The body’s promise, the mind’s amen

This is the fourth and final part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1, 2, and 3, whose purpose was to build up to what I say below, can be found here, here, and here.


Is there then no way around rationalism and the dualist’s alienation from the body? In fact, there is another possibility, one that doesn’t cut the person off from the suprarational capacities of his body to express meaning. Rather than saying, “This act means X, Y, and Z; therefore I affirm X, Y, and Z”, he can say “I affirm the totality of what this act means.” If he knows that the act naturally means X, Y, and Z, then he must indeed accept those propositions, but he doesn’t truncate the act’s meaning to his partial understanding of it, nor to his intellectual, linguistic mode of signification.  He accepts that his actions have dimensions of meaning that he may not entirely understand, and yet he commits himself to the whole meaning.  He may not realize all that he has promised his wife, but even what he doesn’t yet understand he acknowledges as already promised.

It is this third way that natural law proposes as man’s proper way of being in the world. One can see why, despite being the true and only way to overcome alienation from one’s body, natural law has been embraced more readily by the less intelligent sectors of society. Those with high IQ are more confident in their ability to give meaning to their lives through shear intellectual exertion. They think it fitting that a smarter man can think up a more comprehensive statement of love than a duller man, and they are less eager to imagine that God Himself has given to every man, regardless of intellect, a way of “speaking” his love for his wife with a profundity that no human intellect can match. Those of us who lack the elite’s mental gifts also lack some of their hubris. We would not wish for the depth of meaning in our lives to be limited to what our own imaginations could provide.

We Christians believe that God Himself uses natural significations, the “language of the body”, to make Himself present to us in the sacraments.  God doesn’t overwrite the natural meaning, but uses it to express His relationship to us. It is precisely the natural meaning of marriage as total self-donation between husband and wife that lets it serve as the living image of Christ and His Church. And it is fitting that a suprarational mode of signification should serve as the channel for the superhuman gift of grace.  When I receive the Blessed Sacrament, the priest holds the host before me saying “the body of Christ”, and I say “Amen”.  What does the “amen” mean?  Not that I can really fathom what it means that the thing before me is the body of the Incarnate God, or that I could fully say what it means–what I’m “getting myself into”–for me to consume it.  I have some idea, based on the natural symbolism of consumption, but my “amen” means “I mean what this act means”.  Because I can say this, I can say more than it is possible for a human mind to say; I can perform a supernatural act.

Even more important is the mode of expression natural meanings provide.  Natural meanings are given, rather than being products of one’s private intellect.  They allow us to step outside the limits of our imaginations, of our personal fixations and eccentricities, of the personality and style that we craft for ourselves.  What I say about marriage, fatherhood, and filiation is always colored by my self-image, my idea of what “a person like me” would say.  Natural meanings, by their impersonal–let us instead say “suprapersonal”–nature, allow me to step outside myself and make a completely authentic response to the thing itself.  Being a husband and father means taking on a universal role, a role not of my making but one that lets me participate in the mystery of creation.  The ephemera of my personality fall away, and I engage this mystery, not as “bonald” (35 year old, assistant professor, Star Trek fan, etc) but simply as Man.  By my imagination, I have my own private world, but by natural meanings, I am one with every human being who ever lived.  Fatherhood means the same thing for every father; it’s bigger than any one of us, and yet it is at the core of each of us.  Reflecting on these matters helps us see the real unity of the human race, the unity alluded to in the expression “Man” (“Adam” in Hebrew).  Man is the whole race considered together as one, but Man is also the essence of each individual, what we find when we look deeply into ourselves.  This escape from oneself and into Man is so important that cultures create formalized rituals–at weddings, funerals, etc–to provide more of it.  Here again, part of the act’s meaning is its universality, that I speak the same wedding vows my father said and my son will say.

In this matter the Christian has an advantage.  What is abstract for natural reason becomes concrete and vivid in the light of the Faith.  God’s substance and essence are one, so He alone can bridge complete universality and concreteness.  We believe that Man was made in His image, and at the appointed time, God Himself became Man, a new Adam, making Himself the core of humanity.  So when he acts “as Man”, the Christian realizes a sense in which he is acting “as Christ”.  When the body makes a promise (through sex, childbirth, etc), it is ultimately God Himself making the promise.  If we would not be so mean as to break our own word, how much more should we take care not to break His!

