Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience

Dylan Pahman,a research associate at the Acton Institute, has an interesting contribution to the contemporary understanding and application of natural law over at Ethika Politika where he is a contributing editor. What makes the essay (Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience: An Orthodox Response to David Bentley Hart) even more interesting is that Pahman, like Hart, is an Orthodox Christian and so it is from within that tradition that he engages the debate.

Please take a moment to go over to Ethika Politika and read the essay and maybe even join the discussion. For those who might be interested, here’s my response to Dylan’s essay.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

First of all, well said Dylan! As do you, I admire Hart’s writing, the elegance of his language and the intricacy of his thought are breath taking. Above all, however, is his command of the sources, Christian and non-Christian, ancient, medieval, modern and post-modern. This makes the absence of any treatment of conscience in his critique of natural law all the more glaring. That individuals, and even whole communities, are often wrong about the Good, the True, the Just  and the Beautiful (see Philippians 4:8) doesn’t mean these aren’t “really real” as my intro to philosophy professor would often remind us. In its own way, error testifies to the existence of the truth, even as evil does to good, injustice to justice and the ugly to the beautiful.

A careful attention to my own experience reveals that I am often mistaken about what is morally good through simple, and even innocent, ignorance. But on only slightly closer inspection I also realize that there are times when I am not so much mistaken about the good as I am indifferent and even hostile to it. While divine grace makes clear to me that I am forgiven, I need only minimal self-knowledge to know that I fall short of what it means to be fully and distinctively human. While Freud and the other advocates of a hermeneutic of suspicion have helped us fill in the details of our myriad moral failures, they didn’t discover that the human heart can be stone hard or that we often fail to be our best selves.

This brings me to Fr. David’s observation. Like him, I worry we have “reached that point where conscience has become so coarsened that rational discourse in the public square is becoming more and more difficult.” This is certainly the case in the larger culture—of greater concern to me, however, is that this seems also to be the case within the Christian community. For all his eloquence and command of the sources, Hart is arguing not simply against natural law but (as you imply) against human reason’s ability to know, however incompletely, moral truth.

In my own ministry as an Orthodox priest I have found that this denigration of reason’s ability to know what is, and isn’t, morally good common not only among the laity but even among the clergy. For this reason I find myself in fundamental agreement with Fr David when he says that the “very understanding of conscience has been so distorted that I think it perhaps has gone beyond a nearsightedness or color-blindedness.” Like their Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, many Orthodox Christians hold views on matters such as abortion or same-sex marriage that are at odds with the Tradition.

Given the rather thin cultural understanding of reason, I think an re-evangelization of Christians—to say nothing of the culture—will likely not “take place as people imagine … primarily through realm of ideas and arguments or education programs,” though these will have their place, “but rather through witnessing to the cross through word and deed – the ascetical life and self sacrifice.” To Father’s observation I would add the witness of liturgy and the philanthropic ministry of the Church (which I think is probably implied by “self-sacrifice”).

Again, well done!

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Not just a concern for Catholics

From WDTPRS comes this:

The First Gay President, Pres. Obama, and his administration have been eroding our first liberties. He is attacking the First Amendment, this time through the Dept of Health and Human Services (HHS). The most aggressive pro-abortion president in history is bent on forcing us to pay for things that are morally objectionable not only on religious grounds, but also according to natural law. We must resist these attempts to diminish our first freedoms. We will not and we cannot comply with Pres. Obama’s attacks on the religious freedom of all Catholic institutions.

From CNA:

Archbishop Lori highlights role of laity in Fortnight for Freedom By Michelle Bauman

Washington D.C., Jun 12, 2012 / 02:19 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore stressed the importance of laity involvement in efforts to defend religious freedom from the ongoing threats in the U.S.

“It’s important, of course, for bishops to be teachers and leaders.” But “it is crucial for lay men and women, mothers and fathers of families, lay leaders in all walks of life to advocate for freedom and justice in our society,” Archbishop Lori told CNA on June 9.

“Without those voices and without the involvement of the laity, we just won’t get very far,” he added.

“In the Church’s understanding,” he explained, “it is the laity who are the ones that bring about the just and tranquil society. It is the laity who are the forefront of creating what Pope Paul VI called the ‘civilization of love.’”

Archbishop Lori, who leads the U.S. bishops’ religious freedom committee, encouraged the laity to get involved in the June 21 to July 4 “Fortnight for Freedom” event through education, prayer and advocacy.

[…]

Read the rest there.

At some point the Orthodox Christians will have to decide as well whether or not we are going to defend religious liberty or not.

Simply put,  will we remain on the sidelines while others are mistreated it will we join our voices in condemning unjust laws? Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Can we do any less today in response to laws that require Catholics to violate their own moral teaching?

As it stands now if Catholics are to be faithful to their own tradition they must risk either legal sanction or the loss of a wide range of ministries that testify to the truth of the Gospel.

Can we as Orthodox Christians really claim to love Christ if we stand by without protest? Or are we simply naive,  or secularized,  that we imagine that we will escape tomorrow what today the Catholic Church today?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Offered without comment…

From LifeNews:

[…] In 2010, they pressed ObamaCare—a top-down, healthcare system takeover—on the American people, and earlier this year, they followed with their abortion pill mandate: a conscience-trampling decree forcing all employers to pay for insurance to cover abortion pills for employees who want them.

Then, on May 31, with the possibility of the passage of legislation in the House of Representatives that would have banned gender selection as a determining factor in abortions, the White House opposed the bill on grounds that it would have “intruded in medical decisions or private family matters.”

In other words, the Obama administration was arguing that the bill would allegedly intrude into decisions best left to individuals. Or, dare I say, it would intrude upon matters of conscience? […]

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The Right Things, in the Right Measure, for the Right Reasons

Earlier I wrote about the importance of having a rightly formed conscience (here). As I said then, too frequently Christians neglect the formation of our consciences choosing instead to embrace what Justice Anton Scalia describes as “a platitude” that “comes in many flavors.”

Speaking at a 2010 high school graduation (you can find a transcript and a recording of the talk here), Scalia observed that this platitude takes various forms familiar to anyone who has sat through more than one commencement address. “It can be variously delivered as, ‘Follow your star,’ or ‘Never compromise your principles.’ Or, quoting Polonius in ‘Hamlet’ — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — ‘To thine ownself be true.’”  Practically as well as morally “this can be very good or very bad advice.” For example “follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star.”

A rightly formed conscience requires that my guiding principles actually guide me to a place worth going and a life worth living.   If my principles “are Adolf Hitler’s” I “would be well advised to compromise” my principles as much, and as quickly, as I am able to do so. Continue reading

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