What is a moral “law” anyway and why can’t Pope Francis fix the silly ones ?

There was recent blog post by well known Catholic blogger  Monsignor Charles Pope regarding the nature of the moral law making an important point that really needs to be expanded on.  You can read his fine blog post here . He makes the point that we should perceive God’s law as not given to us as impersonal rule giver but more appropriately given to us as guidance from a loving Father, and therefore we should embrace it.  True enough but we should take this one step further.

We are currently very confused about the nature of what makes something moral or immoral. Good or bad.  As we have posted earlier something is good when it fulfills its purpose.  We at Catholic X-ray have discussed this topic earlier here .

This idea has certain implications that overlap with Monsignor Pope’s idea that the moral laws are given not as arbitrary rules, but are given to us by someone who is love itself. Indeed the moral laws are a gift. It may be clearer however if we do not think of them as “laws” in the exact sense of what we mean when we think of government edicts and rules, but more like the “laws” of nature and the physical sciences. That is as, they are are simply facts about our nature as human beings.  Lets expound on this a little bit.  We have began to touch on this topic in a recent post on abortion which can be read here , we will now proceed to do a deeper dive to explore this a little more fully.

We are very familiar with scientific “laws”.  This is the behavior of various things in the material universe which can be observed with some regularity. Scientists study these phenomena and describe these regular relationships as “laws”.  So for example physicists know that rotating a magnet around a wire will generate an electric current. This is one of the laws of electromagnetism, the understanding of which is crucial to modern society.  To take one example your car’s alternator generates the electrical power using this very principle or “law” to operate your vehicles electrical system, and well if the alternator goes, hope your AAA membership is intact, because you will need a tow. You can read about alternators by the way here .

I would note at this point how absurd it would be for someone unhappy about being stranded at the roadside because of a failed alternator to suggest that the Pope should change the laws of electromagnetism. It would be futile to claim they are unfair, or cause distress to lots of people etc … We obviously see this as ludicrous. The Pope has no power over the laws of physics they are just part of the created reality.  This is not just true of the laws of physics; it is true of the entire material world. God has created the observable world (given the world its “reality”) in a particular fashion. Material things have a certain nature (they are directed toward a certain end that emerges from what they are.) So a magnet will always produce an electric current when rotated around a wire made of a suitable conductor. This is just built into the nature of what a magnet “is”. We can extend this reasoning to other phenomena that describe the material world.  The hydrocarbon “octane” when combined with oxygen and a spark will release fire and heat and power your car down the highway (Octane is one of many hydrocarbons that make up common gasoline).  Finally even living creatures have natures and behave in a certain predictable fashion because it is built into what they are. Bacteria reproduce by a simple process of cell division at predictable rates under certain conditions, lions will hunt prey in a particular fashion that scientists have well described, and so we have various biological laws and phenomena that are studied and written about by biological scientists.  To some extent biologic behaviors can ultimately be described in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry and we have sciences like biochemistry (the chemistry of living things) or biophysics.  The Pope can not object to the laws of biochemistry or decide he would like predators like lions or wolves to stop killing other animals. Of course to even think of such a thing strikes us as absurd.

Now all of these things are participating in the law of God,  that is they are given their reality via the creative action of God ( even if we can describe how various physical laws or entities are the material cause of these things) , and as such we say they participate in the “ Eternal Law”. They have no choice in the matter either.  Gasoline will burn if exposed to the right conditions and cannot decide not to burn. Gasoline then reliably fulfills its nature as what it is. Same goes for bacteria, squirrels and catfish. They all act toward the end that they are oriented to and in that sense are “good”.

