Can Philosophy Strengthen an Ecumenical Approach to Issues of Morality?


Philosophers: Aristotle, William of Occam, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Alasdair MacIntyre.

There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the philosophical assumptions that underlie false understandings of morality in our society. These assumptions have affected not only secular developments but also practices and attitudes among Christians. In addition, divisions among Christians have been undermining a strong and united stance in support of traditional morality. This disunity is like a millstone around the neck of the Christian body, preventing it from effective witness to our culture. Some have suggested we could strengthen unity among Christians by a franker discussion of divisions rooted in philosophy rather than in theology. For example, Ecumenist and Professor of Philosophy and Theology Charles Morerod, O.P., has pointed out that:

Among the factors which “doctrinal” type ecumenical dialogue has failed to address adequately, the one most clearly neglected is the philosophical factor.(Ecumenism & Philosophy: Philosophical Questions for a Renewal of Dialogue, 2006, xix)

This approach could perhaps foster an extended ecumenical conversation about philosophical errors that have been debilitating to the practice of Christian morality in our society, orienting dialogue toward overcoming differences in philosophical habits of thinking that obfuscate truths of the human person as well as our relationship with God.

This is a complex subject that will take time to fully explore. Besides differences between Catholics and Protestants, there are internal divisions within the Catholic Church. The hope of this article is to open a door by making an initial outline of some of the philosophical assumptions that influence attitudes toward moral questions and the practices of Christians.

The moral condition of modern society is deeply affected by the practices of artificial contraception, divorce, homosexual lifestyles, and what is euphemistically called cohabitation. These practices damage the person’s relationship with God, with the religious community and with fellow Christians. Yet these days there often seems little consensus among Christians about what Christ thinks about these realities or about how we should think about them. There is certainly not a lack of writing, research and speaking on these issues. The question is whether examining these issues at a philosophical level could be helpful in encouraging a deeper ecumenical dialogue on moral issues. As we know, the sexual revolution has undermined the principles of sexual morality that used to be a cultural norm. But rationales that are provided for the new immorality are based on faulty philosophy which can be challenged.

For example, tolerance of artificial contraception and in vitro fertilization is based on misconceptions about human nature and sexuality that are rooted in philosophical dualism and extrinsic morality. The inability of many in the Christian community to form a clear understanding of the disorder of homosexual behavior is, in part, related to the modern notion of the malleability of nature and sexuality. The pervasiveness of divorce may reflect an emphasis on unqualified freedom and the power of individual will and self-fulfillment rather than on the true good found within social order, such as the good of life-long marriage. Cohabitation seems to be either the fruit of a mistrust of marriage related to widespread divorce, or else the natural consequence of easily available contraception. Modern attitudes toward morality often reflect the influence of nominalist/voluntarist philosophy.

A philosophical dualism underlies much thinking in our society. In the early modern era, it was Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” that introduced an emphasis on the mind as the source of our personal being. This eventually led to thinking of the body as only an instrument that we use for purposes that our mind decides. Beneath the surface, there has also been a continuing influence of the Gnostic belief that material being is evil and only the spirit is good. Both these attitudes set aside the understanding of the human person as an integrated composite of body and soul that forms the unity of the person, and that both matter and spirit are created by God as good. In dualistic thinking, sexuality is no longer viewed as a constituent part of the person that expresses one’s holistic humanity, but is simply used as an instrument for a purpose and can be separated from one’s spiritual life.this needs to occur, This leads to separating the human good of the marital act from the human good of procreation. The capacity for motherhood and fatherhood, however, is intrinsic to marital intercourse, and is not something to be controlled or manufactured through external means. Human persons are incarnated spiritual beings whose physical acts express their whole humanity and whose intellectual intentions cannot be separated from their physical acts. Some speak of “pre-moral goods” as though a person’s biological acts have no moral meaning and only a “total marital relationship” has meaning. However, every intentional act by a human person is a moral act with meaning. Marital intercourse is one of the deepest and most meaningful of human acts because of its participation in God’s creative love.

Yet, much of Western society speaks only of “choice” as having meaning, and assumes it is not necessary to respect the body’s natural functions if one desires to manipulate them with medical-technical input for one’s own purposes. How many church-going Christians today support contraception and artificial reproduction because of this kind of dualistic thinking? Is it possible for both Protestants and Catholics to come together to discuss the philosophical assumptions underlying this attitude?

It is important to remember that our private actions sooner or later have a real, if subtle, influence on our communities and our culture. Abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage have affected not only individuals’ moral lives, but also are now major public/political issues even while treated as though they were only private in consequence. This problem is another result of dualistic separation, this time of public and private life. Since a human person is a spiritual whole, there is a loss of personal integrity if one speaks or acts publicly in a way that contradicts what one believes privately. A Christian cannot make the excuse that one cannot publicly propose what one believes is true because this would be making an imposition on others. Christians are a body, a people who are called to reflect God’s holiness and we should be a witness to the truth for our society in both what we do and what we say.

A philosophy underlying much of our difficulty in discussing moral questions has been that of nominalism. Numerous scholars have in recent year discussed the affect this philosophy has had on the development of modern thought. Nominalism holds that we can only know individual things which we apprehend directly and that universals are only constructs of our mind which don’t exist in reality outside of our mental concepts. We perceive a particular dog or cat or tree but there is no general essence of dog, or cat or tree, only our mental generalization about these. We appreciate the beauty of a particular flower, or goodness of a specific person, or truth in an exact statement, but there are no existing transcendentals of beauty, truth or goodness. This includes the denial that there is a universal human nature that subsists empirically in each human being. It directly opposes the realism of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle who held that the essence of existing beings subsists actually within them.

The gradual erosion of confidence in the stable nature of the human being with the God-given faculties of reason and free will has had long term effects on the understanding of morality and on religious attitudes in general. Subjectivity comes to the fore replacing the objectivity of reality. In his well-known work, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre made the point that when proponents of moral arguments don’t agree about what human nature is or whether it exists, they cannot reach any consensus on the moral disputes characteristic of our age. For example, the current discussions about gender and homosexuality often assume that maleness and femaleness are social constructs that a person can manipulate according to individual desires. There needs, then, to be an examination of the foundation of male and female sexuality in the body and its relationship to human nature as a stable reality in every human person constituted from their conception as a male person or a female person. Human nature is intrinsically social, oriented to forming human community through the complementary union of male and female in marriage. If these are aspects inherently constitutive of the human person, then same-sex erotic attraction is necessarily a condition that needs healing so that the person can develop an internal integration. Are we helping the situation by ignoring the need for such persons to recognize a lack that requires deep healing? They need love based in truth. Isn’t a false compassion stuck in an untruth actually lacking authentic charity?

The other important aspect of the nominalist philosophy is voluntarism, which maintains the priority of will over intellect. William of Occam, the 14th century Franciscan most closely associated with the philosophy of nominalism and its voluntarist aspects, maintained that freedom precedes reason and will, that freedom is primary. Freedom was not to be determined by any influences; it had to be separated from reason, from natural inclinations, from external factors, from grace and faith. This indeterminate form of freedom is sometimes described as the “freedom of indifference.” In contrast, classic philosophy held that the human will is ordered to the good, to truth and to beauty (the spiritually-existing transcendentals), and that the intellect determines where these are to be found and presents them to the will for decision, giving the intellect a certain prior role. For real freedom, truth discovered by the intellect and revealed in faith must be made available to the will for decision. Otherwise, the will is partially blind, without needed information, and therefore not truly free. The emphasis our culture gives to choice and rights is frequently devoid of an examination of the actual content of the choice or rights and an evaluation of its truth or goodness. Christians have the resources to present this truth and goodness but sometimes fail to recognize the strength of the philosophical error which needs to be addressed in order to clear the way for these truths.

Voluntarism’s emphasis on the priority of freedom ultimately affects the understanding of morality because it skews man’s relationship to God. Here philosophy and theology are intertwined because the consequence of the nominalist/voluntarist philosophy playing out through history was to alienate many from God and contributed to a growth in secularism. This began when Occam saw God’s freedom as absolute, not limited by anything He had done in the past or promised for the future. God’s will was so absolute that God was free to be arbitrary, to change at any time, to change the laws of human nature, of creation, of good and evil, of love and hate. God’s freedom was undetermined by anything. Whatever God willed was good simply because he willed it. Occam conceived divine and human freedom as two absolutes in potential conflict, with the distinction that God was omnipotent and could impose his will on us. Since Occam did not think in terms of natural qualities in God, and denied that there is a human nature, there was no longer a natural, analogous link between God and man. There remained only a relationship of God’s will imposed on man, and man’s obligation to obey. Love was left out of this relationship. As a result, morality was reduced to obeying commandments imposed from an external authority. The purpose of the human will was simply to say “yes” or “no” to a proposition. The identification of the will with the person placed emphasis on the affirmation of self-determination, encouraging a sense of needing to reject dependence on another will in order to be free. This opposition of wills set in motion a disaster for human morality which remains with us today. No longer is morality a question of seeking happiness and love, but is only conceived as external compliance with the obligations of God’s commands. No longer is God the source of love, wisdom, truth, beauty and goodness. God has been seen as a rigid authoritarian, unrelated to our personal development. This external morality could make no contribution to the interior spiritual growth of a person.

