Man and Morality: The Truth that Sets us Free

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The human person knows by nature that there is a certain code by which he must live.  Man also knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he wants to be happy.  As fallen human beings, we often sense a strain between the natural law and our innermost need for happiness.  In the world today there are many moral theories that try to address this issue by divorcing freedom from truth, separating the actual acts of the human person from his moral status, or even by justifying intrinsic evil because “one’s own conscience” condoned it, or because it “fits” with one’s developing culture.  All these issues show two very interesting and integral aspects of man’s character: 1) man is not at rest, but is anxiously seeking an answer to that voice calling, beckoning to him, whether he acknowledges God’s creative act in his life or not; and 2) man also necessarily recognizes (at least implicitly) that he is so aware of the necessity of fulfilling the natural law that he goes to great lengths to justify his position, clearly demonstrating that every person knows deeply in his heart that the need to live a good moral life is essential to our human nature.  But in order to assess whether living the natural law really inhibits man’s freedom, we must first consider: what is his human freedom for, and how does man’s conscience function to determine what he will freely choose?  Is moral truth merely relative, or does the conscience serve as a judge of a universal standard?  If God created man in His own image and likeness, surely the natural law written in our hearts points us to the fundamental reality: man was created for the purpose of happiness, which he may obtain, if he but use his freedom to live in accordance with the truth.

In the world today, there are many theological theories that distinguish a man’s actions from his moral status, “detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth.”[1]

As St. Pope John Paul II wrote,

Indeed, something more serious has happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation.  The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil.[2]

This kind of mentality sharply contradicts the human person, whom God created in perfect love and order with Himself.  He who is Truth, desiring our happiness, created man to be happy when he lives in the fullness of his purpose, choosing to act in accordance with the right order of the natural law.  Clearly, the idea that certain acts do not contribute to the person’s moral make-up because they are “pre-moral” is not in keeping with any of the teachings of Christ or the early Church: “The Apostles decisively rejected any separation between the commitment of the heart and the actions which express or prove it (cf. 1 Jn 2:3-6).”[3] As both soul and body, man must live out what he believes, and not just merely acknowledge it.  “In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.”[4]

This becomes gravely relevant in considering that there are acts which, by their very nature, essence, and being, are contradictory to the human person, and are therefore intrinsically evil.  For example, God alone is the Author of Life, and therefore the only One to be worshipped.  The early Christians knew that the act of making offerings to a false god was thus intrinsically evil, and countless numbers refused even at the price of martyrdom. “They even refused to feign such worship, thereby giving an example of the duty to refrain from performing even a single concrete act contrary to God’s love and the witness of faith.”[5] This recognition of objective moral truth, upon which the natural law is written in the heart of the human person, is the essence of how a man brings his purpose to fruition by choosing the good for which he was created, and therefore achieving ultimate happiness.  Those who deny this fundamental need to recognize objective morality and intrinsic evil fall into the snare of self-deifying, where man becomes the author of his own morality and truth.  “Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others.”  But, “taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.”[6] Such prevalent thinking as this has “led to a denial, in opposition to Sacred Scripture (cf. Mt 15:3-6) and the Church’s constant teaching, of the fact that the natural moral law has God as its author, and that man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law, which it is not for him to establish.”[7] Man cannot be his own god, because he is a creature, created in the Divine Image.  Man, living the natural law by freely choosing what he perceives through the judgment of his conscience as objectively good and refusing intrinsic evil, can fulfill who he is in his person, bringing peace to his restlessness as he takes his abode in God for Whom he was created.

The Church, therefore, teaches strict adherence to the moral law because this is the foundation of who man is; to deny the moral law is not to meet man in compassion, but in actuality it is to deny man himself.  Thus, the Church reaches out with true charity, seeking the good of her children.  “The Church is in fact a communion both of faith and of life; her rule of life is ‘faith working through love’ (Gal 5:6).”[8] Man’s freedom is thus not to make up his own set of laws, but to fulfill that longing within him that urges him to do the good for which he was created.  “Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity.”[9] Thus, in obeying the moral law, there is this complete unity of faith and morals, freedom and truth, real life and compassionate love.  True Christian faith, “which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent,” is “rather…a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out.”[10] This vibrant relation with Jesus is the core and essence of morality for man.  Faith is not about a lonely soul estranged from the actions of the body: “faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).”[11] In Christ, we are freed from the addiction of sin, and the power to choose what is good is restored to us.  By perceiving the truth once again, our conscience can lead us forward to the happiness for which we long in achieving the fullness of a human person created in God’s image.  Then, we may truly act with freedom, according to Our Lord, for “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[12]

 

[1] Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendour (6 August 1993), §4.

