Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

This post will be short compared to the last ones. (Perhaps that is a good thing. I fear sometimes that the length has discouraged people from reading them and responding.) I am in a bit of a rush this week. I am getting ready to go to Erie, Pennsylvania for the Workshop for Priests, the main topic of which will be Veritatis Splendor. I leave Sunday, and return Friday.

Also, my apologies for not responding to your posts. As summer comes, and I have more time on my hands, I will read them over and try to respond more often.

Speaking to a group of teenagers last evening, I raised this question: The Nazi military officers who were tried at Nurnberg -- should they have been punished? "No," said one. "They couldn't help it. They were brainwashed." "In their way of thinking they were doing the right thing," said another. But one girl disagreed. "They should have known it was wrong."

The question the Holy Father deals with at the beginning of section 12 is thorny, but relevant, as we consider recent news events such as the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany on D-Day and the punishment of an American teenager by use of the ratan cane: are there universal laws of right and wrong, which all men can know, and by which all are bound?

The answer of the Holy Father is that yes, there are. God Himself has taught them to us, first, by natural law, and second, by the ten commandments.

What do we mean by "natural law"? Oh, what a can of worms that is! How I wish at this point I were Peter Kreeft instead of Peter Pilsner! (BTW, I see a little debate over in the doctrine forum on this subject, especially on the erroneous views of Dr. Grisez.)

Let me offer a brief explanation, and all of you veteran philosphers please be patient, as I try to make this simple for the sake of our newcomers.

First, we must get rid of the idea that "natural law" means the laws of "natural science". Yes, realities that can be investigated by science do come in to play, but essentially this is not what we mean.

Nor do we mean something like, "what people feel 'naturally' inclined to do" or "doing what comes natural."

Both of these erroneous notions come in to play, for example, in the debate on homosexuality. Those promoting the gay lifestyle will sometimes make the claim that their sexual orientation is genetically based, and that therefore their "nature" is different, and that when they act on their impulses they are acting according to their nature. Others might simply claim that whatever the reason, they are attracted to members of their own sex, and that they do what they do not because anyone tell them to, but because it comes to them "naturally." So, they would say, if they are doing what is "natural for them" how could anyone say that they are acting against "natural" law?

In the term "natural law" the word "natural" has a different meaning, a more philosophical one. The word "nature" refers to "what" a thing is, or to put it another way, it is the answer to the question, "What is that?" If we take a human being and ask that question, "What is that?" we can answer, for starters, "It is an animal, that is different from any other animal, because it has the ability to reason."

The ability to reason, to think, and everything that goes along with it, is a defining characteristic of human nature (that is, of WHAT a human being is). So, when a human being USES that ability, he or she is acting according to his or her nature. When a person acts rationally, he acts, we could say, naturally.

To act rationally means to apply one's reason to the world. If a person does so, he will come to the conclusion that he did not bring himself into existence, nor could he (a rational creatrue) have been brought into existence by non-rational beings (the rest of the material world). He must have been created by a being possessing a higher power and intelligence, namely God. A person who acts according to his nature will also apply his power of reason to himself, and to his own actions. In doing so, he will realize that certain kinds of actions are in themselves irrational. Indeed, he will say that such actions so violate the good of the human being that they can be called immoral. That is they should never be done, no matter what the circumstances. For example, he will recognize other humans as members of his own species, and realize that an intelligent creator brought them into existence for a purpose, just as he himself was. He will respect the purposes of the creator by not taking the lives of his fellow human beings. He will not kill them, unless to protect his own life.

What then would we say to two young lovers who are not waiting for marriage to have sexual relations, and who claim that they are only doing "what comes natural"? We would say that they are acting not according to "natural law," but according to the irrational impulses of fallen nature. If they were to act in a way worthy of rational creatures, they would realize that a child resulting from their union would be deprived of the stablility and care he would need in order to develop properly. They would then bring their actions under the control of reason, and refrain from such activity until they were ready to handle the responsibilities of being parents.

But if we want to know what reason command and forbids, we have an easier way of finding out. We can ask God, who made us, and listen to his answer. Fortunately for us, God has given us the answer in the ten commandments.

We know then that there are some kinds of actions that are always wrong to do, and this knowledge comes from two places: our own reason, and the revelation of God. Both of these give the same answer, but in different ways. Here is a comparison a philosophy professor of mine gave, and I have found it helpful. If you have a math book, and at the end of the chapter it gives you problems ot practice on, you can get the answer in two ways: figure it out, or look at the answer in the bacd of the book. In a like way, if you want to know what is right and what is wrong, you can reason it out (natural law) or learn the answer from God (revelation).

Now, my bags are packed and my brother is waiting for me to finish this post so we can get on the road to Erie. We have hardly finished section 12. Again, sorry. At the risk of getting my brother mad at me, I'll make one last point and ask a question.

The point: Why is it so important to establish that the ten commandments correspond to the natural law? I think one reason stands out. I think our Holy Father, by insisting that moral teaching agrees with reason and answers a genuine desire and need on our part to know what is good, is demonstrating that catholic morality is not some set of arbitrary rules, imposed by the Church, stifling happiness, restricting proper freedom, and rammed down peoples' throats with a claim to diving authority and a threat of divine punishment. It is a gift from a loving God who is infinitely good and happy in himself, and wishes us to be good and happy like Himself.

The question: if moral law can be known by reason, why does God have to give it to us in revelation?

God bless. I'll tell you all about the conference when I get back.