VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 19)
by 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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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.