Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


Sorry to have taken so long with this post. But our text is getting more difficult, and so I am having a harder time trying to put into words what I want to say. If you can, do please respond, at least to tell me whether or not I am making sense. Experience has taught me that just because my writing seems clear to me, doesn't mean that it's clear to everyone else. Suppose I have an orange on my kitchen table. I could say a lot about it -- where it was grown, which store it was purchased in, whose dessert it is destined to be. But let me just say this: it's there. It exists independently of me. If I close my eyes, it will still be there. If I leave the room, it will remain there, and I will find it on my return. It has certain good qualities or perfections. It can provide me with vitamin C, sugar, and juice. But it has its limitations too. I would be foolish to try to use it to hammer a nail into the wall. When people deal with something like an orange that the senses experience, most of them do not have a problem with the idea that a thing can have its own independent existence, or that if they want to use it, they should find out first what it can or cannot do. To put it another way, in day to day life, people accept what they experience as REALITY, and, rather than try to escape it, find ways to deal with it. Any other way of acting -- i.e. a denial of reality -- is usually a sign of mental illness. (True, some philosophers will assert that I cannot KNOW that the orange I am looking at with my eyes exists. But most people give that idea about as much serious consideration as the question, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?") However, when it comes to kinds of reality that are not immediate to the senses, people will depart, to a greater or lesser extent, from their normal way of thinking and acting. It is almost as if immaterial realities -- truth, love, things of the spirit -- far from having their own proper existence, are subject to being changed or created by us, or, to be specific, by our way of thinking about them. Let me give a few examples of what I mean. A few years ago I was teaching a class of seventh-graders. While I was speaking to them about heaven, hell, and purgatory, one raised his hand and asked, "If Catholics go to heaven, hell, or purgatory when they die, where do Jewish people go?" At first I thought that he was asking whether Jewish people could go to heaven. But after listening to him further, I realized that in his mind, "where you go" when you die depends solely on where you think you will go. If you believe in heaven, hell, and purgatory, you will go to one of those places. But if you believe in some other place, you will go there instead. Or if, for, example, you believe in reincarnation, you will "come back as something else"-- as the children like to put it. (That was how they would answer the question, "What is the incarnation?" "It's when you die and you come back as something else." It's enough to make a religion teacher want to cry, isn't it?) The student who was asking the question thought that if I told him where Jewish people BELIEVE they go, then that would tell him where they actually DO go. In his imagination, it was as if one's mind creates the future after death. I don't blame the student for his erroneous notion. He is growing up in a world that is getting further unhinged from reality every day. We must be careful, though, not to make the same mistake, and remember that what we do not see -- realities of the spirit -- can be just as real (may I say, "more real") than what we do see. Let me give another example of how people tend to confuse their ideas about immaterial reality with reality itself. We can all agree that God is real. He exists whether we believe in him or not. And he is the way he is, whether we like him that way or not. (If we don't, it's our fault, not his.) He is not changed by the way we imagine him to be. While this seems like an obvious thing to say, I am often amazed at how strongly people will insist that God must really be, not as he has revealed himself to be, but as they want him to be. Consider the following comment made by a Planned Parenthood official, lambasting John Cardinal O'Connor for not following the lead of Cardinal Law in requesting a moratorium on peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion clinics: "I think Cardinal Law is talking to the kind of God that I know and it seems to me that Cardinal O'Connor hasn't gotten in touch with the right God." (See Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League, March issue. The comment was made on January 9 by Nikki Nichols-Gamble, the president of the Massachusetts chapter of Planned Parenthood.) What does she mean by, "the kind of God that I know" or "the right God"? It may seem as if she trying to say something about objective reality -- that she knows what God is REALLY like, and Cardinal O'Connor does not. (A rather brazen assertion, if you ask me.) But then again, where does her knowledge about the "right God" come from? Does it come from an objective source outside herself? Is she reading the Scriptures from the viewpoint of Catholic tradition, or any other mainline Christian tradition, and trying to embrace God AS HE HAS REVEALED HIMSELF TO BE? Or is she, in "knowing" God, giving more weight to her PREFERENCES ON HOW SHE WOULD LIKE GOD TO BE? In my opinion, the latter is clearly the case. The God she "knows" is essentially the God she wants, and the God she wants has taken the place of the