Category Archives: Moralilty

The Truth on Lying


One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat.  As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying.  Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing.  As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real.  Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth.  As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”   It is time to tell the truth about lying.

Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area.  That is because we lack a really good definition.  Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition.  In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth(CCC 2483)When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow.  This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful.  He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind.  In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.

Loving the Truth

Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong.  Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts.  When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power.  Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter.  Lying is always wrong.

Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies.  Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  There are no such thing as white lies.  A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated.  That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things.  It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.

In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying.  Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking.  This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying.  If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying.  He communicated the truth as he understood it.  Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth.  Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp.  Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying

Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying.  But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult.  For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition.  It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

Living the Truth

It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying.  All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying.  There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil.  Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth.  In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret.  Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion.   But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.

Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation.  A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning.  There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean.  This would be a form of lying.  A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?”  The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.”  Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking.  A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.

What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly?  Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that.  Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.”  One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator.  However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth.  When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible.  There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.

In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat.  Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation?  I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…

What’s for Dinner?

In keeping with tradition, President Trump pardoned Drumstick, the thirty-six pound presidential turkey, yesterday and sent her to Gobblers Rest on the Virginia Tech campus.  Millions of other turkeys will not be so fortunate however adorning the tables of Americans tomorrow gathering for the Thanksgiving Day feast.  For a small, but increasing, number of those families, they will forgo the fowl because they are avowed vegans and vegetarians.  Included within this group are a number of Catholic intellectuals who have rejected their omnivorous ways by making a moral argument for vegetarianism, seeing it as an antidote to the culture of death.   Before the Lion of PETA lies down with Lamb of the National Right to Life, it is instructive to offer a Christian perspective on vegetarianism.

Animals and Their Use

In examining the order of nature, it is patently obvious that there is a hierarchy in which the perfect proceeds from the imperfect.  This hierarchy also resides in the use of things so that the imperfect exists for the use of the perfect.  The plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, animals make use of plants and man makes use of plants and animals.  Man is said then to have dominion over all of visible creation because, having reason and will, he is able to make use of all of it.

Revelation supports human reason in this regard as Genesis tells of God’s granting of dominion to mankind because he is created in God’s image (c.f. Gn 1:26-27).  But this is really a two-edged sword.  Dominion means not just that we have the capacity for using things, but also that there is a right and wrong way to use them.  With free will comes the capacity for the misuse of creatures.   So that the question is not really whether man has dominion over the animals but whether this dominion includes the right to eat them.

Thus when we reflect on the proper use of animals, we usually use the term “humane.”  Although it is an oft-used term, it is not oft-understood.  When we speak of the “humane” treatment of animals it does not mean that we treat them as if they were human.  Instead it refers to the truly human (i.e. moral) way of treating animals as living, sentient beings over which we have been given not just dominion but stewardship.  Humane treatment refers to the truly human way of using the animals.  This would mean that all traces of cruelty or causing unnecessary pain carry moral weight.  Put another way, we should avoid any all forms of abuse, which, of course,  always assumes there is a proper use.

The question also needs to be properly framed.  It is not really whether or not this use includes the death of the animal.  Just as the use of plants by animals may lead to the death of the plants, so too do higher animals prey on the lower.  There is no inherent reason then why the use of the animal by man cannot results in death.  Some make the argument for the moral necessity of vegetarianism based on the fact that we should not kill a living thing.  A moment’s reflection however allows us to see that virtually all of our food, including many things like wheat and fruits and vegetables, results from the death of something that was living (see Augustine’s City of God, Book 1, Ch.20 for further discussion on this).  No one truly objects because the plant matter, lacking sentience, does not have the capacity for pain.  To advance further we must look more closely at animal pain.


Every generation has its pet virtue and for our generation it is kindness.  Provided we “would never hurt a fly” we are deemed good people.  The great enemy of kindness is cruelty and its daughter pain.  Pain is the greatest evil.  But this is not entirely true.  Pain becomes an evil when it becomes an end in itself.  This is true in both humans and animals.  It can however serve as a means, provided it is minimized in carry out its purpose.  That purpose can be either corrective (like getting too close to a fire) or for growth.  Cruelty would not be to cause pain, but to cause it unnecessarily.  The power of sentience is not simply for feeling pleasure, but also allows for the feeling of pain.  This power is good and necessary for the creature to thrive.

The difference in humans and animals is the capacity, not to feel pain, but to suffer.  There must be an I to experience suffering or else it is merely a succession of pains without any real connection.  As CS Lewis says in The Problem of Pain it is most accurate to say “pain is taking place in this animal” rather than “this animal is suffering.”  We should avoid saying things like “how would you like to be in a slaughterhouse?”  The experience of animals in that environment is very different from the suffering that would have gone on in a place like Auschwitz.  They may be in pain in the slaughterhouse, but there is no suffering.  Any appeal to emotions based on an anthropomorphic comparison ultimately muddies the waters.

The causing of pain in other humans, always as a means, is licit provided the patient receives some benefit from it.  At first glance it would seem that animals would derive no benefit from the pain caused by humans.  When we view pain as means of moving a person towards perfection then we can see the parallel in animals.  The perfection of any creature consists in it achieving the end for which it was made.  Man was made for happiness (in the classical sense of becoming morally good) and animals were made for man.  If the pain that a man causes an animal is necessary for his own happiness and acts as a means to helping the animal reach the end for which it was made, namely the service of mankind, then there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

The Moral Case For Vegetarianism

All that has been said so far helps to clear up some of the ambiguities surrounding the issue, but has yet to address whether a moral argument could be made for vegetarianism.  In the state of original innocence man was a vegetarian (c.f. Gn 1:29).  Man had dominion over the animals but did not use them for clothes or food (ST I, q.103, art. 1).  The animals obeyed man, that is, all animals were domesticated.  For his own disobedience man was punished by the disobedience of those creatures which should have been subjected to him and they became difficult to domesticate and often posed threats to his life.  Shortly thereafter the animals were used for clothing (Gn 3:20) and food (Gn 9:3).  In short, because of the frailty introduced to the human body as a result of the Fall, it became necessary to make use of the animals for warmth and nutrition.

Any argument that man “was originally a vegetarian” ultimately falls flat because we cannot return to our Edenic state.  With the Fall came irreparable damage to both body and soul of which animal flesh provides a partial remedy.  Furthermore, within Church tradition, fasting from meat has long been practiced as a means of mortification.  We are called to abstain from good things so that eating meat is a good thing and thus worthy of being sacrificed.  In short, any attempt to make a moral argument that eating meat is wrong ultimately falls flat.

Likewise making a connection to the culture of death is problematic.  It is not clear how using animals for food is directly connected or acts like a gateway drug for the culture of death unless you equivocate on the word death.  The culture of death is one that causes spiritual death.  How the killing of animals, when done in a humane way and not out of greed, leads to a culture of spiritual death is not immediately obvious.

All that being said, there is a manner in which vegetarianism can represent a morally praiseworthy act, that is by way of counsel and not obligation.  Because meat is a concession made by God because of man’s fallen condition, abstaining from meat can act as a participation in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive act.  This is why the Church has long obligated abstaining from meat specifically (as opposed to some other kind of food) during certain liturgical periods.  Permanently abstaining from meat, when done with this intention, becomes a powerful spiritual practice.  It also becomes an act of witness to both the world and to those in the Church who often neglect this practice.

For the omnivores among us—enjoy your meat this Thanksgiving Day with a clear conscience.  But make an offering of thanksgiving Friday by holding the leftovers until Saturday.  Herbivores, allow your vegetarianism to be a constant sign of the redemption won at so great a cost.  Truly, something to be thankful for.

Changing the Cultural Smell

Long before it was fashionable to write books whose titles include profanity, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an extended essay On Bullsh*t.  Written in 1986, it is as current as ever, explaining why male cow excrement is a fitting metaphor for how Political Correctness spreads like manure, fertilizing our social landscape while carrying with it a noxious stench.  Thanks to its ubiquitous nature, we grow wearing of pinching our noses and eventually let go allowing it to saturate our minds.  Case in point—the recent scandal of sexual impropriety has shown not only that we have been holding our noses to it, but that we may in fact have forgotten how to breathe properly.  It is in that spirit, that I hope to end the bullsh*t by offering an introduction and application of Frankfurt’s work.

When I was in college, we used to play a card game called BS.  It was like Uno, except, rather than picking up cards when you did not have anything to put down, you would attempt to bluff your way out of it.  If another player thought you were bluffing then he would call BS and whoever was right became the owner of the pile.  The really good players were skilled at bluffing that they were bluffing, calling out the wrong number (which was really the right number), thus making it really hard to know what the player actually believed.

BS and Indifference

Nostalgic as I am for that game, it is relevant because it is illustrative of what real BS is like.  It is not really lying, but a form of bluffing.  It is merely an attempt to represent yourself as a certain kind of person.  Whether you are really that way is secondary at best, really inconsequential—it is only the appearance that matters.  As Frankfurt says, BS is really short of lying because it doesn’t really care what the truth is only how what you say makes you appear to be.  Its indifference to the truth makes it, in a certain sense, worse than lying because at least a lie pays a certain deference to the truth, even if it is still trying to deny it.

BS is not so much that someone gets things wrong, but that they are not really even trying to get things right.  The feigned conviction is not grounded in either a belief that what you are saying is true nor, as with a lie, in the belief that it is not true.  This indifference to the truth is really the essence of BS.  In fact we even have a special word for it—Political Correctness.  BS is at the heart of Political Correctness.  Whether or not I actually believe X is wrong or not is inconsequential—only that I say the things that make me appear to think it is wrong.  If tomorrow the court of public opinion changes then I will spout my BS to the contrary.

Frankfurt uses the example of the man leading a July 4th celebration standing up and giving a patriotic speech.  Whether the man is a patriot or not does not matter, his only goal is to appear patriotic because the setting demands it.  The man may be, and probably is, indifferent.  As the BS spreads so does the indifference.  All of the mouth breathing leads to brains that have been deprived of oxygen and no longer know what or why they believe certain things.  They simply become parrots repeating what someone else has said and keeping up appearances.

The BS Meter

The BS meter is maxed out with the latest sexual impropriety scandal.  For years Hollywood and Washington, as hubs of US power, were also seedbeds of exploitation.  Once a few women had the courage to speak up, the BS starting flowing.  Now to be clear, I am not saying they aren’t telling the truth.  I am sure the overwhelming majority of them are and that there are any number of victims who won’t speak up.  What I am saying is the “outraged” response.  One day Actor X is hitting Twitter saying all the PC things.  He doesn’t believe a word of it because the next day we find out he is just as guilty.  Next day Senator Y is condemning Actor X and it turns out there are pictures of him exploiting another woman.  Just as sure as tomorrow will bring another outing, there will be the accompanying BS.  BS kills conviction and once the next scandal hits, the problem creeps back into the shadows.

How do I know this?  Because it isn’t just Actor X and Senator Y that are guilty of it.  We are all complicit.  We may talk about how horrible sexual exploitation is, but it is all BS.  Take a look at your favorite news web site today and glance at the stories.  You will see a story about Al Franken, Roy Moore, and will also find one about some young female teacher arrested for sexual encounters with a teen boy.  Franken and Moore will pass but each day brings another story of a woman (usually a teacher) being arrested for a rendezvous with a male (underage) student.  The numbers are increasing (latest available data, collected in 2014, showed that a third of nearly 800 student-teacher sex prosecutions involved women) and we pretend it is not a problem.  But rather than outrage at this blatant abuse we click on each story to see the mug shot of the latest Mrs. Robinson with the accompanying Facebook or Instagram “sexy” photo.  Barstool Sports (BS), who just got their own SiriusXM radio station, even came out with a Sex Scandal Starting Lineup of the hottest teachers in 2016.  BS needs to keep the cycle of BS going by appealing to “guys.”  After all, what guy didn’t fantasize being with some hot teacher at some point?  Somehow without any basis in truth, these same guys who have bought BS’s BS are supposed to turn around and not sexually exploit women.  BS is dizzying if nothing else.

The examples grow exponentially.  What about the BS of equality?  Or the BS of freedom?  Or the BS of tolerance?  Even the Church is not immune with the BS masquerading as ecumenism.  BS has a funny way of infecting an entire culture.

In our collegiate game of BS there was only one way to win.  Once you got down to one card the other players would always call BS to keep you from winning.  The only way you could win is if you told the truth—that is you actually had the next card in the sequence.  It is only the truth that can set us free from cloud of BS and in the midst of a cultural crisis we as Catholics have a unique gift to offer the world.  We must preach the Good News of who we are as men and women, equal and not, and who we are in light of Christ.  Christ came so we would not have to deal with BS any longer.

On Social Justice

Over the last couple of years, the protest movement has gathered so much steam that there seems to be an organized protest over nearly everything.  One California company has even gone as far as to offer their employees paid time off to participate in protests as a form of social justice.  The fact that these “social justice” protests result in destruction of property, violence and any number of offenses against justice shows that these protest movements are actually counter-productive at best.  They are based on a cart before the horse principle in which the participants and organizers (assuming at least some good will on their part) assume that once “just” social structures are in place, then the people will act justly.  Until this happens, they may need to “make a mess,” to borrow a phrase from the liberal manifesto Rules for Radicals to grab people’s attention, but that should eventually settle down.  But the cart of social justice can only be pulled by the horses of just individuals.  That the protestors are unjust while screaming for justice shows just how convoluted our thinking about justice has become and how necessary it is to develop a more complete understanding of justice.

Justice is the firm and habitual disposition to give to each person his or her rightful due.  Or, put more succinctly, justice is the habit of giving to each what is owed to them.  In short, to “owe” another person means that we are giving, or more accurately restoring, to them something that they already own.  Those more classically schooled will recognize in the “firm and habitual disposition” the definition of a virtue.  Justice is one of the four virtues (along with prudence, temperance and fortitude) on which all the other virtues depend.

The Interiority of Justice

It merits a reminder as well that because justice is a virtue, this means that it is primarily something interior to the person and not exterior.  Just as the person who habitually lies is a liar, so too the person who habitually acts justly is just.  The “environment” helps us to be more or less just, but it is the individual man who is just.  When a critical mass of individuals are just, a social justice follows.  Men without the virtue of justice, no matter how just the social structure, will always tend to destroy that structure.  That is precisely what we see in the protest movement—injustice committed in the name of justice.  While this might be a glaring example, the same can happen when the leaders are not just men either.

As the definition suggests, justice is meant to govern relationships and so to speak of “social justice” is a bit of a tautology.  This is why it remains a fuzzy concept for many of us and often just ends up being a mask for a political movement.  The Church has always viewed it as the cooperation of just men who form, maintain, or re-form social institutions that serve the common good.  Justice rules (i.e. social justice) a community when three fundamental structures of communal life are in proper order—individuals one to another (commutative), society to individuals (distributive) and individual to society (legal justice).  In his book on Justice, Josef Pieper has a helpful diagram to keep these straight.


The first form of justice is called commutative justice.  Commutative justice is usually what we think of when we speak of justice.  It governs the relationship between two people and assumes a certain level of equality between the two.  Being equals, they must equally bear the burden of any social exchange.  A person needs a pair of shoes from a cobbler and exchanges a just price, say $10, for the shoes.  Anything less than that then the buyer would be guilty of an offense against commutative justice.  Anything more and it would be the cobbler who violates commutative justice (As an aside, I will post on the Church’s teaching on just price, so for now just assume that $10 is a just price). It is also commutative justice governs the duty of restitution.   If a person steals from another, then they violate commutative justice and the guilty party must make some restitution to restore to the victim that which is owed.

Because many people think only in terms of commutative justice, many injustices occur because groups of men have obligations towards individuals.  In truth, while commutative justice is based on a principle of equality, men are not equal in all ways.  This is why the Church also speaks of distributive justice.  Distributive justice is not based on equality, but based on proportion, according to need, merit, circumstance, etc.  What properly belongs to man through distributive justice is a proportionate share in what is common to everyone, that is, to each man must be given a proportionate (not equal) share of the common good.

A classic example helps us to see how these first two forms of justice work.  Suppose there are two brothers, ages 2 and 16, and they approach their parents because they want candy.  There is only a single bag of M&Ms left and so the parents must divide the bag between the two.  Rather than counting the M&Ms and splitting them evenly, the parents give the 16 year old  2/3 of the bag and the 2 year old, 1/3.  They give unequal distribution because of their ages and amount of candy they should eat.  This is distributive justice.

Just as in the example the parents, who govern the good of the family, chose the allotment of M&Ms, it is the custodian of the common good in society then that determines the proper proportion.  For society as a whole this would be the State, or more properly understood, an individual that has the power to determine the allotment.  So, it is not the State that is just or unjust, but individuals holding power within the State that act justly or unjustly.  This simply reiterates the point about when the emphasis is on just structures and not just men, justice is almost never achieved.

Social Justice

Social justice is often equated with distributive justice because it is viewed mainly as a problem of distribution and the focus mainly remains on this dimension.  However, those who desire social justice ought to focus more on the relationship between the individual and society that St. Thomas calls legal justice. In short it is the individual, not focusing so much on his rights, but on his duties to society that creates social justice.  It is, to borrow from JFK’s famous speech, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  If each man were to focus on contributing to the common good and not just his own private goods then social justice would reign.

What all of this brings to the forefront is that the protest movements as they are practiced now are truly protesting against social justice.  In attempting to raise the awareness of injustices, they do harm to the common good.  Anyone who reads Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, can’t help but be struck by his thoughtful reflection upon what is just.  It was only because he had spent time thinking about justice that he was able to envision what it would look like.  He and his fellow co-founders of the Civil Rights Movement refused to counter injustice with more injustice.  Instead they kept their eyes focused on the common good (the focal point of his I Have a Dream speech) and how a more just society could be formed.  Destroying property, trampling on the good of the free speech of others, and destroying public order all creates less social justice not more, no matter how many days of paid leave they are given to protest.

Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve

In his 1950 Encyclical, Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII cautioned about a number of ideological trends that undermined the Faith of the Church.  Among these was a certain idea connected with the Theory of Evolution called polygenism.  For the evolutionary idea to be accepted it would require not just two first human parents, but the transition from animal to man would require a multitude of men and women.  In other words, it is a rejection of the belief that Adam and Eve were two real people from which the entire human race descended.  The Pope strongly condemned acceptance of this idea saying, “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis, 37).

On the surface, it appears to make little difference as to whether there was an actual Adam and Eve or whether mankind traces its roots to a multitude of first humans.  Diving beneath the surface, we see that acceptance of polygenism threatens to undermine the foundations of the Christian faith.  If polygenism is true, then the Christian faith is necessarily false.

Evolutionary theory applied to man does not only mean that man was made by blind forces but is ultimately an attempt for men to remake themselves.  The creature becomes his own creator.  No Adam and Eve means no Original Sin.  No Original Sin, no need for Christ.  If we were never “in Adam” then there would be no need to be “in Christ.”  With a multitude of races at our beginning, there would be fallen and unfallen men living together and only those who are direct descendants of Adam need redemption.  Evolution eventually weeds this out through natural selection, removing any distinction and Christ becomes entirely unnecessary.  Even if this is a case of unintended consequences on the part of Darwin and his ideological descendants, we can be sure there is at least one highly intelligent person who revels in this idea.

In the mind of many Christians, this sets up a Catch-22.  If we accept a literal Adam and Eve, then where did their grandchildren come from?  To accept a belief in only first two parents means to accept that their children were incestuous in populating the earth.  With no outsiders to marry, Cain, Abel, Seth and their unnamed sisters would have married each other.  Rejecting a literal Adam and Eve seems to be better than accepting this morally repugnant option.  Or is it?

Why Incest is Wrong

When asked why incest is wrong, most of us would say because the genes of those closely related by blood are so similar that it can result in offspring with serious genetic defects.  Looked at properly however, this is a consequence of the wrong and not necessarily the reason why it is wrong.  Whether we posit that because Eve was taken from the rib of Adam they were nearly genetically identical (making their act of intercourse genetically the same as fraternal twins) or that Eve was fashioned with a different genetic code than Adam, the important point to remember is that their genetic code would have had no mutations in it.  After the Fall, their offspring may have had mutations in their DNA, but, if we accept the modern scientific explanation of these mutations as appearing at random, we should not expect identical mutations to occur in Adam and Eve’s offspring.  Without the necessary doubling of mutations in the parents, we would not see the same effects that we see with inbreeding today.  Once the gene pool has a sufficient number of these mutations present in it and the likelihood of some deleterious effect occurring on the rise, God issues a positive command that a man may not marry someone of close relation like his sister, aunt, or niece (Lev 18-20).

In short, the consequence of serious birth defects is a sign that incest is wrong, but is not what makes it wrong.  In City of God (Book XV, Ch. 16) Augustine visits this question as to why Cain, for example, committed no wrong when he married his sister.  We can borrow from his explanation to help us see past this intellectual obstacle.

The Augustinian Solution

First, he looks at the purpose of marriage and procreation and says something that most of us would not think of as a purpose today.  Augustine see this as one of the goods of marriage—marriage multiplies relationships.  In the past, especially in ruling families, marriage was viewed as a means to bring the families together, making them one.  It brings strangers together and makes them a family.  A woman’s brother becomes the man’s brother-in-law, her father, his father-in-law.  Without the marriage of the man and woman, these men would not have entered into a familial relationship.

When closely related persons married, this good is lost.  When siblings marry, their mother is both mother and mother-in-law.  This was obviously unavoidable in the case of Cain and his sister, but, according to Augustine, is a reason to avoid close marriage.

