When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when…God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (2:14-16).
St. Paul here clearly recognizes the existence of the natural law, a concept and a reality by means of which we can discuss moral matters with those who do not share the Faith, and, at least in theory, justify Catholic morality to nonbelievers. But here is the rub. Although the natural law, accessible to human reason, provides a shared space for ethical discourse and argument, it does not always realize its possibilities. Pope Pius XII, speaking generally of the role of unaided reason in discovering truths about God and about the moral law, pointed out some of the reasons for this failure to live up to its potential. In the encyclical Humani Generis (1950), in a passage quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (37), Pope Pius spoke of both the value and the limits of reason.
Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.
In a well-disposed and intelligent person reason can go far towards discovering truths about God and about human morality. But how many are well-disposed, and among the intelligent and educated, how many have been corrupted by a false system of philosophy? While it is vital to the Church’s apologetics that human reason be able to demonstrate the existence of God and discover the natural law of human conduct, in view of what Pope Pius wrote above and of our own experience, it is a mistake to rely too much on such natural knowledge. There are not many people in the world who, apart from their acceptance, in one way or the other, of revelation, attempt to live their lives without offending against the Creator and the natural law.
While most of us probably recognize this well enough in our personal lives, and in the lives of our friends, perhaps we do not see it as clearly as we might in other areas. The area I am thinking of is the political realm in the United States, and particularly with regard to abortion. Now some precepts of the natural law are clearer than others, as St. Thomas noted. There are few who would simply disregard the natural law prohibition against murder. So, one would think, abortion would be a clear instance of a gross wrong, evident to everyone. But we all know this is not the case. Even though I suppose every adult of normal intelligence is aware that a baby does not somehow acquire his shape and capacities at the moment of birth and that there is no particular instant after his conception in which we can say that he receives those potentialities, and therefore it is only logic to insist that we have a human person from the moment of conception, somehow many people manage to ignore this and insist either that the unborn child is not a person or that somehow, contrary to all reason, killing of an innocent in this case is not murder. Although American public opinion likewise tends to carve out exceptions to the prohibition of murder in the case of civilians in countries with whom we happen to be at war, still I think we can safely say that the failure to see that abortion is obviously the taking of the life of an innocent unborn person must be attributed to the “disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin.”
In both these cases, that of civilians during wartime and of unborn babies, the usual justification for their killing is some form of the moral error known as consequentialism, a false moral theory which John Paul II discussed and refuted in Veritatis Splendor, nos. 75-83. Both those who try to justify clear instances of direct killing of civilians and those who try to argue for the morality of abortion, appeal to the effects, or consequences, which would probably obtain if those killings were not allowed. So the probable deaths of many soldiers, or the difficulties that would result for the baby’s mother, are invoked by people who, honestly or dishonestly, refuse to face up to the fact that “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it,” as John Paul quotes his predecessor Paul VI.
If the light of reason which reveals the natural law to mankind is so apt to be obscured by human passion and false reasoning, what is the way to proceed then in seeking to protect the lives of the unborn? What political strategies or ways of convincing a majority of the electorate should we pursue? I am afraid that there are probably no political strategies which have much chance of success. If even many Catholics who pride themselves on their orthodoxy are confused about killing civilians during wartime or about torture, it is not likely, it seems to me, that we will convince enough of our fellow citizens that abortion is always and everywhere wrong. Are we to give up then and simply sink back into an existence concerned only with our own personal piety? No, there is another way, arduous to be sure, but the way the Church proceeded in the past and a way always open to Catholics in any age.
When Jesus Christ came into the world, when he died and rose again and founded his Church, the Roman world in which most of the Church’s activity took place was rife with grave moral evils. Abortion and infanticide, divorce, gladiatorial games, slavery – all these were part of Roman life. All of them would eventually be eliminated, as far as this was humanly possible. But how did this happen? Catholics did not embark on moral crusades against one or another of these evils. Catholics sought to convert the world, to make their fellow citizens members of the Church, to bring them to repentance and baptism, to impose upon them Christ’s sweet yoke. This was how our Catholic ancestors sought to change the world, by putting first things first, by working to change men’s hearts and minds, after which the rest would follow. This is not to say that when the Roman Empire became Catholic laws were not enacted against such evils. In many cases they were, and quite properly. However until a sufficient mass of Romans became Catholic such laws were impossible – they would have had no support or possibility of enforcement. But the first thing the apostles and their successors did was simply to preach the Faith, to convert their neighbors, then to mold the state to recognize and support the truth.
One might argue with me and say that in the case of the apostles they were confronting a world entirely pagan, a world in which whatever light of the natural law that existed had been overlaid by centuries of evil conduct and example. This is certainly true, but are we any better off? Although some people like to pretend that the United States is a Christian nation, the widespread nominal adherence to the name Christian that characterizes this country should not blind us to the truth. Both theologically and morally the term Christian here means little. The Evangelical type of Protestants, who still have some residual cultural influence on our society, regularly violate what they openly acknowledge to be the law of God – for example, on divorce and remarriage – and sadly two generations of Catholics have been raised with little knowledge of the teaching or law of Christ, and thus their conduct does not differ significantly from that of their neighbors. Are we any different from the pagans of ancient Rome, and if we are, in whose favor is the difference? Rome was converted by a Church that was originally tiny in numbers. This country has not yet been converted by a Catholic body numbering around a quarter of the population.
There is another objection someone might make to my contention that relying on natural law and the political system is a mistake and that by means of them we will never make abortion illegal. Is it not the case, someone might say, that according to polls a majority of the population favors significant restrictions on abortion, and that therefore the difficulty is not so much the lack of moral awareness on the part of the American people as the failure of the political system to translate these sentiments into concrete political or legal measures? There is some truth in this, I concede, but ultimately it does not make much difference. The American people tolerate legal abortion, there is no critical mass, no sufficiently strong public conviction that would force the unwilling politicians, of both parties, into taking any action. Moreover, it is not clear how committed are many of those who say they are pro-life or say that they would support restrictions on abortion. There is considerable confusion in the thinking of the public on abortion and even contradictions in what polls purport to show about public opinion on this subject. In any case, whatever the true state of public opinion on abortion, the politicians continue to do what they want. If polling data can be believed, there are a number of other matters on which a clear majority of the public favors some policy or other which the political class resolutely refuses even to consider. Meanwhile members of that class continue to win elections, the percentage of people who bother to vote declines, and a general apathy about the possibilities of politics spreads – and not without reason.
Therefore I think that a genuine attempt at evangelization of the country is a more hopeful project than pursuing assorted goals via political action. I do not deny that the task is immense and daunting. Everything I just said about the moral failings of Catholics can equally be said about their religious ignorance and lack of zeal to make converts. But we do not need to depend upon the mass of indifferent Catholics to work for the conversion of America. This is not a matter of numbers such as are necessary to win elections. Whatever numbers are willing and available will suffice for the attempt. Most importantly, we will be following God’s will and carrying out the command given us by our Lord as he was about to depart from this world, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Thus, whether we succeed or not, we can be sure that God will provide the grace for us to do our part since we will be carrying out his command. Beyond that, we must directly depend upon his inscrutable will and providence working within salvation history. Although the final end of that is known to us, our place and time in it is not. Therefore we can only pray for the grace that God freely gives to us sinners and hope for the response which that grace can evoke in even the hardest of hearts.