Creature or Creator?
An Understanding of Modern Culture
Washington, June 12, 1989
At certain moments in his life, man is obliged to assume a duty at once necessary and dangerous: the duty of placing himself in a position where he can see comprehensively the task in which he is engaged.
This is the case, for example, in moments of profound spiritual crisis, when we need points of reference so as not to be lost in despair or succumb to the boredom of meaninglessness. Yet it is a dangerous thing to do, because of the risk of simplifying too much, or constraining the multiple aspects of human experience into preconceived schemas.
Well aware of this danger, it seemed to us at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, together with others, that the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae was such a time to take stock of the situation in contemporary moral theology and philosophy. We therefore held a Congress in Rome last November for this purpose.
In Europe our Congress stirred up quite a storm. To this day, articles, declarations, and letters are being written reacting to what was said to be a campaign to undo the work of the Second Vatican Council. My own intervention in the Congress sought to establish that there is a coherence between rejection of the teaching of Humanae Vitae and the acceptance, at least in certain circumstances, of abortion and other actions against the existence of innocent human life. In fact, writing on the tenth anniversary of the publication of the encyclical, Professor Charles Curran acknowledged such a coherence.
“... one must honestly admit that the discussions about Humanae Vitae involve more than just the one issue of artificial contraception. Many of those who supported the conclusion of Humanae Vitae rightfully pointed out that the questioning of the particular teaching on artificial contraception would lead to the denial of, or at least the question of, other Catholic moral teaching... The history of the last decade has indicated that some of the fears expressed by the defenders of the encyclical were justified” (“After Humanae Vitae, A Decade of ‘Lively Debate’,” in Hospital Progress, July, 1978).
It was a similar argument that I sought to make in my intervention at the Congress. My position has been distorted in ways that would be amusing if it did not involve questions of supreme importance for the survival of humanity.
Obviously, our Congress achieved one result: it has highlighted but not created a grave division among Catholic moral theologians on fundamental points concerning the meaning of human behavior.
1. Some General Premises
These developments have convinced me even more of the point which I wish to propose for your consideration tonight. I suggest that one of the key problems facing the Church today is the attitude to be taken with respect to modernity as such. By “attitude” I have in mind a fundamental stance, a profound judgement about the ultimate compatibility or incompatibility between Catholic and modern thought. Such a judgment, therefore, concerns modernity itself, and not just this or that aspect of it. Modernity — and here I use the term as understood by intellectual historians — is characterized by a difference in “mode of thinking” about what ought to be taken as central in the very definition of man. St. Thomas Aquinas always taught that the beginning, foundation, and source of the whole of our intellectual life is the apprehensio entis, the “perception of being”, (Cf. De veritate, q. 1, a.1). Thus, classical epistomology considered human consciousness to be the presence of a human subject to a real object and of a real object to a knowing subject.
A significant difference in modernity derives from its refusal to accept this “presencing” as foundational. Thus, according to the spirit of modernity the primary datum is the presence of the self to the spiritual itself. Thus the beginning, foundation, and source of our spiritual life then, is not a “perception” of being, but a question, such as Heidegger expresses it,: “Why something rather than nothing?”.
Likewise, it is this reason that Descartes has been called the father of modern thought. Recall that Descartes methodically doubts the existence of objective reality and seeks to prove it by starting with the presence of the self to self: Cogito, ergo sum. From this moment on, the whole course of modern thought attempts to justify reality and does so beginning exclusively with the self.
Modernity as a mode of thought can be defined essentially as a it falls to man to constitute the basic radical anthropocentrism: reasons for the world.
Could we not even speak of the emergence of man, the creator of the real, as suggestive of this shift in thinking? Hence we have tonight's title: creator or creature? Let us clarify the situation further by examining the consequences of this modern mode of thinking as it applies to the exercise of human liberty. Let us begin with Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor in the Eastern tradition and with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the West. These doctors of the Church reflect the authentic Christian tradition on what actually constitutes a free human act. To be sure the Christian tradition recognizes human action as a sort of self-creation, however it always understands this creative act analogically. So for example, Gregory of Nyssa affirms that by means of a free act the human person gives birth to himself, and again, Augustine asserts that nothing is more intimate to the soul of man than liberty itself.
