach for Occam’s razor at this point. Perhaps this just sounds as though we’re superfluously adding God into the picture. But that is not the case at all. The unique and unbending authority of the conscience must come from somewhere, and as we have noted, there is good reason to believe that a personal agent is behind it all. But the only kind of personal agent that could have such absolute authority over humanity is a divine lawgiver—so from this we are reasonable to conclude that the authoritative personal lawgiver behind the irrepressible “law written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15) is God.”
“Something that is often misunderstood about St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical psychology is his definition of the will and the intellect. Although he calls the will the “intellectual appetite” many are concerned that he is promoting a type of robotic approach to spirituality.
To put it simply, the “intellectual appetite” to Aquinas or the “will” is concerned with two things: to know and to love. From this vantage point we can summarize the spiritual life of any Christian. The intellectual appetite is not simply a machine that wants to know, but it wants to know God so that it can love God. Aquinas makes this point rather simply when he says we cannot love what we do not know, and therefore we seek to know God more, so that we can love Him more. This makes sense out of St. Thomas who leaned his head against the Tabernacle weeping because his mind was trying to grasp more about God but was coming up against great difficulty.
Now the will can be described in more ways than that it is free, according to Aquinas. The will itself has a voluntary and involuntary dimension to it. The involuntary dimension is that it is ordered towards God as the Supreme Good. Aristotle explained this as Happiness, which is nonetheless the same thing. In every practical choice we make it is tethered to this quest for happiness in God. What is the choice, is not that our will is ultimately oriented toward God, but that we can choose the means – be it making Money or Honour or Power or Pleasure or God – our means to that end. In this way we often make grave errors, and insult God by replacing the uncreated and Supreme Good with something corruptible, created, and base in contrast to God. The voluntary dimension therefore is always in reference to the means – the path we take on our journey toward happiness. For this reason Jesus reveals to us that He is the Way – and that we ought to enter through the narrow gate. He is speaking to a rightly ordered free-will, that disposes itself to Him, and all created goods to be considered prior to Him.
If we want peace, a first step may simply be in acknowledging that what we are is only going to find its perfect rest in God. Everything else will be eaten up by the moths.”
“Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” –St. Thomas Aquinas
Love & truth,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "“Si comprehendus, non est Deus.” -St Augustine, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, “Yet such are the pity and compassion of this Lord of ours, so desirous is He that we should seek Him and enjoy His company, that in one way or another He never ceases calling us to Him . . . God here speaks to souls through words uttered by pious people, by sermons or good books, and in many other such ways.” —St. Teresa of Avila, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom