Light and Life – Jan-Feb 2019, Vol 72, No 1 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province
[Fr. Thomas Aquinas Pickett, O.P., from Ellensburg, Washington, entered the Western Dominican Province in 2011 after having received his B.A. in Philosophy from Gonzaga University. After receiving his S.T.B. from l’Institut Catholique de Toulouse, and his M.A. in Theology and M.Div from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, he was ordained to the priesthood in 2018. Fr. Thomas Aquinas now serves as Director of Evangelization and Faith Formation at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle, Washington.]
It is a general truism that the more precise the task, the smaller the margin of error. In other words, the more exact something needs to be, the more ways there are of messing it up. A 95-mile-an-hour fastball takes around 450 milliseconds to reach homeplate; and since it takes 150 milliseconds to swing a bat, the batter has only tens of milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing. (www.npr.org/2016/09/03/492516937/how-a-baseball-batters-brain-reactsto-a-fast-pitch) In those precious moments the batter could misread a pitch, not only in terms of its velocity, but also of its location and movement. That split-second decision could mean not swinging at a good pitch, or swinging at a bad one. But even if the batter decides to swing at a good pitch, his swing could miss the ball not only below or above, too early or too late, too hard or to soft, but even at too high or too low of an angle. And even if the batter does succeed in making contact, he can fail by hitting the ball on the wrong part of the bat or by hitting directly to a fielder. It is astounding to think of how many little details can go wrong in trying to hit a baseball! As Yogi Berra said, “little things are big.”
Little things are big when connected with a task that requires precision. You wouldn’t say, “don’t sweat the small stuff” to a scientist working with hazardous chemicals; you wouldn’t trust an accountant, a broker, or a banker who relies on “ballpark estimates” when dealing with your money; you wouldn’t want a surgeon with shaky hands to perform a cataract surgery. The more important something is, the more precision it requires, and the narrower the margin of error.
And what could be more important than our moral life? Not everyone has to be a baseball player, a scientist, a broker, or a surgeon, but everyone has to deal with morality. If important things require precision, and the moral life is important, therefore the moral life too requires precision. “What should I do?” This tremendous question does not content itself with only vague answers. Morality concerns, in a precise manner, what I should do here and now.
Unfortunately, in morality, just as in baseball, there are so many ways in which our choices can miss the target. This target is what we describe in moral terms as the “mean”. The mean describes that perfect action, the right choice and the right response to a desire or a situation. Normally we describe the mean as being between “too much” or “too little”. This mean is understood, not in a mathematical sense (as when we say that 3 is the mean between 1 and 5), but as dictated by rational reflection about our course of action. For example, a father may miss the mean by disciplining an unruly child either too much (resulting in enduring resentment and later rebelliousness) or too little (resulting in a lack of moral character and self-control). Furthermore, how much, and in which way the father disciplines one of his children might be too much or too little for another child. One son might learn sufficiently from a glance or a headshake; another son might need time-outs or patient explanations. The mean can vary in an incredible number of ways depending on where and when we are, and even depending on who we are.
We can miss the right moral action by too much or by too little, just as a batter can miss the ball by swinging too high or too low. This means that there are more ways of messing up than there are of getting something right in the moral sphere. St. Thomas Aquinas even notes, “the fact that very few people are virtuous, and most people wicked, comes about because there are more ways to deviate from the mean than there are ways to adhere to it” (De Malo, 1.3 ad 17). For example, both the scrupulous Catholic and the lax Catholic are two sides of the same coin. They have both failed in how one approaches morality; the one fails governed by fear, the other fails governed by apathy.
Hitting the moral target with precision requires an intellectual suppleness and perspicacity which is able to correctly size up a situation and discover what one ought to do. Hitting the target requires not only an abstract knowledge of good and evil but the ability to apply this knowledge to concrete situations and circumstances. This incredible ability is what we call the virtue of prudence. It is prudence that, as St. Thomas describes, allows someone to “obtain the mean of reason in his deeds.”(ST II-II.47.7co.) Just as a trained musician listening to a symphony is able to pick out the cellos amidst the sea of sound, so a person with prudence is able to pick out the right course of action amidst the ocean of moral possibilities. The root of the moral life, therefore, consists by its nature in the virtue of prudence; St. Thomas notes that “Prudence is the principal of all the virtues.” (ST I-II.61.2 ad 1) If we cannot discover the mean then we will inevitably miss the target, just as a blind batter will inevitably miss the ball.
In my experience, many Catholics have a solid understanding of sinning by too much. However, they are often surprised when they learn about all the ways in which one can miss the mean by too little. Perhaps this comes about from the fact that too much strikes us as more obvious than too little: too much jalapeño in a burrito or someone singing too loudly during Mass seizes our attention with more force than does a mild burrito or a quiet whisper. However, for every way that we can sin by excess, there is an equal way of sinning by deficiency.
“The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3