TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR 3RD SEPTEMBER 2000
SUNDAY XXII(B), FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
May I propose a brief exercise to the reader. Look at the following words, and note your first, instinctive emotional reaction to them, positive or negative:
At a guess, I imagine most readers react positively towards pleasure, truth, wisdom, rights, love, friendship, happiness, freedom, joy, life and praise. The following words often carry a negative emotional overtone: law, commandment, morality, obligation, duty, reason, responsibility, conscience, obedience, virtue, correction.
What I hope this little exercise demonstrates is the emotional schism in our moral thinking. All these items, properly understood, are good and important components of moral behaviour. However, as fallen human beings, our ideas of the path to true happiness are often badly distorted. Frequently we want the enjoyment without the challenge. We want the freedoms without any restrictions. We want the rights without the duties. We want the heavenly bliss without the Cross. Often we don’t like admitting that perhaps Almighty God knows what is good for us, better than we do ourselves.
This weekend we read from the Book of Deuteronomy (4:1-8). Before Moses hands the Decalogue to the people of Israel, he addresses them: “Now, Israel, take note of the laws and customs that I teach you today, and observe them, that you may have life, and may enter and take possession of the land that the Lord the God of your fathers is giving you. You must add nothing to what I command you, and take nothing from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God, just as I lay them down for you. Keep them, observe them, and they will demonstrate to the peoples your wisdom and understanding. When they come to know of all these laws they will exclaim: “No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation.”
Of course, many clever philosophers object in principle to a morality handed down from above by Someone in the Sky. Humanity has come of age, they cry. The mature human person must be free, independent, autonomous, not crippled by a slave morality to some Distant Tyrant Deity.
This reaction is rooted in negative emotional reactions to the concepts of law, morality and God. Once we learn that God is a wise and loving Father, who desires the very best for us, his beloved children, the process of conversion can begin. Slowly we grow to understand the moral law as an expression of the divine love. “Meditating all the day on your Law, how I have come to love it! Your decrees are my eternal heritage, they are the joy of my heart.” (Ps 118).
The moral law consists of benevolent and glorious truth, entrusted to frail human words. The moral law is given for our thriving and flourishing as human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. It helps us to avoid damaging ourselves and others.
The moral law is true Wisdom. It is Love incarnate in words. It is joy. It is the road to happiness. It teaches us how God has made us, and how best to live in response to His gifts. It is the guarantor of the civilisation of love and the culture of life. It cannot be altered by man on his own initiative, although his understanding of it may deepen, and he will have to apply it to new, unforeseen situations.
Ever since the Reformation the notion of law has had a bad press. During the dispute about justification, Protestantism fell into the mistake of opposing faith and works, when really both belong together. The reformers sharply contrasted “justification by faith alone” against the “works of the law” in Galatians. However, St Paul was writing about the practices of the Jewish ritual law, not about the moral law. Nevertheless this negative animus against “law”, contrasted with “Spirit” “grace” and “faith”, still infects Evangelicalism.
However Jesus was not negative when He spoke about the moral law. He insisted: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law, until all is accomplished.” He insisted that the keeping of the commandments was the path to life, when He told the rich young man: “You know the commandments . . . “ Elsewhere He said: “He who loves me keeps my commandments.” There are no emotional shortcuts. Loving the Lord means obeying his laws. The natural moral law is an expression of divine grace.
Moreover Jesus went deeper than any external moral law. He insisted that “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:20-23, this Sunday’s Gospel) The desires and passions of the heart are the motivators of moral virtue or vice. The moral law is necessary, but it is not everything. It is part of the truth, but Jesus Himself is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
The attitude manifested by our secular culture is badly damaged by sin. From Kant onwards, many saw Law only as duty, imposed from above as a test or a trial. Others reacted against this arid vision, and opposed the whole notion of any external moral law. The result has been a widespread relativism and the denial of any objective moral order.
This last century of totalitarianism and relativism has witnessed several societies with human laws vehemently opposed to divine law. Such civil legislation expresses stupidity and wickedness, not love and wisdom. Not only the communist laws of the USSR, and the Nazi legislation against Jews, Slavs, gypsies, Christians etc., but also the abortion laws of Britain and the euthanasia laws of Holland, are prime examples of evil law. Such laws are an abomination in God’s eyes, and have no force to bind consciences. Indeed, it is our Christian duty to oppose them.
The natural moral law, however, is independent of any national jurisdiction. It is our moral genetic code. It expresses the Creator’s instructions about how our created nature operates. It is God’s wisdom inscribed in our very being, echoing in the depths of conscience. When we go against the natural law, we damage ourselves and others. We become less than God wants us to be.
Thus, for example, the so-called “permissive society” has not brought happiness into people’s lives: it has brought a tremendous amount of misery and personal ruin – loneliness, childlessness, broken families. Act against nature, and nature hits back. As the proverb says: “God is always willing to forgive, man sometimes forgives, but Nature never forgives.”
Admittedly certain members of the Church, when catechising, have at times failed to distinguish clearly between what are “the commandments of God” and what are “only human regulations.” (Mark 7:21) The Pharisees had the same problem. If meat on Fridays and sex outside marriage were previously reprobated with equal vigour, the relaxation of the former veto misled many into thinking that the latter was henceforth permitted as well.
This failure to distinguish between changeable church disciplines, or human laws for orderly co-existence, and the unchangeable, divine, moral law written in human nature itself, has had serious consequences. Even well-known theologians like Haring and Curran, or psychologists like Dominian, misguidedly imagine that the Church can alter the divine moral law on contraception. Others vociferous lobbies promote their agendas for gay rights, women priests and the like. You might as well demand that pigs must fly.
We need to rehabilitate the whole notion of divine moral law: to see it as the guarantor of true freedom, not as an imposition. To understand it as wisdom and truth and goodness, not an alien burden making heavy our steps. The Law of God is one of those holy gifts of which St James says in today’s Epistle: “It is all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given to us from above: it comes down from the Father of all light; with Him there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow of a change . . . Accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you and can save your souls. But you must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.” (1:17,21)