So we find our corporeal existence charged with meaning; God Himself has lent it His own voice.  Will you protest against this aspect of human nature because you didn’t choose it?  But this is what you are!  This is your inmost nature.  Surely the proper response to so great and holy a thing is reverence.  Reverence and gratitude.  Let us embrace our place in the order of nature, the place chosen for us by the Creator.  Let us respect the language of the body, with its suprarational, suprapersonal mode of signification.  Let us follow its calling to grow out of ourselves by putting on Man.

What my body means, What I mean

This is the third part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

Suppose it is true that there are natural meanings to our corporeal acts, independent of and prior to any additional meanings we choose to confer upon them.  To what degree am I accountable for the natural meaning of my acts?  To take a common example, let us admit that sexual intercourse has a natural meaning and purpose, that it is about procreation via family, binding generation to generation and husband to wife, and expressing a radical donation of self to one’s spouse.  Are men and women always obliged to mean all this whenever they engage in the conjugal act?  Must I mean what my body means?

One position would be that natural meanings have, of themselves, no moral import. This would salvage the liberal position, even after admitting natural significations. Most liberals would frown on a man deliberately promising lifelong fidelity to a woman without meaning it. On the other hand, they would insist that what the two parties understand by the conjugal act is the only morally relevant data. A man and a woman who wanted the incidental pleasures of sex without the commitment the act implies could just agree not to mean by intercourse what intercourse naturally means.

This position has the advantage of allowing all sorts of indulgences while attempting to maintain some moral standards.  As a way of relating to one’s body and its given “language” for expressing love and intimacy, though, this is very unsatisfactory.  It implies a practical Cartesianism. My ego or self is conceived as an entirely separate thing from my body, a thing that I am said to “own” the way I own my furniture. But my body is my interface with the world and my fellows; in separating myself from it, I separate myself from them. A lover doesn’t see me, doesn’t touch me, isn’t close to me; she only sees, feels, and embraces my body, an automaton I control but that is too separate from my “self” to be a true locus of intimacy. What’s more, the choice of whether or not to endorse natural meanings is one that we never approach in a contextual vacuum. The natural meanings are always given. They provide a context that conditions any other meanings we choose to affirm. If I have sex with a woman without marrying her, I am rejecting her as my wife and treating her as unworthy of that commitment. I can’t object that marriage was a proposition never brought up, and therefore never rejected. The act of intercourse itself brought it up by natural signification. At that point, the only choices are to consciously endorse the body’s promise or to repudiate it.  If you want to not marry a woman and not reject her, there is only one way: don’t sleep with her.

The most obvious alternative would be to acknowledge a duty to always consciously mean by an act whatever that act naturally means. This is closer to the natural law view. It would mean that, before I perform an action, I should consider the natural meaning, translate it into a series of propositions of the kind I can mentally affirm or deny, and then affirm them all while performing the action with a clear conscience. This view certainly respects the language of the body; in fact, it errors in being too conscientious. Must we really expect every young bride and groom to enumerate in a set of clear propositions the whole meaning of marital love, in all its depth and force and subtlety, before they are allowed to consummate their marriage? I have certainly never done such a thing, nor do I believe that any philosopher or saint has ever done it; I doubt the thing could be done at all.

One important problem is that natural acts and relations like marriage are only really understood from the inside by engaging in them and being mentally shaped by the experience:  “conatural knowledged”, as the Thomists call it.  No doubt the bride and groom must have some idea what marital love means, or they couldn’t meaningfully promise it, but their understanding of it is expected to grow as they live it.  Living marital love forms the mind and the imagination, so that one can more fully understand what it is that one initially promised.  To expect full understanding from the start would have things backwards.

