November 2013 Print

Theological Studies: The Priority of Ends

by Brian M. McCall

Much has been and much more could be written about the startling interviews given by Pope Francis recently. Yet, rather than dwelling on the myriad of troubling details, I want to examine a core philosophical belief which undergirds much of what the Pope says, and presumably believes. It has long been my contention that the grave crisis in the Church, the crisis of Modernism, involves more than the fact that utterly false principles are urged upon the faithful. In addition, the due order and priority among true principles is disregarded and in fact inverted. When the Modernist crisis is evaluated from the hindsight of history, I believe it will show that one can do much more harm than a Luther or Calvin, who simply established false principles, by advocating an erroneous priority of true principles. In this article we will consider how the inversion of the proper order of true principles concerning the end of Man leads to disaster.

To demonstrate the need for priority of true principles we can begin by resolving an apparent paradox in two editions of the Baltimore Catechism. There are two answers to the question “Why did God make us?” One is that “God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven” (Baltimore Catechism 1941 edition). The second is “God made us to know, Him, to love Him, and to serve Him” (Baltimore Catechism 1921 edition). Both of these statements are true, but to be fully and properly understood they must be placed in a proper order. To understand this order we can turn to the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that all men act with an end or purpose in mind. There are, however, different kinds of ends, intermediate and ultimate. An intermediate end is an end, a completion of action, but one which is not done for its own sake but for the sake of another end. An ultimate end is an end sought simply for its own sake. The question “For what sake is that end achieved?” has no meaning with respect to the ultimate end. A simple analogy can help illustrate the point. If I am cooking food, my end is to prepare dinner. Yet, I am not preparing dinner for its own sake. I am preparing it for the end of eating it. The fact that I can ask why I am eating the dinner (to avoid starvation and death) proves that eating dinner is itself an intermediate end.

Returning to the Catechism, Man is created for the end of knowing, loving, and serving God in this life in order to be happy in the next. Yet, this is not the ultimate end of Man. This is only his end because he was created in the first place. Thus, we can ask why did God create Man having such a particular end? The answer to this question is the other answer to the Catechism question. God created Man (including the creation of the end of knowing, loving, and serving Him) so as to show forth his goodness and share his happiness. This is the ultimate end of Man; the reason for which the end of knowing, loving, and serving God exists. As St. Thomas explains, “God produced the being of all things, not by natural necessity, but by His intellect and will. His intellect and will can have nothing for an ultimate end other than His own goodness, which He communicates to things. Things participate in Divine goodness through similitude, insofar as they are themselves good. But what is best in created things is the good of the order of the universe, which is the most perfect, as the Philosopher says (XII Metaphysics, c. 10); this is also in accordance with Holy Scriptures, where it is said: ‘And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good’ (Gen. 1:31), whereas of the works of creation taken separately He had simply said that they were good. Consequently, the good of the order of things created by God is also the principal object of the will and intention of God. But to govern a being is none other than to impose an order upon it....”1 That which makes the particular end of each Man to know, love, and serve God to be good is that this particular end is ordered to the manifestation of God’s goodness through the created universe. There is an important principle that lies behind this ordering of ends. The ultimate end is understood from God’s perspective. It is a cosmological end; an order and purpose to the universe. The intermediate end is from Man’s perspective. It is an end of each person’s individual existence. Yet, this individual personal end must be subject to the ultimate end of manifestation of God’s goodness (and especially his charity in desiring to share His happiness). The personal end of each Man is a part of the overall end common to all creation. We maintain this necessary order only by understanding the end of each person in its dependent relation to the end of God’s creation.

An error at the heart of the Modernist crisis in the Church, and an error to which many modern popes have been attached, is the error of Personalism. This philosophy places the human person, the end understood from the human perspective, as the highest consideration and the first principle of philosophy. The error of Personalism does not lie in acknowledging and celebrating the dignity and value of each and every human person. The error is in failing to orient that acknowledgment to the higher common end. The error of Personalism is to place the good of the individual person as the highest end, rather than that end common to all persons, the manifestation of God’s goodness. This fatal flaw of Personalism was adopted, or at least accommodated, at Vatican II. The document Gaudium et Spes contains at Number 24 a declaration dearly loved and often quoted by John Paul II: “Man is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself.” In its proper hierarchical context, this statement is true. Man was created to rule over the earth. All lower creatures were created to serve Man in attaining his end. This is symbolized by God granting Man the power to name all the creatures of the earth. Thus, Man is not an end for other worldly creatures, in the way that other lower creatures are means to the sustaining and flourishing of the life of Man. Yet, Man’s sustaining and flourishing is not an end in itself, but rather only a necessary means for Man to serve his ultimate end, to show forth God’s goodness. From the perspective of lower creatures, Man is not willed for them but for himself; but from God’s perspective, lower creatures are willed for Man because Man is willed for the manifestation of God’s goodness. St. Thomas corrects this misleading statement of Gaudium et Spes across the centuries when he declared: “However, we do not understand this statement, that intellectual substances are ordered for their own sake by divine providence, to mean that they are not more ultimately referred to God and to the perfection of the universe.”2

