In recent decades, Catholicism has acquired a reputation for being very strict, foreboding, overbearing, arbitrary, and not in keeping with the times. I say ‘acquired,’ rather than ‘earned,’ because there is no reason that Catholicism should have such a reputation at all. It is true that the Church continues to condemn many things prevalent in modern society, leading many people to wonder why. But there are simple reasons why, and there are a few basic concepts that must be explored to understand these reasons.
The first concept that must be understood in this regard is absolute truth. Absolute truth refers to those tenets that are completely and universally true and whose truth cannot be changed. Mathematical premises such as ‘two plus two equals four’ and ‘there are no square circles’ are primary examples of absolute truths. So are scientific facts like ‘the earth revolves around the sun’ and historical facts like ‘Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776.’ There are also many things that are not common knowledge but are absolute truth because they are in fact true, whether many people are aware of them or not. Absolute truth is a logical necessity and impossible to argue against. After all, if nothing is absolutely true, how can the statement that nothing is absolutely true be true either?
The second concept that follows closely from absolute truth is absolute morality. This refers to rules and standards for proper actions and behavior that always apply, or to certain things being always right or always wrong. When we universally condemn actions such as murder, theft, rape, incest, and child abuse, absolute morality is the principle that we are invoking in order to condemn them. We recognize that different cultures have different societal expectations and different ways of living. Nevertheless, we expect all cultures to condemn and punish actions such as murder, theft, and rape, and we become horrified and disturbed whenever we hear of any culture, whether ancient or modern, that has failed to do so in any way. Absolute morality is the principle we are invoking in that instance.
A third concept that in turn follows from absolute morality is natural law. This refers to a basic human understanding, a recognition common to the human conscience everywhere, of which particular actions fall under the radar of absolute morality in which ways. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in paragraph 1954, “Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good. The natural moral law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.” The natural law is written into our minds, as it were, and it is the way we know that things such as murder, theft, rape, and child abuse are absolutely wrong. Sometimes, however, our judgement is clouded due to the effects of evil, both in ourselves and in wider society, and we are not able to correctly ‘read’ the natural law in order to know that some things are wrong. Therefore, sometimes society will consider things ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ which are actually inherently wrong. We must realize that natural law is still natural law, even if we lose sight of some of its norms.
The Catholic Church believes that she is Divinely endowed with the authority to recognize and interpret the natural law, and has the guidance of the Holy Spirit to not make errors in doing so. And this is the simple explanation behind why the Church condemns so many things prevalent in modern society, including contraception, fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, and especially abortion. It’s because the Church believes that those things violate the natural law and that there are moral absolutes prohibiting them. We may live in a society which does not believe that the natural law prohibits them, or does not believe that these things are inherently wrong. But the Church nevertheless teaches that they are. They are contrary to what God intended for man, and they cause harm wherever they are used, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more major ones. Moral absolutes never change.
This is also the reason that the Church’s moral teachings never change. If they did change, it would logically entail that the Church’s teaching was wrong at one time or the other, and therefore that the Church was not uniformly applying the natural law correctly after all. The Church may seem out of step with the times by prohibiting things such as contraception, but she is actually only continuing to teach and interpret the natural law the same as she always has. Finally, contrary to popular perceptions, the Church does not merely expect us to take her word that certain things are wrong and expect us to obey blindly. Rather, there are many ways to understand and explain these teachings using the principles of right reason, which the Church highly encourages us to study and come to understand. I hope to delve deeper into many of these individual issues in upcoming posts.
Feel free to leave suggestions for specific topics you would like to see addressed.