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The Challenge of Christian Discipleship

12 April, 2012

cosgraveTHE BOOK:
This a collection of essays in moral and pastoral theology published over the last twenty years in church magazines in Ireland such as Doctrine and Life, Intercom and The Furrow. Particularly interesting and significant is the first essay entitled ‘The Emotions and the Moral Life’. Fr Cosgrave brings many of the insights of modern psychology and psychotherapy to bear on moral issues. The writing throughout is clear sheds a positive light on all the issues dealt with.
Fr William Cosgrave is the parish priest of Monageer, Co Wexford, and a priest of the diocese of Ferns. For many years he taught moral theology in St Peter’s College, Wexford, and has written a wide variety of essays on moral and pastoral theology in The Furrow and in Doctrine and Life. A previous volume of collected essays was published by Columba Press in 2001 entitled Christian Living Today: Essays in Moral and Pastoral Theology. 



  1. The Emotions in the Moral Life 
  2. Emotional Intelligence: Its Meaning and Practical Implications
  3. Understanding and Managing Anger
  4. The Virtue Model of the Christian Moral Life
  5. Men and Women are equal: But how do they complement each other?
  6. The Christian Life: Relating its Spiritual and Moral Dimensions
  7. Happiness: Challenge and Blessing
  8. The Mid-Life Transition
  9. What Theologians Today are saying about Sin
  10. Reconciliation: The Struggle to Repent and Forgive
  11. The Decline of Confessions: Disaster or Return to Normal?
  12. Models of the Priesthood Today
  13. Structures of Authority in the Church
  14. The Diocesan Clerical System: How it shapes the Clergy within it
  15. The Cost of Discipleship
  16. Understanding Baptism: Changes of Emphasis Today
  17. Concelebration: Values and Drawbacks
  18. Eucharistic Devotions: Understanding their Decline
  19. Mass Offerings: Issues in Theology and Practice

318 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



If you were asked to mention a significant element or aspect of the moral life generally and, in particular, of the moral life of the Christian, it is not very likely that you or I or anyone else would pick out our emotions or feelings as such an element. In fact the emotions would probably not figure at all in the list of things one might draw up in response to such a request. We’d be more inclined to focus on such obvious things as conscience, sin, virtue, vice, injustice, the church’s teaching, etc. This is not surprising, given the long tradition in western ethics and in Christian moral reflection of either paying little attention to our emotions or of discussing them in very negative terms or both (1).

Today, however, this tradition and tendency are being rethought and renewed and, as we come to understand our emotional life better and take a more positive view of its place and function in our lives generally, moralists and others are beginning to recognise the very significant and indeed central role our emotions play in our lives as persons-in-relationship-and-in-community and so in our moral lives. This is quite a new emphasis and area of discussion, especially in Catholic moral thinking, certainly at its more practical or pastoral level.

In this chapter we will present some of the main ideas that are being given currency today in regard to our emotional life and its role in and impact on the moral life of the Christian. We will attempt to make the case that our emotions play a very significant part in our moral lives and spell out in a little detail what that part is, indicating also some of the consequences of this for us as we seek to follow the Christian way of life. It will become clear, we hope, that we will need to take our emotional life and its development more seriously, if we are to reach the goal or ideal of moral maturity which our calling as human beings and as disciples of Christ lays upon us.

As the word itself indicates, our emotions are movements of feeling within us that tend to move us out of ourselves (e-motion). As such they may be said to be in essence or by their nature impulses to act, to do something. This becomes clearer when we look at the findings of modern physiology in relation to the bodily changes that each emotion brings about in us. When, for example, we experience the feeling of anger, that is, become angry, our heart rate increases, blood flows to our hands and feet, adrenalin is released to provide added energy and our face becomes red or even white (with rage). All this represents the body, the person, preparing for action, whether it be a verbal confrontation with someone, a heated argument or a physical fight with fists and / or weapons. In the case of the feeling of fear the blood flows to our limbs to prepare us for flight, if need be, the face loses its colour as the blood rushes off to the limbs and a flood of hormones puts the body on high alert for a rapid response. In relation to the positive emotion of love or tender feelings we experience the opposite of the flight or fight response. The body feels calm and contented and this moves the person towards relationship and cooperation with the loved one (3).

Our ordinary experience confirms all this data from the human sciences and makes it clear that our emotions are powerful forces within us that move us to respond to situations and people in ways that can often be very significant for ourselves and/or for our relationships, whether positively or negatively. Our experience of anger and aggression, of fear and fright, makes this clear, but we know its truth also from having experienced feelings like sadness, guilt, shame, sorrow, enjoyment, love, surprise and shock.

From what has been said here, it is not too difficult to understand that our emotions are sources of energy within us that can, in a sense personal to each of us, move mountains, as it were. This is psychic energy that is generated in response to our perceptions of the realities and especially the people we encounter and that touch us in ways that are significant. The power and strength of this energy can be seen particularly when we are in the grip of an emotion like sexual infatuation or have fallen in love, when we are filled with anger and rage, when we are carried away with joy and happiness or when panic or terror lay hold of us. Action usually follows such deep and powerful emotions and very dramatic action it may be, as experience again confirms. So our emotions and their accompanying energy can be life-transforming for better or for worse. All this is normal and to be expected in our daily lives. The problem is usually to harness and channel this emotional energy in constructive and appropriate ways so that one’s own and others’ welfare and happiness are promoted and enhanced. This is the task of emotional growth and maturity, as we will see later.

Experts tell us that how we handle the psychic energy of our emotions is very important for our emotional health and growth and consequently for our relationships with others and our general welfare and happiness as persons. We have a variety of psychic mechanisms for dealing with this energy. One unhealthy one is called repression. Repression is usually an unconscious process by which we banish from our conscious awareness certain ‘unacceptable’ or ‘bad’ experiences or feelings. It is a method of emotional self-regulation in which we automatically tune out certain disturbing feelings as a way of defending ourselves against the upset we feel they would cause us. One can understand it as a form of denial that renders one unaware of the feelings that one represses. This may happen in relation to feelings of anger and hostility towards a parent or authority figure like a teacher, priest or bishop or a celibate may repress sexual or genital feelings because he / she assumes they are ‘bad’.