More fundamentally, the second approach falls into the same rationalist error as the opposite, liberal, position.  It assumes that the only kind of meanings are the kind that can be reduced to finite sets of propositions.  This, however, is not true, as we know from the philosophical investigation of art.  A work of art is certainly meaningful, and may even have a “message”, but the meaning can never be completely captured by a verbal explanation; explanations of what the artwork “says” never really capture what it shows.  Natural meanings are another case of showing rather than saying.  They contain propositions, but they are not exhausted by them.  They are in a sense larger than our minds.  What’s more, the fact that something is expressed naturally rather than verbally/intellectually is itself significant.  If a couple were to read off to each other all of my statements about the meaning of sex, this would not be identical to actually performing the marital embrace.

On natural law: desires and goods

This is the second of a four-part series on natural law ethics.  The first part can be found here.


Man is an animal, and like all animals is subject to cravings and urges whose satisfaction brings pleasure and whose frustration brings discomfort.  It is the mark of a nonrational urge that its aim is a subjective state of satisfaction rather than an objective state of affairs.  An irrational animal eats to satisfy hunger, and it congregates with its fellows for the comfort of being part of the herd.  An outside observer can identify objective functions served by these urges, how they keep the animal alive and contribute to the excellence proper to its species.  The animal itself, if it is irrational, cannot achieve the mental separation from its own immanent compulsions to take this outside view.  For small decisions–like the decision to have a snack or watch a television show–humans too are often content to gratify their urges.  For important things, though, we demand motives of another sort.

Man is not just an animal, but also a person.  To be a person means that one is not locked in immanence; one can take an outside view even when one’s own impulses are in play.  In addition to being driven by urges, we can be motivated by reasons.  For rational actions, the ultimate end is not subjective satisfation, but some objective state of affairs regarded as good.  Let us call these ends–objective states of affairs regarded as valuable in themselves–as “goods”.  Because we act to preserve goods, rather than just satisfy urges, we are more than just very clever animals.  We hear the claims of objective value; this is our special dignity as persons.

Usually, cravings and goods are not antagonistic motives.  Goods serve not to frustrate cravings, but to enoble them by showing how any given craving is ordered to an objective good.  Our satisfaction of this desire is “rationalized”, not in the common sense of that word as “given a spurious excuse” but in its literal sense.  The desire is elevated to rational life; it becomes meaningful as the bodily apprehension of a real good.  Mind and body are harmonized.  Our natural capabilities as humans also acquire meaning–when we identify what good a capability is ordered toward serving, we say that we have found that capability’s function.

Some examples may help.  We all know the desire to believe things that comfort us–that we are safe, valued, loved.  However, there is also a great good in knowing the truth and comporting oneself to it, even if the truth happens to be distressing.  Our sensory organs and our intellect are intrinsically ordered toward truth–it’s their function.  Notice here that intrinsic function can be something different from adaptive value.  No doubt it was the ability to evade predators and capture prey, or something like that, that selected for these abilities.  Nevertheless, their function is to truth.  No one doubts that truth–at least about important things–is good in itself, and acquiring this good is simply what the senses and intellect do.  To know the truth would be for them to be doing their basic activity fully and without hindrance. In the bodily order, there are physical pleasures;  they are related to but distinct from the good of health.  In the interpersonal order, we crave the feeling of being loved; this is related to but distinct from the good of really being loved and the good of true intimacy.  In the social order, there is the comfort of the crowd; this is distinct from but usually related to the good of moral community.

For each good, there is a similacrum whereby one can choose to separate the good from its accompanying pleasures and seek only the latter.  To do so is to degrade oneself, to descend into the subpersonal level of immanence, to forsake truth.  All forms of self-deception are degrading in this way.  So, to a lesser extent, is gluttony, attending to the body as a nexus of pleasures rather than goods.  Most pitiable of all are counterfeit interpersonal pleasures.  Prostitution is a base substitute for the marital bond, stripping the conjugal embrace of it’s personal dimension by paying a woman to pretend to be one’s wife.  I once saw a news documentary on a service in Japan whereby lonely old men could hire a group of actors to pretend to be their family for a day.  I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.  What a great failure it is of that society that there seem to be so many people living without the genuine good of family love.