Obviously, this would not be a precept of the natural law, but Augustine and St. Thomas both say that marriage between a parent and a child was always contrary to the natural law because of the relationship of parent and child could never be placed on the equal footing required for marriage.  A child always owes their parents piety while spouses have no such obligation.  This is why Noah curse Ham when he “saw his nakedness” (Gn 9:20-25), which is a Hebraic euphemism for sleeping with his mother.

While not a precept of the natural law, marriage between siblings and close blood relatives is still wrong because of our fallen human nature.  For men and women to live closely together (like siblings do today or close blood relations such as cousins did in the past) with the potential for the relationship to become sexualized is a great temptation to lust and use.  This is why it would be just as wrong for Greg and Marsha Brady to get married as it would be for two blood siblings.  To make such a union illicit can serve to remove this temptation and makes it taboo.  The fact that we initially recoil at the thought of Cain and his sister means that this taboo has had its intended consequence.

Removing incest as an obstacle to belief in two first parents goes a long way in helping us to see why polygenism must be false and why we should reject any form of it.  Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve, first parents and first grandparents.

St. Gianna Molla and the Principle of Double Effect

Since her canonization by Pope St. John Paul II on May 16, 2004, St. Gianna Beretta Molla has become the Patroness of the Unborn Child.  Faced with serious complications during the pregnancy of her fourth child, St. Gianna bravely put the needs of her child ahead of her own.  Pro-lifers often point to her heroic witness as a model to be followed.  They are right in doing so, but maybe not for the reason they often cite.  Most portray her situation as an all or nothing—they say she was faced with having life-saving treatment and an abortion or no treatment at all.  The problem is that this is not actually what happens.  The details of St. Gianna’s dilemma matter greatly in the retelling of her story, especially because it helps illustrate a moral solution for mothers who are faced with serious medical problems during pregnancy.

St. Gianna’s Story

While pregnant with her fourth child, St. Gianna developed a large fibroid; a benign tumor of the uterus.  In the normal course of events when these tumors are found during pregnancy they are unobtrusive enough that they may be left be.  In St. Gianna’s case, the tumor was large enough that it was likely to cause serious complications during the pregnancy that ultimately could threaten the development of the child and put her in considerable pain and risk for a serious infection.  There are additional medical details of her situation (detailed here) but for the sake of our discussion this should suffice.

When St. Gianna learned of the fibroid tumor, she was, according to her husband, presented with three options by her doctors.

  1. Terminate the pregnancy via direct abortion and remove the fibroid
  2. Have a hysterectomy that removed her uterus. This would also result in the death of the 2 month old preborn child.  For her personally this was a low-risk approach and was also the standard of care at the time given the lack of medical technologies (such as ultrasound machines) that we have today.
  3. Remove the fibroid and continue her pregnancy. This option could result in the spontaneous miscarriage of the child because of the irritation to the uterus.  It also carried with it serious risks for herself.  The blood loss from a pregnant uterus can be excessive and difficult to control.  It might also be that the wound could re-open during any point in the pregnancy.

Notice that not receiving any treatment was not one of the options as the story is often portrayed.  This was not a real option as to not do anything would have placed the child at great risk.

Examining the Moral Principles

Before examining her decision, it is helpful to make some distinctions and define some moral principles.  This is what makes knowing the details of her case very instructive.  It is a real-life, concrete example of what someone did and it contradicts the abortion or nothing approach that many people often assume.

The first point to look at is why (1) is morally problematic and (2) is morally permissible.  Looked at superficially, the two acts look to be the same—in both scenarios the child ends up dead and the mother lives.  But how we end up there matters, even if we end up in the same place.  Despite Machiavellian protestations to the contrary, one may never do evil so that good may come about.  The end does not justify the means.  Abortion, that is the direct killing of an innocent human being is always wrong regardless of whether the mother’s life is in jeopardy or not.

In scenario (2), the death of the child, although foreseen, is not directly willed even if it is permitted.  What is willed is the preservation of St. Gianna’s life.  Notice too that the preservation of her life does not come about as a result of the child’s death, but as a result of the removal of the uterus.  That same removal of the uterus also has the “side-effect” of killing the baby, even though it was not chosen for that reason.  Finally, there is a certain proportionality involved in the moral calculation in that both mother and child’s life are of equal value and by not acting you are placing one or both of their lives in jeopardy.

Option (2) demonstrates an important moral principle called The Principle of Double Effect.  This principle recognizes that none of our acts occur in a moral vacuum.  Each of our actions are complex with a mixture of goods and evil attached to them.  Thus, even if the will chooses some good, there can often be an evil associated with it.  This is why when we make our moral calculation, we must look not just to the external act but to the underlying choice of the will.  With this in mind, there has classically been the need for the distinction between two types of will—the direct will and the permitting will.  We may never, morally speaking, directly will an evil.  However, we may permit it.

The Principle of Double Effect

The Principle of Double Effect says that it is morally allowable to perform an act that has at least two effects provided all four of the following conditions are met.

  1. the object to be done must be good in itself
  2. the intent of the agent must be to achieve the good effect and to avoid the evil effect as much as possible. The evil effect must not be directly willed but only permitted.  This is the case even if the evil effect is foreseen.
  3. the good effect is proportional to the bad effect and there is no other way to achieve the effect.
  4. the good effect must follow directly from the action and not as a result of the harmful effect.

St. Gianna would have been morally justified in choosing option (2), but instead she chose option (3).  Although under no moral obligation to do so, this decision flowed from her desire to put the life of her child first.  She was a mother and a holy one at that, so this decision came somewhat second nature.  It is not the reason she is saint, but she made this decision because she was on her way to sainthood.

Most of us know that she eventually lost her life after delivering a healthy baby.  But there is not direct evidence that she died because of her decision.  The cause of her death was an infection in her abdomen that was brought about as a result of the Caesarian section that was performed.  Why this detail matters again speaks to how we present her as a witness.  She knew that her health was in jeopardy by choosing (3) but there was no reason for her (she was a doctor) to think it may end up leading to her death.  She made a courageous decision, but also one based on prudence.  It is her courage and prudence that made her a saint and makes her a great Pro-life witness.  It wasn’t her unwillingness to do something evil, but her willingness to love her children at great personal cost.  Saints are praised not because they didn’t choose evil, but because of their witness of heroic virtue.  Knowing the details enables us to let her witness speak clearly to a very confused age.

Modesty and the Freedom to Be Loved

An assistant principal at a Texas High School recently came under fire for making comments that were “inappropriate and offensive to students.”  What did he say?  During an assembly he called out the young ladies in the school for wearing tight clothes and short shirts.  He went on to blame them for “the boys’ low grades” intimating that they are distracted by the clothes many of the girls wear.  While his comments may have been lacking in humor and mode of delivery, they were not lacking in truth.  He was challenging them to dress more modestly.  The problem is that many young people lack the necessary context to understand the value of modesty and therefore are “offended” when someone says something.

Before he was to become Bishop of Rome, Fr. Karol Wojtyla wrote what might ultimately become his most important work, Love and Responsibility.  In it, he examines the relationship between the sexes and lays out the foundations of what would become his Theology of the Body.  Perhaps if the Assistant Principal was familiar with the work, he would have been able to draw on Fr. Wojtyla’s lengthy discussion on the importance of modesty.

In the book he makes what many today would consider a radical assumption—that men and women are different.  This difference is not just skin deep but goes to the very depth of their being as man and woman.  In fact our bodies are simply expressions of these differences rather than the totality of these differences.  These differences even affect the ways in which men and women are attracted to each other.

