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.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ignorance of the Wrong--Introduction to the Problem

MORAL JUDGMENTS SUFFER FROM A PECULIAR limitation compared with purely intellectual, speculative judgments. Although universal precepts and conclusions of the natural law and the human inclinations behind them, are either self-evident or undeniable, the application of these in concrete instances (what is classically called the determinations or determinationes) is fraught with imprecision typical to the prudential judgment. The concretization of the natural law in the contingency of time and place, therefore, may yield one determination (law) for one place and one determination (law) for another, without thereby violating the fundamental precepts or principles of natural law. It is therefore an error to expect the natural law to give the same answer in different time and place, without regard to circumstances. The natural law is unlike a physical law--invariable, deterministic, and (barring a miracle) the same everywhere and everyplace. Gravity (at least in Newton's world) always acts one predictable way (and even in Einstein's world, another predictable way). The natural law, rather, is a moral law, which means that it considers the contingencies of time and place, and the free intellect and will of man as it responds to those contingencies. What is its strength (variability, adaptability, versatility) is also, in a manner of speaking, its weakness (vagueness, lack of definitiveness or clarity). We just have to live with the vagueness, to enjoy its strength, the possibility of ignorance, mistake, or intentionally choosing evil, as part of the price of being free and freely choosing the good.

It is for this reason that advocates of the natural moral law warn not to expect precision in the area of natural moral law and the application of practical reason and prudence. It is not that there are no right answers--there are--but to get to those answers is often fraught with imprecision or lower level of certitude than other sciences. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing on Aristotle, warns us to be aware that the subject matter of the science of practical reasoning and moral truth affects the certitude to be expected.* Obviously, the less precise a science is, the more prone it may be to the admission of error. Few people in the world will insist that 2 + 2 = 5: it is apparent that 2 + 2 =4, whether we are dealing with marbles, dogs, or children. Similarly, few would saw that evil ought to be done, and good avoided: it is apparent to most that the opposite is true: good ought to be done and evil avoided. Few would disdain the validity of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. On the other hand, there are some that insist that polygamy is moral, though it is against the natural law, or that someone who believes something other than you loses by that very reason his right to life, though that even more clearly is against the natural law. There are some that believe in many gods or who do not believe in God, or some who simply abstain from the question of whether there is a God, and those postures are against the natural moral law.**

The lack of precision or certitude in moral matters, and the concomitant lack of agreement, which arises out of the application of freedom in the contingency of time or place raises another reality which the enemies of a universal morality frequently seize upon: the variability of morals in history and culture. Whereas the natural law advocate sees this variability as a necessary adjunct to the lack of precision in subject matter, and so not inconsistent with the reality of an objective universal, unchanging, and invariable natural law, the relativist will see the variability as evidence of the conventionality, the subjectivity, and relativity of morals. The latter view, however, arises out of a misunderstanding (whether as a result of ignorance or ideology) of the moral enterprise.

There is yet another problem. In addition to the lack of certitude that comes with the subject matter, there is, in man, a sort of division between his animal nature and his spiritual nature: a tug of war between these two. St. Paul provides a masterful analysis of the struggle between the law spiritual and the "law" carnal in man. The effort to overcome the tug of the flesh and allow the ruleship of the spirit is at the heart of every religion and moral philosophy worthy of the name:
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
Romans 7:21-23.***

The universal, natural moral law (which is a reasonable one) is found principally in the spiritual component of man, though it has lesser roots also in the animal one. (The natural law involves the whole man, but since the spiritual part of man is the more noble, it follows that the spiritual part is preeminent over the animal, though never at the exclusion of the animal part. Indeed, the distinction between spiritual and animal is only a virtual distinction in that man is really a union of both body and soul, and not soul-in-body, that being a Cartesian innovation, or soul-trapped-in-body, which is a typical Platonic or Gnostic view.) Unfortunately, the spiritual component is often suppressed, quieted, or corrupted by the animal component of man, and one man's error can often can become entrenched in an entire culture, even an entire religion.

This, for example, is the case in Islam.† Muhammad's passions, some of them clearly disordered and against universal moral principles, have become normative for almost a billion of the world's people. In some cultures or religious traditions, some of these errors cannot be pinpointed upon any one man, but arise, one must suppose, over generations. So, for example, one might point to the caste system of traditional Hinduism, which is so offensive to the natural law and the general equality of human beings that is implied by the natural law. Likewise, one may point to the endemic problem of institutional concubinage in China which presented such a problem to the Jesuit missionaries there, including Matteo Ricci. The modern West itself suffers from deficiencies deep within its fabric of false notions of freedom, relativism, and individual "rights" which dull the senses to the existence of an objective moral order. Deficient custom and convention, as well as individual vices, can muffle the voice of the natural moral law. We might even call these bad customs or conventions institutional, political, or social bad habits or vices.

How true is this?

In the pursuit of the moral life, we are therefore confronted with many wrong roads upon which to travel. Some of these wrong roads are the result of our own personal shortcomings, vices, or predispositions--whether genetic or as a result of our own culture, formation, or training. Others of these may be the result of those customs or conventions of our time, of our culture, or of our religion. And yet, among the many wrong roads, there is a right way.