The list of natural goods doesn’t itself provide us with the first principles of practical reasoning.  These are given by the two great commandments:  to love God with all one’s heart, mind and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  What natural goods do is to tell us what it means to love one’s neighbor and what it means to love oneself.  We love them by promoting what is good for them.  Of all the natural functions identified by natural lawyers, the most noble are those identified as serving the good of other people.  These functions identify humanity as being “designed” for love.  Hence the special attention natural law gives to man’s reproductive capacities.  Most of our bodily features are ordered to our own good, but masculinity and femininity are ordered to serving another.  Every difference between men and women points to a way that each is called to promote the good of child or spouse.  It is obviously not for their own good, individualistically conceived, that women have breasts, but for their childrens’.  (We natural law advocates really like tits.  They’re such obvious examples of this kind of thing.)

One might object that this perception of natural goods is really just a projection of the human mind, rather than a real feature of nature.  This objection fails to recognize that the human mind is itself a part of human nature, so that if our intellects are apt to assign a particular meaning to certain biological facts, this is itself a fact of human nature.  The accusation of projection is only meaningful when the subject and object are different.  It makes sense to say that “humans find worms disgusting” is a fact about human nature rather than worm nature and should be considered irrelevant to the study of worms.  That human reason discerns gender differences as being ordered to family and reproduction is not extraneous in this way.

A more serious objection is that our understanding of human goods and functions might just be cultural artifacts. After all, we do see nontrivial differences in mores and ethical beliefs between cultures.  The response to this objection must be more subtle, because it does point to an important aspect of social life.  Our recognition of human nature is mediated by our culture.  It’s not simply that some parts of morality (the natural law part) are given directly by nature while some other unrelated parts (“mere” custom) are set by the culture.  If it were that simple, natural lawyers wouldn’t have to care about the culture.   Nor can we settle for the cultural relativism of many anthropologists, according to which there are certain universal tasks that any collection of humans must perform to survive multiple generations (this being the “natural” part) but that how these tasks are fulfilled (e.g. children raised by parents or by the tribe as a whole) are cultural/historical fabrications about which nothing else can be said, at least on the level of universal human nature.  An advocate of natural law reads a thick account of human flourishing from the data of human nature, and not every arrangement that enables social survival will also be found to promote integral personal excellence.

I wish to avoid the error, common among natural law ethicists, of trying to prove too much at an overly abstract level.  There’s no need to claim that my culture has a complete list of human goods or that it has a fully adequate understanding of any of them.  In fact, I will be arguing later (in the final part of this series) we usually don’t understand the natural meanings of our acts in their full depth, and that this is an important part of the natural law understanding of the human condition.  Nor is it true that humanity has never posited false goods.  Liberalism itself could be said to be positing a new fundamental human good, one unrecognized as such by all past civilizations, namely personal autonomy–a sort of super-good that overrides all others.  Since I reject this elevation of autonomy, I cannot argue in general that anything ever believed to be a human good must really be one.

How does one tell true goods from false ones.  I believe that children are a true good and autonomy a false good, but how can I be sure of this?  There are several clear indicators.  First, there is the consensus of all mankind; every people except our own has always regarded descendants as a blessing, and everyone but the perverse West has regarded individualism as a social disease.  Second, there is consistency with the great commandments.  True human goods give us ways of loving God, self, and neighbor, and while it is always possible to pursue a genuine good illicitly, i.e. in a way incompatible with these loves, no genuine good involves rejecting the commandment by its very nature.  Having children with one’s spouse is an expression of and opportunity for love of neighbor.  Autonomy, on the other hand, involves by its very nature a rejection of God’s rightful sovereignty.  Third, there is the consistency between goods.  Since human nature is presumed to be intelligible, no true good should intrinsically contradict another one, although, again, accidents of circumstance may force us to choose between them.  So, for example, a man must in practice often sacrifice many true goods for his children, but having children doesn’t intrinsically preclude any other good.  Autonomy, on the other hand, intrinsically requires an at least partial rejection of the good of knowing the truth and the good of living in community.  Both truth and community limit one’s ability to posit one’s own conception of the Good in complete independence of an objective order of being and of other people.  Fourth, there is objectivity; as we have said, the point of natural goods is that they emancipate us from our own point of view.  The claim of autonomous man to dictate all value from his own will makes it impossible for him to escape from himself, just as an emperor who conquered the whole world would have no way to visit a foreign country.  Finally, there is the consideration of function:  a true good involves the perfect activity of some natural human function.  Begetting and raising children is the execution of many natural functions (functions that would otherwise have no natural meaning at all).  Here the defender of autonomy might seem to have a leg to stand on.  Surely the autonomous positing of meaning is the highest execution of our faculty of choice?  In fact it is not.  Conversion and martyrdom are the highest examples of free choice, and these are authentic but not autonomous.  In them, a person freely affirms what is recognized as an objective supreme Good. All other rational choices do this same thing, if to a lesser degree.  Positing a meaning of life as a naked act of will would be something much different–a perverse form of choice detached from the larger context of human goods.  (In fact, most such attempts to define the good for oneself just involve delivering oneself over to subrational impulses.  It could hardly be any other way.  Man cannot really posit goods; he can only recognize them.  If he discards these preexisting goods and looks inside himself for another principle of action, he will find nothing but his pre-rational cravings.)

