As Catholics, how are we to understand feelings?

As Catholics, how are we to understand feelings? How do we understand their role in creation? Are they to be considered with careful discernment? Any suggestions on this topic would be greaty appreciated.

Dear Michael,

Certainly the feelings we receive from our nervous system can be quite useful, informing us of injury and also can giving us considerable pleasure. But I suspect that you are speaking of emotional feelings. These too can be useful so long as we recognize their limitations. They tell us of our current emotional state—which in turn can tell us something of the climate that has fostered such a state.

Feelings of emotion or passions as theologians call them, cannot tell us how to act or what is intellectually true. On the moral level, they act as auxiliary generators: adding thrust to our decisions to act, making good acts better and bad acts worse. But they cannot determine what is morally good and what is not. We need our intellect and will to make such judgments and act on them. So if our actions cause us to feel morally good or holy or morally bad, this does not in any way mean that those actions are in fact morally good or holy or morally bad. Only right reason as recognized by our intellect can determine that.

On the other hand, if I see a man attacking a child, my intellect recognizes such behavior as wrong and my emotions of anger at him and compassion for the child can help to propel me into the action of warding him off and aiding the child.

The field of psychology can be a great help in understanding much about our feelings. But, of course, it does not have the tools to deal with their moral dimension. For more on emotions and passions, see: [LIST]
Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.


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