VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 22)
by Fr. Peter Pilsner
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
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
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 it?
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
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
(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 civil authorities.)
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 his life.
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
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
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 this law.
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
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
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.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN