iamhe2The Church is absolutist about dogma and moral principles, but willing to dialogue with anyone. This is because she holds, as a matter of absolute principle, that Being exceeds belief in mystery. It follows that every person being is such a mystery, and therefore worth talking to. Dogma is the practical embodiment of the compatibility of faith and reason.

Modern man is a relativist about dogma and moral principles, and concludes that he need not talk to anyone. This is because he reduces Being to the scope of his own desires–only what one loves is the case–with the practical result that people should either be useful to him or not exist at all.

Thus modern man embodies the contradictory belief that his preferences are inviolable because they’re his and that every other person’s preferences, belonging only to that person, are only preferences and therefore violable.

Dialogue and Dogma


Material Complicity and the Final HHS Mandate

ramirez-mandate-lgThis post explains traditional Natural Law thought about complicity with evil to assess the permissibility of cooperating with the final version of the HHS Mandate.

For the past year and more, Catholics and their moral sympathizers have been calling America’s attention to two moral issues at stake in the Health and Human Services (HHS) Contraception Mandate[1], which was finalized with new “accommodations” on Friday, June 28, 2013. The first concerns whether religious believers themselves or the State (tax accountants, to be exact) has the authority to define what constitutes “religious exercise and expression.” The second concerns what is known as the issue of “material cooperation” in evil. While public protests like the “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign gave emphasized the first issue, they sometimes tend to obscure the second. I’d like to open our conversation about the details of Catholic complicity with the final mandate below. I suggest that while the final “accommodations” are probably sufficient to satisfy the conscience of some employers, they are not sufficient for self-insured or for-profit employers, and that the Mandate fails as a matter of public policy intended to further both its stated goals and the common good.

Material Cooperation with Evil

What many liberals fail to understand about the Catholic objection to the HHS Mandate is that our grievance does not derive from a desire to deprive non-believers of their contraception. It doesn’t even derive from a desire to outlaw abortion. Rather, the Catholic objection to the HHS Mandate stems from the desire not to contribute to or participate in the objectively evil acts of others. That is, we see the HHS Mandate as a threat to our souls.

Following St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, the Catholic tradition holds that one can cooperate with someone else’s evil act in two ways. Formal cooperation means intending what the wrongdoer intends, such as when one rejoices when a hair-thief shaves your aunt’s head against her will; material cooperation means assisting in the action itself, either by holding her down while her head is shaved, or providing the thief with scissors. The two kinds of cooperation are distinct because just as one can wish for an action to be done without contributing to its performance, so too one can contribute to an evil action without wishing it, such as when our taxes buy drones that kill innocents in foreign wars. While formal cooperation with evil is always wrong, then, material cooperation is sometimes, but not always, wrong, depending on one’s degree of knowledge and foresight, one’s intent, the voluntariness with which one cooperates, and so on.

Now according to Catholic ethics, the use of contraception is a serious moral evil. Theologians have argued for thousands of years (not since 1968) that contraceptives illicitly attack the essential goods of conjugal love, procreation and marital friendship, making it impossible for sex to express the total gift of self that is the mark of true love. This practice corrupts the moral virtue of chastity, diminishes the important social value of family-making as a vocation, and undermine moral disincentives to sin, including prohibitions against fornication and adultery, leading to an increase in out-of-wedlock births, abortions, divorce, and broken families. (So much is uncontroversial: see the empirical evidence discussed by Mary Eberstadt in Adam and Eve After the Pill.)

Abortifacients like Ella and Plan B are worse evils than contraceptives, since they wrongly kill innocent people. Of course, the government denies that “emergency” contraceptives are abortifacients because it holds that abortion is the termination of a pregnancy, and emergency contraceptives prevent the implantation of an embryo, thus bringing about its death without abortion. But this definition of abortion is too broad: birth terminates a pregnancy too. Abortion is a form of killing (one that also terminates a pregnancy), for life begins at conception, not nidation. Therefore emergency contraceptives are abortifacients.

Because it requires Catholics to pay for others to use contraceptives and abortifacients, then, the HHS Mandate requires us to materially cooperate with poisoners and assassins: poisoners, because contraception by definition frustrates or destroys the normal functioning of a bodily system, and assassins, because abortifacients kill human beings. The reasoning is not difficult. Some people in our culture desire to poison themselves and their female children, while others desire to kill their children outright. The HHS Mandate entitles such people to use collective group funds (“health insurance”) intended to promote health or provide therapy for disease for the purposes of poisoning and killing. There are very few alternatives to health insurance as a means to modern healthcare, and what alternatives Catholics do have–including refusing all health insurance and bearing all healthcare costs individually–are ruinously expensive. Furthermore, the government is actively striving to eliminate what alternatives there are.

So the question facing Catholics is this: given the limited real alternatives, to what extent is one culpable for paying into an insurance fund for the purposes of providing one’s own family or employees with healthcare, foreseeing but not intending that some of them will use this fund to poison themselves and kill their children? To what extent is this the moral equivalent of responding to someone’s expressed intention to dismember a child by handing her a knife?

The Mandate and the Principle of Double-Effect

What we have here is a classic case of double-effect, which occurs when a single action has two effects, one good and one bad, where the bad effect is a foreseen but unintended side-effect of one’s action. (Think about the last time you were late for work and deliberated sprinting for the office with a coffee in your hand, foreseeing but not intending it would spill.) Catholics use the moral Principle of Double-Effect to determine when it is permissible to press forward with such an action using four related conditions, all of which must be satisfied for an act to be permissible. (The exact formulation of these conditions is controversial among professional ethicists;[2] I use the traditional version rather than one favored by New Natural Law theorists. I should also note that using the Principle of Double-Effect is a common, though not the only way to determine material complicity, as Albino Barerra argues.[3])

On to the analysis. The first condition of Double-Effect is that the act itself must be morally permissible. In this case, the act consists in purchasing or providing a health insurance policy that is compliant with the final HHS Mandate. The first part of the act is good in itself, namely, purchasing health insurance for the sake of promoting health and obtaining legitimate medical therapy for disease. The second part of the act—purchasing this specific kind of policy—raises the specter of material cooperation with evil, for which we turn to the second condition of double effect, the Pauline Principle: one cannot choose evil as a means to a good end.

Just as one should not nuke Africa in order to solve world hunger, so too is it prima facie impermissible to provide contraceptives to others in order to secure health insurance for oneself. Whether the HHS Mandate satisfies the Pauline Principle thus depends on whether the provision of contraceptives is a causally posterior and contingent side-effect of Catholic participation in health insurance. If the new accommodations do indeed excuse Catholics from having to “contract, arrange, pay, or refer for” contraceptive and abortifacient services in order to secure or provide health insurance, as they claim, it would seem that the Pauline Principle is satisfied.

Having spent a mind-numbing day as a legal amateur reading all 110 pages of the final mandate, my sense of the relevant new “accommodation” is this. When a religious employer notifies its insurance provider of its objection to the provision of contraceptives and abortifacients, the insurance company will provides female employees and beneficiaries an opportunity to “opt-in” to a payment program provided by the insurer (p. 31). No one is automatically enrolled. Upon enrollment, the insurer will provide payment to enrolled women to use for the purchase of contraceptives and abortifacients. Importantly, the insurers must “segregate the premium revenue collected from eligible organizations the monies they use to make such payments” (p. 26). Where will this money come from? The government uses an Institute of Health study to argue that such savings will mainly come the longitudinal costs savings of the program: paying for contraception is cheaper than paying for lots of pregnancies (p. 11, 28), including the avoidance of costs associated with detrimental health effects suffered by children ‘accidentally conceived’ by mothers unwilling to change their unhealthy lifestyles (p. 10) (I couldn’t make that up). Further costs will be reimbursed through discounts on the fees insurers pay to participate in FFE’s (Federally Facilitated Exchanges).

The rules governing self-insured institutions are more difficult to assess in this regard. Most self-insured institutions (like my own) rely on third-party administrators to handle claims and process premium payments. We provide the money, while they provide the bureaucracy and legal expertise. A plan administrator will now be required to provide contraceptive payments “on its own, or it can arrange for an issuer or other entity to provide such payments,” which will again be reimbursed through an adjustment of FFE user fees (p. 37, 57), using taxpayer dollars, in the amount it cost the administrator to provide contraceptive coverage for the previous calendar year. (The Mandate repeatedly notes that such administrators are not required to do business with self-insured organizations. These businesses will obviously incur time, trouble, and administrative costs that will need to be offset by someone’s dollars, raising the specter that there may someday be no third-parties willing to do business with religious employers—a contingency for which the Mandate does not plan.)

