By cursing is meant taking God's name in vain, and by vengeance is meant ''getting even.'' While these are sins, objectively and often subjectively, St. Thomas in his usual manner sees more deeply into these realities and shows that both can also be virtues given the right circumstances and motives, with more emphasis on the latter.
With the advent of a present moral atmosphere that emphasizes love as the operative virtue in the spiritual life (both Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church call divine love the form or inspiration of the virtues), a certain superficiality has occurred in ecclesial, familial and societal praxis itself. This has led to a desire to love in order to be loved, which carries with it the desire to be liked, popular, and held in esteem often to the detriment of other values or virtues.
Today, it often appears in our culture of ''toxic love'' that to love someone means to make him or her feel good, or at least not hurt another's feelings under any circumstances. This ''love'' means never to be harsh with another, as if harsh words by necessity damage human relationships.
'Tough Love' of St. Thomas
Also, love has become a diluted catchword meaning always affirming people in their goodness to make them feel good or, worse promoting their evil intention to kill as in the case of false martyrs telling their captors how much they loved them, while failing to correct them.
However, such superficiality is not to be found in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, who also never denies that human love of neighbor should ordinarily be affectionate and affirming. Yet, he also teaches that sometimes human love must be ''tough'' or hard lest a person who is on the road to selfishness or developing a spiritual pathology will ruin himself or gravely harm others. For to love someone is also to hate anything that might undermine, maim or destroy that person's or community's goodness.
Often hatred of evil may take the form of physical and moral violence, that is, either blows that inflict physical wounds, or words or other actions that are harsh but not hate-filled toward the person. The latter is called moral violence because something onerous is imposed upon the person which is not physically violent.1
St. Thomas teaches that it is justified for a person to defend his life, or save oneself or another from certain death with due or proportionate use of force, even if it happens to kill an adversary. The death is not willed for its own sake, but is a side effect of defending one's self and another. For the common good, the state may actually authorize a soldier or policeman to intend to kill someone, in a war or in criminal activities, but this is not the case with private persons.2
Defense of Catholic Truth
These considerations are important because the ecclesial leaders of a community sometimes face the evils of radical dissent from received norms of the Gospel, disobedience to canonical procedure and even heresy or the denial of doctrines that approaches heresy. Part of the governance role of these leaders is to watch over the community lest individuals within or without attack the integrity of the community and its faith values.
At times, members of a society or church may teach by word and example that abortion, homosexual marriage, contraception, divorce and remarriage are goods of the human person, and actively facilitate these activities. They may aid and abet these activities by speeches, writings or votes, if they be members of congress, and decision of judges.
All these means are meant to encourage that these evils are to be understood as moral or fulfilling goods. When this occurs, tough action is called for unless these persons in charge judge that an even greater evil will occur. All things being equal, public rebuke and even excommunication would be the methods of helping these dissenters from losing their souls. For if nothing is said or done, then the dissenters' erroneous or evil consciences often lead them to commit or inflict greater evils on society or the community, and then ignorant Catholics begin to believe these dissidents are good Catholics and perhaps join them in their convictions.
From the ecclesial point of view, that the consequence of a ''greater evil'' emerging from severe correction may not always be evident to the vast majority of the flock or community. Nevertheless, the possibility can also become an excuse for bishops never to take any action against anyone.
In such cases, the majority of the faithful become tyrannized by the few who write, preach and teach doctrines contrary to the Church as if such false opinions were in fact part of the Church's deposit of faith and morals. And negligence in this regard can also result in chancery offices and even a school becoming rife with dissent and lacking integrity.
Moreover, anyone who is not a member of the Church can observe that the Catholic Church allows its members to hold contradictory teachings of a momentous nature and all the while be considered ''Catholics in good standing.''
While one cannot judge the interior conscience of a person, one can make an objective appraisal of another's behavior and judge what is said by a prominent person, and coming to the conclusion that this particular act of teaching or preaching, even saying Mass or judging or voting is gravely threatening the faith or simply the common good of a society.
A priest may think himself acting in good faith, for example, and change the words of institution at Mass, but we can judge apart from his motives and conscience that the body of Christ is not on the altar if he said for the words of consecration, ''This is the face of Jesus,'' and over the wine, ''This is the love of his body poured out in love.'' Action is called for, not mere words of appeasement or silence.
