Catholic Aporia

From today’s Theology 12:

1.) It is always disordered to choose the lesser good and not the greater good.

2.) Marriage is a lesser good than celibacy.

3.) It is sometimes right to choose to marry.

So one is false and/or we’re equivocating somewhere. All three claims are well-established points of Catholic theology, the last two as parts of a theology of marriage and the first as an account of what the disorder of sin consists in.

When this first came up I resisted the student’s first move, sc. to try to divide what they called the objective good of celibacy (which saw it as better in general or ceteris paribus) from the subjective good (a good that took into account circumstances and other individuating factors). True, Scripture is clear that celibacy is a gift, and the choice spoken of in (1) requires that the greater good be a real possibility, which would not be the case for those not given the gift to choose the higher good. But something seems fishy and quietistic about this sort of response, and so I’ll suggest a different, more mystical one.

Marriage is a sacrament and so limited to the life in via. There are no sacraments in the escahton, but all sacraments by nature are ordered to attaining that life. But one of the few things we know about the final escahton is that it is a celibate existence: For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven (Mt. 22:30, Lk. 20: 34, Mk. 12: 20) Thus marriage qua sacrament is ordered to the celibate life, and so does not differ properly in the end chosen but in the mode of choosing it. There is thus an equivocation in (2) since marriage is not in the final analysis a lesser good but a lesser means to the same good.



  1. FuzzyBunny said,

    March 22, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I’m not sure how to understand the first bullet. It would seem to imply that when confronted with the choice of either praying, or, say, watching TV, it is always disordered to watch TV, since that is clearly the lesser good.

    Perhaps disordered in this context does not mean sinful?

    • March 22, 2016 at 2:49 pm

      Good objection! But I don’t think that what you’re speaking of is a case of (1). Prayer can’t be done all the time,* and so there can’t be a choice to do it all the time. I’m only responding to your example though, so maybe you had something else in mind.

      *The command to “pray without ceasing” has to mean prayer in a broader sense than conscious, wakeful activity. It certainly can’t require us never to sleep, for example.

      • robalspaugh said,

        March 22, 2016 at 4:07 pm

        I think there’s a pretty good chance that your run of the mill Father of the Church would say that choosing to watch TV over praying is a venial sin, unless it is part of a necessary period of rest. As soon as you exceed the bounds of ordered rest, TV is a venial sin. It’s one of the myriad small ways we are all sinners. It’s part of the ubiquity of iniquity (sorry, I had to).

      • March 22, 2016 at 4:46 pm

        Sure. To notice that you can’t pray forever doesn’t tell you how much you ought to be doing so, and it’s altogether possible that the right slice of the pie is much larger than most persons are willing to grant.

      • robalspaugh said,

        March 22, 2016 at 5:32 pm

        I wish I had not qualified what I wrote with “order,” because I’m pretty sure at least some of the Fathers wouldn’t have either. I think they would just say it’s a sin to watch TV (or anything short of contemplation), full stop, and point to the greatness of our redemption. That’s how I started my comment, but I weaseled out with an edit–child of this age that I am.

        Now maybe that’s an “unhealthy” mindset, but I’m not sure how else to account for their attitude toward sin as a condition of bondage. I think they were far more comfortable assessing our “default state” as one of sinning. Even when we fight against the world, I think we assess our default state as a kind of idling in neutral.

        Maybe I should have written it as one of your dialogues. I am clearly of two minds. 🙂

      • FuzzyBunny said,

        March 23, 2016 at 8:08 am

        Then let’s take an alternative example: I think it’s clear that giving alms to the poor is a greater good than going out to eat, by myself (so there really isn’t a social good involved). Or, along the same lines, I could eat bland food and give the money that I saved over to the poor, and that would be the greater act.

        But is going out to eat or spicing my dinner sinful? That seems unlikely.