From the above, one can see that there are rational criteria for distinguishing true from false natural goods.  One can easily convince oneself that the traditionally recognized ones show all the marks of being genuine.

What “anti-monarchical lesson”?–cross-post

In the Leftist theological journal Concilium, Belgian professor Johan Verstraeten accuses Pope Benedict XVI of selling out to the capitalists.  Basically, the Vestraeten accuses His Holiness of concentrating too much on personal morality and individual charity instead of focusing on “unjust institutions”, for maintaining a generally positive view of business competition, and for stressing subsidiarity and refusing to equate Catholic social teaching with European social democracy.  Cheisa has here reprinted a defense of the pope by Italian professor and senator Stefano Ceccanti (H/T  The Pittsford Perennialist).  Ceccanti accuses Verstraeten of distorting Catholic social teaching by taking the few parts of the tradition that he likes and discarding the rest.  So far, so good.


Really, not much needs to be said of the Concilium critique.  We’ve heard this all many times before.  The accusation that the Church is holding back the Workers’ Revolution by preaching personal morality is actually a bit charming in its quaintness.  It’s like having a new movie come out where a black-hatted villain ties the hero’s girlfriend to railroad tracks.  A criticism of the Church that doesn’t involve condoms or sexual perversion?  How refreshing!  All we need to do is dust off the old reply.  What Leftists mean when they say “just institutions” is not what morally sane people would mean by that expression.  What Leftists mean is communism, which any believing Catholic regards as a grossly unjust institution.  By being an anti-communist, the pope is challenging unjust social structures in a significant way.

Ceccanti eventually gets to this response, but he puts it in a very weird way:

To tell the truth, however, the positions of Verstraeten and of others like him appear to be characterized theologically by a “leftist conservatism,” which has not yet taken into account the collapse of the Berlin Wall and its anti-monarchical lesson, against the overweening power of the state and of politics.

These currents criticize the magisterium precisely because it has instead taken that lesson into account. But by doing so, they reproduce in the social sphere the traditionalist rejection of religious freedom: a rejection that is also rigorously statist, motivated in defense of “iustitia in veritate” against the free choice of the erroneous conscience in good faith.

In short, Verstraeten and… Lefebvre have more elements in common theologically than one would believe by thinking solely along the political axis of right and left.

Let me see if I’ve got this straight:  communism and monarchism are basically the same?  The fall of the Berlin Wall was a defeat for monarchy?!  A traditionalist commitment to the social kingship of Christ is no different from a totalitarian atheist commitment to extirpating the Sacred?   Do these classical liberals realize how stupid they sound?  They think they’re being profound when they say that there are only two forms of government:  liberal democracy and everything else–all cases of everything else being basically the same and morally equivalent to Stalin.  In fact, to anyone who has ever thought outside the liberal box, this sounds as ignorantly provincial as a man who imagined that there are only two types of people:  Americans and foreigners–all foreigners being basically alike.

But doesn’t he have a point?  Don’t antimodernist Catholicism and communism have something important in common, namely that they both posit some idea of the good life and the common good, and they authorize the state to impose this by force?  Well, yes, but this is true of all ruling ideologies, including liberalism, with its fetishism of autonomy and officially imposed atheist utilitarianism.  No need to go on–everybody here knows the hollowness of liberalism’s pretense to be a “neutral” doctrine that upholds individual consciences in a special way.  As soon as we leave our part of the web, though, we see what strong a hold liberalism’s boasts still hold over the educated public.