When one speaks of being “attracted” to someone, it primarily means that there is a response to a perception of some value in that person.  But because the person is not just an object but also a subject, there is always the danger of treating the other as a “something” rather than a “somebody.”  To guard against this tendency, Fr. Wojtyla articulates what he calls the personalistic norm—“A person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”

The sexual attraction (Wojtyla calls it the “sexual urge”) between men and women is a recognition of the sexual value of the other person.  It is experienced in two forms; sensuality and sentimentality.  Sensuality is the attraction to the body of the person of the opposite sex.  Sensuality is stirred when we encounter a person of the opposite sex and find value in their body as an object of personal enjoyment. Sentimentality is the emotional attraction to the sexual value residing in the whole person in the form of their masculinity and femininity.  Since sensuality is oriented towards the body as an object of enjoyment, it is generally stronger in men while sentimentality because it is more relational is strongest in women.

Because the sexual urge is so strong, there is always the danger that men and women will look upon the other person merely for their sexual value.  They then become an object of pleasure rather than a person to be loved.  In order for love to develop the entire “value” of the person must be seen and not just their sexual value.  What this means is that men and women must keep some of their sexual value hidden so that true love can blossom.

This, Fr. Wojtyla says, is the value in the experience of shame.  Shame arises any time that something which by its very nature ought to be private somehow becomes public.  Sexual shame arises when the sexual value of the person obscures their personal value.  Shame then acts like a protectant against use.  Most of us have experienced this.  A man instinctively will look away when he is caught staring at a woman he finds attractive.  A girl who is dressed immodestly will be forever adjusting her clothes.   Although they may not articulate it as shame, it is experienced by all but those who are shameless.  Modesty on the other hand is the “constant capacity and readiness to feel shame.”


As I mentioned sensuality is generally stronger in men.  This means that modesty and shame must be more pronounced in women.  The problem is that women are not primarily inclined to sensuality and so they do not intuit the need to conceal the body.  Modesty comes about when they gain an insight into male psychology

Even if it fell flat in its delivery, the Assistant Principal was trying to offer a much-needed insight into the male psychology.  Perhaps rather than being offended, what the students experienced was shame.  It isn’t just the boys’ problem for not focusing and it is not just the girls’ problem for dressing immodestly.  It is the self-perpetuating problem of use.  The girls dress immodestly, deliberately flaunting their sexual value, the boys respond by seeing only that.  The boys treat them as objects to be used and the girls accept this use.

The problem, I said, was one of context.  When we hear the word modesty we are immediately drawn to a Victorian encounter between men and women.  We must free modesty from this image.  Remember the goal is to keep sexual values from obscuring the true value of the person.  This does not mean that the person should hide all of their sexual value, only to the extent that they can be seen as a part of the value of the person.  The accentuation of sexual value by dress is inevitable and is not necessarily incompatible with modesty.  It is when the attire is chosen specifically to provoke a reaction that it becomes immodest.  As Fr. Wojtyla says, “What is truly immodest in dress is that which frankly contributes to the deliberate displacement of the true value of the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person as to a ‘possible means of obtaining sexual enjoyment’ and not ‘a possible object love by reason of his or her personal value’.”

Most importantly, and this is what those young ladies needed to hear, modesty is more than keeping the boys from failing their classes and more than just protecting themselves from being gawked at.  “Sexual modesty is not a flight from love, but on the contrary the opening of a way towards it.”  Each of those young ladies desires to be loved and dressing immodestly, even if it garners attention, will never foster true love.  Only modesty frees love to blossom.

Know Thy Temperament

In 2014, Americans spent over $10 billion on self-help books, CDs and seminars.  Although these techniques promise change, very often they fail to make any lasting impact on our lives.  The problem oftentimes is that the programs themselves have a different definition of happiness or perfection and so we end up dissatisfied even when we reach our goals.  More often however is that we lack the self-knowledge necessary to really affect change in our lives.  When we begin to confront our shortcomings, a certain amount of sadness arises in us.  In order to avoid this sadness, we develop blind spots to our true faults.  We then embark on some self-help program to fix faults we don’t really have or ones that are minor at best.  This is not to say these programs have no use in our lives, after all, only that they will be entirely ineffective unless we have self-knowledge.  Placing ourselves before God in prayer by which we come to know ourselves as He knows us is remains the most effective way to grow in self-knowledge and to heal those defects that we have.  But many people may not be aware that in the Catholic tradition there are other objective means to growing in self-knowledge, namely by relying on the knowledge of our temperament.

Fr. Jordan Aumann defines a temperament as, “as the pattern of inclinations and reactions that proceed from the physiological constitution of the individual. It is a dynamic factor that determines to a great extent the manner in which an individual will react to stimuli of various kinds.”  Within this definition we can see two factors, namely that our temperaments are based on our material makeup (physiological constitution) and represent a pattern or a natural way to reacting to a given situation.  These reactions can be quick or slow and short in duration or long lasting.  Each of these four combinations maps to a specific temperament.

What makes knowledge of one’s temperament extremely helpful when it comes to self-knowledge is that it enables us to see both are natural strengths and weaknesses.  It also makes some virtues easier while others are harder.

There are two caveats that are important for us to understand as well.  First we must never use our temperament as an excuse for our bad behavior or as a way to minimize our faults.  We use it to understand our tendencies and as a means to view our weaknesses—but this is always done so that we can open the windows of our souls and allow the transforming light of Christ to shine on them.  Second, just because it is a natural tendency does not mean that we are stuck with our temperament.  As Aumann’s definition suggests, temperaments are dispositions which means they can be molded and changed.  Our goal ought to be to for the perfection of all four temperaments rather than thinking we are stuck with our own.

In looking at each of the four temperaments, we begin with the choleric.  The choleric temperament is easily and strongly aroused, and the impression lasts for a long time.   Because of this, the choleric tends to show great zeal for whatever he sets his mind to.  He tends to be strong willed and highly emotional and a man of principles.  The virtues of perseverance and justice tend to come rather easily and this temperament naturally lends itself to leading others.

On the other hand, the choleric because he is highly emotional often acts quickly and is imprudent in his haste.  He must actively work to cultivate patience, prudence, and humility.  Because he is principle based he tends to put principles ahead of people and rarely does things just to be nice.  So, on a natural level they need to practice charity in dealing with others.

The passionate partner of the choleric is the melancholic.  The melancholic reacts slowly but once aroused the impression is strong and long lasting.  By nature the melancholic is inclined to reflection, piety, and the interior life. They are compassionate toward those who suffer, attracted to the corporal works of mercy, and able to endure suffering to the point of heroism in the performance of their duties. They have high ideals and a commitment to perfection.  They also tend to analyze their projects thoroughly.

The melancholic tends to be overly critical of themselves and others, dismissive and overly judgmental.  They lack self-confidence and often have difficulty starting tasks.

Those with a Sanguine temperament tend to react quickly and strongly to almost any stimulation or impression, but the reaction is usually of short duration.   The sanguine is optimistic, sometime overly so and are usually fairly outgoing. This means that compassion usually comes rather easily to them, but they have trouble being impartial because their feelings are so strong.  They tend to be impulsive as well.

