Incarnational morality: The operation of grace and personal conscience in Thomas Aquinas

Virginia Dolores Kiernan Dahlberg, Marquette University


For many contemporary theologians, the connection between conscience and grace is a tenuous one at best. Conscience, for them, is a human act within the sphere of morality. Grace, on the other hand, is wholly a spiritual matter, a doctrine of faith. Dogmatic theology and moral theology are discrete, almost isolated disciplines. The work of Pope John Paul II and Bernard Häring, whose views on grace and conscience are examined in this dissertation, exhibits this approach and its consequences. For Thomas Aquinas, however, the relationship of conscience and grace is far more direct, and complex. This is, in part, because he wrote at a time when theology was appreciated as a fully systematic enterprise. Moral theology was the application, the lived experience, of his Christian beliefs, which in turn derived from his philosophical vocabulary and method. The theological enterprise was a matter of inter-related disciplines within a single whole. Conscience, for Aquinas, is the operation of grace within the moral life, God's empowerment of persons to seek and do the good in the freedom which is God's gift to humanity. Today's theologians, however, must re-examine and re-state the work of Aquinas. His world was more homogenous and simple, his science and vocabulary were valid for the 13th century. We must learn to honor his context and style, in order to understand his teaching. But our insights regarding the possibilities and limitations of human life today, our experience of human diversity and modern scientific knowledge can illuminate the profound wisdom and care of this 13th century teacher whose world was much less aware of diversity. When we understand grace as the freely given life of God within each person, empowering us rather than dominating us, we can maize confident decisions to embody--to incarnate--the good in ourselves and in our world. We can enter each moral question honestly, confident that conscience will seek what is truly good, and act to bring it about. This is Incarnational Morality, the human embodiment of God's empowerment.

Recommended Citation

Dahlberg, Virginia Dolores Kiernan, "Incarnational morality: The operation of grace and personal conscience in Thomas Aquinas" (2003). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3093139.