As I read the new accommodations, then, Catholics would not have to provide contraceptive and abortifacient services or payment for such services as a condition for securing or providing health insurance for themselves and their employees, thus making someone’s use of these services posterior to the actions of Catholics. Making use of an insurer’s payments for these services requires a woman’s request for cooperation—“please give me money to poison myself and kill my children”—that has already been formally and materially refused by Catholics. Furthermore, since she is not automatically assigned such payments, a woman may choose not to receive such payments. Thus the provision of these services is a non-necessary consequent of Catholics securing or providing health insurance. One might still object that acquiring health insurance contributes to evil by triggering the legal conditions under which a woman might collect contraceptive payments. Yuval Levin argued this in National Review Online: “The employer’s decision to provide health coverage would be the only reason the employee would get the abortive and contraceptive coverage.”[4]  That doesn’t seem right, since the independent choice of a woman is also required. Providing health insurance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for someone to receive contraceptive payments. Likewise, it seems to me that the Mandate, and not Catholics as such, creates such conditions, especially insofar as employers are penalized for not providing health insurance: this is a coerced choice. Because some women’s choice to poison and kill is a posterior, contingent, and unassisted consequence of securing or providing health insurance, then, I believe the new accommodation allows Catholics to satisfy the Pauline Principle, and thus the second condition of Double-Effect.

The third condition of Double-Effect is that the evil cannot be intended (since formal cooperation in evil is always wrong). One gains evidence of such intentions by asking whether, if real alternatives were available that did not involve the evil effect, those alternatives would be chosen instead of the proposed action. This is a difficult question in this case, since there is a real alternative, namely, the bankruptcy and/or closing of all protesting Catholic institutions under the ruinous financial penalties for providing non-compliant insurance or dropping health insurance for one’s employees altogether. An analogous consequence has already been chosen by Catholic adoption agencies in several states, which have been forced to close rather assist homosexuals adopt children. On the one hand, the new accommodations do allow for Catholic employers to publicly express the wrongness of contraceptives and abortifacients in keeping with their first amendment rights, so long as they do not directly or indirectly prevent women from requesting payments (p. 36), and this would seemingly allow Catholics to evidence their refusal to formally cooperate in the process, and so satisfy the third condition of Double-Effect. On the other hand, as Levin also points out, since federal law requires employers to explicitly authorize the actions of their third-party administrators, the Mandate “actually propose[s] having the very document by which the employer informs the plan administrator of an objection to abortive or contraceptive coverage (the so-called “self-certification” document) serve as the means by which exactly that coverage is authorized.” The Mandate thus requires contradictory behavior on the part of Catholic employers, that non-cooperators cooperate in the wrongdoing of their third-party administrators. I would welcome discussion of this point, but it seems to me that the Mandate therefore satisfies the third condition of Double-Effect for non-self-insured institutions, but fails to satisfy it for self-insured institutions.

The final and, as I understand it, least important condition of Double-Effect is that there must be a proportionate balance between the expected benefit and foreseen evil. Such proportions are difficult to determine. In this case the effects seem roughly balanced: some will use the insurance to create disease, while others will use the insurance cure it; some will use the insurance to kill, while others will use it to prevent death. Still, as I stated above, the widespread practices of contraception and abortion have ruinous effects of public goods and public virtue. These are not direct costs of the Mandate, since it is possible for the Mandate to be in effect and a virtuous nation to refuse to use it, but it does reinforce an anti-family, contraceptive culture. As James Kalb has pointed out, the massive displacement of local sources of social goods by government bureaucracy undermines the very basis of Catholic Social Teaching in solidarity and subsidiarity.[5] I would welcome discussion of whether the indirectness and contingency of such cultural effects make the Mandate fail the fourth condition of Double-Effect.

The new accommodations to the HHS Mandate does go some distance towards placing sufficient causal distance between Catholics and wrongdoers to absolve Catholics of blameworthy material complicity in evil. My tentative and qualified conclusion—and I hope this quick analysis of the Mandate sparks further discussion, and where I have erred, correction—is that this portion of the Mandate is structured in a way some Catholic institutions can tolerate without moral culpability. (I use ‘tolerate’ in the strict sense of an evil one allows but doesn’t participate in.) It may be intolerable for all Catholic institutions, depending on how one reads the causal connections between the Mandate and its cultural consequences. The Mandate is still inadequate for self-insured institutions, who fail the third condition.

However, I would make the following practical points about the government’s sincerity regarding the new “accommodations.”

First, I would like to know whether insurance plans offered by objecting institutions will be cheaper than otherwise identical plans from non-objecting institutions that do include coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients. If they aren’t, the government is engaging in bad-faith financial hand-waving.

Second, I would like to know whether the government will cover the costs of taking a course in modern Natural Family Planning. The Sympto-Thermal and Creighton methods of NFP are just as effective at postponing pregnancy as chemical forms of birth control, are significantly cheaper than contraceptives, have no unhealthy side-effects (since they don’t frustrate a healthy bodily system), and they don’t kill anyone.[6] If the best way to accomplish the government’s stated goals (public health and gender equity) on these criteria is NFP, then HHS should provide preferential funding for NFP over morally and medically problematic contraceptive methods. Otherwise it is acting in bad faith and promoting bad medicine.

Third, I would like to know whether there will be a mechanism for enforcing the use of “contraceptive payments” for contraceptives as opposed to other products, like vacations or beer. (I couldn’t tell from reading the Mandate.) If the government’s plan is for insurers to send women checks, which may or may not be used for contraceptives, then some people may use those checks to pay for their health insurance premiums, effectively making objecting persons pay a financial penalty for their health insurance.

Contraception and Culture

Finally, a broader evaluation. All told, the HHS Mandate is a woefully inadequate response to Catholic moral concerns.

While now allowing religious institutions to self-identify as religious institutions, the Mandate offers absolutely no conscience protections for for-profit employers. The government seemingly requires all religious institutions to be non-profit enterprises. It therefore falsely distinguishes between “commercial” and “religious” institutions, as if one couldn’t be both. In contrast, Pope Benedict XVI argued in Caritas and Veritate that Christian solidarity and charity “can and must find their place within normal economic activity,” and “not only outside or ‘after’ it” (CV, 36). Catholic Bishops and Evangelical leaders and I have argued that every individual has the natural right to refuse to participate in objective moral wrongs such as those being required by the Mandate, and this right needs to be respected by positive law.[7]

Furthermore, the Mandate only allows “religious” institutions who “put themselves forward as religious” to qualify for an exemption. As Steven Ertelt has pointed out, “a pro-life organization, for example, that doesn’t ‘hold itself out as a religious organization’ would be forced to pay for its employees abortion pills even as it seeks to end abortion.”[8] Implicit the Mandate are at least two assumptions. First, that a ‘religious’ objection is distinct from a ‘moral’ objection. Moral objections can be philosophical rather than theological in nature. Since the Mandate doesn’t recognize philosophical objections, it discriminates against non-religious persons and arguments by depriving them of equal standing before the law. The reason for this, the second assumption hidden in the language of the Mandate, is that all morality/rationality is liberal morality. It simply didn’t occur to the framers of the Mandate the there are rational moral objections to their policies, objections that religious and non-religious critics can agree on. That failure of political imagination is at least morally negligent. Perhaps worse.

Finally, the Mandate itself fails as a matter of public policy. The Mandate cites three “compelling government interests” in its favor: public health, gender equity, and cost savings (p. 13). Nowhere does the Mandate state how it would determine whether its policies successfully promoted these goals. Let’s think this through. How would the government react if some modern Lysistrata convinced every fertile woman in America to chemically or surgically sterilize herself and stay that way, liberated and childless? (Ask Jonathan Vast.[9]) Compared to what does poisoning fully half the population increase public health? The Mandate repeatedly mentions the “unique health care needs” of women. Ok: so where is the free medical coverage for breast exams and pap smears, or for pre and post-natal medical care? Why are all of the “unique health needs” of women recognized by HHS as worthy of government subsidy anti-family rather than pro-family?

As for cost savings: you thought banks were too big to fail? The Mandate constitutes the government subsidy of noxious apothecaries with no monetary limit, no real Congressional oversight, and no time limit. Qui bono?