The result of this external morality was that many rebelled against this divine tyranny and chose to elevate man’s will over God. Much of the sexual revolution has been formed upon a reaction against what appeared to be a rigid morality unrelated to one’s personal well-being. The attempt by Christian ministers to soften their approach to morality very often does not directly address these underlying misunderstandings about man’s relationship with God and with Christian moral teaching. The constant pressure to “loosen the rules” reflects the failure to understand that the moral commandments of Christianity are given us as reminders of what is truly good for the human person as well as for human society.

Individualism is another challenge. There is a long history of its development in Western culture which cannot be gone into here. Its manifestation today is an emphasis on individual rights and desires which assumes that each person is an isolated unit in society. Yet each of us comes into the world in relationship to a mother and a father who live in a particular community and culture to which one is responsible. These relationships (even in their absence) affect how a person develops, what character he has, what decisions he makes. The genes of a long ancestry are part of him. The history, geography and laws of his society form him. His actions also will contribute something to future generations. These relationships do not disappear when one becomes an adult, but in fact intensify because as such one must shoulder the duties that accompany rights. The person’s attitudes toward morality are a response that affects not only his own life but the people, community and culture of his environment.

Divorce affects not just the couple divorcing and their children but also the whole extended family, friends, fellow Christians, as well as general attitudes about marriage. The reality of moral scandal is palpable. There is a fracture in our relationships and communities which has a social and economic cost as well as the moral and spiritual cost. The same can be said of contraception, cohabitation and acceptance of homosexual lifestyles. Yet even among Christians who have strong moral principles grounded in the Word of God, there can be an overriding assumption that individual conscience is an absolute that cannot be challenged. While coercion must always be avoided, there is a place for reemphasizing the importance of the effect individual choices have on families, communities and society as a whole, and the responsibility one has for these effects.

A helpful ecumenical conversation could be to examine together the various sources of our society’s illusion of individualism. The purpose of life is not simply to “feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life,” and “choose one’s own path.” Classic philosophy defined the nature of man as a social being who has a finality, a telos, that is common to all humankind, accomplished within the social institutions of family, church, community and nation (or city-state). An individual is not diminished by his integration within family and community but is enriched and experiences real growth and maturity in the give and take of his social environment. Without losing sight of the importance of each individual person as valued for himself, always to be treated with dignity and respect and not subordinated to an abstract state or a group that violates his integrity, one can at the same time assert that an individual’s life and personal growth is meant to be grounded in relationships within families, churches and communities where it is normally enhanced, not threatened. These social institutions need to be accorded an important legal and social status to balance individual rights, for it is within them that the individual person can best realize the perfection of human life.

One of the blocks to mutual understanding about how to address these problems in an ecumenical setting is a difference of approach to the question of causality. This philosophical question has important ramifications for both theology and morality. Establishing clarity about principal and instrumental causality could be a helpful stimulus to ecumenical dialogue. A basic illustration of this reality is found in the use of tools. If I pick up a pen to write something, I will be the principal cause of what is written, but the pen is an instrumental cause of what gets on the paper. Theologically, Christians believe that God is the cause of everything that happens, the First Cause. However, he has chosen to use human beings, as well as other parts of His creation, as the means to accomplish his work. Human beings uniquely have reasoning and free will in order to cooperate with God freely for reasons of love. Christians frequently speak of their role as instruments of God’s will, but sometimes it is thought that the more a human being does, the less God does and vice versa– what is known as zero-sum thinking, e.g. if one does 40% of the work, another will do 60% of the effort. But when applied to God this is an error in understanding the reality of God. God is Being on a totally different plane than created beings. He is acting on a plane beyond and outside of whatever is being done within creation. He is not just another being within the created world that happens to be omnipotent, all-knowing and infinite—a univocal understanding of being. God can be doing 100% of what is happening while a human being is also contributing 100% of himself, because God and man are acting in totally different planes. The theological paradigm of this is the Incarnation: Christ as fully divine and fully human accomplishes the redemption in the perfect union of these two natures. This is only possible because Divine Being is transcendent, on a different plane than human life, and therefore this union does not involve any admixture of percentages or limitations. It is important to recall that it was philosophical reflection that helped the Christians of the early centuries to develop some understanding and articulation of this mystery of two natures united in the one Person Jesus Christ.

