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.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 16--The Law Universal

THE NATURAL LAW IS UNIVERSAL, by which is meant that it traverses time, place, tribe, religion and all other accidentals of man. This necessarily must be the case since the natural law is tied to the nature of man, a nature which in each and every instance involves a human person with the same ultimately dignity and destiny. More even than that, the natural law has an intimate tie to truth, and truth itself is universal. The fact that the natural law is predicated upon human nature, that is, our reality, and that it is therefore predicated upon the truth of who we are and what is true about us, means that freedom--to be authentic--must take into account that natural law. A freedom that rejects the natural law is, to that extent, a false freedom, for it is a freedom that runs away from what is. It walks out of the light into the shadows of unreality. It is for this reason that St. Augustine states the rhetorical question in his great treatise on the Holy Trinity (XIV.15.21): "Where then are these rules written except in the book of that light which is called truth?" Ubinam sunt istae regulae scriptae . . . nisi in libro lucis quae veritas dicitur?

It is, in John Paul's view, the natural law's link with truth that gives the natural law its universal character.

Inasmuch as it is inscribed in the rational nature of the person, it makes itself felt to all beings endowed with reason and living in history. In order to perfect himself in his specific order, the person must do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practice good and contemplate beauty.

VS, 51. It is self-evident, and to that extent inarguable, that man, individually and in common, ought to do good, and to avoid evil. That he ought, individually and in common, to be concerned with life: with transmitting it and preserving it. That he has a certain dominion over the things of this world, and that he ought to develop his soul, his intellect, his environment, a life in common--i.e., become cultured. He ought to seek truth: to contemplate the splendor of it, the beauty of it. He ought to act reasonably. How can these things not be universal to man? To all men, to each individual man? Which man is excepted from these? Who, for example, could claim the right to do evil and avoid good? To pursue falsehood? To destroy life? To act irrationally?

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler
An Oriental Depiction

It is apparent that the natural law is universal. And yet there are philosophies prevalent in our day, relativistic and excessively individualistic in spirit, that seek to obfuscate this self-evident truth that the natural law must be universal, and must bind each and every man without exception. "But inasmuch as the natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties," the Pope insists, "it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind." VS, 51. It must needs be so.

The modern emphasis on individuality, if properly understood, is not adverse to a universal law. As the Pope makes clear, the universal nature of the natural law does not mean that we all walk in lock step--the same in lock, stock, and barrel--as if God is some absolute Fuhrer who seeks to extinguish all individuality.

The God who is the source of the natural law is, of course, also the source of our individual dignity and uniqueness, and so to suggest that the universal nature of the natural law conflicts with our individuality is preposterous since it would posit some sort of contradiction in God and his gifts. And so the Pope in his encyclical stresses: "This universality [in the natural law] does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor it is opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person." VS, 51.
On the contrary, it embraces at its root each of the person's free acts, which are meant to bear witness to the universality of the true good. By submitting to the common law, our acts build up the true communion of persons and, by God's grace, practice charity, "which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Col 3:14). When on the contrary they disregard the law, or even are merely ignorant of it, whether culpably or not, our acts damage the communion of persons, to the detriment of each.
VS, 51.

Obedience to the natural law, then, allows us to express our individuality within the greater reality of our human nature, and to express it in a manner consonant with truth, and with the necessities of life in common with our fellows. It is the natural law that allows us to live individual lives that consort with authentic communion with our fellows, and that allows the common life to support the life of the individual. Departure from the natural law on the basis that it is required for individual self-expression, or individual development, is a falsehood: as what is involved is a deprecation of self, and an insult, ultimately, to all mankind and the author of mankind.

There are therefore precepts which absolute and universal, and John Paul II gives examples of some of these precepts:

It is right and just, always and for everyone, to serve God, to render him the worship which is his due and to honor one's parents as they deserve. Positive precepts such as these, which order us to perform certain actions and to cultivate certain dispositions, are universally binding; they are "unchanging." They unite in the same common good all people of every period of history, created for "the same divine calling and destiny." These universal and permanent laws correspond to things known by the practical reason and are applied to particular acts through the judgment of conscience. The acting subject personally assimilates the truth contained in the law. He appropriates this truth of his being and makes it his own by his acts and the corresponding virtues.

VS, 52.*

The universality of these precepts of the natural law may be divided into negative precepts (precepts which prohibit certain acts) and positive precepts (precepts which enjoin us to undertake certain acts). The precepts are of equal dignity, and are all universal--whether they are negative or positive. But the negative precepts have a particularly notable universal nature about them because--contrary to the positive precepts--they forbid a given actions "semper et pro semper (always and for ever), without exception." VS, 52. The absolute, exceptionless prescriptiveness of the negative commandments is not arbitrary, but is backed by reason:
[T]he choice of this kind of behavior [violative of a negative precept] is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbor. It is [therefore] prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.
VS, 52.**

The fact that the negative precepts exhibit this particularly unique negative universal role should not suggest that these precepts are more fundamental or more important than those positive precepts which enjoin us to do good.

The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken. Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behavior which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.
VS, 52.***

The Pope has given reasons why the negative precepts bind absolutely and at all times and why the positive precepts are more flexible in their application because of their nature, in their "dynamic," have no "higher limit,"--though both negative and positive precept bind universally and absolutely. Simply speaking, there is a floor beneath which we ought not go. The floor is defined by the negative precepts, and these set the irreducible minimum of all behavior. There is no limit, however, how high we may go or how wide we may travel, and so the positive precepts to do good do not have this minimalistic quality.

It is the reasons behind the distinction between negative precepts and positive precepts that underlies the Church's constant authoritative teaching:
The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behavior prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments... You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness" (Mt 19:17-18).
VS, 52.

*The first quotation refers to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 10; Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics Persona Humana (December 29,1975), 4: AAS 68 (1976, 80: "But in fact, divine Revelation and, in its own proper order, philosophical wisdom, emphasize the authentic exigencies of human nature. They thereby necessarily manifest the existence of immutable laws inscribed in the constitutive elements of human nature and which are revealed to be identical in all beings endowed with reason." The second quotation refers to Gaudium et Spes, 29.
**The Pope's insistence that there are absolute and exceptionless norms which one cannot ever transgress is, of course, inimical to any theory of ethics based upon consequentialism, utilitarianism, or (what amongnst the Catholic moral theologians whose errors John Paul II was trying to address) proportionalism. Not all acts can be measured by reference to their consequences or to the proportions of evil in the act versus its consequences. So acts are simply, in every time and in every place and in every circumstance, intrinsically evil and therefore always prohibited.
***One of the significant problems with moral theories that are based upon utilitarian, consequentialist, or proportionalist bases is, of course, that they absolutize the rule to maximize the good, and lead to a certain moral neurosis. d This feature has been the subject of prior postings. See, e.g., Contra Consequentialismum: There Ain't No Such Thing as Absolutes, Opera et Omissiones: Differentia non est and the Recipe for Neurosis, and Natural Law's Modern Cousin Germain: Respect for Basic Values.

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