And of course, “gender equity.” Women should be furious that the Mandate describes “gender equity” as the full participation of women in society while assuming that pregnant women and homemakers aren’t already doing this (p. 64). Not only is this false—families are the condition for the possibility of civil society and robust economic life—but it also treats the symptoms of injustice against women and their families rather than the disease (and that poorly). If we’re going to spend the money, why not push for laws that make employment in American businesses more family friendly?

For instance, why not mandate that the end of the work day occur when schools let out? Why not provide intact families with tax breaks to encourage more single-worker families? Why not mandate a 30 hour full-time workweek, encouraging both more employment, a larger tax base, and more leisure time for parents to spend with their children?

Won’t encouraging voluntary sterilization encourage American businesses to further assume that they can create profitable anti-family policies or practices for their employees without expecting a backlash? (Ask Anne-Marie Slaughter.[10])

Won’t encouraging voluntary sterilization encourage men to treat sex as a form of entertainment, biasing the “playing field” against family-oriented women? (Ask Kate Bolick.[11])

Why isn’t the government asking these questions?

[1] The final version of the Mandate is available at <;.

[2] T.A. Cavanaugh, Double-Effect Reasoning: Doing Good and Avoiding Evil (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006).

[3] Albino Barerra, Market Complicity and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011).

[4] Yuval Levin, “The Final HHS Mandate.” Published online at The National Review on June 28, 2013. Available at

[5] James Kalb, “What Are Catholics to Do? Part III.” Published online at The Catholic World Report on May 3rd, 2013. Available at <;.

[6] For the Sympto-Thermal method, see Frank-Hermann et al, “The Effectiveness of a fertility awareness based method to avoid pregnancy in relation to a couple’s sexual behavior during the fertile time: a prospective longitudinal study,” Human Reproduction 22 (5) 2007: 1310-19. For the Creighton method, see Fehring et al, “Use Effectiveness of the Creighton Model Ovulation Method of Natural Family Planning,” Marquette University, College of Nursing Research and Publications, 1994. For comparative effectiveness of NFP and chemical contraceptives, see European Natural Family Planning study groups, “Prospective European multi-center study of natural family planning (1989-1992): interim results,” Advances in Contraception 9 (1993): 269-83, as well as R. Hatcher, et al., Contraceptive Technology, 18th revised edition (New York, NY: Ardent Media, 2004), table 31-1, 792-847.

[7] Evangelicals and Cathlolics Together, “In Defense of Religious Freedom.” First Things, March 2012. Available online at I presented several public talks at Fortnight for Freedom panels, the text of which is available at < See the text several public talks given at Fortnight for Freedom panels at <;.

[8] Steven Ertelt, “Obama Admin’s HHS Mandate Changes Still Violate Religious Conscience ,” published online at LifeSiteNews on July 1, 2013. Available at <;.

[9] Jonathan Vast. What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter Books, 2013).

[10]Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2012. Available online at

[11]Kate Bolick, “All the Single Ladies,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2011. Available online at


On Religious Freedom

standupI recently presented these comments at two Fortnight for Freedom panels for the Diocese of Allentown, PA. My thanks to the diocese for inviting me, and to the other excellent panelists!


Do rights protect autonomy, or do rights protect duties and obligations?

That very abstract question is at the heart of our nation’s current intellectual crises over religious freedom, homosexual marriage, and abortion. Tonight I want to briefly canvas two positions on the question–the Liberal interpretation lying behind the HHS Mandate, and the Natural Law interpretation that grounds Christianity’s resistance to such mandates on grounds of religious freedom. My hope is that you will gain a better understanding of the issue and the arguments surrounding it, as well as a way to frame related issues, such as the debate over homosexual marriage.

The Liberal Tradition

Classical liberalism holds that rights protect autonomy. Liberal rights are codified expressions of what is viewed as the absolute freedom to define the meaning and purpose of one’s own life. Dedicating yourself to making marshmallow sculptures of chipmunks is, from the point of view of Liberalism, as legitimate as dedicating your life to curing cancer. Indeed, many people are attracted to Liberalism because of its supposed ‘value neutrality.’

Sometimes, of course, our freedoms bump into each other. Since the goal of Liberalism is to guarantee maximum freedom to do whatever we wish, for whatever end, Liberalism would have us respect other people’s freedoms by interfering with their lives as little as possible.

Of course, no one is absolutely free to do whatever they want. We all face natural limits like power and scarcity. For example, I am balding; I would like to have a full head of hair, but I am not free to have a full head of hair. I don’t have the power to grow hair. When I try to push the hair out of my head I end up constipated. I am also limited by scarcity. I have only one head. If I was a robot, I might wear a different head every day, changing them out like wigs.

While ancient peoples, by and large, dealt with powerlessness and scarcity by developing moral virtues like patience, temperance, and hope, modernity has a new solution: technology. Technology increases our power and increases the products among which we can choose. Today I can cure my baldness with drugs, disguise it with implants, or hide it spray paint: then I will be happy. This is the promise of technology in our day: it allows us to satisfy all of our desires and so become happy.

Liberalism thus tends to what several popes have called the “cult of progress.” This cult views technology as necessary for happiness, that every technology is good so long as it pleases someone. Limiting technology therefore limits “choice” or autonomy, and therefore someone’s happiness.

This brings us to the HHS Mandate’s definition of contraceptive and abortifacient technology as “healthcare.” Liberals believe that denying someone access to the technological means to freely satisfy their desires is as good as denying them happiness because it “limits” their autonomy. When one says, “Abortion”–or contraception, or in vitro fertilization, or whatever–is wrong, bad technology, what they hear is: you don’t have a right to be happy. “And don’t I have a right to be happy?” they respond. (The answer, by the way, is no: we have a right to be good, as I’ll explain later. This is why Liberalism will always be fundamentally opposed to the Church on the majority of moral issues. Liberalism understands any limitation of one’s freedom of choice or one’s access to technology as an attack on one’s autonomy and therefore on one’s right to happiness–even when these limitations are made on objective moral grounds.)

But if Liberalism wants to maximize everyone’s freedom, why should it force Catholics to provide objectionable services in the first place? Well, those of you with children, ask yourself this: what happens when Joe decides he wants to play with Jane’s toys, but Jane doesn’t want Joe to play with her toys, for whatever reason? Who has to step in and solve the problem? Parents. So what happens in the adult world when Smith decides he needs something from Jones–maybe something important, like medical care, or education–and Jones doesn’t want to provide it because he thinks Smith’s intentions are immoral? They go to court. And at that point the State has to decide whether to coerce Jones to give Smith what Smith “needs” to be happy.

Here we come to the fundamental paradox of modern Liberalism. On the one hand, Liberalism is grounded in the idea that we should respect the freedom of others as sacred. On the other hand, Liberals also believe that in order to guarantee their freedom, they can in practice use the coercive power of the state to compel others to do what they believe is wrong.

Jean Valjean and Natural Rights

These ways are not our ways. Catholicism has a millenia-long tradition upholding the Natural Law position that rights protect obligations rather than autonomy, as Liberalism holds. Let me illustrate the idea using a famous story before I explain its consequences for religious freedom. The story is from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.

Imagine a starving pauper named Jean Valjean standing in front of a bakery window. He has no money to pay the baker for bread, and no other food is available. He can break the window and take the bread or starve. He takes and eats, and is subsequently sentenced to 19 years of hard labor for theft.

The great Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas argues that Jean Valjean (or those like him) did nothing wrong when he took the Baker’s bread. Aquinas even denies that taking the bread was stealing, arguing as follows:

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. (Summa Theologica 2-2.66.7c)

In other words, Aquinas argues Jean Valjean’s “extreme need” caused the Baker’s bread to become his own. Jean Valjean’s natural right to the bread dissolved the Baker’s legal right over the bread. How did this happen?

Bread exists to feed human beings. Human beings exist to know, love, and serve a God who has loved them into existence for their own sake. Jean Valjean, like all of us, possesses his life as a gift given to himself. He has a duty to preserve that gift, and give thanks for it, and to make it fruitful by giving it to others. Giving thanks and being fruitful: those duties are at the heart of Christ’s two Great Commandments to love God and neighbor.