Psychic repression such as we are here considering, though often finding a place in people’s ordinary lives, comes at a cost and this is the point we want to emphasise here. Such repression is emotionally or psychically unhealthy and damaging, because it buries the emotions involved within one’s unconscious. But these emotions still retain their psychic energy; in other words, they are buried alive rather than dead and they, therefore, continue to seek an outlet, some form of expression. Preventing such an outlet or expression uses up some of one’s ordinary resources of psychic energy and renders it more difficult for a person to be one’s true self in an emotionally mature way. In addition, the buried energy will probably seep out in disguise, as it were, and result in the person becoming, e.g. irritable, angry, frustrated, moody, etc. or even developing physical symptoms of illnesses like colds, fevers, ulcers, skin diseases or even more serious complaints (4). Clearly it will be very important for our emotional health to avoid or at least overcome any tendency we may have to repression. But that is far from easy as repression is unconsciously done and one may well require help from others to overcome it.

Experience shows that our emotional reactions tend to be much more rapid than those of our rational mind. This speed is the result of a long process of evolution and its purpose was to give the individual person a better chance of escaping the threats to his/her life in the very dangerous world of millions of years ago. This same instantaneous emotional reaction is still with us today and can be either a benefit or a problem depending on the situation. It can appear, therefore, that in a sense we have two minds or two aspects of the one mind, the emotional and the rational. While this is true, these two normally operate in tight harmony with our emotions feeding into and informing the operations of the rational mind and the rational mind refining and sometimes vetoing the inputs or tendencies of the emotions (5).

Scholars are now able to tell us what is happening in the brain when these emotional and rational operations are taking place. The two parts of the brain that are most involved are the amygdala and the neo-cortex. The amygdala (from the Greek word for almond) is an almond-shaped structure in the prefrontal lobes. It is situated above the brainstem near the bottom of the limbic ring. The neo-cortex evolved much later than the amygdala. It too is part of the limbic system; it surrounds the brainstem and is placed above the amygdala. To put it at its simplest we can say that the amygdala is the seat of our emotions and the neo-cortex is the seat of our thinking. The former is the emotional brain; the latter is our rational brain. These two elements of our mental life normally work together, as we have already mentioned. But the amygdala can react to a perception quicker than the neo-cortex and so occasionally we have an emotional reaction to a perceived threat, attraction or opportunity that escapes the control of the neo-cortex. As a result such a reaction may turn out to be inappropriate or even primitive. Some refer to these occurrences as emotional hijacks in which our reason is overwhelmed, our emotions take over, declare an emergency and take some drastic and perhaps quite unhelpful, exaggerated or even destructive action. It could be some form of aggression or violence or fear or fright, triggered, maybe, by some emotional memory from one’s past (6).

What has been said so far is concerned largely with our emotions as observable phenomena, as physical or bodily realities. This is important but more needs to be said about them. Our emotions have an inner aspect, what we could call an inward experience that has often been overlooked but is of major and indeed primary significance for our general understanding of our feelings and particularly for throwing light on the role of our emotions in our moral lives.

We are bodily beings and our emotions are part of that bodiliness. Now, since it is through the body that we are in the world and participate in what goes on there, we can say that our emotions put us in touch with our world; through them we participate in the world and are attuned to it. In a sense we breathe in the world through our feelings and these feelings are rooted ultimately in our being-in-the-world, or more exactly, in our being-with-others-in-the-world. These feelings are directed towards situations in the world and are responses to what one perceives in one’s world. They are not, therefore, purely subjective. They have a real reference to objective events; they attune us to reality (7).

Feelings are very specific and differ according to the situations which evoke them. One situation gives rise to fear, for example, while another evokes anger and yet another joy or hope or sadness or shame, etc. Now this indicates that each of these feelings carries within it an awareness, an understanding, however vague and unarticulated, of the situation to which it refers and from which it arises. At least implicitly, it asserts that the situation has a certain character, e.g. a feeling of fear carries an awareness of some threat, one of anger contains an awareness of some hurt, frustration or injustice. And so with other feelings. While this awareness or insight is not often made explicit or put into words, it is, nevertheless, there. Hence, we can say that there are no mere feelings but only feelings or emotions that give us to understand something and make some assertion or disclose something about the situation from which they arise. In other words, our feelings give us an insight into a situation and it is an insight that is neither purely subjective nor is it completely objective like something we hear or see or touch. What is disclosed by our feelings transcends this distinction between subjective and objective and is referred to by some as existential or primordial (8).

What we have just been saying in the preceding paragraphs is important as it makes it clear that it is false to oppose understanding and emotion to each other as has, unfortunately, been done in philosophy and even in Christian ethics over the centuries. We see now, however, that our emotions have a cognitive element and function; they can and do give us knowledge and insight, not just into particular situations but also through those situations into the values that are to be found in those situations and indeed in the whole of the moral life (9).

We may spell out this last point on the moral life a little more fully.

Our insight into values, moral values included, and our understanding and appreciation of them come to us, first of all, through our feelings. We appreciate values or goods emotionally, to begin with. What we love we value; where our heart is, there is our treasure. We do, of course, come to appreciate some values intellectually but unless we feel a value in our heart, as it were, then that value will be for us more a notional than a real one. It won’t move or inspire us; we’ll lack the moral energy to pursue that value and realise it in our actions or make it part of our character. This implies too that our appreciation of and commitment to the various virtues are also emotional, and need to be, if those virtues are not to remain for us impersonal ideals rather than attitudes and values which touch our hearts, which we are committed to practising in our daily lives as Christians and which come to form significant dimensions of our moral character. To put this in other words, the springs of morality and of one’s moral life are in the heart, and the origins or roots of our moral experience are in our feelings or affections.

It is important to add here that the insight into values and virtues that our emotions provide or contain has also an evaluative element or a kind of judgment. We encounter values or goods in specific situations in which people are involved and our feelings are often stirred in response to a particular action or situation that has a moral dimension to it. Thus we bristle and feel anger, if we discern injustice in some situation, especially if we feel we ourselves are being unjustly treated. Many people seem to feel a negative affective response to the idea of storing the sperm of superior people like Einstein or Lincoln in order to breed better people in the future (10). People are outraged when they discover that top political figures have lied about or covered up scandals in matters of public interest or when church leaders are discovered to have done similar things in relation to sex abuse of children by priests.

