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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon

Appendix 1: Why human acts must be described so precisely

In the first place, Christian life must be both like and unlike the life of Jesus. Our lives must be both united to his and distinct from his. Often, traditional spiritual guidance talks about imitating or conforming to Christ. As chapters nineteen through twenty-seven will show, this approach is sound. But what does it mean to imitate or conform to Jesus? He lived a long time ago, in a culture very different from ours, was unmarried. Most people have abilities, opportunities, and responsibilities very different from his. How can they live as he did? The only way to answer this question is to make some very precise distinctions concerning human acts. The necessary distinctions are made in this chapter. (The question is answered in 23‑C.)

In the second place, because human acts are much more complicated than at first they seem, whole areas of Christian life which could be cultivated very fruitfully are ignored. For example, inadequate understanding of spontaneous human acts, which are done intelligently and willingly by small children, has led to an almost complete absence of ministry to children under six or seven years old. Only at this age do children begin to make choices. But their earlier Christian life is important, too, and the Church could do a great deal to foster its growth. Again, too exclusive a focus upon the outward acts of individuals has made it difficult to understand even them very well, and has led to insufficient attention to omissions, cooperative acts, the voluntary readiness of a person to act, and many other important aspects of Christian life.

In the third place, the correct application of the moral teaching of the Church demands that one understand human acts with some precision. For example, God commands us not to kill. This norm cannot be applied unless one knows exactly what a human act of killing is. Are parents who refuse to allow very painful treatment for their child, aware that the child will die without it, killing the child? Is a nurse who prepares a patient for abortion killing the unborn baby? Questions similar to these must be answered by priests in the confessional and by them and others outside the confessional. Their answers will be poor if they do not understand human acts with precision.

Classical treatises on action usually begin by making a distinction between “acts of man” and “human acts.” “Human acts” is said to refer to those acts done voluntarily, or to those done through deliberation and choice. All others are called “acts of man” and dismissed as morally insignificant. This distinction points one’s thinking generally in the right direction, for it suggests that one should examine for moral purposes the acts which are involved in and express choices and other operations of the will. However, the distinction is not altogether clear, for it does not take account of spontaneous acts. What is more important, the scholastic treatises proceed to try to analyze for moral purposes many diverse sorts of acts, just as one finds them jumbled together in ordinary language. This approach is confusing, for it tends to conceal relevant moral differences.

Because of these difficulties, for the purposes of moral theology the analysis of human acts should start by considering various sorts of willing. Instances of willing are called “acts” in ordinary language; we speak of “acts of choice.” In scholastic terminology, instances of willing, or at least certain of them, were called “elicited acts” to distinguish them from acts done in accord with one’s willing. The latter were called “commanded acts,” because they are performed at the direction of the will. Because instances of willing are not “acts” in any ordinary sense, it would be better if we referred to them by another name, such as “actuations.” But “acts” is not objectionable and may be used, with the proviso that the distinction must be kept in mind.