Now here where Aquinas’s idea comes into play: Jean Valjean cannot do anything if he cannot eat. But one cannot have an obligation to do what one cannot do. I cannot promise my son that he will grow up to be a six foot tall millionaire, or that he will never be in an earthquake. I cannot promise that because I cannot make him a six foot tall millionaire, or prevent earthquakes (any more than I can make myself grow hair, apparently). Therefore, if I do have an obligation to do something, I must have the ability to do it. If Jean Valjean has obligations to, in thanks, make his life fruitful, the Natural Law concludes that he must therefore have a right–a moral protection or claim–to what is necessary for him to to those things, such the food necessary for life itself. At that particular moment, standing before the Baker’s window, Jean Valjean’s extreme need gave him a natural right to the Baker’s bread, because that is the point of rights: we have moral rights so that we have the ability to satisfy our moral obligations.

Yet what about Baker’s rights, you might ask? Surely his rights were legitimate too? Of course they were–but as man-made, and therefore inferior “legal” rights, not as natural rights. Human beings invent all sorts of legal rights and duties to protect our natural rights: we tell people to drive on one side of the road rather than another to protect lives, we pay taxes to fund schools, and we have a whole system of property rights that are the foundation of a peaceful and productive economy. Legal rights are supposed to facilitate our freedom and ability to do and be good. However, when a legal right contradicts a natural right–that is, when it directly prevents you from fulfilling your obligation as a human being to know, love, and serve God–the now-pointless legal right dissolves before the greater claim, just as the Baker’s right to the bread dissolved in the face of Jean Valjean’s natural right to preserve himself. Rights protect duties; they guarantee our power and freedom to be good.

This simple idea has two enormous consequences.

First, it entails that no earthly power, no government of men, has absolute dominion over our lives, freedom, or conscience. As our Founding Fathers argued in the Declaration of Independence, the priority of natural rights and duties over man-made rights and duties entails that governments are limited by the natural law. Governments are instituted in order to secure our natural rights, they wrote, and “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”–or at the very least, to resist it.

The second consequence follows from the first. If moral rights protect our ability to do and be good, and the natural law has priority over the civil law, then not only do we have a natural right to exercise ourselves in ways necessary for the fulfillment of our moral duties, as Jean Valjean did when he took bread, but we also have the right to refuse to obey when a government commands us to do what is wrong, what we have an obligation not to do. That argument also has a long pedigree, having famously been made by American abolitionists during the civil war, by the Nuremberg Court against Nazi War criminals, by Mahatma Ghandi against the British and by Dr. Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to name a few.

The Case for Religious Freedom

Now what does Natural Law have to say about religious freedom? Quite a bit, actually: such reasoning is being defended by Catholic bishops and many others across the country, and it can be found in the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes, but it was recently given an excellent formulation by the ecumenical group Evangelicals and Catholics Together in a statement called “In Defense of Religious Freedom,” which I’ll summarize here. (The statement is available at <>.)

The argument begins with the premise that “Human beings have been created with the capacity to know God, the will to seek God, and a spiritual thirst for God.” Let’s break that down. Human beings are born with a desire to know. Blessed John Paul II said this desire sprang from the experience of “original solitude,” the ecstatic experience of a conscious being standing forth from the rest of creation, of being able to ask, “what does it all mean?” Happily, we are not only born to ask the question, but also born with a capacity to seek out its answer. We have been given reason and revelation to help us fulfill our desire: reason with which to seek truth, and revelation to guide us into truth’s fullness. As  Christians we believe that the the fullness of truth and the satisfaction of this desire is God Himself. No created good will satisfy us. “Whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again,” Jesus says, “but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst … [and] shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4: 13-14).

It is important to emphasize here that truth is something to be sought and achieved, not something to be possessed. Even faith, says Aquinas, is a habit we must practice and grow in. This makes sense, for the fullness of truth is Love himself, and love is always an activity. Husbands, ask your wives: love is something you have to work at. In contrast to Liberalism’s idea that human dignity rests on undifferentiated freedom, Christians believe that our dignity springs from the fact that we have been made in the image of God and we have been made for God. We are homo adorans, made for worship.

This fact about the human person has three moral implications. First, it gives each of us a duty to seek, as far as we are able and in our own way, the truth about ultimate things. Every person has this obligation, no matter their race, culture or creed. To refuse this duty is to be negligent of our souls. Blessed is he who is zealous for the truth, Christ says, who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness sake” (Mt. 5: 6). Second, the absolute dignity of every soul loved into existence by God gives us an obligation to enable and encourage their honest and sincere search for truth, since to frustrate or prevent this search is to deny that the other person is made in and called to be an image of God.

Third, these obligations to seek and to help others seek God generate a fundamental natural right to do so, because rights protect duties. This is what we call the natural right to religious freedom. Since natural rights are prior to legal rights, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement concludes that “Any power, be it cultural or political, that puts unwarranted impediments in the path of the human quest for truth, which culminates in the human quest for God, is violating the order of creation.” The HHS Mandate is just such an unwarranted impediment to religious freedom, since it attempts to define what constitutes genuine religious expression–medical care, education, and charitable works apparently do not qualify. Yet in the Christian tradition, the quest for spiritual truth is not merely contemplative–a matter of philosophy, theology, and prayer–but also active, since we are told by Christ himself that we will find His face in the face of our poorest neighbors.

Finally, Evangelicals and Catholic Together emphasize that religious freedom, which is necessary for accomplishing our fundamental duty to seek the voice of God in whatever manner He speaks to us, is prior to every other freedom: the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of press, the freedom to assemble and so discuss, and seek, and live out our our convictions with others, the freedom to form and sustain distinctive institutions dedicated to these activities, and above all the freedom to worship–all of these freedoms are necessary for religious freedom. Religious freedom is not one freedom among others; rather, it is the foundation of every other freedom (CET, p. 7).


To sum up: Despite the American government’s argument that we have legal duty to obey the HHS Mandate rooted in a Liberal conception of freedom, we have a prior duty rooted in the natural law and Christian revelation to live in accord with our convictions, including the convictions that contraception and abortion are wrong. We have a right to act in accord with that duty, both in the choices we make for ourselves, and to refuse to be complicit in these evils. We may, as members of a pluralistic society, sometimes tolerate evil–and our refusal to provide others with contraceptives without preventing others’ use of contraceptives does just that–but we may not participate in it. When a government such as ours requires complicity in evil, we must refuse to become part of such “structures of sin.” We must engage in civil disobedience.

Two things are at stake here. First, the very idea of religious freedom as the “first freedom,” as the right which creates the space in which human beings can seek the truth and live sincerely in accord with that truth, the right to be good. Also at stake are the real evils of contraception and abortion, which make no one truly happy, and which we have a duty and therefore a right not to participate in.

Ethics, Happiness

Lenten Reflection on Suffering

bound_lamb_3For most people throughout history, the fundamental existential question is about suffering: why is it, and what does it mean?

The answer to the first question is obvious. Rocks don’t suffer, but people do. People suffer because they have desires, and many of those desires are embodied in interests–things whose possession makes life go well. I use the term ‘things’ loosely here. Our interests can be in material objects, but our strongest needs are for relationships with other human beings, for immaterial goods like friendship, love, power and honor. If we did not care about such things, we could not suffer their loss. Thus some philosophers, such as Heidegger, go so far as to define man as the careful being, the being whose fundamental relationship with the world is one of concern.

This insight provides several suggestions about how to answer the second question about the meaning of suffering. If suffering is caused by concern, then the value of suffering depends on the value of our concerns. Suppose (as materialists do) we learn that the world is not ultimately inherently valuable? Then suffering is both meaningless and irrational, since the cause of suffering is our penchant for seeing in the world something that isn’t there. The rational cure for suffering will be to eliminate unnecessary desire, to live, so far as possible, without concern. The Epicurean or Stoic sage who does this will have achieved ataraxia, untroubledness, though the world breaks against him. As Anaxagoras replied when he learned of the death of his son, “I knew my child was mortal.”

Suppose, on the other hand, you believe that the world is inherently valuable. Then suffering is both meaningful and rational, since it marks the lack or loss of some real good. What we need to determine in this case is what the good is, and whether it can be possessed by us. (The former is an ontological question, the latter a metaphysical one.) If you’re an atheist, the goods of this world are all there are, but they are difficult to possess: the world fights us for possession of her goods. The solution to suffering, then, as Francis Bacon argued, is the ‘rape of Nature,’ to force her to give up what she so selfishly prizes. We do this through power, through our technological mastery of the world. The solution to suffering is the utilitarian application of empirical science.