In such situations the evaluations or judgments we discover in and through our feelings are moral in character. Such judgements are quite common in our daily lives as, for example, when we react, negatively or positively, to various situations and express a moral judgment on them without always being able to articulate any very adequate reasons for our conclusion. So we can see that here our emotions provide us with an initial moral assessment of or judgment on the actions under discussion and that these preliminary assessments have significant value and importance for the moral choices we will make in these cases. Whether these affective moral responses are confirmed by subsequent moral reflection and logical analysis or not, the point here is that emotion pervades all our moral knowledge and contains an important element of moral understanding and evaluation.

From what has been said in the preceding paragraphs it would seem right to say that most of the moral judgments we make in the ordinary run of our lives are of the sort discussed above. They are affective and intuitive and only later, if at all, do we put our reasoning powers to work to articulate reasons for the choice we have made (11). It may happen that this reasoning process leads us to modify or even reverse our initial moral assessment. But in most cases, certainly the more routine ones, our emotional evaluation is confirmed and generally acted upon, sometimes without being backed up by what others would consider very weighty rational considerations. This shows us the power and importance of our initial emotional response to the situations we meet in daily life and the significance for each of us personally of our preliminary moral evaluation of those situations. However, this does not mean that we are irrational creatures content to let our emotions dictate our moral judgments and choices. We do that on occasions, it has to be admitted. But frequently these initial affective judgements will be right, because they will have a wisdom of their own that comes from the moral experience of living for years in relationship and in community and making moral evaluations and choices with great frequency and usually with due discernment and care. This holds particularly when the person having the insights and following his/her initial emotional moral assessments has achieved a good level of emotional maturity and wisdom. In the light of this, then, we can say that emotional intelligence or maturity is a very important requirement for the making of good decisions of any sort and especially moral decisions, that is, decisions involving the welfare of some person or persons, oneself included (12).

We have stated earlier that we should not conceive of reason and emotion as simply opposed to each other and in the previous section we have at least begun to show why this is so. Now we will seek to spell this out in a little more detail and see how the relationship between these two vitally important dimensions of the human psyche should be understood, especially as they are operative in making moral decisions and, hence, in building moral character. We will do this in two main stages: (13)

i) Reason judges and shapes our moral reasoning process, our intuitions and emotions
There is no argument about the fact that we should struggle to the best of our intellectual ability to think as well and as rationally as we can in the process of any decision-making and especially moral decision-making. This should involve us in questioning our own reasoning processes and the arguments we bring to support a particular conclusion we may have tentatively drawn, perhaps as a result of intuition or past experience. The usual rational criteria of good thinking must, therefore, be applied, e.g. consistency, logic, clarity, coherence, etc. (14).

More importantly from our perspective here, we can and should also rationally judge, assess and shape the emotions which affect us as we wrestle with our moral decisions. In the first place, the search for and the commitment to finding moral truth are fuelled and energised by emotions we feel or induce. These emotions can be appropriate and so give rise to real interest, care and the desire for truth, or they can be weak and flat with the result that our commitment to making the right decision may leave something to be desired. Then we may settle for a decision that makes for a quiet life, provides an easier option or doesn’t interfere with our ambitions, civil or ecclesiastical. Or we may search only for evidence that confirms what we want to believe or that doesn’t require us to revise or even abandon a position we have long held.

In this context there can be what the New Testament refers to as a ‘hardening of the heart’. This means that a person sets up emotional barriers against outside influences, usually in relation to a particular subject, habit, attitude, person, community or institution. This hardening may take place because the person feels defensive or fearful or perceives that his/her self-serving interests are being threatened. Or it may occur out of a desire to dominate and control. These barriers may be erected, then, to defend one’s intellectual position or way of acting against specific rational arguments, new evidence and / or a particular experience or experiences. So, clearly, such a hardening of the heart is a negative thing both emotionally and morally. The result of taking this emotional stance is, of course, that one’s mind is closed and one refuses to listen, learn or change anything further in the area in question. Not a few people, it may be assumed, have had experience of such a ‘hard heart’ in others and suffered not a little frustration, anger, pain and hurt as a result. One may even discern it in oneself, at least looking back at one’s attitudes and / or behaviour (15).
The root problem here is one’s lack of real commitment to knowing and doing the truth. That is an emotional lack or deficit and it can sometimes be very difficult to reverse or overcome. But overcome it we must, if we are to choose rightly, make truly moral decisions and live in a virtuous and Christian manner (16).

It may also happen that in the course of our moral decision-making we experience emotions that may sway us in our reasoning but which may not be based on correct or sufficient evidence. These feelings could be ones like disgust, joy, anger or relief at particular facts, implications, conclusions or proposed solutions to one’s moral dilemma. Here too reason has to assess these emotional reactions and judge whether they are well grounded, excessive, inappropriate, etc. (17).

Examples are not hard to find. Anxiety may accompany one’s belief that one may not pass a particular important examination. Fear will tend to result from the belief that one is likely to be attacked by a threatening group of men close by or that one has a serious disease. Such negative feelings, if not properly controlled by reason, can upset and diminish one’s capacity to use one’s abilities, intellectual and otherwise (18). On the other hand, contentment and gratitude will tend to be the feelings one will have if one believes one is a good moral person and / or is loved by God. Joy tends to spring from the feeling that one is well loved by some other people. Hope and optimism characterise people who believe that they can achieve their goals. Such positive feelings generally enhance one’s performance (19).

This adjudicating role of reason will also be necessary in case of emotions that arise in specific situations and that need to be evaluated in relation to our overall moral vision and value system. In this context we may conclude that feelings like envy, contempt or cowardice are to be judged negatively and so not allowed to persist or exercise their influence, while we may take a positive view of emotions like good will, care, empathy and love. It may happen too that we find that we have little or no emotional response to evil and immoral practices or acts. Here there may well be cause for serious moral concern. It would seem that in such an eventuality our moral sense itself is somehow impaired and we are not really open to the moral imperative as we should be. In such a case our reason may well judge that the absence of emotion in relation, say, to things like cheating, stealing, torture, racial discrimination etc is a sign of moral numbness and perhaps even of psychopathic tendencies.

