VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 36)
by Fr. Peter Pilsner
Once again, thanks to all of you who have offered me encouragement. I
had a wonderful vacation last summer in Italy. If you want an idea of
what I did, download the file enclosed with this post.
Jeff asked me as he was preparing the new system whether we should
continue with this forum. I responded that I enjoyed it, since it
gives me a chance to write, and that there seem to be at least two or
three people who read the posts. So, he allowed it to continue. I am
sorry that I hardly post anymore, but the reason is twofold. First,
this time of year in a parish is a real killer. I have to get all of
my projects up and running. Second, this second chapter is very
difficult, and writing the posts takes me literally hours. The one
below, I would guess, took at least ten. So thanks to all of you who
are hanging in there. I will keep at it, and hope that as we get into
the meat of the encyclical, some discussion will be generated from time
Sorry to say, but for this post I will have to begin by giving a lot of
background, but none of VS.
I want to go back and try to explain some basic principles of natural
law, this time with a different example.
Let us suppose that a state passes a law forbidding a person to drive a
car while under the influence of alcohol (perhaps designating penalties
according to set blood-alcohol levels). A local citizen reads about
the law in the newspaper, and ponders the wisdom of it. He considers
the effects of alcohol on the brain, the importance of having good
judgment and quick reflexes when driving, and the serious harm that
could result (and has already resulted) from drunk driving. He
concludes from his reasoning that this is a very good law, and that he
will obey it, and encourage others to do so as well.
This person -- let's call him Thomas -- has a conversation with three
other men on this subject: Paul, Theodore, and Jacques. We'll listen
in for a moment.
Thomas: I think it's about time they passed this law. It makes perfect
sense. In fact, the more I think about the dangers of drunk driving,
the happier I am that they outlawed it. If there's anything I can do
to help educate people about this new law, I gladly will.
Jacques: So the government just tells you that drunk driving is
dangerous, and you go right along with it? Why do you let the
government tell you what to think? Why don't you think for yourself?
Thomas: I do think for myself. And it seems perfectly clear to me that
drunk driving is wrong and dangerous, and should be punished by law.
Paul: I think people exaggerate the dangers of drunk driving. I've
been out in my car at times in a pretty drunken state, and I've always
gotten home all right. Besides, most of the roads in this state have
so little traffic, you couldn't get in an accident if you tried.
Theodore: I agree, but I'll follow the law all the same. The last
thing I need is to get caught doing something like that. The jail time
for breaking this law is pretty stiff. Besides, my car insurance would
go through the roof.
Paul: I'll follow it too, but not just because I'm afraid of going to
jail. I think that even if we don't agree with it, it's the law all
the same, and we have a duty as citizens to obey.
Jacques: Now there's the slave mentality for you! What a bunch of
cowards! Don't you realize that the government is taking away your
freedom? I don't see anything wrong with drunk driving, and if I want
to go for a spin after having a few, I'm not going to let the
government tell me I can't!
Let's leave the conversation now, and consider the positions of the
different participants. First, regarding this man Thomas -- is
Jacques right about him? Is Thomas a conformist and a brainwashed ward
of the state because he agrees that drunk driving should be against the
law? Is he a wimp and a coward, a weakling who is afraid to stand up
for his rights, because the law tells him to do something, and he does
And with regard to Jacques -- should we admire him as a man of vision
and an original thinker, because his opinion is bold and unique? Do we
consider him a man of courage and a protector of freedom because he
will drink and drive no matter what anyone says?
The obvious answer to these questions is, "no." Indeed, they hardly
seem worth asking. However, I put them forward to make a point. We
live in an age which glorifies the absolute freedom of the individual,
and hence tends toward a negative view of law, and especially
authority. As a result, there is a certain admiration for the
"non-conformist," the "genius" who refuses to be shackled by
conventional standards, who stands against the world for "his rights."
(Just to give a brief example of what I mean, last summer in New York
City, a group of "Grateful Dead" fans asked to have a rally in Central
Park in memory of Jerry Garcia. But since the group was not able to
pay the city for the extra police security and garbage collection that
the rally would need, it was denied a permit. So, in defiance of the
authorities, many members of this group held an impromptu rally anyway.
The news reports showed them singing, playing guitars, and enjoying
themselves under the view of uniformed police wearing sunglasses.
Judging from a long, passionate condemnation of New York City
government by one fan who got on the news, the sympathy of the media
was clearly with those mourning Garcia, and thumbing their noses at
However, when we are dealing with a good law, all the non-conformist
language ceases to make sense. Quite the contrary, we realize that a
man shows his intelligence and strength of will, not by rebelling
against a good law, but by obeying it. For by grasping the reality of
the situation behind the law, and judging correctly and prudently how
individuals should behave for the sake of the common good, a man shows
the power of his intellect. And by doing in his personal life what his
reason tells him he should, he shows his strength of will. To put it
another way, the intelligent and free man is able to recognize the
reasonableness of the law, and then impose it on himself.
Thomas then, of all the people in the dialogue above, is most to be
admired. His condemnation of drunk driving shows perception, good
judgment, and self-mastery, not blind conformism.
What would we say about Paul? It seems that he does not see clearly
the reasons behind the law. However, (and this would surely apply to
Thomas as well) he still manifests a great deal of intelligence because
he recognizes the rightful authority of the government to make law for
the common good. Even though he does not understand the logic of this
law, he does understand that the government has a right to bind him by
law. Perhaps in time, when he sees the number of deaths from
drunk-driving accidents decline, the law will make more sense to him.
But in the meantime, he can be commended for having respect for the
law, and for having enough self-mastery to put the law into practice in
And what of Theodore? He does not display as much intelligence as
Thomas and Paul, since he can neither grasp the reasonableness of the
law, nor understand why the government has the right to make it. Nor
does he show great strength of will. (He is, in a sense, not
controlling himself, but is being controlled by the government through
fear of punishment.) However, by choosing to follow the law he is at
least showing some common sense. He can understand that the suffering
he will have to endure if he is caught is too high a price to pay for
whatever advantages there might be to drunk driving. Further, his
obedience to the law, albeit coerced, will give him one real benefit,
namely that he won't hurt anybody (or himself) by drunk driving. And
perhaps later he will come to understand why it is a good law, without
having to learn the hard way.
Then there's Jacques. He neither agrees with the reasons behind the
law, nor accepts the authority of the state, nor fears the power of the
state. One might think he shows strength of will, since his intention
to drink and drive is not deterred by the threat of punishment. But
this is not strength of will. It is willfulness -- "I want what I
want." A strong will is fixed on a rational good. But Jacques' will
is fixed on something irrational -- drunk driving. (Why? Perhaps he
enjoys it. Or, maybe he cannot bear letting the government -- or
anyone -- tell him what to do.) In his stubbornness, he shows himself
lacking in intelligence too, even though he seems to be quite
knowledgeable about his rights, vis-a-vis the claims of government.
Why? Because a sharp intellect GRASPS reality. But Jacques' intellect
tries to BEND reality to what he wants. First he WANTS the freedom to
drive drunk, then he justifies what he wants by denying the good
reasons behind the law, and the right of the government to bind him.
Unlike the others mentioned above, there are no advantages to his
position. One can only hope that he changes his mind before he hurts
someone or himself.
Now the reason I have gone through the explanation above is that I want
to make a comparison, with respect to giving law, and receiving law.
With respect to giving law: The state passes laws for the good of the
community. In a like way, God gives laws for the good of mankind. (To
be precise, it's the other way around. God is not like the state; the
state is like God -- it PARTICIPATES in his authority.)
Also, with respect to receiving law: Just as people respond to the
laws of the state with different degrees of intellectual perception and
strength of will, so do they respond to God's law with greater or less
understanding and commitment.
Let us consider the first part of the comparison. There are some ways
in which God is like the state, and primarily this one: GOD IS A
LAWGIVER. To say this means, first, that just as the laws of the state
(e.g., drunk driving laws) have reasons behind them, so do God's laws
have his divine wisdom behind them. Second, just as the state has the
rightful authority to pass laws for the common good, God, as Creator
and Lord, has the authority to give law to man. And third, just as the
state has the authority to punish those who break the law, so God will
justly punish those who violate his law (and die unrepentant).
There are, though, major differences between God's law and the law of
the state. For one, while the laws passed by the state may miss the
mark of justice, and be too stringent, or too lenient, the laws of God
are perfect in their justice. They can be followed without question.
Further, while it is possible for us to understand all of the reasons
behind the laws of the state, the wisdom behind God's law is so great,
that we grasp only a part of it here below.
