VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 23)
by Fr. Peter Pilsner
Now let's listen in on another conversation. Jack and Bob are
Jack: Bob, I'm looking for a bit of financial advice.
Bob: I'll help if I can.
Jack: Thanks. I'm thinking about making an investment, but I'm
not sure if it's a wise one. So, I thought I would get your opinion,
since you work in investment banking.
Bob: All right. Tell me about it.
Jack: Right now I have about twenty thousand dollars in savings
that I can afford to invest. I was thinking of putting it in
a mutual fund or bonds, but then an uncle of mine offered me something
else. He's opening a business and says he can give me a twenty
percent return if I invest with him now.
Bob: That sounds pretty high. Were you going to invest all twenty
Jack: Yes, I was.
Bob: How well do you know this uncle of yours?
Jack: Prettty well. He's been close to my family since I was young.
Bob: What kind of work does he do?
Jack: He's managed some high-end electronics retail stores, and
done very well. Now he wants to open a place of his own.
Bob: Has he ever been in business for himself?
Jack: No, he hasn't.
Bob: Well, my advice would be this: Invest with your uncle if
you want, but not the whole twenty thousand. Maybe half or less.
My reasons for saying this would be, first, twenty percent seems
like a very high return to me. If he's promising that right away,
then I suspect he is overestimating his chances of success, and
that doesn't say too much for him as a business man. Second,
don't put all your eggs in one basket. Diversify a bit, and put
some of you money in safer investments, maybe treasury bonds.
Jack: I don't know if I agree. My uncle does have a good business
sense, and if he can give me twenty percent, that would be a higher
than just about any other investment.
Bob: Perhaps. But I would stand by my advice, especially about
diversifying. If this venture of his goes under, you could stand
to lose everything.
Jack: I appreciate your advice and I'll think it over. But I have
a lot of confidence in my uncle. I think I'll take a chance with
Bob: Well, it's your uncle, your decision, and your money.
In my last post, I explained what it means to "participate" in God's law by obeying it,
knowingly and willingly. For now, I would like to refer to that as the "participation
approach" to morality. According to that approach, you will remember, God gives us
his wise and perfect laws, and the goal of us who receive his law is to obey it, with as
much understanding and commitment as we can.
Now I would like to contrast this "participation approach" with what I will call the
(By the way, please don't get thrown off by my calling them "approaches." I don't at
all mean to imply that both are equally valid.)
Let me explain what I mean by the "advice approach" by referring to the dialogue
above. There, Jack is trying to make an important decision about what to do with his
twenty thousand dollars. He wants to make a good decision, so he seeks advice from
Bob, someone he regards as wiser than himself in these matters. Bob gives him
excellent advice. (Well, at least it seems that way to me. I am not a business man
myself, so I don't really know if it is the best advice possible, but let's say so for the
sake of my example.) However, the advice, as good as it is, can only be general in
scope, because Bob doesn't know Jack's uncle personally, or the details of the uncle's
business venture. Jack talks as if he is going to invest all his money with his uncle
anyway. Bob's response is, "Well, it's your uncle, your decision, and your money." In
other words, while not denying the value of the advice he gave, Bob concedes that Jack
may still be right, because while he himself knows finance, Jack has a better grasp of
this particular business deal. Further, Bob recongnizes that even if Jack in wrong, he
still has the right as the investor to make the final decision. "It's...your decision, and
your money." Now, if Jack decides to invest the whole sum with his uncle, how could
we describe the steps that led up to his decision? He looked for advice from someone
whom he regarded as wiser than himself.
He listened to the advice.
He thought carefully about the advice, about his uncle, about the seriousness of the
undertaking, and about the merits of the business venture.
He made a decision about the best course of action to take. Finally, we presume, he
acted. He either invested or didn't, and accepted full responsibility for the risks
involved, or the opportunities lost.
Now, this may be a good way of proceeding when trying to make a financial decision.
The problem is, that many people see it as a way of making MORAL decisions. In
other words, when they are trying to discern whether some action they might do is
right or wrong, and they look to the Church for help in making a decision, they regard
her moral teaching more as advice than as law. Hence, if they decide to act against the
teaching of the Church in the end, they may acknowledge that they are going against
the Church's "good advice," but they do not see themselves as breaking God's law.
Let me try to illustrate this with an example. Let's take the case of a person who is
being seriously tempted to commit adultery. How will the person proceed in making
a decision if he follows the "participation approach?"
First, he will look to see if the moral teaching of the Church has anything to say about
what he wants to do. Here he finds that the Church reaffirms unambiguously the sixth
commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery. He also realizes that this
commandment is law. Maybe through his investigation he discovers WHY adultery is
wrong, and comes to full agreement of mind with God's law. At the very least,
however, he realizes that God's command is clear, and that there is a punishment
attached to breaking it. Second, he examines his own situation and sees if the law
would apply. Is he married? Yes. Is this woman to whom he is attracted his wife? No.
If HE has relations with THIS WOMAN, will HE be committing adultery? Yes.
Third, he makes a decision. As mentioned, He realizes he would be breaking God's
law by having a rendezvous with this "other woman". So, he can decide to
PARTICIPATE in God's law by ending the relationship and remaining faithful to his
wife. Or, he can decide to give in to the temptation. He realizes that if he does the
latter, he will be breaking God's law and committing sin, with certain punishment to
The person who follows the "advice approach" will proceed in a similar fashion, but
with a crucial difference. Like the person above, he looks to see if the moral teaching of
the Church has anything to say about what he wants to do. He also finds that the
Church reaffirms the sixth commandment. He may acknowledge that this teaching has
a great wisdom to it, and indeed possess great respect for that wisdom. He may
consider carefully everything the Church has to say on this subject, even to the point
of becoming familiar with John Paul II's insights on the theology of the body.
Second, he examines his situation. He realizes that the action he proposes to himself
would go against the sixth commandment. But even so, the issue of whether he is
about to do something wrong is far from settled in his mind. There are other things
besides the sixth commandment that he takes into account. For example, he thinks
about the problems in his marriage, the distance that has come between him and his
wife, and the hope that this other relationship will fulfill his desires for love,
companionship, and understanding. He may even reason that an occasional infidelity
might make him a better husband. (Don't laugh. People do think these kinds of things.)
But he also considers the difficulties that adultery might cause -- his mistress might get
pregnant, people may find out, and worst of all, both his marriage and the new
relationship may break up, leaving him with nothing. He brings his thoughts on the
matter to his most trusted friends and perhaps others he respects -- maybe his therapist
-- seeking their counsel and advice. He weighs EVERYTHING seriously, giving special
consideration to the teaching of the Church. And he prays for guidance too. Third, he
makes a decision about what the right thing is for him to do in his situation. Like a
king who gathers counsel from his learned men, and then makes a law, the man in our
example, having gathered advice from different sources -- one of which is the church -
- gives everything due consideration, and makes, one might say, a law for himself. He
decides whether adultery is wrong for him in his situation.
Fourth, he decides what to do. If he decides that adultery -- in his situation -- would be
wrong, and he chooses to remain faithful to his wife, he has done nothing wrong, as
far as he is concerned. If he decides that adultery would be wrong, and he goes ahead
and commits adultery, he HAS done wrong, as far as he is concerned. But consider
carefully this last case: if he decides that adultery is not wrong, and he commits
adultery, HE HAS DONE NOTHING WRONG, AS FAR AS HE IS CONCERNED.
Wait a minute -- how can someone commit adultery, and not think they are doing
anything wrong? Go back to the third step. Here is the crucial difference between the
"participation approach" and the "advice approach." According to the participation
approach, whether adultery is wrong or not IS ULTIMATELY FOR GOD TO SAY. If
God says it is wrong, then it is, as a matter of divine law, always and with no
exceptions. Whether human beings think it is wrong or not is not relevant.
But according to the "advice approach," whether adultery is wrong or not, is not
ultimately for God to say. IT IS ULTIMATELY FOR THE INDIVIDUAL PERSON TO
SAY. What the individual receives from God, or from the Church, is, in essence,
advice. Good advice. Great advice. Outstanding advice, worthy of the most serious
consideration. BUT NOT LAW.
This is the crux of the issue: everyone agrees that what God and the Church have to
say is worth listening to. It's good advice. BUT IS IT LAW? If it is ONLY advice, I may
have a moral responsibility to listen to it and consider it carefully, but I do not have to
follow it if I judge that it does not apply in my case. But if it is law -- exceptionless law
-- then I have the duty to participate in it, at least by obeying, hopefully with
understanding and consent.
Let's get back to VS:
VS>> Some people, however, disregarding the dependence of human reason on Divine
Wisdom and the need, given the present state of fallen nature, for Divine Revelation as
an effective means for knowing moral truths, even those of the natural order, (62) have
actually posited a complete sovereignty of reason in the domain of moral norms
regarding the right ordering of life in this world. Such norms would constitute the
boundaries for a merely "human" morality; they would be the expression of a law
which man in an autonomous manner lays down for himself and which has its source
exclusively in human reason.
FP>> In this section, the Holy Father is telling us why the "advice approach" is the
wrong approach. He defines the advice approach: "a complete sovereignty of reason
in the domain of moral norms regarding the right ordering of life in this world." In
other words, the judgment or reasoning power of the individual is "sovereign" -- is
"king." The individual uses HIS HUMAN POWER OF REASON to consider the
situation at hand, weigh the pros and cons, judge the merits of advice (from whatever
source) and decide for himself what is right or wrong for him to do.
So again, whence come the answers to questions of what is right to do and what is
wrong? From an individual's own HUMAN reason. Hence we say that the individual
guides himself by a merely "HUMAN morality." Can we call this human morality a
type of "law"?
Yes, but we must distinguish. It is by no means a law that God gives to man. IT IS A
LAW THAT MAN GIVES TO HIMSELF. Note again, VS: "Such norms would
constitute the boundaries for a merely "human" morality; they would be the expression
of A LAW WHICH MAN IN AN AUTONOMOUS MANNER LAYS DOWN FOR
HIMSELF." Again, where does this "law" come from? It has a "source exclusively in
Why is this approach wrong? The Holy Father points out two problem. The first has to
do with competence, the second with authority. First, human reason, left to itself,
unaided by God's grace, is not capable of making correct moral judgments. As JP II
states, the people who propose this merely human morality fail to consider "the
dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom and the need, given the present state
of fallen nature, for Divine Revelation as an effective means for knowing moral truths,
even those of the natural order." That is, if human beings want to figure out what is
right and what is wrong, without God's help, they can get all the advice they can,
considerate it for as long as they want, and ponder the situation as deeply as they
might, but in the end, they'll probably get it wrong. Why? Because the power of
reason itself is weak and fallible, as a result of original sin. And the only way to
overcome this weakness is to listen to Divine wisdom. And "listen" does not mean just
to give it a polite and respectful hearing. It means to DEPEND on it, yeilding our
judgment to it, obediently.
VS >> In no way could God be considered the Author of this law, except in the sense
that human reason exercises its autonomy in setting down laws by virtue of a
primordial and total mandate given to man by God.
Fr. Peter >> Now we come to the issue of authority. Consider this question: if human
beings determine the moral law for themselves, then are we able to say, in any
meaningful sense, that the moral law is "God's law"? If man determines right and
wrong for himself, and God merely contributes to the decision by giving him "advice,"
shouldn't we say that it's essentially "man's law" -- not God's law? It would seem so,
but there is one possibility still to be considered. What if man, when he makes law for
himself, is doing exactly what God wants him to do? What if God INTENDS that man
decide moral questions for himself, by use of his human reason? To go even further,
what if God COMMANDS that man do this? If that were so, then man, by obeying the
laws he makes for himself, would be doing God's will. He would be obeying God too.
The moral laws he determines for himself would be BOTH man's law and God's law.
For this to be so, there would have to be "a primordial and total mandate given to man
by God." In other words, God gave man a mandate -- a command -- to make moral law
for himself. This command was primordial, that is, from the beginning of creation.
Also, it was total. That is, God gave man complete say over morality. The
implications of this way of thinking go very far. What those who hold to this kind of
"human morality" (or "advice approach") have essentially done is to take the story in
Genesis of the fall of man, and turn it upside down. According to the book of Genesis,
God says to Adam and Eve, "You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden
except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat; the
moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die." But as the advocates of this
"human morality" would have it, it is as if God says, "You are free to eat from any of
the trees of the garden. And be sure not to miss the tree of knowledge of good and bad.
I want you eat from that one especially. Indeed, I command it. For the moment you eat
from it you will be able to judge for yourselves what is good and what is bad."
But God has not said this. So, the "advice approach" is wrong on two counts: First,
man's intellect is wounded by original sin, and hence he is not competent to make
moral laws for himself. Second, God has not in fact given man "a primordial and total
mandate" to make moral law for himself, and so man has no authority to do this.
The conclusion of paragraph 36:
These trends of thought have led to a denial, in opposition to Sacred Scripture (cf. Mt
15:3-6) and the Church's constant teaching, of the fact that the natural moral law has
God as its Author, and that man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law,
which it is not for him to establish. FP >> Here is the issue at hand: "the natural moral
law has God as its Author" -- NOT MAN. God makes law for man. Man participates
in it. Man does not establish law for himself. I know I have spent a lot of time on this
paragraph, but it contains certain key concepts that are important to what follows.
Also, I think that once you can make the above distinctions, you will be able to see the
fundamental error in a lot of what passes for moral theology -- indeed, sad to say,
moral catechesis. You will find many books and teachers that deal with conscience and
sin, that quote Vatican II and John Paul II, and that in may ways look orthodox. But
you have to look deeper to find out how they answer this question: when all is said
and done, who makes the final judgment about what is right and wrong -- God or
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