On the positive side experience shows that we are normally able to manage and control our emotions by rational means or strategies. This is a sign of maturity as a person. Such control may include inducing particular feelings in a specific situation, e.g. sadness at a bereavement or joy at a celebration, especially by deciding to pay attention to that situation and remaining attentive to it, so as to act in an appropriate and constructive manner there (20). We may exercise our control of our feelings also by, e.g. recalling particular emotions or states of feeling which we experienced in the past and so induce these or similar feelings in the present. We could think, e.g. of the particular feelings we had when being punished for some wrongdoing or being punished in the wrong, being rewarded for some act of kindness or generosity, or being ridiculed for our ethnic background. Such recall of feelings, now rationally reflected on, can help one, in the present, to be more sensitive to others in similar situations. We could also bring to mind some of our beliefs, moral, religious or others, and these too could stir up or give rise to emotional responses.

It will be clear from these ways in which we can shape and control our feelings that reason can and does exercise extensive sway over our emotional life. In fact it can and should judge, shape and tutor our emotions in every situation. Exceptions are possible, however. Emotional hijacks do take place in certain situations or we may lack appropriate emotions in some cases or we may fail to apply our rational powers so that they can do their job in relation to our emotions. Still, the ability to engage in reflective rational testing and managing of our reasoning, intuitions and emotions belongs to most adult people. And what’s more we can develop and improve that ability. When we do exercise it in a regular, consistent and mature way, then it can be said that we are acting in an adult and constructive manner and that means that one is a person well advanced in the formation of a good moral character (21).

ii) Emotions test and tutor reason
We are reasonably familiar with the ideas in the previous subsection. But the heading of the present section will seem novel and to some debatable. But we have earlier made points very similar to what is being asserted here, when we said that our emotions provide us with moral insight into and moral evaluation of the situations we find ourselves in. Thus they give us a preliminary moral judgment or assessment of particular actions that we are contemplating doing. Examples have been given and these show clearly that our emotional evaluations of particular actions do offer us moral guidance for our daily lives and contain a wisdom that is indispensable for right moral decisions and good moral living. Here we may add some points by way of expansion in relation to the role of emotion in testing and guiding reason as it operates in the moral life.

Take the case of the psychopath. (S)he is not lacking in knowledge of right and wrong nor in the intellectual ability to distinguish one from the other. What is missing is the emotional capacity to enable the psychopath to care for another person and that person’s welfare or good. The psychopath is bereft of emotion or feeling for others. He or she is unable to love or have empathy for others and so is unable to make any commitment to the good of those others or to avoiding evil in their regard. As a result of this deficiency he or she can do the most horrendously evil deeds and feel no qualms of conscience about the harm thus done to some other person(s). We can say, in fact, that the psychopath has no moral conscience, no moral sense; he or she is not just immoral but amoral.

But the point to note here is that this is due to an emotional deficit or lack, not to any rational difficulty or inability. The absence of feeling for others is the root of the moral problem here and that makes the person quite unable to use her / his rational powers to make moral judgements or commitments to the good. In a word, then, without a properly functioning emotional life one is incapable of being a person with a moral sense; one is prevented from committing him/herself to the good or against the evil. This would seem to suggest, more positively, that our emotions provide us with the capacity to live in a truly moral way, because they give us the ability to care for, to empathise with and to love others (and to hate others too) and so to commit ourselves to goods and values that arise from the foundational value of respect for the person, which itself is also intuited or appreciated emotionally or not at all (22).

Another example will confirm the essential role of our emotional life in making morality possible for us and thus allowing reason to function as it ought in relation to our moral life generally. Contemporary neurologists tell us (23) that if a person has had significant damage done to the amygdala in the pre-frontal lobes in the brain, the amygdala, being, as we have already noted, the seat of the emotions, then that person, while being intellectually quite unimpaired, is rendered practically incapable of making any decisions, including moral decisions. The reason for this is that such a person seems to have lost access to his /her emotional memory and the emotional learning and wisdom that was stored there. As a consequence this person can no longer make a commitment to or a choice of good nor a rejection of evil. Indeed she/he seems to have lost the capacity to choose between any options presented to him / her. The reason for this has again to do with the emotional life. Choice is impossible here because the person no longer has any emotional reaction, positive or negative, to any options placed before him / her. He or she has no feelings for or against anything and so can’t decide or choose or make a commitment in regard to anything either inside or outside the moral sphere. From this we can again conclude that feelings are indispensable for making choices and commitments of a moral nature and that without them reason is in practice rendered inoperable in relation both to morality and to the daily choices that are such a regular and unavoidable feature of ordinary living.

A further point needs to be made here. It is our emotions that alert us, in the first place, to the presence of a moral dimension or problem in a particular situation. In other words, our emotions can sharpen and guide our perceptions (24), and this in a negative and in a positive way. It may happen, for example, that in a specific case we experience negative feelings about a proposed action or moral judgement or argument for some moral conclusion. These feelings may range from strong to mild emotional reactions but either way they function as signals from our deeper self, from the heart, you could say, that we are morally uneasy about or even hostile to the proposed action or line of argument, e.g. the use of torture, the harvesting of organs from living bodies, abortion, the refusal to treat AIDS patients, etc. (25). When we experience such negative feelings, we may not be able to articulate any reasons why we feel as we do. But our emotional aversion may induce us to withhold consent and continue looking beyond the proposed action or arguments in the search for a solution that we find acceptable. Later, we may be able to spell out why we felt negatively in the case.
Here we see an example of the way in which our emotions can sharpen and guide our moral perceptions and in which, then, reason can clarify and spell out the rational content or meaning of our original emotional response (26).

Turning to the importance of positive emotions experienced in particular situations we can say that they too can alert us to the moral dimension of a situation and in particular to moral obligations there that would not otherwise have been discerned. Such positive moral feelings are more likely to be experienced by people who are morally good and wise and who, as a result, are more morally sensitive than others (27). One example is righteous anger at unfair or oppressive treatment of oneself or others. Another is empathy that can alert one to the presence of discrimination or the violation of the human rights of hitherto neglected or oppressed groups like slaves, women, workers, ethnic minorities, the handicapped, sexually abused children or even in regard to the environment and God’s creation itself. Perhaps we can see emotion sharpening and guiding our moral perception most clearly of all in the case of love.

The emotion of love is the great moral educator, Callahan says (28), because it makes us pay attention to and value what we love. Love in its true sense, as distinct from infatuation, mere sexual attraction, or plain insensitivity, engenders attention, care and concern for others. It motivates fine and careful perception or, in more ordinary language, it opens our eyes to moral needs and obligations that those who don’t love may not discern. In this sense love is the opposite of being blind. In fact it enables us to see more clearly and more deeply, both in regard to the persons loved, their qualities and goodness, and in regard to moral obligations which arise in relation to those we love. Here we discover the famous ‘reasons of the heart’ which reason or the head cannot know (29). This point about love is perhaps best illustrated by reflecting on the love of a parent for her/his child or that of a spouse for her/his beloved. Such love will inspire and motivate care, attention and self-sacrifice but it can also enable the loving person to discern important but subtle personal needs of the loved one and subtle ways in which these and other needs can be better responded to and met. In other words, love can sharpen and guide our moral perceptions so that we can care and help even more effectively (30).

This can come about in another way too. It can happen that, because we love and appreciate another person, we are able to discern and be inspired to imitate the good moral qualities of that person. Here again love opens our eyes, morally speaking, and motivates us to grow in virtue and goodness. This can occur in any loving human relationship and for the Christian, most significantly of all, in one’s relationship with Christ (31).

To conclude this sub-section about our emotions testing and tutoring our reason we may sum up in the words of Sidney Callahan:

The most adequate moral decision-making of conscience must achieve congruence or a fusion of thinking, feeling and willing into a unified whole … It is unlikely that an amoral or evil person could make consistently wise and good ethical judgments and give good moral counsel (32).

As a rule only the person who is emotionally mature and is of good moral character will be well placed consistently to make such judgements and give such counsel.

Our reflections on the emotions in the moral life in the preceding pages have brought to our attention some points that are very significant but which have not been given the importance they deserve and demand in our thinking on Christian morality and in our Christian living. This is particularly true in relation to the insight or understanding we discover in our emotions and the manner in which our emotions test and guide our moral perceptions, so that without those emotions we are gravely handicapped in regard to our moral sense generally and especially in regard to our capacity to discern moral obligations and make moral decisions.

One of the most important things about our emotions is that they enable us to commit ourselves to value and especially to persons, and to reject or refuse commitment to what we perceive as disvalues or evils in relation to persons. If we had no feelings, we’d be unable to commit ourselves to anyone or anything. We would be quite incapable of caring, empathising, loving or hating, for that matter. In a word, commitments and especially moral commitments are a matter of the heart. Our emotions, then, provide us with the insight to discern values and they also give us the energy to care for and commit ourselves to them and to make choices in their regard.

The point here may become clearer if we note the difference between a moral judgment on a specific action by an ethical theorist and the actual choice and performance of that action by a particular person. While the theorist’s judgment will be influenced by emotional and rational factors as indicated above, it won’t involve the theorist in any personal moral commitment to the action assessed. But the person doing the action will necessarily have to make a personal commitment of her/himself to the good or value in the action. Her/his heart is in the choice that is made and the action that is done. That’s what makes it a personal and moral choice. The agent makes an emotional (and intellectual or rational) commitment to the value in the action; both her/his heart and head are engaged. But without this engaging of the agent’s emotions, there is no real moral commitment and no real moral decision. The person appreciates the values(s) emotionally and hence makes a personal moral commitment to it/them in his/her action (33). Central to moral commitment are two realities that are also in the area of our emotions or have a significant emotional dimension. These are one’s perception and appreciation of values and one’s motivation or willpower. Some comments on each will be appropriate here.

Appreciation of value
We have said that specific values, moral and non-moral, are, in the first place, discerned and appreciated in the heart, that is, by our emotions with their built-in insight and judgment. After this initial discernment we will likely come to an intellectual or rational appreciation of values like justice, peace, truthfulness, freedom, courage, temperance, chastity, etc., though there are varying degrees of such appreciation and also differing depths of commitment to these values. We can, of course, sharpen our appreciation of any particular value by reflecting on, reading or hearing about it and its importance and implications. But perhaps the most powerful and effective way that we come to appreciate values is by personal experience in specific situations and cases. In such cases one’s heart is involved and is often touched in deep ways, so that one’s appreciation of and commitment to particular values are transformed or at least deepened notably.

Examples are not far to seek. It would seem true to say that in many, if not all, cases having a child of one’s own is a very powerful and deeply touching way of bringing a person to a greater appreciation and valuing of the human person and of the person’s intrinsic worth and dignity. Having a child with a disability can move one to deep compassion for those with similar or other disabilities. Discovering through and in another person the pearl of true human love not merely enriches one but often opens one’s eyes to appreciate what love really is. It can motivate one to do all one can to love others and enrich their lives too. Experiencing the horrors of war or violence can shock one into profound appreciation of and love for life itself, health, good human relationships and true peace and justice. First-hand exposure to poverty, famine and hunger in the Third World can transform one from a complacent tourist from the rich and self-indulgent First World to a committed and wholehearted campaigner for world justice, for basic human rights and equality for all, and for a good living standard especially for those most in need.

The reason why such personal experiences can affect these kinds of transformation in people is precisely because these experiences are personal and not just intellectual or academic. In other words, they touch the heart; they stir our feelings and so they move and inspire the person to make some deeper commitment to practical action on behalf of others. It is easy to see that such deepened and strengthened appreciation and awareness are necessary, if one is to improve one’s moral commitment to realising these and other values in one’s daily life. And that appreciation and awareness are primarily matters of the heart as well as being matters of the head.

