Those of you who used to be readers of my old blog, Throne and Altar, may be interested to know that I’ve finished my promised clean-up of that site. This consisted in adding two essays. Neither is original material. Both originally appeared in serialized form as posts, but they’ve now been gathered together in a more convenient form.
Principles of Catholic Morality is my survey of the main currents in ethics within the Roman Catholic theological tradition. It’s 14 pages–long for an internet essay but short for so vast a topic–although most of the sections could be read on their own by a reader interested in one particular thinker. One main theme is the tension between focus on charity’s erotic and agapic elements, embodied for example in the Thomist and Scotist traditions. Another theme is the confrontation with modernity and how it drove Thomist ethics in a more communitarian direction.
The Audacity of Natural Law, my series on the nature and justification of natural law ethics, has already appeared on the Orthosphere. However, the readership tapered off as the series concluded, and only my most dedicated readers seem to have stuck with me to the end. This is a shame, because my own sense was that the latter parts of that essay were a highlight of my blogging career. (Of course, bloggers, like artists, are often poor judges of the relative merits of their own works, and I always tend to think that whatever essay I’m working on is my best writing ever.) The main points:
- The key feature of natural law is that physical/biological acts and relationships have natural meanings independent of what we intend for them to mean, and that we are morally obliged to respect these meanings. Until yesterday, all mankind accepted this. Nevertheless, it is not obviously true and requires justification.
- The distinction between desires whose satisfaction is a subjective state (pleasure, comfort) and desires whose satisfaction is an objective state of affairs (knowledge, friendship). Our dignity as persons is our ability to step out of immanence and assume a third-person perspective. The ordering of our desires toward objective goods dignifies them. It is degrading to detach a good from its accompanying pleasure and pursue the pleasure alone.
- Genuine goods show us how to fulfill the commandments to love God, neighbor, and self. Most civilizations agree on fundamental goods. These goods are never inherently contradictory, although sometimes we are accidentally prevented from securing them all. Genuine goods allow us to identify the natural functions, i.e. the purposes, of our natural capabilities. Thus, there are criteria for distinguishing true from false goods.
- One could deny that natural meanings are binding, that what “I” mean need not be constrained by what “my body” (i.e. the act by its nature) means, but this is to alienate oneself from one’s body and therefore from one’s fellows, because the body is our mode of presence in the world. (When someone embraces my body, she embraces me.)
- Does morality then require us to consciously affirm everything an act naturally means before we can licitly engage it? This is overly rigorist and is impossible to boot. Natural meanings (e.g. of sex or filiation) are a form of showing rather than saying. Like art, they are meaningful, but their meanings cannot be fully captured in propositional form. That is, natural meanings are supra-rational. Often we come to understand natural relations like marriage and parentage only by living them, and even then understand them imperfectly.
- The correct attitude: a man must decide to mean the totality of what his act naturally means, even though he doesn’t totally understand and can’t fully conceptualize the meaning to which he binds himself.
- Natural law’s capacity for supra-rational signification, that it allows us to mean more than our minds can formulate, makes physical acts appropriate channels of grace via the sacraments.
- Natural significations are also supra-personal in that, since they pre-exist us, they bear neither the marks nor the limitations of our private personalities. They allow us to set aside personal idiosyncracies and speak as Man, allowing more authentic responses to the mysteries of human life. They connect us to the totality of the human race in a vivid way and help us to “grow out of ourselves”.
- God Himself (and Jesus Christ, the New Adam) underwrites our natural significations. The proper response to so great a gift is reverence and conscientious use.
For the arguments for these statements, please see the full essay.