The Catholic Perspective V: Moral rules

Five hundred years ago, when somebody said that Catholic beliefs don’t make sense, he was probably talking about something like Transubstantiation; today, when somebody says that, he’s almost certainly talking about sex.  While moral rules are not the focal point of Catholicism, they are closely connected to it.  However, to one who holds the Catholic perspective as I have described it–an alertness to the symbolic depth of the public world–the Church’s rules on sex, killing, usury, submission to authority, and the like are no scandal to the intellect.  They are rather such natural conclusions that the Church’s commitment to them is evidence for her reliability.

Morality cannot be reduced to intentions and consequences

Why though do modern men think the Church’s prohibitions on contraception, remarriage, usury, etc. don’t make sense?  It is because they can only conceive of three reasons an act could be wrong:  a malicious motive,  bad consequences for other peoples’ happiness, or an invasion of other peoples’ legitimate spheres of personal autonomy (i.e. violating their “rights”).  Now, many things Catholicism calls sins are bad for these reasons, but not all.  Consider masturbation or assisting someone else’s suicide.  Why does the Church forbid these things?  Did it just never occur to us that masturbation doesn’t hurt anybody, that the motive–carnal pleasure–is the same motive I have when I put honey in my tea?  Has nobody pointed out to us that to help a man kill himself relieves pain and enhances his control over his life?

No, trust me, we’re familiar with the arguments from these sorts of observations, and we’ve rejected them.  They all hinge on a false premise, seldom even stated and always sloppily taken to be coterminous with reason itself.  I mean the assumption that the meaning of an act (and, hence, its moral status) can only depend on the intention of the actor and the consequences for other people.  Following this assumption, one can say that any act is licit if the actor intends no harm and no one is inconvenienced.  However, Catholicism rejects this reduction of morality.  I belabor the point because one cannot understand Catholic morality at all without realizing this, and very many people don’t.  For Catholics, meaning also comes from the embedded symbolism in the material and social world.  An act can thus have a meaning independent of its effects on others or its author’s intention, and so it can be sinful on account of this meaning.

Man the symbol-bearer; inviolability of human life

This is the true dignity of man–his symbolic potency, the fact that, unlike a puddle of water or a mouse, he can perform acts of the greatest meaning; he can perform true worship or true sacrilege.  Our recognition of this dignity differs fundamentally from the Kantian respect for persons based on their status as subjects.  Intellect and will are certainly a crucial part of humanity’s capacity for meaningful action, but they are not the whole of it.  The human body itself participates in this symbolic “charge”, as does the community of humans.  After all, we participate in God’s sovereignty through government, in His act of creation through coitus, and in His great sacrifice through digestion.  The whole organism is the bearer of this awesome significance, not just the mind which is a part but most certainly not the owner of the whole.

Thus, the respect due to human persons is not just a respect for their wills, which may be malformed or nonexistent in certain cases.  The Catholic prohibition against murder is in many ways stricter than what modern man finds reasonable.  It protects all human organisms–the preconscious fetus, the mentally disabled, and the unconscious, every bit as much as those alert enough to object to their own murder.  It prohibits suicide and mercy killing because our lives are not our own, and we may not dispose of them at will.  Man, in his symbolic potency, is a temple of God, and to destroy him is itself an act of terrible symbolic meaning.

Sexual purity

Similarly, Catholic sexual ethics bases itself on the recognition that sex is a natural symbol with an objective meaning.  It is a sort of natural analog to a sacrament given by God to the family to signify and effect the union of two lives in the creation of a third.  Sex is not a blank page on which we may write any meaning or lack thereof we like.  Its procreative end and its reference to the total commitment of marriage are already given; these have, as it were, arrived on the scene before us and already made their claims.  Our only options are to respect the act’s given meaning or to reject it, to vandalize it by reducing it to our own ends.  When properly used, sex has the power as a supra-rational signifier to draw the soul out of itself and beyond its native powers.  God gives the husband and wife one of His own “words” for their use, so that by affixing their assent to the conjugal act’s given meaning, they are able to “speak” through their bodies with a depth and finality beyond the power of spoken words.  To reject the act’s meaning through fornication, adultery, or contraception, to reduce God’s donated word to raw material for one’s gratification, is not just a failure to take advantage of something beautiful God offers; it is gravely sinful rebellion.