In relation to motivation our emotions are basic and essential. The words motivation and emotion come from the same Latin word, movere (to move) and this link points to the close connection between the two realities these words refer to and name. We may note too that in daily living motivation is closely related to what we call willpower. To have the willpower to give up smoking or excessive drinking, for example, means effectively to have the motivation to do so, despite the difficulty involved.

Scholars today tell us that being able to motivate oneself to persist in one’s efforts despite difficulty and setbacks is a basic requirement for any sort of real achievement in life from sport to spirituality, from the university to the workplace. What seems to set apart those at the top of competitive pursuits like sport, study, playing a musical instrument, etc. from others of roughly equal ability is the degree to which they can pursue an arduous practice routine for years and years. And that persistence and determination depend on emotional traits, namely, enthusiasm, commitment and perseverance; in a word, on motivation or willpower (34).

So one can say with Goleman (p 80) that to the degree that our emotions get in the way of or enhance our ability to think and plan, to pursue training for a distant goal, to solve problems and the like, they define the limits of our capacity to use our innate mental abilities and so determine how we do in life. This can turn out very positively for some and they can achieve major success or growth. For others things can go wrong and that can result in significant problems or even failure. But whatever the outcome, the point is that one’s motivation and its depth and strength or lack of these is of enormous importance in and for one’s moral living. One can see this in things like the struggle to overcome habits of sin, persevere in prayer, remain faithful to an unloving spouse, cope with unrelieved pain and suffering, etc.

The basic point we are making here is, then, that our moral commitments are not just rational, intellectual choices involving the head only. Rather they are personal choices that involve our emotions, the heart, at two crucial points: our appreciation of value and our motivation for what we do and don’t do, and how we build and form our moral character. Here again we can clearly see the centrality and the power of our emotions in relation to our moral lives.

Cates tells us that, ‘Just as our emotions can be of moral significance, they can also be of religious significance’ (35). Scholars, it seems, find it no easy task to articulate how the religious dimension of Christianity impacts on its moral dimension. While it is agreed that Christians have to do their morality in fidelity to their own religious myth or story or theology and that the moral life is transfigured by Christian faith, it is not fully agreed what the impact of this religious story is on the Christian moral life and how exactly the religious and the moral aspects of our Christian faith are related (36). In this context it is no surprise to learn that scholars struggle to explain how our emotions have religious significance and how our religious faith affects our emotions.

One thing is certain, though. There are religious emotions or emotions that have a religious dimension. Examples are not far to seek. Faith, hope and love are human realities or virtues but clearly they become religious or acquire a religious depth or dimension for the Christian. Similarly with gratitude, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, fear, grief, anger, etc. Here one focuses on some human or created reality but in and through that one focuses on God. Thus we can speak of religious emotions or affections (37).

Religious thoughts, intuitions and questions can condition a wide array of emotions. They can condition emotions that are about God or divine things … or the way things are going in our lives, where we suspect that something unusually deep or significant is happening … Some emotions are partly a matter of religion … some emotions are composed, at least in part, of religious beliefs, assumptions, intuitions, wonder and concern (38).

It is part of the business of religion to evoke or redirect people’s emotions to bring about desired ends. By working with the emotions, religions can affect in profound ways the quality of peoples’ lives and in the way they get along – or fail to get along (39).

All that has been said in the preceding pages about the central place and importance of emotion in our moral lives makes it clear that there is no such thing as a purely intellectual moral decision or choice. A truly reasonable moral choice will be based on emotion, intuition and reason working together in harmony, to which will be added for the Christian the Bible, the Christian tradition and the teaching of the church.

It seems a fairly obvious conclusion from this and from what we have said earlier about the vital role of emotion in our moral lives that we need to pay much more attention to our emotional life and our level of emotional growth than in the past, if we are to be truly serious about good moral living and about doing our best to make good moral decisions and so to build a good moral character. It is clear now that there is a close connection between our level of emotional development and our level of moral development. The more emotionally mature we are, the better moral life we will be enabled to live and the better moral choices we will be able to make. But to the extent that we are emotionally immature our level of moral maturity will be restricted and we will have difficulty in consistently making wise and mature choices in the area of morality as in every other area of life.

The message here, then, is quite obvious. We are called as moral beings to attend conscientiously to our emotional development or lack of it and to take whatever steps are required to bring about the emotional growth that we may need, in order that we may live the Christian moral life better. This is a focus or concern that we have not heard much about in our Christian formation at any level, but it is one that we must now take on board as an essential requirement for good moral living and character building. This will present many of us, especially men, with not inconsiderable difficulty, both because some of us are not very aware of our emotional life and its level of development and because emotional growth of any sort is far from easy and will demand plenty of time and effort and maybe a good deal of help from others. So problems may arise on two levels, that of awareness and that of growth itself. And of course not a few will feel at a loss in regard to how to go about achieving progress in either area, while others may find themselves struggling with their motivation to undertake the tasks involved in the whole project of emotional growth.

We may illustrate the links between our emotional life and our moral life that we have been reflecting on by discussing an issue that is very much part of our moral and indeed our spiritual lives, namely, overcoming our habits of sin. Then we will devote some attention to outlining the central elements of emotional maturity itself.

Overcoming our habits of sin (40)
Experience teaches us that it is very difficult and in practice often impossible to uproot many of our habits of sin like using vulgar language, being aggressive and having poor control of one’s anger, jealousy, bossiness, exhibiting attitudes of superiority, etc.

Modern psychology provides us with important insights here. It indicates that our sins, and especially our habits of sin, often have their roots in our emotional lives and in particular in the emotional wounds most of us have picked up over the course of our upbringing.

Common sense tells us that, if we don’t get to the root of a problem, moral or otherwise, we are very unlikely to solve it. And so it is here. We need to heal the emotional wounds we have been mentioning, if we are to get rid of the habits of sin which arise from those wounds.

In line with this viewpoint, it will be clear that the remedy at the pastoral level for these habits of sin will be to deal with the emotional problem first and then one can hope for significant progress at the moral level.

We can see the same sort of relationship between the emotional and the spiritual life in some difficulties in prayer, contemplation, etc. An approach similar to that taken above will be needed in resolving these problems (41).