Because the deep passion in their initial response quickly fades they tend to lack perseverance.   Vanity can be a great temptation for the sanguine as well as envy. One of the greatest challenges that a sanguine faces is making impulsive decision.  One way to overcome this is by striving to cultivate the virtue of prudence.  They also need to cultivate the virtue of perseverance since they can easily lose focus on tasks that require long commitments.

Finally, we have the phlegmatic temperament.  The phlegmatic is rarely aroused emotionally and, if so, only weakly. The impressions received usually last for only a short time and leave no trace. The fundamental disposition of the phlegmatic is that he is reserved, prudent, sensible, reflective, and dependable.  He is not easily provoked to anger or prone to exaggeration.  Phlegmatics are well known for their easy going nature.  They also tend to be clear and concise in their speech.  The phlegmatic however does not like conflict and will avoid it at all costs.  In fact they have a tendency to avoid not only conflict but anything that is physically or mentally demanding.


Because they tend towards laziness and even sloth, the root sin of the phlegmatic is most often sensuality.  Other ways that sensuality manifests itself in the phlegmatic person include anger and impatience in the face of anything hard, disorganization because they seek whatever is immediate, and the consistent tendency to put off prayer.  The phlegmatic then needs to cultivate fortitude and temperance.

Hebrews 10:24 says, “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.”   If we reflect on this for a moment we realize that knowledge of our own temperament and of others can be used to help motivate others.

As we set out on the journey of self-knowledge, we quickly realize that, like St. Paul, we do not do the things we want to do but what we do not want to do.  There is an execution gap in our lives.  Not only that, but understanding the temperament of those around us helps to overcome a great deal of conflict in our lives, especially those we live with and work with.

In accomplishing any task, there are four key areas to consider.  They are

  • Setting the Right goals
  • Getting Started
  • Overcoming Obstacles
  • Persevering to the End

Each of the temperaments then has a characteristic weakness associated with one of these areas.  Understanding how to strengthen these weaknesses and the proper way to approach the person will help anyone’s motivation.

As I mentioned earlier, the choleric is a self-motivated leader who is driven to complete his objectives.  However because the choleric is quick to respond and slow to receive advice, he often sets imprudent goals or no real goals at all.  The choleric then needs to learn to take the time to choose goals properly.  The key then as a choleric is to be patient, and set the right goals.  In dealing with a choleric, motivation is normally not the key but we need to slow them down.  We can ask them if they have buy-in from others on their ideas or help brainstorm with them.  We must also help them to remain charitable because they often see others as stumbling blocks and will try to steamroll over them.

The melancholic, due to his naturally reflective nature, does not have trouble setting proper goals.  Instead, he will often struggle with actually getting started.  This manifests itself also by being overly focused on the small details because they want everything to be perfect.  The key for a melancholic is to prioritize goals.  In working with them they need a kick start—but this cannot be in the form of you doing it for them.  Instead ask what you can do to help them get started or ask them for a solution to specific problem you are having.  If you can keep them focused on the individuals steps they won’t get bogged down in the details.

Sanguines, like Cholerics, tend not to have any problems getting started.  They are usually eager to get going.  Instead they struggle with persevering to the end.  Their optimistic nature causes them to overlook true difficulties or minimize them.  The best thing for a Sanguine is to set and schedule.  They can be helped by regularly following up with them to see their progress.  Setting interim goals will keep them from getting bored.

The Phlegmatic is perhaps the most difficult to motivate because of their laid back nature.  They struggle with setting goals like the Choleric, but the main struggle for them is overcoming obstacles.  They need both encouragements throughout the process and to be held accountable at all stages of the process.  It also helps to remind them of past successes.

In conclusion, it bears repeating that the purpose in understanding temperament is to grow in understanding both of ourselves and others.  This is much more than mere self-improvement on the natural level—it should have as its goal to fulfill God’s will as a loving and joyful spouse, parent, and friend.  Understanding temperament not only helps us become more capable of controlling our emotions and moods, it helps us identify the most effective means to grow in virtue and obedience to God’s will.

***If you are interested in taking a temperament test for yourself, here is a link to one that is contained in the book The Temperament God Gave You***

The Meaning of Conscience

Pope Benedict once said that one of the greatest dangers facing the West was the “self-destruction of conscience.”  The Church is not immune to this danger as more and more Catholics invoke the “right to dissent” from long held teachings of the Church under the guise of the Church-sanctioned “primacy of conscience.”  Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a single magisterial document in which the term “primacy of conscience” is used. This type of language leads to great ambiguity in the understanding of conscience.

In order to understand conscience it is helpful to begin with a definition.  Often, conscience is spoken of as a thing.  Conscience is not, however, a thing but an act of the intellect — or, more specifically, a judgment. Like all judgments, conscience is an attempt by man to use his reason to conform his personal knowledge to objective reality. Specifically, it is a practical moral judgment of what one ought to do in a specific situation. As the Catechism says conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (no. 1777).  If conscience is not a thing, then we must put away the childish notion of conscience as something external to us like the proverbial angel on one’s shoulder.

But this is not the only immature way of looking at conscience. Many Catholics labor under a false conception of conscience born of two distinct kinds of moral immaturity.   First there are the “rebellious teenagers” who must assert their freedom by embracing “the primacy of conscience”.  On the other hand there are the “obedient children” who must submit to authority and be told what to do all the time. While these two approaches seem to differ, they both make the same fundamental error in assuming that that there is an insurmountable chasm between freedom and authority. One rejects freedom in favor of authority while the other rejects authority in favor of freedom.

Those who overemphasize the primacy of conscience often cite a  passage from the Catechism — namely, that a “human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” This definition does lend itself to a “primacy of conscience” of sorts, but not in the manner often assumed. When the Church refers to conscience it is almost always attaches a modifier to it such as “right,” “well-formed,” “Christian,” or, as the Catechism has it, “certain.” These adjectives define the necessary standards for conscience.

Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary defines a certain conscience as “a state of mind when it has no prudent fear of being wrong about its judgment on some moral issue and firmly decides that some action is right or wrong.” A certain conscience is not a mere moral opinion, but a judgment based upon sound reasoning and deliberation and with reference to the moral law.   Those who espouse the “primacy of conscience” really are masking what amounts to rationalizing—coming up with reasons why it is OK to do something that is objectively morally wrong.

The key in distinguishing between mere moral opinion and a genuine judgment of conscience is in the cultivation of the virtue of prudence. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas treated prudence and conscience as though they were synonymous. Prudence is the habit of applying right reason to practical matters. The prudent person habitually knows the good and therefore conscience is a consistent guide.

Even when an action flows from a certain conscience, appeals to “primacy of conscience” suggest that it releases the person who seeks its refuge from a certain level of responsibility. Normally, no reference is made as to whether the dictates of one’s conscience are wrong or not. All that matters is that one acted in accord with it.  This subjective definition of conscience is so embedded in our language that we refer to St. Thomas More as a “martyr for conscience” — as if he merely made up his mind that the Church was right and Henry VIII wrong and “stuck to his guns.” But St. Thomas More died not as a “martyr for conscience” but, like all martyrs, as a witness to the truth. Herein lies the problem for those who hold the mistaken idea of “primacy of conscience.” Are they really willing to admit that someone like Adolf Eichmann who, when on trial said he was only being true to his conscience, and St. Thomas More are equally laudable?