God who is. What she has come to think of as God is a reflection of her opinions and ideas, a God who acts and thinks as she would want him to. He is a construction of her own imagination, a combination of the religious teachings about him that she likes, and the ideas of secular culture that she has made her own. It's almost as if the God she "knows" is an adult version of the child's imaginary friend. Voltaire described the tendency of human beings to do this very thing. He said, "If God made us in His image we have certainly returned the compliment." Let me give one more example of how people confuse their ideas about immaterial reality with the reality itself. Just they treat the afterlife as if it really is the way they imagine it to be, and just they treat God as if He really is the way they want him to be, so do many people treat human acts as if they are really good if they think of them as good, and are really evil if they think of them as evil. When we consider "human acts" we often don't count them as "reality." They are not "things" that we can see or place on a table, as we can the orange. But they do belong to the order of reality. Just as there are different kinds of material things in the world, so there are different kinds of human acts. In the material world, for example, we can speak not only of an orange, but of other things as well -- perhaps a bottle opener, a coffee cup, a bowl of sugar, a banana, and a piece of bread. In a like way, we can speak about different kinds of human acts. We can make reference to an act of kindness, an act of courage, an act of treachery, or an act of theft. Each one is different from the other, and the differences do not come from our minds, but belong to the acts themselves. To continue the analogy, we can take the different material objects mentioned above, place them on the table next to the orange, study them one at a time, discover the properties of each, and then separate them into two or more groups, based on what we have observed. We could make one group of things that are edible, and another of things that are inedible, or one of fruit, and another of non-fruit, and so on. We can do a similar thing with human acts. Each kind of human acts has real properties that a reasonable person can discover. Once such properties are known, human acts can be put into groups. What kind of groups? We will consider these two: one of acts that are evil in kind, and one of acts that are good in kind. And act of adultery would belong to the first group, and an act of charity would belong to the second. (One could also say that there are also acts that are neither good nor evil, but for our purposes we will leave them alone for now.) How do we know which human acts belong to which group, which are good and which are evil? (I'll tell you briefly now, but we should come back to this subject later.) If a human act, when chosen, can unite a person to God, or, metaphorically speaking, can be for a person a "step forward on the way to heaven," it is a good kind of act. However, if a human act, when chosen, cannot possibly unite a person to God, it is evil. My purpose at present is not so much to define what makes an act good or evil. It is rather to make the point that an act can be good "in kind" or evil "in kind," and that this property of good or evil belongs to the act itself, and not to the way I think about it. For this reason, it would be as foolish to say that abortion can be a good act if I want it to be, as to say that a bottle opener can be eaten if I want to eat it. Or to put it another way, if I say that an act is evil, I am not saying that I have bad feelings about it, or that I don't like it, or that I wouldn't do it. "I" am not the point of reference. What I mean is that the act in itself is of such kind that no person can ever, by intending it, unite himself to God. This fundamental idea is lost on many people, perhaps the majority of them. Their way of dealing with good or evil human acts is summed up by a saying that I remember, but which I have not been able to track down: "There is nothing either right or wrong, but thinking makes it so." In other words, all actions are indifferent in themselves, but might become good or evil depending on how a person judges his own intentions and circumstances. Now to turn to VS: 35. In the Book of Genesis we read: "The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die"' (Gen 2: 16-17). With this imagery, Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God's commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat "of every tree of the garden". But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil", for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments. FP>> If some human acts are "good" and others "evil," who is the one to determine which ones are which? Who says that one kind of human act is evil, or that another is good? The answer: God does -- and God alone. To quote VS, "Revelation teaches that 'the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.' " What gives God the right to do this? First, the fact that He is Creator and Lord of all. As Creator and Lord, he has the authority to command our obedience, and did so command at the beginning of creation. As VS points out: In the Book of Genesis we read: "The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die"' (Gen 2: 16-17). Note, it was a "command," an exercise of divine authority. God was using his right to tell us what to do. However, there is another reason why God can "decide what is good and what is evil" apart from the simple fact