Dignity and Destiny
(Part Three: The Moral Life)
Sometimes you hear it said that opposition to abortion is a particularly Catholic concern, or that life-long fidelity in marriage is a distinctively Christian rule. (I choose these issues as they are now so contentious.) As the study of non-Catholic religions and cultures demonstrates, it is not true. In an essay entitled “The Tao” (the Chinese word for “the Way”). C. S. Lewis reminds us of the common and foundational moral vision “in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike”.
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law, or Traditional Morality, or the First Principles of Practical Reason, or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected all value is rejected. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems (or as they now call them) “ideologies” all consists of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole, and then swollen to madness in their isolation.*
In fact, the proliferation of “new” value systems is now so familiar to us that there is a danger of taking them for granted, of failing to recognize their cost in human misery. Lewis describes the “rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao” as “a rebellion of the branches against the tree. If the rebels could succeed, they would find that they destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color”.
Lewis concludes the essay with a collection of moral precepts from ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonian, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Hindu and Native American cultures.
Returning to the question “distinctive Catholic value system” . . . . Why does the Church call us to life-long fidelity in marriage? Because fidelity is and always has been fundamental to what marriage is. Fidelity belongs to the nature of married love. The Hindu bride and groom, to take but one example, also pledge life-long fidelity one to another. Because, in all times and places, the lover naturally needs to pledge love forever. Conjugal love, by its nature, endures.
But is there nothing distinctive in the Catholic moral vision? Indeed there is. But it is not the foundational values. After all, the Church teaches us that eight of the Ten Commandments are an expression of natural law accessible to all people through natural reason. What is distinctive is the depth to which the Christian revelation traces the roots of this universal human moral vision to the Love of the eternal God. What is distinctive is the radical application of this ethic of love.
For example, while all cultures have recognized the great good of children and the fundamental obligation of parents, few have recognized the right to life of the unborn child or even the new-born infant. It was those who profess that the Eternal Word of God entered the world through the womb that could finally bear witness to the sanctity of the unborn child. This was no “new morality”. It was a very old morality renewed, deepened, and radicalized by the Christian Revelation.
(to be continued)