St. Thomas More Execution

Within the conservative Catholic milieu, one often hears something akin to “if all Catholics would obey the Magisterium, the world would be better off.” This proposition contains a good deal of truth, but only to a point. The problem with this view is that conscience is likened to a moral GPS by which man occasionally downloads maps from the Magisterium that lead him to where he really does not want to go. Again the dictates of conscience are understood as coming from outside of  man who must force his will to conform to that of “the authority of the Church.” Despite the conventional wisdom of popular culture, obedience is still a virtue. But like all the virtues, it must be rooted in charity in order to be a true virtue. The problem with this view is that it undermines our freedom in favor of obeisance to authority. Constant appeals to authority in matters of morality eventually stunt our ability to develop conscience freely without relying on some outside authority.  It keeps us trapped in a state of moral immaturity.

Being an “obedient child” is the surest path to the legalism Jesus condemned in the Pharisees. It leads to a moral minimalism that asks, “How far can I go until this is considered sinful?” This is not the language of a man who is free to love but of one who feels himself bound by legal constraints. Our Lord came so that we might be free, because only in freedom is love possible (cf. Gal. 5:1; Jn. 8:36). Obedience does not lead to love; instead, love includes obedience.

Finding the bridge between freedom and authority enables us to grow out of the “obedient child” or “rebellious teenager” roles in which many have been stuck.   Recall from the Catechism definition that conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.” By what standard does one determine the “moral quality of a concrete act”? Before we can answer that question, we must clarify what we mean when we speak of “morality.”

Morality, simply put, is the relationship between a human act — i.e., one done with knowledge and freedom — and the use of man’s nature in fulfilling his final end, communion with God in Heaven. Some acts are in accord with the proper use of man’s nature (we call these good) and some are not (we call these evil). Because human nature and its fulfillment are objective, certain goods are common to all men. Reason recognizes these goods as true goods, and commands that they be protected, preserved, and promoted. These commandments of reason comprise the moral law. Therefore the “moral quality of a concrete act” can be determined by how it measures up to the moral law. The moral law serves as the bridge between freedom and authority.

It remains to investigate where the moral law comes from. The rebellious teenager says that moral truth comes from within the individual. The obedient toddler says the moral law is imposed on us from the outside. Which one is right?

The word for conscience in Latin, conscientia, gives us a clue. It is translated literally as “knowledge with.” Conscience is literally the “co-knowledge” of man with God. As such, it is a correct perception of the way things really are and clarifies why conscience asserts authority.

An accurate understanding of conscience involves a synthesis of the two mistaken views we have examined. Because all creation is governed by divine providence, all things partake in the eternal law of God. From this law, all things are inclined to their proper ends. As a rational creature, man can both know his end and freely choose to participate in this eternal law. Man’s participation in the eternal law of God is, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the natural law. Therefore, the natural law comes from within man insofar as it is mediated by God through reason. Because it is a participation in the divine law, it has its source outside of man, in God Himself. Man’s knowledge by participation is referred to by St. Thomas as “connatural knowledge.” It is in light of this understanding that St. Paul refers to the Gentiles, “who have not the law,” as a “law unto themselves” because they “do by nature what the law requires” ( Rom. 2:12) without any contradiction of either their freedom or the objective moral law.

The moral law comes to us through our intellect, but because of our fallen condition we now also share in the “knowledge of good and evil.” Although our innate desire for the good cannot be extinguished, the darkening of the intellect that accompanied the Fall causes us great difficulty in discovering the good. Our reason, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, must now be “suffused with the light of God’s truth. In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather, it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations.” The light of God’s truth flows through the Church. The Church informs conscience in much the same way the soul informs the body — giving it life and making it what it is.

St. Thomas teaches that we need revelation in the practical order for two reasons. First, since we are fallen creatures without revelation, the truth “would be known only by a few, and after a long time, and with the mixture of many errors.” Second, because man has a supernatural end, there are certain truths that surpass human reason. The Church, as described in Veritatis Splendor, is at “the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it” (VS, 64). The Church does not impose the truths of man’s proper use of his nature from the outside, but instead proposes those truths to man’s reason so that he may recognize them as true internal values.  It is not, however, the case that the Church is merely making suggestions.

Not surprisingly, once the thinking on conscience, which the Second Vatican Council called “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man” in Gaudium et Spes (GS, 16), becomes muddled, moral chaos quickly ensues.  To stem the tide, the Church must be free to exercise her role in forming the consciences of all men of good will, and men of good will must freely assent to the proper formation of a certain conscience.  This starts by clarifying what conscience actually is and separating it from its immature conterfeits.

On Free Will

What do we mean when we say that man has free will?  To address this question, we must first look at man in his totality, both body and spirit.  Man exercises powers of both animals and angels.  Each of these powers is naturally inclined towards a given object.  For example, hearing is naturally inclined towards sound and eyesight towards light.  If you clap beside someone’s ear or pass something before his eyes (assuming they are not diseased in any way), then he cannot help but hear the clap and see the thing.  Our spiritual powers of knowing and willing likewise are naturally inclined towards truth and goodness.  Focusing only on the will at the moment, we can say that the will is fixed towards always choosing the Good.

This is an important point to understand because it often leads to moral confusion.  It is not possible for us to act contrary to the Good.  Everything we choose is because we have perceived it to be good, even if we are objectively wrong.  As a thought experiment, think about the person who commits suicide.  Why do they do it ultimately?  Because they deem it better to be dead than alive.  So too with the teenage girl who cuts herself—the pain of the cut is better than feeling the interior angst.  We could come up with any number of other examples, but the point is that no one can choose something they know to be bad for its own sake.

Given that we are bound by necessity to choose the Good, in what ways can we say that we have free will?  We have free will with respect to individual goods.  This is because each individual good merely participates in the Supreme Good itself, namely God.  Thus it is lacking in some way and we are free to choose it or to choose another (albeit also limited good) in its place.  But this is not the only manner in which we can exercise our free will.  We can also choose the means towards those good and acts associated with them.

For example, because it is a limited good, I am free to choose to become a pianist or not.  Once I decide to pursue that goal, I am free to choose what kind of piano I will buy.  I am also free to choose how I will practice or even if I will practice at all.


This also helps us to understand the question as to how, if we cannot sin in heaven, we could still have free will.  The idea that the will is naturally inclined to the Good means when we sin, we are actually choosing only what are apparent goods and not real goods.  In Heaven because we are caught up in Goodness itself, there are no apparent goods, only real ones.  Therefore, we can no longer sin.

This naturally leads us to wonder about the relationship between our free will and God.  When I said that no one can force our will, this includes God Himself.  This immediately presents a problem in that it seems that God is then limited.  But properly understood this is not a limitation at all because He has the power to change our wills.  While this seems like a mere intellectual sleight of hand, it is an important distinction for us to understand.  God is always the divine pursuer and lover.  He will never force Himself upon us like a rapist but will woo us like a lover.

God can change our wills in two ways.  The first is to create a desire in us for some good that was not there before.  The second is by introducing what St. Thomas calls a “form.”  This could be something like an actual grace in which our minds our enlightened as to what is really a good for us here and now or by strengthening our wills to achieve the concrete good.  In either case however it is still the person who chooses, even if he has had assistance from God in knowing and desiring.

St. Thomas offers a helpful analogy (De Veritate q.22, a.8) that makes the distinction clearer.  He notes that a stone has a natural inclination (i.e. gravity) to fall to the earth.  To throw it up in the air, is to violently alter its inclination.  But God could also change the inclination by removing gravity so that the stone had a new inclination to go up.  In that way, the stone would still be acting “freely” according to its own inclination.