Man has not been left to wander aimlessly and alone in an otherwise ordered universe. If there are many wrong roads that man may travel, there is only one right road that he should follow.††
And yet it is a reality that many are on the wrong road. There is hardly a place in the world which, for example, does not accept either serial (divorce and remarriage) or simultaneous polygamy (as in traditional Islam). Some people insist that homosexual acts are not immoral--indeed, that homosexuality is a right. The number of people that see nothing wrong with artificial contraception (ever, and sometimes even see it as a moral obligation!) or with abortion under at least some circumstances (e.g., rape) is disconcerting. But these are individual issues. There are some in the West, indeed, (and there number seems to be growing) that advance the notion that all morality is relative, and that there is no norm within or without man to which he is bound. Instead, they insist that there is no norm in man: that man makes his own norms. At another end, the Muslims, in an odd way, agree. They likewise insist that there is no norm in man: the all-transcendent Allah through his prophet Muhammad extrinsically, that is by positive diktat, give us those norms, in the Qur'an, the sunnah, and the sirah, as construed by the ijmāʿ (إجماع) or the consensus of Islamic legal scholars, and that all fundamentals are no longer subject to development, the Gates of Ijtihad (اجتهاد‎) being closed. Allah could have given us other norms, but he did not: so we follow these because man has no intrinsic law which guides him and could limit the potentia Dei absoluta of Allah. There is no such thing as a potentia Dei ordinata limiting Allah.†††

With so many on wrong roads, we might ask the questions: How is the natural moral law known? Do all these persons know that they are on the wrong path? If they do not know it, are they responsible or answerable to God for such failure to know of it? Are these people, in short, all "without excuse," sint inexcusabiles, αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους in the words of St. Paul? (Romans 1:20). Who are they that are without excuse, who are before God without apology? All these are very good questions. And, relying upon the work of Rev. Stanley Bertke, The Possibility of Invincible Ignorance of the Natural Law, we will explore these questions to see if we can find answers to them. In short, we shall explore the issue of the invincible ignorance of the natural moral law.
*S.T. Iª-IIae q. 91 a. 3 ad 3: Ad tertium dicendum quod ratio practica est circa operabilia, quae sunt singularia et contingentia, non autem circa necessaria, sicut ratio speculativa. Et ideo leges humanae non possunt illam infallibilitatem habere quam habent conclusiones demonstrativae scientiarum. Nec oportet quod omnis mensura sit omni modo infallibilis et certa, sed secundum quod est possibile in genere suo. (Reply to Objection 3. The practical reason is concerned with practical matters, which are singular and contingent: but not with necessary things, with which the speculative reason is concerned. Wherefore human laws cannot have that inerrancy that belongs to the demonstrated conclusions of sciences. Nor is it necessary for every measure to be altogether unerring and certain, but according as it is possible in its own particular genus.) St. Thomas is drawing on the wisdom of Aristotle who in his Nicomachean Ethics observes: "Now our treatment of this science will be adequate, if it achieves that amount of precision which belongs to its subject matter. The same exactness must not be expected in all departments of philosophy alike, any more than in all the products of the arts and crafts." (λέγοιτο δ᾽ ἂν ἱκανῶς, εἰ κατὰ τὴν ὑποκειμένην ὕλην διασαφηθείη: τὸ γὰρ ἀκριβὲς οὐχ ὁμοίως ἐν ἅπασι τοῖς λόγοις ἐπιζητητέον, ὥσπερ οὐδ᾽ ἐν τοῖς δημιουργουμένοις.) Nic. Eth., 1094b.
**Since the existence of God is provable by reason, it follows that we are morally compelled to believe it, since we are morally obliged to liver our lives in conformity with truth. The natural moral law further compels to pray to this God and to seek out this God, in particular, whether to ask ourselves whether he has revealed himself to man in anyway. It thus leads us to the threshold of revealed religion. The myriad religions offered to man claiming to be based upon revelations must then be looked at using reason as as the divining tool. Those against the natural moral law or against reason in the rational order ought to be rejected. Those in accord with the natural moral law and which are not irrational are then candidates for faith. To believe, to go one step further by an act of Faith, then requires Grace and grace is given by God through prayer. The natural law will thus, as a sort of first grace or mediator, lead us to Christ and to his Church. In Dantean terms, the natural law is thus our Virgil.
***We ought not to leave out the solution to this problem that is given by St. Paul: "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Romans 7:24-25. The role of Christ and his Church is helping us overcome sin and live a life in harmony with the natural law, which is nothing other than a participation by man in the eternal law of God, indeed in God himself, ought not to be minimized. However, the natural law is a law of reason, not of faith. It is inherent in our nature and a universal law that binds all men regardless of creed. Christ's incarnation, His institution of the Church, and His institution of the Sacraments and the Church's teaching authority (which includes within its competence the natural moral law) is a great mercy.
†We have just completed a series on Muhammad and the Natural Law, to which the reader is referred. We have also addressed the issue of the natural law in Islam in prior postings, although, of course, much more can be said about this topic.
††Rev. Stanley Bertke, The Possibility of Invincible Ignorance of the Natural Law (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1941), intr.
†††The concepts of potentia Dei absoluta and potentia Dei ordinata are worthy of an entire separate treatment. These distinctions arose in the middle ages in the disputes between those who advanced voluntarism and nominalism and those who advanced rationalism and realism. Succinctly, however, the notion of potentia Dei absoluta maintained God's absolute power, so that God was free to do anything--whether to make black white, adultery good, or become incarnate in a donkey--for God was, by definition unlimited. Law was not based upon reason, but upon God's absolute power and will. Others insisted that in practice God's power was ordained or ordered, either by His prior acts (e.g., creation) or by an intrinsic reason and right. This latter concept was one of potentia Dei ordinata, God's power was ordained or ordered within prior promises, the nature of creation, or His own nature which is good itself and truth itself.

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