It will be important to clarify, at least to some extent, what we are talking about when we speak of emotional maturity or, to use a more modern term, emotional intelligence. We may outline what is in question here under the following five headings: (42)

i) Awareness of one’s emotions as they occur (43)
Here we are talking about self-awareness and central to that is awareness of our feelings as they are occurring within us. This is essential for good psychological insight into oneself and for managing one’s emotions constructively and appropriately. It will be of great significance also in relation to making moral decisions, as will be very clear from our earlier discussion of the relation between these two areas of our lives. Related to but different from self-awareness is self-knowledge. This means knowing about one’s personality and character with their qualities and abilities, their strengths and weaknesses. Such self-knowledge is very important for the quality of one’s living but is not a substitute for the self-awareness that is under discussion in the present context.

ii) Managing our emotions appropriately
This presupposes and is dependent on the awareness of our emotions which we have just been talking about. The greater our self-awareness the better we will be able to manage our emotions and so the better chance we will have of achieving emotional balance or maturity and of making progress towards moral maturity. Poor emotional awareness will make management of our emotions more difficult and will expose us to being often enough at the mercy of our moods with all the negative consequences that can flow from that.

iii) Controlling impulse and motivating oneself
Here we have two vitally important emotional skills that facilitate the full use of our talents and abilities. Without them success in any area of life will tend to elude us; with them we are well set to be successful, whether in sport or prayer or whatever. Controlling our impulses means one has a specific goal in mind and in order to achieve it restrains one’s tendency to make a dash for quick results or to seek instant gratification by some impulsive action, perhaps only partially thought out and likely to do more harm than good. Motivation has been discussed earlier and its importance is clear. It will be especially necessary when the going gets tough as one seeks some end or goal that is difficult to attain, whether in the moral or spiritual life or in business or sport, etc. Motivating oneself is the real engine or source of energy in all our commitments, moral ones included.

iv) Empathy: being sensitive to others’ feelings
While empathy is a relatively new word, its meaning is clear and its importance in human relationships is immense. It means feeling for another or being able to put oneself in another’s emotional shoes, as it were. In a word, to be empathic means to be sensitive to others’ feelings and needs. Given this understanding, it is not hard to see that there will very likely be a close link between one’s level of empathy and one’s level or depth of caring for others. To empathise with another is the root of caring for that person. The implication is clear, then, that the degree of one’s empathy will shape significantly the morality one lives by. In a sense the roots of morality are to be found in empathy and this again is an emotional skill; it is a reality of the heart. So we see here another clear link between our emotional life and our moral life: the more empathic one is, the more moral one is likely to be and vice versa (44). We may add that the empathic person is one who is likely to be good at and in human relationships and friendships; she or he is likely to be a loving and a well loved person. It must be said that women in general are better at this kind of empathy than men, though they have no monopoly on it.

v) Handling emotions in relationships
Empathy is the foundation of being able to notice and manage emotions in other people and so in relationships. If one can do this, one will shine in the use of social skills and display great social competence. This art is central to being able to make and keep good relationships with others at various levels. It will involve things like putting others at ease, soothing their bruised feelings, influencing and persuading them, inspiring them to action, setting the tone in interpersonal meetings, making friends, loving others, leading and organising people in groups, resolving conflicts.

This brief outline of the main elements of emotional maturity makes clear how important such maturity is for human living. It reminds us again of the very close links between our emotional life and our moral life. Only the person who has achieved a reasonable degree of growth and maturity in relation to her/his feelings will be able to be really successful and happy in life and, in addition, only he / she will be able to arrive at a good level of moral maturity. Thus we arrive at the conclusion that only the emotionally mature or intelligent person will have the capacity to live a full and truly human and Christian life.

Our discussion in the foregoing pages has shown us the close, if to some perhaps surprising, links between the moral life and the emotional life. It is now clear that to live the moral life well, whether one is a Christian or not, requires one to attend to the state of one’s emotions and to do all one can to further emotional growth and become as emotionally mature as possible. Implied in this is the important additional insight that, since the moral life is a central element of one’s spiritual life, our Christian spirituality demands that we cultivate emotional growth and maturity so that we may attain the highest level we can in the spiritual life. At this point the question becomes very practical as we have to ask: how is this to be done? What is required in order that we grow emotionally and make progress towards emotional maturity? This is not a question many people will have asked themselves, though in recent times there seems to be a major increase in concern for emotional health, if one is to judge by the huge number of self-help books and magazines on the shelves these days and by the notable increase in the number of counsellors and those seeking their help in recent years. It looks as if people in the western world are more emotionally troubled than ever, despite never having had it so good economically in recent years. The frightening increase in the number of suicides in Ireland and elsewhere in the West may also be a sign of this. No doubt the current recession will only add to their emotional (and other) woes. So, we turn to the crucial issue of the method and means by which emotional growth can be furthered so that the Christian moral and spiritual life can be lived that much better. Only some brief pointers will be given here.

i) Promoting self-awareness
The ancient Greek Socrates recognised the importance of this when he advised his fellow citizens to ‘know yourself’. As already noted in relation to emotional maturity this is absolutely basic and essential for emotional growth. Some people, especially women, are very much in touch with their feelings; others, men in particular, are not. But the good news is that we can improve in this matter, if we are motivated enough to set about doing so. There is no easy way to do the job, though. Paying attention to your feelings, especially your gut feelings, is a habit you can cultivate, and listening to what others say about you can be illuminating, if not a little upsetting at times. Writing a journal can help too as can taking time off for reflection or meditation; good also is sharing with a friend who is in touch with her/his feelings and can model for you how to do it (45).

ii) Healing your emotional wounds
This presupposes good self-awareness so that one knows what these wounds are. Some have been mentioned already. Central to them is low self-esteem, which is at the root of many of our bad habits and faults. Sharing the problem with someone will be essential here, whether that is a friend or a counsellor. Taking to heart the encouraging things said by that person and others will be a big help too. Positive thinking about yourself will be valuable also as will giving up comparing yourself with others (46).