Criminalizing disrespect–cross-post

Reactionaries around the web are disturbed by revisions to the Education at of Alberta that make it against the law to show “disrespect” for “differences” when educating children–even in private schools or in the home:

“Whatever the nature of schooling – homeschool, private school, Catholic school – we do not tolerate disrespect for differences,” Donna McColl, Lukaszuk’s assistant director of communications, told LifeSiteNews on Wednesday evening.

“You can affirm the family’s ideology in your family life, you just can’t do it as part of your educational study and instruction,” she added.

“Disrespect for differences”–what can this mean?  Maybe all those people who think that America should adopt the metric system–surely this is shows damnable zeal for uniformity?  Just to be safe, I think the Beach Boys should have to explain precisely what they meant when they said they “wish they all could be California girls”.  Limiting ourselves to Canada, perhaps all educational materials should be reviewed to purge that nation’s most prevalent Other-directed hostility, namely contempt and hatred for the United States.

Sorry, I know the whole “playing dumb” act is getting tedious; I think this time around I’m the only one who’s bothered with it.  We all know that “disrespect” for these sorts of “differences” is in no danger of being suppressed, just as everyone always knew that English laws against disrespecting religions would never be applied to reign in the rampant anti-Catholicism of the BBC.  “Inciting hatred of a religion” is liberals’ way of saying “criticizing Muslims”.  Also, remember liberals’ outrage when someone demanded that their own gender antidiscrimination laws be enforced as written?  Similarly, when Canadian liberals decide to criminalize disapproval of homosexuality, they invoke a very abstract and neutral-sounding principle as its justification:  “we will not tolerate disrespect for differences”.  Stated this way, the principle is vague to the point of meaninglessness, rather like the principle that one may not “discriminate”.  Theoretically, the two principles contradict each other, since anti-discrimination is itself a hostility toward differences.  In practice, any act can be framed as affirming or denying differences of some sort, and it can be framed as discriminating by some quality or not by some other.

Liberals’ vague principles only acquire any sort of meaning when they’re read through the liberal frame of official oppressor groups and victim groups.  When they say “we will not tolerate disrespect for differences”, they mean “we will not tolerate members of oppressor groups expressing disrespect or criticism toward members of victim groups”.  Therefore, in anything that might be construed in an instructional setting (and soon any interaction between children and adults will be so characterized; note that home environments have already been explicitly included), oppressor adults speaking to their oppressor children may not make any negative statement about victim groups or allude to any standard under which a victim group would come off looking worse than an oppressor group.  So, a Christian or morally conservative (but non-Muslim) parent, being officially an oppressor, may not disapprove of homosexuality, since that would mean showing disrespect for the behavior of homosexuals, who are an official victim group.  Both sides understand that this is what the law and the principle behind it mean.  What’s more, I imagine one can’t be sneaky and, while not directly criticizing homosexuality, teach a “heteronormative” form of sexual morality, one that stresses gender complementarity.  After all, if such a moral system is true, it would imply that sodomy is immoral, and the child could infer this on his own.  Really, the whole Christian, Muslim, and natural law moral traditions must effectively be proscribed.

There are, I’m sure, other forms of disrespect that Alberta would think it worthwhile to extirpate.  Whites having an affection for their race and Christians thinking their religion superior to heathendom are always popular targets.  Right now, though, sodomy is the elite’s great cause.

Of course, I disapprove of state persecution of Christianity, but I appreciate that liberals who advocate for it are only following out principles they believe to be just and true.  The thing that irritates me to no end is all the dishonesty.  Why can’t we just have laws that state plainly what is being outlawed?  Why not just have a law saying “Muslims in Great Britain are a privileged class; no criticism of them will be tolerated”?  Or a law saying “Alberta is a Sodomitical Republic; all children shall be instructed in the doctrines of androgynism; Christianity may not be taught here in public or private”?  I was actually pleased a while back when a university official explicitly said that hate speech protections don’t apply to Christians.  The honesty was so very refreshing.