For some people the word “law” suggests a kind of oppression, something that gets in the way of what they really want to do.
While this may be true of certain human laws, it can never be true of the moral law. The moral law (God’s law) helps us do what we really want to do.
An example may help. A young boy who is told by his father not to play with matches thinks his father is mean. He likes to see pretty flames flare up as he slides the match against a stone; the fire is bright, and it gives him a sense of power and excitement. He asks himself complainingly: Why does my father forbid me to do it?
What the lad doesn’t realize is that his father’s law is really part of his love for him and for the entire family. The law may seem hard, but his father only wants to protect him against harm and to keep the house standing. We can see in this case the undeniable connection between law and love.
God’s plan for the entire world is called the eternal law by the great Catholic philosophers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, “the plan of divine wisdom leading all things to their proper fulfillment” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 93, l). Since God is the Creator of the universe, he knows the nature of each thing perfectly and its relationship with all other things.
In the case of inanimate creation–the stars, the ocean, the Earth–he knows the exact proportion of their chemical components and the exact nature of their subatomic particles. In the case of living things like plants, animals, human beings, and angels, he knows how each is made and what each needs to reach its fulfillment, whether that be sunshine, nourishment, knowledge, freedom, or love.
The knowing participation of human beings in God’s lovable plan for them and for the universe is called the natural moral law. All individuals, of whatever race or background, have this loving plan inscribed in their innermost beings, in their minds as well as their hearts. It is the Creator’s way of assuring the happiness of the ones he created. As Paul puts it, “the work of the law” is “written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15).
For human beings the moral law consists of a certain light in the mind that knows what is true and a certain desire in the will that wants what is good. It is not a physical light, of course, since the soul is immaterial. It is the light of reason–a kind of understanding that discerns moral truth–and a direction of the will that desires what is good.
As a result of this inner law, all human beings can know certain basic principles about human conduct, like the need to honor God, the respect due to parents, the worth of human life. These are called the primary principles of the natural law, and from them many secondary principles flow, like the necessity of prayer, the duty to obey legitimate authority, the care for one’s health.
The existence of the moral law confirms that God did not create a chaotic universe. Things do not “evolve” toward goodness; they have the principle of goodness within them. “God saw that it was good,” we are told at the end of every day of creation (Gen. 1).
In a similar way human beings do not “evolve” toward morality; they have the principle of morality within them. If they freely correspond to that intrinsic, loving law within them, they too will be free and good. If they break it, they can only be frustrated since they are denying the very basis of their being.
And they may even get burned, like the rebellious young child who refuses to listen to his father.
The moral law, the set of innate principles in each person, is something objective and permanent. It cannot vary with every year that passes or depend on a person’s changeable feelings or desires. It is a standard that exists in every human being and is based on the loving truth of God himself.
As revealed in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), the moral law consists of a three-fold relationship: the relation between ourselves and God, the relation between the human person and his neighbor, the relation between the human person and his own thoughts or desires.
An intrinsically good act will respect the above relationship or inner order; an intrinsically bad act will break it. To praise God as Creator, for instance, is an intrinsically good act. It respects and fulfills the proper relationship that should pertain between a creature and its Maker. When we pray we recognize that God is the source of good in our lives.
On the other hand, the person who blasphemes or insults God commits an intrinsically evil act. He breaks the relationship and inner order that should exist between himself and God. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always called this type of action a sin, if done consciously and willfully.
The moral order is complete and harmonious in itself; it does not depend on human knowledge or will-power for its existence or for its authority–no more than the Earth needs human authority to turn on its axis or stars need human authority to shine. The natural moral law is truly the way things are, in the complete sense of that phrase.
To determine the morality of any free act, besides asking about the person’s intention in doing it, one should ask if the act upholds or violates the moral order. Does it uphold or violate God’s dignity, my neighbor’s dignity, my own dignity? Does it uphold or violate the standard of knowledge and love that should exist between God and me, between my neighbor and me, between my own being and me? To develop this moral sense is much more important than learning many facts or accomplishing many things. It is, without doubt, the most important activity of our lives.
A very practical consequence flows from this–one particularly relevant for many moral questions in today’s society. It is never licit to perform an intrinsically immoral action, any deliberate word, action, thought, or desire that breaks the three-fold relationship within man. Often emotional excuses are given by people to break the moral code.
A man who has had a hard day at work, who has been annoyed by his colleagues and threatened by his boss, may feel he has the right to become angry and yell at his wife in order to release his frustrations. A woman who feels insulted by one of her neighbors and who envies the pleasant home and family that she has may feel that she can release her frustration by criticizing or gossiping. A couple recently married and just beginning to accumulate savings may feel they have the right to practice contraception.