[2] Veritatis Splendour, §84.

[3] Veritatis Splendour, §26.

[4] Veritatis Splendour, §49.

[5] Veritatis Splendour, §91.

[6] Veritatis Splendour, §32.

[7] Veritatis Splendour, §36.

[8] Veritatis Splendour, §26.

[9] Veritatis Splendour, §42.

[10] Veritatis Splendour, §88.

[11] Veritatis Splendour, §88.

[12] The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, (John 8:32), National Council of the Churches of Christ, 1971, accessed 30 July, 2016, https://www.biblegateway.com.

Marissa Standage

Marissa Standage

Marissa Standage is simultaneously studying at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Angelicum Academy to earn her bachelor's degree in philosophy and theology, and also loves her teaching post at Highlands Latin School of Pasadena. As the oldest of six, Marissa was home schooled right through high school, and has enjoyed a deep love for the Catholic faith, family, and education based on Socratic discussion. Between her college work and teaching, her favorite past-times include spending time with her family and friends, writing epic fantasy stories, reading, baking sourdough bread (and all kinds of other sourdough goodies from chocolate cake to crackers), and knitting socks. In the midst of this full and wonderful life, she is striving to discern God's plan for her in this world, and to cultivate the virtues in the daily opportunities to grow in His love.

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1 thought on “Man and Morality: The Truth that Sets us Free”

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    Marissa,
    St. Alphonsus in his Theologia Moralis was fortunately more complex than Saint John Paul II who made moral mistakes in Veritatis Splendor, section 80. Saint Alphonsus said that the natural law is clear to men only in its first principles such as don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t rape, don’t hate thy neighbor over small offenses etc. But St. Alphonsus noted that saints have differed on the natural law in more complex areas where natural law is not so simple.
    Take slavery. Saint John Paul II calls it an intrinsic evil in Veritatis Splendor, sect. 80. Here’s St. Thomas Aquinas , no slouch on natural law, disagreeing and showing that Church law…the decretals…support him in asserting that children of a slave mother follow her into slavery:
    Summa Theologica, Supplement, question 52, article 4:
    ” Now slavery is a condition of the body, since a slave is to the master a kind of instrument in working; wherefore children follow the mother in freedom and bondage; whereas in matters pertaining to dignity as proceeding from a thing’s form, they follow the father, for instance in honors, franchise, inheritance and so forth. The canons are in agreement with this (cap. Liberi, 32, qu. iv, in gloss.: cap. Inducens, De natis ex libero ventre) as also the law of Moses (Exodus 21).”
    Here I’d add that slavery at the time of Exodus was needed when a nomadic group had 1. no large prisons for criminals 2. no large prisons for war captures 3. no bankruptcy process. Hence slavery solved the problem of criminals, war captures and hopelessly indebted. It still does hopefully among the uncontacted tribes of the Amazon….otherwise those tribes are killing criminals for small offenses. Which do you want in the Amazon…executions for small thefts or slavery for restitution.
    That is….slavery prevents unnecessary deaths that otherwise happen in nomadic tribes or poor cultures with a shortage of prison space to hold all offenders. You might be seeing this right now in the Phillipines where the new president has encouraged extra judicial killings of drug dealers in the hundreds by police and civilians….400+ so far since Spring.
    Leviticus 25 has God giving the Jews slavery of the chattel type:
    ” 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.”
    Saint John Paul II knew many things but the Old Testament was not one of those things. Slavery is not intrinsically wrong unless God gave an intrinsic wrong in the above passage….but slavery is right or wrong by context. Slavery is evil now because we have prisons and bankruptcy courts.
    Slavery was not evil in long past cultures nor is it evil in the Amazon or Peru among the uncontacted tribes where it prevents executions for small crimes. The Phillipines might not be currently killing hundreds on the streets if it had more money for prison space or had work houses that produced revenue from prisoners.

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