Thursday, April 12, 2012


“No, sheer simplicity.  The law, Roper, the law.  I know what’s legal not what’s right.  And I’ll stick to what’s legal….But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.  I doubt there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God…And whoever hunts for me, Roper, be it God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law.”   --Thomas More, in A Man For All Seasons

 More lived a life of courage, conviction and sanctity:  why then did he insist that he would take his stance in the law (of England) rather than the will of God?  For me, the answer is clear:  though he lived his life at the level of “A+,” he chose refuse at the level of “C-” on the theory that no one could under-cut him:  they must grant at least the place of law.  Of course, he did not foresee the perjury of Richard Rich.

But here we face a dilemma:  where do we determine issues of right and wrong, or good and evil?  Is all propriety and morality simply a function of legalization?  In fact, the answer seems to be “yes” for much of the world:  things like divorce, abortion, homosexual activity or adultery were all proscribed by law, and one could go to jail for a conviction (or at least be forbidden in law to secure one—like a divorce:  unless you are King Henry, of course).  But we appeal to “fair play” and insist that all folks should have the right to a divorce if marriage doesn’t work out, or an abortion if the pregnancy was unintended, or gay marriage if the couple desires to be in a stable relationship, or adultery if (actually, though we tolerate adultery, we still regard it as wrong—unless it becomes fashionable as on tabloid front pages for celebrities). 

Do I think that every social convention is in fact moral by being part of the convention?  No.  Slavery was surely a social convention for centuries, and we clearly understand its sinfulness now (at last).  Organ donation was once looked upon as sinful, but we understand this differently now.  Will the same judgment (of Church as well as of State) come for gays and lesbians in the future?  Perhaps.  But if it does, it must come because of a clarification of moral understanding and not because of a desire to “move with the times.”  Not all movement is movement forward, after all.

A German couple recently was found guilty of a sexual crime:  incest.  They are brother and sister and want to live in a sexual and procreative relationship, even if 2 of their 4 children have handicaps.  But the courts of that country have decreed otherwise.  Is this not unreasonable?  After all, they are presumably consenting adults—is this not all that is required?

What is required in making moral determinations that have societal implications?  Are, for example, the Ten Commandments too passé  to be considered as valid arbiters?  Is an almost universal cultural taboo on incest inadmissible in this court of appeal?

On what basis is “right” and “wrong” behavior determined?  There surely must be some kind of objective criterion by which to evaluate conduct—the alternative is to acquiesce in the idea that because all values are relative, yours and mine can disagree only as matters of taste:  and we can no longer say, for example, that Auschwitz was immoral, only not to our taste.  And this cannot be.
A starting point for Catholic social/moral teaching is the principle of the fundamental dignity of the human person.  This is a good beginning, but it is only a beginning.  After all, not all actions and decisions of the human person are in line with dignity.  Which are, and which are not, and on what basis can we make the determination?  We can (we must) do better than “Because I want to, and I can”…

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