The Thomist Charles De Koninck3 in his refutation of the errors of Personalism (exemplified by the philosopher Jacques Maritain) in the early twentieth century explained the detailed relation of Man to this ultimate end. He explains that the goodness of God that is to be manifested is one in God, yet God needs to divide this unitary goodness into distinct creatures because no one creature is capable of manifesting all goodness (otherwise the creature would be a god). Thus the perfection of all of creation as a whole which reflects the perfection of God is greater than the perfection of one component of the universe. Man’s part in this greater good is to show forth that aspect of God’s goodness that He knows and wills the good that He is. Man as rational agent has the ability to know and will the good and by doing so he fulfills not only his own good—to know, love, and serve God and thereby to attain heaven—but the good of the universe to show forth that divided part of God’s goodness consisting in willing choice of the good. This common end is of a higher order, more perfect, than the particular end of each Man, which is a part of this common end. A part is not greater than the whole. As De Koninck explains: “The good of the universe is the good of each of the rational creatures insofar as it is their good as common good” (emphasis added).

Thus, the good of each individual, the perfection of his rational nature, is not an isolated, disconnected end but an intermediate end incorporated within the ultimate end of all creation, the manifestation of God’s goodness. The Personalist error is not in the recognition of the dignity and value of each individual person as part of that common end; it is the failure to orient that dignity and value to the proper end common to each person. John Paul II in continuity with the letter and spirit of Vatican II was constantly waxing lyrical on the dignity of the human person. Pope Francis from initial accounts seems to be cut from the same cloth. Yet, Charles De Koninck’s reply to the Personalists of his day is equally applicable to both of them. “To this we reply that the rational creature draws its dignity from the fact that, by its proper operation, by its intelligence and against its love it can attain to the ultimate end of the universe.” Each individual attains his particular end by perfecting his knowledge of, love for, and service of God, but it is not this particular perfection of this Man which is the primary source of the goodness of such perfection. It is the role that individual’s perfection plays in the ultimate common end of all Men—to manifest God’s goodness by knowingly and willingly attaining their personal perfection for His greater glory. De Koninck explains:

“Thus it is an entirely different thing to say that rational creatures are governed and ordered for themselves, and to say that they are such by themselves and for their singular good; they are ordered for themselves to the common good [the manifestation of that aspect of God’s goodness which is a rational choice of goodness]. The common good is for them, but it is for them as common good. The rational creatures can themselves attain in an explicit manner to that good to which all creatures are ordered; thus they differ from irrational creatures, which are pure instruments, merely useful, and which do not by themselves attain in an explicit manner to the universal good to which they are ordered. And therein consists the dignity of rational nature.”

Traditional Catholic philosophy and theology affirm the dignity of human nature but deny it is a self-contained dignity. It is not a dignity which is an end in itself. The proper dignity of Man consists in his common end.

Gaudium et Spes No. 24 and its repetition by subsequent popes is erroneous in exalting the dignity of Man, not in the sense that Man lacks dignity, but rather in misunderstanding the true nature and source of that dignity as residing in Man himself. Again De Koninck explains:

“Hence the rational creature, insofar as it can itself attain to the end of God’s manifestation outside Himself, exists for itself. The irrational creatures exist only for the sake of this being which can by itself attain to an end which will belong to irrational creatures only implicitly. Man is the dignity which is their end. But that does not mean that rational creatures exist for the dignity of their own being and that they are themselves the dignity for which they exist.”

Irrational creatures remain in the order created by God by being impelled to do so. The dignity of Man consists in the fact that he causes himself to remain within the order and thereby cooperates with God to create. He is not free for disorder but is free to remain in order so thereby to show the perfection of God to will the good. De Koninck observes that unlike the angels, who could only fail in their supernatural end and not in the natural end of their substance, Man can fail to attain both his supernatural and his natural end (the proper ordination of his sensitive appetites to his intellectual appetites). Man can lose both his supernatural and even his natural dignity. Human dignity is therefore not infallible or incorruptible. To celebrate such dignity universally and univocally is to mislead about its fragile nature.

If dignity existed within the person simply as a being who exists, that dignity would be inviolate as long as the person remained in existence. Yet, dignity is not in the person as a person, as De Koninck explains: “Dignity cannot be a proper attribute of the person considered as such, but belongs rather to persons according to their nature. For the person is not an absolute as such... [only God is an absolute necessity]. Likewise in man, dignity is not an attribute of the person considered as such, but rather of the rational nature....” Man can lose his dignity since his dignity consists in his end; to the extent that he fails in his end, he loses this dignity. “God’s dignity is the only dignity which is identical to his Being, and hence infallible.” According to St. Thomas: “By sinning, man sets himself outside the order of reason, and consequently, he loses human dignity, as namely man is naturally free and existing for himself, and he places himself in some way in the servitude of animals....For the bad man is worse than an animal.”4 This conclusion follows from the recognition that Man is not simply a being for self, but Man is a being-for-self-for-God. It is the omission of the phrase “for-God” that makes Gaudium et Spes 24 erroneous by material omission.