If one is a theist, however, the atheist has answered the ontological question poorly. For how could the creation be a greater good than its Creator, a Being who is, by definition, perfect? The source of suffering for the theist isn’t illusory desire (as it is for Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius), or miserly nature (as it is for the technologist), but loving lower goods that are incapable of satisfying our infinite desire in place of higher goods that are. Suffering, as Augustine saw, is a mark of disordered love:

Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new;
late have I loved you.

For behold you were within me, and I outside;
and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell
upon those lovely things that you have made.
You were with me and I was not with you.
I was kept from you by those things,
yet had they not been in you,
they would not have been at all.
You called and cried to me and broke upon my deafness;
and you sent forth your light and shone upon me,
and chased away my blindness;
You breathed fragrance upon me,
and I drew in my breath and do now pant for you:
I tasted you and I now hunger and thirst for you;
you touched me, and I have burned for your peace.
(Confessions X.27)

To borrow from another Augustinian, Søren Kierkegaard argued that “purity of heart is to will one thing,” God above all things. This is not to say that the world is bad. It is to say that the world’s goods can be a temptation to the purity of one’s love, as a rich woman’s wealth or beauty can be a temptation to a suitor who desires to love her well. The metaphysical question for the theist, then, is at bottom a moral question: how to be pleased and pained by real goods and real evils rather than their impostors.

False suffering is sin (it evinces disordered love), while sin is the occasion of true suffering. How to tell the difference? If only we had some guide, someone willing to descend into the darkness of sin and show us the way to truth. A suffering servant.

For this do we hope.


Against Contraception: The Argument from Chastity

15785037_mIn the Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that as a maker of worlds, God can “signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves” (ST 1.1.10c). Nature is God’s first revelation; beings themselves, and indeed the whole order of creation, are natural (rather than conventional) signs of God’s love. Dorothy Sayers once used this idea to explain Dante’s use of Beatrice and Christ in the Divine Comedy thus:

Beatrice, a real and beloved woman, is, in the eyes of Dante, an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love. The Incarnate life of God on earth, because it is a historic fact, is at once the supreme instance and the unique natural symbol of the whole history of man, and the whole nature of God, and the relations between them. … If it is not historic, then it is either not symbolical at all, or else ‘merely’ a conventional symbol. If, on the contrary, it is a historic fact, then it is a natural symbol and by contemplating it we can really learn something about God and Man. … [A natural symbol] is itself an instance of what it symbolizes: and therefore, by simply being what it is, it tells us something about the true nature of that thing for which it stands. (Introductory Papers on Dante, p. 8)

In what follows, I would like to investigate this idea that a person can be “an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love” by showing how Blessed John Paul II makes use of it in Gratissumum Sane and its relevance for thinking about chastity and contraception.

A Polyvalent Theological Anthropology

What is the “natural,” that is, inherent significance of human sexuality? I take it that this is one of the questions John Paul II sets out to answer in his profound “Letter to Families” (Gratissimam Sane). Echoing Aquinas, John Paul opens his reflections by noting that “The universe … is inscribed in God’s Fatherhood, which is its source” (GS 6). As John Paul sees it, the world is mysterious in the positive sense that, like metaphors, beings mean more than themselves. For example, he argues, although all animals ‘multiply,’ the divine command to multiply given to Adam and Eve must be understood in the light of the divinity that called for their being: “Human fatherhood and motherhood,” he says,

while remaining biologically similar to that of other living beings in nature, contain in an essential and unique way a “likeness” to God which is the basis of the family as a community of human life, as a community of persons united in love (communio personarum). (GS 6)

As John Paul goes on to explain, we are to understand that the communio personarum is both interpersonal and genealogical in character. Sex is profoundly social; it is always for others. Furthermore, it is for others in many analogous ways, since it is of the nature of relationality that parts constantly transcend themselves by their relation to the whole of which they are parts. Biologically, male and female are reciprocally defined terms; trying to imagine a world of male without female is like trying to imagine a world of left with no right. But masculinity and femininity transcend themselves in the creation of a family. The family itself is a community of persons in which each member’s identity is given by his or her relation to others, e.g., as a spouse, father, mother, or child. This community of persons is also a “communion” of persons, in which by giving of oneself one receives in return a greater gift: the reciprocal love of  that is the common good of the family, extending for generations. Furthermore, John Paul argues, by this emptying of oneself as an individual and pouring oneself out in love for another, one participates in the creation of persons who have a supernatural destiny. Marriage is thus mimetic of God’s Fatherhood: “Begetting is the continuation of Creation” (GS 9). In opening oneself to life, one opens oneself to eternity. This is what it means to be human, John Paul concludes: to ‘find oneself’ in truth and in love as a being whom God willed ‘for his own sake,’ by being for others in precisely this way.

Of course, in keeping with the traditional understanding of the Genesis text, John Paul notes that being made in the “image” and “likeness” of God indicates not just our capacities for knowledge, freedom, and genuine love, but that to become ‘like’ God through self-donation is the dynamic task of our lives, an achievement rather than a status.

Fatherhood and motherhood are themselves a particular proof of love; they make it possible to discover love’s extension and original depth. But this does not take place automatically. Rather, it is a task entrusted to both husband and wife. In the life of husband and wife together, fatherhood and motherhood represent such a sublime “novelty” and richness as can only be approached “on one’s knees.” (GS 7)

The imago dei is not simply what we are; it is also what we are called to do. Humanity is both our being and our vocation. One finds oneself by giving oneself away, since only in self-donation does one receive who one really is. As we saw above, this paradoxical statement of our Lord is made perfectly clear in the sacramentality–the (super)natural signification–of marriage and family life.


So what does this have to do with sexual morality? Well, to begin with, it entails that sexual reality is “thick.” Sex has both a horizontal and vertical dimension. Horizontally, our sexuality is genealogical in the sense that it refers backwards to our parents (we are all someone’s son or daughter), presently towards our spouse, and forwards towards our children and future generations of families. In the vertical dimension, our sexuality is a moving image of divine love for mankind, as of a bridegroom for his bride. Each of us stands at the intersection of this web of meanings; we are ‘never merely ourselves,’ as C.S. Lewis put it in The Four Loves, but always already something more.

Since virtues involve a clear-sighted grasp of what is, it follows that chastity is likewise a “thick,” vigorous, polysyllabic simple virtue, whereas lust is thin, anemic and obtuse. The chaste man is a man of sweeping vision, capable of keeping in his mind’s eye all that is his beloved. He views her as woman, friend, wife, mother, and gift, as a sign of his redemption, just as Dante sees Beatrice as “an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love” (Sayers). Chastity is a poet. The eyes of lust, in contrast, are always directed downward, stuck on one thing. To see a woman this way, however, is not even to see her as a woman, but as something less. Not even as a woman. Just as the words of a poem receive their meaning as parts of a greater whole, but are by themselves only sounds, so too does the lustful man, in precinding from the beauty of this woman who is never merely herself, make her something less than human, a thin, anemic, mundane thing. Lust is unnatural because it is not supernatural, because it cannot see eternity in the face of the woman who stands before him in glory.

Chastity is also a profoundly social virtue. Like justice and charity, chastity contains an essential reference to the good of another person; it presupposes a relationship with others. It also comes from others. Real virtues, as opposed to the abstractions of philosophers, are learned at home as fathers and mothers pass their character and wisdom on to their children. We learn first by imitation, do we not? Ontogeny aside, chastity has a phylogeny as well. The Catholic tradition–and Plato (Rep. 401b-e)–has long held that the sword and shield of chastity is true friendship, a like-minded community of friends dedicated to a common vision of the good life. A community that surrounds its children with what is truly fine will find that “when reasonable speech comes” to them as they mature, the children will “take delight in it, recognizing on account of its being akin” to what has already been sown in their souls (Rep. 402a).

Lust, in contrast, requires privacy. It happens behind the eyes before it happens behind computer screens or the pages of a book, furtive, ashamed, and lonely. It believes that sex is about personal pleasure–or in any case, that it is sometimes perfectly reasonable to pursue sex merely for pleasure. It treats sexual desire as essentially self-referential, as a desire for sensations rather than persons. So far as sensations go, no harm, no foul. You see how lust shrinks our eternal horizons to the cusp of immediacy: this feeling, now. Lust lays men low.

Anyone who has passed the newsstand in the grocery store has seen the tasteless leads on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine guaranteeing “great sex” if we use their ‘sex secrets’ and ‘techniques.’ Given Cosmo’s reductive attitude towards sex, this is like praising a thief for his safe-cracking skills, or a Nazi for his efficiency. As should be clear from the above reflections, truly satisfying sex involves right attitudes towards the transcendent aspects of sexuality, and not merely concern for physical pleasure production. Thus a purely technocratic attitude towards sexuality such as we find in Cosmo and public sex-ed classes undermines and corrupts a healthy comportment towards sexual love.