that he has the right to. It is that, being infinitely wise, he KNOWS how to tell good and evil apart. Because he made man, he is the ultimate "expert" on the differences between the human acts can unite a human being to himself, and the ones can't. This is an important point to understand. If the ONLY reason that some actions were wrong while others were right was that God had "said so," then the law of God would not be "natural law," but simply "positive law." Positive law is the kind that depends solely on the choice of the person (or people) who makes the law. For example, in one part of Fire Island, New York, the citizens, because they want their neighborhood to look picture-perfect, have made very strict laws about keeping the streets neat and clean. There Mel Brooks was charged with a fine of twenty dollars because his garbage cans were still out on the street past a certain hour of the morning. He had to appear before the local judge (who is known to be strict) to plead his case. He lost, and was quoted in the paper as saying, "I threw myself on the mercy of the court, and there was no mercy." There is nothing wrong in itself about leaving garbage cans on the street past a certain hour. It is not an "evil" kind of thing to do. But it became illegal in the civil code on that part of Fire Island because the residents wanted it that way. It was a decree of "positive law." God's laws are different. They don't just tell us what God WANTS. They tell us the way things ARE. They come not just from his divine authority, but from his DIVINE WISDOM. God is the creator of man; he gave man the purpose of eternal union with himself; he knows the laws that he wrote into man's very being, and therefore, HE KNOWS EXACTLY HOW EACH HUMAN ACT WILL EITHER HELP MAN FULFILL HIS PURPOSE, OR HINDER HIM FROM IT. You might say that, having created man, God knows how he "works," and can tell which actions, in and of themselves can lead to union with himself, and which ones lead to division from himself. It is in this vein we should understand these words of VS: "God, who alone is good, KNOWS PERFECTLY WHAT IS GOOD FOR MAN, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments." Perhaps it would help us if we thought of God's law not only as commands, but as "advice" to man on how to achieve union with himself. Considered this way, when God gives man law it is as if he were saying, "Do you want to unite yourself to me eternally? I will tell you how. Do such-and-such things, for they will bring about the union you desire. Also, never do such-and-such other things, for they will divide you from me. I know what you are. I made you. Believe me when I tell you that there are certain things that you can do that will help you to become one with me. But there are other things you might be tempted to do which cannot possibly unite you to me -- so don't ever do them." If we understand that God's law enlightens man on how to attain union with him, then we can see clearly that law is a gift of God's love. Just consider: Why does God give laws to man? Because he wants man to know how to act (or refrain from acting) so as to reach the eternal destiny of union with Himself. Why does God want man to achieve this union? Because it will make man happy. Why does God want man to be happy? Because HE LOVES MAN. The commandments lead to union, union leads to perfect happiness, perfect happiness is the gift of God's love. As VS says, "by virtue of his very love [God] proposes this good to man in the commandments." Consider this too: If God has the RIGHT to command man, and if WHAT God commands is man's road to happiness, how should man respond? What is his most reasonable course of action? By what choice does man display his wisdom? It is this: by ACCEPTING what God commands! As VS states: "But [man's] freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil", for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law." FP>> Man is free, but only to a point. He is not free to change God's law, nor is he free to change reality (that is, the reality of the evil or goodness inherent in human acts). He is free only to accept God's law or reject it, to acknowledge reality or to deny it. VS>> God's law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. FP>> I think we have dealt with this issue in past posts. By giving us his law, God does not restrict our freedom. He educates us on how to live so as to unite ourselves to him. By following God's law, man learns to exercise his freedom in the most perfect way. VS>> In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics which centre upon "an alleged conflict between freedom and law." These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right "to determine what is good or evil." Human freedom would thus be able to "create values" and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. Freedom would thus lay claim to a "moral autonomy" which would actually amount to an "absolute sovereignty." FP>> Again, I think we have dealt with these issues before. Suffice it to say, that in the view of these "present-day cultural tendencies [that] have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics," law -- moral law -- is not looked at in the way we described it above. It is not seen as a gift from God, which teaches us how to be happy, holy, and free. Law is, in such a view, an usurpation of man's absolute authority over himself, and of his ability to decide for himself, without the "interference" of God, what is right and wrong. It is a road block in man's way, as he strives to establish himself as God.