TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 8: The Modes of Responsibility Which Specify the First Principle

Question F: What is the sixth mode of responsibility?

1. The sixth mode is this: One should not choose on the basis of emotions which bear upon empirical aspects of intelligible goods (or bads) in a way which interferes with a more perfect sharing in the good or avoidance of the bad. Violating this mode means sacrificing reality to appearance, as is done, typically, by someone more interested in the conscious experience of enjoying a good or avoiding an evil than the reality. This blocks some realization of intelligible human goods and leads to self-deception, which distorts one’s appreciation of what is good. Hence, one who violates this mode does not proceed consistently with a will toward integral human fulfillment.

2. Sometimes one is aware—or could and should be aware—that what one is doing interferes with possible ways of serving goods or avoiding evils more perfectly and effectively. But, eager to experience some measure of satisfaction or enjoy some alleviation of a bad situation, one substitutes a less appropriate action for a more appropriate one. Whether for one’s own sake or another’s, one settles for an appearance of a good instead of pursuing its reality. This is not the same as a situation in which one acts for a limited aspect of an intelligible good without impeding a possible alternative. Nor does this mode rule out seeking “experience” as part of one’s action for the integral good, or even rule out acting for an empirical aspect of an intelligible good alone when nothing more can be attained.

3. Here are some examples of violations. A sick man who could have treatment which would really cure his condition prefers less effective treatment which offers a feeling of quick relief. A girl engaged to be married spends all her time and energy planning her wedding and has none left for adequate spiritual preparation for married life. A bishop, anxious to reconcile those alienated from the Church, holds penitential services to which he invites persons unwilling to amend their lives, gives all who come general absolution without individual confession, and thus fosters an appearance of reconciliation as a substitute for the reality.

4. There is no one name for the virtuous disposition corresponding to this mode of responsibility. It is referred to by various uses of such expressions as “having a sound sense of values,” “sincerity,” “seriousness,” “clearheadedness,” and “practical wisdom.” Expressions sometimes used to signify the opposed vice include “self-deception,” “superficiality,” “insincerity,” “lacking a sense of values,” “frivolity,” and “childishness.”

5. Even before Jesus, divine revelation deepens this mode’s foundation by establishing the primacy of divine reality which transcends experience. The new hope offered by God draws interest away from the more superficial to the more profound aspects of human goods. Moreover, living out the covenant requires sincerity. It is more a matter of doing than of feeling.

The primary expression of this mode of responsibility in the Old Testament is in the criticism of idolatry as a kind of foolishness, since idols are vain. Yahweh alone is great, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols; but the Lord made the heavens” (1 Chr 16.26). Elijah provides a proof by experiment that Baal is a nondeity, incapable of acting (see 1 Kgs 18.18–40). Since idols are nonentities, they can neither help nor save anyone (see 1 Sm 12.21).

Detailed descriptions of the making and use of idols help to drive home the point that they are powerless (see Is 44.18; Wis 13.11–14). As a last blow in this line of criticism, a very plausible anthropological explanation of idolatry is provided; it is a practice which originates in an effort to maintain the illusion that the dead still are present. Once begun, the illusory practice is extended (see Wis 14.12–21; 15.7–15).

The critique of idols is broadened to include wrong ways of worshipping the true God. The prophets insist on the primacy of interior sacrifice; this offering is not merely a substitute for ritual sacrifice, but is the heart of all sacrifice (see Is 1.11–16; Jer 7.22–23; Hos 6.6; Mi 6.7–8). None of the prophets rejects the rite as such; what is rejected always is the tendency to substitute apparent religiosity for true religion. This point is expressed with clarity in Psalm 51 (see Ps 40.7–11).

St. Paul summarizes both lines of criticism in his argument that prior to redemption in Jesus no one is justified (see Rom 3.10–12). All religion is vain, until Jesus makes possible a real communion with God. Likewise, Greek philosophy is a sham, and the eloquence of rhetoric is useless, for neither provides anything but an appearance of wisdom (see 1 Cor 1.18–2.5).

Apart from instances in which the appearance of religion becomes a substitute for its reality, there are few cases in Scripture where it is clear that this mode of responsibility is at work, for it easily blends in with others. For example, when wealth and status seeking are condemned (see Ps 62.10–11; Col 3.5), one cannot be sure that anything more than the need for detachment and fairness is in view. To the extent that the whole of human life in the fallen condition is unsatisfactory, everything can be reduced to vanity, as it is in Ecclesiastes. However, such a reduction does not show that every action is a pursuit of apparent goods in violation of this mode of responsibility, since it is violated only if one’s chosen action somehow blocks an alternative which would lead to participation in a true good.