Now for the second part of the comparison: Just as human beings accept
the laws of the state in various ways and degrees, so do they receive
the law of God.
There are some people, who make the BEST POSSIBLE RESPONSE to God's law
(as Thomas responded to the civil law in our example above). They
understand and embrace the wisdom of His law, as far as humanly
possible. Further, they freely, consciously choose to act according to
When a person responds to God's law in this way, we say that he
PARTICIPATES in it. By accepting God's wisdom, he puts his limited
human intellect in harmony with God's infinite intellect, and by
choosing to follow God's law, he puts his human will in harmony with
God's will. Or, to put it another way, the person who participates in
God's law actively unites his mind and will to God's, making his human
intellect to mirror God's wisdom, and his human will to mirror God's
will. (By the way, God's wisdom, governing the universe, we call the
ETERNAL LAW. Man's reason, mirroring God's, and directing him to avoid
evil and do good we call NATURAL LAW.)
Hopefully it is clear by now that the person who thus participates in
God's law is to be most admired for the power of his intellect and will
(no doubt strengthened by grace). He is not -- to use a phrase from a
popular radio commentator -- "a mind-numbed robot." His mind is not
"numb," but awake, alive, and well, because it perceives TRUTH. Like
the man Thomas in our example, who saw clearly WHY there should be a
law against drunk driving, the person who participates in God's law
sees WHY some kinds of actions are sinful. He realizes that there
really IS something wrong about adultery, perjury, or killing the
innocent. Nor is he a "robot." He sees for himself the path to God,
and will not be turned aside from it out of fear of what other people
will think, or by the lure of wealth, or by the cravings of his
disordered passions. His will is strong and free. He worships God of
his own accord, and refuses to do anything against God's law, that is,
anything that would contradict his commitment to fulfilling God's will.
This is the sense in which we should read the quote from Gaudium et
Spes, given above:
For God willed to leave man 'in the power of his own counsel' (cf. Sir
15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely
arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God".
There are others who participate in God's law, but not as perfectly.
We could compare them in some ways to Paul, mentioned in our opening
example. Remember, Paul did not see the reason behind the law, but he
chose to follow it anyway because he accepted the authority of the
state to bind him by law. In a like way, some people do not understand
WHY certain kinds of actions are wrong, but they choose to follow God's
law anyway, because they accept his authority over them as their
Creator and Lord. But there is this important difference: one can
follow the laws of the state only to a point. State law is made by
fallible human beings and can be unjust -- either too lenient, too
strict, or possibly obliging something against justice. In such a case
a person can protest a law or in an extreme case, be obliged to disobey
it. But God's law must be followed always and without question,
because it is perfect in justice and wisdom. So, a person may not be
able to participate in God's law with his whole mind -- not
understanding the "why" of it -- but can still participate fully with
his will, obeying it all the same.
I would like to point out that this kind of participation in God's law
is not unworthy of human beings, as some might say. True, it is not
worthy of a man to follow without question the commands of another
human being or the laws of the state. No human power can rightfully
ask for "blind obedience." But it is worthy of man to obey God, both
when God's reasons are clear, and when they are not. God's reasons,
though at times mysterious to us, are always wise, perfect, and worthy
of complete confidence and trust. Yes, it is O.K. to give "blind
obedience" to God, though it really isn't blind. It is only guided by
a different light than reason -- a light that one's "eyes" must adjust
to -- the light of faith.
(Note, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 150: As personal
adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from
our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself
wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be
futile and false to place such faith in a creature.)
There are also people who are more like Theodore. This person, as you
will recall, obeyed the law because he was afraid of what the police
and insurance companies might do to him if he broke it. Just so, there
are people who participate in God's law, not so much out of respect for
God, but out of fear. They do not understand any of the reasons behind
God's law, and have doubts about whether God really intends to bind
them. But they keep it all the same, rather than risk eternal
punishment. Their participation in God's law is real insofar as they
are successful in keeping it, but imperfect, because their minds and
wills are not fully engaged. Fear of hell motivates them to do what
they should, but their hearts "are not in it," like the man spoken of
by Francis de Sales, who says, "I wish to God [the divine law] would
allow a man to avenge himself!"
