Relectiones Theologicae
(on the virtue of temperance
and the eating of food

Gary M. Atkinson, Ph.D

Chapter 7 of Moral Responsibility in Prolonging Life Decisions ed. by McCarthy & Moraczewski
 (Pope John Center, St. Louis, 1981, distr. by Franciscan Herald Press Chicago)

It is in connection with food, and its usefulness in preserving life, that Vitoria raises some points of special interest .Following Aquinas, Vitoria argues that a person has an obligation to preserve his life, based on the natural inclination toward self-preservation. Furthermore, the malice of suicide would arise from the non-preservation of oneself. But if this is so, then it would seem that a sick person who does not eat because of some disgust of food would be guilty of a sin equivalent to suicide. Vitoria denies this inference, and, in response, makes eight important points:

(1) A sick person is required to take food if there exists some hope of life (cum aliqua spe vitae).

(2) But, if the patient is so depressed or has lost his appetite so that it is only with the greatest effort that he can eat food, this right away ought to reckoned as creating a kind of impossibility and the patient is excused (jam reputatur quaedam impossibilitas et ideo excusatur), at least from mortal sin, especially if there is little or no hope of life.

(3) Furthermore, the obligation to take drugs is even less serious. This is because food is “per se a means ordered to the life of the animal (per se medium ordinatum ad vitam animalis) and is natural, whereas drugs are not. A person is not obliged to employ every possible means of preserving his life, but only those that are per se intended for that purpose (media per se ad hoc ordinata).

(4) Nevertheless, if one had a moral certitude that the use of a drug would return him to health, and that he would die otherwise, then the use of the drug would be obligatory . If he did not give the drug to a sick neighbor, he would sin mortally, so it seems he would have the same responsibility to save his life. Medicine is also per se intended by nature for health (medicina per se etiam ordinata est ad salutem a natura).

(5) On the other hand, it is rarely certain that drugs will have this effect, so it is not mortally sinful to declare abstinence from all drugs, though this is not a praiseworthy attitude to take since God has created medicine because of its usefulness.6

(6) It is one thing not to protect or prolong life; it is quite another thing to destroy it. A person is not always held to the first.

(7) To fulfill the obligation to protect life, it is sufficient that a person perform “that by which regularly a man can live” (satis est, quod det operam, per quam homo regulariter potest vivere). Again, if a person “uses foods which men commonly use and in the quantity which customarily suffices for the conservation of strength” (quibus homines communiter utuntur et in quantitate), then the person does not sin even if his life is notably shortened thereby, and this is recognized.

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(8) Thus, a sick person would not be required to use a drug he could not obtain except by giving over his whole means of subsistence .7 Nor would an individual be required to use the best, most delicate, most expensive foods, even though they be the most healthful. Indeed, the use of such foods would be “blameworthy” (reprehensibile). Nor would one be obliged to live in the most healthful location.8 In another work (Comentarios a la Secunda Secundæ de Santo Tomás), Vitoria cites as examples of “delicate foods” hens and chickens. He says that if the doctor were to advise the person to eat chickens and partridges, the individual could still choose to eat eggs and other common items instead, even though he knew for certain he could live another twenty years by eating such special foods.9

In a later Relectio on the question of homicide, Vitoria summarizes his position as follows: “One is not held, as I said, to employ all the means to conserve his life, but it is sufficient to employ the means which are of themselves intended for this purpose and congruent” (ad hoc de se ordinata et congruentia).l0 This makes clear the point also made by Aquinas: that one is not obliged to use any and every means for the preservation of life.

Furthermore, Vitoria is inclined to view the obligation to use certain means not in the abstract but in the concrete. As the second point on the above list shows, what produces a “kind of impossibility” (and no one is obliged to do the impossible) need not be the means themselves but the impact of their use on the individual patient. Thus, the obligation to preserve life is neither absolute nor invariant, but rather can depend on the peculiar circumstances of the individual.

Vitoria raises the question of the relevance of the distinction between natural means (e.g., foods and drink) versus artificial means (e.g., drugs). It should not be surprising that Vitoria himself displays some ambivalence on the subject. On the one hand, (Point 3), the obligation to use drugs is less stringent than the obligation to use food because food is a means per se ordered to the life of the animal, and is natural, whereas drugs are neither. But on the other hand, (Point 4), medicine is also intended by nature for health. It would seem, then, that medicine is also natural.

Thus, natural means are intended by nature for the preservation of life, whereas artificial means are likewise intended, but only as means supplementing the natural, when this becomes necessary. Such a distinction may be able to explain some moral difference regarding the obligation to employ them, but it would also seem to permit calling artificial means obligatory under certain conditions.

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