It seems that there is indeed in the tradition of the Church a point of contact with modern thought which offers a possible solution to the problem of the Church's approach to modernity. Indeed, the saints themselves have taught us of the importance of a theocentric self-determination. And in fact: is this concept of liberty and self-determination redolent of that shift in the mode of thinking that we equated with the heart of modern thought?
Before replying to this question, let us emphasize that it is in this area that our problem must be resolved, that is, in the area of the true nature of human liberty. This probably remains the most serious problem posed by modernity to Catholic thought. How are we to understand the relation between human liberty and self-creation? In other words, is human liberty absolutely creative of meaning and value or are human meanings and moral values grounded in a reality which transcends man?
The problem posed by modernity to the Church depends on our understanding of the link between human liberty, truth, and goodness. This was underlined by the Holy Father in the allocution delivered at our first congress on moral theology in April, 1986, when he said:
«This essential link-up of Truth-─áoodness-Freedom has been lost to a large extent by contemporary culture. Therefore, to lead man to rediscover it is one of the particular requirements of the Church's mission today for the salvation of the world».
2. Verification of the hypothesis in the field of morals
I have indicated some general premises. Now, I wish to propose a hypothesis in the field of morals. First, I shall state briefly the hypothesis (2.1), and then I shall proceed to its verification (2.2).
2.1 The hypothesis
By way of enunciating the hypothesis, I shall use an insight provided by s. Kierkegaard found in his work Sickness Unto Death. According to the Danish philosopher, there are only two possibilities facing human liberty. In his own words, the first possibility runs as follows: “By relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power which constituted it”. The second possibility is just the opposite. “By relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself, the self is not grounded transparently in the power which constituted it”.
In other words, through the exercise of liberty, through concrete choices, man constructs his own self. The question is: in relation to what? According to what measure?
Let me use the case of St. Thomas More to explore Kierkegaard's options. Consider More at the precise moment in which he has to decide to sign or not to sign the Act of Supremacy. The choice which he had to make had a very precise object: to affix his signature or not. But he is quite concious that this very choice will determine the kind of person he would be. According to what measure will he make this decision? This constitutes the real issue at stake. He could see himself in relation to the well-being of his family. He could see himself in relation to the good of the English State. Finally, More could measure himself by his own instinct for self-preservation. Each of these choices stand to affect More's personhood, to measure his own self. In the first case, More could measure himself simply in terms of the good of his family. In the second case, he could measure himself simply in terms of the good of a subject of the king. In the third case, he could measure himself simply in terms of the good of a living organism. All of these remain finite norms or measures, since the goods involved remain finite realities.
But there remains another relationship to consider. Thomas More possessed the option to see himself in relation to an eternal law, a higher justice. Augustine calls this, “the highest reason to which one must be always subject”. To be sure, the norm or measure in this case is qualitatively different from the others; it represents, in fact, a quantum-leap to another level, to an eternal measure.
In this case, Thomas More determines or constitutes himself by grounding himself, to use the phrase of Kierkegaard, “transparently in the power which constituted him”.On the other hand, in the first three cases, he would have chosen to construct himself by not grounding himself in the power that constituted him.
In summary, then: at the dawn of consciousness, there are only two possible ways for us to define ourselves. In the first way, we can think of consciousness as only self-consciousness. In the second way, as St. Thomas taught, consciousness refers primarily to consciousness of another being. If we wish to be faithful to ourselves, to become ourselves (so to speak), we must make a free choice. Either we choose to be ourselves by remaining within a measure measured by ourselves; or we choose to be ourselves by placing ourselves within a relationship dependent upon a transcendent measure.
My hypothesis, finally, is the following: I suggest to you that a large number of contemporary moral thelogians prefer to describe human freedom in conformity with the first alternative.
2.2 Verification of the hypothesis
Moreover, I suggest that the debate which followed our Congress of last November confirmed this hypothesis. In fact, the debate has gone far beyond the specific question of Humanae Vitae. Two distinct positions characterize the negative reaction to what transpired at the Congress.
According to the first position, moral obligations do not derive from a truth which manifests itself in legitimate norms. Rather, those who hold this position claim that moral obligation is located in that faculty which we call conscience, which, moreover, they do not hesitate to assert can at times supercede the requirements of moral truth. In more technical language, the individual conscience can always claim an exemption to any categorical moral norm with the result that such an action would derogate from an authentic good of human flourishing. In other man words man depends principally upon his own judgment and not upon that truth which reveals how God knows the world to be.