iii) Growing in self-confidence
What has been said just now will be helpful here too, though like healing the wounds, this building of confidence is usually a long hard battle that will with perseverance bring a gradual but real growth over time. It will be important to be clear that loving yourself, regarded by some as selfish and wrong, is in fact an essential requirement for loving others and loving God and, far from being wrong, it is the basis on which self-confidence must be built. So one needs to treat oneself well, think positively, though realistically, about oneself and take seriously the praise and compliments one gets from others. This will help one to come to believe in one’s abilities and skills and so to use them better. As one’s self-confidence grows one will become able to assert oneself, make good decisions despite uncertainties and pressures and face new challenges (47).

iv) Developing the other elements of emotional maturity
Having already mentioned self-awareness as an essential for emotional maturity and growth, it will be obvious that working to develop the other four elements of emotional maturity we outlined in the previous section will be necessary so as to promote emotional growth. These are, as listed above, managing one’s emotions appropriately, controlling impulse and motivating oneself, working to deepen one’s empathy and handling sensibly the emotions of others in relationships.

Our rather lengthy discussion in this chapter of the place and role of the emotions in the moral life will, hopefully, have alerted the reader to a number of insights that are fresh and significant. It is hoped also that the practical implications of what we have been outlining will be clear and will perhaps move some to take specific steps to achieve the goal of emotional growth towards emotional maturity. This will help to ensure better moral living and further development of one’s spiritual life as a Christian in the church.


1. Cosgrave, William, Christian Living Today: Essays in Moral and Pastoral Theology (Columba Press, Dublin, 2001), pp 42-3.
2. Diana Fritz Cates, in her book Aquinas and The Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry, Georgetown University Press, Washington DC, 2009, says: ‘There are significant differences in philosophical ways of describing or representing emotions,’ p 1; ‘… it is not easy to specify a working definition of emotion in face of (this) significant philosophical disagreement.’ To do so, she says, would require ‘delving into major philosophical issues,’ p 13. Here, then, we confine ourselves to the more practical aspects of the study of emotion.
3. Daniel Coleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (Bloomsbury, London, 1996) pp 6-7 (hereinafter referred to as EI); Francis Wilks, Intelligent Emotions: How to succeed through transforming your feelings (Arrow Books, London, 1998), p 76; Pat Collins CM, Intimacy and the Hungers of the Heart (Columba Press, Dublin, 1991), p 44.
4. Goleman, EI, 75-77; William F. Kraft, Sexual dimensions of the Celibate Life (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1979), 64-68; Cosgrave, 107.
5. Goleman, EI, 5′ Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury, London, 199) herein after referred to as WWEI); Gael Lindfield, Emotional Confidence (Thorsons, London, 1997), 12-21.
6. Goleman EI, 8-29.
7. John Macquarrie, Existentialism (Penguin, Middlesex,1973), 118-24;
Collins, 46-47.
8. John Macquarrie, Existentialism, Studies in Christian Existentialism (SCM Press, London, 1965) 144.
9. Linda Hogan, Confronting the Truth: conscience in the Catholic Tradition (DLT, London,2001) 144.
10. Daniel Maguire, The Moral Choice (Winston Press, Minneapolis, 1979), 283
11. Maguire, 284-5; Cosgrave, 34.
12. Cosgrave, 43-50; Coleman, EI, 42-5 and chapters 4-8.
13. Here we are drawing on Sidney Callahan, In Good Conscience: Reason and Emotion in Moral Decision-Making (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 124138.
14. Callahan, 125, 127.
15. Callahan, 188
16. Callahan, 127, 188.
17. Callahan, 128.
18. Goleman, EI, 83-87.
19. Goleman, EI, 87-90.
20. Callahan, 120,129.
21. See Callahan, 129.
22. Richard M. Gula, Moral Discernment (Paulist Press, NY, 19-7), 37-8; Maguire, 263-6; Callahan, 41-2; Goleman, El, 107-10.
23. See Goleman, EI, 27-8,52-4.
24. Gula, 88-9.
25. Callahan, 130.
26. Callahan, 130-1.
27. Callahan, 131.
28. Callahan, 132.
29. Callahan, 131; see Maguire, 87-8, 288-90, 298, 305.
30. Callahan, 188-9.
31. Callahan, 132-3,188-90.
32. 134,135, 137.
33. Callahan, 19-23,116.
34. Daniel Goleman, EL 79-80. See this whole chapter in Goleman, 78-95.
35. Cates, p 7.
36. Vincent MacNamara, ‘Christian Moral Life’, An Irish Reader in Moral Theology: The Legacy of the last Fifty Years, Volume 1: Foundations, edited by Enda McDonagh and Vincent MacNamara, Columba Press, Dublin, 2009, 205, 188-191; Vincent MacNamara, ‘The Distinctiveness of Christian Morality’, Christian Ethics: An Introduction, edited by Bernard Hoose, Cassell, London, 1998,146-60.
37. Cates, 45-61, 217-220.
38. Cates, 57-58.
39. Cates, 56.
40. See Cosgrave, 81-2; and also my articles, ‘The Roots of Sin’, Intercom, May 1994, 12-4, and ‘To Repent and Forgive’, The Furrow, February 2003, 85-8, and, in addition, chapter 9 below for a fuller treatment of
this issue.
41. Cosgrave 82. See also Tony Baggot, ‘Getting the Spiritual Life Together’, The Furrow, November 1991, 628-635.
42. See Cosgrave, 45-50; Goleman, El, chapters 4-8; Goleman, VVWEL 317-8.
43. See Ron Yeung, Emotional Intelligence, The New Rule Series, Marshall Cavendish Business, London, 2009, 13-40. These elements of emotional maturity are given more extensive treatment in chapter 2 below.
44. Cosgrave, 52.
45. See Goleman, El, chapter 4; Goleman, WWEI, chapter 4.
46. See Gael Lindenfield, Emotional Confidence, (Thorsons, London, 1997), 49-98; Gael Lindenfield, Self-Esteem (Thorsons, London, 1995).
47. See Goleman, WWEI, 68-72; Lindenfield, Self-Esteem, 21-27; Tony Humphries, Self-Esteem: Key to your Child’s Education (Gill Macmillan, Dublin, 1996), chapter 5.

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