An analogy with education will help to make the point clearer. In What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel argues that paying students to read, as some school districts do, is a pragmatically and morally unsound practice (51-55). The well-read mind is valuable, Sandel points out, not merely for the professional opportunities education affords us, but also for its own sake. Liberal education fits the mind for its own excellence in the way that practice made Isaac Perlman free to do with a violin what an untutored string-scratcher cannot: make beautiful music. The liberal mind sounds its own worth; it measures itself according to its vocation to “be itself” rather than according to some extrinsic criteria (like fame, fortune, or power) accidental to its nature as mind. Paying students to study substitutes these extrinsic incentives for the intrinsic ones. This not only induces us to do the right thing for the wrong reason, Sandel argues, but in fact corrupts the very good the discipline of study aims at, since valuing wisdom for its own sake is partly what makes someone wise in the first place. This is similar to paying people to be your friends: attempting to purchase the good destroys it by corrupting the attitudes constitutive of it. When extrinsic attitudes are entrenched over time in a mind, institution, or culture–e.g., in the modern educational system that prostitutes itself to capitalism–it becomes impossible to reason well about pedagogy because we no longer understand what learning is for.

More often than not, these corrupting attitudes are not held explicitly by individuals–nearly everyone one asks is ‘for’ liberal education and healthy marriages–but embodied in practices, techniques, and cultural narratives. MIT professor Sherry Turkle recently argued in Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other that social networking practices are undermining the real relationships we all claim to value. As she said in a New York Times editorial,

FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.” (“The Flight From Conversation,” April 21, 2012)

Neil Postman made similar arguments decades earlier in Technopoloy about computers and political surveys; Marshall McLuhan made the point decades earlier yet in in The Medium is the Message. And Pope Paul VI made the point about contraception in Humana Vitae in 1968, something continuously underscored by his successors to the Chair of Peter.

Against Contraception: The Argument from Chastity

Like lust, contraception is reductive in character: its use habituates us to judge sex according to technocratic criteria extrinsic to human sexuality. By deliberately divorcing sex from fecundity, contraception makes us blind to the genealogical and theological dimensions of human sexuality. It allows us to pursue sexual pleasure or romantic feelings for their own sake, with no thought of sexuality’s family-making ends. This closes us in upon our selves, destroying the sacramental character of sexuality by twisting its natural signification. As G.E.M. Anscombe pointed out in her 1973 essay “Contraception and Chastity,” contraception makes the complimentary, interpersonal, and self-donation essential to good sexuality unintelligible. The widespread practice of contraception has led our culture to believe that sex is for pleasure or for love, but not necessarily for family. Insofar as sex makes someone feel pleasure or loved, then, all sex is equally good: there are no sexual sins, no disordered sexual desires, since the end of sex is simply personal happiness; it has no goal outside of the self. I sometimes ask my students if they can imagine married life “B.C.”–before contraception–happy. Rarely does someone answer affirmatively. It is this attitude towards sexuality that explains why the Obama administration hysterically defends the ‘right’ to free contraception, but not free natal care, flue shots, or cancer treatments. Don’t we have a right to be happy?

Contraception also encourages us to think of reproduction as an event rather than a way of life. But this is false on many counts. Reproduction is a process that is completed not by birth, but by the realization of human excellence in an intellectually and morally mature adult. A society that aborts the reproductive process at any stage–either in the womb, or in childhood by abuse, or in adolescence by its conspicuous inability to provide anything other than a pubescent cultural milieu–has failed to reproduce itself.

Reproduction also begins long before conception takes place. Ask college students what kind of parents they want to be to their children, and they naturally respond that they want to be more than providers of food, shelter, and cell phones to their children. They want relationships marked by love, affection, and respect; they want their children to know that they are loved as God loves us all: for their own sake.

What these future fathers and mothers fail to realize is that their relationship with their children has already begun. The man or woman who contracepts is someone who has already assigned a value to his children–and not the value he claims. The ideology implicit in the practice of contraception is that children are inconveniences or burdens to be avoided until the demands that they make can be met by your finances, attention, or interest, when you have gained all of the hedonic ‘experiences’ or professional accomplishments you want and which children would inhibit acquiring. By the time these young men and woman want parenthood–though in too many cases, unlooked for and unwanted, parenthood finds them–they discover that their years of contraceptive sex have corrupted their youthful hopes for being the kind of parent they wished (and perhaps still secretly wish) to be. Children, with their demands for love and attention, their needs and frailties, are drains on the childless lifestyle idealized by a deliberately sterile culture. Pitied by their younger colleagues, and bitter about their family responsibilities, these perpetual adolescents flee from family life through divorce, abandonment, or neglect–dad works too much, so sorry–and have no sexual wisdom to pass on to their bothersome children other than to have fun while avoiding disease and pregnancy at all costs. And really, what’s the difference?

In short, contraception attacks the virtue of chastity, and without chastity, there can be no fruitful love or family life. Chastity, remember, is not celibacy, which is abstinence from sex. The celibate can be lustful and the newlywed couple chaste. More than the mere avoidance of sin, or near temptations of sin, chastity is perfected sexual desire, desire alive to the weight of glory. Rejecting the modern individualism that reduces us to anonymous, homeless sexual consumers, chastity makes its home among one’s community of forefathers and grandchildren and thinks on its responsibilities accordingly. The non-contracepting couple is in their chastity practicing how to be virtuous spouses and parents. They do not think of children as inconveniences, but as the crowning fruit of marriage. This does not entail seeking the good of children at every opportunity, which would be contrary to prudence. Rather, it means that when they desire to space their children, they do not engage in practices whose implicit technocratic ideology would condition their attitudes contrary to those needed for flourishing family life. Rather, they engage in practices like Natural Family Planning, whose periodic abstinence teaches us to be masters of our desires, and to expand our amorous vocabulary to express our love of each other in non-sexual ways. Chastity, remember, is a poet.

Having a proper concern for persons and their genealogical and theological dimensions requires truthful thinking and feeling. In the sexual realm, this means engaging in practices that encourage us to value children as ends in themselves, as persons God willed for their own sake, rather than as inconveniences. The demands of love are never truly burdensome: they make an easy yoke, and light. Love surely calls for patience, fortitude, and humility–that one make a gift of oneself–but this is love’s joy, not its death, as modernity supposes. Indeed, for Christians, love is a never-ending task, something one does unto the edge of doom. The sacrifice of the Son is love’s revelation. When marital love, as a way of life, embodies this sacrifice, it becomes a natural sign of supernatural grace. Every other way is death, signifying nothing.


Faith, Wonder, and the Method

10838146_mIn Summa Theologica 2-2.1.4, Aquinas argues that every action can be understood in two ways: according to its order of intention–the goal one has in mind when one acts, and aims to bring about by acting–as well as its order of execution, or the means by which that goal is accomplished. Every real action requires both an ultimate and and a first means, since lacking these “no one would begin to work at anything,” having either nothing to do or no way to do it. The end is the object of love, since we seek only what we believe to be good, whereas means are the object of prudence, since the man of practical wisdom seeks his ends well. Good human action thus requires the full complement of our faculties: reason (in the form of prudence), understanding (in our framing of the end), will (in our choice of ends), and appetite (in our attraction towards the end). Let’s think about what this implies for education.

Means Without Ends

Many writers have lamented that the modern university teaches means but not ends. For instance, in an address on “The Aim of Liberal Education” given the University of Chicago in 2003, Andrew Chrucky argues that modern education aims at teaching ‘facts and theories’ and ‘techniques of persuasion,’ but deliberately avoids discussions of ‘what purposes that knowledge will be used for.’ He points out that this is like teaching someone how to make a bomb without ever discussing what it is appropriate to blow up. Modern education focuses on ‘amoral cognitive skills’ while neglecting the moral and emotional education we require for human flourishing.

The reasons for this systematic neglect are legion, their roots reaching back to the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment changed our notion of reason, and hence our understanding of the aim of education. For the ancients and medievals, whom I’ll simply call the ‘ancients,’ the wise man is a man of vision, e.g., the poet who sees beautiful similes among diverse things, or the philosopher who seeks ever higher truths to contemplate. In contrast, the wise man of the Enlightenment is the scientist and technician, the man of method. Here is how René Descartes explained the motivation for the change in the opening chapter of his Discourse on Method:

the diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.

