Written by Joseph M. Clem, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
AQUINAS & VON HILDEBRAND IN THE CATECHISM
Since we are both body and soul as a single, undivided nature, where do our feelings take place? Do we experience them in our bodies or in our souls? If they are in the soul, then which feelings are of lesser or higher importance? If they are in the body, then do we lose all our feelings after death when we are disembodied souls? The tension can be summed up in the seemingly similar statements below from the Catechism regarding our feelings:
Moral perfection consists in man's being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite … (CCC #1770)2
The perfection of the moral good consists in man's being moved to the good not only by his will but also by his ‘heart.’ (CCC #1775)2
So which is it? Do our feelings reside in our ‘sensitive appetite’ which is more associated with the body as described by St. Thomas Aquinas(II.I.22.3).1 Or rather, do our feelings reside in our ‘heart’ which is the center of our spiritual affectivity according to the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand?6 There are subtle philosophical differences, but we can practically draw from the riches of both Aquinas and Von Hildebrand, who come to consensus around this theory, despite their differences in perspective.
Why does understanding this matter? It matters because we are at risk for both taking our feelings too seriously and not taking our feelings seriously enough. As fallen human beings who are embodied souls and ensouled bodies, we are in danger of over-spiritualizing our bodily emotions or moods, as well as over-biologizing our spiritual affections. We require a balanced and knowledgeable perspective regarding our feelings.
TAKING OUR FEELINGS TOO SERIOUSLY
Taking bodily states too seriously: Bodily states are not emotions, but they are often called feelings. These include the sensations of hunger, thirst, physical pain, and fatigue. We cannot let bodily feelings have the last word on what we will do with our will and what higher spiritual affections we will allow ourselves to both experience and intentionally respond with affection from
the heart, even if we are experiencing bodily discomfort.
Taking emotions or moods too seriously: Moods are non-spiritual, subjective (caused within the person), and irrational. Examples include “bad humor, jolliness, depression, irritation, [and] ‘nervousness’” (p. 27).6 These feelings may have a legitimate cause, but they are morally neutral “passions” (II.I.22, 59, 77).1 It is important to practice acceptance of our moods while still pursuing holiness.
Even taking spiritual affections too seriously (disproportionately): Spiritual affections are of equal importance to reason and will according to Von Hildebrand, yet any of these three can have a tendency to rule over the other in an imbalance of the soul’s powers. For spiritual affections, we need to make sure that our reason and our will match up to any genuine, intentional feelings of gratitude, joy, love, sorrow, contrition, forgiveness, and compassion.
NOT TAKING FEELINGS SERIOUSLY ENOUGH
Not taking bodily states seriously enough: Fatigue, hunger, pain, etc. in human beings “are certainly not spiritual experiences, but they are definitely personal experiences”(p. 23).6 In this sense, our bodily feelings are not somehow irrelevant to the soul. Our bodily feelings need to be accepted rather than stuffed down. However, these are feelings caused by physical sensations to which we can respond as rational human beings through self-awareness and acceptance. This is also a good hint to take better care of our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit” when choice allows for it. Action: Get sleep, eat healthy, drink water, practice Catholic mindfulness, and exercise.
Not taking emotions or moods seriously enough: Moods could be described as the most psychological, meaning the dynamic between body and spirit. This means that moods can indicate something going on in the body (bottom-up), such as with chemical imbalances or trauma, or something going on in the spirit (top-down), such as with the natural consequences of sin or spiritual desolation as allowed by God to help you love Him more for Who He is rather than for what He gives.4,5 Figuring out moods (psychological feelings) may require outside help to discern where the mood is coming from. Action: Talk about this openly and truthfully with a close friend or family member, a spiritual director, a mentor, your doctor, or a therapist.
Not taking spiritual affections seriously enough: This was one of the main messages of Jesus to His Jewish brethren (e.g., Mt 5:8, 28; 6:21; 12:34; 18:35). Our hearts were meant to experience deep, spiritual affections, but what are they? Affections are not neutral like Aquinas’ passions which describe the feelings we have that are non-intentional, but Aquinas does describe “pseudopassions” which are possessed by angels and disembodied souls (II.I.22.3; fn. 7, 23)1,3 Some of the properly ordered affections include our joy, sorrow (without despair), love of God and neighbor, love of self (with God’s love), compassion, contrition (healthy moral guilt), wonder and awe, and gratitude.
These are some of the noblest of feelings – our affections. We can experience these affections, sometimes only by grace, even when our bodily state or our psychological moods differ. How are you allowing your heart to experience these deeper affections? How can you learn from the examples of Christ, Mary, and the Saints to let your heart be touched? Remember, Jesus did not hold back His tears nor did He merely get “glassy-eyed” — He wept in affectionate, genuine compassion (Jn 11:35). Also, He is the same God “Who will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, Who will sing joyfully because of you” (Zep 3:17). God has spiritual affection for you! Your response is to “find your delight in the Lord who will give you your heart’s desire” (Ps 37:4).
Action: Allow yourself to feel gratitude for God and for your loved ones, to feel deep contrition for your sins, to cry in sorrow while contemplating the Passion of Jesus, to cry in joy while contemplating the smiling face of the Risen Christ, and to let your heart be more attuned to truth, goodness, and beauty.
Joseph M. Clem is a husband, father, and lifetime Youth Apostle. He practices as a licensed behavior analyst in Virginia working with children primarily diagnosed with Autism and volunteering in youth ministry. This article is not written under the scope and competence of board certification or state licensure.
Aquinas, T. (1920). The Summa Theolgiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas [Second and Revised Edition]. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Kevin Knight (2017). [Online Edition]. (Original work composed 1265-1273). Accessed via https://www.newadvent.org/summa/
CCC = Catechism of the Catholic Church (2012). Vatican City, Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana
King, P. (1999). Aquinas on the Passions in Aquinas’s Moral Theory [Ed. MacDonald, S. & Stump, E.]. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY. Accessed via http://individual.utoronto.ca/pking/articles/Aquinas_on_the_Passions.pdf
Ignatius of Loyola (2000). The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius [Translated by L. J. Puhl (1951)]. Vintage Books (division of Random House, Inc.): New York, NY (Original work composed 1522-1524)
Vitz, P., Nordling, W. J., & Titus, C. S. (2020). A Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person: Integration with Psychology & Mental Health Practice. Divine Mercy University Press: Sterling, VA
Von Hildebrand, D. (2007). The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity. [Haldane, J. (Preface), Crosby, J. H. (Ed.), & Crosby, J. F. (Introduction)] . St. Augustine Press, Inc.: South Bend, IN (Originally published in 1965)