With a proper understanding of free will, not as the power to do whatever I want, but the power to want what is good, comes the ability to act with authentic freedom.  It helps us to see freedom not as an end itself (mere license) but as given to us for a specific purpose, moral excellence.  That is why the Second Vatican Council called freedom “an exceptional sign of the divine image within man” (Gaudium et Spes, 17).  God is totally free not just because He is God, but because He is Good.  His laws for mankind are only blueprints for sharing in His Goodness.  In this Lenten season when we atone for all of our failures of living freedom excellently, may we embrace the true freedom to live as children of God.


It Takes Only One?

In his Encyclical on Moral Theology, St. John Paul II cautioned against falling into the theological loophole that is commonly called the “fundamental option.”  The general idea of the fundamental option is that each person makes a basic choice to love God and as long as they do not consciously revoke that decision, they remain in His good graces.  In this way it becomes little more than a psychological game where as long as we say we love God, it is so.  Our actions do nothing to change our fundamental stance as long as we still “love” God in our minds.  With the adoption of this viewpoint throughout the Church, the idea of mortal sin has been lost and many people miss out on the opportunity to bathe in God’s merciful love.

Despite this, the Church still teaches that there is such thing as mortal sin and a single mortal sin can damn us to hell for all eternity.  The Catechism says “[T]o die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice” (CCC 1033). While this constitutes a truth of the faith, it is fruitful to look at why this is the case.  All too often people will view this teaching as “fire and brimstone” but it can have a bearing on our daily lives, especially those who truly want to love God.

There is a subtlety in the quote from the Catechism that is easy to miss. The choice of describing it as being in mortal sin, rather than “having committed mortal sin” or “with mortal sin on his soul,” reveals a deep anthropological truth and shows us how sin is more than just an offense against God.

Man, because he is free has the freedom for self-determination.  Man can become whatever he wants to become.  Now, this is not meant in a “you can do anything if you just believe in yourself” kind of way.  Instead it means that we are free everywhere and always to be a certain kind of person.  A man who desires to be honest, is always free to do the honest thing.  A man who desires to humble, always has the power to do the humble thing.  It is only on this level that man is authentically free and thus responsible.  Where the self-determination comes in is that by repeatedly performing acts of honesty or humility the man becomes honest or humble.  These habitual dispositions (we call them virtues) become almost second nature to us.  In other words, our actions determine the kind of person we are.  This can also work for woe.  The man who repeatedly lies out of fear becomes a liar and coward.

When we speak of heaven then we must first admit that there are only certain kinds of people that are fit to be admitted.   We shall return to the question of why it must be a certain type, but first it is necessary to make a further distinction.  While self-determination plays a key part in this, it is not the only thing (or even the most important thing).  The most important thing is whether the heaven life is alive in our souls.  Because God is “a consuming fire” we cannot enter into eternal friendship with Him without being “equals” with Him.  This is so important to understand any time we speak of Heaven or Hell.  Not everyone could stand in God’s Presence.  He gives us sanctifying grace to make us fireproof.  Without it, no matter how many good things we have done, the fire of His love would be more painful than the fires of Hell (this is why we can say that Hell is a sign of God’s mercy).

What this means is that this time of trial and testing is all about being made fit.  We must do everything in our power to keep the life of God that was freely given to us in Baptism (ordinarily) coursing through our souls.  This is where the notion of self-determination comes into play.  Our actions determine the “shape” of our souls and only certain shapes can hold the life of God in them.  Once the soul becomes warped from certain types of actions, then the life of God spills out them.

Nine Circles

At this point, one might be willing to concede all that has been said.  But how is it that a single mortal sin could so damage the human will as to make the person unfit for Heaven?  After all, we have been speaking of habits and one slip does not break a habit.  Perhaps this is best answered by way of analogy.  Suppose a man loves his country and strives to be patriotic.  He may have dedicated his life to serving out of love for his country.  This love certainly may not be perfect.  He may love her imperfectly by doing something like not obeying all the traffic laws.  While he would still be viewed as a patriot, he would not yet be a perfect patriot since the love of self that causes him to disobey the traffic laws impedes him from loving his country perfectly.  But are there certain actions in which he would cease to be a patriot?  Would a man who sold secrets to his country’s enemy still be a patriot even if he only did it once?  Everyone recognizes that a single traitorous action would undue all of his previous patriotic actions and he would no longer be considered a patriot.

So too it is with our moral lives.  We may love God imperfectly and commit venial sins, but there are certain actions which we can perform which are so contrary to the love of God that they deform our wills such that the life of God can no longer reside in us.  Just like the false patriot in our analogy, we still have the opportunity make amends for our transgression and have grace restored to us, but at a certain point that no longer becomes an option.  Benedict Arnold can no longer make amends for his act of treason, despite all of his previous acts of patriotism to the contrary.

This brings us to a second important point and that is that at the moment of death our souls become fixed.  We now enter into the realm of spirits and our manner of judging is immutable.  This is one of the ways we become “like the angels.”  Angels, because they are pure spirits, do not change their minds.  Because they can see all particulars attached to their decisions, their wills remain fixed once they have made a judgment.  So too we will do at the moment of death.  Because the soul is fixed in either good or evil by its last voluntary act, it continues to judge according to its inclination at the time of separation.  The will can only change when the judgment of the intellect gives new reasons.  This is why there is only one personal judgment at the time of death—the decision to choose for or against God has been made and cannot change.  This is also why the Fathers of the Church speak of the terrible temptations of the demons at the hour of death as they tempt us towards a mortal sin or away from repentance.  It is also why we pray regularly to St. Joseph, the Terror of Demons, for a happy death.

While we can see how reasonable this teaching is, it remains just informative unless it causes us to measure our actions more carefully.  If it is true that one mortal sin can cause us to lose Heaven then we must actively strive to grow in sanctifying grace.  The deeper the penetration of God’s life into our souls, the greater our protection against sin.  We truly become more and more like God, and it is only those who are truly like Him that can share His life in eternity.  Each day we do not grow in the love of God is a loss.

In closing, we may turn to Blessed Columba Marmion who seems to summarize our approach best:

We shall enjoy God according to the same measure of grace to which we have attained at the moment of our going out of the world. Do not let us lose sight of this truth: the degree of our eternal beatitude is, and will remain, fixed forever by the degree of charity we have attained, by the grace of Christ, when God shall call us to Himself. Each moment of our life is then infinitely precious, for it suffices to advance us a degree in the love of God, to raise us higher in the beatitude of eternal life. And let us not say that one degree more or less is a small matter. How can anything be a small matter when it concerns God, and the endless life and beatitude of which He is the source? If, according to the parable spoken by our Lord in person, we have received five talents, it was not that we might bury them, but that we might make them bear increase.  And if God measures the reward according to the efforts we have made to live by His grace and increase it in us, do not think it matters little what kind of a harvest we bring to our Father in Heaven.  Jesus Himself has told us that His heavenly Father is glorified in seeing us abound, by His grace, in fruits of holiness, which will be fruits of beatitude in Heaven. In hoc clarificatus est Pater meus ut fructum plurimum afferatis  . . . Can it be that our love for Jesus Christ is so weak that we account it a small thing to be a more or less resplendent member of His Mystical Body in the heavenly Jerusalem?