Having a “method” makes reason egalitarian, the dunce the equal of the genius; it democratizes reason. One need only follow the steps of his method, Descartes argued, and truth–objective, verifiable, unarguable truth–will be discovered without (or often despite) much intellectual talent. With the Enlightenment’s great propagandist, Francis Bacon, Descartes argued that aims of the scientific method include technological mastery, the relief of suffering, and political peace. For modernity, the cosmos is not a poem to be unfolded and contemplated–an interpretive enterprise whose subjectivity inevitably invites disagreement, war, and distraction from the more important business of relieving man’s mean estate–but raw material we can use for the satisfaction of human desire. To know something is to be able to put it to use. Unlike art, which seeks out the meaningful heart of things, the method only seeks how they work: “hypotheses non fingo,” as Newton put it.

Consequences of the Technocratic View of Reason

The adoption of this technocratic view of reason altered an established, richer view of reason in several ways.

First, it led the modern world to divorce truth and goodness. The ancients understood the world to be teleologically ordered to ends both naturally (through internal principles) and divinely (by Providence). As a result, they did not carve the world into what we moderns call ‘facts’ and ‘values.’ Indeed, the teleologist would regard the concept of an ‘objective’ world, one containing no values, as inadequate and incomplete a description of the world as the concept of a private realm of ‘subjective’ values whose validation needs pay no attention to truth. The arborist, for example, a good teleologist, considers it both natural and good for trees to reach their branches towards the sun because doing so facilitates their flourishing as living things. (How else do plants grow?) Marriage is good for the same reason: because it creates persons and communicates culture in a way that facilitates our flourishing as naturally social beings called to complementary, interpersonal, agapic love. (How else does one love a child?) In a world of inherent ends, goodness is coextensive with being: to exist is to be good. Thus, cleaving the world into facts and values fails to cut at the joints. If the world is also created for the glory of God, its goodness limns giftedness. To know the world is to be grateful for it. Thus the wise man worships.

Modern thinkers have rejected teleology, however; the scientific method requires patterns, powers and predictions, but neither ends nor explanations. Hence it cannot distinguish between what is natural (a normative, metaphysical concept) and what is normal (a statistical concept). If something happens frequently enough, even if what happens is contrary to the nature of the thing in question–say, a statistically significant disposition in human beings to drink Draino–the modern thinker will find himself compelled to call that aberration natural (it happens, after all, in ‘nature’). Since the statistics are ambiguous–some people like Draino, some don’t–the modern thinker will rightly deny that we can read morality off the statistics, and accuses the ancients of doing precisely this, of the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy.’ The ancients did no such thing, of course, since teleology is a metaphysical concept, not a statistical one. Every schoolboy can explain why, on the one hand, being popular doesn’t make something good–try that for jumping off bridges–and why drinking Draino isn’t good for a biological being even if one finds it enjoyable. Because they grasp the inbuilt order of things, in other words, the ancients can distinguish between something’s appearing good to you and something’s being good for you. Modernity is blind to that difference, and can only understand claims about what’s ‘good’ as the arbitrary and unjust projection of one’s capricious desires onto the canvas of an objectively ‘neutral’ world. The link between truth and goodness has been broken.

The second traditional characteristic of reason lost by modernity is the ability to see the world as symbolically meaningful; it divorces truth from beauty. Consider the older view. As a made thing, God’s creation reveals something of its Maker, as a pot bears the marks of the potter. Thus Aquinas would remark that God can “signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves” (ST 1.1.10c). Nature is God’s first revelation. Though each thing speaks sotto voce, its own word, the combined polyphony of beings makes a chorus to God. (Tolkien would borrow that idea in his Similrillion.) Whereas the conceptual link between a conventional sign and what it signifies is arbitrary–as when we use the symbol “$” to signify dollars–a created universe also contains natural symbols, things whose natures represent something greater than themselves. For instance, Dante scholar Dorothy Sayers reflects,

The arch, maintaining itself as it does by the mutual thrust and pressure of all its parts, is at once an instance and a natural symbol of that great dynamic principle of stability in tension by which the physical universe is sustained. Beatrice, a real and beloved woman, is, in the eyes of Dante, an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love. The Incarnate life of God on earth, because it is a historic fact, is at once the supreme instance and the unique natural symbol of the whole history of man, and the whole nature of God, and the relations between them. … If it is not historic, then it is either not symbolical at all, or else ‘merely’ a conventional symbol. If, on the contrary, it is a historic fact, then it is a natural symbol and by contemplating it we can really learn something about God and Man. … [A natural symbol] is itself an instance of what it symbolizes: and therefore, by simply being what it is, it tells us something about the true nature of that thing for which it stands. (Introductory Papers on Dante, p. 8)

Augustine said the same thing of the mountains, that they cried–“We are not He, look higher!”–and both Plato (Rep. 500c) and Aristotle (Met. 12.7, 1072b4) saw the sublunar world move out of love for a greater Beauty.

In contrast, the Empiricist psychology of modernity considers the mind to be, at its best, a passive recorder of data, one that goes bad when it distorts or biases that data by reorganizing it. Thus the moderns considered imagination a threat to the usefulness of the mind. The method, it was thought, would eliminate such distortions by reducing observation to measurement and inference to calculation. In other words, the method would eliminate subjectivity by reducing the world ‘information,’ the incoherent idea that truth comes in context-less, un-theory-laden, narrative-free chunks. For the traditionalist, in contrast, imagination was the first stage of understanding, the iris of the eye of the soul. Speaking a great truth required poetry, or at least a passable metaphor. The reason for this was not the post-modern one that truths are only meaningful within an (arbitrary) web of belief, but the ancient one that because the world is naturally symbolic, only the bright containers of poetic truths can frame the fulness of being precisely by acknowledging its essential limitlessness. Speaking truly means speaking “up”; the highest expression of language is liturgical. Thus the wise man worships.

Finally, consider the fact that modernity’s egalitarian method conceives of truth, and our grasp of it, in radically new ways–that is, the divorce of truth from Truth. Gone is the idea that some objects require one’s being appropriately disposed, morally and intellectually, to know them properly. Yet how else does one come to appreciate great works of art–or a woman, asks Roetke–without first being moved by them? (If seeing beauty only required having eyes, the dog-faced baboon would have as much aesthetic taste as Socrates!) How else does one come to see the goodness of the moral life, if one is not aware of its fineness? (Aquinas says the virtuous person radiates honestum, suggesting that the immoral life is both superficial and ugly [ST 2-2.168.1c].). How does one come to believe the truths of faith unless one seeks salvation in humility? Only the penitent man hears the voice of God, who is as if silent to the hard-hearted.

Here we fathom the deep antipathy between the method and faith. Scientism, the view that everything real is knowable by the method (cf. Descartes, Discourse on Method 2.11), assumes the mundanity of the cosmos. If the world is polyphonic in the way suggested above by Dante and Aquinas, then scientism must stop its ears and treat faith as a siren’s song. For faith is the virtuous response of the intellect to a reality that exceeds the mind’s capacity to comprehend, just as love is the virtuous response to a reality whose goodness transcends the use of human concupiscence. Scientism and its method are therefore systematically deaf to the voice of divinity, and the technocratic ideology of modern education is atheological when it is not explicitly atheistic. Put otherwise, insofar as our dispositions do no work in modernity’s method–the whole point of the method is to eliminate them–then art, faith, and morality, and the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness they aim at, are reduced to an unreality beyond reason’s ken. Thus does modernity pit the sciences against the liberal arts and the Faith (they contain no knowledge, it is said).

Yet is is precisely as beautiful, true and good that we are attracted to things as ends. The modern predicament is thus, in a sense, the opposite of the ancients: possessed of awesome power, we have little that is genuinely worthwhile to accomplish. If truly fulfilling action requires a worthy final end, as Aristotle and St. Thomas and countless others have argued, then a university that cleanly and totally separates the study of ends and means does a moral, spiritual, and intellectual disservice to its students. It makes monsters of them, turning them into spiritually deformed beings who will use their Promethian abilities to service small and childish desires. Whatever our technical abilities, Aquinas would say, without a wholesome vision of the end, the life of modern man is an aborted one, having never truly begun. Thus worships the modern man.

Implications for Pedagogy

The above observations are neither new nor complex, and the practical conclusions drawn from them below are not original or sophisticated either. Nevertheless, here they are.

