By Jayson M. Brunelle
God, being the author of all that is, created us from the dust of the earth and breathed his own divine life into us prior to the fall. With the fall, however, came a profound dulling of the intellect and a weakening of the will. In fact, as a consequence of the fall, four fundamental relationships were severed – man’s relationship with God (the loss of sanctifying grace); man’s relationship with nature (subjecting us to suffering, pain and mortality); man’s relationship with other men (dominance, manipulation); and finally, man’s relationship with himself. This last of the relationships to be severed results in what theologians call concupiscence. It is, essentially, the lack of harmony between right reason and the emotions.
To understand where I’m going with this, you need to understand that St. Thomas Aquinas believed everyone intuitively understood the self-evident moral axioms, “Do good,” and “Avoid evil.” This, to him, was “right reason.” Furthermore, he held that human persons always choose for the sake of a good, even if the alleged good is only an “apparent” good. Even when we choose evil, he would argue, we’d never be choosing evil for its own sake, but rather because it is an apparent good that seems to be in our best interest – from a purely subjective standpoint. Due to the fundamental ignorance that is the human person’s lot, and as a direct consequence of Adam’s sin, it is possible to choose to act and behave in a fashion that is entirely contradictory to the objective moral code, but to perceive such actions to be “apparent goods.” Even the Gospels testify to the impediment that ignorance can play in preventing one from committing a fully human act (that is, an act committed with full knowledge and full consent of the will), as Jesus prays, during his crucifixion, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
While ignorance certainly exculpates and exonerates an individual, so do the psycho-social impediments that prevent us from acting with full consent of the will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church delineates four impediments that can prevent the human will from acting with full freedom, with knowledge and freedom being the pre-condition for being capable of committing serious, mortal sin. The impediments to freedom are habit, fear, extreme emotion or coercion. (It should be noted that the mentally ill often are in a state of mind that is preoccupied with habits, fears and extreme emotions; hence, it is difficult for the mentally disabled to commit serious sins, thereby rendering them innocent.)
Traditional moral theology distinguishes between antecedent emotion and consequent emotion. In the former, emotional influence on an act is rejected by the will. In the later, it is accepted or enlisted. Antecedent emotions can be completely spontaneous and unnoticed; it is for this reason that they can mitigate the responsibility of the individual, provided the emotional influence is rejected once noticed. Consequent emotion, however, does not lessen blameworthiness, as such emotion is allowed by the will to facilitate the performance of an immoral action. Of course, we’re only speaking here of emotions that have the potential to lead us to act in ways that are morally unacceptable. The emotions, in and of themselves, are good, and this due to the fact that God created them to assist us in a myriad of ways. In fact, the question can be posed, “Would we be authentic human persons without our emotions?” As a psychotherapist, I would have to answer, “No.”
While it is true that our emotional lives constitute a critical dimension of our lives as human persons, it remains the case that post-lapsarian man (man after the fall) can and often does becomes a “victim” of his emotions, and, at times, these emotions can seem to have the upper hand. As St. Thomas states, it is critical that emotions be subjected to “right reason” at all times and enlisted for the sake of the good.
While this may be the case, it would not be appropriate to speak of human emotions in a negative fashion, mistakenly identifying emotions as springing from what some spiritual writers referred to as “our lower, base nature.” In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that love, desire, joy, hope and courage, along with the opposing emotions of hate, aversion, sadness, despair and fear, all serve the human person at certain times and in certain situations. Even anger, which does not have an opposite emotion, can serve the human person. Emotions, like everything else that God creates, are intrinsically good and serve very specific purposes. In fact, you may have been surprised to hear that even the emotion of hate is a good emotion provided it leads us to avoid those things which are truly detrimental to our well-being.
Being Omniscient, God certainly knew that Adam would fall, causing the fall of the entire human race. And yes, it is certainly true that the lack of harmony between right reason and the emotions can and often does get us into all sorts of trouble; this, however, is not a good-enough reason to cast the emotions aside or relegate them to a “lower” status.
Jesus, risen and glorified, offers us participation in His very own life. Thus, our emotions, constituting an intrinsic dimension of the human person, can and will become divinized through God’s manifold grace, which is transmitted via prayer and the sacraments. There is, then, no reason to fear our emotions or our emotional life. It is part and parcel of the universal human experience, and when divinized, it, too, is used by God to bring about His greater glory and ultimately the manifestation of His will.