        Along the same lines, we’re required to make some sacrifice in Lent. Presumably, making a sacrifice (say, chocolate) for the sake of God is a greater good than indulging ourselves in the chocolate.

        But if choosing the lesser good (chocolate) over a greater good (sacrifice for God) is wrong, then how can we say that a Lenten sacrifice is only required during Lent – wouldn’t we need to give up any lesser good for God throughout the year, unless it was a good which is necessary for us?

        It’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion that in any situation, there are a myriad of goods that could be pursued and chosen, some of them greater and some of them lesser. But to choose the lesser over the greater isn’t sinful. Otherwise, it feels like we’re beginning to sound like Peter Singer – failing to donate any wealth that is required beyond bare sustenance is wrong.

      • March 23, 2016 at 11:06 am

        The examples don’t strike me as essentially different, or at least they don’t need to be. Fasting isn’t meant to be done all the time, nor is all money is meant for alms, and what is necessary for life is more than just was keeps ones pulse going. I can’t see how the analogy to either marriage or celibacy is supposed to work since the former are states of life and not actions done within some state or another.

        I agree with you that Singer and Unger’s conclusions are reductions to the absurd, but not because it is sometimes right to prefer lesser goods but for other reasons – like the fact that our obligations to others are more localized. An obligation to help absolutely anyone that I could help could not be a virtue since virtues have to be perfections of possible human loves.

      • FuzzyBunny said,

        March 23, 2016 at 12:07 pm


        What would you say about the examples I gave of eating nice food – that choosing to give alms to the poor is a greater good than eating particularly tasty food?

        I wasn’t really attempting to approach the question of marriage and celibacy. I was more interested in the first premise of your argument, “It is always disordered to choose the lesser good and not the greater good.”

  2. March 23, 2016 at 5:23 am

    I’m inclined to think that (1) is ambiguous; after all, while we don’t always do so, tutiorism can be stated as the view that it is always disordered to pick the lesser good rather than the greater good. (That is certainly how many rigorists saw it, which is why they thought their view was obviously right.)

    I’m not convinced that marriage can be a lesser means to the same good. For one thing, marriage cannot be reduced to being a means to the same good as celibacy for the very reason that it’s a sacrament: it’s by nature a means to what it’s a sacrament for (salvation), which celibacy is not, and it is the best possible means to its end under the aspect it aims at that end (while it is the lowest sacrament, it is the highest sacrament of all in point of signification, as Aquinas says). And I think it has to be recognized that it beats celibacy, hands down, in precisely that way as well: it is the better sign, which is why Scripture and the Church always return to it as such. Perhaps it might be possible to still keep your suggestion, though, if by ‘lesser means’ we really mean something like ‘less proximate means’, means having a weaker internal connection with its end, or anticipating it in a less direct way.

    • March 23, 2016 at 11:32 am

      Do you think (1) needs a modifying clause in order to be true? Originally I was trying out that approach but I couldn’t make it work.

      The connection between marriage and celibacy is pretty remote but I only think it gives us insight into marriage so far as it is not in ultimate opposition to celibacy. It might be useful in in other arguments too – like why consecrated life is not sacramental.

      • March 23, 2016 at 12:36 pm

        I was thinking about this. I think the issue is probably with the fact that goods can be higher and lesser in different ways, and some sort of qualification is in fact needed for (1).

        We see this with the sacraments themselves. Eucharist is a higher good than any other sacrament in terms of the reality of sacramental grace; but it is a lesser good than, say, baptism in terms of necessity, and a lesser good than marriage in signification. If we ask whether Eucharist or Matrimony is the higher good, for instance, in one sense it depends on what you mean — both are in a sense the best sacraments at being sacraments, since a sacrament is a sign with real grace, and Eucharist is superior all other sacraments with respect to real grace, while Matrimony is superior to all other sacraments in being a sign. Absolutely, of course, Eucharist is the superior sacrament, since real grace is itself more important than being a sign. But if you were in a weird situation in which you had to choose between the sacrament of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Matrimony, the fact that the latter is a higher good in one way, even though it’s a lesser good overall, could be relevant. (It reminds me a bit of the principle of noncontradiction: something can be F and not-F, it just can’t be so in the same respect. Likewise, perhaps we can indeed choose lower goods over higher goods — as long as they are not lower in the aspect most relevant to the situation in which we are choosing.)

