Thomas Fleming and Mother Teresa: Undoubted Motives in the Morality of Everyday Life
The Morality of Everyday Life:
Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition
by Thomas Fleming
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press; 270 pp., $44.95
Too bad that, since 1966, they are no longer adding titles to the Index of Prohibited Books. My more than ten years as diocesan censor librorum—was it this past distinction that gained me the happy task of writing this review?—would lead me to grant Thomas Fleming’s The Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition an imprimatur after a few nugatory adjustments, but what a book such as this really needs is a condemnation. Let me explain. A place on the Inquisition’s Index would recommend this text to three groups of potential readers. The first are readers who already are in sympathy with the author’s sound principles. They would compare him to the soon-to-be-Blessed (imagine the Church of the 22nd century giving this honor to Dr. Fleming! Stranger things have happened since Pentecost A.D. 33) Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, whose Five Wounds of Holy Church, a work of similar courage and good sense, was later removed from the list of offending texts. The second are those liberals who would in principle support the diffusion of any work that was the victim of censorship. (They might even get The Morality of Everyday Life in major bookstore windows, with reviews in America.) The third group needs most of all to read this book. They are well-meaning old movement conservatives and neoconservatives, the folks who read publications that depend for matters of social ethics on authors whose works figure on the Index, like Locke, Hume, Comte, Acton, and Mill. So, if you read National Review without being outraged, or First Things, or even Latin Mass, then get your confessor to let you read The Morality of Everyday Life.
The penitential context for reading this work is most apposite to Dr. Fleming’s main thesis, since he calls for a return to premodern casuistry in the evaluation of the morality of human acts, a casuistry whose apogee, after centuries of development, was the 18th-century Theologia Moralis of St. Alphonsus Liguori, whose method he judges “a mature and humane approach to moral problems that has never been equaled.” This book of informal essays, written in a style that is accessible to the casual reader while remaining intellectually sumptuous, has, as its main thesis, that genuine moral reasoning
is based on two principles: first, that there are general and universally applicable moral laws governing human conduct; second, that these laws may not be applied simplistically and uniformly to the great variety of human circumstances and situations.
The subtitle, Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition, however, should make clear that this set of essays is not merely a serene, positive exposition of this thesis but, more importantly, a rhetorical refutation of the opposing rationalist ethics that both dogged post-Cartesian “mere conservatism” and willingly accompanied post-Kantian revolutionary voluntarism, while having perhaps the most plausible success with their milder ally, Anglo-American utilitarian empiricism. Dr. Fleming shows a wide acquaintance with the principal texts of this modern philosophical tradition in ethics, yet his greatest strength lies in his domination of classical and vernacular literature in finding the loci most adapted to his arguments. Add to this a keen eye for the realities of ordinary family and professional life and the surrealities of contemporary social and political relations, and you have the concrete synthesis (almost a redundancy!) that I have just described as intellectually sumptuous, and I mean after the manner of one of the better Sunday brunches (or dinners, if you prefer) available in your area. You will gladly graze on the well-presented fare served up—and with a smile this time, I promise—by the good chef-maître of Rockford.
The prospective reader should not, however, expect a kind of ironic Chestertonian romp, triumphant and carefree. Dr. Fleming has two characteristic modes of expression: the practical and the poignant. The former is predominant, and rightly so in a work promoting classical casuistry. The essay chapters “Too Much Reality” and “Growing Up Unabsurd” will convince any Chronicles reader that the magazine should feature a regular Dear Tommy column—if I may risk the crimen laesae maiestatis in so naming it—answering casus conscientiae. The poignant mode, though, takes you by surprise, and there are passages in the essays “Problems of Perspective” and “The Myth of Individualism,” and the “coda” in “Goodbye, Old Rights of Man,” which will make you weep, or want to.
If there is a statement among these closely consequential and yet self-contained essays that presents the most fundamental moral perspective for the resolution of cases of conscience, it is the following:
For non-liberals—that is, nearly everyone in the history of the human race—there is simply no dilemma. Family relations take precedence over any claim from any stranger no matter how good or holy, and Christians are under no less obligation than nonbelievers. “If anyone does not take care of his own,” says St. Paul (1 Tim. 5:8), “and especially of his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
From this perspective, you can make all the proper judgments about the claims of government, employment, friendship, and philanthropy and descry as well the proper realm of heroism, which consists not so much in leaving behind this most particular of contexts as it does in sacrificing all to preserve it.
Perhaps the most practically trenchant and applicable analysis offered among those found on literally every page in the book is the brief treatment of “the pornography of compassion.” The insight offered here, if applied to one’s use of the media of communication, could alone provide the lion’s share of the moral ascesis needed for persevering in the good nowadays, dealing as it does with what is most peculiar to precisely contemporary moral dilemmas. In this, as in practically everything else, Dr. Fleming shows himself to be a disciple of Aristotle, who is the single most often cited author in these essays. The author for whom one suspects Dr. Fleming has the most affection and respect, however, is Samuel Johnson. The contrast of his moral attitude with Voltaire’s, which Dr. Fleming so revealingly expounds, has made me resolve to take up Boswell again for my benefit.
Here, I hope, is an accidental boon of this work: to get the reader to go back and read the literature he has been lacking or has forgotten. Like a kind of latter-day St. Isidore of Seville, Dr. Fleming (we keep canonizing him by analogy) has extracted the essential nectar from so many stories and provided us with a florilegium in essay form that provides a model of the intelligent use of literary authorities. The ensemble of concrete example and literary precedent is a fine and attractive argument a posteriori ex usu for a robust classical education. One can see clearly how, even in the absence of a formal moral theory, rightly determined literary culture can provide a man with the necessary matter for sound practical judgment.