Social justice

As a final scandal to the modern mind, the Church proposes these truths not only to the individual in his private conscience, but to the community as well.  She rejects liberalism not only on the level of substantive morality but also on the formal level of liberalism’s commitment to private autonomy via public neutrality.  Not only is public neutrality on matters of goodness and justice impossible anyway, so that liberals end up using the state and media to promote licentiousness and careerism; neutrality is undesirable, because it deprives men of one of the greatest goods:  membership in communities of shared moral vision.  In fact, following Cicero and Augustine, one might well question whether a real community can be said to exist at all without being built around a moral consensus.  Here is the source of Catholicism’s infamous hostility to democracy and capitalism.  Not that elections and markets are bad things per se, but they should not be allowed to control a society’s ethos, because their fundamental principle is choice rather than love or duty.

Justice, then, is social as well as individual, in that societies as well as private citizens must render to good and evil their due.  The first command of social justice is that the community must recognize God’s corporate sovereignty over it.  Next, a properly formed moral consensus must be embodied in the community’s laws and customs.  Sometimes a certain form of wickedness cannot be forcibly suppressed, but it should never be officially approved or culturally celebrated.  Thus, for instance, a healthy moral consensus can rightly defend itself by banning pornography and homosexual propaganda.  At the very least, it must insist on not ceding control of the public realm–what is taught in schools, what is affirmed by statesmen, what may be said in public without scandal–to such vile influences.  Lastly, because elections and markets have in themselves no explicit orientation to the Good, the community must impose such an orientation on them from outside.  The form that such regulation takes might vary widely, but it must allow citizens to experience their community as a moral enterprise rather than a libertarian jungle of mutual exploitation and predation against the weak.

12 Responses

  1. I wonder if there is a faint echo of this way of thinking in modern condemnations of immoral acts for setting a “bad example.” We still condemn a mother who murders her child, and when we do, our condemnation is not limited to her wicked motive or the harm suffered by the child. There is also, I think, abhorrence of the desecration of the symbol of motherhood. We may say she sets a “bad example,” but I doubt we are really worried about copycat crimes.

    Masturbation is interesting because, if statistics can be trusted, a great many young men do it, but very few discuss it in a frank and forthright manner. Sexually shameless as they may be in other respects, most young men know that there is something shameful about tugging it in the shower. It’s not manly and it desecrates the symbol of manliness.

    I see another faint echo in our revulsion against “tasteless jokes,” meaning jokes that symbolically defile or degrade something that is noble or holy, and in our distrust of mockers for whom “nothing is sacred.”

    Are all of these symbolic sins manifestations of blaspheme? If so, we might think of our would of pervasive moral inversions as a blasphemous world.

  2. Where we see the sacred, and life as a pageantry of moral consequence, others will brush it off as naturalistic/teleological fallacy and an attempt by our weak intellects to impose sense on the senseless.

    Now I find this line suspect, as it would seem to attack thought itself by denying our ability to apprehend reality. But as a narrative it seems to have popularity, and is the most common objection raised when I try and defend my beliefs.

    Bonald, you’ve been in the game longer than me. How do you typically respond to this sort if thing?

  3. Here’s one way I’ve addressed this objection, from my “Natural Law” essay:

    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.

  4. That’s an interesting idea–that “bad example” is a consequentialist rationalization for a moral principle really held for natural law-symbolic reasons.

    Masturbation is indeed a good case to look at, because while everyone senses that it is shameful, no view but the Catholic one can explain why it is wrong. From a consequentialist viewpoint, it’s a great thing to do–more pleasure in the world with no adverse effects.

  5. Not that a modern consequentialist would ever admit it, but I’m sure you realize that, in reality, there are adverse effects.

  6. You mean one really will go cross-eyed?

  7. Though as a non-Catholic, I might disagree on the details, this is one of the most inspiring pieces of writing I have ever read.

  8. Thanks!

  9. Great post Bonald. Bonald have you read Liberalism Is A Sin by Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany? It provides an excellent take down of liberalism in its broadest form.

    It should be on every reactionary Catholic’s reading list!

  10. In her 1958 paper, Modern Moral Philosophy Miss Anscombe went to the heart of the problem we face in discussing morality with people today: “In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology. For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue.” This part of the subject-matter of ethics, is however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is – a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis – and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced: a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear. For this we certainly need an account at least of what a human action is at all, and how its description as “doing such-and-such” is affected by its motive and by the intention or intentions in it; and for this an account of such concepts is required.”

    Fifty years on, we are not much further forward, although Miss Anscombe herself, her husband Peter Geach, Alasdair MacIntyre and John Haldane have done some interesting work on it.

  11. I’m afraid I haven’t. Thank you for the recommendation.

  12. I mean, one will feel guilt, depression, malaise, etc.

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