        I think there’s a bit of analogy between this and the marriage/celibacy case, although I don’t know how far it goes. Both marriage and celibacy function as signs of (among other things) the future life. But marriage is the superior sign; it is better at being a sign of what celibacy in this life is a sign for than even celibacy itself is. (Which is why we regularly talk about celibacy in terms borrowed from marriage — being married to God, etc.) But celibacy, for the reason you note in the post, is closer in reality. Human celibacy now is a poor shadow of the life then, but it is closer to that state than marriage is. In that sense, we could call it a higher good. But it is not a higher good in every way without qualification. And I think (1) is only true as-is if we are dealing with a case in which the higher good is in every way superior.

        The same reasoning would also require that (2) be qualified, as you suggest in the post, by recognition that marriage is in some sense not a lesser good, If we just look at the natural side of things, and talk about marriage and celibacy (e.g., the kind that was recommended by ancient philosophers who advised to study philosophy rather than marry), marriage and celibacy are in a sense exactly the same good, as we can see by comparing them to the defect (licentious living) — celibacy is just more of that exact same good, so to speak. And the reasoning I gave in the last paragraph would suggest something similar on the side of grace (they are both, at least in part, signs of the same reality) and also that marriage at least has one point of superiority (it is a better sign of the same reality), even though that’s a less important point on which to be superior.

  3. March 24, 2016 at 9:50 am

    It seems to me that some of the ambiguity in the first tenet is over the nature of choice as such, and what it means to choose, in this life, goods over other goods. Also very relevant is the issue of final goods versus intermediate goods. Most individual choices in this life do not involve permanent, mutually exclusive preferences of final goods. Rather, they involve many small, but habit-forming choices between various temporary, intermediate goods over long periods of time.

    However, the individual choices of partial goods we do make can and do have an orienting effect on our choice of final goods. Hence someone who habitually or always chooses pleasurable things over other goods orients himself towards pleasure over higher goods, to the point where some people may be justly said to have chosen pleasure as their final good. But someone who (for instance) feasts during the Easter season after fasting during Lent makes both sensible pleasures and their deprivation means of orienting himself towards God as the highest good. Indeed, there are few goods as such that cannot be made a means of orienting ourselves towards our final good–though there are also few if any goods that cannot in some circumstances be a hindrance to it.

    Thus, when it comes to our final good, there is no question that we are obligated to choose the highest good as our final good, over lesser goods. The more important question here, though, is whether, in the choice of intermediate goods, we are obliged always and in every instance to choose the safest or most reliable or most direct or most evident or most apparent means of attaining our final good. As Brandon points out, it seems hard to square this position with the Magisterium, as well as with much of revelation. This is an area where recourse needs to be had to prayer, well-formed conscience, obedience, and discernment of the Will of God, I think, rather than to any kind of universal rule. Some of the more mystical doctors of the Church might also be helpful here (I think of Therese of Liseux here especially).

  4. Jhf884 said,

    April 25, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    Isn’t (1) just false? This could be shown be example (not everyone gives all to follow God, but everyone is not sinning in doing so). It also seems to follow from the fact that there are absolute prohibitions in ethics (NEVER do x), but few if any absolute prescriptions (ALWAYS do x).

    • April 25, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      It is very strange to say that there is nothing disordered in loving lower goods to the exclusion of higher ones. This seems to suffice to make a desire disordered.

      • Jhf884 said,

        April 25, 2016 at 5:33 pm

        The post didn’t say exclusion.

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