Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Freedom's Conscientious Limits: The Natural Law

IN OUR LAST POST WE QUOTED that part of the Compendium which stated that the proper exercise of personal freedom demands not only specific conditions of economic, social, political, and cultural order to be properly exercised, but that, moreover, these must be conformed to the natural law, since "[b]y deviating from the moral law man violates his own freedom, becomes imprisoned within himself, disrupts neighborly fellowship, and rebels against divine truth.'" (Compendium, No. 137) (quoting CCC, § 1740)

The natural law is therefore behind all of man's economic, social, political, and cultural life. It follows that the natural law is an essential part of the social doctrine of the Church. Indeed, the natural law is an essential part of man's freedom, for any action outside of the pale of the natural moral law is by definition a movement from the real, from what is, to the unreal, to what is not. As John Paul II vividly taught us in his Encyclical Veritatis splendor, there is an intrinsic connection between freedom and living in the truth. The negative is likewise true: there is an intrinsic connection between living in falsehood and slavery.

Freedom is not boundless. It must be exercised responsibly which means according to rule. Who can advocate an irresponsible freedom? As Solzhenitsyn pointed out in his famous Harvard Commencement Address (June 8, 1978), an "irresponsible freedom" granted "boundless space" is "destructive," and leads, moreover, society into "the abyss of human decadence."*

To avoid this fall into the "abyss of human decadence," therefore, we must exercise freedom responsibly. This means that freedom must conform itself to the judgment of conscience. Freedom is therefore restrained by conscience. Indeed, to place freedom under the judgment of conscience "leads to the acceptance of responsibility for the good accomplished and the evil committed." (Compendium, No. 139)

Conscience is therefore the lode star of freedom. Focus on the pole star of conscience keeps society from falling into the "abyss of human decadence," as Solzhenitsyn warned. But conscience serves a double purpose since it also keeps us out of the abyss of Hell. "Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, aedificat ad gehennam," the Fourth Lateran Council taught. That which goes against conscience, conduces one to Gehenna, a place where--one might to one's edification recall--both body and soul are destroyed. (Matt. 10:28)

If for both society and soul's sake freedom must be exercised responsibly, and this means in accordance with conscience, then what is to inform the conscience? Can conscience dispense with conscience? Surely not. Is conscience under no law? Surely not, for to judge means there is some law by which to judge. And if conscience is necessarily under some law, whose law, man's or God's?

If conscience is to be regarded as nothing more than vox hominis, the voice of man, then man is the measure of all things, and the law that governs conscience is nothing other than "self-law," a declaration of autonomy from external or objective rule. Conscience would then be nothing but the application of arbitrary rule. Conscience thought of in this way is, as Newman called it, in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, "counterfeit."** It is, in fact, rebellion.

Tower of Babel (Breughel)

Such a notion of conscience cannot support life in common. "Those who proclaim themselves to be the sole measure of realities and of truth cannot live peacefully in society with their fellow men and cooperate with them." (Compendium, No. 142) So there is an ominous harbinger of things to come when a Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy can say, in what his much more sensible fellow Justice Scalia mocked as "the famed sweet-mystery-of-life passage," that "[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one's concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." (Planned Parenthood v. Casey)

No, Justice Kennedy. The "right to define one's concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life," is not at the heart of liberty, it's at the heart of slavery.

Conscience, Justice Kennedy plainly forgot, is not the voice of man, it is vox Dei, the voice of God. And this suggests that God, and not man, is the measure of all things. There is then a measure or rule outside ourselves to which we must conform. And this outside measure or rule--which finds its source in God and his eternal law and as it applies to man-- is known as the natural law.

For this reason, the Compendium states that the "exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and units all rights and duties." As if bullet points, the Compendium insists on the following:
  • The natural law is "nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God."***
  • By the natural law we "know what must be done and what must be avoided."†
  • "This light or this law has been given by God to [man in] creation."††
  • The natural law consists in the participation of God's eternal law, "which is identified with God himself."
  • The natural law is called "natural" "because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature."
  • The natural law "is universal, it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason."
  • The natural law, in "its principal precepts," is presented "in the Decalogue," that is, the Ten Commandments, "and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life."
  • The natural law's "central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good."
  • The natural law's "central focus" also includes the "act of seeing others as equal to oneself."
  • The natural law "expresses the dignity of the person and laws the foundations of the person's fundamental duties" to both God, to himself, and to man."
(Compendium, No. 140)