Now we come to man. Of course we too follow some biological laws without having any say in the matter. Because of our physical nature we require sleep, food and oxygen and we are programmed to sleep, eat and breathe.  We however, are not just physical beings. Our nature is such that we are also spiritual beings and rational animals. We are then oriented to a rational and spiritual end. It is clear we are so oriented because we have spiritual capacities and desires that cannot be explained purely in terms of our physical bodies.  We have things like free will and intelligence which are spiritual functions.  (It would take a series of separate posts to fully discuss in what way these functions depend on, or more precisely currently use an intact nervous system to be expressed fully through our bodies.  For now the details of this are not essential to the current point.)  Because we have free will and intelligence we can choose those actions which direct us to our proper end or can choose actions which divert us from that end. In fact in a very real sense our end requires that it be freely chosen, since our supernatural end involves the free return of God’s love and contemplation of him as he is. This could not be achieved without our free cooperation with God’s grace.  The moral natural law is simply a collection of actions which are consistent with our end and help get us there. Since our end is to be happy contemplating God, things which lead us to our end are not only good they are the only things consistent with being happy and our fulfillment as human beings.  Now the natural law can be arrived at through the use of reason, but as an extra help since God wills our good and knows that we can be stupid and irrational at times, he also has given us the Church to help spell out the natural law.  These are not rules in the sense of arbitrary laws, but rather God is simply telling us important “stuff” we need to know about the nature of created reality.  It is not unlike a father teaching a child about cooking with fire.  Fire is useful if your grilling some tasty hot dogs and hamburgers on a summer day, but if the child sticks his hand into the fire he will get burned. We do not think Dad explaining the proper use of a grill and  telling the child to not place his hand in the fire is a “law” in an arbitrary and capricious sense. We would think it absurd if someone came by and told the Father, “Say…. that stuff about not sticking your hand in the fire is not fair, the child would feel happier if he could pick up one of those interesting burning coals..”.  We know that the Dad is merely informing the child what the “laws” of grilling “are”. Neither one of them has a say in the nature of these rules, its just that the Dad knows them and the kid does not. To not share would be parent malpractice, maybe even child abuse.

For the sake of completeness we can touch on how government laws relate to all this. Now to some extent when government is functioning properly the laws it passes will be in conformity with the natural law and legal rules will also serve as aids in following the natural law, but in our society when governments are amoral or positively evil, this is no longer necessarily the case. Many laws are in conflict with the natural law (Aquinas would say these are not real “laws “at all but that’s a topic for another day.) Still a well functioning government is really supposed to be oriented to the common good and then really is just another way of using reason to apply and support the natural law. Sadly this is hardly what is typically going on these days. Again this is a topic for the future.

In any case when we understand the moral law as described in the above way, it is clear not only that the Pope will not change it, but that he cannot. The moral rules spring from our nature of what we are. God has created us in a certain fashion such that some actions are compatible with our proper end and some actions are not. It really does not matter how the Pope feels about it anymore than it matters how the Pope feels about electromagnetism. It is what it is. The only difference is that God has not protected the Church and her temporal head the Pope, from error when teaching the laws of physics or chemistry, but has done so regarding the teaching of the natural law, so we can be confident that when the Pope preaches on the natural law using the authority of his office it is true.  The fact that he cannot change the law is borne out by the fact that the Church has been amazingly consistent in its teaching over 2000 years, (Is there another organization that can make this claim?) In fact as we pointed out elsewhere if the Church did flip flop like some cheap politician it would undermine the Church’s claim to be what it says it is.  It would tell us nothing about the natural law, since the natural law cannot change unless what a human being “is” was fundamentally different.

So when the Church preaches about a moral law or rule, it is not being arbitrary or oppressive but rather pointing out to us how to fulfill our purpose and achieve long term happiness.  So when we hear someone cheer on Pope Francis because he will stop lecturing us on moral laws, we can confidently know the person making such a statement does not know what he is talking about. We would not be inclined to praise a doctor who did not tell his patients that being fat, smoking and abusing alcohol are not compatible with fulfilling the body’s natural end of proper health, so too someone with the duty to point out actions incompatible with our more important spiritual end is not doing us any favor by refraining from doing so.

Stay tuned to a follow up post on whether anyone in the Church still understands this simple logic, or are we all just too damn stupid anymore….

2 comments for “What is a moral “law” anyway and why can’t Pope Francis fix the silly ones ?

  1. Matt
    March 5, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    Excellent post, thank you

    • Michael DePietro
      March 9, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      thanks Matt

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