Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What is a “morality of intention”?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

A morality of intention is a morality in which one does what is right (the law) for the correct reason (love of God and neighbor). We commonly hear about a distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Typically, these phrases are invoked when an overly literal interpretation of the words in a legal structure are applied with little consideration for the intent or the circumstances. Our situation today is not much different from the time of Christ. However, the situation was compounded by the addition of an Oral Torah—not the original written Law, but the interpretation of that law by scribes and rabbis in the Mishnah and the two Talmudim. However, as Ashley notes, the point of abiding by the letter of the law rather than the spirit was often done with the intention of finding a loophole—an excuse for not fulfilling some other obligation. Perhaps the most direct accusation Jesus makes against the Pharisees is just this: tithing mint and neglecting weightier matters, or as He also puts it, straining the gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). In Mark 7:9–13, He accuses the Pharisees of ignoring the fourth commandment to keep tradition.

This is not to say that the letter of the law is not important. Jesus Himself says that He is the fulfillment of the law and that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Yet his concern is with right law rightly practiced. He wants hearts of flesh, not hearts of stone (Ezekiel 36:26); mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13, 12:7; Hosea 6:6). As Murphy points out, “The basic thrust of the Torah places the commandments and statutes in the context of divine love.” Ashley, too, underscores this point: “One must intend always the true goal of life, love of God and neighbor, and to reach that goal choose only means that will really lead to it.”

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 2B—Lesson Four,” International Catholic University. 6 February 2010,
ii. Roland Murphy, 101 Questions & Answers on the Biblical Torah. (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), 9.
iii. Ashley,
v. Murphy, 119.
Ashley, .
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