While such a low degree of participation is certainly not the best a
creature of God has to offer, still, OBEYING GOD OUT OF FEAR IS BETTER
THAN DISOBEYING HIM. True, fear is not a good motivator. It may keep
a person on the right track for a while, but it is not very useful for
sustaining a person in right-acting amidst the temptations and trials
life offers. Still, it may actually keep a person out of hell, and in
addition, it can save a person from having to suffer the consequences
of sin until he learns better.
Finally, there are those, like Jacques, who do as they will, and if God
doesn't like it, that's His problem. They don't participate in his law
at all, but rebel against it.
I'll give a final example: Birth control.
Some people have studied this issue, and see the reasons why it is
wrong. They perceive that by God's design, there is an unbreakable
connection between life and love, and that love expressed in sexual
intercourse must respect God's right to bring forth life. Such persons
participate in God's law to a high degree. Their minds are in harmony
with God's truth. The actions they choose conform to God's will.
There are others who have a difficult time understanding why
contraception is wrong. However, they know that God does not want
married couples to use it, and trust that God, who is infinite wisdom,
must have his reasons. They also participate in God's law, if not with
their minds, at least with their wills.
There are still others who know the teaching of the Church that
contraception is against God's law. They have their doubts about
whether God would really be displeased with them if they used it, but
to be on the safe side, refrain.
Finally there are others who use contraception, and try to justify it
in a number of ways, some of which are the reasons this encyclical was
Fr. Peter R. Pilsner
P.S. For further reference on natural law, see the sections of
LIBERTAS quoted below.
Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII promulgated on June 20, 1888.
7. Such, then, being the condition of human liberty, it necessarily
stands in need of light and strength to direct its actions to good and
to restrain them from evil. Without this, the freedom of our will would
be our ruin. First of all, there must be law; that is, a fixed rule of
teaching what is to be done and what is to be left undone. This rule
cannot affect the lower animals in any true sense, since they act of
necessity, following their natural instinct, and cannot of themselves
act in any other way. On the other hand, as was said above, he who is
free can either act or not act, can do this or do that, as he pleases,
because his judgment precedes his choice. And his judgment not only
decides what is right or wrong of its own nature, but also what is
practically good and therefore to be chosen, and what is practically
evil and therefore to be avoided. In other words, the reason prescribes
to the will what it should seek after or shun, in order to the eventual
attainment of man's last end, for the sake of which all his actions
ought to be performed. This ordination of reason is called law. In
man's free will, therefore, or in the moral necessity of our voluntary
acts being in accordance with reason, lies the very root of the
necessity of law. Nothing more foolish can be uttered or conceived than
the notion that, because man is free by nature, he is therefore exempt
from law. Were this the case, it would follow that to become free we
must be deprived of reason; whereas the truth is that we are bound to
submit to law precisely because we are free by our very nature. For,
law is the guide of man's actions; it turns him toward good by its
rewards, and deters him from evil by its punishments.
8. Foremost in this office comes the natural law, which is written and
engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason,
commanding us to do right and forbidding sin. Nevertheless, all
prescriptions of human reason can have force of law only inasmuch as
they are the voice and the interpreters of some higher power on which
our reason and liberty necessarily depend. For, since the force of law
consists in the imposing of obligations and the granting of rights,
authority is the one and only foundation of all law--the power, that
is, of fixing duties and defining rights, as also of assigning the
necessary sanctions of reward and chastisement to each and all of its
commands. But all this, clearly, cannot be found in man, if, as his own
supreme legislator, he is to be the rule of his own actions. It
follows, therefore, that the law of nature is the same thing as the
eternal law, implanted in rational creatures, and inclining them to
their right action and end; and can be nothing else but the eternal
reason of God, the Creator and Ruler of all the world. To this rule of
action and restraint of evil God has vouchsafed to give special and
most suitable aids for strengthening and ordering the human will. The
first and most excellent of these is the power of His divine grace,
whereby the mind can be enlightened and the will wholesomely
invigorated and moved to the constant pursuit of moral good, so that
the use of our inborn liberty becomes at once less difficult and less
dangerous. Not that the divine assistance hinders in any way the free
movement of our will; just the contrary, for grace works inwardly in
man and in harmony with his natural inclinations, since it flows from
the very Creator of his mind and will, by whom all things are moved in
conformity with their nature. As the Angelic Doctor points out, it is
because divine grace comes from the Author of nature that it is so
admirably adapted to be the safeguard of all natures, and to maintain
the character, efficiency, and operations of each.
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