Yet alas, Dr. Fleming’s strongest point also reveals a defect, albeit a venial one. Although he is a master of letters, he is still a student of theology. There are a few errors in the work, which a censura praevia would have excised. One is his description of the differences between Saint Peter and Saint Paul regarding the observances of the Mosaic law. A closer reading of the case as it develops in Acts and in the epistles will show that the case is not just as Dr. Fleming describes it, but far more nuanced, evidence in itself of an original Apostolic casuistry.
Another error that is more to the point regards the characterization of Saint Alphonsus’ moral teaching as “probabilism.” Quite precisely, his theory is called “aequiprobabilism.” This school of casuistry holds that the opinion favoring liberty over law may be followed if it is intrinsically probable, all things being equal. This last condition means that, in cases where there is question of the cessation of a law that has already been in force, the opinion favors the law even if the other opinion has probability, but, when there is question of the law having yet come into force, the opinion favors liberty. The simple probabilist holds that any truly probable opinion may be followed, even if an opposing opinion may be more probable. An aequiprobabilist holds the same view but gives greater weight to laws already presumably in force. In casuistic practice, however, these views are merely useful for persuading the penitent, because the confessor may not impose his theory’s resolution of the moral case in question on the penitent, if there exists another view not condemned by authority. In reality, the only two systems of moral evaluation condemned have been rigorism (as in the case of the Jansenists) and laxism (as in the case of some Jesuits), so all the others are practically probable and certainly licit. The Q.E.D. is that the probabilist view wins out, if the penitent wants it to and the confessor keeps within the bounds of his authority. The Thomist Dominic Pruemmer explains in his classic Vademecum:
If one prescinds from rigorism and laxism, each of the systems described is tolerated by the Church, and so the confessor has no right to impose his system on the penitent, or strictly require anything of the penitent which he is not bound to do according to the approach of another legitimate system. Thus the confessor may prudently counsel safer or more probable opinions, but he cannot strictly impose them (that is, in preference to merely probable ones). In practice let him choose those opinions which, considering all the circumstances, he foresees will produce the best fruit for the spiritual health of the penitent.
Thus, Dr. Fleming’s intuition is fundamentally sound: Probabilism, which favors liberty because of a respect for circumstances, is the default system of classical Roman Catholic casuistry. Even so, it is not Roman Catholic casuistry he is promoting but rather a return to any casuistic system at all (including Talmudic or Caroline) within the traditions that have made up our society, for such systems by their very nature harmonize with life as it is actually lived and use morality to preserve and strengthen rather than to break down and overturn ties of blood and soil and common endeavor. Apart from those few things one may never do under any circumstances—such as blaspheme, murder the innocent, commit unnatural acts, or steal from a man poorer than oneself—it is almost impossible to indicate specific acts that must always be done regardless of circumstances. For this reason, then, there must be casuistry, since the possibilities for doing good are literally infinite.
For every manual of casuistry, there needs to be a speculative presentation of general principles. Otherwise, the ethics inculcated may be merely a kind of positivistic integralism, a “this is the way its always been, so don’t ask questions” attitude, unable to defend itself from the critical and revolutionary spirit. This companion volume to The Morality of Everyday Life has yet to be written, but here the reviewer dares to present a suggestion as to what its overarching, unifying insight should be. The exposition of nominalism in the sixth chapter points in the direction of the deepest level of moral reasoning. Whereas Dr. Fleming’s interpretation and application of the genesis of the notion of individualism is not one to which I would subscribe, this is the one place in the book where he brushes up against the larger philosophical issue underlying any account of the morality of human acts and transcending any given instance of moral reasoning.
In his Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, book 12, lesson 5, St. Thomas Aquinas makes the following observation:
The opinion of Plato in positing eternal substances is of no worth . . . for we cannot explain permanent movement by making up some eternal separated substances . . . For the Forms posit nothing other than separated universals, but universals as such cannot move another, for every active or moving principle is something singular.
To his grandmother trying to make him eat his greens by saying, “Remember the starving children in Ethiopia,” we can imagine a little Thomas Fleming responding as did an old acquaintance of mine when asked the same imperative-masked-as-question. “Name one,” he said. Morality is in the end about cause and effect, indeed about the “road which must take many a twist and turn” on the way to final causes and ultimate perfections. “The good cannot be found in mathematical entities,” said Saint Thomas, because they are mere universals that cannot exist as they are defined. And yet it is the good that must move us, and, unless the good is a concrete good and not an abstraction, it cannot effectively move us. This holds true whether we are receiving or bestowing a good. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (here comes the third hagiographical parallel), whose one-person-at-a-time ethic so closely resembles Thomas Fleming’s, had this to say, much in the line of the overly clever turnip-green hater:
Sometime when I encounter parents, I tell myself if [sic] it is possible that these parents worry about those who are hungry in Africa, in India or in other countries. It is possible that they dream of ending the hunger felt by any human being. However they live unaware of their own children, of having that poverty and that hunger of heart in their very own homes. Moreover, they themselves are the ones who cause that hunger and that poverty.
One last question: Does Daddy really love faraway Fatima and Hajar as much as he does Jenna and Barbara? We hope not, but I wish Dr. Fleming would send the White House a complimentary copy of his book very soon. The Index is passé, but there is still the PATRIOT Act.
This article first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.