This omission leaves the focus entirely on the particular individual and his particular end or purpose not harmonized to the common good of the universe of which Man is meant to be an integral part. De Koninck explains the resultant radical individualism: “Through disordered love of singularity, one practically rejects the common good as a foreign good and one judges it to be incompatible with the excellence of our singular condition. One withdraws thus from order and takes refuge in oneself as though one were a universe for oneself, a universe rooted in a free and very personal act.” This consideration of the human person as an end in itself is in reality the destruction of human dignity rather than its purported exaltation. “One freely abdicates dignity as a rational creature in order to establish oneself as a radically independent whole.”5 Unlike secular individualists, Christian Personalists still speak about God and treat Him as relevant, but He has been dethroned from the common end of all to be put solely at the service of each person-for-self-alone. God only becomes relevant because He is necessary to the perfection of the personal human being. The Christian Personalist sees God as a means, albeit a necessary means, of perfecting and celebrating human dignity rather than human dignity at the service of God. Notwithstanding pious affirmations such a Christian “has no need of God except for that same purpose....The act of submission itself would be an act which emanates as surplus from a pure ‘for self’ and from the recognition of one’s proper generosity as being so great that it does it no harm to spread itself forth; on the contrary, the personality thus would fulfill itself and pour forth the good which it already possesses in itself.”6 This attitude distorts our understanding of the supernatural virtue of Faith. A Personalist submits to God through faith, but for the end of completing or perfecting his personal dignity by attaining his personal end and not for the end of glorifying God. “One will even let oneself be directed by someone else [the effect of an Act of Faith]; one will recognize a superior, provided that the latter be the ‘fruit’ of one’s own choice and the vicar, not of the community, but first and foremost of oneself. Any good other than that which is due to us on account of our singular nature, any good anterior to this one and to which we must freely submit ourselves under pain of doing evil, is abhorred as an insult to our personality.”7 Again, if the perfection of an individual Man (even seen in terms of the attainment of heaven) is the ultimate end, submission in faith is oriented to the particular end of the person, not to God.8

In light of this distinction between two radically different understandings of the individual person, we can finally consider two of the most troubling sentences from the recent interview of the Holy Father.

“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.”

“Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

To the extent that the Holy Father is affirming that each person is a rational creature, each person can know what is good and evil and must choose to do what he knows to be good, the statements are correct. Yet, they are erroneous and, particularly when uttered to an atheist, extremely dangerous. They omit to connect this particular good of the individual—to know the good and to choose to do it and thereby perfect his nature—to the purpose or end of these dignified powers. We should only encourage people to move toward what they think is good when what they think is good is in fact really good. Otherwise, in using their power to move toward what they perceive, erroneously, as good, they are thwarting their ultimate end and destroying their dignity. They are not manifesting God’s goodness by moving toward evil notwithstanding their thinking it to be good. As even Aristotle understood, we always think that what we desire is good even when it is not. Even though moving toward a perceived good is consistent with a rational nature, it is not consistent with the end of that rational nature unless the good perceived is in fact good. Essentially, the second statement urges people to follow their conscience, to be persistent in fighting for what their conscience identifies as good. Yet, it is contrary to the ultimate end of Man to follow an erroneous conscience. Following an erroneous conscience might be living according to our personal end which requires we act according to our conscience, but in fulfilling a personal end by following an erroneous conscience we are working against our common and ultimate end. We should not follow our perception of good if our perception is in error; rather we should correct our conscience. To utter such unqualified statements to an avowed atheist essentially gives the atheist leave to continue working against the common good of Mankind, to use his rational nature to obscure rather than manifest the aspect of God’s goodness entrusted to Mankind to manifest. Such advice presumes the good of consistency of action of the individual as individual (following his perception of the good) as more important than playing one’s part in manifesting God’s goodness. One can only consistently utter such erroneous statements if one sees the goodness of individuals as an end in themselves and not as necessarily subordinate to the ultimate end of all human persons. In other words, Pope Francis reveals an underlying commitment to the Personalist error proclaimed in Gaudium et Spes No. 24 which has been distorting properly oriented theology and philosophy in the Church for decades. The answer to such a crisis is not the denial of true human dignity (as happens when the world resorts to totalitarian regimes which treat persons like irrational creatures and pure means) but rather its real exaltation by properly understanding that dignity in the context of the ultimate and common end of the universe. Only by such proper ordering can we truly and fully know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next for the purpose of manifesting His goodness.

1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III.64.

2 Ibid., III.112

3 Charles De Koninck, On the Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, available at

4 Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 64, a. 2, reply to obj. 3.

5 Charles De Koninck.

6 Charles De Koninck.

7 Ibid.

8 Notwithstanding many good aspects, many aspects of Pope Francis’s encyclical on Faith, Lumen Fidei, exhibit this distortion of the virtue of Faith. Space in a single article does not suffice to develop this observation fully. Yet, in many passages the encyclical views faith as good because of what it does for individuals and their end. Here is only one example: “We come to see the difference, then, which faith makes for us. Those who believe are transformed by the love to which they have opened their hearts in faith. By their openness to this offer of primordial love, their lives are enlarged and expanded.”