All of the above cases have to do with emotions or circumstances that can strongly affect human beings and tempt them to act in a certain way, but no circumstance can change the intrinsic nature of the act.
A man who verbally abuses his wife is doing just that–abusing his wife–despite that fact that he feels annoyed or under pressure. A woman who abuses the good name of her neighbor is doing just that–taking away another person’s good name. A couple who abuse the marital act are doing just that–they are violating the true relationship that should exist between them, a relationship both spiritual and physical.
In other words, morality is objective. A good action respects the moral order; a bad action does violence to it. This means that no amount of good intention or stressful circumstance can make a bad action good. To take an innocent human life will always be wrong; to tell a deliberate lie will always be wrong; to commit a sexual perversity will always be wrong.
Circumstances, of course, can influence the morality of an act, either by heightening or lessening its good or its evil. A man who lies to save his neighbor has less blame than someone who lies for mere convenience or ambition. It is more serious to take $25 from a poor man than from a rich man. And yet, all circumstances apart, lying is still lying, robbery still robbery.
Since the moral law is an interior orientation of the mind and the will and our lives can only be happy when we fulfill this law, there must be a way to detect and apply it. In perennial moral philosophy this called the conscience.
Some like to think of conscience as a kind of “little voice inside” that prods a person to obey the moral law or that accuses him after he has done something wrong. These are certainly two operations of the conscience, but they don’t indicate what conscience is in itself.
The word conscience literally means “with knowledge” (from the Latin cum scientia). To be quite accurate we can say conscience is a practical judgment of the human mind about the rightness or wrongness of a human act (an act done with knowledge and free will). Conscience is the passing from the level of moral principles to specific actions.
A person may know clearly the principle of respecting others’ property, but his conscience should guide him when establishing a price for the product he is going to sell and in deciding whether it is fair. Conscience must make similar judgments on actions relating to human life, the worship of God, sexual morality, and the good name of others.
The goal of all moral education is to have a true and certain conscience: true in the sense that it correctly applies the moral law to a given situation and certain in the sense that a person can act without fear of error. A true and certain conscience brings peace and harmony and assures the common good in society.
Unfortunately, sin can obscure the conscience by dimming the light of moral truth or by making a false judgment about different actions. Consider the great harm caused by exalting the notion of racial superiority, with its downplaying of other peoples to the point of extreme prejudice or genocide. Some would push the superiority of science to such an extent that they deny the right to life for developing human beings or manipulate human life through in vitro fertilization or embryo transfers.
Many of these actions could be avoided if people would form their consciences correctly and act in a responsible way. It is true that some never receive a good moral education and are exposed to constant bad influences in their upbringing. A girl growing up in a ghetto may end up accepting as something normal drug using, or taking things from grocery stores, or falsifying papers to get government welfare checks.
She may never ask herself if such things are wrong because nobody else does, and her elders and peers may justify these things because of society’s “unfairness” or the need to escape a hopeless situation. If such were the case, the girl’s moral ignorance could be called invincible or non-culpable, since she could not be faulted for her ignorance.
It is hard to imagine, though, that the girl could go for a long time without questioning some of these practices. As she matures, she cannot help but see the dangerous consequences of drug abuse, and she will understand better the nature of personal property and its importance. If at that point she refuses to change her ideas or to take steps to overcome her ignorance, she is in effect allowing her conscience to remain deformed and rightfully can be faulted for her actions.
Some people–few, one would hope, but apparently an ever-growing proportion–go even further: They refuse to recognize any moral law. Others are less blatant in their approach, but they will do little or nothing to form their consciences truly. They don’t want to read the Bible, or attend classes on moral doctrine, or even speak with someone of good moral formation. None of these persons can be excused from sin; they have a vincible or blamable ignorance.
It is not enough simply to know right from wrong. Conscience has to be strengthened by a life of virtue and by the correct use of the will. A man takes something from a department store and feels ashamed and horrified at first. The second time he is able to take things more easily, and the third time he is actually bragging about it, at least on the inside. This is what habitual sin can do to a conscience.
Little by little sin deadens sensitivity, and it can even reach the point of calling good bad and bad good. When such actions increase in society, not only is there grave harm to the individual, but to the entire nation. Such is the current situation with the crime of abortion, which is touted by some to be a right, when it is really the wholesale destruction of innocent human life. To such an extent can people’s moral sense be hardened by repeated sins.
How can one obtain a true and certain conscience? The first and best way is to receive a good moral education from the beginning of childhood, to be raised in a home where prayer is emphasized, property is respected, sexual matters are treated with delicacy and common sense, and charity is lived. But moral education must continue beyond the years of youth, just as professional and intellectual formation continues. This can by carried out by good reading, by careful study of the moral law, and by seeking appropriate advice from a knowledgeable confessor or spiritual director.