A second line of argumentation advances the view that the right decision-making amounts to a determination as to which of the various goods present in a given concrete situation should prevail. In this view, the practical reason, in order to make a morally right decision, struggles to discover the relative values inherent in the goods in question. Clearly, the roll of moral norms enjoys secondary importance in this scenario. Why? Because the proportionate goods and evils as determined by the individual take precedence over the moral norms. Broadly speaking then, this view reflects the proportionalist stance.
For example, there were many good and evil consequences in question when Thomas More had to make his decision.
Which right decision making procedure should he have adopted? According to those who hold the proportionalist position or the one based on the primacy of conscience over the moral norm, More should have balanced the various goods in question in order to determine which one would prevail. Moreover, it seems to me that in their view it would not have been sufficient for More to look simply to the evangelical norm which forbids us to render unto Caesar what belongs to God. The revisionist position seems to imply that sin does not consist in acting against a good which the moral law both mediates and discloses. Rather in their account, sin would consist in choosing a course of action that does not maximize the good. Such a course would amount, in their view, to rendering unto Caesar what belongs to God.
I think this illustration will help us understand why I think certain Catholic moralists advance this view. It does so in two ways: I have choosen an historical illustration because of my profound conviction of how man lives in history.There is only one way to live in history and that is in obedience to the moral law. In the end we must answer to God for the deployment of our created liberty.
However, according to the revisionist way of thinking, it is no longer the relationship of man with the Power that created him as mediated by the moral law that decides the value of his relation with the created goods. On the contrary (and here the shift is consistent with modern thought!), it is the value of the relation of man with the world (by maximizing temporal good effects and minimizing bad ones) that decides the value of the relation of man with the Power that creates him. This is Kierkegaard's second choice: in relating to himself and working to be himself, the “Ego” is grounded on itself in that it accepts no other measure than its being in the world.
Again, this way of thinking implies that the scope of our lives remains simply circumscribed by space and time. Therefore, moral truth, that is, the truth about good always finds its determination by reference to space and time. It seems to me that many theologians consider any attempt to escape these spacial, temporal limitations impossible. Therefore, they limit themselves to the affirmation of a liberty as a fundamental option whereby man chooses God directly. Ironically, this affirmation makes it impossible to reinsert this relation back into the very circumstances of our daily lives, which, afterall, remain bounded by the categories of space and time.
Let me bring these systematic reflection to a conclusion with three particular affirmations about the way authentic Catholic moral theology operates. First, authentic moral theology respects the conscience of the individual. Second, it enshrines a gentle compassion. Third, it remains faithful both to the spirit and the letter of the Second Vatican Council. As you know, at the conclusion of the Council, Pope Paul VI declared that the Church feels “the need to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve, and evangelize” the modern world. This summarizes the mandate of the Council, he said, a mandate of charity, compassion, and of love for man as he is today. The mandate continues to challenge a view of man who in the words of the Pope “makes himself not only the center of his very interest, but dares to claim that he is the principle and explanation of all reality”. In this encounter between the “religion of God made man” and the “religion… of man who makes himself God”, the Church has chosen the way of the Samaritan. With “boundless sympathy” the Church of Vatican II wishes to come to the help of man. This compassion is one based on the objective truth disclosed by Jesus Christ. As the American writer, Flannery O’Connor recognized, “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in force-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber”.
It is because of our fidelity to this mandate of the Council that we must insist that the liberty which modern man so desperately seeks is found only when man measures his dignity only “in relation to the Power that constituted him.” It is our commitment to authentic human freedom that leads us to reject as ultimately enslaving the rejection of the absolute moral norm expressing God's creative and redemptive wisdom. Thomas More gives us an example of the incomparable dignity of human conscience precisely because he did not consider finite goods as the ultimate measures of the value of his own self. That is why he is Saint Thomas More. Well has our present Holy Father insisted that “Man is the way for the Church”.
These are the issues and examples we place before our colleagues who have uncritically adopted the modern problematic. My position remains that no believer can take as a point of departure the absolute primacy of human liberty and at the same time hope to discover the living God. Sadly enough, the personal history of Soren Kierkegaard bears witness to this truth.
On the contrary I hold up the example of Thomas More who, in continuity of classical Christian theology, upheld the primacy of that liberty which leads only to God. In so doing, he clearly teaches all of us that God alone remains God.