The first thing to be learned from the above analysis is that teaching students technique without awakening their love for a subject is less effective pedagogy than engendering love and skimping on technique. A passionate professor who can rouse his students to wonder will develop students who are independently motivated to seek the truth. Like Romeo, having grasped the value of an end, the lover searches for means. Sharing the beauty of one’s subject, therefore, will always be more important than accomplishing measurable ‘learning objectives.’

Yet beauty cannot be grasped by a mundane mind. Such minds must be prepared by a course of study that encourages the imagination to grasp the great analogy of being. One should study poetry, history, languages and literature along with the sciences, not only insofar as they prepare one for advanced coursework, but because they introduce the soul to its proper objects: truth, beauty, and goodness. Obviously, such a course of study should be undertaken prior to one’s training in a profession or academic discipline.

The second thing to be learned is that students who have methods and means but no definite ends will either require extrinsic motivations to practice their discipline (money, power, or pleasure), or else will give it up. I think the first option most likely. A restless man with means but no ends will search for ends he can apply himself to, ends which will often be contrary to the ends of his craft, as Socrates once told Thrasymachus. Business will aim at personal profit rather than the material reproduction of society; art will titillate rather than edify; medicine will enhance rather than cure. Universities would do well to note that there are no natural limits to such desires, that unless they teach students to ask about the food that truly satisfies, the fare provided will fail to nourish the human soul. “Be not thine own worm,” George Herbert reminds us: to satisfy such desires, the soul must eat itself.


Is Everyone Moral?

Dr. EvilIn chapter 1 of Introducing Moral Theology, William Mattison makes an interesting distinction between descriptive and normative morality.

Consider Austin Power’s nemesis, Dr. Evil. Dr. Evil is an arch villain; he lives for world domination, and revels in causing other people pain. Nevertheless, as his more pragmatic son Scott learns, Dr. Evil has a certain “style” of doing things. He will never simply “shoot” Austin, as Scott suggests; he would prefer to steal Austin’s “mojo,” or feed him to sharks with laser beams attached to their heads, or ruin Austin’s honeymoon by replacing his new wife with a murderous fem-bot. Likewise, although Dr. Evil shows little attachment to his henchmen, he shows tender regard for his bald kitty, Mr. Bigglesworth, and his dwarf-clone, “Mini-Me.”

Dr. Evil’s life is clearly organized around a moral code: he has unique goals, and accepts some ways of seeking those goals while rejecting others. It is in this sense Mattison says that, at the descriptive level, Dr. Evil is “moral.” Dr. Evil (1) engages in practical reasoning–reasoning about action, or what is to be done and how, and (2) follows practical “rules” that give his moral code its style (e.g., shooting Austin is bad form). In this descriptive sense, one could compare and contrast the moralities of anyone by discussing the ends they aim at, the overriding goals of their lives, the various ways they seek to accomplish those ends, including ways they reject seeking those ends. Whereas Dr. Evil seeks to rule the world through terrorism, Jesus seeks to rule the world through agapic love.

To be a moral, then, in the descriptive sense, is to engage in practical reasoning. Everyone who deliberates about what to do or to be is moral in this way, since morality is coextensive with rationality. Animals can’t be moral because they at most aim at technical rather than moral ends–they engage in productive thinking about how to make or do something, such as build a nest, but not in moral thinking about whether to be a doctor or an artist, or whether they should cheat on their philosophy exam. Human beings can’t not be moral, since that would require us to act without reason, and we are beings who do whatever we do only out of deliberation (or out of habits we’ve built up by acting in deliberate ways). We cannot “opt out of” morality.

Put otherwise, we are “rule-making” beings. We invent rules for ourselves and seek them in nature. Why does a lever require less force to lift a boulder than if one simply tries to lift the thing? Because Force x Distance = Work. What is the best way to lose weight? Does cheating on your spouse, as a rule, lead to a better relationship or not? Should you send thank-you cards when you get birthday presents? Because we are practical reasoners, we develop rules for all of these questions; that’s what rational beings do.

Notice, however, that we can naturally phrase our answers to every practical question as an “ought” statement. What is the best way to lose weight? You should diet and exercise. If you receive a birthday present, you should send thank-you cards. Why do we do this?

For two reasons. First, because there is often more than one way to do something. So you want to lose weight? You could diet and exercise, but you could also cut off your arm, or move to the moon. Given a diversity of means, to choose one over the others, is to engage in normative or evaluative reasoning, judging the goodness or badness of each means according to a larger criterion. Why shouldn’t you cut off your arm? Because it will lead to deformity or death, both of which are bad. Why not move to the moon? Because that would change your weight but not your mass, which is the real cause of your bad health.

The second reason is related to the first: because the world contains multiple, contradictory goals we could be seeking at any time. Exercise or eat a bucket of ice cream? It’s not that you can’t do both–you could even do both at the same time! But exercise and ice-cream binging are good for different goals, and are bad for opposite goals: you can’t get skinny by eating ice cream. So whether you exercise or eat a bucket of ice cream depends on whether health is one of your goals, and whether it has priority over other goals. How do you choose between them? By evaluating the goodness and badness of various goals, by prioritizing among possible ends. The result is a normative, practical rule: In general, I should do what’s healthy and avoid what’s not.

To be moral in the descriptive sense–which every rational human being is, by nature–is to make practical judgments about ends and means. With a little effort, we can express these judgments in statements, e.g., “You shouldn’t stab your brother with a pencil,” or “No, Mini-me, we don’t bite our kitty.” Once we have these statements, however, we can reason about them and evaluate them. Is diet and exercise the best way to be healthy? Is health a greater good than pleasure, all things considered, or should it give way to pleasure in some circumstances, like smoking a cigar to celebrate a birth? What criteria do we use to decide such questions, and are those criteria good criteria?

To ask these questions is to engage in normative ethics. Normative ethics is philosophical thinking about whether some moralities in the descriptive sense are better or worse (more rational or irrational) than others. Normative ethics goes beyond simply comparing and contrasting the moralities of Jesus and Dr. Evil, and asks which leads to a better life for a human being.

Many people dislike normative ethics because it makes these judgments. Such people think that we should refrain from making normative judgments about the moralities of other people and simply live and let live. All moralities are equal; none is better than any other. This is the position known as moral relativism. Some people are moral relativists for political reasons, believing that social peace requires us to keep mum about our opinions on the actions of others, since voicing these opinions leads to social strife and worse, which should be avoided at all costs (even the cost of doing philosophy.) Athens once made that judgment about Socrates. Others are moral relativists for philosophical reasons, defending moral relativism with moral skepticism, the view that we cannot know which ends are better or worse than others, or that we lack clear criteria for judging between various means to those ends.

A few quick points about moral relativism, and why it must be false as a philosophical position. First, it refutes itself: moral relativism is itself a judgment of normative ethics, since it judges that all moralities in the descriptive sense are equally good in the normative sense. Moral relativism does exactly what it prohibits; it is practically contradictory. This is most clear in the case of the political defense of moral relativism. Since the business of government is the business of making social policy, and policies encourage some ways of life while punishing others, one cannot be neutral in the realm of politics. The classical liberal’s attempt to do so ends with the tyranny of license over liberty. More on that some other time.

The reason why moral skepticism must be false is more interesting. To hold that ethics is impossible–that we cannot reason about morality in a normative sense–is in fact to make some very specific and controversial claims, e.g., that we cannot compare and evaluate ends, or means, etc. But why can’t we?

The skeptic must hold that we cannot think ethically because ends or means are themselves inscrutable. But if that were true, we could never act, since rational action requires some understanding of ends, means, and ways of choosing between them, on the basis of which we make our decisions. Even the emotivist (e.g., the modern economist), who denies that we require an understanding of ends in order to act, that the criteria of goodness is simply passion itself, and that means are easy to calculate according to preference satisfaction, cannot escape this criticism. For his theory itself is an ethical theory–hedonism, that pleasure is the greatest good–which is itself subject to rational scrutiny.

Now I don’t think this is a knock-down argument against moral skepticism. It blurs the line between a psychological claim–humans require understanding for action, or they don’t–and an epistemological claim–we cannot know moral truths, or we can. But it does have promise. It has the potential to refute moral skepticism if one can establish moral realism, the that there are moral truths, facts, or realties that the mind is built to know, the latter part of which one could argue on either evolutionary or religious grounds. More on that later perhaps; I’m out of blogging time for today!