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Dear Father Angelo,

The question I am about to ask you is probably going to be a bit complicated and tricky, but in times when the primacy of moral law is challenged by modern science, I believe having clear ideas is imperative.

Man gleans moral law from his own nature, inferring its inclinations. By reaching his own purpose, like every other being, man does his own good. I have always read that the foundation of natural law is metaphysical. But the “first degree of abstraction” accessed by man is the one where the mind abstracts from individual matter and does not look at something in its particularity but in general: not “this mineral”, but mineral in general. According to Saint Thomas, this type of abstraction would be typical of physical and natural sciences (or at least of natural philosophy). In the “third degree of abstraction”, typical of metaphysics, the mind abstracts from all matter to achieve the intelligible being, the being of things with their characteristics.

In the midst of thinking, I had a doubt: what is the degree of abstraction that involves the inference of the primary principles of morality from human nature? If it is the first degree, to what extent can we still state that metaphysics is the foundation of morality? Thank you for your time.

Best regards.


Dear friend,

1. You can’t get to the bottom of this issue because you have mixed up the abstraction of the concept with the third degree of abstraction, i.e. metaphysics.

Once we know a reality, we obviously grasp the concept, i.e. the universal, but this does not correspond to metaphysics.

However it is a precondition of it.

But let us go in order.

2. According to the ancient philosophers (Aristotle and Boethius), there are three ways of doing science and they differ on the basis of a bigger or smaller abstraction of the mind towards reality.

Saint Thomas makes this exact distinction.

3. To the first degree of abstraction belong those sciences that study reality as it is and in its changeability.

Aristotle names them “physics”, i.e. nature.

However what he meant by “physics” was different from what we mean today, i.e. a science immersed in mathematics. He understood physics as what can be observed, as natural phenomena at their first observation.

Through this first observation, we can see the earth in its diverse parts: seas, rivers, mountains, hills, plains, urban areas, towns, villages. This is called geography.

4. In the same way we organize the sequence of events that unfolded in society: here we are talking about history.

Through this first observation, we can tell the difference between the organic world and the inorganic one, where we have chemistry, mineralogy, botany, zoology, etc.

The organic world can be found instead in plants, animals and rational elements with their mental and operative skills.

When the focus shifts on the nature of man, on his soul and body, on his mental skills, on his freedom, on the spirituality and immortality of his soul, then we are talking about psychology, which is different from modern psychology.

In sum, we could say that this way of doing science examines how reality displays itself.

5. To the second degree of abstraction belong those sciences that study reality only in terms of quantity.

Here we are talking about mathematics and its two branches: arithmetic and geometry.

Mathematics examines the quantity of things.

Although it is more elevated than the first way of doing science, this one overlooks spiritual realities because they lack quantity.

Thus we cannot come to know God’s existence through mathematics only.

6. To the third degree of abstraction belong those sciences that abstract from all accidents to come to know reality in its substantiality.

These sciences try to answer questions such as: what is being? What is its origin? And what is its end?

Here we are talking about various disciplines, like ontology, natural theology, ethics, etc. They all come down to metaphysics, which is usually referred to as certain knowledge by the highest causes (cognitio certa per altissimas causas).

With regard to human activity, this third way of doing science examines what is good and what is bad, taking into account the nature and the end of man.

This is what we call ethics, also known as moral philosophy.

7. I mentioned the nature of man.

Moral philosophy cannot disregard the nature and the operative skills of man.

They both tell us what is the immediate orientation of these skills.

For example, they tell us that eyes are made to see, ears to hear, tongue to taste and talk, sexuality to procreate, etc.

This is already an important piece of information, however it is not enough.

We are still stuck in the first degree of abstraction.

8. In light of what he is, man discovers what the final end of his life and of his activity is.

He asks himself what personalistic meaning his characteristics have.

For example, he finds out that eating is not only for nourishment, as is the case for animals, but it has also a personalistic factor: it is a way to keep fulfilling his own duties, to socialize, fraternize, show affection and obligations, plan…

This personalistic meaning gets discovered through the third degree of abstraction and it is inherent in the so-called metaphysics, and more precisely in the branch of ethics and moral philosophy.

All of this, as a starting point, cannot do without the first degree of abstraction.

However, thought (or abstraction) goes beyond, in an attempt to subordinate acting, even in its unremovable biological aspect, to the integral needs of a person.

9. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II stated once again that man discovers in himself, in him being a person with soul and body, the moral law inscribed by God.

When the young man asked what he could do to enter into eternal life, Jesus answered: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17).

John Paul II observes: “Only God can answer the question about the good, because he is the Good.

But God has already given an answer to this question: he did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart (cf. Rom 2:15), the “natural law”.

The latter “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation” (VS 12).

10. John Paul II also writes: “The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator.

It is in the light of the dignity of the human person — a dignity which must be affirmed for its own sake — that reason grasps the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined” (VS 48).

And: “A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a “spiritual” and purely formal freedom.

This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behaviour involving it (cf. 1 Cor 6:19).

Saint Paul declares that “the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9).

This condemnation — repeated by the Council of Trent”(VS 88 ex DS 1544)— lists as “mortal sins” or “immoral practices” certain specific kinds of behaviour the wilful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together” (VS 49).

I want to thank you for your question because it allowed me to clarify an essential aspect of fundamental moral theology, which shows the connection between moral law and corporeality.

I wish you the best, I remember you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo

Translated by Chiara Midea