An excellent way to form a true conscience is simply by a serene and continual look at one’s actions and the motivations behind them. By constantly putting the goal of a good moral life before one’s eyes, one can take those steps needed–either to reinforce the good or to eliminate the bad.
The moral law and human freedom are intrinsically united. Oxygen has no choice but to be absorbed into the blood, a plant has no choice but to produce chlorophyll, water has no choice but to seek its own level. Human beings also, of necessity, must obey the physical laws of nature, but, with respect to the moral law, God chose otherwise. Though the moral law is inscribed within them, though it assures their ultimate happiness, though it binds them absolutely, he left people free to obey or disobey it.
We can see this in the very first chapters of Genesis. After God created the universe and saw that all was good, he created the first man and woman and put them in the garden of paradise (chapter 2). They were free to roam the garden, to work there, to name the animals and plants, to enjoy each other’s company, and, above all, to speak directly with their Creator, who filled them with his spiritual gifts.
The condition of Adam and Eve before sin tells us an important truth about freedom. Real freedom allows us to do what we really want to do, according to who we are and how we are made. Adam and Eve were truly free in their original state–free from error, free from confusion, free from sickness and death. They could truly be themselves, which is what real freedom guarantees.
But we know that freedom had its price. Adam and Eve chose not to obey God in a certain matter. It was something he had clearly asked of them–certainly he had that right–but they refused to give it. As a result, the interior harmony and freedom of our first parents suffered a violent disruption, a disruption passed on to their children’s children. Sin broke the loving order established by God. It was a rebellious No in the face of a marvelous Yes.
Augustine defined sin with a simple but profound Latin phrase: aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam. A sinner breaks the balance of things and therefore turns from the Author of that balance. To commit a serious sin, it is not necessary to despise God directly or to insult him. A serious sin is any grave breaking of the order he made and which he set inside human beings with such care.
Sin is any deliberate breaking of God’s loving plan for us, whether by word, action, thought, desire, or omission. If it breaks the plan in a serious way, it is called a mortal sin (from mors, meaning death because it makes the soul an enemy of God, deserving of death). If it breaks the plan in a less serious way, it is called a venial sin (from venia, which means pardon, since such sins are more easily pardoned).
If human beings always followed the natural law, they would of course be very happy and without torments and complications. But sin, which is like a crack in a firmly made wall, weakens human nature with two disastrous effects: It darkens the mind so truth is not clearly seen, and it weakens the will so we don’t do what is good–and, at times, so that we don’t even want to do what is good. In addition, sin can unleash passions or emotions which upset the balance of the soul, blurring the mind’s ability to see what is right and wrong and weakening the will’s ability to choose what is good.
Just as vice is a bad habit that tears the pattern within, virtue is a good habit that perfects it. Like all good habits, virtue takes time and perseverance to obtain. No person becomes a linguist or an athlete in a day. It takes constant practice and the ability to begin again after failing. So with virtue. Yet the reward is great. Good moral habits give strength and peace to the soul. They allow the higher powers of the soul, the mind and free will, to act easily and correctly, without being dominated by lower impulses.
Despite good intentions or strong willpower, no human being can live the virtues perfectly or all the time. This is why the Catholic Church has always taught that God’s grace is necessary.
The English word “grace” is related to the Greek word caris, which means gift. All grace is essentially a favor or gift from God. Theologians have distinguished sanctifying or habitual grace, which inheres in the soul and makes one a child of God, from actual grace, which is a temporary help that God sends us in order to resist temptation, to persevere in doing good, and to pray.
How can we obtain the great gift of grace? In some way a virtuous life can dispose us to grace, but it does not give us a right to it. We cannot “earn” grace.
The sacraments are the chief sources of grace for us, beginning with baptism, which infuses God’s own life into the soul and takes away original sin. This share in God’s own life (sanctifying grace) elevates and strengthens the faculties of the soul far more than mere human virtues can: It gives us the ability to act in a way worthy of God.
Through the theological virtue of faith, for instance, a person not only knows God in a general way, but can firmly believe what he has revealed–on God’s authority, not on the person’s own. With theological hope and charity the person can trust in God and love him above all things, with a quality and perfection far greater than mere human trust or fondness could give.
Grace heals the wounds of sin; it is like salve on a bad burn. It not only protects the three relationships of the soul–with God, with others, with oneself–but it elevates and perfects the human virtues which themselves perfect those relationships. With grace a person is not only just with his neighbor, but he can love him in a profound way, as God loves him, and can do great good for him.
Despite the great beauty and power of grace, it does not take away our freedom, nor is it some kind of magic that changes us with no effort of our own. It respects the moral law within and builds upon it. It is a divine gift, but it requires our cooperation. In the timeless words of Augustine: “God has created you without your cooperation, but he won’t save you without your cooperation.”