VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 5)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.