The natural law is the law among all people, and it traverses all culture, all convention, all human law. It is the law under all laws, over all laws, and within all laws. It is "immutable," constant, a reliable lode star, even "under the flux of ideas and customs," though it is also flexible, and "its application may," where exceptionless or absolute norms are not at issue, "require adaptations to the many different conditions of life according to place, time, and circumstances."††† (Compendium, No. 141)

It is true that man can reject the natural law, and in the main our society seems to have rejected its guidance. But "[e]ven when it is rejected in its very principles," the Compendium states quoting the Catechism, "it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies." (Compendium, No. 141) Indeed, the "natural law, which is the law of God, cannot be annulled by human sinfulness."

Not only is it true that man can reject the natural law, it is also true that we can simply be ignorant of the natural law. The voice of the natural law is sufficiently quiet that particular individuals or whole societies fail to hear it. "Be still and know that I am God," says the Psalter. (Psalm 46:10 [45:11]) The "stillness" rule applies to the natural law: "Be still and know the natural law." And most of us are not still enough to hear the natural law. Most of us listen to other, louder voices: selfish regard, the poisons and conventions of our culture, the stupid, trite, and shallow aphorism of the day, the rule of expediency. Additionally, our inner ear is muffled by the ease of torpid conscience, the inconvenience even sacrifice demanded by a life lived by principle, or by an all-too-frequent acedia in moral life.

Since most of us are not still enough, listen to other voices, or have a sort of lint in our heart's inner ear, the natural law's "precepts . . . are not clearly and immediately perceived by everyone." It is therefore the case that, as a matter of practical necessity in a world that has lapsed after the Fall, religious and moral truths can be known "with facility, with firm certainty, and without the admixture of error" only "with the help of Grace and Revelation."

As Matthew Arnold said in his poem, "Pis Aller":‡

Man is blind because of sin,
Revelation makes him sure;
Without that, who looks within,
Looks in vain, for all's obscure.

The natural law is not only the recipe for individual morality, it is the recipe for social life. The natural law is, in fact, the foundation upon which the Church's social doctrine is built, and is the foundation upon which every society bar none must be built.

The natural law "lays the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community and for establishing the civil law that draws its consequences of a concrete and contingent nature from the principles of the natural law." (Compendium, No. 142) Without the natural law, in vain do men build their societies, found their governments, and attempt constitutions devoted to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

"Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain." (Psalm 127 (126):1) Build a society without reference to the natural law, build a society of relativism and moral pluralism without reference to God and his law, and you have built not on Mount Zion. Rather, you have built its ersatz, a fake substitute, a tower of Babel. And we all know what happened to that tower.

They who did labour Babels tower to'erect,
Might have considered, that for that effect,
All this whole solid Earth could not allow
Nor furnish forth Materials enow;
And that his Center, to raise such a place
Was far too little, to have been the Base;
No more affords this worlds, foundation
To erect true joy, were all the means in one.
But as the Heathen made them several gods,
Of all God's Benefits, and all his Rods,
(For as the Wine, and Corn, and Onions are
Gods unto them, so Agues be, and war)
And as by changing that whole precious Gold
To such small copper coins, they lost the old.

If we think like Justice Kennedy, we have traded precious Gold of the natural law, for the small copper coin of relativism, and with the loss of capital and the loss of coin, we have sold ourselves to slavery. And all this not even for a mess of pottage, but for such enormities such as contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage, and pornography.

*"Harvard Commencement Address," by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Lewis Copeland, et al, eds., The World's Great Speeches 4th ed. (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999), 837.
**John Henry Newman, A Letter addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk (New York: Catholic Publication Society, 1875), 75, 82.
***Quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas, In Duo Praecepta Caritatis et in Decem Legis Pracepta Expositio, c. 1. ("nihil aliud est nisi lumen intellectus insitum nobis a Deo")
†Id. ("per quod cognoscimus quid agendum et quid vitandum")
††Id. ("Hoc lumen et hanc legem dedit Deus homini in creatione")

†††As an example, the distinction between extraordinary medical care (which one is not required to render a person) and ordinary medical care (which one is) varies "according to place, time, and circumstances." Similarly, the right to a living wage and what that means varies "according to place, time, and circumstances." Some norms--like the prohibition against murder or adultery--are exceptionless and do not admit of change "according to place, time, and circumstances."
‡See The Need for Revelation: "Pis-Aller" by Matthew Arnold.

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