Why is this important? First of all, when man loses the sense of his life as a meaningful cooperation with the Creator, he can begin to resent feeling like nothing in himself and start to set God aside so he can create his life according to his own ideas and desires. This seems to be the attitude of many today, although they may know nothing of the historical and philosophical origins of this kind of thinking which developed gradually through the reflections of philosophers from Hobbes to Marx and Nietsche. The understanding of God as a Being outside of time and the created universe, totally Other and on a different plane than created being, also helps to counter a certain scientism and materialism that has limited our understanding of spiritual realities. Materialism has only been able to see material and efficient causality and ignores man’s final and formal causality. The Greek philosopher Aristotle understood that there is a telos, a final purpose to human life, and that there is a spiritual component to the human form that directs and unifies the person. But these basic philosophic foundations seem to be missing in our current culture. This undermines the ability to consider the objectivity of moral principles and its relation to the finality of the human person. Studying philosophy’s relationship to morality does not replace theology, but is a helpful complement.

Perhaps a clearer focus on these basic philosophical premises could strengthen a firmer and more united stand against the moral aberrations of our culture. According to the analysis by Professor Brad Gregory, the divisiveness among Christians is:

morally disruptive precisely because of morality’s inseparability from politics, and the deeply ingrained ways in which both (Protestants and Catholics) had for centuries sought to shape social relationships and human behavior within the moral community of the church.” (The Unintended Reformation, 202)

These are complicated questions which this simple summary in no way pretends to fully explore. The hope is to open a door to a fresh direction for an ecumenical effort to confront moral problems coherently. While theological doctrines are involved in these issues, clarifying the philosophical questions first may ultimately help in addressing the theological differences. It seems doubtful that we have decades to deliberate at the ponderous pace much ecumenical dialogue entails. The erosion of Christian culture is at stake, and lives will continue to be destroyed if this discussion is not taken up with a certain sense of urgency, determined courage and open-minded clarity so Christians can address our society’s moral chaos with a more united front.

Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 1956.)

Frederick C. Copleston, S.J., A History of Medieval Philosophy, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1972)

Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)

Charles Morerod, OP, Ecumenism & Philosophy, Philosophical Questions for a Renewal of Dialogue, Translated by Therese C. Scarpelli (Ann Arbor, MI: Sapientia Press, 2006)

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984)

Kathleen Curran Sweeney About Kathleen Curran Sweeney

Kathleen Curran Sweeney holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies in Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., an MA in History from the University of Washington, and a BA from Seattle University. She has worked for several years in the pro-life arena. She has published articles on pro-life topics, bioethics, theology, education, and history. She is a member of both St. Agnes Church in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and the People of Praise Ecumenical Community.


  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Kathleen Sweeney says that ‘Some have suggested we could strengthen unity among Christians by a franker discussion of divisions rooted in philosophy rather than in theology’; and, indeed, Kathleen indicates the anthropological challenge: ‘Human persons are incarnated spiritual beings whose physical acts express their whole humanity and whose intellectual intentions cannot be separated from their physical acts.’ In other words, then, how are we to restore, reinstate and renew the relationship between philosophy and reality?

    It is significant that in Edith Stein’s autobiography, it was the philosophy of Edmund Husserl which seemed to be an influence on people becoming Catholic: ‘Husserl is reported to have said, in gentle jest, that he should someday be canonized since so many of his students had become Catholics; he was an Evangelical Lutheran’ (footnote 117, p. 491, Notes [ and Chronology, Afterword and Translation by Josephine Koeppel, OCD]: Edith Stein: Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916, Volume I of the Collected Works of Edith Stein, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1986).
    Husserl’s philosophy was summed up by Edith in the words: It was a philosophy which ‘turned attention away from the “subject” and toward “things” themselves’ (p. 250 of Stein, Life in a Jewish Family). It is not, however, as if the philosopher-as-subject is not involved; rather, it is that the philosophers were ‘repeatedly enjoined to observe all things without prejudice, to discard all possible “blinders”‘ (p. 260 of Stein, Life in a Jewish Family).

    Finally, then, Edith herself had gravitated to a foundational question: ‘the constitution of the human person’ (p. 397 of Stein, Life in a Jewish Family). In other words, a philosophy which leads us to recognise that the whole of reality is implicated in our consciousness of it, is a philosophy which is characterized by the very nature of truth: that truth discloses what exists in such an open ended way that everything is included and nothing is excluded. Thus, in the very traces of thought’s progress there are those indications which show forth the fullness of human personhood and, at the same time, ready us to receive the complementary nature of divine Revelation. It behoves us, then, to recognise truth wherever it is to be found and, in the very process of doing so, to disclose those “implications” which are almost “connections in-the-waiting”.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Ms Sweeney presents some thought provoking assumptions that could keep western philosopher going for an extended period of time. I find the pastoral world to be much more complex than the philosophical world she presents. Christian people are not all people from the western world; the did not grow up with philosophical assumptions based on the philosophers sited in the article. I recall in a recent Synod the Japanese Bishops saying that the Japanese people can not make sense of natural law. It would seem for any dialogue to be successful today the truth is to be found in a much broader set of philosophical assumptions than those Ms Sweeney presents.

    I also came away from the article with a sense that there is a western Christian philosophical point of view that leads to the whole truth. I am reminded of this quote of Pope Benedict XVI: “IT IS NOT FITTING TO STATE IN AN EXCLUSIVE WAY: ‘I POSSESS THE TRUTH’. THE TRUTH IS NOT POSSESSED BY ANYONE; IT IS ALWAYS A GIFT WHICH CALLS US TO UNDERTAKE A JOURNEY OF EVER CLOSER ASSIMILATION TO TRUTH. TRUTH CAN ONLY BE KNOWN AND EXPERIENCED IN FREEDOM; FOR THIS REASON WE CANNOT IMPOSE TRUTH ON OTHERS; TRUTH IS DISCLOSED ONLY IN AN ENCOUNTER OF LOVE.” #27 Apostolic Letter on Church in the MIddle East

    • Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

      Tom McGuire says: ‘[I]n a recent Synod the Japanese Bishops [said] … that the Japanese people can not make sense of natural law.’ In what way, then, can love show itself capable of answering the need for a dialogue in which ‘truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love’ (Apostolic Letter on the Church in the Middle East, 27)?

      The International Theological Commission said, in its document “The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at Natural Law” (2009), that ‘the Christian community, guided by the Spirit of Jesus Christ and in critical dialogue with the wisdom traditions it has encountered, has assumed, purified and developed this teaching on the natural law as a fundamental ethical norm. But Christianity does not have the monopoly on the natural law. In fact, founded on reason, common to all human beings, the natural law is the basis of collaboration among all persons of good will, whatever their religious convictions’ (9). In turn, then, this document considered the wisdom expressed in Hinduism (13), Buddhism (14), ‘Chinese civilisation’ (15), ‘African traditions’ (16) and Islam (17). It also goes on to examine ‘Greco-Roman’ (18) and Biblical expressions of Natural Law.

      The point of this citation, then, is not so much to summarise what has been found as to recognise that there is an ongoing dialogue with every philosophical expression of the human heart; for, both each one of us and the cultures of the world, are ‘asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it’ (Fides et Ratio, 3). In other words, the starting point is inevitably the philosophy, aphoristic or systematic, of a particular person in a particular culture of the world, but then there is a kind of trickle and stream of truth which runs from whatever source and contributes, in its own way, to the great rivers of thought which traverse time and cultural origin. Naturally not everything is equally valid or permanent; and, as such, there is a constant challenge to recognise truth in the “different” expressions in which it is found. Rather like gold miners panning the streams and rivers of the world, there is a constant work of retrieving what is good, beautiful and true, whether it is from ancient or modern springs; and, at the same time, it is necessary for the commonality of the truth to be made explicit and available in its contribution to human solidarity.

      Finally, then, it may at any one time be difficult for a culture to recognise its own expression of natural law and to go on and to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, nevertheless there is both a natural propensity for people to do this and a widespread necessity for such a development, particularly in order to found a further articulation of international law and to stimulate fraternity between peoples.