Kindness: What Is It?
In Thomas's treatment of kindness, he asks the question whether or not one should be kind to everybody. Kindness is doing good to others but it ''must go out to everybody, given of course, the right place and the right time, for acts of the virtues must be subject to the limits set by due circumstances.''3 So, if an individual is committing a morally evil act, one ''must not give him any assistance which would encourage his wrongdoing. This in fact would really be doing him harm, not good.''4
St. Paul says somewhere that we should bear with the weak and Aquinas explains there are two aspects of this:
Far from being opposed to bearing with the weak, fraternal correction is in fact, its consequence. For bearing with sinners means that we refuse to get annoyed, and remain kindly disposed toward them, which in turn leads us on to try to change them for the better.3
In Aquinas's treatment of defamation, using words to dishonor someone publicly, when it can actually be a virtue not a vice, he says the following:
One is entitled to use insulting words against a person in the interest of discipline as one is to beat another or inflict material loss on another for the same purpose. And it was in this spirit that the Lord called his disciples foolish and St. Paul called the Galatians heedless. At the same time, as Augustine says, we should resort to such strong language only rarely and in extreme cases, and with a view to serving the Lord and not ourselves. 6
Notice in Augustine, this ''strong language'' is something done rarely and in extreme cases. Therefore he teaches that that means one must be reluctant and also very patient with people who seemingly harm the common good. In addition, fraternal correction must be done moderately with gentleness first before being done with more vigorous words.
Similarly when one is being personally attacked verbally by another, although it may be good to turn the other cheek and not answer the charges or insults in order to grow in humility, there are still times when one must answer back:
There are times, however, when we have to stand up to people who defame us, and these are principally twofold. In the first place, we should answer back for the sake of the person who utters the defamatory remarks, in order to restrain his effrontery and further attempts to act in a similar fashion, in the spirit of Proverbs. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. And we should in the second place answer back for the sake of larger numbers of people whose progress may be held up by our being defamed. This is why Gregory says, Those whose lives are set up for imitation should do their best to silence their detractors, lest those who could have heard their preaching do not do so, but remain stuck in their depraved way of life and despise upright living.7
Thomas also makes clear that such answering must be motivated by charity for the wrongdoer and not love of one's honor for its own sake.8
The Sin of Detraction
Another sin by words is called detraction whereby someone harms another's reputation, either deliberately or indeliberately. Since a good name is ''one of his most precious temporal possessions and he is prevented from doing many good deeds if it is damaged,'' it would be a mortal sin to directly take away a person's good name.9 But can there be exceptions? Thomas answers to show that an exception may be a virtue:
A man may, however, sometimes say something to injure another's reputation without intending to do so, but rather intending something different. This would not be formal detraction as such, it would only be material, and as, it were, incidental detraction. In fact there may be no sin at all if someone says something that injures another's reputation for a good or a necessary end, due circumstances being observed....10
In the answer to the first objection, Thomas will give two examples. One may denounce someone for the sake of his amendment or for the sake of the common good (public interest). This then can be commanded by charity or divine love.
In his treatment on fraternal correction, Thomas has a warning on this. Public denunciation is necessary when possible scandal can occur from the public sins of another. Hidden sins should normally be confronted secretly unless they would have grave consequences such as ''someone who plots to betray the state to its enemies.''11 Secret sins only harm the sinner and perhaps an individual who can be hurt by him. The purpose is to help reform the sinner, which can more easily be done in private. Thomas then continues:
For a good name is useful and first of all for the sinner himself: not only in the things of this world, because loss of reputation brings many other losses with it, but in spiritual matters too, because fear of disgrace holds many people back from sin, whereas once they see their good name gone they cast off all restraint. . . .12
However, there may be a time when a good name is to be harmed:
Since, however, one's conscience should be preferred to a good name, Our Lord wished that we should publicly denounce our brother and so deliver his conscience from sin, even if he should forfeit his good name. Therefore it is evident that the precept (of fraternal correction) requires a secret admonition to precede public denunciation.13
(Next month, in part two, cursing for the common good will be taken up.) TP
Father Cole, O.P., is associate professor at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and is the author of The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood (Alba House, 2007. $22.95 pb. 1-800-343-2522).